Rivertops West

On July 13, two residents from western New York State, plus four fly rods and reels, and other assorted camping gear, will be headed for the Rocky Mountains. Actually we’ll start our explorations in Alamogordo, New Mexico with a brief stay at my father-in-law’s place and then drive northward. I have a lot of hiking and fly-fishing that I’d like to accomplish on this road trip, and I hope to do a series of short posts here on Rivertop Rambles as we work our way toward Glacier National Park in Montana.

picture of a photo taken some years ago at RMNP

Follow me as I try to fish some or all of the following streams while also visiting four or five national parks and monuments: Rio Santa Barbara (for Rio Grande cutts, one of the most beautiful canyons I’ve ever experienced), Rio Costilla (another much anticipated NM stream for cutts), the Conejos and upper Rio Grande in CO, the upper Arkansas, Rocky Mountain Nat’l Park, the Green River in Utah, Slough Creek in Yellowstone, the Madison in MT, possibly the Bitterroot, the Blackfoot, and maybe the Flathead in MT before climbing into Glacier.

greenback cutthroat, CO

This may sound ambitious for a 3-week drive, but Leighanne and I are roughing it for the most part with occasional lapses into “luxury” thrown in for contrast, and our schedule will be loose enough to feel the freedom of the road. I hope to do some birding, hiking, and connecting with interesting people, as well.

Western Green Drake, one of many dry flies recently tied

Not the least part of our excursion, we’ll be meeting up with son Brent, and Catherine, who’ll be flying out to Denver for vacationing at various locations in the Mountain State. Together we’ll explore, again, RMNP and Dinosaur Nat’l Monument in Utah. Should be fun. If you’re interested, plan to follow us on RR. As always, we love to hear from you. The posts will be irregular, and I may be slower in responding to your comments but rest assured I will get to them. It’s one of the perks for doing what I love.

Dream Lake cutthroat

Rio Grande cutthroat, Pecos watershed, NM

Genesee River brown says See You Later. Late evening hatches of Yellow Drake and Potamanthus have been strong.

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First Cast Similes

After my first day of volunteer work with the New York DEC Region 9 small stream electro-survey crew, I found that my long-awaited fly rod had arrived. The rod is a small bamboo, a 6’6″ 3-weight custom built by Mike Kattner at Cane and Silk. This well-crafted instrument is a pleasure to cast. The next evening, following another day of scooping up trout for a quick assessment and live release, I took the “Little Gem” fly rod for a christening in the woods of Orebed Creek.

new rod with old Hardy winch

It couldn’t have happened this way if my casting guidance was under the spell of anything other than Serendipity…

My first cast was like the start of a teacher’s summer break. The line went forward and a whole new field of opportunity opened through the confines of that brushy little creek. I imagined my upcoming weeks of fishing out West, among other things…

stocked rainbow soon to be freed

My second cast would be fruitless, and my hundredth cast would likely be fruitless also, but the all important first cast would connect…

It was like going to a Bob Dylan concert two nights earlier (my daughter bought us tickets for the amphitheater event) and discovering that Dylan’s voice, alive and well after all these years, was strangely complementary to the sunset on Onondaga Lake and to the lights reflecting from the water as the six-piece band cooked up a storm.

evening on the Genesee

It was like fishing on the West Branch Delaware with Tim while sulphurs hatched throughout the afternoon, while standing ready with my net as a large wild brown trout shook its head one final time and snapped the fly from my friend’s taut line and leader. It was like fishing on the main stem Delaware after midnight as fog rolled in across the eerie quietude and stole the last shining star and then the distant lamplight.

on the Delaware

It was like the world encompassed in a grain of sand, as William Blake might have said.

The first cast held a basket of events, including the solitude of big dark water when heavy fog and river currents tell a tale of death. Yeah, it was a bit unsettling…

brook trout, Genesee Forks

Like wading through the deep silt near a bank of Japanese knotweed and then the next day finding that a mass of invasive didymo, or “rock snot,” had invaded the confines of my new waders and shoes and would require a thorough scrubbing with bleach and hose.

July, Genesee Forks

Mostly, it was like feeling the sense of freedom (hail, O Independence Day!) while fishing a small stream for wild trout as the warblers and song sparrows and veeries sing their splendid notes from the verdant banks. There’s nothing quite like it, actually, for the lover of solitude and peaceful surroundings. A casting wand, something like a Cane and Silk bamboo (no, I’m not being paid by anyone or anything for saying it) helps to make some fine distinctions.

Greenwood contemplations…

I could have said all of the above more simply by stating that I caught a brook trout on the first cast and then let it go, but something would have been lost…

Something like pure enjoyment.

nice touch, the appointment of an agate stripper…

with Tim on the West Branch


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The Rough Country

the home waterfall

Whether we enjoy the notion or not, everyone who strives for well-being needs to stay in contact with the wild. Such contact is readily attained in sanctified places like our state and national parks, but we can’t always reach those wild enclaves when we need them. The “rough country,” on the other hand, expands availability and is readily attained nearby. In such books as Gary Paul Nabhan’s Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves (Pantheon Books, 1993), we’re reminded that the rough country, or the therapeutic contact zones of nature, is as easy to reclaim as stepping into a backyard or a local green place and opening our senses.

on Dryden Hill behind the house

Technically speaking, I live year-around in some pretty rough country– a rural place where humans can live in health among wild plants and animals, among hills and valleys rich with the essential forms of nature. But every now and then I feel the calling to expand, to explore adjacent territory that I haven’t yet managed to map inside my head. And so, on a recent day of heat and great humidity, I finally hiked to Apple Tree Hollow in the highest reaches of the Slate Run watershed in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Bob-O-Link enjoys the open hayfield country

Apple Tree Hollow may sound a bit pastoral, echoing a lost paradise or Eden, but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s actually a heavily forested rivertop, among the wildest tracts of land in Pennsylvania. It’s been on my fishing “bucket list” for years, ever since I overheard a conservation officer extol its wild brook trout population in hushed matter-of-fact tones.

honeybees cover their queen on my lawn

The place is also locally renowned for timber rattlesnakes, a beautiful reptile that can grow quite large. Until recent decades, ignorant people slaughtered these docile creatures or collected them for bounty money. Thankfully, the rattler is protected now, but in places like Apple Tree Hollow where one bushwhacks with a fly rod or a walking stick, it pays to  ramble with an open eye.

Dale heads up Cushman Run

I pulled off the narrow mountain road and prepared for a half hour hike. The early morning air was already heating up, and the blackflies and mosquitoes were on the hunt. The 7-foot cane rod was for brook trout, and the wading staff was for serpents sunning in the high grass and rocks. It wasn’t the best time of year to be invading such haunts, but I figured it was now or never. Life is short, and trout streams are many.

a waterfall on Bear Run

When I reached an old log cabin at the end of the trail, I knew I had arrived. I climbed down to the stream and started fishing. The wild brook trout were obliging, but the black flies and mosquitoes were hellacious despite my bathing in a spray of OFF. Rattlesnakes were the least of my concerns while fishing in these beautiful surroundings and their insect hum. I think the wading staff split more clouds of no-see-ums than it separated jungle growth.

my old Pennsyltucky home…

It was rough country and it wasn’t far from home. I’ll go back some day when the air is clear and the weather more inviting. I felt satisfied for finding a new “contact zone” and for brushing up on outdoor basics. It was yet another portal to the wild, and good practice for the summer road. It won’t be long before the rough country of the Rocky Mountain streams and hiking trails entice an upland rambler.

the mayfly said, “Use the Light Cahill, brother…”

an 18-inch brown took the Hare’s-Ear Nymph..

fishing was good on the Genesee…

I was listening to Beefheart’s “Moonlight on Vermont” on the incomparable Trout Mask Replica…

“smooth country…”




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When the weather finally turned irresistible for the craft of venturing into the stream-lined depths of mother nature, I got on the West Branch Genesee and, later, the main stem Genesee. There, among the hills and hollows of the dual-state watershed, I made my evening peace with the caddis fly. For three nights straight, I was ready for the Grannom fly (Brachycentrus americanus), and the hatches were spectacular.

scruffy but effective

The West Branch is typically narrow, rocky and alder-lined, but the dark gray caddis was fluttering moth-like from the surface, and the wild trout were punchy drunk with expectation. I was reeling in a small brook trout when I was saw the golden flash from a larger fish beneath it. Releasing the little fellow, I decided to try a Muddler Minnow for the bigger trout. Before I could tie the Muddler on completely, though, the wild fish, a lengthy brown, made an unsuccessful but gorgeous leap while chasing a Coffin Fly (Ephemera guttulata) that sailed low overhead.

This was the kind of stuff that passionate anglers live for, though I don’t know many who are willing to sacrifice their ease to fish this kind of brushy water to obtain its sweet reward. I abandoned the Muddler Minnow for an imitation of the Coffin Fly and quickly put the brown trout on the line.

On each night of the Grannom hatch, I was greeted by the Vreep! Vreep! shrieking of the great-crested flycatcher and the quieter, weepy notes of the alder and willow flycatchers as these songbirds posted nesting territories along the stream and took their share of hatching insects. A fly-fishing lover of birds could go bonkers in a place like this.

On the second night along this headwater stream I hooked and lost a large fish in addition to catching and releasing a lot of smaller brown and brook trout. The big one grabbed the drifting Grannom fly and fought me hard, flipping in all directions till it tangled line and leader in an undercut and freed the artificial from its lip. I like to think that specimen was 17 inches, plus.

The third night I was down below Genesee village where the headwater branches all converge to form the main stem of the river in New York. The Grannom was hatching by 6 p.m. and only intensified as night came on. As if gravity was giving up the ghost, the wild and stocked trout rose with the emerging insects.

Fishing the river with a nine-foot four-weight rod was calm and leisurely compared to nights of casting on the headwaters, but the Grannom fly, the songbirds, and the willing trout were equally exciting. In a day or two, this caddis hatch would be over, and the fishing would be downbeat for a while.

an extra on the set

The Genesee angler will be happy if the fly box held a reasonable imitation of the caddis, or be frustrated by refusals if the imitations lacked a similarity in color, size and profile. Either way, the angler will be ready when another late spring season sends its dark gray caddis to the world beside this river.

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Good Days

I prepared for the long holiday weekend by assisting middle-school students in the planting of flags at the gravesites of veterans and fallen soldiers. The Veterans Administration Cemetery at Bath, N.Y. is a huge place, with thousands of gravestones on a landscaped hill, and the kids did an impressive job while trying to grasp the meaning and immensity of it all.

wild columbine, one of my favorites

My son and his wife joined us Saturday from D.C. and we revisited Letchworth State Park where the home river falls dramatically through an impressive gorge. The weather was dreary and wet, but our walks to the Middle and Lower falls and other sites were stimulating. We eventually hit the road and headed for Corning’s Market Street Brewery and the Glass Fest revelers jostling in the streets. We settled at a second floor table of the brewery on a deck above the crowd. Our food and drinks were delivered by a waitress named Alyssa– who doubles as a daughter of Leighanne, my wife, and me.

Good times.

family contemplations

On Sunday we buried my mother’s ashes at the family farm beside memorial stones established for the parents. Following some special recollections, we repaired for food and drink at my brother’s home nearby. The good times would continue as I visited the upper Allegheny River and worked through the selective feeding habits of rainbow trout responding to insects hatching near the surface.

above Kettle Creek

On Memorial Day, in Slate Run, Pennsylvania, we said goodbye to Brent and Catherine (returning to the tropical and politically toxic environs of Washington, D.C.) following a tasty lunch prepared by Wolf’s General Stone which, conveniently enough, is enjoined to one of my favorite fly shops on the planet.

a black swallowtail, methinks

After lunch, I assembled Chester the Fly Rod and equipped him with the first of several imitations to be cast while walking a familiar creek. Several mayfly species hatched sporadically along this beautiful water and suggested that a dry fly was the ticket to success. It took a deeply drifted nymph, however, to connect with a wild brown trout measuring 16 inches in the net.

a wild brown

Good fish.

Returning home in late afternoon, we stopped at Pine Creek (above the mouth of Babb) where I hoped to re-experience the fabulous Brown Drake hatch that had vexed me there some 30 years before. Those problematic drakes had left an indelible impression on a young angler’s mind. Well, the hatch was there again, much smaller than the one that introduced me to it long ago. The big mayflies rose up from the water like a net for catching dreams.

gave Chester quite a bend

It wasn’t easy getting action from those trout. The browns would snap at the big dry fly, missing, till I switched the “Catskill tie” to one that had a parachute design. Finally, a heavy brown trout fell into the net, and it was time to bid the waters adieu.

The month of May is wonderful, but gone for now.

I hope you had some good days, too.

Middle Falls, Letchworth

Middle Falls, Genesee River

Lower Falls, Genesee River

Lower Falls @ Letchworth

Pine Creek @ Blackwell



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A Few Words From the Photos

Kettle Creek eagle says, I’m not that far away. Photo Guy shoulda had a zoom lens with him.

When the big streams weren’t producing I’d go up the little feeder streams to check on the brookies.

Like this…

a good gravel road culvert that allows trout passage to the spawning grounds…

Southern Tier makes a good beer for rivertop ramblers! Looks like I refilled this w/ a shot of setting sun…

Nature makes a tasty mayfly morsel (March Brown) for rivertop inhabitants…

This 16-inch rainbow from the creek called “Oz” believed the streamer was a live one, not an alternative food…

I chased the rainbow thru deep riffles before it filled the net…

a small Oswayo colony of moccasin flower produced only one bloom this year…

wild azalea (pinxter) with a smell as sweet as these streams are beautiful…

at eleven-inches-plus, this headwaters trout can be considered big for New York State…

It said, What happened? I said, Thanks, and placed him back in the stream…

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Staircase Run

The day surely started out on a bright note– a little birding in the early morning sunshine of the yard, my small binoculars picking up a bit of the warblers waving through– Blackburnian, black-throated green, ovenbird, Louisiana water-thrush and, later, the black-throated blue warbler– beautiful emissaries from an avian world that migrates through too quickly.

I had a simple plan to fish a Pennsylvania trout stream on my bucket list, a first-time visit to a small feeder stream in the mountains near Cedar Run. The gravel road was sloppy wet and pitted; the sky quickly clouded over and promised rain, and I aborted my trout stream mission after unsuccessfully fishing it for half a mile. I didn’t quit, however.

I returned to Cedar Run whose fully-flowing waters weren’t exactly welcoming to the likes of me. I noticed a small cascade, a side stream splashing in a curve from a deep and forested ravine. It seemed to beckon– maybe the brook trout would be more accommodating in its heights. I chanced it, and I’m glad I did, although the red rocks of the little gorge were slippery and a trick to maneuver on.

the Mineralist looks at the Minimalist (Cedar Run bedrock looking like a map)

I called the water “Staircase Run” because the stream reminded me of that– a natural ladder to an untouched beauty and the first small brook trout of the day. Reaching the second waterfall of Staircase Run I paused to consider my position. It wasn’t worth risking an injury by climbing farther past the falls; I’d caught one fish on a day that just didn’t feel like it would be productive. After all, the fishing had been slow for the previous two weeks. It could only get better now with the prospect of good hatches soon to come.

note the “stairway” at left

I turned around for a slow descent toward Cedar Run. Another cool shower began to penetrate the forest. Reaching my vehicle, I didn’t quit. I simply headed south to where the sun might be shining and the trout more willing to feed.

I fished two more runs that day, this time in the Slate Run watershed, and I did a little better in the warm sun of afternoon, with several species of insects coming off the streams sporadically. It was slow as hell, but it was fishing. When the day was done, I had said hell-o to five small streams in a matter of hours.

What kept me going was the view provided earlier at Staircase Run–  a view from a tiny world enclosed by walls of dripping shale, by evergreens and reddish bedrock.  I couldn’t see much beyond a few hundred feet of deep ravine with tumbling water, but the elements all pointed toward the best part of an angling season, to the few short weeks ahead, a prelude to the summer.

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We’ve had a lot of rain and cool air of late, and Saturday’s tree-planting event was right in the thick of it. Nonetheless, the Upper Genesee Chapter of Trout Unlimited managed to plant more than a thousand small trees along our project water, ensuring greater soil stability and improved trout habitat at least in one small corner of the planet. We got wet, of course, but if trout can live full-time in water, the least we humans could do is to view their aqueous realms and appreciate them for a few soggy hours.

In addition to the trees we planted Saturday, I was given a bag of 100 willow trees and 25 white pines which I half-heartedly accepted for planting on the headwaters of our project stream. I took them, figuring I could get them in the ground within five days or so, as long as the rain held off and didn’t require the construction of a Genesee River ark.

By Wednesday the weather was gorgeous and comfortable and the job got done. I muddled about the stream banks and enjoyed the song of flowing water and the sight of darting trout while accumulating more mud than a tri-claw mud machine in March (I haven’t actually inspected one of those alien devices, but the phrase came handily and sounded good).

Planting trees is a thing we do to reinforce the feeling of hope and continuity. Once the trees are in the ground, we more or less forget about them and perhaps inspect them a time or two each year. Many don’t survive, and the ones that do hang on might grow so slowly that to try to watch them more regularly could drive you crazy. Trees are planted for the long run, for a time beyond my final day, and they help to clarify my own existence. Planting helps to minimize the sense that I’m just muddling through the hours with little purpose.

Naturally, all work and no play makes the rambler a grumpy old bastard, so I did manage to squeeze in a few hours of fishing when the streams receded and grew clearer. I had another good outing on a local brook trout stream as trout rose readily to a dry fly. Next day, however, after planting was done, I fished the West Branch of the river and had less to show for my efforts, although encountering such May beauties as the season’s first orioles belling among the apple blossoms lent a feeling of total freshness to the hour.

Fish were not inclined to take a dry fly. They would strike a weighted nymph and break it off in surging water. Messing around, and losing hope, I cut back the leader to a stoutness adequate for a cone-head Muddler Minnow and fed it to the larger pools. Ah, now there’s something different– a trout sweeping across the pool to grab the fly! Once again, the Muddler Minnow had its hour in the sun.

Muddler on cane

Don Gapen tied the first Muddler Minnow in the 1930s along the banks of the Nipigon River in Ontario. It wasn’t long before his streamer pattern hooked up with a 10 lb. 4oz. brook trout in the famous river. The Muddler could imitate a sculpin, a crayfish and any number of subsurface food items (plus dry terrestrials when treated with floatant). It became one of the world’s best known and most versatile patterns. It’s essential, in my opinion, like a fresh new row of willow trees along a marginalized stream. In seasons of high water, it’s good for an old muddler like myself who enjoys a tightened line.

the muddler takes flight

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When the human world seems absolutely maddening (the insanity triggered by such trifles as fidget spinners with kids, the rush for smartphone upgrades in adults, and the latest threats to the economy, environment and world peace from the fools who guide our destiny), I’m thankful as hell to find a brief transcendent hour on a local trout stream.

That’s right– just an hour’s peek at the more tranquil aspects of nature in early May can set things right again, if one delights in solitude and a short communion with such entities as wild trout, trillium and newly arrived tanager.

Late one afternoon, returning home from work, I stopped to fish a small stream near my house, and the native trout obliged me with a quick inspection of their beauty followed by a fast release. Nearly a dozen waterfalls accent this little stream, and the plunge-pools offered their peeks at the eternal– catches of brook trout only five to 10 inches long, beauties for the eye and solace for the soul.

In this time before the full leaf of the trees, when the song of flowing water is rhythmical and strong (if not downright torrential), the trout are hungry for the latest insect offering. Switching from a dry fly to a Hare’s Ear nymph, the simple upstream cast into plunge-pool often tightened with a fish. Since my last post, I’ve probably sampled another half dozen streams and rivers, but this outing in my own “backyard” seemed special.

What a respite, what a sweet transition from the crazy realm of work and business. One could open up the senses here and breathe it in– a shy peek from a fox pup out behind the house, a brief appearance of a spring morel beside the driveway– the mindless sanity of nature on the job.

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The old cliché says “Earth Day everyday,” but in a sense it might be true. I’m old enough to remember the original Earth Day celebrations on campus, and the week in April 1992 when I gave four public poetry readings centered around the concept of this special time. I’m also young enough, at last, to realize that this planet is the only one we’re ever likely to have. So, instead of simply consuming the Earth on a daily basis, we’d do well to give something back. The notion of giving back needn’t be complicated but it should be real. It can be small and given from the heart– a token of thanks for what sustains us daily as we wake to the blessing of “another day on Earth.”

could aliens drop in with these balloons?

Day 107: A sunny and comfortable Monday morning. Made my first catch of the day before I even reached the stream. I chased a couple of Easter balloons that were tied together and attempting to leave a wind-tossed field before I could reach them with a swat of my old Phillipson fly rod. I’ve never taken kindly to feral balloons dropping in from heaven. I snagged these babies and killed them with a piercing fly hook. Unlike the fish I land and give back to the stream, balloons and other bits of renegade plastic do not benefit from a catch-and-release ethos.

a work project site

Ten minutes later I was fishing Spring Mills Creek when I found yet another holiday balloon, perhaps a gift from Erie, Cleveland or Chillicothe. Geez, these things are getting plentiful, like those crumpling  tubes that once protected infant trees from deer and rodents in riverine habitats. Thankfully, wild brook trout brought me back to focus on the here and now of small stream fishing. I caught six or seven on a nymph or dry fly before proceeding to the headwaters, a project area for our chapter of Trout Unlimited, happily reviewing our success there near the border of New York and Pennsylvania.

the NY/PA border

Day 112: Earth Day. Cool and overcast. The streams and rivers were running high and muddy from recent rains. I fished the three branches of the upper Genesee, my home river, in a rite of spring that I perform one time each year. At the East Branch I caught a stocked brown on a Woolly Bugger and had strikes from two others. At the Middle Branch, on the summit of the Triple Divide, the stream was clear but extremely challenging for its small size. No catch there, but on the West Branch near Genesee, PA I managed to hook up with another brown.

All in all, no great shakes on Earth Day. And that’s okay. In fact, this day was pretty much like any other for me. I didn’t do much, if anything, to improve the world. The sight of garbage at a few locations was disturbing, and I collected a bit, but thankfully I also noticed several individuals gathering trash in or near the villages.

Phillipson rod & hemlock tree

Although I didn’t add to the human population of the world, which increases daily, I probably added to the carbon imprint simply by driving to the streams and cranking up the lawn mower for another season of cutting grass. We just do what we can to help things out– by staying aware, and minimizing this for maximizing that.

Genesee River at Triple Divide

In the evening, just before dusk, I watched the “sky dance” flights of a territorial woodcock from a point behind my house. As the male bird spiraled higher and higher against the clouds, I imagined its view as the perfect one– telling the fields and woodlands it was doing what it must, that the simple act of telling was what mattered now.

Eleven Mile Run

Day 113: A beautiful morning on Potter County’s Eleven Mile Run, the old South Bend 290 cane rod laying out a nice streamer but to no avail. Who cares if the trout aren’t biting on a day like this? There’s no sport here, just the passion of fly-fishing, the latest outing in a way of life. It’s been given to me, so I try to give something back.

In late afternoon, I brace myself for TU’s spring highway clean-up near the Genesee. Highways are never pretty in themselves, but we sweat and fill those big orange bags with trash. Perhaps we’ll get community recognition, but even if we don’t, we’ll save a bit of crap from drifting into the river. Soon we’ll be planting trees in critical riparian habitat– just willow trees, without plastic tubes. Small potatoes, surely, in light of what’s happening to our planet now, but it’s something almost anyone can do.

a resident at T-2 Manor

Trout lily/South Bend 290

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