One of the great joys of fishing small brook trout water is that it forces me to focus on what's right in front of me. Too often I get ahead of myself and pass over great water or fish it too quickly just to get to the next hole or riffle. With small freestone streams, every little slice of water and pool may hold a beautiful brookie. Water has the power to shape us; much like it has shaped our physical world, it can shape our emotional one as well. Sometimes, most times, I find myself too busy anticipating the future or what's next to enjoy the single moment before me. Brook trout, and the water they inhabit, push me to practice being in the now, of being completely in the present.
Spring in south central PA. The waters are slowly warming up, the soil is sprouting, and bugs are beginning to hover over the water as the mid-day sun passes by. The rays reach into the ravines that traverse the Susquehanna watershed. The mixture of solid, water, and spring melt creates a ferruginous, milky stream bottom.
One of the nicest brook trout I have ever had the pleasure of running into. A perfect specimen of the species. A flagship for their brand of rootedness and subtle beauty. The many colors and hues are only found in something that is true to its self and its place.
It was a day of losing count, of traversing a rhododendron ravine, moving up from one plunge pool to the next. They were keyed in on my hear's ear, a fly that has worked on countless number of trout and types of water. If I could only have five flies to fish, the hare's ear would be one of them.
The patterns on native brook trout are beautiful. The blue halos surrounding the red spots, the curved lines flowing down from their back like tributaries reaching an ocean, all mark a species that is native to a place, that is of a slice of water coursing through a freestone valley created long before us by glaciers, springs, and rain.
Our first day of spring here in south central Pennsylvania felt more like an early November day. Cold, wet wind blew out the spring air that had set up shop the week prior. I didn't have a lot of time to get out, so I decided to stick with my local fly fishing only stream, which also happens to be my home waters. This stream is where I learned a lot about fly fishing. It's a small limestone creek that meanders through your typical Lancaster County farm fields until draining into the Susquehanna. There has been a lot of work done on it since the 70's in order to make it a sustaining fishery. Just a few years ago, it had a Class A biomass of wild browns. However, due to a decrease in water levels and, I think, poaching, the wild browns have diminished greatly and now we are left with a stocked stream. There have been a ton of new developments in its headwaters, which exacerbates run-off and sucks up the groundwater. If you're lucky and know where to look, you'll lay into a wild brown or a nice hold over here and there.
Knowing one of the landowners has its perks. I started right in the middle of the fly stretch and worked my way up to the top section. I was hoping that, because of the weather, I wouldn't run into another angler. I didn't, however, I could tell based on the amount of fresh boot prints that this stream had seen a lot of traffic since it was stocked earlier in the month. The water levels were nice: not too high and not too low. This stream gets wicked low come June and the stinging nettles make it a treachorous experience.
I stuck with what I know works really well on this stream - a tandem nymph rig with a hotspot pheasant tail as my lead and a hare's ear as my dropper. I catch most of my fish with that hare's ear since it imitates the scuds & sowbugs that litter the bottom of the creek very well. I also played around with my indicator. I have mostly been using Loon's Biostrike as my indicator. I love how easy it is to control line depth and with tight-line nymphing, it acts much like an indicator tippet would. However, there is water where tight lining isn't an option so I decided to go back to the thingamabobber. I think I had this aversion to using them because of some sort of elitist belief that bobbers are only for bait fisherman. But you know what? I want to catch fish, and if George Daniels uses them, so can I. It came in handy especially for long, slow pools where, due to lack of proximity and not wanting to spook the trout, I had to stay back. I was able to put weight on my line to get the nymphs down quick and also control the depth through the entire run & pool. I landed quite a few trout using that rig.
I ended up bringing a few rainbows and browns to hand. Most were freshly stocked, so there's that, but a few were holdovers. I also landed a pretty nice sized 'bow with a beautiful hook jaw. As much as I love fishing for wild & native trout, when I only have a few hours to kill, it's nice to be able to get out on a stretch of water and land a fish like this and practice different techniques or just hone your skills and knowledge. A nice fish will go a long way in warming up your day, even when there's a cold wind blowing down your neck.
“No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength” - Kerouac
The saddle between the Lower Devil and Upper Devil peak is a narrow lull filled with old-growth douglas fir that survived the last fire and whirly, hardy Manzanita spread over the scarred landscape in the Siskiyou Mountains of Northern California. At 23 years old, I had finally grown a thick, unwieldy beard that protected me from the cold lashes of the wind as I set my tent up under an ancient fir. It seems I had grown so introspective that I began to forget to shave, or at least didn’t care so much how I looked or smelled anymore deep in the backcountry. Thousands of miles from home, I thought I had become as isolated as possible. Then, the snow began.
It was the fourth morning of our 10 day hitch when I gently woke up to the softness of snow gathering on the blue nylon of my tent. The first three days consisted of wind, cold rain, more wind, and half baked bread for lunch, dinner and breakfast. During the first three months of our trail crew, we had traveled up the spine of the Pacific Crest Trail from the San Jacintos up into the Siskiyous clearing brush, building waterbars, chewing beef jerky, and cutting out fallen trees. Our last hitch of the northern section of the state before heading back to the desert, we knew the weather risks involved in being up this high this late in the season. We were fighting our misery with a Halloween party, 8,000 feet up in the mountains and miles away from the nearest town. Late October is unpredictable, so we held onto the traditions we knew best; Halloween, fires, morning wake-up songs, hot tea. Anything to keep us feeling connected to the valley.
The night before the snow, like a tattered postcard from some old friend making its way to a post office box on some random route numbered road, an asteroid streaked above our fire, so close that we thought it was a flare. We quickly gathered and hiked to the tip of the saddle to look over the valley to make sure there weren’t any forest fires started. All we saw were the intermittent lights of cars lolling down the back roads whenever they came through a break in the trees – a small reminder of what was still down there. It seemed like we all took a collective deep breath rimmed with gladness for no fire and a yearning for the lost contact with the ball of flame, and slowly made our way back to our tents, in for the night.
I woke up to find a landscape of blinding white where there had been dry browns, deep blood reds, and coniferous greens. Snow fell into my tent when I opened the fly, wetting my already frozen boots. I was mesmerized. Slowly, the rest of my crew started to wake. Most would simply pop their heads out of their tents, take a quick look, and go back into their tents. A few came out to join me: Matt, Tom, Willie, and Prana. We gathered under a douglas fir acting as an umbrella, keeping us out of the snowfall, and quickly came to a consensus.
We decided that if we were to survive this snow, we needed to get back to the basics, back to what we all knew comforted us; we needed heat. We went to work tying a big tarp to four trees. This gave us the cover we were going to need for the fire. It was still snowing as we scattered to try and find any sort of dried wood. Next, we scavenged gasoline out of our chainsaws, slowly pouring it into tin cans as if we were homesteaders pouring bacon grease out of a cast iron skillet, keeping it for next season. We built up all the dried wood we could find around the can and threw a match in. We came to life just as the fire did, whooping and hollering like we had just reached salvation – Hallelujah! We clinked our mugs full of hot tea and did a little dance in the snow, trampling down the few bits of Manzanita left around us.
The four of us stood around the fire all day while the snow blew in from the west, crisscrossing the mountains and covering our saddle. Every once in awhile, we’d make it out to the edge of our camp to have a look across the valley, but we couldn’t tell what was snow and what were clouds. We were socked in.
Having gone through a whole pound of powdered cocoa and two boxes of tea, we resorted to simply sipping hot water. We huddled around each other, shoulder to shoulder, lifting one leg, then another, rubbing our hands together, anything to keep warm. Later in the day, we finally got a call from Bill Roberts, the Forest Service packer that was our only connection to the outside world. He was coming up with a team of mules to start packing us out and to bring up some hot food. Our isolation, unlike the snow, was beginning to melt.
After he arrived and we all had a nice dinner of hot beans and rice, we packed up the gear we didn’t need and I took up with Bill back down the mountain. We’d be up the next morning to get the rest of the crew and the rest of our gear. I rode down from the Devil’s on the back of good old Patsy Cline. As she lumbered from one step to the next and we descended through the snow and the three or four lambent lights that made up Seiad Valley came into view, I felt a warmness seep in through the four cold layers I had on. Maybe it was riding on the back of an old mule, or the thousands of feet of change in elevation, but mostly I think it was a sense of coming into a place where I knew I could get a hot breakfast and make a call or send out a postcard if I wanted – and for the first time in a few months, I decided to trim back some of my beard.
Note: a lot of these photos were taken by my fellow PCT crew members. Apologies for not knowing who specifically since it was so long ago. If you see one of your photos, I'll gladly add credit. Thanks!
Sketches & scatterings. Rooted in Pennsylvania along the Susquehanna River.