The thing some people don’t understand about fishermen is that catching fish is only part of the gig. There’s a range of motives and excuses that lead anglers to the river, and there’s a faction of fishers that hit the water simply because they need to.
When I say “some people don’t understand,” I mean the family and friends who look at you sideways when you do anything outside the norm, anything beyond the common things a fisherman is supposed to do.
Around here it’s “trout season” from the second Saturday in April to somewhere around the middle of June. After that, trout fishing gets a little tougher, and most guys find other distractions in life to keep their brains occupied and their hands busy. But a lot of my friends fish all year long.
Anglers from outside this area tell me I’m lucky to live where I do. And I tell them luck has nothing to do with it. I chose to live here, in large part, because the wild trout fishing is excellent in every month of the year. Sure, there are other areas of the country with lots of wild trout, but in most of those places it gets too cold in the winter or too warm in the summer, so the fish and the fishermen shut down for a period of time. Not here.
These limestone rivers are thermally consistent (mostly). They’re part of the Ridge and Valley province of the Appalachian Mountains that cuts through Central PA, just east of the Allegheny Plateau. As a result, our rivers are defined by fairly steep gradients, giving these limestoners the feel of a tumbling freestoner. It’s a wonderful combination that adds to the consistent trout fishing of this region.
Our browns and brookies have options, and so do the fishermen. Daily, you might find trout with their noses at the surface, scanning the flow for a cluster of dancing midges, or you might choose the pocket water beside those risers, fooling trout on the lookout for the next scud, stonefly or BWO nymph. That’s consistency.
Such a place breeds anglers built for the long haul, fishermen who shape their lives around the flowing waters of a trout stream. I have a friend who fishes because it’s Tuesday evening. And no matter the conditions, that’s what he does after work every Tuesday — he fishes.
With more stable flows offered by the spring creeks, even our periods of drought are still fishable in all but the most extreme periods. The water levels may drop, but rarely are the rivers too low to fish. Likewise, when heavy rains come, it takes a significant event, often over a multi-day stretch, to blow out my favorite rivers. Like any body of flowing water, however, too much rain makes mud — but some still fish, maybe because it’s Tuesday.
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My nine-year-old son, Joey, wrapped up his final baseball game of the All-Star season with a good win, going two for three, making a couple of outs in the field, and with no errors. For any Little League kid, that’s a good game, and Joey was all smiles. Earlier, heavy rains puddled the ball field enough that it took the best efforts of a large volunteer grounds crew and a host of shovels and rakes to get the last game played. We sandwiched it right in between two thunderstorms, game time at noon.
So on the way home from the ball field, with dirty shoes and sweatshirts, we took a short detour that leads beside my home stream. It was high and muddy already, with more rain to follow. But I knew I’d fish the next morning anyway.
I got out somewhere around 10:00 am. One advantage to fishing in such conditions is that expectations are low. You don’t have to tell yourself any lies about the best opportunities of early morning or things like that.
Mud is mud.
Sure, some guys say you’ll catch the river beast only in high water. And most general trout fishing books contain a section that puts a positive spin on high water, detailing tactics that are sure to fool trout even with a river in flood stage.
I used to go out in such conditions because I believed that stuff. I thought once I brushed up on my muddy water techniques I would land the biggest trout in the river. But that’s a whole lot of bullshit, and I know that now. High water is one thing, but muddy water is another. And in the mud, everyone’s hoping more than fishing — I don’t care who you are. Yeah, you might get lucky, and there are things you can do to improve your odds. But those odds are always stacked against you — stacked real high (and muddy).
So I happily walked to the river with my head down, using the brim of my hat to block the blowing rain. I rounded the bend, full of defiance in the face of low odds, and was surprised to see another angler. He too had his raincoat battened up against the wind and driving rain. The fisherman worked the edges of the creek, just inches above a new streambed that had been mostly dry leaves and twigs a couple days ago. Although I couldn’t see his face, the man’s posture and confident motion showed he was content — perhaps stubborn and a little rebellious.
The paneled hood of the fisherman’s army-green raincoat blocked his peripheral vision, and he never saw me pass just ten yards away. I chose to give him that space, without speaking a word of distraction. No doubt, he fished the rest of the day without seeing another angler and was pleased by that fact — it’s a special feeling. Solitude is probably one reason why he was fishing mud in the first place.
When you see an angler at a time like this, you don’t ask about the fishing. You already know the answer. And there’s no sense putting a fellow into a situation where he must either admit the goose egg or tell a lie.
So I silently passed the fisherman and walked deep into the dripping hemlocks before I fished. I followed the muddy trail-turned-small-sidestream. It was fed by blankets of rain that stirred up more sediment for the river.
I fished hard. And I was happy. Like the other fisherman, I worked the edges because I knew it was my only hope. And because, honestly, it’s all I could reach through the flood. On occasion I snagged an underwater tree limb with my streamer. Sometimes the branch bent under the pressure of my hook-set, providing a feel quite similar to that of a good sized trout. And in those moments my excitement bubbled with adrenaline. There are, after all, large trout in the shallows at times like these. But only once did the line stop with a fish at the end. I set the hook too hard on the little guy, and he bounced off within seconds.
Somehow I knew that was my only shot of the day. And I was right.
Hours later, with darkness settling in, I walked into my garage and through the back door. Aiden, my seven-year-old son, rushed to meet me. He skidded to a stop on the tile floor and laughed when he saw that every part of me was waterlogged and dripping.
“You’re SO wet, Dad” He laughed, wide eyed. “How many fish did you catch?”
“Three,” I lied. Never tell a kid that you struck out looking.
After I hung my wet clothes and the raingear, my boys and I began the familiar process of emptying my vest over the kitchen table. We opened the fly boxes to drip dry, and spread out the various fishing paraphernalia across a dry towel.
My wife looked over from across the kitchen.
“You’re fishing tomorrow too, aren’t you?” She asked.
I nodded and smiled back to her.
“You know it’s supposed to keep raining all night?” She asked.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N