Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Good Day: Fly Fishing Southeast Pennsylvania's Letort Spring Run

I start this week's post with a simple question: what is a "good day" of fishing? While an answer might seem simple, the process of deciding often requires deliberation and reflection.

When I depart a river, my mood is usually dependent on my rate of success. That is, how many fish did I catch? how many did I miss? what did the weather do? did I injure myself somehow? These questions, though, need to be put in the context of specific streams. For example, catching three wild brown trout, losing three of them, getting rained on, and getting sunburned constitutes a GREAT day on central Pennsylvania's Penns Creek; however, catching three wild brown trout, losing three of them, getting rained on, and getting sunburned is a BAD day on northeast Pennsylvania's Marshalls Creek.

For me, it's all about perspective, specificity, and relativity. Each river maintains its own set of unique problems and obstacles, so a good day on River X, then, is not necessarily a good day on River Y. I've long held this opinion, but I recently had a fly fishing experience that put the question of the "good day" back into focus.

Over the weekend, my wife and I traveled to the Pittsburgh area for a wedding. On the way back, we stopped in Carlisle, and I fly fished Letort Spring Run, a renowned wild trout fishery. Indeed, the Letort has a storied history. It was the home water of famous fly fisherman Charlie Fox, and many other fly fishing greats have fished it over the years. A flat, swampy, crystal-clear limestoner, Letort challenges anglers in every way. It is, in my opinion, the most difficult - and most rewarding - wild trout stream in Pennsylvania (and perhaps in the East).

My wife had never been to the Letort, and she was struck by its singularity. In fact, the river maintains a peculiar and enticing aesthetic: the water is crystalline, and it reflects an incredible array of surrounding greenery - willows, watercress, poplars, reeds, grasses -, while sinewy micro-currents twist across the stream's surface, and wild mint, dame's rocket, and a multitude of flowering trees perfume the air. Nothing looks (or even smells) quite like the Letort, but my wife mentioned its similarity to streams she's seen in the United Kingdom.

I struggled for nearly two hours on the Letort, before a driving rainstorm forced me back into the car. During that time, I hooked into two wild brown trout, losing both of them. I was frustrated and angry; my wife hadn't seen me exert that much fly fishing-related frustration since our college days in central Pennsylvania. There I was, at the famous Letort, a fly fishing destination for the best in the world, testing my skill at the highest level. And I overcame the challenges to fool two fish...that I proceeded to lose due to poor fight-technique. I was mad.

As I warmed up in the car after the rain, though, I began to feel my frustration fade; in its stead came satisfaction. I realized that the Letort, while challenging, is still conquerable. My two lost fish were a testament to that fact, and I therefore decided that my day on Letort Spring Run was certainly a good one.

Image #1 - Letort Spring Run
Image #2 - Sneaking up on those skittish Letort brown trout
Image #3 - A typical Letort setting

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Problem of High Water: Fly Fishing Pocono Wild Trout Streams in May

It's early on a Saturday, and you've loaded up your car with your fly rods, your vest, your waders, and some newly-tied flies. You've worked all week, tended to your family, and dreamed of casting your fly-line in a trout stream; you stayed up late on Friday, tying flies while your wife slept, knowing the alarm clock will awake you in four hours; you're excited, you're amped up, you're ready to go. You drive your car to a far-away stream, opening the windows to let in the warm May morning air. Two hours later, you pull into a parking area, rig up your rod, and finally (finally!) walk down a well-known path. You're keenly aware that it's there waiting for you: that is, the river, the current, the hatch, and, most importantly, the trout, all located beyond the next bend, and over the next hill. And then you see it, and you yell in frustration: the stream is impossibly high, and overflowing its banks.

Every fly fishermen has been in this position. We all lead busy lives, and not all of us can spend 100+ days on the water. We carefully arrange our schedules, creating small pockets of fly-fishing only blocks of time. We prepare, we await, we execute....and then we stew in disappointment when river conditions threaten our special, sacred time on the water.

I was stuck with this situation last weekend when I traveled to the Poconos to attend my niece's first tee-ball game. I intentionally woke up early, drove the requisite three hours while it was still dark, and arrived at the Brodhead Creek before the sun made its way over the dissected plateau that masquerades as the Pocono Mountain range. When I glanced at the raging river, however, I knew I was in trouble.

Living south of the Poconos (but still in the unparalleled Keystone State), I didn't know how much rain my home region had received in the late weeks of April. Adequate research would have revealed this problem, but I was overwhelmed with dissertation revisions, approaching pedagogical duties, and family holiday obligations. You should have known better, I told myself. You should have checked the USGS's website for water levels of the Brodhead and Bushkill Creeks, I thought, as I angrily berated myself for my lack of foresight. Eventually, my self-anger died down and I began to plan. If you are ever find yourself in this situation, I recommend the following pieces of advice.

First, give the river a try anyway. High water isn't necessarily a bad thing, and I've landed trout on the fly in genuine flood situations. When the water rages, work a big, flashy, colorful streamer along the riverbank, and drag it through any obvious trout lies. Fish are creatures of opportunity, and they will eat even in flood-stage conditions. If they see your presentation, and it's right near them, odds are high they will strike your fly. Heavy, large, bead-head nymphs also produce in high water. Two years ago, I caught a 15 inch stocked brown trout out of the Brodhead Creek during a significant high water episode. It took a size 8 bead-head stonefly nymph. The ensuing battle was one of the most memorable fights I've ever had: a decent trout, hooked in flooding water, battling me near a precariously-positioned rapids section. It worked out, and I'll always cherish that memory. If I would have walked back to the car without trying the rapidly-rising river, I would have missed out on a great moment.

Second, go to another river, preferably a smaller one. Smaller streams clear out faster than large ones; this occurs because they are less integral parts of the dominant watershed system, and they drain less overall acreage. This past weekend, I left the Brodhead and headed to a number of smaller wild trout streams. These creeks were high, but they were more fishable than their parent streams. I ended up landing a few wild trout, hardly something to complain about, even though my initial plans were dashed.

Always remember that time on the water is what you make of it. You cannot control horrendous conditions, and blown-out rivers are sometimes impossible to fly fish. But if you adhere to the two key strategies I've outlined in this post, you may catch a few trout anyway.

Image #1 - The Susquehanna River in flood stage.
Image #2 - Wild ginger in bloom.
Image #3 - A creek chub I caught in high water conditions.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Irony of the "Home River": Fly Fishing Northeast Pennsylvania's Brodhead Creek

Most fly fishermen have a "home river." That is, a place they know inside out, a waterway where they learned to fly fish, a stream they recognize as readily as a family member. Home rivers are locales that trigger special memories (a first fish, a unique moment, a missed opportunity), and they are often the metrics by which anglers measure every other river they fish. I consider three creeks my home rivers: Marshalls Creek, Bushkill Creek, and Brodhead Creek. All three are wonderful Pocono trout fisheries, and I could write countless words about each of them. The Brodhead Creek, though, possesses certain peculiarities that problematize my characterization of it as a "home river."

Over the weekend, I traveled to the Poconos to see family - human and river alike. Early Sunday, I decided to say hello to the Brodhead, a sinewy, watery friend I first fished as a child. This particular Pocono river has a storied history. Indeed, it was one of the first fly fishing destinations in the United States, and presidents, writers, and fly fishing legends have all cast their lines in its swift current.

In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the river caused the most severe disaster devastation the Pocono region has ever seen. In August of 1955, two hurricanes roared through northeast Pennsylvania (Connie and Diane), dropping over 20 inches of rain in a week's time. The Brodhead swelled, and it swept away a number of children from an Analomink-based Baptist camp. As the deluge reached East Stroudsburg, homes were obliterated in the low-lying downtown area, and tens of people drowned. Recalling images of the deadly Johnstown Flood, the 1955 disaster claimed over 100 Pocono lives. As a result of the flood, the local, state, and federal governments looked for ways to avoid similar disasters. One of the solutions was an elaborate levee system that shielded the downtowns of Stroudsburg and East Stroudsburg from any further flood damage.

Today, my home river is channeled and leveed throughout much of its lower section; coincidentally, this comprises much of the Brodhead's publicly accessible water. Because of these two factors, I grew up with an ever-changing, constantly-fluid home waterway. The channeling and levee-ing create a violent and unpredictable flood environment, and the private land forces anglers like me into this ever-changing area. And what I've learned is this: when a river can't flood, it cuts instead. Every year, the Brodhead makes new paths, new beds, and new fishing conditions. It treats its leveed-in banks as pliable clay, wrenching them and contorting them, forever altering the scarred landscape. The Brodhead of 2011, then, is not the Brodhead of 2010, or the Brodhead of 1994. It is a new river. Every year.

Kind of ironic for a home water, right? Each year I must learn a new river, one that's completely changed from the version of the previous year. I have to seek out new trout lies, and think of new strategies of attack. It is quite the undertaking, one that is coterminously frustrating and confusing. It's nothing like my experiences at the Bushkill or Marshalls.

But each time I return to this home water, I'm faced with a delightful set of questions. I ask myself, what has the Brodhead done this year? how has it changed? what will it look like now? how do I address its intrinsic volatility? These questions are exciting, and they engender the outpouring of enthusiasm I have whenever I approach a new river. So I get both familiarity and difference; the comfort of the recognized concatenating with the thrill of the foreign.

So if you head out to the Brodhead sometime this spring, remember this: it may not look anything like the river you've come to know and love, but it will always retain that distinctive Brodhead-ness that separates it from every other American river.

Image #1: Catching a Brodhead trout in 2009.
Image #2: Round-loped hepatica growing along the Brodhead Creek.
Image #3: Canadian mayflower getting ready to bloom along the Brodhead.