CULTURE

The Life-Changing Magic of Fly Fishing


For these dedicated anglers, casting a line brought new possibilities.

For Beau Beasley, it all began in the back of an ambulance. Beasley, a 23-year-old Fairfax County paramedic at the time, had responded to a call concerning an angler at Burkes Lake who was having an allergic reaction to a bee sting.

On the way to the hospital, Beasley was chatting with the man about fly fishing. “I was just trying to make small talk,” he remembers. “He said he’d be happy to show me the basics.”

A week later, Beasley reached out to the man to take him up on the offer. “His name was Bob Guess,” Beasley says. “At the time I had no idea he was one of the country’s foremost popping bug experts.”

Popping bugs are high-floating, often garishly colored flies used to entice warm water fish such as bass and sunfish.

“That first day I caught a bluegill sunfish on a bug and that was it,” says Beasley, who lives in Warrenton. “I was already starting to get a little burned out as a paramedic, seeing everything I saw at work,” he notes. “I used fly fishing as a way to get out of the back of the medic unit.”

Beasley eventually spent some time helping Guess sell his specialty popping bugs before finding his niche in the fly fishing world. He remained with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department for another 30 years but, along the way, Beasley became a prolific fly fishing writer with countless articles and two books—Fly Fishing Virginia and Fly Fishing the Mid-Atlantic—to his credit. 

For the past 21 years, Beasley has also been the director of the Virginia Fly Fishing and Wine Festival. He launched a similar show in Texas—the Texas Fly Fishing and Brew Festival—five years ago. The shows feature vendors and how-to clinics taught by some of the fly fishing industry’s best-known anglers and fly tyers.

“The main goal is to teach anyone interested in fly fishing how to do it in an environment where they feel good,” Beasley says.

About 40 percent of attendees are novices eager to learn how to cast, how to tie flies, and where to fish. About 35 percent of attendees are women. The shows also feature smaller specialty classes for experienced anglers.

The Virginia show, which started in Waynesboro and is now held in Doswell each January, originally didn’t include the wine aspect. Beasley thought adding it would broaden the show’s appeal. He continues to tweak the programming to attract a diverse audience. One of the most popular new clinics is “Bourbon and Bass Bugs.”

Even as he puts the finishing touches on book number three—this one about fishing with veterans—Beasley still finds time to get out on the water. Not long ago, he tangled with a 120-pound blacktip shark off the North Carolina coast.

His favorite type of fishing is targeting smallmouth bass in Virginia rivers. His favorite fly? A Bob Guess-inspired popping bug, of course.


Brian and Colby Trow: A Fly Business Born of Necessity

As kids growing up in Richmond, Colby and Brian Trow would hop on their bikes with fly rods in hand and pedal to a nearby pond to fish for sunfish and bass.

Their favorite type of fly was one made of deer hair spun onto the hook, stacked tightly, and trimmed into the shape of a frog or some other critter that a bass would find tempting. 

There was a problem, however. “I wanted 30 of them,” Colby recalls. “But they cost $7 to $9 each, so I could only afford one.”

The solution? Trow and his twin brother, Brian, started tying the flies themselves. By the time they were teens the brothers had their own booths at fly shows and were selling flies out of their house. Thirty years later they’re still at it, but on a much larger scale. 

The twins own and operate Mossy Creek Fly Fishing in Harrisonburg, a business the 2001 James Madison University grads have owned since 2003. 

After majoring in biology with a pre-med emphasis, Colby thought he’d follow in the footsteps of his dentist father. But that changed after some post-graduation introspection. “As a dentist you’re seeing people who don’t want to be there,” he said. “People who walk into a fly shop—or who are going on a guided fishing trip—are pretty much at a place of peak happiness.”

Not that running a retail business is all rainbows and cupcakes. When the twins developed their business plan, they made sure to account for the possibility of failure, formally pledging to move on if the numbers weren’t adding up.

“When we started, we were still in the ramen noodles and Natural Light phase of our lives so we weren’t intimidated,” Brian said. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know, and we didn’t have anyone depending on us.”

The brothers faced challenges, including fish kills on popular rivers, the Great Recession, and droughts. As the years passed and they got married and had kids, the stakes rose but their success—and hard work—continued. As 2021 drew to a close and friends were enjoying the holidays, the Trows and their employees were feverishly counting an estimated 80,000 flies, one at a time, as part of the shop’s year-end inventory.

A general rule of retail is that mixing passion and business can be tough. Just as an avid surfer doesn’t want to be working on inventory during a sweet swell, passionate anglers want to be on the water. Success at one often comes at the expense of the other. The passion wins and the business fails or the business succeeds as the passion gets shoved aside.

The Trows have made it work by taking on complimentary roles in the business, which includes the brick and mortar shop near JMU as well as robust guiding, instruction, and e-commerce elements. “Every business owner at some point has said ‘I need another me,’” Brian says. “Well, that’s kind of what a twin is.”

Brian gravitates to the on-water side of things, guiding about 150 days a year. Colby is more involved in the retail aspect. “We both can do everything within the business,” says Brian. “But there are things that Colby does that would drive me crazy if I had to do it all the time.”

Working smart is important to success, but being prescient helps, too. When the pandemic hit in 2020, some retailers canceled orders for fear of being stuck with inventory during a prolonged shut-down. The twins predicted that interest in outdoor activities would boom—and they were right. When the numbers came in, 2020 was actually a huge year for growth in the fly fishing industry and 2021 was even better.

“People appreciated the therapeutic value of fly fishing and reconnecting with nature,” says Colby, adding that he thinks the trend will continue even as the pandemic eventually subsides. “I think it’s going to stick with people.”

The love of tying those intricate deer hair bugs has stuck with the brothers, too, but they no longer tie flies to sell. They do still tie for themselves, however, perhaps the best proof that 30 years in the industry hasn’t dimmed their passion for the sport they love.


Finding REEL Friends in Roanoke

On an unseasonably warm early December day, Steve Elliott sat in the open hatchback of his SUV, removing his fishing waders as the Roanoke River gurgled in the background.

Another fly angler approached. “What are they hitting today, Steve?” asked Becky Hancock, who was just getting started.

While some tend to keep that kind of info to themselves, Elliott happily told Hancock what was working—a small nymph called a Copper John. Hancock in turn passed the info on to four other anglers who were also getting ready to try their luck on this section of stocked trout water in Green Hill Park.

No need for secrets among friends.

More than 20 years ago, Hancock was a charter member of the REEL Ladies, a formal club for fly-anglers in the Roanoke area. The club eventually dissolved but the concept behind it—women of all ages and skill levels who like to get together to fish and have fun—remains alive and well.

Calling themselves the REEL Friends, the informal group uses phone calls, texts, and a group Facebook page to plan fishing and social outings, as well as coordinate volunteer and conservation efforts. Ten of them recently spent a long weekend chasing trout on the Holston and Watauga rivers in Tennessee. 

“Fishing is important and fun,” says Hancock, a 73-year-old retired teacher who lives in Salem, just five minutes from the Roanoke River. “And even if I don’t catch fish, I always catch fun. This is really about the people.”

The core of this group is tight, their friendships built not only on a foundation of fishing but on supporting each other through life’s challenges.

When Rosie Fox learned that her partner of more than 20 years, Marlene Steward, had cancer, she immediately had a support network. That included Hancock, whose husband, Mark, had been fighting cancer for several years.

“She retired at 70,” Fox says of Steward, who had been the manager of the Orvis retail store in Roanoke and was diagnosed a few months later. Fox and Hancock leaned on each other and their angling friends when Steward and Mark Hancock passed away within months of each other in 2020.

“I worked in a factory my whole life,” says Fox, 62. “In this group, your background doesn’t matter, and no matter what you’re going through, everyone is here for you.”

The friends support others, too. At the Roanoke Valley Trout Unlimited chapter, they’re among the most active volunteers, helping at outdoor festivals, youth camps, and with the chapter’s educational Trout in the Classroom program, in which students raise trout from eggs and then release them into Virginia waters.

“I had one little boy who had never even seen a cow before,” Hancock says, recalling a field trip. “It’s just so heartwarming.”

Many also volunteer with Project Healing Waters, a nonprofit that connects veterans to fly angling and fly tying.

“I was very active before,” says Seyward McKinney, a 38-year-old Army staff sergeant, who entered medical retirement after a stroke. “When I met Becky and the others we just hit it off.”

Kathy Mueller has been a volunteer leader with Project Healing Waters for years, enthusiastically passing along her expertise in fishing and tying. Mueller, 66, began her own journey at the Orvis distribution center near her Roanoke County home more than 25 years ago. Working in the call center, Mueller would often field detailed questions from anglers. “Most people would just forward the callers to our fly fishing team,” Mueller says. “I would go ask them myself.”

When Mueller is in the stream gracefully casting a fly, it’s clear that those lessons took. Still, once in a while she has found herself getting crowded by another angler who underestimates her skill. “I just hook their line, and they figure out pretty quickly that they’re in my space,” she says with a mischievous grin.

The friends don’t fish together exclusively. Mueller and her husband have a place at Buggs Island Lake and often fishing there for bass and stripers. Joy Tarta travels to Canada at least once a season with her husband to target pike, bass, and walleye.

Tarta, 76, is a relative newcomer to fly fishing. She started about six years ago after taking a Fly Fishing 101 class at Orvis. “I learned a lot but felt my casting still wasn’t very good,” Tarta says. “So I took the class again.”

Now Tarta is the one giving the lessons. 

“I’m definitely a newbie,” says Heather Balsley, a 51-year-old school librarian, before heading to the water with Tarta.

In this case there is already a strong bond. “I’m her daughter!” Balsley laughs.

And, now, also her REEL Friend.


Go Fish!

Whether you’re casting for trout, blues, or striped bass (“rockfish” as we call them in Virginia) fly fishing is an exciting way to get outside and enjoy Virginia’s mountain brooks, creeks, and streams.

If you’re new to the sport, the key is to connect with a mentor. “Fly fishing isn’t hard,” says Beau Beasley, a veteran fly angling writer and longtime director of the Virginia Fly Fishing and Wine Show. “You just need someone to help you with the basics.” 

To get started, you’ll find helpful information and meet fellow fly fishing enthusiasts here:

Fly Fishing Events

The Virginia Fly Fishing Festival is a great place to start, with gear, seminars, and expert demos offering personalized instruction. 

Resorts and Inns

Primland Resort in Meadows of Dan and the Omni Homestead in Bath County offer guided fly fishing trips for guests. In Lexington, guests at The Georges can visit Escatawba Farms Fly Fishing in nearby Covington for guided fishing and instruction at all levels. 

Guide books

With dozens of how-to and where-to guide books—including several specific to Virginia—it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Instead, start with in-person instruction, either through a guided trip or a fly-casting class, before diving into books and online tutorials. 

Clubs and Organizations

Joining a fishing organization allows beginners to connect with experienced fly fishermen. Trout Unlimited, a national coldwater conservation organization, has a dozen active chapters in Virginia where members are eager to help newcomers. Members of the Coastal Conservation Association focus on fishing, along with sound management of saltwater sportfish resources. At the Virginia Coastal Fly Anglers club, the approach is more fishing-focused. TU.org, JoinCCA.org, VCFA.org.

Fishing Retailers

Staffers can provide informal advice and many retailers also offer formal classes on fly tying and fishing, such as the popular Fly Fishing 101 classes hosted by Orvis shops. Many fishing shops offer guided outings on local waters and can refer anglers to independent guides. 

Virginia Agencies

State fishing agencies offer more than just fishing licenses. They’ll also provide information on how to best enjoy the Commonwealth’s waters. For freshwater fishing, look to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources; while saltwater fishing falls under the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. DWR.Virginia.gov & MRC.Virginia.gov


This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue.




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