Learning Virginia Stream and River Fishing with Guide Spotswood Payne

I love this interview. Ok, I love all my interviews and appreciate the time everyone provides. But this one is unique. Ok, all of them are unique. So instead of trying to describe with generalized praise that could be used for all of the anglers that give time to contribute to DockTalk365, let me just be real specific about this one with Spotswood Payne, a Virginia trout, bass and musky professional fishing guide. I tried asking Spotswood about his approach to guiding. When I reviewed his answers, I realized that every answer not only answers about his approach to guiding but also provides important lessons for all of us recreational anglers as well. I also realized and loved that Spotswood goes to a deeper level answering with philosophical and theoretical approaches to fishing rather than solely answering on the practical level of what fly or lure to throw when. While I do like to be told what to throw when, I also love contemplating fishing on a deeper level, which is something Spotswood clearly does. So keep reading and I know you will love this interview as much as I do.

You are a guide with the Albermale Angler. How long have you been guiding?

I have been a guide here with the Albemarle Angler for almost four years, as well as working previously with Virginia Fishing Adventures.

What are the most rewarding parts about being a guide?

I have to say I have certainly enjoyed almost every minute. Of course, most guides out there would probably answer: “putting clients on big fish!”. Which, without a doubt, is one of the most rewarding parts of being a guide; but to me, the most rewarding part of being a guide is watching that spark burst into a blazing fire.

Catching big fish, and any fish for that matter, always helps a trip but if the angler is not getting the over all experience that he or she is looking for, the client is probably going to look elsewhere for a fishing buddy. Big fish can be caught almost everywhere, honestly by almost anyone. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while. I’ll put it to you this way; at the end of each year, I’ve got a few more friends than I started with.

What are the most challenging parts of being a guide?

Living the guide life comes with a lot sacrifice in regards to leading a “normal life” and living around other people’s schedules. For most guides out there, the guide life is a labor of love. Early mornings, working weekends and holidays all come with the territory. Most of us are pretty rambunctious human-beings and being able to balance personal life and your professional schedule can be quite the challenge.

Though, the greatest challenge I believe a good guide faces on a day to day basis is being able to muster the same passion and commitment for each trip and client. This is where the balance of leading somewhat of a normal life and still being able to recall the passion and concentration, along with the air of an old friend, pays off. Without this balance, either the guide is going to burn himself out, or clients won’t return.

When you are preparing for a guide outing, how does your mental preparation differ from a day when you are going out on your own?

When preparing for a day on the water with a client, a good guide has to take a lot into consideration. Usually I begin with which piece of water and/or what are the water conditions like. This is one of the easiest boxes on the checklist to forget. Most clients have an idea of what they want to chase and where. Every guide out there, has shown up to a blown out river. Minimizing how many times this happens is the key. Make sure to check any available gauges reflecting river conditions, be aware of past, present, and future weather conditions; knowing what you are getting your clients into for the day is a pretty big key.

I would say the second most important thought process for preparing for a guide day would be getting to know your client and his or her abilities. Determining your clients skill level before getting out on the water can save hours of wasted time using a fly, lure, or presentation that your angler is just unable to correctly use and thus will fish unsuccessfully. There is a fine line between how much I “teach” and how much my client just gets out there and fishes while “learning on the water”. Keying on the right fly, bait, or lure is only half the battle. Determining a presentation that is user-friendly and productive, that is the other half.

What are your favorite waters to guide on?

I was raised fishing the high gradient native brook trout streams of the east slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, especially those in the Nelson County area. These streams and that type of fishing will always hold a special place in my heart. Natives are aggressive, beautiful, and are generally a user friendly fish. On the other hand, an old weary brookie can be one hell of a tough fish to come by. And there is no doubt that Virginia’s native brook trout streams are jewels in themselves. Plus its pretty cool to chase a fish that’s been here since the last glaciation.

Overall, I would have to choose the mighty James River as my personal favorite water to guide. The river itself is laden with Virginia and Colonial America history. Without the James River, who knows what the U.S. would look like today. It also provides a year round fishery for guides and angler alike.

In the warmer months the James is arguably one of the finest “big fish” smallmouth fisheries on the east coast. Supplemented with chasing massive pissed off gar, summer floats are a staple and can be packed with action. Once, the cooler months roll around, the James turns into a world class musky fishery, which has produced fish in excess of 50 inches. I got one myself this past February.

I also very much enjoy guiding the Jackson River below Gathrite Dam and Lake Moomaw. This is one of the few float accessible true tail waters in the state. This river is one heck of a trout fishery that can produce shots to hook into exceptional fish, along with the occasional toad of a brown or bow.

How do you stay focused and adjust on a day when the fish aren’t cooperating?

How a guide composes his or her self when the fishing is tough or non-existent can and will define you as to what “kind” of a guide you are. A key in the situation is to keep in contact with your client. Idle minds are the workshop of the devil. A long silence can kill a clients confidence in you as a guide. If you end up with a LOFTy, lack of freaking talent, client, where the clients ability is what is directly affecting the fishing, attempt other presentations that are more likely to be accomplished by the client and thus more enjoyable. For example, in fly fishing, a down and away presentation. A bad day of fishing is a great day for jokes and bullshit.

Now, when the fish are the ones directly affecting the fishing, that is a different beast. Much of the time in this situation, persistence is the key. As my little brother and I chant to each other while musky fishing, “Just keep fishing!” 9 times out of 10, your angler’s shot at the fish of the day will come after the angler has been fishing awhile and probably has lost concentration. This is especially so in musky fishing. Long hours of casting monster flies or lures can burn up the most physically and mentally fit anglers. More than perfectly “matching the hatch”, though matching the hatch is never a bad idea, it is far more important to have the client fishing a fly or lure that not only you as the guide have faith in, but the client as well. Choosing one that keeps the attention of the angler is almost if not more important than to choose a fly that looks exactly like that which the fish are eating.

Which species of fish in your waters do you think you are best at guiding for?

I have been trout fishing in some manner or another, since about the time I was six years old. I have been lucky enough to grow up with a camp hidden on the east slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. That being said, I have learned a thing or two about chasing trout. Pure repetition has made picking apart a trout stream almost a subconscious act; muscle memory. Spending time on any fishery will help any angler to not only better understand the fish in the water, but the environment around them, which makes the fish act the way that they do. There is no substitutes for time on the water.

Let’s say I have just spent a full day as one of your clients. At the end of the day, how am I going to describe you as a guide?

More than anything, I hope that each angler steps out of the boat or hops on the tailgate to slide off his or her boots, leaving with a greater appreciation and respect for the animals we were and chasing and the places that they call home. Catching fish is always a great way to spend the day, especially hunting and sticking piggies, but the reality is that not every trip is going to be “lights out”. So, if you as a client were to jump out at the end of the day, I would hope you would leave satisfied in the pursuit of our chosen quarry, informed, and excited to return to fish with a new friend.

How can someone who wants to book you as a guide go about doing that?

If clients would like to contact me directly to book a day on the water, they are more than welcome to contact me at Central Virginia Outfitters, of which I am head guide and owner. This service specializes in smallmouth, trout, and musky float trips on the James and Shenandoah river-sheds. I am still working on launching its website, but anglers are more than welcome to contact me a at centralvirginiaoutfitters@gmail.com or call 434-962-7214 to inquire about available trips and dates, as well as those looking to go ahead and book a day!

I am also a guide with, and work closely with the Albemarle Angler in Charlottesville, VA. The Albemarle Angler manages four pieces of water as well as provides an extensive stock of fly-fishing gear and life-style apparel. I recommend that anglers looking to fish phenomenal managed waters to please contact me through the Albemarle Angler. Where as, anglers looking to pursue the freshwater big game of Virginia, to contact me at Central Virginia Outfitters.

See what I mean! Great interview Spotswood. Thank you! I think all of us come away clear that spending a day on the water with you would be an amazing experience. Along with the contact information above, you can follow Spotswood on Instagram.