En route to Warrenton, Virginia for several days, I stopped to fly-fish a couple of America’s finest trout streams. We were heading south to help celebrate Independence Day and the recent engagement of son and future daughter-in-law. With an extra afternoon and evening on hand, I became more acquainted with two of our finest spring creeks.
The Letort, in Carlisle, PA was made world famous by the likes of writers Charlie Fox and Vince Marinaro who perfected the development and use of fly patterns suited for diet-rich limestone creeks. Ed Shenck developed the Letort Cricket and Letort Hopper around 1960, and I remember ordering my first artificial trout flies by mail just a few years later. It may have been Ed Shenck, himself, who tried to decipher a schoolboy’s handwriting that asked him to please send two Letort Crickets to the following address… And while you’re at it, please find the dollar bill enclosed.
The Letort and its neighboring Big Spring Creek are commonly considered to be among the most difficult trout streams in America to fly-fish with success. These classic limestone creeks are packed with wild trout that are well-fed and selective in their feeding habits. Thick water grasses interweave conflicting currents of these streams; and yes, the currents are capable of maddening a fly line operator if he or she is not equipped with counter-acting strategies.
The Letort is a sacred bastion of the wild that is now mostly enclosed by the city of Carlisle. Big Spring is found near the village of Newville and offers an idyllic rural atmosphere that I want to keep exploring in future seasons.
The Letort, with its dense environment ripe with streamside brush and vegetation, suggested that I fish with a short rod– in this case, a 7-foot Phillipson with a 3-weight line. The Big Spring headwaters, with its open-ended casting lanes, suggested that my F.E. Thomas– a longer, vintage 1930s stick– would be useful here.
Wading is highly discouraged in these streams where deep layers of sediment coat the bottom. Typically, an angler walks the banks and sight-fishes. I was no different, although I sometimes entered the edges of the run, enjoying the feel of cold spring water on my bare legs and wading shoes.
I collected and released a nice Letort brown along “Vince’s Meadow.” It came from the far bank, a deep channel with overreaching logs. The brown trout nailed a tiny mayfly pattern (a Pheasant-tail nymph) that I’d swung on a long, fine leader, in tandem with a Midge Pupa. I had to work the fish quickly to prevent its escape in the grassbeds at the center of the stream.
We drove to Newville for my Big Spring debut, following the stream to its headwaters below the infamous state hatchery. This stream, also beloved by the angling fraternity throughout the years, is known for the largest wild brook trout in the country, outside of watery Maine.
These natives can occasionally grow to five pounds and attain a length of 18 inches, but the stream’s recent history has been marred. The fishery was decimated by hatchery effluent and agricultural run-off during the last few decades of the 20th century. When the hatchery was decommissioned about 15 years ago (thanks to protest by environmental groups), the trout fishing returned full-force, albeit with some new ecological issues.
The first mile of Big Spring Creek below the hatchery site is designated as fly-fishing-only water, with the use of barbless hooks. Below that, the regulations change, and the stream is infused with a mix of wild and stocked fish.
Since the closure of the state hatchery, the rainbow trout population has exploded and presented a problem for the brown trout and native brooks with which it competes. Big Spring is one the few trout streams in the state that’s capable of producing wild rainbow trout.
The short stretch of water just below the hatchery is known as “The Ditch.” Large trout– rainbows, brooks and browns– can be viewed easily in this quiet stretch of grassy water but they’re anything but pushovers. After catching a small wild rainbow in the faster waters below the Ditch, I concentrated my efforts here, but not successfully.
Leighanne sat on ramparts of an old dam and directed my long casts from a crouched position upstream. I got some follows of the Midge and Pheasant-tail patterns but, alas, these hefty cruisers weren’t completely buying.
It was a pleasant introduction to a long holiday weekend celebrating both independence and marraige, two concepts that are not mutually exclusive, or so I am told.
The wild trout of Pennsylvania’s limestone creeks were probably selective in their feeding habits when I visited. They were more selective, surely, than our human activities indicated as we celebrated on a backyard deck. For company, we had a pair of Carolina wrens that fed their young ones in a nest jammed between some leaning chairs and a back wall of the house.
The young wrens consumed every buggy morsel brought to them throughout the day. We humans, young and old, consumed our own versions of tasty food and drink. Not least of all, we listened to each other’s tales originating from the great outdoors beyond.