We made our annual visit to the Maple Tree Inn (unlimited pancakes with maple syrup manufactured on the premises), hit the summit of Alma Hill (the highest point in western NY), refreshed ourselves at Four Mile Brewery in Olean (good food and craft beers), and hiked at nearby Pfeiffer Nature Center where our outlook from the crest of the Allegheny Plateau was witnessed by a bald eagle sailing over our heads.
I was ready for two days of dry fly fishing (yes!) in the warming forests of northern Pennsylvania. A couple of years ago when we were fighting frozen pipes and bitter winds at this time of year, I never would have imagined setting forth like this, to cast my way toward the source of a mountain brook in February.
The world may be changing faster than I’m able to make sense of it, but one thing is certain: I love a four-mile brook that’s totally removed from human presence, that has no trail or road or camp or house along its banks, whose savior is a vast state forest land and, not inconsequentially, is close to home.
To keep me humble while casting toward the 2500-foot summits, I did find one piece of human debris. No matter where you go, to the moon or to an ice-shelf in Antarctica, you’ll find at least a shard or two of evidence, a souvenir from man’s polluting ways. In this case what I found was yet another sample of ethereal plastic, a balloon that had drifted down from the blissful skies of a birthday party many miles away.
It looked like a battered brook trout in the tumbling waters of this stream. A trout that had bloated to the size of a basketball and had a long synthetic tail. I could still read the HAPPY BIRTHDAY message scrawled across its ugly back. I thanked it for the sentiment, even though I still had months to go before another birthday took its toll. These wayward balloons are found on all too many wild outings.
The good news is that my two long fishing hikes produced a lot of brook trout taken on a barbless dry fly then released. To fish this mountain stream confirmed my earlier suspicion that to cast a floating artificial might bring faster action than fishing with a wet fly. In fact, three-fourths of the numerous brook trout that I caught while experimenting were fooled by the dry fly.
Again I reminded myself that, despite the pleasant weather, this was still winter fishing. The trout (bless their wild little hearts) were rising when the water temperature never exceeded 42 or 43 Fahrenheit degrees.
The brook changed its character several times before I finally reached a point where summit alders and swamp terrain put stamps of approval on my forehead. As far as I could tell, this forestland had never been farmed, although the stream’s first half mile above Pine Creek had several locations that reminded me of aging meadow going wild. Vines and high grasses hugged the banks, inviting ruffed grouse to leave the woods and check things out.
Upstream, the deciduous slopes closed in tightly on the stream and presented casting challenges with fallen trees and overhanging branches. At about the one-mile mark, the forest really opened up and treated me with more traditional casting opportunities. Cliffs and mossy boulders (glacial debris or the fruits of hard erosion) were encountered. Pocket water tempted the floating Stimulator.
Although the rocky stream was in excellent form as snow melted from the slopes above, I knew that its presence would be different later on. No doubt the spring wildflowers would allure me, and the summer brook, while still sheltering little trout, would seem a mere trickle compared to this pleasant water.
In closing, I’d like to add a few words about one of my favorite predators. Once again, I was privileged to encounter a golden eagle, a species still uncommon in eastern portions of America.
On the morning of my second visit to this stream, I saw the great bird hunched in a small tree above a roadkill near the spot where I would park my vehicle. I slowed to a stop and rolled down my window.
The dark bird prepared to launch, the rust-colored sheen of its nape reflecting the first hints of morning sunshine. Disgruntled by my interruption at its dining table, the golden uttered a few low kee-er notes and lifted its wings.