Opening day for trout in northern Pennsylvania offered excellent weather and an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the headwaters. For 35 years I’ve fished three branches of the Genesee (the East, Middle, and West) on the April opener for the sake of exploration, tradition and simple outdoor fun.
Back in 1987, when I started this odd obsession, I began my casting not on opening day but slightly later, and on the Middle Branch. I was pleased to note a great white pine tree and various wildflowers marking a fresh new season on the water. I began a poetry project to be called The Wild Trout where “I was happy to explore a backyard region unfamiliar to me, the forested north-central hills of Pennsylvania,” and where “Salvelinus fontinalis, the native brook trout, was a major resource/ inspiration for this work.”
35 years later I was in the same general area and still enjoying the cold clear waters, though a bit concerned about low water levels for early April. I caught a rainbow with a Muddler Minnow at the East Branch and a second rainbow with a small black nymph along the Middle Branch in time for a modest hatch of stoneflies. The West Branch, where I’ve typically had my best luck until recent years, offered nothing in the way of fish this time around.
I remembered beaver ponds on the Middle Branch and found them to be just as prevalent now on all three branches. It was still too early for the barn swallows that were just returning on migration in 1987, swarming for a hatch of flies. I remembered experimenting with… bait… yes, that’s right– the first and only time I ever dropped an angle worm into flowing water. Proving once again that fly anglers are an inconsistent lot, I wrote about it in the opening poem of The Wild Trout, saying “… Casting alternately/ with a Blue Dun wet fly/ and a garden worm,/ I catch sweet glimpses/ of the barn swallow’s first/ appearance, tired traveler/ skimming hungrily/ through an insect hatch.”
Well, that was then and this is now. I can laugh about it and not feel the need to apologize. As a kid, fishing with a fly in the 1960s, I never used nor wanted to employ live bait for trout but, alas, a middle-aged angler longed to be “more complete” and go against the grain of orthodoxy. No big deal. Bliss Perry, an ivy-league professor/writer and fly fisherman was lured by the worm. His once popular Fishing with a Worm (1916) is one of only several books ever written on the subject (compare that number to the thousands now available on fly-fishing). It presents an honest and humorous look at angling, especially for those willing to drift a baited hook through the wrenching, shirt-sleeve tearing alder alleys often found along our streams.
Some Amish boys dug manured ground for worms to sell or to drop into deep pools of the East Branch when their work was done, an admirable and time-tested strategy, though not my own. A great blue heron rose from the woods along the river, almost like a human body aged and enervating but assured by time and practice. Herons, though, have a talent at the water that exceeds every human effort even in our dreams.