More Autumn Small Stream Fishing

Autumn’s here and the fishin’ is…well it can be tough sometimes actually. I got out on a “local” trout stream the other day. By local I mean about 50 miles way. It’s the closest wild trout stream that I know of. It can be a real bear. There is nothing easy about fishing it. The stream is folded into the hillside like a deep crease. To be truthful I have never had a “great” day here. It can be a physically grueling place to fish. It’s just tough to get around with the steep hillsides, dead falls and glacially deposited boulders. The stream gets the best of me most times. With respect to trout bum/poet/writer Richard Brautigan, it is not the kind of stream that can be mistaken for an old lady. It is more likely to be mistaken for a mob enforcer. It will bloody your nose, break your leg and leave you for dead. You’ll lay there wondering why you didn’t tell anyone exactly where you were going,  a simple note to the wife maybe would have been a good idea. How far will my voice carry? I wonder. Will I succumb to thirst or will a pack of coyotes get me first? I wish that I’d had a donut instead of oatmeal for my last meal. These are the thoughts that go through my head as I scramble over leg breaking boulders, logs and ledges.

It is a small stream. A typically eastern small freestone stream, and so it gets low in the summer and fall. And on this trip it was still pretty low. And that was a problem. See those long shallow, slow pools in the above pic? They were tough to fish. I went with the 11-ft Tenkara USA Iwana. Perhaps a mistake. Though it’s a small stream – it has a pretty high canopy. A longer rod would probably have been a better choice – maybe even the zooming Tenkara USA Ito (13′ mostly but the 14’7″ zoom level would have even been useable here and there). Next time.

Though there were small fish, I was surprised to see that there were also plenty of bigger fish – but they were not buying what I was selling. At first I wasn’t catching (or even seeing) anything, so I had to take some of my own advice and be stealthier. It can be hard to be patient sometimes. I went to stealth mode. Walking very slowly and softly. I upped it from not seeing fish to seeing “vee-wakes” and occasional glimpses of bigger fish fleeing for their lives. Forget spooking them with a cast, I couldn’t even get near the stream.

Maybe it was just me on this particular day. Maybe it was the alignment of the stars and bad karma. But I couldn’t get the big guys to bite. Sometimes they were hanging lazy in the skinny, slow water, other times they were sulking under tree roots and boulders. Either way, they weren’t biting. The guys in the skinny water – well they were just plain tough to cast to or approach. I was reminded though of something that I know, but sometimes need to relearn. Fairly large trout can hide anywhere. It is an eye opening experience to watch a trout disappear under a flat rock on the stream bottom. A rock that looks like it couldn’t offer any safe harbor for a fish of that size. Or conversely watch a trout appear from nowhere.

And that’s what these fish would do. Like spectral visions they would suddenly be there drifting and watching a dry fly…watching…drifting…watching…then gone. If anybody ever tells you that fish on small, infertile streams never get picky…these fish were picky.  I never did unravel the riddle. Was it drag, micro-drag, the wrong fly, tippet size? I can’t say. I was trying to keep it simple – so I didn’t change up a bunch. I switched from sakasa kebari wet flies to dry flies and that helped. The splat of the dry fly would draw the fish that were hiding out into the open. The splash of a potential food item would pull them from under their rocks or roots and they would either eat the fly or just watch it. Only the little guys ate it though. The bigger fellows just watched it. Oh well.

Still it was fun to watch. Why is it that we enjoy watching fish so much? What childish behavior…no not childish – childlike. It is childlike wonder, I guess. Cast a fly, watch a spotted, golden spirit slide silently from under a rock ledge. It is like conjuring. It is like magic. I guess that is what I cannot escape from. The spell of that natural childlike enthusiasm at seeing a wild thing – of interacting with a wild thing.

Still the very small trout stream seems to harbor a melancholy. In my neck of the woods it is rare and fragile. This stream is not long and when it hits the larger stream to which it is a tributary, the trout habitat is over. The larger stream is too warm to be a good trout river, it is a stocked stream which probably has some holdovers, but which doesn’t support a real trout fishery. Of course the wild trout in the little tributary stream have arisen from those stocked fish. So the little stream is a sanctuary for the trout and for me. But it is so finite. The small stream fisherman has to deal with this idea – the small stream is so apparently finite. There is no ignoring this fact. As you hike upstream it gets smaller and smaller – and this happens quickly. The big river does the same – but you can ignore it. You cannot ignore the way the tiny stream dwindles. You can fish it to its unfishable source. You can watch it disappear. You can stand in a cleft of the land and stare at the space where a stream is only an idea.  An idea that the land has formed in its mind – but which it hasn’t followed up on yet. Fishing up a small stream is an activity with a catastrophic ending – it ends with annihilation of the stream itself. It makes you wonder about those who fish these smallest of streams. What does it say about us? Or maybe it’s all just about trying to catch some fish.






9 Comments on More Autumn Small Stream Fishing

  1. TJ Ferreira // October 9, 2012 at 1:52 PM // Reply

    Nice story.

    I have been enjoying reading The Orvis Guide to Small Stream Fly Fishing and it seams you enjoy fishing small streams from the few blogs of yours I have read.

    Have you read this book?

    I am only 1/3 into it now as I am a SLOW reader but is a great book. Tom Rosenbauer seems to really enjoy small streams. Thing is, I do too!

    Thanks again for sharing your story. I also posted a story over on the TUSA forums about my recent 10 day camping trip where I fished a small creek. It was tons of fun. Will be fun to go back next year after Winter has its way with it and makes new runs and pools for me to fish on it. I bet it looks much different than this year.

    I bet yours does the same thing? What it looks like now with pools here and there, next year that pool may be gone and new pools formed. Or are the waters there too slow in winter to make much change in the dynamics of the stream?


    • I haven’t read that book – I’ll have to check it out. Though, I’m a slow reader too…well that’s not totally true, I usually just have too many books going at one time. This stream that I fished doesn’t change too much yearly I wouldn’t imagine. Most of its structure is created by large boulders and bedrock ledges, not too much gravel. So it would take a pretty big event to get those rocks moving.

  2. Anthony,
    Good post! I’d agree that fishing up a small stream is a little melancholic but I wouldn’t say that arriving near its source is “catastrophic.” Getting to that source is a little like looking into the human heart. Here is where the blood comes from but the blood flows everywhere throughout the body and keeps you alive. Today I finally arrived at the “source” of Slate Run proper– man, you talk about difficult fishing over low clear water! It’s taken me a year to get here, fishing every foot of the 7-mile run over 13 visits; the fishing’s been less than sensational but the exploration has been great. I don’t feel like it’s over, though, for me and Slate. Next spring I’ll head up one of the two runs that forms the head of Slate. Into the wild “true source” of the run, and when I’m out of water, I’ll return to Slate’s confluence with Pine and start all over (at least in theory). Small streams aren’t as finite as they seem. As you point out, they present an irresistible challenge.

    • Walt, thanks for sharing your comments. You’ve got me itching to get back onto Slate and Cedar. I haven’t been up that way for many years – and then only once. I think I caught one brookie and one wild tiger when I was there.
      Thanks for bringing back that memory. Streams are like that aren’t they. They get under your skin like tattoos. They make a permanent mark – as does every fish that I catch. I feel like I remember those fish that i caught like it just happened.

  3. Nice post (especially the “melancholic” last graph), and a good example of a regional perspective. Most of the small streams in my neck of the woods are mysterious things; they’re typically long enough that I’ve fished the length of only a couple of them.

    That means most of the others contain stretches I’ve never seen — and are almost never fished. I can see why making it to the headwaters of a small stream in the space of very little time would be jarring and perhaps a little sad. It’s just not something I’ve experienced.

    Which, I suppose, is why we read the work of other fly fishing writers.

    Rosenbauer’s book is good; an informative thing that’s pretty clearly a labor of love. I recommend it to those new to small streams (along with Gierach’s older, more philosophical book on small streams).

    • Thanks for the comment Tom. Obviously not all our Pennsylvania streams are as small as this one – but the last few that I’ve been on are. I’ll have to check out the Rosenbauer book – labor of love, that’s what I’m talking about. I can relate to the labor of love. I have the Gierach book sitting on the shelf – awaiting the winter reading times.

  4. .
    Nice thoughts, well rendered.

    My wife and I enjoy watching fish, too. Unlike birding, angling requires the human to remove the fish temporarily from its element in order to engage and appreciate it. Fly fishing, tenkara specifically, is the most sporting method we have found to do this.

    btw: Perfect early autumn photos as well . . .

    • Thanks for the comments Ron. How’s your wife at spotting fish? My wife never seems to sees them until I point them out – she’s ok with letting me have at least one thing that I’m better at though.:)

  5. David Pracht // October 24, 2012 at 11:28 AM // Reply

    The pictures of this stream remind of a stream just up river from our family’s cottage near Oil City PA. It flowed through a Hemlock forest, large bolders, mossy rocks. Truly a magical place.

what say you?