Friday, April 15, 2011

Knowing a New River: Fly Fishing Southeast Pennsylvania's White Clay Creek

What does it mean to "know a trout stream"? Although this vague and strange grammatical construction is well known and often muttered, it nevertheless raises a set of epistemological problems: how can you really "know" anything?, can you even "know" a thing like a river? if you can, how long does it take? one trip, four trips, years? does it mean having success catching fish? does it mean you are no longer taken by surprise at any given moment on the water? do you have to know the entire layout of the waterway?

I don't have the answers to these questions. In fact, it seems that each person would define "knowing" a river in a different way. For me, it's about comfort: can I go to a river, with no planning, at any time of year, and still catch trout on the fly? If the answer to this question is yes, I probably "know" that river. It takes me quite a bit of time, though, to arrive at this state. I need to see the stream in low water, in flood stage; I need to see it on 90 degree days when the sun pounds down on the water; I need to see it when it snows, and when ice blocks out different sections; I need to be there when it rains and when it sleets; I need to have success and failure even out, creating the expectation of trout on the fly; and, finally, I need to write about it.

That being said, I'm "getting to know" southeast Pennsylvania's White Clay Creek. Three branches of this Delaware Bay watershed flow near my house, and over 10 miles of the stream are stocked by Pennsylvania and Delaware. Driving distance isn't a factor; indeed, a short half-mile walk brings me to the stream's un-stocked West Branch. And in the last few weeks, I've visited various stretches of the White Clay over 10 times.

On one of my trips, it was cold, wet, and dreary. Five minutes after I got there, it started to rain. I could literally watch the water getting muddier by the minute. So I got out my fly box, picked out a cone-head muddler minnow, and tied it on. The fly's gold wire, wrapped tightly around its mid-section, cut through the murky water, and trout after trout smacked it. It was a wonderful time (I've always loved fly fishing for trout in the rain). On another trip, however, the sun was bright and the temperature was nearing 70 degrees. A perfect day to head to the river, right? The trout, though, were not quite active, and they were skittish of any shadow I cast on the water. After nymphing for awhile, I ultimately tied on a light colored dry fly, and blindly drifted it down the current. I tend to fly fish underwater, so I was thrilled when a smallish brown trout rose from the bottom to strike the dun imitation. Immediately after catching that trout, I left the White Clay, content and satisfied.

Other trips to the White Clay featured Delawarian fly fishing, enticing trout with small wooly bugger streamers, and a few bald eagle sightings. Now, as I contemplate driving to the special regulation, delayed-harvest area near Landenberg, PA, the process of "knowing" the White Clay Creek is coming to an end. I've experienced the river in different conditions, gained familiarity with all of its various branches, and learned its hatch patterns for the summer, fall, winter, and, finally, spring. I think I can say, I know the White Clay least a little bit.

Image #1: Catching a trout in Delaware
Image #2: Stonefly nymph!
Image #3: White Clay brown trout

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