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It was a river "destined to bloody fame," wrote one Civil War historian of the quiet Rappahannock. Along its watercourse a nation nearly died; here Robert E. Lee camped, there Stonewall Jackson stood, in that small woods 30,000 men fell in a single battle. Hardly a mile of its course escaped great and terrible events. And then, in some perverse fashion, mankind passed the Rappahannock by. Infrequent is the bridge that crosses it, few the boats that try its eddies, rare the angler seen along its banks. But no river in this land stays lost forever, and today the Rappahannock is being battled over once again: conservationists vs. the Corps of Engineers, those who fear abuse against those who demand use. The issue is far from settled—and perhaps not truly begun. One thing is clear. A man who regards the canoe, the smallmouth bass and silence with equal reverence does well to savor this river of phantoms now.
In the early morning mists enfold the river. An island splits the current. Trees meet overhead to form a green tunnel. A series of small rapids and waterfalls carries the canoe through pool after pool. Downstream, where converging currents have scoured a deep hole, a stone fly nymph attracts attention and suddenly a three-pound smallmouth is everywhere at once, into the air, boring for the bottom, upstream, downstream, flashing over glints of gold in the gravel riverbed. The gold is real. The nearby hamlet of Goldvein was named for a streak of ore that stretched north to Pennsylvania, and the gold is still there. In the 1840s, when men rushed West to California, the mines of Virginia were abandoned. Now they lie forgotten, like the Rappahannock.
A day on the river passes swiftly. Suddenly it is dusk. A natural campsite beckons: a large rock and a tree, a tiny clearing beneath a bower of leaves, a little beach, bass rising at the front door. Contentment. Sleep comes easily.
Only two important things ever happened to the Rappahannock: the Civil War and the smallmouth bass. No river in North America had as much fighting along its banks; no river of its size, anywhere, played a bigger part in history. And few have better smallmouth fishing. During the Civil War the problem was to keep the other side from getting across the river. The difficulty for fishermen since has been getting to it. Nearly all of the best fishing water is reachable only by canoe or after miles of hiking. There were never many roads, and the few towns along the river's course ceased to grow after Appomattox—or disappeared completely. Wild turkey, grouse and deer prowl shoreline thickets where the only loud noise ever heard was gunfire. Sit there on an evening and the shooting echoes still. The campfire becomes Stephen Crane's in The Red Badge of Courage: "A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army's feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp fires...."
The Rappahannock was an insoluble problem for military men. Throughout the Civil War no strategist, North or South, knew what to do about it. Almost every place you cast a fly today some intrepid officer tried to lead a force across the river, one way or the other, and though it was never deep enough or wide enough or fast enough to be a real barrier, it was too deep and wide and fast to be crossed with impunity in the face of fire from defenders on the bank. "It looked to be a wrong place for a battlefield," wrote Crane.
It still looks that way. At its closest, the Rappahannock is only 50 miles from Washington, D.C. but it is the only wilderness river in that thickly populated (five million people) strip that extends north to Baltimore and south to Richmond. Once a canoe is put into the river the five million vanish. On one 30-mile stretch there are no bridges, no towns, no houses, no roads. Just the river—and its bass.
The smallmouth, once characterized by the famed James Henshall as "inch for inch, pound for pound, the gamest fish that swims," flourishes because once the generals left the Rappahannock, nobody else came. The fish is not native east of the Alleghenies, but around the middle of the last century it was introduced into cold lakes and rivers from eastern Canada to Virginia. Smallmouths fare best in clear waters and fight best in fast streams, and there were plenty of these until cities and factories sprang up on river banks and dams turned white water into reservoirs. Now the smallmouth is fading from the American scene. When a river is damned, smallmouth fishing continues for perhaps a decade. It takes that long for a silted bottom to interrupt the spawning cycle. But, since civilization has ignored the Rappahannock, it is one river that does not have this problem.
A trip downriver should begin near Chester Gap, Va. in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. There is a store in Chester Gap and a filling station, and little else except the young river beside the road. The Rappahannock is so shallow here that sometimes a canoe will not float. But a dozen miles farther on at Cresthill, the waters deepen. Everything is still in miniature. There are many small rapids that the canoe barely scrapes through, and at the end of each is a shadowy, cold pool. The river is just 15 feet wide and the bottom is lined with tiny stones. A canoeist feels like an intruder in one of those glass-encased dioramas seen in nature museums. As the river winds and turns, the approach to each bend becomes an adventure. This time a rapids, next a pool, and then the scurry of an animal rushing to a hole behind a tree. Another animal appears. Otter? Beaver? For long seconds it stares almost quizzically, as if wondering "What is this on my river?" And then it, too, flees.
The fly rod has gone too long unused. There are more good places than three men could cast to, and for a few miles streamer flies sink into the dark edges of pools and little bugs bounce off logs. A few bass make lazy passes, but they are numb with the cold of a heavy dew that still hangs on in the deep woods. The river is wider now, perhaps 20 feet, and cliffs of gray stratified rock rise tier on tier from the water's edge. The rock is covered with moss, and from earth-filled cracks jumbles of gnarled hemlocks jut at weird angles across the water.