Two of America’s Finest

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 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAafternoon 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe 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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese 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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALeighanne 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 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAactivities 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.DSCN6761DSCN6776DSCN6778

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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30 Responses to Two of America’s Finest

  1. Leigh says:


    Sounds like a great trip for you and your family. Congratulations on your son’s engagement.

    Hope we can catch up before the end of the summer.


  2. Bob Stanton says:

    Nice pic there, the top one – you look rather Huck Finnish with pant legs rolled up, stalking the banks of the Mississippi…er, LeTort. And I like the one of Leighanne playing the role of ghillie too. I was out your way over the weekend. My brother and I went to the PA Lumber Museum’s Barkpeeler’s Convention Saturday, and upon leaving there decided to give him a tour of places he’d never seen, so we went to the Pine Creek gorge, then down 414 to Cedar and Slate runs. I told him about your quests, fishing the length of both runs and your involvement in the Slate Run Sportsmen. Above the Manor Hotel, we stopped at the small cemetery to see some ancient Tome headstones, then proceeded to the headwaters of the mighty Allegheny. A fun time showing him around the area, but it’s whetted my appetite to explore the region more. We’ll have to get together soon, even if the fishing is less than ideal.

  3. I’ll drink to that, Bob, all of it. Glad you guys made it to the Lumber Museum, the gorge, the runs, and the headwaters– quite a little tour, as well as paying respects to your family heritage there at Slate. Sounds like a fun time. We’ll have to get together for another round of it, soon. Let me know when you see an opening!

  4. Les Kish says:

    What a swell trip Walt. Nothing like mixing a little fun, fishing and history. Just picked up a copy of Marinaro’s “Modern Dry Fly Code.” I’ll read it with interest as it relates to your post.

    Hope you had a good weekend. By the way, has Leighanne’s back healed?

  5. Fun plus fish plus history = a damn nice weekend, Les. I hope yours was equally pleasant. Marinaro’s book is a classic of its kind. He and Fox and other notables did some serious studies on these streams. I know you’ll relate because you’re another dedicated spring creek student (even if you attend those awesome MT classrooms, heh heh!) And yes, L.’s back has healed very nicely. No more pain!

  6. Brent says:

    I dare say you successfully “bridged the gap” between the domestic and wild spheres here. A nice introduction to a nice weekend, and we’re looking forward to continuing the fun in just a few days!

  7. Gramps says:

    As classic as it can get, Walt. Thanks for sharing your trip with us. I can only imagine the history that has gone down on those two spring creeks. Congratulations to your son also!

    • Thanks for all, Mel. Yeah the history there isn’t quite as bold as some fly-fishing histories, but in this country it’s as rooted as it gets, and something I’m still learning more about, a little at a time. Enjoy some Colorado fishing!

  8. plaidcamper says:

    This might be a repeat comment (sketchy internet here), anyway, great post, enjoyed the stories and the photos. (Well done to all that have found both independence and a happy marriage – life is good!)

  9. Doug Paugh says:

    Great work Walt. I love the mix and connection you make between the wild and domestic in our lives. It certainly looks like you and Leighanne had a rewarding trip.

    • Doug,
      Thanks! That mix and connect you mention is important, from my point of view. Again I’m pleased that people notice where it’s coming from. I’ve got a piece of hard copy heading your way via mailbox, even though snailmail seems to be getting slower all the time.

  10. Kevin Frank says:

    Looks like a fun trip. Family, fun and fishing.

  11. Walt
    What a great trip to make with the family. The freestone stream is on my bucket list of things to accomplish in the coming years. The closet I live to that type fishing is the Great Smokey Mountains. I envy all you guys that have access to all those wild streams. Great Post!!

    • Thank you, Bill. The freestone, rain-dependent, streams are what I typically fish, and the limestoners, like the two described here, I fish infrequently, but especially like them in winter when all the others are frozen up or high and muddy. Limestones are a special treat for me. But yeah, the Smokies have plenty of what you’ll like. Meanwhile, enjoy your summer and stay in touch!

  12. Alan Petrucci says:

    I’ve wanted to fish the Letort for many years, not so much as to take one of those framed diploma brown trout,but just to wet a line in such fabled waters.

    • It really is special, Alan, especially when you get in there, on the historic water, and out of the surrounding city with its interstate and all. The stream is tough, and the fisherman, willing to give it his best, is humbled and happy to catch a trout or two.

  13. Ross says:

    What a great opportunity to fish a special stream & share time with family. Congrats Walt.

    • One of the nice things about a limestone stream is that they stay relatively stable in temp and clarity throughout weather extremes. Our freestones have been high and muddy of late, but the spring creeks are more than fishable. So, thanks Ross! I appreciate your comment.

  14. You’ve struck a cord again Walt. One of my passions is history and I fish around a lot of the old west mining history in Colorado. I love your part of the country not only for it’s beauty, but for some great history as well. Thanks!

    • You’re welcome, Howard, and I feel the same way about rural Colorado, ever since I got pleasantly stranded near Boulder in the early 70s and wished I had more time to explore the mine sites and mountain streams. Either way, fishing is a great way to meditate on our surroundings, especially when they’re beautiful and laced with history. With thanks!

  15. I have a penchant for historic buildings like what’s pictured here. Looks like you managed to find some great spots off the road to explore! Congratulations to your son and future daughter-in-law (or daughter-in-love, as my MIL says. Sounds kinder!).

    • Mary Anne,
      Yes I’d say we share an interest in off-road places where history remains alive. Thanks for commenting and sharing a softer and kinder designation for those new relationships incurred by marriage.

  16. Magnificent wren shots! And yes, well, you know I just love the rest. Makes me feel like I’m back up Pine Creek near Slate Run.

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