A unique trout-fishing experience: West Virginia mountain river on horseback

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Sixteen miles on horseback sounds daunting, even on level ground. When those miles plunge into a 1,000-foot canyon down rock-strewn trails, ford a swollen West Virginia river and then climb back out, it's an adventure.

But at Pipestem Resort State Park, which straddles the Bluestone Canyon near the Mountain State's southernmost bulge, it's a ride anglers must make to get to the trout. And then again to get back home.

Pipestem offers its "trout wrangler" package in the spring and autumn to anglers on a quest for something different. Signers-on embark on the early morning ride from the canyon rim, ford the Bluestone River and spend a night at the park's Mountain Creek Lodge. Riders fish for two days over the Bluestone's big, abundant rainbow trout before their return ascent.

If you go ...

Pipestem Resort State Park is located off WV Rte. 20, 30 miles east of I-77 at Princeton. The address is Box 150, Pipestem, WV 25979. For more information on the Trout Wrangler package call 304-466-1800, ext. 393 or visit www.pipestemresort.com.

"Our wrangler guests enjoy the overall experience," said Ed Wooton, outdoor specialist and director of marketing and sales at Pipestem Resort State Park. "You get a taste of a rugged, remote landscape -- almost a wilderness. This is the closest thing to a Rocky Mountain horseback trout trip here in the East. The difference is you're not roughing it. You're staying in a nice lodge and enjoying some great food."

The Bluestone River at Pipestem is essentially inaccessible except by aerial tram-car which descends from the park's main McKeever Lodge at the canyon lip, or via a gated road used only by park staff to reach the smaller riverside lodge.

"That is why we incorporated the horseback component," Wooton said. "We close the tramway at the end of October and don't operate it again until Memorial Day. That opens several weeks when we can use the Mountain Creek Lodge only for trout fishing, but we need the horses to get anglers down there."

Edwa Meek, 68, of Lexington, S.C., was among the adventurous on a weekend in early November. Meek brought along her grandson, Preston Snow, seeking an experience the two could always remember.

"I love to get back to the mountains," Meek said. "I was born in the Berkshires, and I'm comfortable in the hills. Preston is an avid saltwater fisherman, so I saw this as a way for us to come to the mountains together where he could learn something new."

Wooton helped Meek and Snow learn the basics of fly fishing a mountain river and, despite higher-than-normal water in the wake of Hurricane Sandy; the pair caught several rainbows up to 18 inches.

"It was an amazing trip," said Snow, 16, of Edisto Island, S.C. "I don't get to fly fish where I live, and I often don't catch anything. This is beautiful country and so different from what I'm accustomed to in the Carolina low country. Catching trout here was a bonus."

Snow confided that he'd never forget the unique trip with his grandmother.

"It means a lot to me to have a grandmother who likes to go out and do this kind of stuff," he said. "Most kids my age don't get to catch trout and ride a horse with a grandparent."

Pipestem's Trout Wrangler trip, though attractive to seasoned anglers, encourages those of all skill levels.

"The Wrangler package is a great opportunity for people who have not fly fished or have dabbled in fly fishing," Wooton said. "You don't have to purchase any equipment or pay anything additional for instruction. But for experienced anglers, there's the attraction of catching a lot of trout and, hopefully, the trout of a lifetime."

Other anglers on the November trip, including Dale Davis, 30, of Smithfield, Pa., caught their many trout on streamers, black, olive or bright-green Woolly Buggers stripped slowly, or egg patterns dead-drifted deep. Trout fishing on the Bluestone River at Pipestem is catch-and-release from Oct. 1 to May 31. A valid West Virginia fishing license plus appropriate trout and conservation stamps are required.

The Trout Wrangler concept began in 2007 when Wooton was running a fly fishing seminar at Pipestem.

"Those seminars evolved with the help of West Virginia University's aquaculture program," Wooton said. "They donated the first trout for stocking in the river and continued to do so until 2010 because we saw the opportunity to offer something unique. WVU wanted us to develop a new market for the state's privately-owned trout hatcheries, and now that this has caught on, the park buys trout from those producers by public bid."

Wooton said Pipestem stocks more and bigger trout per mile than typical state stockings.

Despite the rugged route anglers must take to reach the river, the horseback ride can accommodate beginners. Guide Joe Rodes had already been running a private horseback riding concession at Pipestem when Wooton and WVU conceived the Trout Wrangler idea.

"The majority of people we ride on these horses are novices, with no experience," Rodes said. "We gauge it to the family. If I wouldn't put my kids on that horse, I wouldn't put you on it, either."

Rodes doubles as campfire cook during the trip. He mans an open-fire barbecue pit outside Mountain Creek Lodge where he crafts grilled ribs, steaks, smoked sausage, home-fried potatoes and a local creation he calls "cornbread casserole" while the guests catch trout.

"I could smell those ribs grilling from the river," Davis said. "It made me forget about my cold hands."

Wooton said Trout Wrangler participants are rarely disappointed.

"A lot of our guests come back again and again," he said. "There's a combination of elements here that you can't find just anywhere."



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