A late spring day along Cedar Run presented the old familiar challenge– lucky to catch and release a single trout in tough conditions. There was beauty, though, reflected from each small waterfall, each pool and riffle, from the deep green foliage of the rugged slopes– and for that we could be grateful.
Bob and I passed the mountain camp called “Whippoorwill,” and we discussed the various dynamics of the goatsucker species and its current rarity in places such as western New York. We settled on the Pine Creek flats where tributaries cooled the water and allowed continued brown trout fishing till the summer heat eventually shuts it down.
Cruising fish ignored our self-tied artificials through the late afternoon. Only the approach of darkness (and the residues of hotel food and drink) could smooth the edges of frustration. Vanishing light was like a poem that’s listened to– its music more than just a literary ornament.
The night simply opened with the rhythmic calling of a whip-poor-will at dusk along the Pine. It opened with the spread wings of a luna moth floating through the headlights on the homeward drive. Like the best of poetry, it spoke with a minimum of words but resonated through a distant range of wonder.
[The following photos, taken experimentally with a new Nikon camera, are from various locations visited this past Spring. I hope you enjoy the backward glance, as Summer beckons to us all…]
Flowing water can erode the toughest hills. The stream and river banks can guide the deer and other wandering creatures that adopt the simplest, most efficient routes for finding sustenance. The native tribes and pioneering humans came and walked the animal trails then built their homes and villages nearby. The centuries passed, inviting paved expressways to loop over hills and valleys on the most significant paths and walkways of our time.
Wild roses scent the morning air. I clear high grasses from the paths across my acres, the metallic blade swinging back and forth against the lush new growth as if retracing the original routes of man and deer. I listen to the rapid, rolling zi-zi-ZI notes of a prairie warbler and the dulcet tones of a wood thrush drifting across the hollow. I am drawn by the romance of frontier life and the unsettling notion that our early history and heritage become increasingly remote with time– a stream that’s swallowed by a river waving into the sea. A wild yellow iris captures and sustains my attention for a moment where I skirt a wetland near the house.
At its summer meeting on Pine Creek, the Slate Run Sportsmen group voted to deny support of a state proposal to increase ATV trails near the pristine waters of Slate Run. The group said (in essence), Not So Fast: development of motorized recreation might be good for area business but would be an incompatible use of public funds for a green place currently enjoyed through quieter activities such as fishing, hiking and canoeing.
I repaired from the meeting to the nearby gorge at Cedar Run. With fly rod in hand, I followed the trail of the wild trout, mountain laurel and water-thrush. Ah, yes! Here, the slower ways of nature, with a happy voice inside my head– an echo of those voices that could help apply the brakes to an expressway through the woods.
[The following narrative reflects the culmination of my first week of June, a wild trip that began on local water and then moved north to include Vermont’s Battenkill and New Hampshire’s White Mountains for some outdoor exploration with my daughter. On the morning after my return to New York, my wife and I canoed the upper Pine Creek in gorgeous weather with a group of friends.]
Canoeing the upper Pine Creek in early June brings back the youthful vision I once had for Susquehannock– a reconstituted Pennsylvania wilderness. The proposal for a wild place in the northern tier was detailed greatly for my own amusement and perhaps for anyone interested in not only honoring the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the region but also in boosting the idea that wild nature has a worth and beauty over and above whatever utilitarian aspects it might have for us.
A 13-mile canoe paddle with Leighanne and friends returns my vision of the great ideal, returns it through the rocky riffles and the long green pools with this understanding: Susquehannock would remain a dream, and little more. We can slow down the destructive tide of civilization, but without self-education and a passionate will for preservation, special lands and waters will succumb piecemeal to the growth of second homes and recreational development.
Pine Creek pull-out
Canoeing on the perfect water, we belong to the constantly changing panorama: shale ledge, wooded slope, huge sycamore and pines, merganser family, campers in their lawn chairs– “Hey, come back next year; we’ll be selling hot dogs!” Passing anglers with their fly rods or spinning gear, I’m the other guy now, the paddler at the stern, and not the patient caster silently cursing a flotilla of canoe and kayak or raft with Keystone drinkers and iPhone naturalists aboard.
Resolution: float the moment mile by mile, enjoy the company, watch for that strainer up ahead, those looming rocks, that wild spirit capable of slicing your shoulder if attention slumps. If by chance the rapids flip you over, well, understand that it’s probably meant to be. Ultimately, we are woven into our place as much as the trout below and the osprey overhead. And if we’re lucky, we’ll have grabbed that wayward camera and the swimming can of beer, acknowledging (perhaps) that we’ve immersed, at last, in something greater than ourselves.
A large truck hauling tires jack-knifed on the country road where I reside. I stopped to assist, and the mildly distraught driver scratched his head and looked at the back end of his rig that had fallen into a serious ditch when he tried to turn around. “Wow,” he said, “this is beautiful country… but they gave me the wrong address. I’m from Gettysburg, so what do I know?”
When I learned that help was coming, I resumed my drive to the upper Genesee River to pursue some research with a fly rod. I hiked the rail trail for about a mile before the heat of early afternoon began to threaten me with delusions. I fought the river vegetation to a bend that I presumed was well beyond the nearest human residence. Shortly after, I paused from my casting near a large pool to behold an unusual sight: a blonde-haired woman was splashing about in her two-piece swimming suit with a large white dog for company.
Before she had an opportunity to witness a sweaty old disbeliever, I grabbed my water bottle for a swig of dream-dispersal and pretended there was no connection whatsoever between the legendary nymphs of ancient Greece and the tandem nymphs still drifting on my line.
The swimmer, too, was quite surprised. Her big dog bounded from the river, shook a storm of water from its glistening coat and checked me out. The well-tanned owner also bounded over and expressed concern that her pet might get entangled with a hook and line. The swimmer’s voice was soft and reassuring as she grabbed the dog, and I forced myself to keep both eyes where they belonged.
Ah, the backwoods of the Genesee! After fishing this river for decades, my presumption to have known it well was drowned in a series of sparkling pools and riffles. Not only was I catching trout in unfamiliar territory unseen for many years, but it was looking… very good. I thought about a truck driver who had witnessed beautiful country after recognizing a wrong address.
A few days later, fishing on big Pine Creek with partner Jim, I had my best luck (modest but rewarding) casting nymphs appropriate for late-May hatches. Technically, the nymphs were March Brown and Grey Fox emergers. There were anglers in the neighborhood practicing the trendy Czech or Euro-Nymphing style for which a thousand You Tube videos have been produced in recent years.
I’ve long practiced a similar casting technique– holding the rod out-stretched, keeping the fly line off the pocket-water, and drifting weighted artificials back and forth– but referring to the strategy as simply “Pine Creek Nymphing,” or “Trout Run Nymphing,” without the academic European overtones.
Jim and I retreated from the valley to the cooler depths of a wild run. Suiting up, I asked my companion if he’d brought along the rattlesnake repellent for our heated walk down to the creek. He laughed, but before we reached the vaunted run we stopped abruptly at some branches fallen on the trail. Underneath was a docile serpent worthy of respect. Jim had never seen a rattler in the Pennsylvania woods, but there it was– another creature like the trout, the songbird and the walker of trails– everyone at home, with the right, or wrong, address.
Following a full week of hiking, birding, and visiting such places as the Genesee River Trail (WAG Trail, NY), the Golden Eagle Trail (PA), and the coastal trails of Block Island (RI), it was good to return from these rewarding visitations and to experience, again, the quiet silver streams of home…
The Incompleat Angler lost his fishing licenses again, the second time in a year. A gust of wind reopened the plastic tag with licenses attached to his grimy vest. Gone with the wind! A reprise of a Yellowstone experience on the Madison in 2020. Well, the slow learner finally got it this time around. Other than a hand net, there would be no more attachments at the rear end of his fishing vest! He would keep the damn papers in his wallet snug against his denim jeans. With enough real problems in the world, there was no need to top them with an irritation caused by faulty mental wiring.
Nonetheless, there would always be some room left over for the stresses caused by everyday angling. He might wonder if he has the right fly pattern for this time and place. He might question whether a feeling of inadequacy is actual or imagined. Fortunately, incompleteness has a sort of beauty when it’s taken to the trout stream. There the angler understands the therapeutic value of his quest and simply fishes and… remembers to forget.
He enjoys the quiet silver streams of May, the wild sparkle of the Asaph and the big cold water of the neighboring Pine Creek Gorge. He revisits the Sunken Branch and the brookie waters of the Susquehannock State Forest near his home. He looks for the hidden trout and their subtle beauty– for a sign that he and they exist together in his understanding.
He can laugh at the great success that Izaak Walton had, the author who could simply fish and share enjoyment of the world in troubled times. Walton might have been “compleat” but he fished the Itchen with a garden worm, or with a frog as loveable and respected as his love for King and God. The singing milkmaids of his famous narrative are a balm to the anxiety of any age– or a bomb to the modern sentiments of any rambler here or there.
The incompleat one has to envy Walton’s “study to be quiet.” Friend Charles Cotton would eventually assist old Izaak with an explanation of The 12 Essential Artificial Flies, but only for a late edition of the book. For now it was enough to simply cast and to enjoy.
The quiet silver streams of May were purling toward a distant bend. Their insistence lapped against his waders like the certainty of small birds calling from the banks.
Our muscles tighten and our lungs adjust, whether we seek the headwaters for trout because the lowlands have been flooded, or whether we lift our feet and pull with our arms along a skyline scramble for a special view that might come from above. We accept the challenge in our search for the beautiful– the wild bird, fish, or flower that accompanies our glance from an unusual place inside our lives. Climbing is a fun and healthy way of getting there.
We inhale the cooler air and revel in the majesty of a great white pine or, higher up, express new wonder at the jagged rocks and stunted trees. It’s best to apply more caution now; the path has faded and our way becomes irregular. Stumbling as we climb can bring unwanted consequences: a fly rod can snap, a water bottle drop away or, worse, a body part could be injured, finishing our day.
So we strive for balance and implore the gods to show their mercy. Each measured step brings satisfaction, hopefully, rather than a warning of fatigue or danger, and the growing prospect of a view absorbing our words and previous expectations.
Climbing in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I look down at the valley of the Rapidan and wonder where it was I fished in that wild scene. Later, climbing a short distance on a feeder stream above Kettle Creek in northern Pennsylvania, the mind’s eye struggles for a view of the big stream’s oxbow and the headland that forces the renowned trout water southward and then north and southwesterly again. The natural formation has been said to resemble a tea kettle, thus inspiring one possibility on how Kettle Creek got its name.
Observing a topo map or getting a bird’s-eye view from above might offer the suggestion of that implement. Tea kettle or not, the only certainty obtainable from climbing is a draft of cold clean water like a spiritual reward.
The Native Americans referred to the Kettle as Sononjoh. I like that name. It sounds romantic and befits one of Pennsylvania’s most scenic valleys and its fertile waters. Sadly, our American ancestors were driven out from here, as well as from many of their homelands on the continent. Climbing up above the mundane realms of our workaday lives can help restore a vision of the greener past, and maybe even offer an idea of how to save a remnant of a wild place still attainable.
I was well beyond my usual angling haunts in northern Appalachia. I was well beyond some recent and surprisingly pleasant hikes with family through Baltimore and Prince William Forest Park in metro Washington, D.C.. My placement may have been influenced by the likes of a Snarly Yow, a legendary Appalachian monster of the mountain trails.
No, I never actually met such a thing, nor hoped to, and yet, on a five-mile hike through Prince William Park we passed a couple of leashed canines (utterly domestic lab or pit-bull characters) reminding me of the wild southern woods. Later, the Snarly Yow returned to my thoughts while fishing Shenandoah National Park.
This Snarly is a spectral canine generally gray or black, with a great red mouth and prominent fangs, capable of phasing through walls and uprooting trees. It chases cars on lonely roads and shadows solo hikers, ostensibly frightening people with apparent malevolency, but there is no credible account of actual harm committed by this huge black dog.
For contrast, I was interested in the pretty squaretail– the native eastern char, or brook trout. I climbed along the North Fork Moormans River, near Charlottesville, finding squaretails willing to investigate small flies. I was disappointed in finding litter tossed by various family groups and hikers– the plastic bottles, empty cans, etc.– dispelling the beauty of wildflowers like geranium and trillium. It seemed as though a Snarly Yow had frightened the bejesus out of recreationalists, forcing them to leave it all behind.
A hiker’s dog paused on the trail, perhaps hearing something like a deep howl from somewhere up the river or beyond the ridge. Its ears pricked to the sound, its throat responding with a gruff note, and its paws then proceeding at the master’s tug. Although the spectral Snarly is renowned in wilder areas of Maryland and West Virginia, I was open to imagining its appearance even here along the mountain streams with colorful trout.
The lower Rapidan River inside Shenandoah Park was not productive the day I rambled up in search for trout. A few trout moved half-heartedly beneath a drifting fly, as if the water was too chilly, or as if the cold front (with its wind and lowering temperature) was to blame for the lack of action rather than my own ineptitude.
The Rapidan was splendid despite the cooling trend. Occasionally I would hear a crackle in the underbrush or trees nearby, and half-expected an explosive roar from the likes of a mutating dog. A glance behind would confirm nothing of substance. If a shadowy monster had been there to mess around, it was gone, and I could carry on in search of trout.
I made a final visit to the Moormans on a third day out for squaretails. I made the long hike to the stretch above the third river crossing, well above the Charlottesville Reservoir. At one point I found extraordinary pawprints in the mud beside a huge white pine that had fallen sometime in the previous 48 hours. The work of an insidious monster? Nah, but if so, then why?
I was glad for my existence. No mythological canine would disrupt the comfort and keen-edged beauty of the wilderness. Attractive brook trout rose to dry flies through the afternoon, and none of them were harmed.
My son and I visited Zoar Valley in western New York, a canyonland near the village of Gowanda, once the biggest glue producer in the world. This area is a blend of posted property, state forestland and designated nature preserves. Zoar Valley, named for the biblical city of Zoar, is drained by a major tributary of Lake Erie– the brawling Cattaraugus Creek, along with the South Branch Cattaraugus. These big streams have cut through Devonian shale deposits carving vertical cliffs approaching 400 feet or more in height. Above and beyond them stands an old growth forest, one of the finest of its kind surviving in the East.
We hiked the vast acreage of the Deerlick Nature Sanctuary, managed by The Nature Conservancy. Our 3.6 mile ramble passed through dark ravines with a hunting mink and the song of winter wrens. On the ridges, we encountered greening fields of leek and pointillistic blooms of spring beauty and hepatica. Eighty acres of old growth forest, with exceptional specimens of maple, birch, hemlock, beech, and tulip tree invited the imagination to behold a stunning biodiversity. Grape vines of incredible size appeared to intertwine limbs and trunks, suggesting that something similar might be needed to attach, or glue, our thoughts and feelings for an understanding here.
Many of the trees are exceptionally old (up to 500 years) and massive. Record specimens of basswood, sycamore, and American elm are located nearby in the Zoar Valley Unique Area (1425 acres) and its larger neighbor, the Multiple Use Area, administered by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
It was comforting to know that some of the giant trees are unapproachable due to their position on the dangerous slopes. Warning signs are in place, but wayward hikers have succumbed to the allure of cliffs and the illusive certainty of shale. The giants remain, resisting even those who would come to study them. The giants provide a comfort, an illusion of purity: life goes one, with us or without, forever.
After our lunch break in Gowanda (fast food like a glue that binds mind to muscle, but with taste) we headed for a second trail, descending to the river bottom, saying howdy to the spicebush flowers and to lovely blooms of bloodroot and red trillium.
The confluence of the branches was a place of quiet, unattended power. The Catt (as the big creek is known) can be a seething, clay-colored mess following precipitation, but today it looked deceptively calm beneath its cliffs and overcast sky. In the 1920s a major power company owned this parcel, planning to construct a hydroelectric dam nearby, but abandoned the location when it learned that the brittle face of shale would not comply.
The land’s heart was pure; the company’s intent was muddled. Herbert F. Darling bought the land and later, in 1961, gifted 1425 acres to the state. A hippie commune in the 60s, followed by the “irresponsible behavior” of sketchy visitors, brought an end to overnight camping as the state took more control of the environment.
We stood on the flood plain and in the woods nearby. I looked at the riffles and envisioned the migration of steelhead in their time of spawning. I had yet to fish this water, but something told me it would call me back in another season ripe with promise .
Opening day for trout in northern Pennsylvania offered excellent weather and an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the headwaters. For 35 years I’ve fished three branches of the Genesee (the East, Middle, and West) on the April opener for the sake of exploration, tradition and simple outdoor fun.
Back in 1987, when I started this odd obsession, I began my casting not on opening day but slightly later, and on the Middle Branch. I was pleased to note a great white pine tree and various wildflowers marking a fresh new season on the water. I began a poetry project to be called The Wild Trout where “I was happy to explore a backyard region unfamiliar to me, the forested north-central hills of Pennsylvania,” and where “Salvelinusfontinalis, the native brook trout, was a major resource/ inspiration for this work.”
35 years later I was in the same general area and still enjoying the cold clear waters, though a bit concerned about low water levels for early April. I caught a rainbow with a Muddler Minnow at the East Branch and a second rainbow with a small black nymph along the Middle Branch in time for a modest hatch of stoneflies. The West Branch, where I’ve typically had my best luck until recent years, offered nothing in the way of fish this time around.
I remembered beaver ponds on the Middle Branch and found them to be just as prevalent now on all three branches. It was still too early for the barn swallows that were just returning on migration in 1987, swarming for a hatch of flies. I remembered experimenting with… bait… yes, that’s right– the first and only time I ever dropped an angle worm into flowing water. Proving once again that fly anglers are an inconsistent lot, I wrote about it in the opening poem of The Wild Trout, saying “… Casting alternately/ with a Blue Dun wet fly/ and a garden worm,/ I catch sweet glimpses/ of the barn swallow’s first/ appearance, tired traveler/ skimming hungrily/ through an insect hatch.”
Well, that was then and this is now. I can laugh about it and not feel the need to apologize. As a kid, fishing with a fly in the 1960s, I never used nor wanted to employ live bait for trout but, alas, a middle-aged angler longed to be “more complete” and go against the grain of orthodoxy. No big deal. Bliss Perry, an ivy-league professor/writer and fly fisherman was lured by the worm. His once popular Fishing with a Worm (1916) is one of only several books ever written on the subject (compare that number to the thousands now available on fly-fishing). It presents an honest and humorous look at angling, especially for those willing to drift a baited hook through the wrenching, shirt-sleeve tearing alder alleys often found along our streams.
Some Amish boys dug manured ground for worms to sell or to drop into deep pools of the East Branch when their work was done, an admirable and time-tested strategy, though not my own. A great blue heron rose from the woods along the river, almost like a human body aged and enervating but assured by time and practice. Herons, though, have a talent at the water that exceeds every human effort even in our dreams.
The sunlit day was beautiful. I found myself fishing in the cold water (35 degrees F.) of a Pennsylvania river where the trout seemed few and far between. I did manage to capture and release a first brown trout of the season and, later, lost a large rainbow that was activated by a minor hatch of stoneflies, having chased a drifting nymph.
Wildlife was on the move. I’d seen a group of killdeer by the river road. The song sparrows, newly arrived from a warmer climate, caroled from the alder crowns, and rusty blackbirds, notable for their gleaming eyes and squeaky phrasings, mingled with other avian migrants as I poked along the water’s edge. A mink and I surprised each other at close range– the mink hunting for physical sustenance, and the angler seeking a spiritual boost.
The next day, on New York’s Genesee, was another warm one in the 60s, but the water still retained the temperature of snow-melt. Even though the trout were scarce, the solitude felt special and complete until I saw a jogger pacing toward me on the rail trail. He seemed focused on the ground ahead of him, as if he hadn’t seen me, but I heard him sharply say, “A good day for it!” as he passed.
I was left with an impression like the words from a poet friend who wrote (in a poem called Fly-Fishing) “Their gear is the best sort of technology,/ light and quiet, tools for inserting oneself/ into a place without disturbing it.” I thought of my fish rod as a tool. I raised it for a backward cast of line then brought it forward once again, happy that the river made no disparaging comment to be heard.
I was soon to meet up with an angling pal downriver. Waiting for Tim to get there from his work responsibilities, I switched my graphite instrument for one of my favorite split-cane rods. Assembling that newer tool, I noticed a serious problem. The lower ferrule had begun to separate at the glue line of its silken windings.
Tim arrived, and I had him inspect the situation. He had once constructed an entire split-bamboo from culm and all the basic ingredients, so I welcomed his diagnosis. Sure enough, it was a good day for it– catching the problem prior to casting with the rod again and inviting certain disaster.
That evening I contacted my rod builder and was relieved. I could ship the rod to Virginia, and since I hadn’t been at fault for damages, I wouldn’t have to mortgage the house to have “the best sort of technology” repaired. It looked like the only real cost for me would be measured by the time lost in not casting it a while.
As for the fishing, let’s just say… no catch this time. I had taken up the graphite once again, and Tim plied one of his bamboo rods. We waded slowly through the quiet evening river, keeping our profiles low and unobtrusive, eyes alert for stonefly rises, but resigning ourselves to “nothing much going on.”
That “nothing” can be a positive notion at times, especially when considering its contrast in the mayhem of society and in the disheartening destruction that occurs in our environment both near and far. This night I was glad for the peace of nothingness and how it might have been expressed most favorably by a passing jogger who exclaimed, “A good day for it!”
Good for fishing, running, making observations, and catching up with our springtime dreams before they slip away.