Growing up, I learned to swim in a pool and was on the swim team for several years. Living in rural central Virginia meant traveling at least twenty miles to compete in another county. My parents weren’t the outdoors type, although my dad did go camping with me often when I was in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. Now, when I want to get in the water it’s either in the nearby lake or the river. I prefer rivers and my absolute favorite is the Rapidan River.
The Rapidan is a scenic river rich in fish, history, and Virginia red mud when it’s running high. The Rapidan is formed at the confluence of Mill Prong and Laurel Prong in the higher elevations of the Eastern Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park. It twists and turns its way down the steep slopes lined with birch, dogwood, gum, maple, oak, pine, and a rare chestnut. At one time, loggers used to cut chestnut trees that were ten feet in diameter, but almost all of the chestnuts were killed in a blight during the 1920s. As the Rapidan comes out of the mountains and meanders its way through farmland and forests to its confluence with the Rappahannock, it passes by small insignificant hamlets (to those who don’t live there) with names such as Graves Mill, Madison Mills, Scuffletown, Raccoon Ford, Somerset, and Wolftown.
I enjoy the Rapidan for everything it has to offer. In fact, the Rapidan is so easy to fall in love with that former President Herbert Hoover built a camping retreat in what’s now part of Shenandoah National Park. Even though Virginia’s citizens offered to give the land to the President, Hoover purchased the land with his own funds. The retreat hosted famous and important guests such as Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Edsel Ford, and Charles Lindbergh. A favorite hiking destination in the park, Hoover’s Brown House has been restored to its original structure.
The historical significance of the Rapidan River during the Civil War is quietly overlooked in most books that high school or even college students read. During the first few years of the Civil War, the Rapidan River was the unofficial North/South border of the eastern theater. It really wasn’t until Grant’s Overland campaign and his push to The outskirts of Richmond that the Union’s Army of the Potomac continuously occupied central Virginia south of the Rapidan. During the winter of 1862, the foes quartered on the opposing banks. Truces were frequently honored and soldiers would go across the river to exchange food, newspapers, or tobacco. While floating or wade fishing, I’ve often thought about the possibility of finding a dropped bullet or cannonball on the banks or in the river. It’s happened many times before, just not to me.
The Rapidan forms the border between Orange and Madison counties. Madison Mills is located where the Route 15 bridge crosses the river. There once was a mill there, but it was razed over a decade ago. All that remains is the mill run and random pieces of history that wash out of the surrounding dirt. I’ve searched the dirt banks several times and found old bottles, parts of machinery, etc. My grandpa had a side business mowing yards around the town of Orange and one of the properties he mowed was Madison Mills. When I was in middle and high school I’d help out with the larger jobs. The Madison Mills property was owned by an elderly lady named Ms. Mabel. I loved mowing there because the backyard was filled with rows of flowers and shrubs that reminded me of a colonial garden. There were a few trails which led down to what I considered a private park by the river that we kept mowed. It was about one square acre with tall oak and walnut trees planted in neat widely spaced rows, offering consistent shade to the always green grass underneath. The bank at the river was steep here and a set of wooden steps had been built into the bank and down to a small wooden dock. The river itself was deep there, slowly backing up before the water ran down a series of shallow rapids. I always wondered what kind of monster catfish or smallmouth bass were hidden below the bluish-green surface of the water. Ms. Mabel had the genteel you’d associate with the old south. She was a direct descendant of George Washington and her two story house with large open porches and hardwood floors was filled with antiques that had been passed down through generations. She always offered sweet tea or lemonade to us and gave me a ten or twenty dollar bill in addition to what my grandpa paid me.
While I enjoy wade fishing, I can never go on too many float trips in the spring and summer. I prefered the Rapidan because of its size and remoteness, which equals less fishing pressure. The upper sections of the Rapidan are a great brook trout fishery. Trout Unlimited named the Rapidan one of America’s top 100 trout streams. Hiking up the steep terrain to a favorite pool is certainly one sure way to shed some pounds gained over the holidays and winter when you didn’t get outside as much. If you plan to float the Rapidan, there are few public places to put in or take out. Again, think low fishing pressure. My two favorite floats are from the old Orange water treatment plant to Madison Mills, and from Madison Mills to the small community of Rapidan.
Float trips offer flexibility and variety. The Orange water treatment plant to Madison Mills run is a little less than two miles, making the utilization of canoes, kayaks, or even tubes possible. There are stretches of shallow water with sandy bottoms or packed rocks, longer deep water stretches dotted with large boulders, and a few sets of rapids. A narrow island here and there occasionally splits the river. On one of these islands on a mid-spring day, I beached the canoe and waded around the downstream tip and found a school or redeye or rock bass, whichever you prefer to call them, in a pool below some rapids near the bank under the shade of an overhanging tree. I stood in the same spot and caught twenty redeye before deciding to get back in the canoe and float a little further downstream. Depending on how often you want to beach your transportation to fish, picnic, or just swim around, this particular float can be done in 1.5 hours, or turned into an all day event.
Here’s a pro tip if you can’t beach but want to stay where you are in the river: Using a sturdy five pound coffee tin, drill a hole in the bottom. Go to your local home improvement store and buy a ten foot length of small chain and some quick mix concrete. On the last link of one end of the chain, place a large enough bolt through it so the link won’t come off, then push the bolt through the inside hole in the coffee can you just drilled. Attach a washer and nut on the outside of the coffee can and ensure that the chain won’t detach from the can. Mix the concrete and pour it into the empty coffee can with the chain pulled taught. Once it dries you have a cheap 10 foot anchor for your canoe.
I’ve used the anchor for more than just stopping to cast over the sides of the canoe. Sometimes rapids can be tough to navigate, so with the chain attached to the rear handle of the canoe, I’ll throw the anchor over when we get close so I can stand up and look for the best looking V in the rapids. In the middle of the V is where you’re least likely to run into any rocks that caused the rapids to form. I’m ashamed to say I’ve still flipped the canoe a few times. Once was during a set of S shaped rapids with a protruding bank on the left side. As we entered the rapids that turned us right, we couldn’t see the following set of rapids around the left side of the bank. We ran the first set with ease, but the current pulled us where we didn’t want to go into the second set. We tried to prevent the canoe from entering the second set sideways but didn’t quite have the strength or time and we got wet. Nothing was lost, however. If the rapids look a little too dangerous or difficult to run, you can hold the coffee can and walk the bank or in the river beside the rapids while the empty canoe goes through them.
The second time I flipped the canoe was due to my own misjudgment. I had hooked a sizable smallmouth and it was running for the bank. It was taking some line out so I set the drag a little tighter in hopes it wouldn’t run too far out of reach. My companion for the day kept a visual on my line and paddled in the same direction. As we approached the bank, the fish was heading into some low bushes whose branches and leaves were in the water. I was sure my line was going to become tangled and I’d lose the prize. The water looked to be no more than two feet deep or so. Lighting and the water itself can play tricks on your mind and produce an optical illusion. With my right leg in the canoe, I stepped out with my left foot. The water was deeper than I thought and my left foot didn’t touch the bottom rocks as my right leg pulled the canoe over on its side. My friend cursed at me, but I still got my fish.
The Madison Mills to Rapidan float is longer and acceptable for canoes and kayaks only. At over 7 miles, it’s pretty much an all day float trip if you plan to do much fishing. One of the best days I’ve ever had while fishing was on this stretch. I prefer to float and fish in a canoe when I can bring someone along. It makes for a pleasant experience when one person guides while the other casts. To be honest, I enjoy watching other people catch fish just as much as I enjoy catching them myself. I almost exclusively fish with a spinning rod. In Ashland, just north of Richmond, there’s an independent outdoors store called Green Top. They produce their own plastics in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. Single and twin-tail one to two inch plastic grubs are my go-to for small rivers. The Green Top products are better than the big brand commercially massed-produced ones, in my opinion. I know if nothing hits the chartreuse, bluegill, pearl, or smoke glitter, I may as well not drop the line back in the water.
On a warm day in May, a good friend and I were floating from Madison Mills to Rapidan. We got on the river about 9am and planned to be out around dinner time. I’m not exaggerating when I say almost every cast produced a bite, if not a fish. I like to keep count just out of curiosity. We actually got tired of catching fish and just enjoyed the float and paddled the last two miles or so. After we had caught a combination of over 200 bluegill, chub, crappie, largemouth bass, redeye, and smallmouth bass we stopped for the day.
Another time on the same stretch, the same friend and I encountered a thunderstorm. I always watch the weather carefully, especially if I’m going to float the Rapidan. Due to the terrain, and other smaller streams and rivers that flow into it, if a single thunderstorm pops up and sits over the river for a long period of time or slowly drifts down the river, the Rapidan can rise quickly and turn violent, red with mud. I’ve seen one of the gauges go up over twelve feet in just a few hours.
There was only a 20% chance of showers or storms that June day. We had gone about two miles when we first heard the thunder. I looked behind us to the west and most of the sky was obscured by the trees. No need to worry because the storm was still far off and could’ve been moving in any direction. As the thunder grew louder we knew the storm was getting closer, but the trees still blocked our view. The sky grew darker and the wind picked up, blowing leaves off the trees and scattering them in the river all around us. We needed to get off the water fast. Up ahead, we saw the bank wasn’t steep and paddled toward it. By this point it was beginning to rain. The trunk of a felled tree was just beyond the bank and provided support for one end of the canoe. We quickly emptied the contents and propped one end of the canoe on the trunk, which gave us enough room to squat down underneath it for cover. Thankfully, the storm was short-lived and didn’t contain a lot of lightning or dump enough rain to raise the water level much. I’m a little bit of a weather nerd so I looked at a long radar loop of the state when I got home. That single-cell thunderstorm was one of the only storms in the entire state of Virginia that afternoon.
I don’t live very close to the Rapidan anymore, but it holds fond memories and I still find myself waist-deep in it once or twice a year. I don’t think any river will ever replace the Rapidan since I learned so many things and had so much fun on it, but I certainly don’t mind exploring other rivers to find out!