Essay by Mike Hepner
The OG and Gap Tiger had set their sights on the Savage River Forest for their annual spring 4-day camping and fishing trip, 2019 edition. An area that neither of them had been to and was spoken of by many others as unbelievable and a fishing paradise. We had heard enough from others and decided to put their theories and opinions to the test. Both of us came away with the same opinion… Unbelievable may have been an understatement…
The trip out was an easy two hours that only felt like 20, with the OG growing tired of Gap Tiger’s constant “are we there yet” questioning. Finally getting off at our exit we stopped for firewood, ice, beer, and local hoagies to avoid needing to make the first night’s dinner and allow us to solely focus on the camp set up. In a small town it is important to remember that not all the “Sweet Old Ladies” working the store are “Sweet Old Ladies.” After getting overcharged and made to feel like unwanted tourists that needed to “GET OUT” we laughed our way through the last small segment of the trip.
Rounding the last bend, The OGs face lit up like a kid seeing the presents under the Christmas Tree on Christmas Morning… “THE SITE I WANTED IS OPEN!!!” (these primitive backcountry camp sites are not reservable and are first come first served, so we didn’t know if it would be taken or not)
Jumping out of Mini Tank, (the Toyota 4runner that survived Strong Mountain Road), we ran together to the beautiful Savage River tributary we were camping 20 feet from! Fighting off the urge to fish, we set up our tents and our “home base” just the way we wanted. 20 minutes and a half dozen beers later we were loaded up with our fishing gear and headed up the Camp Site tributary with 3RT Confluence and Oni Type 3 in hands.
In the few hours that evening we had both landed over 25 natives. The tributary was loaded. Heading down to the site we both decided, that wasn’t enough and wanted to at least explore the Savage River as it was only 100 yards below our camp. As we walked up to the River… HATCHES!!! Bugs everywhere!!! In the setting sun we started throwing our top water kebari and caught fish after fish… all off the top… all natives… all 9-13 inches!!! We literally caught brookies until it was too dark to see our kebari touch the water. We headed back to the tents to sit around the fire and celebrate our first night of fishing!
Waking up the next morning at first light to the sounds of the water flowing in the tributary was like dropping a lit match onto gasoline and the two of us JUMPED from our tents and into our fishing gear preparing to revisit Slay City! Tributary 1 was one of the prettiest I had ever seen, and we immediately started tossing Kebari at every pocket and pool we can find. Native after native hit the landing net in between taking breaks to sit on logs or boulders and drink beer. Some of the biggest pools I had ever laid my eyes on in a tributary littered this stream around every bend. We fished until we were greeted by no trespassing signs (that were truly a disappointing surprise) and decided it was time for lunch and to relocate.
Heading back to Mini Tank we drive a short distance to Tributary 2 and find an old picnic table all but on the water. Sitting down at it we whipped out the Pocket Rocket stove and Gap Tiger made his famous Spicy Egg Drop Soup with a dessert of crunchy peanut butter Clif bar. During lunch, we were greeted by a large porcupine that meandered his way along the stream as if we weren’t even there. Rolling Rocks and a variety of Oscar Blues washed down the much-needed meal. After re-energizing and cleaning up we went absolutely Slay City on Tributary 2. We literally caught a fish in every pocket, eddy, or pool in which we landed a kebari. We fished this stream well into its headwaters before turning around. Tributary 2 was lit!!!
Just up the road from that spot was Tributary 3, again the epitome of Slay City. Every cast, all top water, all day long in every piece of water. The amount of brookies we caught in each tributary was unbelievable. The very places where most people fishing that area wouldn’t even look is a brookie heaven for the RatskinCanoe Crew. Fishing this tributary for about two hours we had already combined for well over 100 native brookies on the day, we decided to call it a day for those tributaries and headed back to home base for dinner and to re-load on some beer!
Back at base camp Fireside Chef OG cooked up some BANGEN Beer Bratz with peppers and onions! The delicious cast iron pan prepared meal really hit the spot. Gap Tiger was in BRATZ heaven! Several Sunshine Daydream, Keystones, and Pinners completed the dinner and left us just enough time to catch the hatches on the river just below the camp before sundown.
As if we hadn’t caught enough that day, we loaded our rods up with top water soft hackle kebari and ripped natives! One after the other; even a stocked rainbow trout or two here or there were nabbed off the top of the waters surface… again catching fish until we couldn’t see anymore.
We headed back to the campsite, only this time it was to celebrate the most epic day of all time! Pulling out the GKNIGHT and Can-O-Bliss heavy hitter IPAs the we conducted fireside interviews on one another (lord only knows what was said during those) and the evening of laughter and jokes came to an end. With the fire dwindling down, we headed to the tents for the night.
The next morning Gap Tiger popped out of his tent like a puppy that had been cooped up in a pen all day. “LET’S GO” he said to the OG at first light! The OG did not agree with this plan and sent Gap Tiger on his way to hit the river himself. Giving it an hour or two and going Slay City in that time he eagerly ran back to the camp to see if his Sensei was ready to go.
“YO, OG!” Gap Tiger yelled while approaching base camp, a head slowly pops up from Mini Tank’s driver side seat which was completely reclined. “YO” said the OG through a “stretching out after waking up” voice… There he was and ready to go.
Heading to Tributary 4 we found it to be a little slower than the others, although by “slow” I mean we fished in the sporadic rain and caught fish every ten minutes instead of every two. This tributary had the most beautiful and unique look to it that is hard to describe it in words. The smallest of the tributaries we had fished, and the slowest fishing water we had hit. Still, it held some BIG natives!
Heading back to the camp for an early lunch The OG fired up some SPAM and whipped out the sriracha – more Clif bars, and Ya Mammas Lil Yellow Pils rounded off the lunch. We decided to hit the tributary we had camped on from where we had left off fishing on our first night. This was the best idea of the day! With Zimmerbuilt packs loaded with beer and fishing supplies, we hiked beers in hand up an old logging road through the dense and vibrant green forest. The road followed along the base of a large ravine that the tributary wound its way through and was surrounded by large ridges and cliffs for about 2 miles. At the end, we found the spot we had stopped fishing at that first epic evening.
Jumping right back into Slay City the headwaters of the camp tributary were UNREAL. The farther up we got, the more the kebari got irresistible to the fish in the water. Top water kebari reigned supreme and tomezuri was deadly! Once again surpassing the 100 natives mark combined, we decided to call an end to this tributary and head back for dinner… but not before we decided to stop at one last pool.
We chose to simultaneously cast into it since it was our stopping point. Both kebari hit the water at the same time, Gap Tiger had a big native take, but it slipped off the hook at the exact time the OG hooked a beautiful brookie which he did not miss! Gap Tiger casted again while The OG landed the big native, and with that cast Gap Tiger landed a 12-inch rainbow! That was truly the culmination of the day!
Back at camp, Gap Tiger made his famous cheese dogs from the Chambersburg farmers market. Of course, they were cooked tomezuri-style on fishing rod hot dog sticks that Gap Tiger is notorious for bringing along on camping trips. This quick bite left us just enough time to spend the final two hours of daylight on the river fishing hatches all evening. The two ended the final full day of the trip standing on either side of the river in the same HUGE pool during the hatch catching native after native again!!!
It was once again celebration time! After building a small bonfire out of the remaining wood, the beer chugs, fireside dancing to the 76ers theme song, storytelling, fireside interviews, and taunting of one another carried on long into the night.
The next morning, we woke up to an unexpected, complete deluge of rain, but with both of us being so happy with the way the fishing had gone to that point in the trip we decided to call it a wrap. Plentiful sun and temperatures between 49-75 with NO WIND for the previous 3 days, and only fishing in rain for an hour or two, we couldn’t have asked for better. We packed up our gear, tents, and campsite, and jumped into Mini Tank and started the long trek home.
In two-and-a-half days we had covered nearly 30 miles of water between the tributaries and the Savage River itself catching natives in 6 different streams. It is crazy to think that we barely scratched the surface of fishable water there. The area was nothing shy of breathtaking from any and every viewpoint. A thick green landscape of rolling mountains, wildflowers, and valleys, a river carved out at the bottom of them, and every blue line loaded with natives practically begging for kebari to bite… it’s safe to say that this trip will be tough to top!
Mike Hepner a.ka. “The Tenkara Kid” or “Gap Tiger”… Husband to 1, Father of 4. Die hard Penn State wrestling fan with a love for tenkara fishing, kebari tying, native brookies, Belgian beers, Pittsburgh sports, and lessons on the water or vise from OG.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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