Old Man Knows Good Beer

The work week was winding down; I was standing at the check-out counter with a six of a favorite IPA, thinking of the fly-fishing prospects for the weekend and a slew of odd jobs that required doing before the long trip West beginning June 22. A couple of young guys stood behind me, waiting to pay for their own quantities of a very popular “Lite.” I tried to ignore their commentary on what must have been an attractive female in the store, but when I heard a fella say, “Old Man really knows good beer,” I looked back at them and said, “You guys talking ’bout ME?”

“Yeah,” said one guy, “I like your taste in beer.” Now, I really don’t mind being called old. I’m rather used to it. But I’m glad these whippersnappers weren’t being facetious about my choice in brews. I checked myself to make sure my ears were on straight and that I hadn’t heard, “Old Man doesn’t know shit about good beer.”

hatchery brook

I didn’t have to raise my macho timber. I didn’t have to make a fool of myself by saying, “Listen punk, if you wanna step outside, me and my IPA will kick your Lite Beer ass!” Instead we had a brief and sunny rap about alternatives and new choices that we make while forking up our hard-earned dollars. After that, maybe the world was just a little bit brighter. Who knows.

Kettle ledge

Actually the comment at the beer check-out made me feel more purposeful. Old age is never easy, but confidence is reassuring, especially when considering other more difficult choices that we make, those paths we’ve chosen to walk on into the future.

I’d taken a day from work to fish on Kettle Creek and to experience the Sulphur and Slate Drake hatches (not the strongest I’ve ever seen but satisfactory nonetheless). Then I’d walked into the back country of a tributary where the brook trout were willing to take almost any dry fly pattern as long as my approach was quiet and respectful. I would also fish an upper stretch of Cross Fork Creek and find it pleasantly productive.

I was making progress in my preparation to see and fish great rivers in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. Once again I heard “Old Man really knows good beer.” I took it to mean more than simply a supermarket choice.

If all goes well, I’ll hit the South Platte and Frying Pan in Colorado. My wife and I will tackle a mountain peaking at 13,000 feet, but we’ll probably stop at the lake with cutthroat trout. If not now, when? We’ll move on to Wyoming’s Snake, Greys, and Gros Ventre rivers near the Tetons. We’ll try Slough Creek, once more, where the grizzly bars roam, and do a follow up on classic Montana streams, and maybe a few surprises.

Hardy/Phillipson combo

I don’t plan a strict itinerary. If an opportunity presents itself, I move toward what interests me, based on past experience and what may come of it. Financial and temporal limitations have to be considered, of course. But if I get the green light and my body says go, I’m set.

When my wife called me to dinner and I heaped the plate with fried catfish, seasoned crispy cauliflower and lemon-spiced arugula, I tasted everything with delight. The cold IPA was good accompaniment, but the dinner overall was surpassing.

It inspired me to take an evening hike up Dryden Hill to check on the fields with their bobolinks. I’ve always loved these interesting blackbirds and their bubbly song, but unfortunately they were flying low and in the distance this year. Returning down the hill, collecting some trash along the way, I paused at a clearing and listened to a wood thrush piping, and a young red fox barking harshly from a ravine. A barred owl hooted from somewhere in the valley. Then I heard a different song…

at Long Run

I hadn’t exactly given up on hearing whip-poor-wills in the East but, frankly, their numbers seem to be diminishing, and I hadn’t heard or seen one in 38 years, since my days of living near the Blue Ridge Mountains. I had hopes of encountering them again, especially since Bob Stanton played a recording of one while we were fishing on Slate Run a couple years ago. Earlier, Bob had found a whip-poor-will somewhere near his home in northern Pennsylvania. And now I was hearing one again.

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will…, on and on. I listened and followed as the bird moved slowly down the valley toward my house. Eventually the bird crossed the creek and started up the other hillside with its lush green forest. Losing auditory contact, I was nonetheless elated at my rediscovery. Walking toward the house as night closed in, I was about to enter when I gave one final listen. There it was again, the calling from the distance…

Whip-poor-willthe Old Man-knows-his birds… the streams-are-calling calling… I’ll-be gone-for a while… but I’ll-be back-most surely… repeat-repeat-repeat….
Everyone, have a great summer!

bear track, upper Cross Fork Creek…

bobolink fields forever! (I’d like to say, but the turbines are coming soon…)

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An Adams Will Do

Continuing with my “wings over water” theme of late, I’ve kept an eye out for insect hatches on our trout streams but haven’t seen much yet. Oh, the Sulphur mayflies made an afternoon appearance on Cross Fork Creek. A few March Browns came off the Genesee River (less spectacular than the decent spinner fall at dusk). A couple of Green Drakes and Coffin Flies appeared on Kettle Creek, East Fork Sinnemahoning and Birch Run, but basically the hatches have been underwhelming for me this season, perhaps due to all the high water we’ve experienced lately.

golden ragwort

While the fishing has been rather slow, there were friends and songbirds taking up the slack in interest. I had friendly conversations on Cross Fork Creek while watching the Sulphurs and Swallow-tailed Butterflies.

ragged Coffin Fly on finger

Fishing buddies Tim and Don shared good moments with me on the dusky Genesee River as the spinners sailed down to the water to be intercepted by diving cedar waxwings and song sparrows, by rising trout and other unknown predators. A veery chanted hauntingly and a hermit thrush caroled from a hemlock grove. I enjoyed meeting Eric, from Rochester, who was coming off the river with some interesting perspectives and some skillful use of tandem caddis flies.

on Genesee, with Tim

My hike into the higher realms of Birch Run was fraught with tight arboreal growth and irritating gnats, but the venture proved the old adage that “the higher you go, the better the fishing gets.” All I needed was a short fly rod and a small dry Adams on the line. The brookies were accommodating, and the raspy robin-like song of scarlet tanager lent a soothing aura to the deep greens of early June.

Birch Run

For a change of pace, I returned down valley to the East Fork Sinnemahoning. The overcast sky remained a blessing, and the valley breezes blew away the pestering gnats. The creek seemed full of hungry brook trout (hatchery fish from 10 to 12 inches in length) and rainbows up to 14 inches long that chased a drifting Adams. Most welcome, too, were several wild brook trout adding color to a somber hour on the water.

Alhough the streams were flowing high, the rising water temperatures had apparently spurred the trout to feed on or near the surface. Hatch activity was minimal, so the classic Adams, the generic caddis/mayfly pattern, is all I needed for an artificial fly. Simplicity, when you find it, is a beautiful thing.

the dead tree said, “Stop here”

Tim Didas, Rivertop Rambles friend and angling partner, ties a mean Adams variation in the parachute style that I am pleased to share: Tail– woodchuck guard hairs; Body– gray dubbing; Parachute post– orange poly yarn; Hackle– Cree and grizzly mixed, trimmed fore and aft for a sharper mayfly profile….

Adams variant, Tim D.

cane & char

old homestead, Birch Run

a new generation, Kettle Creek

Moccasin flowers

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Wings Over Water

There were plenty of quiet moments at the book signing event, so I was glad to have some fly-tying stuff on hand. My books were piled up on the corner of a table in the store; my vise stood before me, surrounded by grizzly hackle (olive), calf-tail, dubbing, moose hair, thread, scissors, whip-finisher, everything needed to tie the Western Green Drake for an upcoming trip out West. Everything was here, except…except the hooks. Dammit. I felt like a wingless bird showing up for spring migration.

Slate Run/Pine Creek

Now what? The store managers were busy doing whatever they do when business gets really slow, so I rose from the table and began perusing the Used Book section of the aisles. I found a nice hardcover edition of the Tao Te Ching and decided to buy it and refresh my recollections of the ancient Chinese classic. Chapter One: The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. Of course. Words get in the way. The name that can be named is not the eternal name… The tier who forgets his hooks is not a tier worth his salt. The tier who forgets his hooks is… just a buyer. The gate to mystery has a squeaky hinge.

white pines grow large along the Oz

The highest good is like water. We moderns who enjoy canoeing, hiking, fly-fishing, etcetera are well aware of this. Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive. It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao. Water filled my head and I was fishing like a demon in a daydream.

I would soon be casting on the “Oz,” my name for Oswayo Creek. With an overcast sky and heavy water from recent rains, I was hoping for a good caddis or mayfly hatch downstream from where I usually look for wild browns. Two spin-fishermen worked their way close to where I stood in a big wide pool. One angler asked, “Are you fishin’ the Derby or just fishing?” I hadn’t known anything about the local Rod ‘n’Gun Club derby going on at that moment, so I simply answered, “Just fishin’. Any luck?”

high pine

The sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no-talking. The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease. I wasn’t feeling particularly wise, especially in this company of local fishermen pursuing tagged trout with the spirit of a horse-better at the Preakness. I certainly wasn’t keeping my mouth shut, either, when the guys asked where I’d started from and what pools had yielded trout. I stretched the truth a bit, for sure, but remained completely honest about the kind of flies I used. Dry flies weren’t connecting. There were no “ten thousand trout” rising and falling to a hatch of caddis, Sulphur or March Browns.

I caught rainbows on a small bead-head emerger, my Conhocton Mink Caddis, and even more trout on a conehead Woolly Bugger. Rainbows, browns and brook trout came out for a quick release. They were hatchery trout, certainly, but pleasant accomplices in my search for a river hatch. Oh, a singular March Brown appeared, and a first Sulphur for the season, but conditions just weren’t favorable for surface fishing.

Oswayo Creek

Earlier in the day, I had the best time watching birds. Spring migration was at its peak, and numerous fliers had settled near the yard for the season or were pausing for insects and tuning up their vocal chords. I, too, attempted to hone my skills with 10-power glasses and a careful late-spring shuffle.

Under heaven, all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness. All can know good as good only because there is evil. Listen to the news from around the globe today, and go for the truth. Thank god for wild birds. Wild trout. Flowers. Wild men and women. Children who can tell what’s real and what is fake.

Barn swallows lilted over the roadway scarfing up midges near the ground. An indigo bunting fed among the apple blossoms, its plumage slightly darker than the sky beyond. A Tennessee warbler sang a loud migration song, its chipping notes breaking into a rapid jumble at the end. A wood thrush piped an endless three-note territorial song from the trees beyond the creek. A Baltimore oriole perched nearby, a beautiful orange and black songbird alternately whistling and fluting for a mate in a never ending quest for continuity and survival.

Looking up beyond the forested hills, I was taken by the sight of a raven (legendary corvid) chasing a red-tailed hawk across the southern sky. Both birds were living fully in the Tao. Beauty seemed to outshine ugliness, for now.

fiddlehead

Through the winter a red fox pulled an autumn deer carcass across my field. Here at the den the carcass fed the foxes to the present time.

red fox pup sez an odd bird’s looking my way…

 

 

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Between the Streams

There have been a lot of ups and downs here since the last post on Rivertop Rambles. I spent six days fishing in the Blue Ridge out of 10 days in Virginia, boulder hopping, climbing streams like Cedar Run, the North Fork Moormans and the Rapidan River. Brook trout rose to the dry fly, especially to the Little Yellow Stone, and they shot down into the depths again upon release.

I could rise by watching Louisiana water-thrushes flying from streamside to the wooded cliffs above the river. I could kneel down to observe a wildflower by the trail (if I wasn’t stumbling to the ground like a drunkard turned loose in the forest). I snapped photos of the last bloodroot flower loosening its petals for release. I reveled in the sight of spring beauties, wild ginger and white trillium. I let emotions quarrel with thoughts concerning news both personal and political.

I enjoyed a ride up to James and Dolley Madison’s Montpelier, a tour of the presidential mansion where the U.S. Constitution was composed. We took a leisurely walk down through the wonderful plantation gardens and inspected the baser homes of slaves once owned by our fourth president.

At Montpelier’s gift shop I picked up a book entitled The Home Place, Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature and after perusing this book by J. Drew Lanham, an Afro-American, Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher at Clemson University, who is also a birder, naturalist and conservationist with literary talent, I knew I’d better buy the book because it already seemed to possess me.

I took a ride up to Washington D.C. to visit my son, his wife, and her parents. Standing with a craft beer on the little patio of an elevated apartment, I could look down on a sidewalk and enjoy the quiet April trees and dogwood blossoms. Brent had purchased concert tickets for himself and me because he knew I liked The Residents, and they were playing/performing in the newly developed district called The Wharf.

We shot down to the river on the subway and settled into the venue with our Two-Hearted Ales for spiritual support. The Residents are a strange “American art collective best known for avant-garde music and multi-media works.” They’ve been around since the 1970s, endorsing willfull obscurity, performing anonymously in masks and outfits such as eyeball helmets and tuxedos. They seemed like musicians that had stepped from the dark side of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” and they were better than either one of us expected.

The music from “Between the Dreams” (the tour) was tight as hell and virtuosic. Bird masks loomed above the players. The vocalist sported a gruesome cattle helmet, and the striped suits were de rigueur. The light show and video displays of luminaries like Richard Nixon, Mother Theresa, and John Wayne speaking from dreams within a large round head tossed layers of surrealism through the room. The music and the overall performance were emotional and loud, horrific one moment and hilarious the next.

We would tumble from the heights whenever words failed to adequately describe what happened. It was fun. We shot back uptown on the subway and could hope that our own dreams wouldn’t be greatly influenced by The Residents, at least not in the short run.

Soon I was up for coming home and getting back to old routines, to fishing, to signings, to planting of trees along our “project stream,” to contemplations on the pros and cons of passing time. All too quickly I was down again with the familiar: spring would have regressions, fishing on upper Pine would be slower than expected (although the little brook trout on TU’s project stream would rise bravely to a dry). And thanks to new friends and to old, the time spent in bookstores and on the rivers and in the woods (even in my solitude) was good.

The days flow by like waves on the sea. Climbing and tumbling, and climbing again.

T-2, the project stream

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Branching Out (from Genesee)

Some readers of Rivertop Rambles may recall that every year, around the Opening Day of the Pennsylvania trout fishing season, I try to fish the three branches of my home river. Again this year, I drove to the state-line village of Genesee, observed the knots of spin-fishermen congregating on the banks anticipating a good day of fishing and camaraderie. I purchased a few supplies then headed toward the branches of the Genesee and set foot on water upstream of nearly everyone casting a line.

I reinforce a personal tradition while preparing for another season on waters far and wide. Each of the three trout streams of the upper Genesee, converging at the village of that name, average about 20 feet wide and 10 miles long. They beckon in the chill of April like a family member who’s been absent a bit too long. They form the early stages of a major watershed originating at the “Triple Divide.” The other watersheds rising nearby are those of Pine Creek and the Allegheny River. A home river is important. If it’s healthy, there is jubilation. If the river is imperiled, then there’s work to be done.

fly rod with hemlock tree

From an angling perspective, the East Branch (or Main Stem) has long been the lesser of the three streams. It begins in the open farmlands of Ulysses, PA and has issues with sedimentation, agricultural run-off and thermal pollution. Its lower half is stocked with trout; some wild fish can be found throughout its length. During the weekend of opening day, I fished new water on the stream, climbing higher on it than I’ve gone before, and catching four nice brown trout, two on a Woolly Bugger and two with a bead-head nymph.

It was another case of finding something new in one’s backyard. You think you know a stream by virtue of fishing it for years, and then you try a new stretch of water and get a different picture or opinion of it. I found gravel beds I hadn’t seen before. I found an evergreen forest with some eye-opening hemlock and white pine trees. The pools weren’t numerous or productive until I finally found a deep one with a difference– two wild browns that woke me like a wonderful cup of coffee.

I didn’t do as well on the mid-stretch of the Middle Branch Genesee. There were anglers ahead of me stringing up their hatchery fish. I got a pass or two from wild fish living in a hemlock grove, but that was it. And then the West Branch– I knew it would be better…

A mayfly hatch was occurring in a long deep pool. The sky was overcast; the air was chilly, but Blue Quills were hatching, and a heavy trout was rising sporadically for a taste of mayfly on the surface.

Tying on a finer tippet, I switched from a streamer to a Blue Quill imitation (or was it a bedraggled Quill Gordon?). A 15-inch rainbow struck the dry fly and tore up the pool before I trapped it in the net. The thrashing action killed the other rises, but minutes later I got hook-ups once again by drifting a Hare’s Ear Nymph.

a battered hatchery ‘bow that took a dry…

The only downside to the weekend was discovery of what seems like a proliferation of garbage dumps and litter along these streams and roadways. In one case, the dumping was abominable, and criminal. Trashing is symptomatic of the lost and careless, of consumerism run amuck, without regard for anyone but the self. I’d like to think that Earth Day can still make a difference, but it only works if it starts today.

On a brighter note… There it was, another small tradition I could pull off in the name of fun and exploration. Spring is here at last, and I can hope it hangs around a while. I’m ready for Virginia and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Streamwalker’s Journey is doing well, and I thank all of its supporters as well as those who visit here on a regular or a first-time basis.

Branch out to the season’s beauty and enjoy! As always, feel free to offer your thoughts and comments any time.

 

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It Came From a Dream

There’s nothing like a wild free-flowing run… The statement seemed so obvious to me that I almost disregarded it. I was in Rhode Island for several days, enjoying myself but absent from the Opening Day of Trout Season in New York, so when the statement came to me along with streamside imagery in a dream, its directness and simplicity loitered till it struck me in the heart.

Blackstone River, Pawtucket, RI. For better or worse, the Industrial Revolution in the U.S. began here.

My absence from the opener wasn’t any big deal. I’d be home soon enough. It wasn’t as though I had totally missed out on fly-fishing over the previous months of winter. In fact, my fishing seasons didn’t have an “opener” any more; I hadn’t really felt one since the days when I was young. For me, baseball season has an Opening Day. Fly-fishing, on the other hand, has me casting year around wherever it’s legal and the trout are willing. Still, something nagged at me and said, you know, you might be having fun right now, but wouldn’t it be nice to get back on the stream?

Dining Room, Wm. Vanderbilt “Marble House,” Newport, RI. When the brain is gilded with gold extravagance….

So, it came to me in a dream: There’s nothing like a wild free-flowing run… Like a first warm day in spring, with low, clear water pouring off the slopes… The statement seemed to mirror my growing interest in the distance between reality and dream, between the actuality of fly-fishing and the dream of fishing under ideal conditions. I find that the distance between the two concepts is an interesting place to be, one that warrants some consideration as a writer. And, in rare cases where dream and reality seem to be one and the same thing, well, darn if it doesn’t feel like heaven for a while.

Osprey nest, adult gone fishing in a wild, free-flowing run…

I’d get to that wild free-flowing stream as soon as I could. For now, I had other obligations to fulfill. Everything arrives in its own sweet time, they say. I enjoyed a visit to Providence and Pawtucket and Newport with my daughter. Back at home I had readings and book signings to prepare for. I still had hours set aside for teaching and other duties. There were good things and fair things (and foul things, too) in the nature of each day– but damn, there was nothing in a fly-fisher’s heart quite like… a wild free-flowing run.

a clammer on the Narragansett flats…

It was fun to watch the gulls drop clams onto the rocks to break them open at lunchtime…

Brent Franklin recently found this small gem in White Oak Canyon, an artful incorporation of that wild free-flowing run…

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First Signs (At 37 Degrees)

This one is as short and simple as the first tentative signs of spring. I keep under the radar of what’s happening in the news and just report on what is not so new. The weather is becoming fair, at last, and so I take another swipe at casting with a fly.

It seems like people are taking their worries and concerns to the street. I feel the spike of a long-awaited season, as if society could puff the northland temperatures above the freezing mark, as if a mortal could invoke the spring to make its lovely shift… Ah yes, hope springs eternal and fishes rise to the hatch.

I hope to fish Bob Stanton’s “Bleeding Heart Soft-Hackle” fly real soon…

My son and his wife came up from Virginia. Four of us got our annual fill of pancakes smothered in syrup made outside the Maple Tree Inn beside the wilds of Keeney Swamp. We hiked the Buckseller Trail in the Susquehannock State Forest and, sure enough, the following afternoon, the weather called me to sample a favorite trout stream in the Pennsylvania hills.

whose house this is i think i know…

Ice still clung to the stream banks.  For early spring, the water was low and clear and cold. The forested southern slopes retained their snow. The northern slopes were sunnier and free of winter white. The air temperature edged above the freezing mark. I got no response from a bead-head nymph, so decided to try a dry fly on the stream…

A brook trout rose from the shallows and took the Humpy dry. The water was only 37 degrees Fahrenheit. I’d never caught and released a brook trout on a dry fly in a mountain stream with water temp less than 42 degrees, so the fish and I set a personal record, of sorts. Anglers don’t typically get serious about dry-fly action till the water warms well above the 50 degree mark, but that’s on bigger streams where it takes more energy for a trout to rise the greater distance to the surface.

Humpin’ it…

The American robins, the song sparrows and red-winged blackbirds were finally trickling back here on migration. They were taking it to the streams of spring like we might take to the river or the beach or to the highways leading to new waters. Birds were doing what they had to do, responding to the laws of nature. Hungry fish were starting to move, as well.

a nice one came from there…

The youth of America, assembling on the streets in recent days to protest certain aspects of the status quo, had a different mission, naturally, than the creatures of the wild, but one no less intent on survival and a higher calling.

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Streamwalker’s Journey; the New Book is Here!

First came the big Nor’easter, dumping 15 inches or more of wet heavy snow on western New York. Electric power went out locally on Thursday night and didn’t come back till Sunday, some 61 hours later. We had heat and springhouse water, so the situation wasn’t as rough as it could have been. Shoveling wet snow was the proverbial bear, and being off the grid, as interesting as that can be, outlasted the record set during the “Ice Storm” back in March of 1991. So, delivery of the book written by yours truly was like the sun of Sunday spreading its rays across the fulgent sky.  

One aspect of the writing business that I’ve never particularly enjoyed or been much good at is self-promotion. Every once in a while, however, a new book or event comes along and I feel obligated to honk the horn of shameless merchandizing and to promote the literary fruit of a beleaguered mind and body.

Yes! Streamwalker’s Journey, Fishing the Triple Divide, is available at last. This 202-page volume is, according to my publisher at Wood Thrush Books (Vermont), “… a first-rate collection of fly-fishing essays…” This work, assembled from some of the strongest pieces of nature writing to be found in the six-year history of Rivertop Rambles (and elsewhere), focuses on the Triple Divide of watersheds in Pennsylvania and New York but includes a whole lot more.

The 16 chapters of my latest book include narratives entitled Where Rivers are Born; Brook Trout Basics; A Slate Run Odyssey; A Creek With Almost Everything; Self-Portrait of the Fisherman as Idler; Upper Kettle, Sunday; Blue Ridge Buffer; Water Dog; and The  Cedar Run Experience. I’m proud of the tightly focused content with its wide-ranging excursions into fly-fishing, natural history, conservation efforts, and our human presence in the wild.

like the sudden appearance of blue…

As Wood Thrush Books has announced, Streamwalker’s Journey is “… informal, thoughtful, interesting, funny, and at times wise. The passion comes through loud and clear.” The book can be ordered from Wood Thrush Books or Amazon Books (be sure to check out the new Amazon’s Walt Franklin Page) or you can order a copy from me directly via email, $14 ppd.

So there, I’ve said it, and I’m glad the book is available. If interested, please support small-press book publishing (and starving… nay, bone-dry trout bums) by ordering a copy soon. I thank you, like a wild trout released gently from an angler’s hand.

from the back cover…

hopefully the reading of SJ will inspire you to get out from the shrouds of winter and to cast or to walk a line in spring…

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Spring Creeks in the Rain

I fished on and off for three days in the rain. The heavy but periodic rainfall in south-central Pennsylvania felt rather warm and welcoming, though I knew that harsher storms were causing trouble elsewhere in the country. There wasn’t much time for fly-fishing, but I had an opportunity for revisiting several classic trout streams and refitting my ego in more modest attire. At least I was comfortable in a poncho and appropriate winter gear.

Barrel factory, Big Springs Run

Spring creeks are exceptional trout streams flowing out of deep springs in a limestone base. Nutrient rich, their wild fish are well-fed, colorful, and extremely fussy when an angler presents an artificial fly or lure adjacent to their watercress abodes. Pennsylvania’s Falling Springs, Big Springs and Letort Spring Run are fine examples of the kind, and I love the challenges they present to the caster of flies.

Letort Spring Run

For the most part, these streams are remarkably stable considering their presence in agricultural, suburban and industrial zones. They stay relatively clear despite heavy precipitation, and their water temperatures are generally cool in summer and fairly warm in winter. That said, spring creeks have some serious problems, too. In addition to continuing urban development in their watersheds, the streams often draw pollution, sediment and, in the case of the Letort, “sink holes” and collapsing ground.

“sinkholes”

We can be thankful that various conservation groups such as Trout Unlimited have worked to safeguard spring creeks and to alleviate some major issues, but it’s in everyone’s interest to learn about these waters and to further our collective efforts to preserve them.

I may have grumbled a little at my overall lack of fishing time, but I was glad for the surprise visit from my son, his wife and his in-laws who drove up to Gettysburg from Virginia to visit my wife and me. While my small bamboo fly rod dried out in the car trunk, we dined in old-town Gettysburg and then proceeded to absorb some history at the National Battlefield. Standing on Little Round Top where so many Union and Confederate soldiers lost their lives along the hill of rocks made our heads spin through the gap of 150 years since the Civil War.

down in “Devil’s Den,” Gettysburg

Later, at the Appalachian Brewery in town, we toasted craft beers to our health and to better times for this ailing nation, to the healing of rifts in our society and in the world. “Imagine all the people…” toasting the same, listening to the song of dreams, to truth and valor, as in the words of grieving high school students, thinking of how a small but sturdy step taken within ourselves can make a difference overall… Imagine.

Little RoundTop & the killing fields

My wife and I enjoyed a short stay at two remarkable Bed & Breakfasts in this country of limestone waters and late winter rains. Once again (as in last winter) we stayed at The Inn at Ragged Edge near Chambersburg and then at Pheasant Field near Carlisle. Both of these historic country homes are ideal havens for discriminating fly-fishers and saner folks who travel through.

Granted, I have no photos of wild trout from this excursion. I’ll have no excuses, either, except to say that the fishing was tough. The neighboring Yellow Breeches was blown-out with high yellow water, and even the Letort was spreading and taking color, though I did get a strike or two on a small olive streamer.

When fishing these small streams in the rain, I was happy for the song of birds. I hadn’t heard it in many months, it seems. The first springtime notes from bluebird, blackbird, robin, cardinal, and sparrow brought my thinking to a point…

I thought of Charlie Fox, Lefty Kreh and Vince Marinaro, legendary Pennsylvania fishermen who suggested that it’s no disgrace to be skunked by the fabulous Letort, perhaps the most challenging trout stream in America. To be humbled here was to join the ranks of global pilgrims who had assembled with fly rods and then stalked away scratching their heads and mumbling quietly.

Catching and releasing trout has its reward, of course, but to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the ghosts of such angling pioneers seemed like pretty good karma to me, even in the rain.

Pheasant Field, once a station of the Underground Railroad…

a quiet, rainy afternoon at Little Round Top, Gettsyburg

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Black Stones and Zonker Pie

Adam Russo, from Lancaster PA, introduced himself by email, thanking Rivertop Rambles for being an interesting and informative blog. The young fly-fisherman offered to tie a few of his Zonker specimens that he’s found to be especially effective in north-central Pennsylvania (where he and his family have a cabin) and send them to me as a token of his thanks. That sounded interesting and I gladly sent him my address.

Adam’s Zonker (1 of 4)

The Zonkers soon arrived, and I was eager to try them out. Adam fishes this weighted streamer fly with both floating and sink tip lines, depending on stream conditions. He says the pattern works well all year round and is very easy to tie. He wraps the hook with wire, adding weight, then ties the strip in at the bend. Next, he wraps the fur strip toward the head, securing the business with several whip finishes and a touch of glue.

a winter tree, not me

I stepped into the Allegheny on a chilly day with the water running a little high and off-color. I gave the Grey Zonker a cast upstream, then thought of Adam Russo who was hoping to come up to his cabin in early March and maybe find some action with the Black Stonefly hatch. It wasn’t long before I hooked and lost a nice fish on the Zonker fly, a pattern I hadn’t used in several years.

I left the river pool and headed downstream, passing a couple of fishermen setting up for lunch at their truck. One of the guys said hello and I probably acknowledged them with a similar greeting. Minutes later I was ready to cast a Woolly Bugger into the flow when one of the fly anglers approached me with a “Hey, are you Walt?” greeting and, allowing that I was, I felt the world shrink to about the size of a #8 Zonker. “You must be Adam,” I said. He and his fishing pal had driven north a little earlier than planned.

headwaters

The guys had done pretty well fishing on the upper Allegheny, catching at least one big brown, if not more. Before I met the fellas, I knew I was fishing behind them because I’d seen fresh tracks in the snow, and later I told them, given their expertise, I was lucky to have landed a couple of standard-sized hatchery trout. We had a good conversation at their truck. Before we headed off in separate directions, I thanked the guys for reaching out, and promised Adam I would stay in touch and let him know how the flies and fishes got along.

Two days later I was on the stream again, and this time the weather was downright wonderful, with a partly clouded sky and air temps in the high 60s. Pretty nice for a February day in northern Pennsylvania. Buckets were getting hung on maple trees for sap collection. And the first Black Stoneflies were appearing above the headwaters.

Stonefly hatches are a sign of spring in my neck of the forest. Fishing was slow. I didn’t catch a thing while casting with a stonefly nymph, but several nice trout, including a wild and colorful brown, went for a scrambled Egg fly and one of Adam’s Zonker specials. I enjoyed thinking I was gonna serve the winter fishes a slice of Zonker pie, a chocolate-colored, messy-looking tidbit that’s designed for well-fed trout expecting to expand their dietary horizons. One brown took the offering as it swam enticingly down the current.

a wild one from the woods

I really like the way these flies dance in the water. They exude the natural motions of a slimy spring thing loosened by the rain and snowmelt.

Like a waiter in a restaurant, I served a Zonker for dessert. The customer took it and fought me hard. I brought the trout to my hand, said I’m sorry, and let it go. I never got a tip.

Adam’s Zonker (2 of 4)

Waiter!

 

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