On the Trail of Pinney’s Ghost

“The sun was down. The light which illuminated the huge clock on the Court House steeple was turned on. From several directions came figures carrying flyrods, already strung up, with jiggling wet fly droppers dancing in cadence with each step. For this group the evening meal was over, any of today’s worries had been carefully laid aside for tomorrow, the important business was coming up….” [from “Night Watch” by Jim Bashline, Pennsylvania Angler, Aug., 1967]

At the center of Coudersport village, located on the headwaters of the Allegheny River near the New York/Pennsylvania border, two equally flowing waters join their forces. There the Allegheny River and Mill Creek formed a pool known, since 1865, as the Goodsell Hole. Nelson Goodsell had a planing mill at the junction pool, and there, in 1876, he caught a “speckled trout” weighing almost three pounds. In those days, prior to the introduction of European browns, the big junction pool was filled with native trout. In a diary written by Robert H. Pinney, a well-known Coudersport angler, it was noted that, “Father used to do some night fishing for speckled trout before 1900 and he made out all right. Wasn’t much point to it though– the brook trout were so plentiful at that time a man could catch any amount of them during the day on wet flies.”

After brown trout were established in northern Pennsylvania, the new fish were a hit with bait fishermen, but the larger browns became increasingly difficult to catch, especially with flies. As the waters of the lower Allegheny warmed each May and June, the brown trout headed upstream for the cooler waters near Coudersport.

“There were several pools on the way to Coudersport that would hold trout for a time, but the Goodsell Hole was the principle way station. The whirlpool action in the center of this junction was to the trout’s liking and here the fish would pause before making another upstream dash.”

The late Jim Bashline, a renowned outdoor writer and fly fisherman who grew up on the water near Coudersport, wrote the bible for a subject I was getting interested in. I read his “Night Fishing for Trout, the Final Frontier” many years ago but it wasn’t until recent days that I decided to head downstream from familiar headwater pools and riffles to the Coudersport area where the legend and the stories of “Night Fishing” unfold. I knew the village pretty well. My wife works for an agency with offices in that location, but I’d never taken the time to trace the paths of Bashline, Bob Pinney and the other angling heroes to the “greatest trout-producing pool in Pennsylvania and, for that matter, maybe the entire eastern United States.”

Bashline was just a kid when he hooked up with the Goodsell Hole and its dozen or so disciples. He eventually became accepted by the dedicated night anglers only by returning to its waters “night after night after night.” Eventually he wrote that the most skillful of his mentors was Robert Pinney, a “continually studying post graduate himself.” Pinney was a true trout bum in the modern sense of the term. He never got married, stating in his diary, “Wives that get along well with fishermen are hard to find. I never took much time out to look, so I didn’t find one.” Pinney was a “split-purist” fly fisherman without room for distractions. A devotee of big wet flies cast after dark, he also loved the dry fly during daylight hours and is said to have been among the first to cast a dry in northern Pennsylvania. For years he chose to be a night clerk at the Crittenden Hotel on Main Street, a short walk from the Goodsell Hole.

In 1967 Jim Bashline, Assistant Managing Editor at Field & Stream, wrote that it was doubtful any man “ever knew a single piece of water as well as Pinney knew the Goodsell Hole.” That statement in itself, assuming that it’s true, was enough to pique my interest and put me on the trail of Pinney’s ghost.

I never really saw the ghost of Robert Pinney who loved the Allegheny and the Mill Creek waters prior to destruction of the Goodsell Hole in the 1950s. It was difficult to find his traces. Sure, the evening sun still reflected from the huge clock on the courthouse steeple. But the bar at Pinney’s Crittenden Hotel was inexplicably closed. I settled for a lousy substitute meal at a fast-food joint. My stroll to the former shrine, the Goodsell, was predictably morose. The concrete channels of Mill Creek and the Allegheny mingled their ghosts of past and future scenes and shot me downriver for a little fishing to salvage my day. There, I tied on a variation of a George Harvey night fly pattern and gave it drift time as the night closed in.

From the 1920s to the ’50s, the Goodsell Hole, according to Bashline, probably outfished any similar piece of water in the country. Its concentration of trout, plus its dozen select night fishermen, combined for “an annual harvest of several hundred trophy fish– fish above the twenty-inch mark!” For years its circular shape, its incoming flows and conflicting currents, and its 12-foot average depth created a perfect setting for the relatively new pursuit of night-time fishing with a fly.

Downstream, at a deep hole near a covered bridge, the late-day Allegheny gave me room to wonder. Who was this man, Bob Pinney, legendary figure of the headwater nights. What agony it must have been for Bob and his cohorts to learn that Coudersport and the Army Corps of Engineers would be eliminating the Mecca of Nightfishing for Trout on eastern waters. To be razed in the name of Progress! Wiped out so that waters could be sluiced off quickly without regard for ecological understanding or local interest.

Standing downriver of the Goodsell 60 years later, all that I could see were outlines in the dark.

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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6 Responses to On the Trail of Pinney’s Ghost

  1. Bob Stanton says:

    Great post Walt! Excuse me if I gush a bit, but this is why I love your blog – great writing, good photos, and subject matter that escapes the attention of probably 90% of the populace (usually dismissed as “arcana” ), but is of the utmost interest to me. I read Bashline’s “Night Fishing…” years ago, borrowed from my Father-in-law, and re-read a few times since. I gotta get out and do it! And isn’t Coudy a beautiful town? God’s Country indeed. Nice job Walt, keep ’em coming!

  2. Keith from Puget Sound says:

    I wonder how many great fishing holes have been lost to “progress”. I haven’t been to that part of the world since the early 1990s but I enjoyed returning to for a few minutes. I agree with Bob that your posts are a great mix of writing and photos.

  3. Keith,
    I’m sure we’ve lost more good fishing holes than we want to consider. Some of them have gone by natural means, as when the dynamism of a stream takes one out here and builds another one there, but the sad losses are from the thoughtless money grabs like those that took the Goodsell Hole or those that stole a salmon run from rivers like the Elwha. Sure am pleased that some of those useless dams in places like Maine and Oregon are coming down and that wild fishes will be able to make their ancient runs again. It’s been excellent hearing from you. Thanks! I hope you have a great visit to Olympia N. P. Maybe someday I’ll have a chance to hike around the beautiful Northwest, too.

  4. Duane P Wetick says:

    I tried to find this shrine in 1970 after reading Rising Trout by Charles Fox…but it was long gone with only the town urchins throwing stones off the concrete slopes. The only good thing Coudersport is known for today is the incarceration of the Adelphia phone fraudsters for life. The floods of the 50’s were the reasons behind the concrete channels. Maybe someday the channels will all be dug up and returned to the natural banks…but I doubt it.

  5. Thank you, Duane. It’s interesting that you made the Coudersport investigation in 1970, long before I had a similar opportunity, but already laid in concrete. Hindsight is 20-20, but I think that dealing with the floods could have been accomplished without the same degree of ecological insensitivity. Eliminating those channels in favor of better habitat for fish makes for a pleasant dream.

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