This article was supposed to be a sublime piece of writing and photography that expressed my love for limestone stream fishing— a poetic piece of prose that would have you wiping tears from your face while you told your concerned significant other “that it was just a bit of dust in your eye”. An homage to and a sort of homecoming to the place that spawned me as a fly angler. It would feature photos of beautiful water and butter bellied limestone brown trout (caught on a tenkara rod of course). And perhaps even some very large trout if things went especially well. But as Robert Burns reminds us “The best laid schemes of mice and men go often askew and leave us nothing but grief and pain for promised joy!”
The plan was to fish some of the limestone streams of central Pennsylvania. Lodging reservations were made. Flies were being tied. And then the rain started. That’s okay I like a little rain especially in early fall. Rain thins the angler numbers on popular waters. Maybe cooler, overcast and rainy weather triggers some little blue winged olives (BWOs) to pop. Thinking of the possibility of BWOs I made sure to tie some red Takayama sakasa kebari. I have used red Takayama sakasa kebari quite successfully during BWO hatches numerous times now on Pennsylvania and Wisconsin spring creeks. I have a theory that a sparsely tied Takayama sakasa kebari with its bulge of peacock and gangly hackle is just the right kind of impressionistic fly to imitate a messy, struggling emergent mayfly.
If you’ve never fished limestone spring creeks such as those in central Pennsylvania or the Driftless Region of Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota then you may not know that they are quite different beasts than freestone mountain streams. They have more constant temperature and flow, buffered pH and nutrient rich water. And unless too degraded by development and pollution the generally have a much higher density of bugs that trout eat than do freestone mountain streams. The result can be lots of fish (sometimes very large fish compared to stream size). And also very well fed fish.
That doesn’t necessarily mean fishing is always difficult. Sometimes these well fed fish are very engaged with bugs and can be found feeding in all levels of the water column. At prime times when lots of different bugs are hatching I’ve had great success with near-surface fishing of wet flies and kebari. At times like these fishing in limestone streams can feel pretty darn easy. But at other times the fish are not so engaged higher in the water column. At these times you often need to get the fly near the stream bottom and put that fly right on the nose of a fish to spark much fishy interest. These limestone trout are not “smart” or even “picky” or “finicky” per se, they’re just kind of lazy.
In rich, food abundant streams the fish can afford to utilize a “sit and wait” strategy. The fish can just sit and wait for a morsel to drift right to them. They don’t need to move and often they won’t move to your fly. Nothing is carved in stone of course and fish are not always predictable (at least not by me). But when I head to spring creeks I like to be prepared with dozens of small bead head pheasant tail nymphs. These are my go-to nymph— and have served me well everywhere I fish for trout. Even with the water a little bit up and off color I was still pretty confident they would be key.
My Two Nymph Rig
As the day of departure approached I was watching the rain outside my window and I was watching the stream gauge for the creek online. The rain kept raining and the stream kept rising. The 77 year average flow was 54 CFS and it was now up to about 200 CFS. At this point I had to accept that it was going to be higher water conditions than I’d first anticipated. And with higher water I wanted to have some heavy nymphs to act as anchors in a two-fly nymphing rig to get those small bead head pheasant tail nymphs deeper in the fast, high water. These days when I do a two fly nymph rig for getting small flies deep I tie the larger heavier nymph in first (higher up on the leader) and then the smaller fly as the point fly at the end of the leader.
A Few Words on Streamers
And still the rain kept coming but that’s okay. The stream gauge was now up to 300 CFS. If water gets high and off-color then the big fish come out to feed. The higher flows and off-color water make stealth easier. With even more rain and higher flows now expected my confidence in small nymphs started to waiver a little and my thoughts turned to streamers.
I’ve always enjoyed swinging bunny-strip streamers or woolly buggers with a fly rod and when I took up tenkara almost 9 years ago now, I brought my fly fishing tool box along with me and so streamer fishing has always been a part of my tenkara from the get go. Like swinging a wet fly on steroids streamer fishing can be explosively fun. But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a mindless routine: cast, swing, step, cast, swing step… Targeted casting to trout lies, controlled drifts with varying speeds and action, and focused swings (focused on fish holding areas) are necessary for optimum fun. When I first started fly fishing I absolutely sucked at streamer fishing. Not that I’m the Jimi Hendrix of streamer fishing now— but I have gotten better through the years. And though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the difference is I think it has much to do with a better understanding of where fish live and thus more focused casting and fishing to those areas.
I tend to fish streamers much like nymphs mixed with wet flies. I often start with an upstream cast and then a contact-nymphing, tight-line style drift (that’s where mobile marabou and bunny fur come in handy with their inherent movement). The drifts may be interrupted with lifts and swings in areas that I think look particularly fishy. And of course some downstream jigging and and “I’m an injured and dying baitfish” type movement at the end. Here’s a word of caution on that downstream stuff though. Be careful to keep the rod at an angle to the line— you don’t want to be pointing straight downstream to your streamer. In the case of a nice fish this is a good way to break the tippet and lose the fish and fly. Keeping the rod at an angle to the line will keep the tippet protecting spring in the rod.
And the rain kept coming. Ultimately the flow went from the average flow of about 54CFS up to over 1200 CFS. That’s over 20 times average flow. But with an irrational hope and longing I called the local fly shop. The guy said in no uncertain terms – Do not come here, the stream is not just unfishable but it is dangerous. He may have thought I was a bit daft for even calling. But to quote Emily Dickinson “Hope is the thing with feathers”, which I always figured was a reference to fly fishing.
I had to accept defeat. I could not go on this trip. The memories that I would make would not be made. The much planned trip and the subsequent article were not meant to be. What could I write about then? As it happened I was reading the excellent book Time Travel by James Gleick, in which he quotes a line from Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll: ”It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” the Queen remarked. That line got me thinking…
In preparing for this trip I was living it already. The future was bleeding into the present. And oddly it was almost like a memory when I looked to events that hadn’t yet – and wouldn’t ever happen. Each fly that I tied had a “future memory” attached to it.
As I sat in my basement tying flies I was transported to the places and times where I would use each fly. I was reliving past successes and “remembering” future successes. I was visualizing the runs, and pools, and riffles where I’d use each technique in my tenkara toolbox. I was living a lifetime of trips past and future. I was a time traveler. I was Schrödinger’s cat. I existed in a state of quantum superposition. I had both gone on the trip and not gone on the trip. Even as I write this I feel strangely nostalgic for a trip not taken.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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