I hadn’t fished Spring Creek (Caledonia, New York) for several years, so I jumped at an opportunity to revisit the limestone water on a warm day in early December. Unlike central and southern Pennsylvania, upstate New York has very few spring creeks for trout fishing (streams with a limestone base, with a steady supply of cold spring water served at a uniform temperature throughout the year, and with a food supply that tends to grow large, healthy trout). The stream that supports the Caledonia Fish Hatchery and flows northward into Oatka Creek and Lake Ontario is, to my knowledge, the finest limestone water in upstate New York.
Nearly all the fish below the state hatchery– browns, brooks and rainbows– are wild, and colorful from the richness of the food they eat. These trout are highly educated (from the anglers’ point of view) and certainly no pushovers. They can be extremely selective in what they rise to or pick up from the streambed or shake loose from the lush green gardens of cress. To fly fish successfully here, it helps to have a few odd characteristics: a) an ability to observe feeding trout, b) patience in reserve, c) a willingness to experiment with flies and leader tippets, and d) a love for the peace and quiet of a special upstate locale.
Most of Spring Brook flows through private property in Caledonia village, but there are a few points of public access. You can fish on the hatchery grounds during business hours (please note special regulations before attempting to fish any of this water) or you can park at the DEC lot on the north side of the village. The lot provides access to the”900s,” a local term for the popular 900-plus yards of public access downstream of the hatchery.
No, there isn’t much room to fish here, folks, so etiquette is paramount. Most of the anglers I’ve encountered here are conscientious people willing to sacrifice mobility so that the next guy doesn’t feel too crowded. But this jewel of a trout stream is a small one, and it’s popular, so I fish it only during the winter months. That way I am sure to find not only open water, but plenty of casting room, as well. Luckily, it doesn’t matter too much where you wind up fishing on the stream. There’s always plenty of trout in front of you, more fish than you or anyone can catch. The trick is to finesse your casts and get a wild trout on the line.
Right from the start I saw fish rising to midges (or emergent midges), forming rings on the surface or boils beneath it. Occasionally a trout would throttle its way up and out as if the quest had been for an emergent caddis. I was laying out a 10-foot leader tapered to a whisker-thin 7x point. But I couldn’t get a fish to take anywhere near the surface. I attempted to connect with every form of midge in the arsenal, from big to miniscule, from dry or pupa. Nothing worked, and the hours flew by unnoticeably, though I did feel a couple of pulls at a #24 Gnat. Nothing really happened until I changed my strategy and went for them on the bottom. Enter a Grey Scud, #14 hook.
The lesson: if you finesse it too much, you can come up empty handed. “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.” The Spring Creek way is not the way it was or will be. Today the trout went for the “big” hook on the bottom; tomorrow they could be sipping #28s in the surface film.
My last fish of the day was the one I wanted for a photograph. It was the fish that got released too early… I’d felt the take of a heavy brown and then my moves with the fish became a rodeo scene. I’d set the hook with a sharp lift of my arm. I reeled in the line, then pivotted as the brown raced at me and into the rocks behind my back. Holding up the rod, I’d fumbled for the net with my left hand, and then made a feeble attempt to pull the camera from a zipped-up pocket. I began to lift the trout from its shelter underneath the rocks. Wrong move! You should never lift a heavy trout by the leader, not if you plan on having a good look at your catch. It’s like wrestling a steer by the horns, I guess, and then letting go before the beef is tired. So the rock’s edge had split the leader and that was it, but not before I had a good look at a gorgeous buttery-toned brown.
There are big fish living in the beds of grass, but usually what you see are small ones, lots of them, living wild and colorful existences among the weaving grasses and conflicting currents. Be gentle with these fish, release them for another day among their kind, and lasso up some memories.