Anything Fly Fishing

Virginia’s Top Five Trout Waters: Give ‘em a Go! 

4 Mins read

If you want to start an argument, just go ahead and try to rank something—whether it’s the best baseball team, the best burger, the best beer or the best BBQ. And then foolishly go on the record publicly in some periodical with your rankings.

All I can say is: Just be ready for incoming fire!

Despite this, I’m ready to risk my writing reputation (such as it is…sigh)—and the few social media followers I have, including my darling mother—in a selfless effort to try to hook you up (pun intended) with Virginia’s top trout waters.

I hope you can fully appreciate the difficulty of this undertaking with so many great waterways to choose from: The Old Dominion has a lot of depth (yes, another pun…) when it comes to rivers and streams filled with wild and stocked brook, brown and rainbow trout.

Indeed, according to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR):

Virginia contains over 3,500 miles of trout streams, in addition to numerous ponds, small lakes and reservoirs. The total includes over 2,900 miles of wild trout streams and about 600 miles of water inhabited with stocked trout. Virginia’s diversified trout habitat offers a wide range of trout fishing opportunities.

So, even if you think my picks of wonderful salmonid waterways in Virginia are off the mark, there are still a lot of other places for you to wet a fishing line for “bows,” “brownies” and “brookies.”

But first a little about my methodology, which, admittedly, is less than scientific, and is, unfortunately, not based on the latest and greatest AI algorithm. In fact, in the spirit of full disclosure for this highly competitive contest, I haven’t fished every trout water in Virginia.

SNP brook trout

But that aside, I do a good bit of trout fishing in Virginia. I also know a fair number of trout fishers and guides, who have—let’s just say—strong, unvarnished opinions about which waters are meh, good or great for trout.

I also spoke with DWR Aquatic Education Coordinator, Alex McCrickard, who was very helpful as usual. Lastly, I made no attempt to rank these terrific trout waters; that’d be just way too hard for this mere mortal.

OK, now that I’ve done all the necessary excuse-making, blame-sharing and throat-clearing, without further delay, here we go:

Shenandoah National Park (SNP): The SNP is an amazing place for trout fishing, especially for our beloved brookies. Even with beaucoup brook trout streams across Virginia, the SNP is native brook trout nirvana.

On the SNP’s eastern slope, the Rapidan, Hughes, Conway, and the Rose Rivers all have brookies; the Conway River also has some browns. Over on the SNP’s western slope, Jeremy’s Run, Paine Run and the Big Run also have brooks.

Jackson rainbow

Bonus: If you are a veteran (like me), active military or a Gold-Star family member, you’re eligible for free entrance to national parks, including the SNP. Moreover, you may be eligible for a Military Lifetime Pass—an incredible deal.

Whitetop Laurel: A real fave of Virginia’s trout anglers—and one of Trout Unlimited’s guide to America’s 100 best trout streams—this southwestern Virginia water is near Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, the highest point in Virginia at 5,700+ feet.

You’ll have an opportunity to stalk stocked browns and rainbows as well as wild rainbows, browns and brooks. And for non-fishing family and friends, Whitetop Laurel is also close to the Virginia Creeper Trail and the famous Appalachian Trail.

As the proof is in the pudding, I actually notched a Virginia trout slam challenge (i.e., landing a brook, brown and rainbow trout all in one-day) in that area last spring. Pretty cool.

Jackson River: In the western part of the Old Dominion, the Jackson River is a top-notch trout fishery, which offers awesome angling above and below Lake Moomaw and the Gathright Dam for all three Virginia trout species.

Above Lake Moomaw (aka the upper Jackson), you’ll find a combination of stocked and wild rainbows, browns and brooks. Below Lake Moomaw and Gathright Dam is the Jackson River tailwater, where there is a mix of stocked and wild rainbows and browns.

Mossy Creek Located in the Shenandoah Valley, Mossy Creek is a must-do, especially for the fly angler. This “classic limestone creek,” which also makes Trout Unlimited’s top 100 list, is well-known for its challenging brown trout fishing.

Though stocked with advanced fingerlings, this spring-fed creek grows some brutishly big browns due to the abundance of forage. Anglers enjoy hatches, and with grasses that often come up to the water’s edge, hopper (i.e., terrestrial) fishing can be fantastic.

Oh yeah, those big browns are smart, so fill your fishing vest pockets with patience, and if you’re bringing lunch, pack some humble pie. What’s that saying: “It’s the hard that makes it good”?

Smith River Lightning does strike twice and another tailwater makes this year’s list. Smith River is in southern Virginia, and provides year-round trout fishing with cold water released from Philpott Dam.

Head to the Smith to hook into stocked rainbows in the designated put-and-take section or wild browns in the special regulations section. Fly anglers: Look for dry fly action from mayfly hatches.

I’ve not fished the Smith–and it’s a “sleeper” in this ranking–but I’m booked to fish it in June; I can’t wait to do that float.

To those I chose, congrats on a prestigious prize. The top five eked out victory from the likes of Cripple Creek, Big Tumbling Creek, the South Fork of the Holston River, Crooked Creek, the Roanoke River, South River, Beaver Creek, Pound River—and so many more.

If I’ve tempted you with my piscatorial prose, you can get your Virginia fishing license here.

Jackson brown – the fish, not the singer

Also, it’s a good idea to know where you’re fishing, including the fishing regulations/restrictions and hydropower generation schedules for that area, especially for tailwaters. These can vary from place to place–and even day to day.

Now, you can hammer out angry emails to Rivers and Feathers (and me) about how I got this list soooo terribly wrong. But instead of doing that, wouldn’t it be better to just grab your fishing gear–and head to a wonderful Virginia trout water?!

At least about that there should be no argument.

SNP for brookies

Dr. Peter Brookes is a VA-based, award-winning outdoor writer. His favorite trout stream is the one in which the trout overlooks his sloppy cast and hungrily eats his fly anyway. Reach him at:


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