It was time to celebrate a quarter-century of fishing and exploring northern Pennsylvania. I was standing in the Allegheny River trying to catch a trout. Okay, no party lights or booze, just me with a fly rod in the cold damp air expecting rain or snow. The only other angler crazy enough to greet me here on football Sunday was John Cowburn, from nearby Ulysses, PA. He appeared on the little bridge above the stream, covered with enough cold weather clothing and fishing gear to keep me from recognizing him immediately.
“Is that you, Walter? It’s me, John Cowburn!”
Typically I’ll run into John on the Allegheny or Genesee rivers half a dozen times each year, but this was the first I’d seen him since last fall. Initially I met John in 1987, when my wife, who worked with him then in Wellsville, N.Y., told me of a guy who loved to fly fish as much as I did, and maybe he could take me fishing near his home in Penn’s Woods. And that’s how it started.
John introduced me to Pine Creek angling with a fly. When I asked him if he ever fished the distant waters like Slate and Cedar runs, he said, “Yeah, but I don’t need to go that far. There’s plenty of good trout streams close to home.” I took those words to heart even though I eventually ranged farther and farther from the rivertop streams in Potter County. While exploring the trout country in north-central Pennsylvania and throughout the upstate New York region, I attempted to learn as much of the home waters as possible and, to that end, I am learning still.
Ray Bergman wrote (in his classic Trout), One man’s life is too short to cover the subject in its entirety, in fact it takes ten consecutive years, from the opening of the season to the end, on one stream alone to even strike an average for that stream. So, how can anyone expect to be accurate in attempting to write about anything of this sort?
What consolation. One could fish the home water all of one’s life and never really get to know the entirety of its pools and riffles, currents and eddies, trout and crayfish, trees and birds, from source to mouth, because a stream or river constantly changes in the context of its sameness. Years ago, I decided to become as familiar as possible with the trout streams near my home, to fish them and enjoy them, to do what I could to give them a voice in the halls of local government, and then to range afield and sample more distant waters when I could.
And here I was, casting in the upper Allegheny as I did 25 years ago when I first met this stream, still chasing trout, both wild and stocked, in her cold and fertile waters. Did I know this fishery any better now that my hair has grayed and my face looks like an angler’s map? Perhaps, but the more I’ve learned of the waters the less I truly know.
John asked if I was fishing upstream or down. Figuring that he liked the upstream pools and undercuts, I said, “I dunno, I wouldn’t mind heading down.” And so I fished through the chilled and somber afternoon, casting an assortment of flies, discovering that the trout in the usual, deeper haunts were less likely to strike a drifting wet fly or a streamer than the fish that seemed to hunker down on the gravel beds in shallow water. I’ve fished the Allegheny hundreds of times over the years, and no two days were ever alike.
Just before dark I walked back to the pool where I’d last seen John. Minutes passed, and Cowburn reappeared. Comparing notes, I learned that he had done better than I did, but I’d caught a few tough fish and felt pretty good. I said, “John, you know, I was thinking about it. The year was 1987. You took me to Pine Creek and set me loose during a Cahill hatch.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I think it was about then.”
“I’ve been coming back every year since. I can’t remember most of the fish I’ve caught, but I’ll never forget these streams.”
After 16 years of fishing the Fox River and it’s creeks I know all the holes, flats, runs and whatever else may hold fish. But every year the fish are determined to let me know that I don’t know squat. I hope you celebrated your 25 years with at least one beer when you got home.
Ken, They keep us humble, and yeah, “at least one” accomplished!