It’s been a rough summer.
Not rough in any kind of honest, absolute sense. But rough in the sort of relative sense where things like middle-class white men not getting to spend enough leisure time fishing and tiny brook trout not having their normal amount of cold, clean water to frolic around in are the sort of things that are taken with a grave measure of seriousness.
Life has conspired to keep me off the water almost entirely since most of our eastern mayfly hatches tapered off much earlier in the season. But much to my excitement, some recent unexpected free time offered an opportunity to ply the waters of one of my favorite northeastern brook trout streams. It’s a handsome little creek, lined with old growth forests, that tumbles through a tight ravine in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains. Truly a product of the surrounding topography, it is almost without exception a plentiful series of short, shallow riffles punctuated by rocky spillovers and deep, cold plunge pools, each of which hold a bounty of trout.
August and September often offer up excellent dry fly fishing on this creek, where those typically dry months weaken streamflows and congregate fish in the stream’s deeper pools. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun drifting terrestrials and bushy attractor dries and taking one fish after another which seem intent on fattening up for an autumn season that hasn’t quite arrived yet.
Arriving at the creek I was dismayed to see that the near drought conditions of much of the past several months had left the creek largely devoid of water, leaving flows a mere fraction of anything I had become accustomed to seeing over the normally lean months of late summer. But as I worked my way upstream, I noticed that each of the stream’s best deep pools were flush with cold, clean water and still were fed by the plunge of the spillover above, and so I assumed the fishing would be good — even if a bit more challenging that I’d come expecting. And regardless of whether the fishing turned out to be spectacular or just run-of-the-mill good, I was elated at the thought of a having a peaceful afternoon spent streamside ahead of me.
The creek’s gin clear water allows a careful angler to spy the some of the quarry finning in each pool, though the smarter (read: larger) trout will almost always hide out of sight. Oddly, the first pool I decided to target revealed to the eye no inhabitants, but given how productive it typically was and how deep the water remained even in such low flows, I decided to spend time fishing it anyway. I worked through four or five different dries, drifting them down the steep edges of the rock walls that form the border of the pools, only without success.
Assuming the unusual conditions had the trout bedded down, I tied on a small woolly bugger, cast it up into the spillover and stripped it back through the pool assuming the attraction of a bigger meal would convince a hungry trout to emerge from hiding, but was greeted with a similar lack of results.
I shrugged my shoulders for the benefit of no one at all, assuming that for some unknown reason the fish had decided to take vacate the pool. Perhaps a blue heron — often a "nuisance" to anglers on this particular creek — had wreaked havoc on it shortly before my arrival, or perhaps something else was afoot. Whatever the case, there clearly seemed to be nobody home. Still, before moving on to the next pool, I let it rest for 10 minutes or so, found a concealed perch near the head of the pool and high sticked a tandem of nymphs along its edges. Nothing.
A similar situation played itself out in each of the next three or four pools that followed upstream, and I found myself worried that the summer had been rougher on the creek than I imagined, as each appeared to be fishless.
My thoughts turned to the gorge above. The gorge pool is my favorite on the entire creek, seemingly impossibly deep for such a small stream, it is lined by 25-30 foot rock walls on each side. The myriad outcroppings and escarpments that line the gorge both above and below the creek’s surface produce a tremendous amount of fish cover, and combined with the cold, deep water almost always congregate the creek’s best fish in the gorge pool. If there were trout still anywhere in the creek, I thought, that’s where they’d be and so I decided to skip the next five or six fishable pools that lied ahead and head straight for the gorge.
Scrambling up from the water to the trail above, one boot slipped on a moss-covered rock and I lost my footing, sending one knee down hard onto a small boulder on the creek’s edge. The pain shot down my shin and radiated deep into my kneecap, reminding me to slow down and be careful because — at almost 40 — the marks left by such small mishaps hurt a great deal more than they used to and take a great deal longer to repair themselves. Pride caused me to limp my way on for the next few hundred yards, rather than rest the knee for a bit, but by the time I’d reached the gorge my brain had agreed to ignore the pain — at least until we were done with the gorge pool.
The tailout of the pool where the big fish at its head normally push the smaller ones was, like the creek below, absent of occupants. Determined, I made my way along the pool’s edge, careful not to step into the water at all, as doing so would send waves along its surface that would send notice of my approach to the bigger fish that, I told myself, simply had to be holding at the head of the pool.
I watched the upper reaches of the pool for some time, but saw nothing. A long iron beam the width of a two-by-four, a relic of an old and long departed staircase that used to lead out of the gorge, and a slim tree branch marinated deep in the water at the very head of the pool and I reasoned that if a single trout remained in the creek it would be there — sheltered between the rock wall of the gorge and the added cover of the detritus that had lodged itself there.
I tied on an olive leech with a small conehead and cast towards the head of the pool, but an outcropping of rock caught my forward cast and dropped the leech into the water well shy of where I was aiming. Still, I stripped it back, hoping that an eager trout lie nearer along the pool’s walls. With no takers, I cast again hoping to find a way past the outcropping and into the head of the pool. Through luck and not skill, I aimed right and the cast hinged at its end, looping perfectly around the outcropping and dropping the fly into the head of the pool, so neatly tucked in that it was around the bend ahead and out of sight. I waited patiently for the fly’s head to sink it a few feet below the surface and stripped eagerly. Immediately the fly was seized by an elastic grab that surely was the slim branch. I stripped again, softly, hoping to pluck the fly from the branch’s grasp. But instead of the branch, a brook trout rolled its way to the surface, seemingly as surprised as I was that it had been hooked. It was fat and long, every bit of 16 or 17 inches, larger than a trout in that creek had any right being.
I cursed myself for not setting the hook convincingly the first time, and stripped again, only to see the trout thrash it’s tail and slither back to its lie. After a fishless day and my dogged persistence, it seemed only reasonable that the trout would have cooperated and come to hand, but it evidently disagreed. Reasoning that the fish hadn’t been stuck hard and seemed bewildered by the goings on, I decided my chances of getting it to take a fly again were good. I watched for a few minutes, hoping to spot it, but failed to do so and after a fly change, casted again, this time sliding my cast in below the outcropping almost as far into the head of the pool. The fish seized the fly almost instantly, and this time I set the hook confidently, knowing I had sunk the hook well. The fish emerged and faced downstream, hooked squarely in the jaw. Again I reasoned that my tenaciousness made it only fair that the trout should find its way to the net this time, but once again the fish disagreed and after two confident head shakes it again freed itself, once more returning to its lie.
Given how hard the fish had been stung, I assumed it was unlikely to be fooled again and cast again more out of sheer determination that from an expectation for results. As I stripped the fly back again, the trout again emerged from its lie with vigor, refusing the fly at the last moment.
Again I changed flies, this time climbing the near rock wall that lined the gorge for a new approach. As I leaned out to cast, the sensation of blood trickling down my left leg reminded me of the pain in my knee, if only for a moment. I reached down to rub my now swollen kneecap and heard the splash caused by the contents of my sling pack tumbling into the tailout of the gorge pool which lay below. In my excitement, I had forgotten to close the pack’s flap, leaving the five fly boxes, six spools of tippet and container of split shot within to fall freely into the creek.
Looking down dejectedly, I realized I had no choice but to wade into the creek to retrieve what constituted the better part of my fly collection. Not donning waders, as I hadn’t expected to wade much above my ankles, I slid into the creek’s cold water — which remains so even during the hottest of summers — and waded into the pool up to my armpits. With evening approaching, the sun which still shined on the tree tops at the top of the ravine, had long abandoned its floor and my creek-water soaked clothes left me streamside with a stinging chill. I calmy re-assembled my sling pack, waited long enough for the silt and soil I had stirred up to settle and reveal to me the location of the container of split shot I had spilled into the creek, and waded back in to retrieve it as well.
Steadfast not to end the day fishless, and reasoning that the time I had spent cleaning up my mess had rested the fat brook trout I so sorely wanted to bring to hand, I recollected my rod and carefully worked my way back around to my former perch at the foot of the pool. As I peered around the outcropping in preparation for making a cast, a face peered back. It was the face of the largest blue heron I’d ever seen, precisely who I feared had been spoiling my fishing below. While I had been retrieving the contents of my pack that I had absentmindedly tossed into the creek, the heron had evidently taken up residence at the head of the pool, hoping to take my fat brook trout for itself. Seeing me peering back at it, the heron stared for only a moment and then fled, flying over my head and on down the ravine, the big bird twisting and turning down the creek's course with significant grace.
Knowing that surely no trout dumb enough to emerge from hiding after two assaults from a hook and one from a blue heron could have persisted in such challenging conditions, I realized my opportunity was lost and headed back to the creek’s edge for the ascent out of the gorge. No sooner had I strung up my rod than a deep, throbbing pain once again made itself known in my knee.
As I made the long, slow climb out of the gorge fighting the ache in my knee, the creeping cold from my soaked clothes and the disappointment of a fishless day, it occurred to me — with no small measure of joy or lost irony — that I hadn’t had this much fun in months.