Keeping Close to the Stream

Since the publisher for my book called River’s Edge is working on a reprint edition, I was looking at the book again and almost randomly opened to the chapter called “Fishing the Runs.” There the subject matter seemed appropo for my recent jaunts to Cedar Run, so I thought to quote a paragraph from the first page…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“I’m reminded that at one point in (Harry) Middleton’s On the Spine of Time the reader finds a campfire setting with a character named Mulligan. Stars are shining brightly on the scene as Mulligan, a Brooklynite who’s found the joys of fly fishing and who’s unwittingly adopted a philosophy surrounding that activity, listens to an inquiry:

Which way’s heaven, you suppose, Mulligan? Autumn leaves rustle at the edges of a campfire light as Mulligan responds:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFollow the trail and keep close to the stream…”

I’ve been busy at work for the last week or so, but I still attempted, in my own feeble way, to “follow the trail and keep close to the stream.” I did it in the typical Franklin manner– visiting the river and a couple of streams as time allows…

1  Genesee River/ stocked trout: I’d been hoping to find the Slate Drake hatching out beneath the evening sky. I found this wonderful mayfly. I had seen a large brown trout on my previous visit and I wanted another shot at fooling him. As luck would have it, the big fish rose to the Slate Drake pattern on my second cast. I hooked him… but I didn’t OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhold. I blamed the tricky currents that required constant mending of the line, but the currents blamed me right back. They said, “You didn’t set the hook in time.” Okay, so my hold on the massive trout was weak. With a couple of powerful runs, that hatchery trout just spit the fly in my direction.

Although my hope for the evening was deflated, I couldn’t complain. Other trout were slashing at flies that hatched from the riffles. I caught a bunch, including one about 16 inches long. The river had a place for stocked trout. It was compromised by summer heat and other limitations, but it also had OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAa scattering of springs and deeper holes where trout might carry through the seasons. Wild fish were restricted to its tributaries. At a time like this, it was fun to cast for hatchery trout and not feel guilty.


2 Cedar Run/ wild trout: Now I was getting somewhere. To Cedar Run again, if only for an hour following an entomology and fly-fishing program given to the Slate Run Sportsmen by the Pennsylvania angler, Dave Rothrock. If a fly-fisher ever needs to be humbled at the game, he or she ought to sit in on a Rothrock show of great photography and fly-fishing tips.

Leighanne dropped me off midway at the stream for an hour of casting in the showeryOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA woods. There’s no need for stocked fish on a beautiful stream like Cedar. The browns and brookies reproduce in wild abandon. The pristine pools and riffles offered a few Blue-winged Olives and Slate Drakes for the viewing, but a small Elkhair Caddis (#18) was my ticket to the great beyond inhabited by (mostly) browns.

3 Upper Pine/ native trout: This was it, the apex of my angling week. Perhaps the stream, a high country feeder, is the kind of place that Mulligan, the fisherman/philosopher in Middleton’s book, enjoyed while in the Smokies and by which he saw the lights of heaven.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAActually the stream was still summer slow, giving up just a few native brooks, but autumn was arriving with its promise. I could see it in the witch-hazel blooms, in the tinge of browning leaves, and I could feel it in the air.

I enjoyed fishing this stream with my four-piece fly rod, a seven-footer for a four-weight line. The “Superfine” almost seemed to shoot the weight-forward line by itself, without an effort from my wrist.

In another week or two, the brook trout would be deepening their colors, preparing for the spawn. I’d be back at this stream or another one like it, with an artificial fly and barbless hook. Such waters should be cherished.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


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Two-Headed Summer

It seemed as if summer had two heads. The season, morphing into autumn, was like Janus, the two-headed Roman god of transition. Janus came to mind among the rivertops because the summer seemed to slowly shut its doors while opening new windows on the coming fall.

reflections on the stream of time

reflections on the stream of time


The current time looked forward to the new and backward on the old. Janus, most often linked with the start of January, walked with summer through the hills and hollows. He appeared oblivious to the threats of solar flares, magnetically charged eruptions that the media proclaimed could temporarily end GPS and radio and power transmissions as we knew it (omg!).

Let’s take a look at mid-September, from the two heads of a walking spirit, of a season quickly changing…

asters, "little stars," from the goddess Astrea

asters, “little stars,” from the goddess Astrea

catbird mewin' at the sight of fall...

catbird mewin’ at the sight of fall…

Alyssa at her birthday, now  returned to Scotland

Alyssa at her birthday, now returned to Scotland

one green heron looks to summer, one looks to the fall

one green heron looks to summer, one looks to the fall

to catch the Fly of Time

to catch the Fly of Time

a new fox den or, with large pawprints, perhaps coyote

a new fox den or, with large pawprints, perhaps coyote

white birch thru every season

white birch thru every season

a season down, another comin' round

a season down, another comin’ round

just colorful

just colorful

the late, sweet fruit of it

the late, sweet fruit of it

honeybee on goldenrod, "it's in there somewhere"

honeybee on goldenrod, “it’s in there somewhere”

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The Cedar Run Experience, Part 10

I ate a bunch of Chinese fortune cookies, looking for a bit of wisdom I could use on my OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA next fishing jaunt. The slip of paper with six “lucky numbers” might be useful– if I was a gamer who played the Lottery– but the most practical message simply said, “Happiness is activity.”

I carried the phrase, whatever it meant, to Cedar Run. The three words became my mantra whenever I questioned myself. The phrase became a theme for this latest entry to the Cedar Run Experience, my continuing attempt to fly-fish upstream from the mouth until I reached the source.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was a beautiful Sunday, and as far as I could tell, I had this wild run to myself. I reentered the gorge at Tumbling Run to find the short stretch still unvisited between there and the Mine Hole Pool.

I worked a Trico spinner but the trout weren’t rising. Switching to a Prince nymph, I finally caught a small brown but that was it for a while. At Long Branch, which I had visited before, I saw a little waterfall above the cliffs and thought, I should climb up there– the next time I come through.

I was hiking back to the car when I heard an inner voice, “What do you mean, you’reOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA gonna climb up there someday?”  The taunt. And then the three words of the fortune cookie…

I returned to the pool, dropped my rod and reel and sunshades at a fire-ring, crossed the run and started climbing… up the gulley, over rocks and under logs, ever careful of my footing, till I reached the small cascade and waterfall– the falls that would’ve haunted me for months had I succumbed to “non-activity.”

Twenty minutes later I spooked a large, dark-colored trout in a different pool of Cedar Run. This 20-inch brown trout shot for cover of an underwater ledge… And I thought that I had demons on my tail?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI waited a while then carefully stalked to a position above the ledge. I began drifting a weighted fly (Green Weenie) through the depths beside the ledge. It was a long shot for a trout that probably wouldn’t budge till nightfall, but I had to try it anyway, for “Happiness is activity.”

My demons weren’t the kind symbolized in a Bosch painting or sculpted as a gargoyle on a French cathedral. If anything, they came to me as disturbing news, the stuff we hear every day throughout the media.

In addition to the usual horrors such as murder, mayhem, and malaise, I heard a couple OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAof fresh items today… In a new book by Steven Hawkings, the author says that the Higgs boson, or “God particle,” could become unstable and cause the universe, the whole freakin’ breadbasket, to suddenly collapse… Whoa. I thought, if only all our problems could be solved so painlessly and quick!

More frightening was a new report by National Audubon Society, based on scientific studies. The Society has conservatively estimated that some 314 species of birds, or roughly half of all the birds in North America, are headed toward extinction, quickly, thanks to man-made CO2 production and global warming. What it means for cold-water species such as trout and salmon is equally grim.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASuch headlines are more than just alarming. They’re demonic. Like beheadings in the name of God. Are we ready to adapt to such a world, or are we too damned busy to care? That’s the kind of news that keeps me pushing on at Cedar Run, to learn more and to share what’s left of beauty, however miniscule the contribution.

I left the woods and entered an unusual stretch of water lined with willow trees. This stretch had always been productive for me– a narrow, rapid piece of pocket water, and the difference was like day and night. Small caddis were in the air. With a #18 dry, I quickly fooled a dozen browns and a brook trout where, just hours earlier, the trout had been fooling me.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This was a happy place where I could fish and shake off most of life’s calamities, other than the willow boughs that seemed to snag every third backcast.

Perhaps the willows shone because of holding structure and the nutrient-producing foliage. Perhaps the water temperature, warming to 59 degrees, had something to do with the blitz. Whatever the cause for good fishing, man and trout conspired to recall… the best darned fortune cookie I have ever opened.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA





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Starless and Oatka Dark

To night-fish on a river is like starting out life with nothing and realizing, when all is said and done, you’ve got most of nothing left.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

To night-fish on Oatka (O-at-ka) Creek, a tributary of the Genesee River in Monroe County, New York, can be a challenging prospect. As the writer Al Himmel has stated, Oatka fishing can be “a puzzle, a pleasure, and a headache,” and that’s just for the daylight hours.

There’s a lot of wild and stocked trout to be found in this nutrient-rich water (among the finest in New York) but public access is limited and takes some figuring out. The best fly-fishing water, from the mouth of famed Spring Brook down to Garbutt, recently drew my night-fishing efforts, thanks to a friend who knows this water like a capable guide.

Night-fishing isn’t for everyone. You’ve got to know your target area in the daytime. You should know its pools and riffles, rocks and boulders, log-jams and abutments like you know the lines on your face and hands. Then you’ll need a bit of courage to fish in total darkness when the air is warm and muggy. That’s the best time to encounter the uninhibited prowlings of the largest fish.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Oatka isn’t a stream I know very well, and I certainly wouldn’t night-fish there alone, but when Tim D. inquired if I was ready for another angling adventure, it didn’t take me long to say, “Okay, and it’s my turn to drive.”

You’ll need a head-lamp for this type of fishing, but ironically you won’t be using it much when you’re on the stream because any flash of light on the water will put down the fish you want to catch.

Approaching the Oatka we passed the home of Tim’s friend Bob Herson, of Caledonia. Herson is a fly-fishing guide and rod-builder whose big fish story was related in the book Mid-Atlantic Trout Streams and Their Hatches by Charles R. Meck. I recalled reading of this angler and ice-hockey goalie who, on 9/9/96, left a bad night on the ice to take out his frustrations on the stream. It was near midnight when his brown-hackled streamer hooked up with what initially seemed to be a log.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABob Herson eventually landed a 29-inch, 12-pound brown trout in total darkness. Authorities at the fish hatchery on Spring Brook, not far away, figured that the trout was 20 years-old and was streambred in the Oatka.

Tim and I approached the creek before nightfall with visions of hefty trout, the kind that Tim often wrestles with when he fishes in the dark.

As the sun went down beyond the woods where katydids and crickets rang the night’s promise, as mosquitoes kept things real by drilling unprotected skin, the fog began to rise from the cool 58-degree water. It was still light enough to see several rise-forms on the placid pool. Casting a tiny Gnat on 5X tippet, I caught the first brown trout of the evening.

We weren’t night-fishing yet. That would start after a retreat to another site a few miles distant. There we parked the car and assembled our gear in the glow of head-lamps.DSCN5162

I had strung-up a 3X leader, but Tim handed me a 1X taper, feeling that a 12-pound test would better balance the big flies we would be casting. With all my years of fly-fishing, I was still a student at this night-fishing game.

With a dim orange reflection from an out-lying street lamp, I was in the water casting to the riffles and a large pool formed by a bridge abutment. Tim went downstream and disappeared from view. For a couple of hours I went through the idiot motions– across and down, pulling slowly at the massive streamer, feeling an occasional jolt from a striking fish…

While standing in darkness as a large bird passes over, it can seem like a Pteranodon has checked you out. You can’t see a damned thing going on, so the mind plays tricks in order to fill the void. You might see the history of fly-fishing unfold, as if on a screen, to leave you with this crazy present moment. And the future might appear as well, with all its frightening or hopeful prospects.

DSCN5170You might hear the poetry of Dylan Thomas or the intricate music of King Crimson.  Anything might appear– to mitigate the bible-black night.

When the midnight hour came, all I really had for my effort were these bone-shaking, unproductive jolts to the fly rod and my aging bones. On a couple of occasions, though, I heard Tim’s fly reel working frenetically out of some place, and I knew he had another heavy fish.

“Hey Walt, can you see this fish from there?” I could barely see my friend’s silhouette, let alone the fish in his net. But description was enough.

The kyped jaw and the heft can come to an angler who’s well-practiced in the dark.DSCN5023OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA



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Ridgerunner (Wiscoy Creek)

Wiscoy Creek, in Wyoming County, western New York, is one of my favorite trout streams in the state, even though it’s well north of my favored hill country. There’s a lot of public water to be fished on this 20-mile stream before it enters the Genesee River, and I used to fish it regularly, but somehow I got distracted.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was good to get back on a recent morning. I had known about the wind turbines set up near the stream at Bliss, New York, but they weren’t in operation the last time I visited, which was more than several years ago.

I felt apologetic for my lack of attention… I’m a ridgerunner, I suppose, preferring to fish the mountainous terrain of northern Pennsylvania over the flatlands of western New York… not that the Wiscoy is a slow-moving stream of level country.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn fact, the name Wiscoy is derived from a Native American term that means “five waterfalls,” a reference to this stream’s descent to the Genesee River valley. Nonetheless, the lay-out of the Wiscoy country, compared to the topography south and east of my home, is relatively tame and uniform.

The Wiscoy is a wild gem flowing through farm terrain. The Department of Environmental Conservation has four or five parking lots established for anglers along the stream, and footpaths to the more remote stretches are often indicated by signs posted at the road. Perhaps the finest feature of this water is the trout.

Forget about stocked fish. These are wild trout, mostly browns, some brook, and they are numerous, tending to stay on the smaller side of beauty.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So the ridgerunner parked his car, glanced at the turbines and the roadside ragweed (ugh!), and assembled his gear… an old 7-foot Phillipson, an even older Hardy winch (Uniqua), a 4-weight line, a tapered leader, and a number 20 Trico spinner… Perfect for the tight aquatic alley leading through the tunnel of alders at the stream.

I thought of myself as a ridgerunner, but I needed an element of authenticity. No, I couldn’t be the guy who wandered off to Hank and Hettie Mae in the hollow asking for a quart of ‘shine, a little something to share with whomever I met on the stream practicing good fly-fishing habits.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI thought of James Glimm and his book Flatlanders and Ridgerunners, a collection of folktales from the mountains of northern Pennsylvania close to home. I thought of two short tales the author collected about the trout of Pine Creek. With a little imagination, those trout could be like the fish in Wiscoy Creek…

Two friends walked along the creek and one guy said to the other: “Yesterday I caught a trout that measured three feet long.” His friend replied, “Yeah, well, yesterday I saw a lantern at the bottom of a pool, and it was lit.” The first guy said, “You expect me to believe that shit?” His friend hesitated a moment and then continued, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll blow out that lantern if you’ll take a couple feet off that trout.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe second tale concerns a fisherman who sat on the creek bank and observed two large brown trout swimming around in the hole. The fish were angry as hell, biting each other in the anal parts until they separated to opposite ends of the pool. Each of the big 20-inchers turned and faced the other. Their mouths opened wide. They charged ferociously… The fisherman looked on in disbelief… The trout had swallowed each other and completely disappeared!

The Glimm book, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1983, is a treasure.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Wiscoy’s catch-and-release section, near the headwaters at Bliss, has always struck me as unusual for a special regs water. This recovering farmland, with its narrow stream of pools and riffles, has a jungle-like appearance in the lush days of summer. Wading it for trout can be a challenge.

I stumbled through the alders, paused at each new pool and watched for rises, and noted a transition in the feeding pattern when Tricos faded and Ants became the entree of the morning.

DSCN5156An attractive brook trout and a smattering of browns came to hand before the heat of day began to quiet the cold, clean water. With autumn making its approach, the fishing would begin to pick up soon, but for now I had the satisfaction of visiting (again) a special trout stream in New York.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Jim Nelson trout decoy

Jim Nelson trout decoy


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Of Science, Poetry, and Adventure

The Pond

Picking blackberries on my walk uphill, I came to the secret pond, the kind that everyone should have and never talk about– except as poetry. I loaded the short fly rod with a line, a leader, and an artificial fly. The fly, a poor imitation of what could have been the first pattern tied for trout (by Greeks in the days of Roman emperors) seemed to cross the ocean as it headed toward the reeds.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Surrounded by woods at my secret pond, I felt like a mongrel of an angler… Partly pragmatic, partly poetic, and partly … nuts! Like anyone off the track and traveling. Excited, but for what– a possible sunfish, maybe a bass? Like any mixed-up soul who’s got an eye for science and a nose for nature’s mystery.

I caught a red-eared sunfish, that was it. Perhaps no one else was home. That sunfish must have sensed adventure– pulled in like a visitor from an asteroid in Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince.”  Frozen for a moment, cradled in my hand. And there it went– still inside its body– with a word of warning for the bream among the reeds.


Normally I fish the streams and rivers but I took a fly rod to the lake. The reservoir is unusual for the state– cold and deep, with trout and other species. I don’t like the fact that a dam has compromised a valley and a wonderful stream for trout, but the reservoir is aged, and trout can be caught from shore.

I could have used some practical advice on how to fish this lake, or perhaps prepared myself to give some practical advice to others planning a visit, but it was quiet here. The trout had gone to the depths. A Woolly Bugger cast 50 feet from the woods picked up a bass and a sunnie or two.

Preparing to leave, I put away the flies. A splash came from the surface near the dam. A second splash had me digging for a popper with rubber legs. Science and poetry matedDSCN5127 like dragonflies above the lake, and sunfish slammed the popper.

The Ocean 

It all ends here, eventually, where everything begins. The place where our breathing goes. In water that was here before. In water that stays long after.DSCN5122DSCN5116DSCN5096DSCN5085DSCN5108

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When the Swallows Fly

Around here, it happens every August 27th, give or take a day. The barn swallows leave the site where they have been “our birds” since the end of April. On a late summer

RSCN4564morning, the air above the old barn resonates with difference. It’s no longer stitched together by the zigzag flight of swallows, the graceful birds that nested on the beams and chittered through the sky. They’re gone– again, migration to South America is calling.

This year I refuse to be saddened by the birds’ departure. Summer is ending; yeah I’ve got to slowly change my clothes, toss aside the trout bum rags and poet’s threads. I’ve got to find the new shirts of a working stiff, but I don’t care… Not much.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ll procrastinate on those odd jobs that the season still requires doing. I’ll practice the art of “turning back the clock,” despite the probability of failure. I will stay alive, awake to the moment, even if my head is turned around and screwed down loosely.

I’ll start today. I’ll go to the river when the sun grows cool. I’ll cast the wet-fly leader and experiment with three flies simultaneously, the way the old-timers used to fish when they were serious about finding dinner. Cahill for a point fly, Pheasant-tail for mid, a Black Ant for the hand… Why not. I’m an old-timer, too, but fish go back to the water.

When the swallows fly, I’ll write a poem and think of Robert Frost. The space the DSCN5051swallows leave will be like paper– blank and silent, with a set of artificial flies, perhaps, cast forward to a riffle.

Frost said, poetry creates a “stay against confusion.” I could use a stay like that (my wife, the therapist, would tell you). Yeah, I’ll write a poem and build it word by word, like stone on stone. I’ll hold off the mean world with a wall that’s built around my place.

When I’m at the river, why not fish with dries? The trout will probably rise to an Ant, a Sulphur, or a Drake. Why not cast what’s customary for late summer? Why go against the current with those wets?

DSCN5056The swallows have flown. It’s Cahill for the point, a Pheasant-tail at mid, a Black Ant for the hand…

Maybe it’s a “momentary lapse of reason,” as the title of a Pink Floyd/David Gilmour album comes to mind… Forget about the poem I’ll write! Forget about my little stay. Let it all collapse and turn away! Let my thoughts fly with the swallows that are gone…

But no.

I’ll fish with those wets; I’ll give ‘em a try, even if the trout prefer to smack the surface for a Sulphur or a Drake. (Sure, I’ll go back to dries if the wet flies are ignored; I’m not a masochist, really).

I could use a stay against the summer’s ending.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADSCN5075DSCN5058





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