February 11, 2022
It is a simple but blessed fact of nature that streams do not flow in straight lines. After three centuries of North American civilization, there remain places where the most eager entrepreneur can’t find a reason to probe with a road, and where the most earnest engineer could not build one anyway.
Such places are often of interest to trout anglers. In the Alleghenies of western Pennsylvania, a stream loops around a rocky knob that stands like a gunsight in a crease between two peaks. The nearest road never penetrates the loop. It skirts it in the way that tangent lines flirted with circles back in geometry class. If you want to fish the loop’s pockets and pools, you must leave the car and walk, and wade, around the loop.
To complicate your passage, the mountain keeps dropping boulders off its flank into the flow, and jutting ledges protrude from beneath as the water seeks to smooth its route. The necklace of falls and pools that results is a challenge to wade, but infinitely entertaining to fish.
Doing so yields more rewards than trout alone. On the streamside ledges you may spot a mink, supple and glossy, as intent on its hunting as the stream is on descent. Grouse may flush from the hemlocks, the tortured current muting their thunder. When spring hits its stride, the spice of mountain azalea hangs on the breeze.
The loop is a tactile lesson in the lay of the land. Returning by the high route at dusk takes you along the base of grainy cliffs, where the stored heat of the sun leaks out all night. Fish at the mouth of the tributary that tumbles into the flow out of dark laurel (there is always a trout here) and you feel the chill spilling down from the mountain’s innards.
There is almost no litter on the loop. There are fewer people to carry it in, and those who do venture there are not the kind to leave it behind. Spying the odd beer can, they are likely to squash it flat with a wading boot heel, tuck it in a vest pocket, and leave the place better for the next kindred soul.
On the loop, if an eddy or seam looks like it should hold a trout, it probably does. To plumb all the possibilities you must clamber over car-size rocks, wade deeper than you like, risk your footing. Fishing is considered by the unknowing as passive recreation, but fishing hard for trout in the loop is active immersion in the trout’s world.
One summer evening, after a stint in which I had not been able to fish in weeks, trout were lying, visible, in some of the loop’s sluices and pools. I started by drifting a Woolly Bugger, because it had been deadly in the early spring. But the trout did not recall their former enthusiasm. When the Bugger hit the surface, fish scattered like beads of water on a woodstove. I switched to a Black Ant dry pattern and caught two brown trout on top, thinking I had found the key.
Then it started to rain. It was the kind of rain you would not subject yourself to were you not already out there, 30 uphill minutes from shelter, with the thrill of the first trout in weeks still fresh in your mind. It drummed on my hat and back, extinguished the warmth at my collar and shirtsleeves. The stream no longer possessed a definable surface.
Fishing the ant was futile. It got soaked in the casting and could not have been seen on the seething surface. With wrinkly fingertips I tied on a size 12 beadhead nymph to plumb the depths. But to catch trout that way you need to be able see the line pause or twitch. The rain rendered such clues invisible until it suddenly slacked off.
When the surface calmed, I could see several fish holding in a deep trough. I could even track the big nymph as it drifted among them. The fish seemed interested, but intimidated. They would shift toward the fly, then back off without taking. The same fly in a smaller size, I thought, might prove their undoing. I tied on a size 16 of the same nymph and flicked it toward the trough just as the rain returned. In the deluge, I needed some way to track the nymph’s progress, or an indicator that would tip me off to a take.
Allen Noland, expert trout guide at Savage River Lodge in the Maryland mountains, teaches a trick that, admittedly, I had not employed since he showed it to me on the Casselman River in 2003. Noland’s ruse came to mind there in the rain. I searched through my box for the biggest, bushiest dry fly I could find and smeared a drop of floatant into its hackles. Next, I threw a couple of half-hitches around the bend of its hook with my tippet, about two feet above the nymph.
This, of course, is not how Noland does it. He ties the leader to the dry fly eye, then ties a dropper to the hook bend and knots the nymph to the end of the dropper, so that you can actually fish both flies. My dry fly was nothing more than a bobber, but it was raining hard and getting dark.
I lobbed this assembly out and was elated to see the ungainly dry riding high on the tortured film. Below it trailed my nymph. The fly hadn’t drifted six inches before it was jerked out of sight. I lifted the rod and felt a weighty fish. On that initial cast, and each of the next four, I caught trout—three browns and two rainbows. It was the kind of fishing that is good not to have too often, lest you begin to think you have trout fishing mastered, which I do not.
Mastery, of course, is not what fly fishing is all about. It’s about connection. You lift the rod and insistent life throbs at the other end, committing every cell to escape. The life at the end streaks and leaps, and you are connected to it through a taut line and arced rod. In the hand, still resisting, the trout feels cool and firm. The occasional trout breakfast consummates the connection, but releasing most fish feels like the right thing to do. It reminds us that our human intrusions don’t need to be permanent, or lethal.
Trout fishing connects you to places that remain much as they should, and to living things that are different, but priceless. It is the best connection available to us in our part of the world. You cannot do it without sensing how trout are enmeshed with the water, rocks, woods, and weather. And you can’t sense that without wanting it more.
Ben Moyer is a feature writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and a columnist for Pennsylvania Outdoor News. He is a founding member of the TU Chestnut Ridge Chapter, which has worked to restore wild brook trout to streams degraded by acid mine drainage.