"The greatest warriors are those who dangle a human for hours on a string, break sacred water for the profanity of air, then snap fiercely back into pearly molecules that describe fishness" - Joy Harjo
Every few years, I find myself returning to the north Maine woods to exist, even just for a few days, in the shadows of Katahdin and the murmur of the Penobscot. It is this mountain and this river that I seem to owe so much to. They have shaped my life's path more than most anything else.
I was first taken in by these woods and waters while I was working on the trail crew at Baxter State Park. I didn't do much fishing then; instead, I spent my time relentlessly exploring, expending all that 21-year-old energy into rafting down the class 5 rapids of the Crib Works and reaching every peak I could over our three day weekends after working four-tens building rock staircases up Katahdin and clearing twenty miles of blow-downs in a day. My knees never hurt, my skin grew immune to the hordes of black flies, my eyes were always looking beyond each false peak and around each river bend. I didn't take much time to study what I was rafting or hiking - too much to see up ahead.
Now I make a pilgrimage every couple of years not to push myself into deep unknowns, but to revisit certain trails and pools and to find those tiny mysteries that exist right in front of us. And to hopefully land some beautiful landlocked salmon and brook trout. I found myself this year questioning this idea of "revisiting." Has it just become a pattern that I've fallen into that, in some ways, constricts my experience down to a simple reliving instead of living something "new?" Over the week, as I fished my favorite eddies and runs, I realized that a pilgrimage is a different type of "revisiting."
It isn't a reliving, it's a going-back-to-in-order-to-find-something-new. The salmon here in this water revisit it every year as they spawn, yet they are experiencing something completely new. Some may pool up in the same eddy every year, but they are reaching for different caddis during those last nights of June when they flood the air. I may fish this same run I did last year, but when I look up, the clouds clipping across Katahdin have a notion I've never seen before and the salmon that just attacked my emerger takes me for a ride downstream that I'll never forget, his last jump over my head a fine farewell until I come back. A pilgrimage is about honoring the steps already taken while also experiencing and discovering something new.
A day after school let out, I found myself rambling up hollows of Potter County.
It is here, where rock tightens its grip to water, that everything grows more full.
Color, life, sound, smell, the way deadwood lays across rock - patterns stitched by the quick wind that slices down these drafts.
Patterns of the elders
It is a good way to start the summer - sitting on the tailgate with mountains in the windows, looking at maps, tracing hyphenated courses and blue lines, waiting for the sulfurs to hatch. One night, after we caught brook trout on little bright yellow flies, I made burritos. We sat around the fire and ate them. The thin moon showed us the movement of night. The next morning we sat on the porch and drank coffee for a few hours, watching the valley and the clouds slowly shake by. During the day we bushwhacked through thick brush and found plunge pools. The long thin red marks across my shins, those are good scars, tattoos of exploring.
Inevitably, I find myself walking the tracks back home, humming some Charlie Parr song about rivers and cedar. I tend to be drawn towards rivers that run parallel to rail lines. It is here, in these crevasses that wildness and industry collide and, hopefully, coexist, that I find so much beauty. Oftentimes we think of nature and wildness as some idyllic, far-away "thing" or "place" when it's really right in front of us. If we aren't able to find the wildness in the spaces where we live, we'll never truly be able to appreciate any sort of wildness.
Maybe it's because I fall asleep every night to the calls of trains running the Susquehanna River a few hundred yards through the woods. Maybe it's my early love of Stand By Me and the journey of walking the rails and that boyhood bond that shapes life. Maybe it's the music I obsessively listen to that connects me to place and time- Dylan, Parr, Jerry, Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, Gunn. But there is it, frozen backwater full of sycamore and young maple that holds my attention, that buries itself in the palm of my hand like a pebble I rub with my thumb.
The skulking creek branches towards sunrise with orange
creamsicle stained rock, covered in the spittle
of mine spill striking through the Appalachian mountains
that have folded into ridges and valleys,
Worn thin from the erosion of age.
There's beauty in its coarse recovery
into a watershed that holds
thriving wild brown trout.
This stream was killed, years ago, by acid mine drainage. Now, thanks to remediation, brown trout have found a niche among stained rock and rhododendron. It's a wildness of recovery, of the melding of steel and water.
We decided to take a long weekend up in the Finger Lakes since work has been pretty consuming for both of us over the past few months. It was time to disengage from the routines of home life, to shake off a bit of the dust from all the sawing and shaping we've been doing. We left early Saturday morning and took a straight shot up 11/15 into New York. We got to camp around 1 and by the time we were set up, a torrential rain came through. We stayed dry in the camper - this seems to be a "thing" that happens to us - getting to camp right before a rain sets in (Rock Creek in Montana, Big Eddy in Maine...). It's good, though. It forces us to settle into a place.
After the rain tapered off a bit we went for a hike up a ravine and found some waterfalls. It rained again on our way back, but we stayed dry under a thick canopy of fir and pine. By dusk, the rain turned into sleet. Temps dropped. No chance for a fire, so we ate dinner and hung out in a warm camper. A pretty great Saturday night. There was frost the next morning. We had one of our camping staples for breakfast - Heuvos rancheros. Insanely great, one of the best foods to start the day.
The sleet and snow finally stopped around lunch, so I decided to sneak out for a few hours to explore some water. I found a blue line on a map - a tributary to the lake - and decided to take a look. It had a cool name and it looked like a decent place to possibly find lake run brown trout and landlocked salmon. I found a public parking spot near the mouth - no cars. Possibly a great sign, possibly a sign that the run hadn't started yet. I hadn't be able to find any information online about fishing conditions which I kind of loved. The locals here don't advertise their water. I respect that.
I worked my way upstream, hitting the deeper runs. I was hoping for more water in the stream, but there were still some deep troughs that looked like great holding water. I didn't see any fish until I moved a really big lake run brown trout on a black woolly bugger. He sniffed at it, then turned away. I reached a really long, deep pool with a maple tree that had fallen in about halfway through. It was there, under those branches, that laid the darkest water. I drifted an egg through it once, twice, three times. On that last drift my line went tight and my Winston 6 weight bent down in praise of some holy idol lurking deep in the bottom of the pool. It knelt like that for a solid ten minutes as I fought this fish. At first I thought it was a sturgeon as it stayed hovered along the bottom. It fought like a catfish as it kept trying to get lower and lower in the water. I couldn't coax it up at all. The only other landlockeds I've landed were in Maine and they'd leap out of the water every chance they got. This one was different. She wanted to stay low.
It ran upstream a bit, then settled back down in its original spot. Finally, she started making runs downstream. With each run I tried to nose her down into the shallow part of the pool. On the fourth run, I finally got her to oblige as I literally ran downstream with her. I netted her with my little trout net and luckily a dude showed up right then who had a bigger net. I slid her over to it and removed the egg pattern and the big black conehead bugger that she had ripped off someone else's line. He took a few quick pictures and she swam away.
This is by far one of the best wild fish I've ever landed. The entire experience was the culmination of a on a ton of hours put on the water and on exploring. There's nothing quite like finding water and wild fish on your own.
"I know no good way
to live and I can't
stop getting lost in my
thoughts, my ancient forests...
You ask - how does a man rise or fall in this life?
The fisherman's song flows deep under the river."
- Wang Wei
I work my way downstream
stripping a black woolly bugger
through riffles and pools.
Leaves release from their
branches. Water swirls cold.
Clouds pile onto each other.
Trout chase flash through pebble
and sand. Sediment settles
in the first low water of the season.
I have nowhere to be
except to make pizza for dinner
in a few hours.
"Ask me how it is I've come to perch in these
and I'll smile with no answer; I'm happiest with
heart-and-mind just so, may be...
Peach blossoms float by here, gone into the
quite definite shadows.
There is another world, other than this one we
choose to live in."
- Li Po
Here's the tell - I still get swarmed by mosquitoes when I sit out on my porch at night. It's September.
It's been raining since the end of July. There have only been a few days without rain, even fewer with dry air. It feels as if this area is slowly turning into a tropical floodplain. The Susquehanna has stayed high all summer. No zostera. No hyacinths. Only a handful of bass brought to hand. Wading has been difficult, so I've been floating it with the kayak. Each time there are different eddies and currents. The river changes with every flood. It's bulging. The canopy and water are growing closer.
The one upside to all this rain is that, once the sediment settles, the trout streams around here are fishing well. There's a spring creek a few minutes from my house that normally runs pretty low by this time of year. Developments keep being built and the water table gets sucked dry. I fished it for a few hours this evening and was pleasantly surprised at how high the water was. The recent floods have pushed a ton of sediment downstream, leaving some nice, long deep channels. The water was that perfect chalky limestone color. The trout chased the woolly bugger with abandon.
There's a stretch I love to fish that is lined with quite a few old Osage Orange trees. They aren't too common around this area, especially this size. Their bark is unique - strained, thick, topographic, deep grooves that wind their way up and down the tree. Their canopies are large and filter the light in this shallow ravine. They seemed to survive the last few floods. Still standing. Whereas some gigantic sycamore have fallen. They line the banks and as the dirt is dragged downstream, their cedar red roots create great notches to stand in to cast. These, along with the catalpa that line the river by my house, are my favorite stretches of trees in the county. In the fall when I walk this stretch I'll find dozens of their burled lime-green hedge apples.
The heat of the summer was getting too much. Coupled with the continuous rain, I was feeling cooped up with the river blown out. No bass fishing. No kayaking. Every bike ride ending in a rainstorm. I woke up last Sunday knowing I had to leave for a few days, shed some of this summer skin.
I decided to head down to West Virginia to check out some water. I camped near Seneca Rocks and took a few days to roam around the Monongahela National Forest. It's beautiful rugged country. Steep wooded hills flooded with rhododendron.I got into some wild rainbows, which was super cool. I met an old lady whose job it was to park at an intersection of two gravel roads six miles deep in the forest just to tell people not to turn left. Pipeline Construction. She warned me about the rattlesnakes. I kept an eye out for them the entire day. We talked about the storm coming over from Elkins.
I came across the Green Bank Observatory. A surreal place tucked deep in West Virginia. They listen to the universe there. Afterwards, I caught brook trout in the middle of a thunderstorm on big dry flies. This is the summer of rain. I drove down countless ravines. I drove up miles of mountain. It was a good week.
I ended it in western Maryland after stopping for some of the best burritos I've ever had at Hellbenders in Davis, WV. I caught brook trout. I had a fire. I fell asleep to the stream, the throaty call of the frogs, and the sharp gossip of crickets. It's been a good summer.
I rest easy when I'm in the north woods. The deepness of the green and the water and the night are a comfort for me. We spent the last week camping in northern New Hampshire and western Maine.
I spent a lot of time exploring water - the Rapid River, the Magalloway, the Upper Connecticut. Many wild fish were caught, some big ones lost. A thunderstorm came in over two hours one night. We sat by the fire and listened as it worked its way south out of Canada and finally fell asleep as torrential rain rolled its fingers across the roof of our camper. It was a good, hard sleep that night.
The humidity hit later in the week, slowing us a down a bit. Another storm came early Friday morning - 4 a.m. - and pushed in a cold front. The breeze stuck with us for a few days. We woke up late, ate a hearty breakfast at the local diner, hiked Magalloway Mountain, and in the evening caught landlocked salmon, brook trout, brown trout, and rainbow trout on a high floating caddis.
"Yeah, it's pretty good. I've got about 15 and I've been here since 6."
I was laying in bed listening to the owl when I got the text. 6:20. I promised myself one morning this week of not waking up to an alarm but woke up early anyway. Pushing the skunking I took last time I tried for shad out of my mind, I roll out of bed, throw on some clothes, and head out towards the Conowingo Dam.
Google Maps said it'd take an hour and three minutes, I get there in 50. I usually use my 8 wt. for the river, but I've been taking out my Winston 6 wt. I inherited from my neighbor as of late. It's a fantastically responsive rod and fishing it feels like fishing. Sometimes, with my 8 wt., I feel like I'm just chucking heavy hooks full of feathers through the air and muscling fish back in. It's great for my kayak, but this season, when I'm wading warm waters, I'm taking the Winston.
Rob gave me a flashy little fly with a pink bead head to use and on my second cast, I finally land my first Hickory Shad. Using a sinking leader helped get the fly down to where the shad where. Sling it out, let it drift down the current and swing it. Slow strips - strip, strip, pause, set. This is how it went for the first few hours. 15 minutes of catching shad on every other cast, then, a lull. But you keep casting, because you don't know when that next bite will start again.
They released water late in the morning. Sirens sound, red lights flash and within minutes my boots are sunk and water is up to my knees. I put on a few split shot to get down. Roll cast out, let it swing, and with the first strip my line stopped. Caught on a rock. No, it's moving, but it's not like any other shad I caught that day. It stays low like a catfish and doesn't shoot straight upstream but out and back and then takes me on the reel as it breaks downstream back towards the bay. I slide my rod down, side pressure and turn it, slowly working it back towards me. Finally, a flicker of light in the murky water. An American Shad. 3 pounds? I've never seen scales so iridescent, flushed purple and blue by thousands of miles of salt water hitting the freshwater of the Susquehanna. It's beautiful. Heavy with muscle, a forked tail of a rudder, enough to finish out its journey.
Yesterday I drove up switchbacks
through the Tuscarora Mountains
- these that create a a few fertile valleys in central Pennsylvania-
to a small stream with native brook trout and wild brown trout.
Most people wouldn't consider driving
this far just to fish a small stream.
Destinations are different
for those of us who like to spend
their days in large swaths of public forests
on water with wild trout
and no people.
It was still cold in the morning,
April has been a long March,
and a black woolly bugger jigged
through the deep pools
worked until noon.
The sun stretched itself out over the valley
by early afternoon.
Bugs - caddis, midges, a few black stoneflies -
little puffs of bug smoke
in the warm spots.
There was a pool that,
with every cast of my caddis,
a trout would strike it.
This, that little ten foot pool
and those hungry fish,
is always worth the drive.
I love driving down dirt rods. The ones that go through public lands and arch their way around mountains and into ravines. That follow streams up into their headwaters.
The road splits when a tributary enters, where the mountains fold into each other and you have a choice. Right, Left. I'll pull off when there's space and search the water for wild trout. I fill my days with their dirt and their mysterious bends as much as possible.
That plunge pool is at least fifteen feet deep. I was hoping to see some brown trout rising, but the water this far north is still cold, still in its early spring mode. No bugs to be seen, still ice in the north side hollows.
This bend mirrored the roads I drove around this weekend. Long slices of rock curving, cutting deep into the dirt, hiding dark runs still waking up from winter.
You can find a new poem of mine, "Frozen Antlers," in the Fly Fishing Edition of Gray's Sporting Journal.
I had more time to explore on Sunday, so I decided to check out a new section of a larger limestone creek that I had fished a few times previously. This stream is often overlooked; though there is one particular spot that seems to get the most attention. I didn't see anyone else on the water.
Since this was new water to me and the levels were a bit up, I slowly worked my way out to a long mellow run tight line nymphing. On the set as I was lifting the rod to cast, I felt what I thought was a rock when it rolled over and shot downstream. I kept working him back over closer to the bank, trying to get upstream of him as we coasted down under a bridge. After about 50 yards, I finally, kind of, netted this beautiful rainbow. Though stocked, this dude had definitely been in the water for a few years. Beautiful colors. I've never hit the 20" mark this early in the year. I love the back and forth of a good right. There is a metaphor here that I'm going to keep working on.
After the rainbow and the adrenaline, I realized that my left boot was leaking. I kept fishing, but after another hour or so, my foot was completely numb so I got in the truck and drove upstream to warm up a bit. I fished one last section as rain starting gathering through the valley and landed a handful of wild browns. They all took big tungsten nymphs on the bottom. I'm ok if January freezes up again. I'll be waiting for the next thaw.
A couple of weeks ago I traced out a blue line into a state forest, took a drive, and fished for brookies and browns. It was nice not to have anyone around; so much so that I almost ignored the No Trespassing signs in order to hit one really deep hole under a hemlock. I reached the downstream border and knew I had to turn around. I did swing a bugger out, across, and down into the water a couple of times before I left. I doubt you could fine a fly caught in a current for trespassing. Especially after a few days of heavy rain.
I went back to the deep pool a bit past the bridge and quickly hooked into a pretty nice sized brown trout super low on a hare's ear. I lost him at the tail end of the pool, never getting the hook set well enough. Upstream, after the downed oak made for an interesting redirection - a plunge pool only about a foot long, seven feet long, into a quick run before hanging left again - a nice long slow pool and a dead raccoon. No fish rising.
I fished the whole afternoon, but only covered about 3/4 of a mile of water. It was one of those beautifully intricate mountain freestone streams - every few feet a new piece of water to be read. The trout were in their late fall colors. The brookies were getting bright and ready to spawn and the browns had the yellows melting off their red spots.
I don't fish for numbers. Once you start down that road the only places you have to go are down or up. I don't get it. Calculating my fishing experience based on how many caught or lost or missed or just didn't see seems archaic and too much like a competition. I'd rather catch one wild trout on a stream without anyone around than 20 stocked fished sharing the water with others. Anyway, I went antiquing with the wife last week and, tucked behind a small counter in a corner of a basement shop was an old fiberglass fly rod in great shape. It's a 7' 5 wt AFTMA (?) with 10 guides. 20 bucks. I figure it'll be a great small stream rod for throwing some streamers and heavier nymphs. I can't wait to take it out, not to see how many trout I can catch on it, but to see how the rod will change my approach, my cast, the flies I use. Maybe it'll help me to see the water in different ways. Maybe it'll teach me something I didn't even think about learning. If I'm always going out to catch the most amount of fish, I'll be less likely to be surprised. I'll just high-stick nymph with the same three comfort flies over and over again. Sure, that's a blast at times, but it's also good to cast a rod you found for 20 bucks with a new fly pattern you tried to tie last night while it rained.
The fire red underbelly of ferns yellowed by
low water and late fall
greet us as we step out of maple and oak
into swept old rolling Appalachian mountains.
The green is leaving the canopy along with us, a trail cut
bank along the slide.
Red blazes on pine.
The dirt roads of Pennsylvania
are a good breakfast for a day in the woods.
I swear, some day I’ll just pull off
to the side of one and rest, watch the suns and moons
of its days and nights turn into each other.
Some clouds. A rain.
Cross Forks to Windfall to Red Ridge.
There’re your directions.
Up this high, the ground is soft.
Not like most of Pennsylvania. Didn’t turn my ankle on a rock once.
The trail curves, gaining a few feet of elevation, slowly as it
wraps itself up into the Hammersley Ravine.
No deer. No bear. Just a few chipmunks.
This morning trout were snatching my woolly bugger
as it dipped and streaked through their water.
From up here I see no water. Just endless wooded crescents and ridgelines
folding into each other
tired from the shift of the plates of years ago.
Tonight we’ll eat fajitas around a fire, but right now
it’s just you, me, our dog
standing in the middle of this old burn - 1964 -
small birch stained yellow by October, groves of ferns,
teaberry, dark streaks on rock nestled among little thorns.
We stop and stand before leaving,
eyes closed, a wind comes up out of the deep
sweeps across our mouths, chilling the sweat, the hair at the edge
of our ears.
The taste of this settles in my tonsils.
Shade mountain, Jacks Mountain, Penn's Creek.
A Bobcat in the rear view mirror
with still a few gulps of coffee left in the parking lot.
I got pissed at the big water by noon.
A morning of slight takes and spitting flies
ended with two dudes dropping into the middle of the run I was fishing.
I cut up the bank, crossed into the meadow and threw some hoppers.
It was lunch, I was hungry.
I had eaten my last granola bar an hour ago.
I walked back to my truck and drove up the mountain
until I found a pull off
and the stream winding itself out and away
into the rhododendron and mountain laurel.
I took one fly and my 6'10" rod.
Hiked into the woods
following the only path the water cut.
A few deep plunges,
some shallow riffles,
a cut bank that bled
into a hill of ferns,
some small brook trout
and I was fishing.
Eventually I reached the road,
walked back to my truck and off to find lunch.
Washington felt like home.
Maybe it was the two days of driving through 100 degree Idaho and eastern Oregon dry landscapes. Maybe it was insanely good burrito we got at the food truck in Olympia.
Maybe it was finally reaching the end of the swing, sliding into the last stretch of the boomerang arc, heading north along the coast, slowly making steps towards the east, our house.
Mostly I think it was the trees, the blues, the grays, the ocean and its driftwood.
Our first night was spent on the Pacific Ocean. We walked along fields of driftwood laying like fallen totems between the sand and the thick interior forest. There was a ceaseless breeze that kept the ocean in our camper and burned our fire quickly. After dinner sat and watched the sun set on the ocean. The sand skittered towards me and I would close my eyes but not for too long. I didn't want to miss the last bit of sun. I wanted to see the lightness of the dry wood begin to meld into the dark spruce as day left.
I'm still processing this place. It's fingerprints have been tattooed on me. There are only a few places I've been in my life that have completely altered my perspective. Northern Maine in late October. The saddle between the Upper and Lower Devil Peaks in the Siskyous Mountains. Predawn late August on the Susquehanna River. The Hoh Rainforest. It's primordial colors of blue and gray serve as a thick backdrop to the large Sitka Spruce and fields of fern that cover the soft forest floor. I want to go back with my fly rod, a backpack, some food and hike deep into it until I'm lost. 15 elk crossed the river right below our campsite as the sun set.
Our last few days were spent in the Cascades. I found some water full of Westslope Cutthroat trout eager to take a hopper on top. We stayed away from the crowds and camped in forest service land surrounding the National Park. We were reluctant to go, but knew we had to eventually start making it home or else we'd never leave.
After a night of eating take-out Mexican food under the Milky Way while Nebraskan rednecks shot off legit fireworks around a lake a few miles east of the Wyoming border, we scarfed down an amazing breakfast at Luxury Diner before driving down the last hot stretch highway towards the Rockies. We made it to mountains after 2.5 long days of driving.
A strike through the Gros Ventres along the Hoback still swelling with the last snow lead us to Granite Creek. Spring currents under a heavy summer canopy.
From left to right: Yellowstone Cutthroat, Crystal Creek Campground, Our Home in the foothills of the Tetons, Granite Creek Hot Springs, a Mountain Whitefish, and Granite Creek Campground.
Black-eyed Susans marked the quebrada made by Granite Creek as it tore through the Gros Ventres. The hot springs cleaned us after days on the road, the mountain wind swept the dirt through our pores.
We stayed in Wyoming for about a week, camping almost exclusively in Forest Service and BLM campgrounds. We had nothing but wind and sun on the Green River. We were scorched, dry, our skin mottled with the fine scratches of the valley. Mountains bordered us on the north and west. Nothing but flatness and goat prairies to the south and east. We built a fire and watched, sat in the ecotone, the place between, while fireworks still scraped the horizon back towards Nebraska and early July.
After lounging in the Gros Ventres valley and wilderness, we decided to head out to the coast, to big trees, ocean, and rainforest. The Olympic Peninsula was just a day and half drive away. We stopped at the Kelly on the Gros Ventres for coffee and breakfast and kept heading west.
We're leaving for Wyoming on Friday.
That means I won't see the river for a few weeks.
By the time we get back, it'll be in its Summer space.
Low, warm water. High grasses. Maybe some hibiscus.
I wanted to get out in it one last morning before we left.
The water's still high and muddy.
The bass seem to be settled below rapids or along the shallow water along the banks.
This one inhaled my slider and immediately took flight.
He was in only a foot of water, right along the bank.
He fought hard down stream.
Jumped a few more times and after a long fight, I finally landed him.
My personal best smallmouth bass - 21",
I was lucky enough to have a good friend along to snap some photos.
This river has some beautiful water and some beautiful fish.
Get out and enjoy it.
Check out the newest issue of The Drake Magazine (Summer, 2017), for my latest essay on fly fishing, Shank's Tavern, the Susquehanna River, and my close friend Steve.
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.