Picket Pin

One of my older fishing pals told me that his favorite fly pattern for night angling on the home river was a Picket Pin. Another elder told me that he likes to cast the same time-honored pattern (first developed in early twentieth-century Montana) on the upper stream because it imitates the plentiful stick caddis when tied with only peacock herl and squirrel-tail for a “wing.”

a typical meadow stretch…

I tied a few Picket Pin dry flies but they didn’t look right. Hopefully the trout like them better than my photo editor does. Other than a trout fly, a picket pin is a steel stake with a rope and swivel useful for tethering a horse. Additionally, it’s a nickname for several Western ground squirrel species that stand up on the prairie, looking like a stake, while gathering sensory data for their own survival. The Montana fly pattern took its name from the  squirrels and eventually became an angling favorite across the land.

old rail trail at the river…

springs like this provide cold water through the seasons…

It had been a good week fly-fishing the upper stretches of the home river, rambling through some interesting hemlock woods and pasture edges in Amish country. I was fascinated by what appeared to be unusually good numbers of wild and holdover browns– much better than I found in larger, downstream sections of the river. I surmised one reason for the difference: the upstream water had sufficient shade and more than ample springs to keep it cool throughout the rainy seasons of the previous year.

wild brown…

one of many holdovers… larger browns ranged from 14-16 inches…

The Hendrickson mayfly hatch came off each day at mid-afternoon and lasted for the better part of 90 minutes. I was lucky to observe the feeding habits of hungry trout before the local Amish families finished their work in order to fish the big pools that were new to me. I spoke to several of the pleasant farmers, young and old, and they were eager to fill their grocery bags with trout. Where Jim K. and I had fished one pool in solitude on Tuesday afternoon, there were close to a dozen family members on Wednesday slinging earthworms as the mayflies reemerged.

three Amish boys fished a deep pool while standing on this fallen hemlock…

Jim lands one during the Hendrickson hatch…

I want to go back and find new holes and undercuts far from boot tracks and discarded bait containers. They’ll be found, I’m sure, and maybe I’ll report on them while keeping old Ben Franklin, scientist, diplomat and inventor, in mind.

trout lilies were abundant…

one of many new river scenes…

I’ve been reading some of Franklin’s inspirational letters that reflect his multi-faceted interests and I’ve noted what’s been said of his own requirements for good writing. Everything that the good doctor wrote had to be “smooth, clear, and short.” The writing helped to keep his unusual talents focused and attractive. Like a Picket Pin on a riffle or a short stake in the ground.

[And from the picket pin of Benjamin to the horse of a different guy with identical surname, a gentle reminder that his latest is available on Amazon if you still need some tasty literary fodder…]


bonus pic#1: Canadice Lake, the smallest of the Finger Lakes…

#2: tried for lake trout with a fly… no dice!


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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29 Responses to Picket Pin

  1. alex55manta says:

    Happy May Day! Wonderful outing #1,589,647 (just a pure guess on the number). Nice background on the Picket Pin. I didn’t know it’s history. What’s coming up after the hendricksons back your way?

    • You’re pretty close with that outing number, UB. I didn’t know anyone had the counter on. Anyway, looking forward to the mayfly spinner fall (Rusties), various caddis, the March Brown and the grand parade to follow….

      • alex55manta says:

        The picture/image of the Picket Pin almost had that photographic quality of the plates I remember being in Berman’s “TROUT”. A really interesting effect of quality. I’ll have to ask you to elaborate on some time in the future.
        Sounds like you’ll have a nice parade to witness!
        take care – see you this evening 😉 – UB

  2. Anonymous says:

    The Picket Pin is fantastic. Both as originally tied, and the various variants that have evolved. Probably my favorite – “I’ve not fished here before what should I toss” fly going. Fun to see you write about it!

    • Thank you for this! It’s great to hear & see support for this pattern. I look forward to learning more about it and to fishing it as a dry fly, wet & streamer. I was afraid it might be one of those forgotten patterns, but it’s not to be, at least among those who still believe and who appreciate the fly-fishing history.

      • Will (Annonymous above, I was lazy :)) says:

        One thing that’s interesting, is how it’s tied differently, yet considered the same. The first version I saw was a streamer tied on a #6 or 8 long shank and no herl ahead of the wing, just squirrel tied in like a bucktail at the head. Fished that for years before learning the guy who taught it to me, had done that, based on hooks he had and seeing it in an old book! I’ve seen them tied with a silver tinsel body, hackle palmered over, then the squirrel wing and the herl leading to the thread head… and the classic wet fly style (my favorite).

        It’s almost like a woolly bugger – seems to make fish think it could be many different things, ranging from a minnow or big insect (streamer version) to an emerging insect or even adult as a wet or dry.

        GREAT little fly, and as you noted, very cool history – which seems to be the case of many flies that work great but rarely are fished anymore… Like the Tellico Nymph for example. That’s a GREAT fly too!

      • Jim Duquette says:

        Hi Walt! Loved your latest Learning the Terrain! Got me started on tying some picket pins!
        Hoping Bath Library will have you back..they are sort of working on it. Sorry could not be at Hornell tonight but have to watch the night driving. On Smith Pond outside of Howard.

  3. Brent says:

    Nice pictures of the upper branches and of Canadice Lake, and I enjoyed the history of a pattern I’d never heard of. Curious, do the Amish have a cultural exemption from normal fishing regulations? I wouldn’t think catch-and-take with live bait would be allowed, but I also can’t imagine that the Amish would be strictly enforced.

    • The Amish have to follow the same regulations as everybody else but, unfortunately, there are no special regs on the upper branches of this river, i.e., no Artificial Lures Only, no Catch-and-Release, ensuring a greater likelihood of trout survival in the areas of easy access. Under standard regulations at this site (I’m not sure what the PA kill limit is, it may be 3, it may be 5 trout per day– I’d have to check) the appearance of a sudden group like the Amish families could wipe out a population in short order. I can not be sure how many fish are being taken legally, but I can tell there are now less trout at the one site than there were a week ago when I was the first to fish it for the season. These are folks entitled to a legal catch, but in large groups like this where each adult can take a daily limit, there is certainly an impact on the river. Then again, I’ve got to keep in mind that most of the remaining fish in this location are wild trout or holdovers from a previous season– not exactly the dumb hatchery specimens dumped in downstream at the bridges– so they still have their survival instincts. Also, people like Jim & I are doing what we can to “educate” survivors on how to get along with two-legged predators with fishing poles.

  4. plaidcamper says:

    Hooray for May! Enjoyed this one, as always, and your riverside and lakeside reports are a helpful reminder that not everything has changed. Traditional activities are still taking place, as they should – the notion of young ones balancing on a downed log to fish is very calming.
    I liked the picket pin stories. I think you’ve a hankering to head west…
    Thanks, Walt!

    • Adam, thanks to you & UB for the May Day greeting, first day of my favorite month, and our hopes for better days ahead. It’s good to see traditional activities taking place, especially if they’re followed in good faith not only for the soul but for the environment too. As for the hankering… yep, I do, for sure.

  5. Dale Houseknecht says:

    Hi Walt
    I heard years ago the picket pin was the go to fly on the Pine! I ty a variation I call the pick pocket!
    Can’t wait till I get my hands on the new book!

    • Hi Dale,
      It’s hard for me to promote the new book these days but hopefully you’ll get a copy soon. You’re right about the Picket Pin’s popularity on the Pine, at least in former days. I’ll have to pick your brain on how to tie that variation, which I’ve heard about from some other source, as well.

    • alex55manta says:

      Hiya Dale, (UB = Marion) I didn’t know the PP was a ole Pine ‘go to’ from years ago. And Walt’s book is good! See you guys this evening if you go to the Zoom.

  6. Dale Houseknecht says:

    Walt send me a copy signed. I will pay you when I see you
    Thanks Dale

    • Dale, I found your street address & will gladly ship out a signed copy to you on Monday. Thanks! And good to see you & other SR mugs Zooming through the digital spheres tonight!

  7. Dale Houseknecht says:

    Hope you got the right address
    100 Laurel Rd
    Mountain top PA 18707

  8. Dale Houseknecht says:

    Thanks Walt look forward to reading it

  9. Bob Stanton says:

    Somewhat high water here has dampened (no pun intended) the success on a personal level, while scads of angling folk everywhere has pushed me to less pressured places or off the water completely. Prolific grannom hatches have put a song in my heart though…

    • I’ve been pushed along also. Familiar sites are not fishing well, with one or two exceptions, and have me wondering… I hope you’re doing okay otherwise… and I’ll be looking for those grannoms soon!

  10. Will,
    Thanks for the further input on the versatility of the Picket Pin (see above, 5/4/20). I think that’s the beauty of this pattern– it can be tied in different ways & still represent a natural of some sort or another. The Tellico is another fine old pattern, originating in the South but having a wide appeal as a general attractor or specific imitator. Seems like it should be especially useful in these parts as a Golden Stonefly pattern.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I had success with a yellow or ‘golden’ Stimulator once in a regional waterway. I’m sure the trout thought it was a golden stonefly. When I first saw the image you presented above, I noticed the resemblances to the Stimulator. I even had one fooled on Pine with it too, and there were no stoneflies of it’s size to be found at that time. – UB

  12. I love using “golden Stimulator” dries on fast water, especially in spring & fall. Almost a “go-to” when no other fly is hatching… And the woven nymph can be good at times. As for the image of the Picket Pin above, it’s from an old favorite fishing book I’ve had since 1967, believe it not– the Outdoor Life Complete Book of Fresh Water Fishing by Allen Parsons, a book with color plates and info that I still find very useful.

  13. Chocky says:

    Beautiful country. Nothing beats a walk down a narrow trail to some deep pools.

  14. JZ says:

    The Picket Finn is not a lost fly with this angler. I had nice days with it in the past, especially during grannoms hatch where higher water levels are the norm. It is a wonderful spring time fly. Swinging wets are popular with me..

    • Glad to hear that the Picket is no stranger to you, JZ. I’m glad I learned more about it this spring. As you say, it’s a wonderful springtime pattern and I look forward to its continued use now that the Grannoms are about to hatch around here. Today, in fact, was a good occasion for casting with the Picket. Caught/released eight trout, including a wild 15-incher & a hatchery brown that measured about 16. I’m sold on the pattern.

  15. Hi Jim D.,

    Good to hear from you, Jim! I’m pleased that you enjoyed Learning the Terrain & felt moved to tie the Picket Pin. The Hornell reading went well. I should check back with the Bath Library & see if it might be interested in having me do a reading there, as well. Thanks for thinking of me, and I hope we cross tracks somewhere on the stream of life.

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