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.
The lines of thinking I latched onto this week:
Rolled hay. I ended up research the planting, growing, and harvesting process of hay. All because every day on my way to and from work, I drive past a few fields with large rolls of hay held together by twine. They have been left there to age, much like split wood, over the winter. Now, with the recent rains, they are soaked and beginning to sag.
Bloated river. The river has been up over its bank all week. The highest all winter. Dark, quick, splotched with migrating buffleheads and Canadian geese. It dropped for a day, or two. But now is rising once again. A quick crest, dip and now another climb up the floodplain.
Birds. The woods have been quiet and they sky sparse. Within the last few days with a few days pushing into the 60's, the sky is beginning to fill with birds, the woods have a brighter voice.
You can find a new poem of mine, "Frozen Antlers," in the Fly Fishing Edition of Gray's Sporting Journal.
My poem, "You Laughed when I didn't know what 'Jaded' Meant", is published in the new issue of the San Pedro River Review - "Music", Spring 2018 Volume 10 Number 1. You can purchase a copy here.
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.
It only took until the 5th day of the new year for the river to freeze. Though the deep channel that curves around the York side is still clear, it's calm and crinkles in the wind. Only a matter of another few hours of these deep chills for it to close up. The banks on this side have a deep ice to them that's beginning to crater outwards with the slow downstream pressure of freezing water. Wind creases itself across the ice like white flies skittering in flits and tantrums.
Walks with Whitman have grown shorter. Today we made it down a game trail and found a piece of shelter someone built in the past few months. A duck blind tucked into a little hill built with driftwood and discarded lumber. If the ground were level it'd be a great spot for a nap. We don't stop too long these days.
The river freezes into streams before going completely still. As the days get progressively colder and the water slows down, you're able to see the currents make their way through limestone. The freeze hits the water along the banks first immediately extending its reach into the eddies and flats. Some of the water, when its shallow over rock falls, will cling to the tops and reach itself over, leaving a current between itself and the rock, insulating it from the cold it seems.
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.
Yesterday was raw*. The rain started when I woke up and was still falling when I fell asleep. The cold wind cut through all the layers and sliced into bones. It was the first day of the year that felt like winter. It felt good. It felt like Pittsburgh.
Back then I’d keep myself warm riding bike to class through shit-stained slush with a pair of headphones and a beanie. I’d escape the brutal cold not with layers, but with music. Layers kept the chill out; music kept me warm and away from the congestion and concrete of the city. My roommates and I were also really cheap, so we kept the heat only as high as needed in order for the pipes not to freeze. I had the largest room in the house, up on the second story, with a set of three windows that looked out onto Juliet Street, two streetlamps shining their signs onto the beige carpet all night, no curtains and a mattress on the floor. I’d burn a few sticks of Nag Champa every night and throw on a record to fall asleep to and keep warm under my comforter. In 2005, during my senior year, there was one particular album that I would listen to nightly as I waited for the incense to fill the room - Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney’s masterpiece Superwolf. It took me 44 minutes to fall asleep on those nights.
“I know nothing and I’m overjoyed…” is sung, repeated as an incantation, throughout “My Home is the Sea” as Sweeney’s guitar sends reverberations, ripples of riffs throughout the industrial landscape of cold, winter Pittsburgh night. Silence outside for once. The snow has a habit of doing that, shutting everything down, sending a big “shhhh” quiet enough and long enough that everyone gets the point. Those were the nights that I loved that city the most. When Sweeney’s guitar and Oldham’s voice created an urban meditation in a sea of concrete and rough edges, I could see the city as a habitable place, a home of sorts. An ocean.
That record played me through Pittsburgh, loneliness, heartbreak, hangovers, delirious canoe rides down the Allegheny. It kept me from capsizing when the barges came to close, or when I just couldn’t paddle fast enough. Sweeney’s rumbling chants would protect my ears from wind as I pounded those bike pedals up and down riverine hills and across yellow bridges.
The thing is, that record didn’t stop playing when I left Pittsburgh and went deep into the north Maine woods. I couldn’t bring my LPs with me, but I had it, at the time, on cd and then eventually on my Zune. For three years that record would put me home as I lived out of a backpack and traversed the country from Maine, up and down the Pacific Crest Trail in California, and then Colorado. One night I sat on the beach of the Lost Coast and listened to Oldham sing about running as elk bugled behind me and otters wrestled in the water. There was a thick mist the next morning. I could hear the waves, but couldn't see where sand stopped and water began.
I kept repeating those lines to myself, a mantra for me - “I know nothing and I’m overjoyed, I know nothing and I’m overjoyed”. Because I didn’t. I still don’t. I was living not knowing where I was going to sleep the next night. All I needed was a sleeping bag and a little stove to heat water with. A chaw of beef jerky and my lunch was done. I had so little, knew nothing, and was happy.
I still am. I still barely know anything and yet, I get excited just driving to work. Today, a field of sunflowers. Yesterday, some rain that darkened the creek. Tomorrow I’ll drink a cup of coffee and mow the grass. I know nothing and I’m overjoyed. My copy of the record is now 12 or so years old. It’s one of my most played records and I can't tell if it's dust or Sweeney's guitar fuzz that I hear as I wash the dishes. It's beautiful either way. I still have the tickets to the Superwolf show I saw at the Rex Theater back in 2005 in the sleeve. After the show, I saw them outside the theater smoking cigarettes in the back alley; I was too nervous to say hey and tell them how much their record meant to me.
“I sing evil, I sing good, I sing as a seagull should, and if you melted, then I would, melt myself all into you” - Will Oldham
Buy it here - Superwolf - Superwolf
*I wrote that line last November. It's actually really nice, fall like weather right now. The record still plays perfectly as cicadas and locusts get their last choruses in.
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.
"freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
Summer is here.
Nettles are in full throttle.
I walk through them when I'm looking up, paying no mind to my steps,
tramping towards the next fence or bend in the stream, trying to avoid another groundhog hole.
It's never intentional. Sometimes necessary.
Cold water soothes the sting, but long after my legs are still mottled with the red scratches of their thin hairs.
Though, just the other day, I thought I was in the middle of a field of nettles,
mixed in with high grass, but soon realized it was mint. The breeze filled with the cracked leaves
and I rubbed some on my fingertips and on the fly I was casting.
Another day, last week, I found myself walking
the banks of Penns, watching for the air
to fill with bugs.
It was morning, which I tend to enjoy fishing
more than the evening. There's an anticipation
that can last an entire day in the morning.
The evening offers a quick spike
in the denouement of the day. It's subtle and reassuring
but there's always a solemnity in it for me.
Looking up, I realize my shoulder just passed through a cobweb full of Green Drakes.
They got caught as they were leaving their branches to drop eggs into the water late last night.
Some of their wings still twitched.
I promised Whitman a long walk today.
We explored a couple of ponds
set back from the trail
between a copse of trees and a cornfield.
There, he could bark at the ducks
and I could throw a popper for bass.
Check out the latest issue of Susquehanna Life Magazine for my essay on the Susquehanna River, "Bringing a River into Focus".
We set off around 8:30 a.m.
The clouds were coming in from the west over Brunner Island.
The kayaks, smooth.
The water, muddy.
The sun couldn't make it out of the east,
let alone onto our shoulders.
"You're gonna have wet asses"
Steve's uncle politely mentioned as we pushed off.
"Eh," we shrugged. We've been getting advice from his uncles for years
and they're usually right and we usually ignore them.
Just a few weeks ago, they had to tow Steve's boat back upstream
after the engine died,
after they carved a wooden plug so we wouldn't sink.
Luckily, we were able to paddle hard enough to run into some trees
leaning out into the river and tie off so we didn't get washed downstream.
Just a few minutes later and a about a hundred yards downstream, just past the first bend,
it started to rain.
There was a break in the clouds down past Shocks Mill Bridge
so we paddled. Didn't fish much.
Past the Conoy
Past the White Cliffs,
Through the Haldeman Riffles
skirting Ely and Pole Islands aiming for a big slow eddy where we pulled ashore.
There, under a thick grove of river birch and maple,
we had a morning snack and shot the shit for an hour
until the rain passed through.
We watched the water.
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.