Squonk Season

It’s Squonk season in northern Pennsylvania, in the great forests near Cedar Run where I’ve been fishing of late. The Squonk was first discovered in the hemlock woods of the region in the late 1800s when exhausted lumberjacks would sit around the fire on cold winter nights, drinking what ever made them feel good, and then conjuring the likes of a Squonk for their own pleasure.

It’s Squonk season in the northwoods where this shape-shifter is known to have various forms and personalities, from monstrous and pathetic to silly or downright frightening.

The Squonk has certain character traits no matter what it looks like. It’s said to be

a dam builder at the "pool of tears"

a dam builder at the “pool of tears”

secretive and shy, so ugly that it often weeps endlessly about its own appearance. It’s been known to resemble a small bird with a long bill. It’s been depicted as a clumsy warthog* with blemished skin, and Squonk devotees describe it as an insecure spirit, a loser, if you will, ashamed to show its ugly face and to snivel through the long nights of fall and winter. *[Listen to folk hero Michael Hurley’s “Hog of the Forsaken,” below– He is the pork of crime].

There’s a hunting season for it in the woods of Pennsylvania running from October 1st to the start of the firearms season for deer and bear. A hunter is allowed one Squonk per year, and the creature must be tagged and reported to the state game commission.

a white-tailed squonk... see the horns?

a white-tailed squonk… see the horns?

I have never hunted for Lacrimcorpus dissolvens, but according to reports I’ve read, the Squonk, in any of its hideous or ridiculous forms, is an easy prey for hunters. One brochure issued by the game commission states that, for success, a hunter simply has to follow a tear-stained trail along a stream or through the forest.

Apparently the greatest challenge for a hunter is to bag the creature before it’s cornered and the tears start to flow… A failure to do so may result in the Squonk’s dissolution in a pool of tears.

J.P. Wentling, an early 20th-century lumberman, captured a live Squonk at Cedar Run and stuffed it in a bag. Hiking toward his camp near Leetonia, Wentling felt the bag go suddenly weightless. Untying the rope that enclosed the bag, he peeked inside… Imagine his shock, discovering that the Squonk had dissolved into briny fluid.

Before I divulge my recent experience with this thing, I should mention its renown beyond the boundaries of the former lumber camps…

I never trusted Squonks...

I never trusted Squonks…

The Squonk first appeared in print with Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods… (1910), by William T. Cox. The great contemporary novelist, Jorge Luis Borges, featured the Squonk in his Book of Imaginary Beings (1969?). The rock band, Steely Dan, included a Squonk reference in one of its songs, and the band Genesis actually sang about the creature in “Squonk,” an album cut appearing in 1976.

The Squonk really gets around, like the feeling of a nation that collectively sighs and bellows the morning after Election Day. Like, “What the #@%! did we just do?”

I encountered the Squonk on a cold October morning along Cedar Run, in a moment when (naturally enough) I least expected it… I was casting, wading gingerly through a riffle, when I heard a sobbing noise that I first mistook for the babbling of water over stone.

I saw a fat gray bird, the size of a chicken, stumble into the streamside grasses, crying uncontrollably and disappearing from view.

a video of this undulating image is convincing, but I couldn't load it

a video of this undulating image is convincing, but I couldn’t load it

Curious as hell, I approached the point of disappearance. Before I got there, however, the crying stopped, and a long brown serpent appeared on the surface of the run.

When I say “long,” I mean 20 to 25 feet in length. The huge snake slithered toward me with a tail-first, serpentine motion that took me a couple of seconds to recognize as one of the best hallucinations I have had in years.

What had likely been my first genuine sighting of a Squonk was now a long vine tethered to the alders. The Squonk had done more than simply dissolve into a pool of tears. It had morphed into a great rope of tightly bound leaves and grasses swaying like an anaconda

a squonk, u say?

a squonk, u say?

on a tropical stream.

I don’t know why it would do such a thing. Did it think that I would shoot it? All I carried was an innocent bamboo rod.

The damned vine danced away as I resumed my fishing, but it would always be a link to the whiskey minds and to the long cold evenings in a lumber camp of long ago.

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The Weekend/ 5 Classical Elements

Earth: It all started Friday night as I drove home from my mother’s house. A fisher DSCN5513 crossed the bottom of the gravel road– a dark super-cat-sized animal with a long bushy tail, a creature I’ve long suspected of living in the area (as long-time readers of this blog may recall) but for which there’d been no hard evidence till now. Ah, the wild fisher of the rivertops– at last.

The next morning was the opener for the state gunning season for deer. My neighbors had called, once again, to ask permission to hunt the acreage behind my house. Since the deer are overcrowded on this property, I again granted permission to hunt.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI heard a singular rifle shot in the crisp air. Eventually, Conrad showed up on my porch and asked for help in hoisting the gutted buck to his pickup.

“I just turned around in your pines and saw him there, lookin’ at me. The sun was shining right behind him and I couldn’t say no.” He’d put a .270 bullet through the neck and assured himself of a freezer full of venison. “Like a gift,” I said, and he agreed.

Air: On Saturday afternoon I was returning from a cold outing on the upper Allegheny. The clear sky of morning had long clouded over and become a steel-grey shaker of snow. I slowed down near the aging fields and streamside with its white pine housing the massive nest. There they were again– a pair of snowy-headed eagles perched in the nest-tree where another brood had been raised with apparent success this year.DSCN5517

Would they stay for another winter season as the streams and marshes froze solid? God knows there would be enough roadkill to sustain them but, in any case, the bald eagles seemed to carry my thoughts skyward through the snow and clouds and the sun beyond a coming season.

Fire: We learned that the Eagle Crest Winery, near Conesus, New York and overlooking the pristine waters of Hemlock Lake had created several new labels for their red and white and blush wines called “No Frackin’ Way.” A percentage of sales from these new labels goes toward fighting the establishment of gas storage caverns and the hydro-fracking industry in the Finger Lakes district and the state of New York. Learning this, we made our first visit to the winery, one of 112 such businesses in the Finger Lakes region.

DSCN5515 - CopyIt was Sunday afternoon and we felt the fire element in the dry and sweeter wines, a masculine energy perhaps, a guy thing possibly, although my wife enjoyed the wines even more than I.

An icon for the winery is the bald eagle. In 1965 the one active eagle nest left in New York State was situated on the west shore of Hemlock Lake just downhill from the winery. Studied by Thomas Rauber and then supported by numerous environmental folk in the days just after DDT was outlawed in this country, these eagles survived and were supplemented by others until, today, close to 175 active bald eagle nests can be found throughout the state. That, my friends, is fire….

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWater: In the classical sense, water is the great purifier, and on Saturday the upper Allegheny River seemed to play the role perfectly for me, healing the fiery mix of elements in my head and body as I fought off the cold weather and the sporadic collection of ice in the rod guides of the small bamboo.

I had just released a colorful 16-inch rainbow trout and was approaching a fairly deep riffle overhung with autumn grasses. The spot looked “fishy,” to say the least, and on the first drift of the fly beneath those grasses the line tightened. A wild brown handed me a surprising tussle in the cold, shallow waters of this rivertop and I slowly guided the fish to a pull-out for a quick photo opportunity. The trout had enflamed my expectations and the sense of satisfaction that ensued. Like the earlier fish, the brown measured a full 16 inches in length.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The 5th Element: Many of the various cultures of antiquity have described a mysterious fifth element of basic nature and experience. It’s commonly referred to as “aether,” an unchangeable heavenly substance different from the basic four elements, probably something that transcends the power of description. I’ll call it a high that’s produced when someone encounters the mystery of experience in wild nature.

That works for me and hopefully it makes some sense to you. It’s like catching an excellent trout in the headwaters, or like lifting from a pine bough on powerful wings, or drinking wine on a winter hill above a beautiful lake.DSCN5519DSCN5512OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADSCN5509

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The Upper Canyon (Experience 17)

The mid-November sun was golden, low, and mellow with the news that winter hastened its approach. If I was to walk the upper canyon comfortably this fall, if I wanted to extend the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdistance that I’ve fished the stream this year, I had to do it then.

It was Veterans Day, a time in which we duly recognize our veterans of foreign wars. It was time to cherish our freedoms– if we understood what freedom is, or what it means.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was a day in which I saw a lot of trucks on the road to my destination in the big state forests of northern PA. The trucks hauled water or fracking fluids and supported the gas boom. They supported the use of fossil fuels and the consequent break-down of the natural world and its climate and inhabitants.

I depended on that energy still, and saw how freedom, in the larger sense, is a joke.

Sure, we try to minimize our dependence and support alternative energies.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was a 40-minute walk down to the gray birch on the east bank where I left off on a visit earlier this season. Finally I was ready to fish. I tied on an artificial nymph and began to work the foot of the Canyon Pool. The water temperature was a chilly 41 degrees. The wild trout lying off the current showed no interest in the offering.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the shadows of the run below Dam Hollow I began to think that no one ever fishes here but then… What was this? A piece of leader looped around a high branch. A Woolly Bugger stranded over a deep hole, the barb pinched down respectably, the hook gone to rust from the passage of time.

I reached a second big pool en route to my starting point early in the day. There was a cliff with dripping water and drooping hemlocks shading the long rocky pool… I called it the Upper Canyon Pool, and layed out the tandem flies, a dry caddis and a Pheasant-Tail.

It was too cold to expect good dry-fly action, but the caddis served to guide the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfisherman’s eye. Already several native trout had seized the nymph and come to hand. A minute passed, and a brown trout darted from its shelter and struck.

A pileated woodpecker chortled from the forest just beyond. The blue sky shone in patches. Time was fleeting; time was nowhere but in mind. The great ridges here would shield the pools and riffles from the winter, for a while.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy thoughts moved upstream, toward the future…

When the last fly is removed from a lip, when the last fish swims away from an angler’s hand, and when the hunters, too, depart, the stream will be winter quiet. Although predators and heavy ice may loom above the scene once more, our awkward presence will be gone for months.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA balance might be seen between the mountains and the valleys. Concepts such as freedom and energy use will be seen as if from millennia to come. We may never be forgiven for our errors. All of our good deeds may be little more than soft reflections of the autumn sun, and that’s okay.

Nature is complicated and beautiful and wonderfully indifferent. It will always have its own way.


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The Cedar Run Experience, Part 16

In Which the Streamwalker Takes a One-Mile, 5-Step Approach Toward the Sources of the Run on Cedar Mountain…

Step 1.  First things first… When my son came up to visit home, we traveled to the Southern Tier Brewery in Jamestown, New York where Brent, Catherine, Leighanne, and I were joined by long-time Rivertop Rambles and Bridging the Gap supporter Bob Stanton for a first-time tour and excellent get-together.DSCN5507

What does this have to do with exploring Cedar Run? Not much, other than to say that Southern Tier has become my official Blog Beer and, who knows, may be pictured here more frequently in the future.

I should also give an appreciative nod to Pennsylvania’s Straub Beer, a company that strongly supports the stocking of German brown trout in the waters of Pine Creek down below the mouths of Slate and Cedar runs.

Although no beers were consumed during this approach to the source, the flavorful clouds of “Southern Tier” were brewing in my direction…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStep 2. The sun was slow to arrive in the mountain valley near Leetonia. To pick up my thread of the Cedar Run fly-fishing walk toward the source of the stream, I needed to start at the lower bridge at the camps and head toward Buck Run (where the special regs fishing begins).

That’s where I met Cut-Out Katie standing sportingly by the road. She asked me how things were going and, sure, I could take a picture of her if I wanted. Dressed the way she was, I had to ask if she wasn’t freezing in the 30-degree weather. Later, when my wife saw the photo that I took, she was fooled temporarily when I said I got invited in for beverages!

The low, clear waters of the stream soon deepened into a long, quiet pool with large OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERArocks for trout support. A group of brown trout in the depths amazed me, but none were interested in my imitations. They were “educated browns,” no doubt survivors of repeated camp outings, and several of these trout were close to 18 inches long.

Step 3. At my vehicle again, I exchanged a 6-foot Fenwick glass rod for a 7-foot cane and proceeded upstream. I was in for a difficult stretch of tight water, alternately wide and shallow, brushy and narrow. When I finally passed a stretch of old hunting camps along the road, the sun had warmed the stream a little, and the fishing improved. The run had more undercuts and longer pools, and best of all, the wild browns and native trout began rising to the surface for flies.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom my unsuccessful use of beadhead nymphs, I made improvements with light-colored soft hackles and then a dry Ant. Here the brooks outnumbered the browns about three to one, but both species were a pleasure in the warming afternoon.

Step 4. I made my way to the Buck Run Pool where “Trophy Trout” regulations begin and extend to the mouth at Pine Creek. A large culvert, high and inappropriate for fish passage, dropped the waters of Buck Run into my awareness and called a close to my fishing for the day. I climbed out to the road, ate a sandwich and took a drink, and hiked back to the car.

Step 5. I had time to think about this Cedar Run project, and where I was headed… The OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGerman poet Goethe once said, “How I yearn to throw myself into endless space and float above the awful abyss…” I understood the sentiment, although the only abyss I currently saw belonged to social mediocrity and commercial nonsense out of which I would gladly fly on any occasion, especially with the help of fly-fishing.

Ultimately I was fishing toward the open sky above the mountain; I was fishing toward freedom; i.e., completion of a project that had captivated me from the start.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs my son said (in response to “The Cedar Run Experience 14/15,” on 10/23/14), the roots of a river or stream, unlike the roots of a flower or a tree, are “as high as one can climb.” And that seemed to be my goal in walking toward the source of the run.

Up there in the open sky, above the mountain, were the multiple sources of this beautiful little stream. Maybe I could get there, if not with the man-made wings of a mythic Daedalus, taking care not to fly too close to the melting powers of the sun, or too close to strafe the treetops of the forest, then perhaps with the use of careful footing and the comfort of a little fly rod.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’d try to dig at those roots this autumn, weather permitting, or arrive there early next spring. Avoiding a downfall, hopefully, I might even taste those hop-flavored clouds that now hung tantalizingly above this venture.

I looked forward to toasting that arrival with everyone who loves a place like Cedar Run, and the wildness of it all.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


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Big Trout, Good Marriage

I know what you’re thinking– trout and marriage do not/cannot mix. Adding a trout fanatic to a “normal person” in a marriage plan is like tossing gasoline into fire. But wait. Let’s talk about the marriage of extremes, or of polar opposite conditions, and how they sometimes intermix quite happily.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Two of my favorite cities in America are Sante Fe, New Mexico and Ithaca, New York. They are small urban centers, very different from each other, that possess an amazing cultural and natural diversity, and they seem to come together in my addled brain as one. For now, though, let’s take a look at Ithaca, which I’m more familar with than Santa Fe.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis small city is located in central New York on the southern shore of Cayuga Lake. It’s named for the classic Greek island of Ithaca, and it houses both Cornell University and Ithaca College. Its earliest known inhabitants were Iroquois peoples, and today this city of gorges, waterfalls and renowned beauty leans toward liberalism and the Democratic Party. So far so good…

But then I came along to stir things up and to fly-fish in the city. I caught almost OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAnothing, other than a 27-inch brown… And actually, I didn’t catch that trout. I was only walking upstream toward Ithaca Falls when I saw an angler battling a large fish along the bank. When the fellow asked for help in landing the trout, I quickly responded.

He led the brown trout, obviously a spawner that had swum up from the depths of Cayuga Lake, toward me in the middle of the stream where I scooped it into my net, took a photo of the fish, and then removed the angler’s Egg-Sac from the jaw. Well pleased with the catch, we set the hefty brown trout back into the creek and watched it swim away.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHelping out the angler was the best that I could do that day, and I was fine with that, although admittedly, I’d have been more jazzed with a similar work-out from a large brown trout or a landlocked salmon, both of which are found in the autumnal city limits if enough rain has encouraged a run from the lake.

The water was low and the fishing pressure fairly intense below the waterfall. The weather was rainy, windy, cold, and miserable– great for fishing, if only the creek had a stronger flow.

I had come close to being more fortunate than I was. I’d been in the stream only minutes OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthat Saturday when I hooked a large trout or landlocked that took me for a walk until the streamer came flying back alone. The fish may or may not have been fair-hooked. In any case, later on, when I was closer to the falls, I was releasing a small rainbow trout when I turned my attention to the cliffs in back of me.

I saw a wedding party on the rocks. I watched the bride move around in her white gown (with no jacket or protective shawl) and who must have been freezing out there in the 38 degree mist, among a couple dozen other folks– mostly gray-suited fellows and a handful of adoring female attendees.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat’s when it hit me– only here would I see such a sudden blending of opposing elements, like some harmonious convergence on the earthly plane. Wham! A marriage of man and woman, city and country, gorge and avenue, stream and lake, fish and no fish, helplessness and helpfulness, hiss and roar, summer and winter, fisherman and jogger, trout and matrimony, frozen foot and blood-red heart.

Stuff like this used to happen to me in places like San Francisco or Athens, Greece, butOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA seldom in upstate New York. The young folks were getting married and an old guy in leaky waders was trying to catch a fish in the cold. Most of the fish were probably staging in the lake below, waiting for the flush of heavy rains to bring about the marriage of present time and future possibilities…

And for a moment or two, it all made sense in Ithaca.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


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Messing About in Boats

My friend Tim D. and I decided to fish the southern end of Keuka Lake in boats… In little boats… On the broad Finger Lake closest to our homes. We got there before daybreak on a Sunday morning with intent to catch a large brown trout or a landlocked salmon in the tranquil waters of this popular lake.

I fumbled with my gear in the cold and darkness and prepared to fit myself in a life-preserver, not to mention the over-sized fins that would attach to my wading shoes. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPreparing to enter Tim’s one-man pontoon boat, I took high, backward steps into the vessel, feeling like an overstuffed bear entering a beehive in reverse.

That’s to say, I’m not a lake fisherman, and have limited experience with trout fishing on lakes and ponds. That’s to say, I have limited experience with boats of any kind, but I was thankful to Tim for a new casting opportunity. When Tim inserted himself as snugly as possible into his float tube, we were ready to sail.

Oh sure, a guy my age has had some experience with boats– before I was old enough for school, I took a trans-Atlantic voyage on the largest ocean-liner of the time, and later I was on a tin can in the middle of the Aegean Sea in a major windstorm that I thought would send me to an early grave among the octopi. And I’ve steered around in leaky canoes, but I was never before in a situation like this.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKeuka Lake has 58.4 miles of shoreline nestled in the grape-producing hills of central New York. Its cold, clear waters have a mean depth of 101 feet. Its fishery is almost legendary, and on at least a couple of occasions it has produced a state record brown trout of some 23 pounds in weight. Having lived nearby for several decades, I should know it better than I do, but I’m mainly a stream fisherman, and not much for motorized fishing vessels, which is what I assumed you needed here.

I can thank Tim for straightening me out on that score. In fact, the little pontoon boat, easily piggybacked on a small car for transportation purposes, was so relaxing (like drifting in an old recliner, when I didn’t have to paddle) that I might even consider getting one for exploration of the last two wild lakes in the Finger Lake system, Canadice and Hemlock.

Later I would think of my favorite young person’s story, The Wind in the Willows, by the Scotsman, Kenneth Grahame… Pushing from the boat launch in Hammondsport, Tim OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand I were akin to the characters Mole and Water Rat. Early in the story, Mole said, “I’ve never been in a boat before in all my life.”

Rat replied, “Well I– what have you been doing, then?… Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing– absolutely nothing– half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Basically at that point, we were the only humans up and around the big lake early on this autumn morning. Even the duck hunters were still scraping their dishes and brushing their teeth in distant bathrooms.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe were casting streamers with the use of powerful fly rods. We drifted and paddled eastward to the calm water off Keuka Lake Inlet (Cold Brook). It took me a while to get the hang of casting from an easy chair, then paddling to keep ahead of the rising chop produced by a strengthening breeze.

The lights of dawn over the eastern hills were beautiful and ever-changing.

Chapter 7 in The Wind in the Willows is a masterful creation called “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” the title of which was adopted by the band Pink Floyd for their first record album (1967). I would think of the chapter title as I paddled and drifted toward the eastern lights…

“Then a change began slowly to declare itself. The horizon became clearer, field and tree came more into sight, and somehow with a different look; the mystery began to drop away from them. A bird piped suddenly, and was still; and a light breeze sprang up and set the reeds and bulrushes rustling…” And so, Mole and Rat were about to meet the piper demi-god (Pan) while on their quest for a missing young otter.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The change occurred over the eastern hills and the cottages with their glowing lamps. Tim caught the first and only fish of the morning– a large pickerel that at first seemed to be a salmon. Oddly enough, great carp were still rolling on the surface of the weed beds. The breeze built itself into a wind. A pair of tundra swans flew by us toward the marshes of Cold Brook where the coots were paddling around in small flocks.

Eventually we retreated from the tight-lipped haunts of Keuka Lake to the cold and windy banks of the Conhocton River where each of us would catch a nice trout. It was the earlier messing about in boats, however, that clearly defined our day.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


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I Fished With a Zombie

[Seasonal fun, with apologies to Roky Erickson who, apparently, walked with a Zombie, probably last night… a simple tune, but convincing. Catch it here, below…]

i walked with the pine trees

i walked with the pine trees


DSCN5463I fished with a Zombie…

I fished with a Zombie…

I fished with a Zombie, last night.

I hooked and pulled a dead fish…

pumpkin flower

pumpkin flower

I hooked and pulled a dead fish…

In the river of the dead fish, last night.

Maribou black-and-white tail…

Ghost-white dubbing and dark hackle…

the Zombie Bugger

the Zombie Bugger

Salmon egg-head, Halloween–

Yeah, I fished with a Zombie…

I fished with a Zombie, last night.

the salmon didn't want to die

the salmon didn’t want to die

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