Monday, April 30, 2012

New Post Coming Soon

Sorry for the delay.  New posts coming soon.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Ethics of Tailwater Streams: Fly Fishing the Upper Delaware River

This past July, I traveled to New York's Catskills region, home to many of the East's most highly-regarded trout streams. You've probably heard of places like the Beaverkill, the Neversink, and the Willowemoc; in fact, many important moments in North America's fly fishing history occurred on these streams. Nevertheless, one Catskill river has captured the attention of the global fly fishing community above all others: the Upper Delaware River.

Many Americans know the Delaware. Some drive over it near Philadelphia and Wilmington, where it begins to transition into the brackish Delaware Bay. There, the river reaches over a half a mile in length, sluggishly churning toward the Atlantic Ocean. Others may be familiar with the Delaware Water Gap, a special geographical formation hundreds of millions of years old. Native Americans hunted and fished near the Gap hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans, and countless New Yorkers and New Jerseyeans have driven through it en route to their Pocono tourist destinations. Other people may have seen the Delaware at Easton, Phillipsburg, Trenton, Milford, Camden, or Dingman's Ferry. And almost everyone is familiar with George Washington's crossing of the river on December 25th, 1776, an iconic American moment immortalized by the artwork of German-American painter Emanuel Leutze (this image graces the back of the New Jersey state quarter, among other things).

But fly fishermen know the Delaware because of its spectacular upper waters. Divided into two branches, the Upper Delaware River receives cold-water releases from the Cannonsville and Pepacton Reservoirs. These releases foster ideal living conditions for populations of wild brown and rainbow trout. The reservoirs, however, weren't constructed in order to bring salmonids to the Delaware's upper branches. Instead, Cannonsville and Pepacton provide drinking water to America's most populated metropolis: New York City.

This strange dichotomy has generated tension between sports groups and government officials. On one hand, Upper Delaware River fly fishing is a multi-million dollar industry, and many guides, fly-shop owners, and local businesspeople feel hand-cuffed, even held hostage, by the government and its cold-water release plans. If water temperatures rise too high and the reservoirs don't release enough cold water, the Upper Delaware's trout populations - and its fly fishing industry - will perish. Imagine having your livelihood threatened every time a heat wave rolls through town. It can't be easy. On the other hand, government officials have a responsibility to the people of New York City. They need to ensure that New Yorkers have enough water, and they must keep the reservoirs at certain levels in case of emergencies. Imagine being faced with a potential New York City water shortage. That can't be easy either.

Both sides agree that there is middle-ground between their respective positions, and the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) has recently modified its release plan. For now, the Upper Delaware fly fishing community and the DRBC have an uneasy but functional relationship. Which begs the question: how should fly fishers approach this problem? Should we support the Friends of the Upper Delaware River (FUDR)? Should we attend meetings of the DRBC, offering the commission our support? What should we do? I, of course, cannot speak for you. What I can do, however, is offer my opinion.

I hate tailwater streams. There, I said it. I don't like how a tailwater will support trout when the river would otherwise be absent of salmonids. I don't like how the air can be blisteringly hot while the river registers a temperature of 52 degrees Fahrenheit. I don't like how reservoirs alter the basic ecology of their tailwaters. You may respond to these statements by suggesting I'm shooting myself in the proverbial foot. And you'd probably be right: essentially, I'm advocating for LESS trout streams and fewer wild trout populations. I see how many readers of this blog may find that problematic. Hell, I find it problematic. But during my time on the Upper Delaware, I couldn't help shake the notion that the trout shouldn't be there; that we've created an unsustainable situation that pits local environmental imperatives against the humanist concerns of our nation's greatest city; that I, too, was contributing to the problem by being there. But then I landed a number of wild brown trout, and that familiar feeling of excitement, love, and joy filled me. And I realized that the ethics of fly fishing the Upper Delaware River disappear when a strong, beautiful wild trout strikes your fly.

Image #1 - Emanuel Leutze's 1851 rendering of Washington's Crossing. It's in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC), if you're interested in seeing it. It's much bigger than you'd expect.
Image #2 - The beautiful West Branch of the Delaware River.
Image #3 - An Upper Delaware brown trout. It was all about the BWOs that night.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Challenge of Big Water: Fly Fishing Kentucky's Lake Cumberland

For the second straight summer, my family spent part of July at Kentucky's Lake Cumberland. One of the largest lakes in the country, Cumberland contains over 1,000 miles of shoreline, beautifully cascading waterfalls, unlimited geological wonders, and state record catches of walleye, sturgeon, and striped bass (otherwise known as rockfish to my Chesapeake Bay-based readers). The lake's size and diverse fish species create a significant dilemma for fly fishers: how do you fish a body of water that big, with that many different kinds of fish, with the rod-and-fly?

As many of you know, I routinely seek out small, often unrecorded, wild trout fisheries. I'm a voracious reader of maps, an undeterred seeker of local knowledge, and a mildly-obsessed internet scavenger. Wherever wild trout live, I trek. Indeed, my love of wild trout extends back to my childhood, when I would ride my bike to a tiny Pennsylvanian trout stream, and fish for small native brookies. But I also cut my fishing teeth on lake water, taking in yellow perch, chain pickerel, largemouth bass, crappie, and bullhead catfish on worms, minnows, Rapalas, Jitterbugs, and plastics. In many ways, then, I'm a lake fisherman by birth (if not necessarily by creed or practice). Nevertheless, I always end up stymied by the immensity of lakes and their surprising (at least to me) diversity.

See, when I think about bodies of water, I usually employ an arbitrary - and admittedly false - binary. That is, I think of rivers/streams/creeks as dynamic, always-changing ecosystems, while at the same time consigning reservoirs/lakes/ponds to the realm of static, stagnant fisheries. Embedded in this binary is an inescapable, and unfortunate, bias. I confess, I enjoy rivers more than lakes; I'd rather fish a mountain trout stream than a massive Kentuckian reservoir. Lakes, however, are constantly in a state of flux: weather conditions, temperature, and moon phases wreak havoc on lake fishermen's best-laid plans, and they make lake fishing a fun and unpredictable enterprise. Because I prefer northeastern mountain streams, then, does not mean that these waterways are intrinsically better than big southern lakes; instead, my preferences are underscored by personal, empirical, experiential moments. They are not right, and they are not wrong. They merely are.

Leaving my fishing preferences aside, I exhaustively fished Lake Cumberland during the past week. Not all of this fishing included flies. In fact, my two sisters and I turned to nightcrawlers, red worms, and captured minnows for bait. I don't love plunking, but I do love catching big catfish and panfish (true to form, we pan-seared some white perch and bluegill in lime juice, butter, and red-pepper flakes).

I did, though, rig up my fly rod. My strategies included locating rises in enclosed, cove-like areas of the reservoir (lake fish eat as many, if not more, insects than their river counterparts), slowly-working large popper flies along the shoreline, and floating tandems of nymphs and dries. With the right equipment and knowledge, lake fishing can be a fly fisherman's paradise. I encourage you to head to your local lake, and see what kind of fish you can land on the fly. I promise it'll be worth it.

Image #1: A Lake Cumberland waterfall.
Image #2: One of my bigger catfish.

More to come soon

I apologize (once again) for the large gap in between posts. Now that my summer schedule has freed up, I will be returning to (hopefully) a once-a-week posting schedule.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Narrative of a June Day: Frederick Douglass, Slavery, and Fly Fishing Maryland's Eastern Shore

Seldom do I encounter a moment when my professional interests intersect with my outdoor recreational pursuits in a striking, drop-everything-I'm-doing kind of way. Such a moment occurred this past Saturday, when I spent a few hours roaming around Maryland's Eastern Shore. My wife recently received an internship at a former tobacco plantation, and while she worked at the museum, I explored the area. I ended up along the banks of the Sassafras River. While there, I took in the following scene (image #1).

As the image shows, I was gazing at a Chesapeake Bay-area vista. In the distance, a sailboat with a white sail bobbed in the current, moored fast to a marine structure. Rising above the water was an antebellum mansion, undoubtedly built, staffed, and run by slaves. It was easy to image this scene a scant 160 years ago, when chattel slavery drove the Eastern Shore's agricultural economy. In fact, the further you drive off the Eastern Shore beaten path (and by beaten I mean paved) the more you begin to feel like you've been sucked into a time portal. Indeed, miles upon miles of crop-laden fields stretch out in front of you, unbroken except for dirt pathways utilized by tractors and horses; "Big Houses" stand sentinel over the fields, stark reminders that this nation's slavery-legacy is always already visible; small outbuildings that once served as slave-houses still dot the landscape, some of which are now used by Latino immigrants (ah, historical symmetry, thou art heartless); and the recently-arrived Amish fill the roads and fields with buggies, horse-drawn open carriages, and delightfully rustic attire. Yeah, if you take a turn down a dirt road on the Eastern Shore, you end up in the 19th century (I'm deadly serious: if you take out the power lines and the pavement, some parts of the area are literally unchanged).

The totality of this experience, of being time-warped, of seeing the Big Houses still standing, made me think of Frederick Douglass, one of my favorite 19th century writers. A self-proclaimed "Eastern Shoreman," Douglass spent his childhood, adolescence, and parts of his adulthood enslaved on a number of Eastern Shore plantations. His homeland, though, was located about fifty miles south of where I was. The spirit of his humanity, his words, and his rememories (h/t T. Morrison), though, haunt the entirety of the Eastern Shore. For example, Douglass wrote the following in his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845):

Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer's Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these always affected me powerfully. My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul's complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships.

Douglass's white-clad sailing vessels and his enslavement hit me hard as I stood looking at a sailboat and a Big House in 2011. I thought about the historical people who toiled their lives away; who looked out at passing ships and asked the question "Why am I a slave?"; who, like Douglass, ran away to the north, breathing a momentary sigh of relief when they crossed the Mason-Dixon line (a line that sits only 2 miles south of where I'm writing this post).

I also thought about the material conditions of Eastern Shore slavery. Why, you may ask, did I start ruminating on this topic? I confess that it was because of the fly fishing rod that I held in my right hand. See, I wasn't anticipating traveling back in time during my five hours on the Eastern Shore. I wasn't searching for antebellum mansions or former slave quarters or Amish buggies; no, I was looking for a place to fish. But sometimes history and rememories get in the way of outdoor leisure, especially if you are keyed in to them, like academics tend to be.

I couldn't help but wonder, then, about the history of slavery and fishing. I knew from my research that slaves augmented their food supply by tending their own gardens and hunting with makeshift weaponry (and with firearms, on occasion). But I seldom read passages about slaves turning to the waterways for food. I searched Douglass's narrative, though, and found the following passage: "Colonel Lloyd's slaves were in the habit of spending a part of their nights and Sundays in fishing for oysters, and in this way made up the deficiency of their scanty allowance." Now, oysters aren't necessary rockfish or bream, but Douglass nevertheless describes the process of using marine life to off-set starvation. Furthermore, a brief search of the 1930s Federal Writer's Project's compilation of slave narratives turns up over 100 mentions of the word "fishing." Clearly, American slaves turned to the water, to the fish, and to the land when their owners failed to provide them with adequate "allowance."

I think this helps explains Douglass's deep-seated attachment to Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay. For him, the Bay was a path to freedom (he traveled alongside it during his successful train-based escape), a provider of sustenance, a non-participator in the evil institution of slavery. Maryland, the Eastern Shore, and the Bay would always be his homeland, even as he built a life for himself in New York. It is not surprising, then, that Douglass issued the following statement in 1877: "I am an Eastern Shoreman, with all that name implies. Eastern Shore corn and Eastern Shore pork gave me my muscle. I love Maryland and the Eastern Shore."

He could have added Eastern Shore fish to his list, too.

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.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Trout in the Old Dominion: Fly Fishing Northern Virginia's Accotink Creek

Over the weekend, my wife and I traveled to northern Virginia to celebrate the Easter holiday with her family. Being who I am, I decided to look into that region's fly fishing options. A quick web-search revealed that a section of the Accotink Creek, from Little River Turnpike to Braddock Road, is a specially-regulated, artificials-only area. The state supports this stretch of water with spring and fall trout stocking, and enterprising fly fishers can land pretty rainbow trout right near the infamous Capital Beltway.

Before heading down to the river alone, however, I went on a walk with my wife and her parents. This perambulating trip took us along the celadine-covered banks of the Accotink. Along the way we spotted a red fox, some deer, a great blue heron, two snakes, and a host of wildflowers, including lesser celandine, Virginia bluebells (in Virginia, too!), mayapple, wild blue phlox, chickweed, and dwarf ginseng. I, of course, kept an eye on the water, and what I noticed helped me when I returned to the river, rod-in-hand, after the conclusion of our walk.

The Accotink is a typical east coast, piedmontian waterway. That is, its long, flat, and shallow pools are punctuated by gently cascading sections of rapids. It maintains a healthy riparian environment, replete with ground covering plants, towering sycamores, and hardy ironwoods. Mud predominates in many streamside parts of the river, but the riverbed features a mixture of silt and small rocks. The water temperature, as many readers probably guessed, becomes too warm for trout by June, and any holdover activity is extremely unlikely. At some point in the past, long before the time when parking lots, deforestation, highways, and strip malls came to dominate NoVa's landscape, the Accotink likely held wild trout. Those days are long gone, but the thrill of catching a salmonoid a few miles from Washington DC is still alive and well.

Using the scouting knowledge I had attained during the walk, I quickly zoned in on some spots I thought would hold fish. One such area was the top of a long pool, where the rapids began to diminish, and a large sycamore extended its roots into the water. I tied on a small wooly bugger streamer, and softly dead-drifted it to the root system. I then stopped the drift, and flicked the streamer in the current, quickly moving it across the thalweg and into an area of slack water. This technique worked like a charm, and I landed a number of Old Dominion rainbows.

My quick success was due, in part, to the streamside walk I had taken with the family. I was able to look for insect activity (there wasn't much), identify potential trout holds, and become familiar with the terrain, all before ever offering a cast. This kind of foreknowledge is useful, especially when the river is completely unknown to you. Without the temptation of the fly rod in your hand, you notice things that you might have otherwise overlooked.

The next time you head to a new river, consider spending an hour along its banks, sans fly rod. Take in the stream, observe it, learn something about it. Because a little bit of knowledge might be the difference between a great day on the water, and a frustrating, no-trout experience.

Image #1 - The Accotink Creek
Image #2 - An Accotink rainbow
Image #3 - Our friend, the northern watersnake.

(As always, thanks for reading, and be sure to check out my new guiding website at

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

(Remember to check out my new guiding website at and follow me on Twitter by clicking the following button: Follow Slippery_Trout on Twitter )

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Now Officially Guiding Fly Fishing Trips in the Poconos and Northwest New Jersey

For those of you who have loyally followed this blog, my decision to formally create a fly fishing guiding website likely comes as no surprise. It's something I've been doing for a number of years now, and I've decided to consolidate that part of my fly fishing life in a professional way. So please visit to learn more about my "new" guiding services.

This new website will in no way impede the nature writing that I do on this blog. Guiding and fly fishing blogging are two distinct aspects of one wonderful sport.

In addition, this blog now has a Twitter account. You can access it by clicking on the following button:
Follow Slippery_Trout on Twitter

Monday, April 11, 2011

Trout in Unexpected Places: Fly Fishing Northern Delaware

Northern Delaware is a diverse and pretty region. Indeed, it boasts some of the finest museums in the country, beautiful parkland, stately colonial homes, and the DuPont industrial complex. It is known for many other reasons, too, and people have been enjoying its wild scenes since the native Algonquians hunted along the Delaware Bay and the Dutch, Swedish, and English colonists settled the area in the early 17th century. And, somewhat surprisingly, it contains miles of trout-stocked waterways.

The cool waters and clay-bound shorelines of the White Clay Creek, Wilson Run, Pike Creek, Mill Creek, Christiana Creek, and Beaver Run receive annual stocking regimens, and the season takes off in the month of April. Because these streams become quite warm in the summertime, the state only provides trout in the early spring, and it actively encourages participants to keep their catch. In addition, the state is not shy about stocking big fish, and many large rainbow, brown, and golden rainbow trout patrol the deep pockets of the aforementioned rivers.

Over the last few weeks, I've been driving south down Pennsylvania's New London Road (PA Route 896), turning left onto Chambers Rock Road, and parking along the banks of the pretty White Clay. The Pennsylvania-Delaware borderline is not far upstream from this spot, and it cuts somewhat perpendicularly across the creek. This geographical quirk is known as the Twelve-Mile Circle, a demarcation that takes New Castle as its center and extends outward 12 miles in all directions. Because of the difficulty of surveying this type of border, Delaware has had disputes with a number of states throughout history, including Pennsylvania (over an area known as the Wedge, where the Twelve-Mile Circle and Mason-Dixon Line overlap), New Jersey (a small part of the New Jerseyean peninsula is technically Delawarian land, and the two states have argued in court over this issue as recently as the late 2000s), and Maryland (where the Arc Line and North Line of the Mason-Dixon Line are not congruent). Because of these strange delimitations, the state border on the White Clay Creek is not confined to the shoreline, nor is it drawn down the middle of the stream. Instead it arcs, ever so slightly, across the river. Enterprising anglers can thus cast their fly lines over a state border (if you are a history/geography obsessed person like myself, you'll appreciate the novelty of this undertaking).

During my fly fishing expeditions, I've found that muddler minnow streamers and stonefly nymphs produce in many of these Delaware streams. For fishermen that prefer lures and spinning tackle, I'd suggest Rapalas fished deep down in the current. Always remember to fish underneath any clay cliffs and sycamore root systems you might see.

Although Delaware is not necessarily synonymous with excellent trout fly fishing (shad and saltwater options are other stories for other days), it nevertheless offers some pleasurable and eye-catching trout opportunities. If you live in Newark, Wilmington, or any other spot near New Castle County, I strongly encourage you to give the nearby rivers a try.

Image #1: The White Clay Creek near the Delaware-Pennsylvania border.
Image #2: The White Clay Creek south of Chambers Rock Rd.
Image #3: A field of lesser celandine in bloom at the White Clay Creek in Delaware.