Living in a rural part of the Pennsylvania, most people are at least acquainted with someone who considers his or herself a dedicated hunter. The next time you see said hunter, ask if they would consider putting up a treestand in a farmers field and harvesting the largest livestock animal in the pasture and calling it a trophy. I’m going to go out on a limb and say they wouldn’t see the sport in that. Why don’t we have the same reaction to fishing for farm raised fish?
PFBC mission statement is: “to protect, conserve, and enhance the Commonwealth’s aquatic resources and provide fishing and boating opportunities.” Can you imagine the fishery we would have in the state of Pennsylvania if instead of spending in excess of $12 million annually on raising hatchery fish (a small percentage of which survive their first summer) the bulk of spending budget went toward habitat improvement, fish migration studies, and otherwise protecting, conserving, and enhancing our aquatic resources? Imagine all of the funds from the last 50 years improving the health of our rivers instead of the short-sighted perpetuity of put-and-take fisheries. What would the state of our rivers be?
As fly fishers and wild trout enthusiasts, it’s our job to encourage the positive change we want to see instead of continuing to complain among ourselves. Let’s face it, if you’re on this page, you’re probably already convinced wild trout are the way to sustain the health of our fisheries long-term. We need to encourage and educate those who DON’T know the difference. Get with your local FFI group or TU chapter. Teach a casting or tying class, explain to someone who doesn’t fish the difference between stocked and wild trout, take a kid fishing and explain how to safely catch and release wild trout. Do something to make the fly fishing community better. Let’s change the culture that relies on annual plantings of hatchery fish. Let’s make the PA Wilds Wild Again.
At this point, I can’t remember how many times we’ve driven south to the craggy Tennessee, North Carolina border. We’ve traveled down in the spring seeking early season camping and dry fly action before things get going in Pennsylvania. We’ve extended the season by going down in the fall to fish among spectacular autumnal mosaic mountains long after our leaves have fallen in the north.
Each time we make the trek, things are the same but different; consistently unpredictable. I guess that’s what keeps us going back? Our most recent trip was a totally new experience. After years of my dad and I, or my wife and I talking up the country’s most visited National Park, we recruited a whole troop of family to get together in Southern Appalachia. The goal of this trip, instead of the usual fishing excursion, was to celebrate my sister’s birthday. But let’s be serious: of course we went fishing.
The fish in Great Smoky Mountain National Park are all wild, but only brook trout are native. The trout don’t often reach too grand of stature, but I don’t remember catching too many that didn’t boast exceptional colors. The fishing here is tough. With the gin clear water, fish rarely even raise a fin at a dragging fly. Technical, physically grueling fishing with the rewards being stubby trout? Aren’t there easier options? Sure, but easy is boring.
This trip only allowed for a couple short outings but this fishing did not disappoint. It was slower than normal, thanks to a cold front that seems to be typical everywhere this spring (if you can call it spring). Also, typical was my dad’s propensity to save up all his fishing karma and use it to catch THE fish, every time.
Another thing you can count on, is us talking about when we can make the next trip back to the Smokies before we’ve even left and which streams we’d really like to get back to.
It started like a lot of piscatorial pilgrimages do, a whisper about a hallowed river, sacred to those who’ve had the privilege to witness it. One that flows out of the side of a volcano and a mystical fish that lives in it. I read stories about how difficult the fishing could be, but how great were the potential rewards. Yep, I’m in.
I remember telling my, then girlfriend, “someday, I’m going to catch a bull trout.” “It’s basically a three foot long brook trout,” was my over simplification of how to describe what a fish like that, a cousin to our state fish in Pennsylvania that rarely exceeds diminutive size, would mean. Let’s be honest, if I’m obsessed with a six inch brook trout, I’m exponentially excited about these fish and their brethren with every additional inch they achieve.
My interest in them only grew over the next few years. It grew to the point my (now) wife said, “Just freaking do it. Why wait?” It doesn’t take long being married to know better than to argue with your spouse. Ha!
I started probing my buddies to see what their interest level was. “You want to go where? And catch what? Sounds cool man, but you’re crazy. Maybe next time,” was pretty much the response. I can live with that. So, I booked it. All by my lonesome. What better way to spend your birthday trip than alone, sleeping in the back of a rental car, hunting the fish of a lifetime? No big deal.
Well, as planning got under way, maps and details started trolling in, leave it to your longest-standing fishing buddy to not be able to miss out. My dad decided maybe, he’d better go, too. It also worked out that one of my favorite bands was releasing their newest album and playing a live show 30 miles down the road. Well, holy shit. What a turn of events. Now, it’s turning into a fishing trip!
I spent a good deal of time talking with fly shops local to the area and a local angler, who it didn’t take me long to figure out really knew his stuff. [Thanks to local PA guy for putting me in touch!] It can be a little touchy in these types of situations to be respectful of the guys who call a river home. You want to get enough info so you have a chance to be successful, but still have enough to figure out to make it a challenge.
We timed our trip with the annual run of kokanee salmon and (hopefully) big hungry bullies following their food source. On our way into town we stopped at the fly shop to license up and finally introduce myself to the shop owner I’d been pestering sporadically with e-mails for a couple years. After a long day of travel and shrinking fall daylight, we checked in to the cabin, hung out, grilled up some dinner, and cracked a few beers. A quick walk behind the cabin as the sun was setting revealed, “Oh yeah, the salmon are here.”
Ah, my old frienemies jet lag and time zone changes. We were up about two hours before the sun, no need for alarm clocks. We had plenty of time to stretch lines and string up the 8 weights. When we finally couldn’t stand it anymore, we set off into the morning fog on our way.
We fished HARD. Covered miles on foot, probing deep undercuts, seams, and pretty much anywhere we could get a fly in the water. I don’t think I’ve ever done as many steeple casts in my life. We had to. The river was up and the banks were choked with brush and pine. It was like brook trout fishing with light musky equipment. Pretty damn cool.
I have to say, I’ve been fortunate to see a lot a places. I don’t think I have ever seen a more beautiful river. It is simply incredible. We saw kokanee by the hundreds, if not thousands. Honestly, the trout could eat whenever and however many they could want. How in the hell were we going to get our flies noticed? Persistence.
Well, at the end of the first day we were beat up. One follow from a mid teens fish (that probably wasn’t a bull trout anyway) wasn’t what we’d hoped for, but we knew what we were getting ourselves into. We had another day and a half to try.
We were back after it in the wee hours the next day. New section, new water, same outcome. Where the hell are they?
Like a bolt of lightning, I was stopped in my tracks. There he was. A Bull Trout that had to be all of three feet long and as big around as my leg. Every mini salmon imitation and whitefish fly I had swam through his territory and he didn’t flinch. He had some roughly twenty inch cronies at his side that were interested enough to follow but not eat. Damn.
About 100 yards down, I found another school of them. The biggest probably nineteen inches. I made a few casts, same result. Switched flies and suddenly something changed. A baby bull had seen enough and went in for the kill.
Not going to lie, it felt GOOD to be on the board. I am the king of small fish. Rarely do we have a trip that I don’t catch the smallest. Hey, we all have our thing. I’m just glad I can be consistent.
We kept after it and we were rewarded. It’s crazy we went a day and a half without seeing a bull trout and suddenly they were ON. My dad and I each picked up another.
We fished until we were forced off the river by setting sun, daylight to dark. Grabbed a quick bite to eat and went to town to see Billy Stings, The Whiskey Shivers, and Trout Steak Revival. All, in all, a solid day.
Our final day we were running on a couple hours of sleep, but couldn’t be kept off the river. We scrambled to make every cast we could before rushing back to the cabin to meet our checkout time. When time is short, cram in as much as you can. We stopped at the fly shop on the way out to let them know we got lucky. A guy in the shop told us he’d been fishing the river for the last 20 years and had never landed a bull trout. The river lived up to its reputation. TOUGH fishing, but SO worth it.
Persistence paid off on this trip, and not just when it came to the fishing. If you find a fish species that captivates you, it may take years for it to come together. Set yourself a goal and don’t take no for an answer.
It’s been a while. I’m glad you found your way back.
Life got busy. Family, work, Trout Unlimited, the blog… Oh yeah, and fishing! Something had to give. Unfortunately, it was the blog. I didn’t have time to keep it up and I didn’t want the stories sitting around collecting dust.
First off, thanks to everyone who has reached out since the site disappeared. That truly meant a lot and is a big reason I missed writing. I missed sharing stories. I’m happy to say I/we have done a lot of fun [sometimes foolish or questionable] trips in the last few months. I’m excited to share them. Grab a beer and pull up a chair.