I really dig a spot that makes you feel like you're in a completely different place than where you woke up at. I took my good friend to a stream just out our backdoor that holds wild browns. This place requires some work to get to, which means very few people venture to it. As you drop into the ravine, the air immediately grows cooler and the susurrus of water drowns out all other noise. You are transported to a wildness that is extremely hard to find in the haze and congestion of this area.
I know the angle of that photo is odd, but I wanted to capture the giant slab of a rock that is jutting out the side of the hill. If one was so inclined, a boulder pad and climbing shoes would open up an entire world of possibility throughout this area.
My buddy brought quite a few nice fish to hand with a beetle smacked on the water. The fish are spooky and with the low water they were mostly found in fast riffles hugging boulders and rock shelves.
Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there's been no rain
The pine sings, but there's no wind.
Who can leap the world's ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
- Han Shan, Cold Mountain Poems
I was last here two years ago. We came up to the Catskills mainly to christen our new-to-us pop-up camper and to take our dog, Whitman, on his first camping trip. Fishing was definitely at the top of my list of reasons to check this area out, but it wasn't the only one, therefore, I only got to check out a few of the hundreds of miles of great fishing up that way. This time around, we were just taking a couple of days to get out of the lazy summer routine we find ourselves falling into once school is out. We were also showing the ropes to a friend who recently decided to get back into camping. This is just to say that there is still a ton of stream I want to explore.
The water temperatures got too hot to fish come 8 a.m. each morning, so I only had a couple of hours of fishing each day. Luckily, our campsite was right along the river, which let me wake up, make a quick cup of coffee, let it cool while I put on my boots and rigged up, slam it down, and head out on the stream. The last time I was here, I wasn't tying any flies and was just getting into fly fishing. I went home with a few fish landed and a good memory, happy that I caught trout in the Catskills. This time around, I wanted to fish some of the holes I remembered from last time and see how I could do. Have I progressed at all? What have I learned? How is my approach different? What did I miss last time?
This is where the idea of revisiting water became so important to me. Like a notch on your walking stick that you carve after climbing a peak or venturing into a place that you've always wanted to, catching trout on a stream that you've already fished can act as a mark in time to show your progress as an angler. It's not always about the numbers or the size, seriously. I know that's said a lot, but it really isn't, only when it is. Having already fished this water, I wanted to see if I could catch more trout and hopefully some bigger ones on flies I tied. If I did that, then it would show me that I have grown in my craft of angling and in the art of stream approach.
So, did I? Yeah, I did, and it felt really damn good. I only got to fish a few hours each of the two mornings I was there, but that was enough time to land some really nice looking fish on flies I tied. The dry-dropper rig worked best, with a fat orange stimulator as my dry and a hare's ear or hot spot pheasant tail as my nymph. The brookies tended to really dig the stimulator while the browns scarfed up the nymph.
I was especially stoked when I landed this dude on a hare's ear nymph that I've been tying a lot lately (and catching a ton of fish on). He was sitting in a short, deep pool behind a large boulder sipping bugs as they flew by in the express lane seams created by a series of rocks laid out in the stream like three thumbs up. This brown trout is definitely one of the largest I've landed on a fly I've tied. Based on my net, he's between 17 and 18 inches. He took me up stream hard when I set the hook and I slowly worked him back down towards me and over to shallow water where I could net and quickly release him. This is one of those trout that will be a mark of a moment for me. One that I will go back to and replay in my head when it's cold and rainy outside. I'll venture back to that spot and work through my approach, how I added just a bit of weight to my line right before casting, where I let the fly drop so it would follow the inside of the seam and drop quickly into the pool right behind the boulder, how his take was subtle, but fierce at the same time, and how we played each other until we were released from that moment.
It wasn't just a fly fishing trip, which is a nice change of pace for me. The last few camping trips I've gone on have been focused on the water (something that will never get old for me). This trip took us on a beautiful hike to a mountain pond and meandering around back roads, exploring the mountains. The Catskills are beautiful. Life is good when you can just get in the car and explore with good people.
I spur my horse through the wrecked town,
The wrecked town sinks my spirit.
High, low, old parapet-walls
Big, small, the aging tombs.
I waggle my shadow, all alone;
Not even the crack of a shrinking coffin is heard.
I pity all these ordinary bones,
In the books of the Immortals they are nameless.
- Han Shan
#4, Cold Mountain Poems.
Head for the mountains; my first inclination and instinct when my summer vacation starts. I packed some books, fly rods, good food and brew, and headed up to Potter County to get away from the constant murmur of traffic and work that seems to have taken a strong, subtle hold of life here in Lancaster County.
The winds shot up Route 44, tracing along dark early spring clouds and short bursts of showers as I weaved my way down into the valley. Within a half hour of pulling into my campsite, I was set up and back in the car to pick up some flies from the Kettle Creek Tackle Shop, one of my favorite fly shops. The owner is always eager to share some stories and knowledge and he has over 300 of his own, hand made fly rods for sale. One of these days I'm going to pick up one of his bamboo rods. One of these days. I was on the water soon thereafter and quickly hooked into a mess of rainbows and native brook trout.
I got up early the next day and hiked up into a beautiful wild area. I only scratched the surface of one of the more remote places in Pennsylvania, and am looking forward to taking a full day to fully explore the stream.
The afternoon brought more rainbows. So many that I started trying new flies and different techniques, just to see what would happen. I was hoping for more wild fish, but I'll still take a 30-40 fish day over getting skunked every time. Every time a few bugs started coming off the water, a burst of wind would tumble down the mountains and put them back down. A hare's ear variation that I tied up before the trip landed most of my fish. In fact, most of the fish I landed the entire trip were on flies I tied. A big improvement over the last time I was up here a year ago where I didn't even know how to dub a hook.
That evening, after a killer supper of rotisserie chicken soft tacos, I ventured upstream and soon found myself in a thick haze of bugs - mayflies, some sulphurs, and even some slate drakes. This part of the stream held a lot more wild fish and browns. They were keyed in on Light Cahills and the evening quickly became one I'll remember for a long time, a memory that I'll go back to and re-fish when I'm lost in a daze of work and habit. One after the other, these trout would swoop up from their deep lies and hit my fly. Eventually, I realized that I didn't need to count fish anymore and instead fell into the upstream moment, looking for the next seam to throw my dry. I fished until dark and took a nice long stroll back to camp under a beautiful summer night sky.
I settled at Cold Mountain long ago,
Already it seems like years and years.
Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
And linger watching things themselves.
Men don't get this far into the mountains,
White clouds gather and billow.
Thin grass does for a mattress,
The blue sky makes a good quilt.
Happy with a stone underhead
Let heaven and earth go about their changes.
- Han Shan
#7, Cold Mountain Poems
My buddy Scot came up to meet me early the next morning. We had a quick chat about the state of the world over some coffee and oatmeal, then headed out to a nice size trib teaming with wild browns and native brookies. Within the first run I fished, I hooked a double on a GW emerger and hare's ear. My first time ever catching two fish on both flies I was fishing. This was definitely one of my favorite streams I fished the entire trip. It's a classic mountain freestone with deep pools, fertile riffles, and plenty of room to make a back cast. When I head back up there later in the summer, I'm already planning on spending more time fishing it.
To get over to Scot's camp, we weaved our way through the mountains bordering a Wild Area and down into the next valley over. I love these long dirt roads that traverse the mountains. It reminds me of being out west and driving through National Forest lands. You could spend a day just getting lost on them, stopping where it seems right, fishing for native brook trout. There's a freedom you only get where there are no stop signs or pavement and if you break down, your walking miles to get to a camp with a phone.
That last few days of my trip were spent at Scot's camp with Kurt and Andy, helping them christen their new-to-them old-school-trailer that they rented (appropriately named Wild Boy Hops & Trout Camp). I am blessed to have good people in my life willing to share their places, their knowledge, their jokes (Kurt is the best joke teller I have ever met, a master of the lost oral tradition of making people laugh with great timing and a good pun), and cured meats (not a euphemism). We explored the valley, caught a ton of fish, sat by the fire while an old white skunk skulked around us, and ate great charcuterie. It was an awesome trip and just what I was looking for to start my summer. I explored a bunch of new water, landed over 100 fish (most on flies I tied), embraced some magnificent solitude, hung out with good friends, and had beautifully deep sleep each night. I can't wait to head back up there.
I stumbled upon the name "Raftman's Path" walking the river trail that traverses through the little town I live in. It was named during the days when lumber was a huge commodity in this area. The Susquehanna River was an industrial thoroughfare - bearing down loads of lumber from the northern reaches of Pennsylvania towards the Chesapeake. Marietta was a stopping point, a place for the lumber either to go to the mills lining its banks or shoot further downstream through pig iron smoke. Raftmen would guide the lumber down to the mouth of the Susquehanna into the Chesapeake - an estuary of salt, water, lumber, ore, eel and shad. When their job was done, they would walk the raftman's path back through the Susquehanna Riverlands of Lancaster County towards their homes. The path is now wooded and meanders through some of the only "wild" places left in the county.