1. Around here we call them “runs”– the small streams tumbling down the wooded slopes to the river valleys (particularly on the Pennsylvania side of the rivertop region). Nearly all of them interest me, especially those whose habitats include the lives of wild trout.
To get some first-hand knowledge of the many streams and rivers in my region, I walk and try to fly-fish as many as possible. It’s work, but it’s so pleasurable that when I start to fantasize about getting paid for doing it I have to pinch myself with the reminder that I live on Earth and not in some Beulah Land or Blessed Abode of the Eternal Trout.
I walk the runs each fishing season in order to know the territory. That is, I try to know it. When I start to think I’m getting good at knowing the streams and land forms, I rewalk the runs and slowly realize I don’t really know that much about them yet.
One thing that I’ve learned through my repetitive walks and fishing excursions is that the face of nature is forever changing its dimensions and textures. The change is slow in some locations and faster in others, but “you never step in the same stream twice.”
2. This past weekend I sampled seven runs in PA and, from the standpoint of fishing, it was pretty much a bust. The nights had been cold and the daytime water temps never climbed above the low 40s. There was little hatch activity, although I saw some Blue Quills and Quill Gordons coming off of Cedar Run.
The outings started on a good note with a Slate Run Sportsmen’s clean-up of the Slate Run Road. In short order I encountered a small black bear and saw a bald eagle or two. Trillium flowers were blossoming on the wooded slopes, and I even managed to catch a couple of brookies on a headwater stream.
For the most part, though, I went fishless, as did several other fly-fishermen I spoke with. The rivertops might have smelled a bit like Skunk Town here, but wait… I was getting reacquainted with the territory. I was getting another look at its plants and animals and geologic formations, even chatting with a person or two who was knowledgeable about the place.
Walking the runs in search for trout is a good way to get a handle on the sense of place. It’s not the only way, of course, and on a pleasant weekend here you might see lots of folks involved with other ways of getting it– by hiking, biking, bird-watching, getting lost on backcountry roads, or floating a canoe or kayak through the Pine Creek canyon.
I enjoy the brooks and mountain streams because they’re beautiful and intimate. They’re small, and I like thinking small– especially when a small thing like a stream includes the possibility of bigness, the chance to find an ocean of significance.
When I’m walking or fishing along a run, it’s possible that everything outside of this small place will fall away… Goodbye news of the world. Farewell, financial woes. See ya later, dear friends and screwball enemies… For the purity of the moment, for its sheer simplicity, I’ve got something that’s almost sacred. If the stream could talk, it just might tell me something about who I am and where I’m headed.
So you cast a line in the quiet company of streams…
The waters of earth move systematically. The brook trout gets connected to the wood duck that’s connected to the forest that’s connected to the trout lily blossoming underneath. There’s distance here, but the place is also close and intimate.
3. At a time like this the streams are typically flowing at their annual peak. They carry off the snows of winter, and the angler, too, breaks the shuck of ice encasing his soul. The underwater nymphs begin to shed their exoskeletons and emerge with wings at the surface of the stream. Awakened trout are hungry and they rise to the occasion. This may sound like perfection, but perfection is a state of mind, a step or two behind the rolling wheels of evolution.
Speaking of perfection, native brook trout race from rock and log cover as you approach along the bank. They are small fish and they zigzag through the clear pools in dread of what could strike them from above.
The smallness of their race is perfect and it saves enough of them from predation. They’ll survive, at least for now. If we introduce a large fish here, a big rainbow or a hatchery brown, it won’t live for long. Predation will remove whatever doesn’t fit. To see a small native, though, held briefly in the palm of your hand above a small run in the mountains is about as close to perfection as you’ll get.
Slate and Cedar runs are well-known streams, protected waters, wild and sometimes difficult to access. They get fished by a lot by folks who, for the most part, look after them, so I’m not afraid to mention them by name. It’s the lesser knowns, the fragile ones, the scenic streams that are good to fish, that I’m reluctant to mention by name.
I won’t mention them specifically but I’ll encourage anyone who’s interested to go out there and explore. It’s a good thing to learn about new places on your own and to walk the runs if you’re able.