A day at the office at the South River Fly Shop
It’s been a tough day at the office; maybe even a tough week, month, or year. You need a bit of a vacation. Perhaps it’s time to step away from work and go fishing. For Tommy Lawhorne and Kevin Little, fishing is their work. However, giving it the title of work does not stop their love of it.
Lawhorne, a Nelson County native, and Little, who is originally from West Virginia (“almost Kentucky, two miles short of Kentucky”), both had early starts with the sport of fishing. Neither is certain of the first time they picked up a rod, but they both know that it was before they were even in school. Lawhorne explained that he grew up on a stocked trout stream, so opening day was a big event for the whole family who would be down at the creek together. And Little stated, “I remember fishing when I was 4, so my first time was before that.”
Fly fishing is a fairly popular activity here in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley, but for anyone who doesn’t know what it is, Lawhorne defines it as “basically fishing with a fly rod and a fly; an artificial fly designed to look like the insects and creatures in the stream. It’s just a different method of casting it than a traditional spinner. It’s a little more difficult to master, but once you have mastered it, it’s easy.”
Before the dream of owning their own fly shop became a reality, both men dabbled in various careers. Lawhorne, who still works at Lowes as a salesperson, also has worked as a manager for Fastenal, an oxygen therapy technician for Care Home Medical, a retail salesperson at Hassett’s, Stoney Creek Fly and Tackle and IGA. Little served 12 years with the military and then managed everything from a three-man bicycle shop to assistant manager at a Wal-Mart Supercenter. However, both continued fly fishing as a side job by teaching others and by providing guide services. Lawhorne started guiding at the age of 19; Little at the age of 18, providing his own guide service in Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, Maine, Idaho, Montana, and even Alaska.
“It’s basically taking someone out and introducing them to the stream from an expert’s level, from someone who fishes it a lot. When you go out guiding, you’re teaching them everything you know about the river for that particular day,” Lawhorne commented. Little continued with, “You do get a lot of beginners. But I’ve had a beginner on one day, who at eight that morning had never picked up a fly rod, then had a booking for the next day and it’s someone who has been fly fishing longer than I’ve been alive. So it runs the gamut.”
“A lot of times, really experienced fly fishermen, if they have the money to do it, if they are going somewhere new, they’ll hire a guide so that they kind of learn the places to park, what times of the day the river really comes on, and things like that. They just mine you for information, basically. They’re not there for you to help catch fish, they can do that themselves. They’re basically just looking for a shortcut on the learning curve in that particular piece of water.”
The pair had been talking about starting their own store for about 8 to 10 years. The idea first arose when Hassett’s, an outdoor store that was located where the News Virginian is located now, was for sale before they went out of business. However, it wasn’t until this past December when they finalized their decision to do it.
The shop’s location at 317 W. Main St. in Waynesboro was ideal for them due to its close proximity to the South River, a major hit for fly fishers. The South River, as well as other rivers in the area, is heavily populated by fish due to its size and insect-rich waters. A lot of the food that the fish eat, not just trout but the fall fish and the bass as well, can be easily imitated with a fly.
Another advantageous feature of the South River is an elaborate spring system that the guys know all about. Lawhorne gave a simple but scientific explanation for beginners by saying, “It’s popular because of the river here, the new section of the river, and this is something that’s really important. Upstream from town there’s a large spring complex that comes into the river and it maintains a fairly constant water temperature year-round. And it’s the water temperature the trout really like. So the South River, south of town in Lyndhurst, is a year-round trophy trout fishery. We’ve seen water temperatures that are in the mid-50s in the middle of winter, when the water temperature here in town is 40 because of those springs that are coming in. There’s such a high volume of that spring water that they are influencing the water temperature through that area, and they are keeping it warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. So what we have here is a giant spring creek for about four miles before the back creek enters in and really overcompensates for the spring. Then you start getting a more natural fluctuation with the air temperature. The trout do extremely well up there, and therefore the fly fishing is extremely good pretty much year-round.”
Both men agree that the comments of unhealthy mercury levels in the river are a bit exaggerated. Mercury is a heavy metal that accumulates in the body fat of animals if they have enough of the metal in their food supply. It does not kill fish instantly, but could cause a slow build up in some kinds of fish. Lawhorne reasons that, “The trout that are in the South River typically aren’t in the river long enough to accumulate a whole lot of it. The ones upstream from town have really no more mercury than anywhere else in the world. It’s just from DuPont down; from the foot bridge down.” And Little made the additional statement that, “Here in town, yeah, there could be some mercury issues, although for trout it’s pretty much not an issue because they’re not born in the river and they’re not constantly eating everything in the river. They live in the river a couple years at most.”
Other than the South River, the South River Fly Shop guides will go all over the mountains and the Shenandoah National Park, and to the Jackson Tailwaters, Mossy Creek, and the Shenandoah River. In the area it’s possible to catch fall fish, brook trout, rainbow trout, brown trout, smallmouth bass, rock bass, blue gills, musky, catfish and “all kinds of suckers.”
“When I get a day off I like to do what’s called blue lining. Which is find some little blue line in the mountains on a map, that might not even have a name listed on the map and take a rod and a path and head up it. See what you find. Lot of them are trickles; you can jump across them. But a lot of them have native brook trout in them in naturally occurring populations. I’d rather catch a small native fish than a big stocked fish,” Little said of his own fishing outings.
Lawhorne repeated this fondness for native fish by saying, “Virginia has one of the best populations of native brook trout left on the east coast, short of Maine, because of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Allegany Mountains and because we are not in as direct of a line of the acid laden clouds coming out of the Ohio River Valley. We haven’t had a much of a problem with the native trout streams being killed out by acid rain. Now we do have acid rain; the St. Mary’s gets limed every five years. Wilderness Stream gets limed every five years to keep the pH level from getting too low.”
The shop has anything and everything that you might need for a fly fishing trip, including rods, reels, lines, waders, vests, flys, jackets, tools, hats, line tying materials and supplies, and hats. Fly rods and reels from St. Croix, Ross Reels, Ross Worldwide, Elkhorn Rod and Reel. Waders and boots from Caddis and Chota. Lines from Airflo Fly Lines and Scientific Angler. Vest and packs from William Joseph and Solitude Fly Co. Fly tying materials and tools from Wapsi, Peak Mfg., Dr. Slick, Ultra Thread, and Ray Rumpf. Clothing with Tundra Tech by Drift Creek Outdoors. Accessories from Loon, Dr. Slick, Floatmaster, ECO, Dinsmore and Angler’s Image.
The shop’s inventory includes not only flys made by Little and Lawhorne, but also custom bamboo fly rods by Kevin Little. “They’re built the old way. Fifty years ago, fiberglass and the composite rods really came on the market, but before that for 100 years rods were made out of bamboo. There’s still a few of us doing it the old way; strictly by hand, no hand tools, no power.”
Each section of the rod is actually six strips of bamboo, each strip being a perfectly equilateral triangle with 60 degree corners, nestled together with the points turned in. The rod begins to taper. The taper is set in a planing form. A hand plane is used to take a three-thousandths-of-an-inch paper-thin shaving off in a process that must be done for several hours. Once Little has each strip exactly to the taper, with the nodes dress and the desired color he wants, the pieces are glued up, wrapped and dried. All of this work leaves him with what is known as a blank; basically just a stick. Then the ferrules are mounted, the wraps are put on, a grip and reel seat is made, all the metal hardware is put on, and the whole piece is varnished. The entire construction takes roughly 60-70 hours per rod. All of this effort is not a waste, though, because the bamboo rod is solid as opposed to the hollow graphite rods; so it’s stronger.
“I got into bamboo rods after buying some old ones and deciding I wanted a new one. Got to looking at the price and looking at the waiting time and decided after meeting some of the makers, seeing that there wasn’t anything special about this guy, couldn’t be that hard, and decided to make them, Little said. “It is a little different. It feels different. The casting qualities are different than graphite or a fiberglass, but the difference on the cost is mostly based on the building. I can put one of those together in seven to eight hours of hands-on work. I’ve got about 35-40 hours just making the blank on this, before I finish everything else up.”
Little stresses that the bamboo rods are not overly delicate. Also, because the rods are segmented and built by hand, they are more easily repaired than other manufactured rods. Currently in the shop, Little is repairing a rod tip for a friend who had fallen during a fishing trip near Grave Mountain Lodge and broke four inches off the tip of his rod. “He hadn’t learned the ‘rod high’ fall yet. When ya fall, rod high. Sacrifice the body, save the rod.”
Lawhorne emphasized their status as an independent store and ability to buy from multiple manufacturers by saying, “A lot of fly fishing stores are going the route of corporate America. They’re Orvis-backed, or they’re going that route of where they’ve got a large national company as their main supplier, and that name is in their name, like Orvis, and you see a lot of Orvis. There’s good and bad to that. You’ve got a lot of national recognition from that, but you also have to do what they tell you to do; jump when they say jump. And you can’t carry as wide an array of products from different manufacturers.”
“We get to pick and choose. We can look at a total company’s offerings, and we can say ‘I like this, I don’t like that’. With rods, if we were an Orvis store, we would have Orvis rods, period. We would be contractually bound to one company. We can bring in whichever companies we want. We are actually looking at a company out of New Hampshire that does fiberglass rods. They do a total of nine models, and we might only bring in one model. Just what we think is the best value, the best performance, the best for our market,” added Little.
“If we have enough people asking us for something that we don’t have, then we’ll find it. We’ll go out and get it. We can do that. I think that’s a real important thing about us. The fly fishing public has been really receptive to that idea. We’ve had a lot of people come to us and say, ‘We’re tired of just having one choice’.”
The duo plans to stick with just fly fishing equipment in the store for now. They might expand more, but only into fishing rather than becoming an all-around outdoor store. However, Lawhorne confided that, “We do, both have a passion for traditional archery, so at some point maybe we might play around with that if the time is right. It’d have to be right.”
In addition to being the go-to guys for fishing tips, Little and Lawhorne exude a sense of community. They have patience for beginners and enjoy sharing their stories and taking time for questions. Also, they are participating in outreach programs such as Trout in the Classroom and Casting for Recovery.
Trout in the Classroom is a program that Trout Unlimited has conducted for several years in the area where the kids actually raise trout in their classroom. They hatch the eggs, they raise them up, and then they have a field trip where they go to a stream and they release them. Through the course of the program, students learn about the natural habitat and get to see growth of an organism. A tank of trout is even in the store to enlighten others about the program and to invite people to make donations for the program.
Also in alliance with Trout Unlimited, South River Fly Shop is giving back to the natural habitat by donating 5 percent of all fly sales to the Shenandoah Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited for South River Projects.
Casting For Recovery is a program in which women at any age and stage of breast cancer treatment and recovery are invited to participate in a retreat where they can learn the basics of fly casting, catch-and-release fly-fishing, environmental issues, entomology, and knot tying skills. The idea behind it is to give each survivor a respite from their everyday surroundings and routines and to provide a fun experience where women can gain self-esteem, make new friends, and learn a new skill at no cost to the participants. The program holds a special place in both men’s heart, and they do their best to spread the word about it.
Above all else, the guys at South River Fly Shop want the public to know that they are a full-service fly shop, providing guiding, instruction, fly fishing, fly casting, and fly tying lessons and classes. Little and Lawhorne have the latest information on what’s hatching, what’s biting, and what you can do to optimize your fishing experience.
“The main thing is that we know what’s going on on the river, and we’re here every day, except Wednesday.”
Story by Suzi Foltz