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.


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Tom MOrris said...

I grew up in Pennsylvania and fished the Broadheads and Marshall's Creek many times. I fished the big B mainly as a kid with a spinning rod, and later fished Marshall's Creek with a fly rod when I was home from college (my parents lived in Marshall's Creek). Now that I live in Florida, i don't get to trout fish too much except I have found fabulous fishing in North Georgia. My "Home River" is the Toccoa River in Blue Ridge. I love the upper river above the lake -- it is just like the Broadheads only more so! There is a fabulous delayed harvest section there with a season from Nov. 1 to May 15. After that the bait fishermen are allowed to prune most of the fish before summer weather sets in. Below the lake is a tailwater fishery that is comparable to the upper Delaware. The upper river is lines with Pine, Hemlock and Rhododendron. If someone dropped you off there you might think you were deep in the Poconos or Catskills. You should check it out some time. There are numerous other great streams close by as well.