"Hey, what kind of snake is that?"
I think we all know, but somebody had to ask. Six of us are standing on a sandy little beach, the water to our left, somewhere on the Gauley River: Dave, Tim, Tim's brother Terry, yours truly and two fishing guides, Adam and Kyle of the West Virginia Experience. Dave and Tim are my childhood hunting, fishing and trapping buddies, and we became known as the Big Three. When this annual fishing trip commenced a few years ago, Terry joined us and it became the Big Three Plus One.
The snake in question was no problem, but it came swimming into the bank where we had stopped for lunch, and you know how snakes are — it immediately captured everyone everyone's attention. I figured even the worst student in Zoology 101 could see it was a common brown water snake, but any snake in the water is going to conjure up some mention of a water moccasin, also known as a cottonmouth, when guys and fishermen are involved. In truth, I doubt there was a cottonmouth within 400 miles of here, and not in this water — it was cold! We were near the headwaters of the Gauley, and no self-respecting cottonmouth would be caught dead there.
After just the slightest bit of encouragement, the water snake went his merry way, but we had another good memory to save, Dave, Terry, Tim and I along with two great fishing guides. Another day on a beautiful river in a wild place with good friends — there ain't nothing much better.
And a wild place it is, as we are on a stretch of the Gauley not seen by many people. Normal summer water levels here make it suitable only for wade fishing (there's not enough water to float), but we catch it just right after recent rains so we can float but the water is in fishable condition. In the eight-mile stretch we will cover, there are no houses, camps or humans; there isn't even any trash along the bank. There is, however, a lot of fishing and a lot of time just floating and soaking in the river.
Dave Young and I are in one raft with guide Adam Hedrick, and we have discussed that we may do a lot of that today — not casting and fishing all the time but just floating and taking in this incredible place. We said that, but of course for a few hours we fish with the fervor of two hungry otters, keeping an eye on Terry and Tim in their raft as we know they are doing the same. We are catching a few smallmouth bass and the occasional rock bass, but my interest starts to wane, and as always, that is when something happens.
I am throwing a soft plastic bait meant for smallmouths, boring Adam and Dave with some story and not paying any attention when I get a very healthy strike. All eyes turn to where I am fishing, and out of the water comes a large, beautiful and dazzling golden trout! The trout's colors are so striking against the background of the green water and trees, I think I must have glazed over for a moment, just watching something that didn't appear to be real. I tune back in and remember to work the reel, and Adam soon has him in the net. (I usually assume large and prized fish will get off the line before you get them in the boat.)
This is 18 inches of beautiful golden trout, but it is more than that. This fish had obviously been in the river and in a wild state for some time. Besides its unique gold color, the rainbow stripe down the side is a brilliant cherry red that is stunning. The golden trout stocked in my state by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources is in fact a mutant rainbow trout that is the result of one single golden trout fry being discovered in a hatchery many years ago. Several years of selective breeding led to the WVDNR's fishery division being able to stock these unusual trout for anglers in the Mountain State. The golden rainbow trout was officially introduced to the public in 1963 and was dubbed the "Centennial Golden Trout" as this was the year West Virginia turned 100 years old.
WVDNR now has a new program in which additional golden trout are stocked during the first week of April. Lakes, streams and rivers across the Mountain State will run with gold when the WVDNR stocks 25,000 golden rainbow trout at select locations, for what is known as the West Virginia Gold Rush. Young fishermen as well as experienced anglers can enjoy the chance to catch more of these unusual trout. (But I doubt they will catch one as pretty as I did.)
Catching that lovely trout was the icing on the cake for this beautiful day on a wild river with old friends. And again, all of us, the members of the Big Three Plus One, put another story into the memory bank.
There is gold out there, friends and neighbors — gold in the streams if like to trout fish, but also gold in the form of memories you will make with friends and family when you get outside and off the beaten path.
"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.