But if ya try sometimes… you get what you need

img_3131[Wow, two Rolling Stones title references]

Every Fall since I started fly fishing, my brother Mickey and I plan a weekend trip to Pennsylvania to fish the Fall run steelhead on Elk Creek.  3 years ago, we had a miraculous trip.  We caught so many fish that I think we lost count over a 3 day weekend.  The weekend started out modestly but for whatever reason, there was a purple egg sucking leech “hatch” or something and we couldn’t keep the fish off the line.  Especially my brother, who was hooking up at such a rate that I couldn’t get my own line in the water at times because I was busy netting his fish.  The weather was beautiful and the fish were plentiful.

Tying flies in the hotel room while watching the American League Championship Series

Ever since then, we’ve been trying to duplicate the success of that trip.  However, we’ve since been unable to get the timing right.  Between our work schedules, our family schedules, and the weather, we just haven’t managed to sync everything together to get that kind of success on the water.  When our work and family schedules line up, we end up with weather that doesn’t cooperate.  It may be a lack of rain or sustained warm temperatures (or a combination of both) which results in the Fall run being delayed or stunted for the dates we manage to get there.  Last year in particular was difficult because the Lake Erie region barely received any rain until very late into the Fall.

This year though, we were only half as unlucky.  A few weeks ago, our schedules lined up where we were able to get away for a three day weekend.  However, while there had been some little bursts of rain, they weren’t sustained so the Elk really had only bumped up a little by that point.  There had been some periods of cool temperatures and reports throughout the late summer of excellent off shore fishing which could combine to create a strong Fall run if the rivers could just open up.  Unfortunately, we never did get that solid rain to open the floodgates and let the steelhead run in heavy numbers.  However, there had been reports of large quantities of steelhead staging in the mouths of all the tributaries in Steelhead Alley.  So we decided to follow through with the trip in the hopes that we’d find some steelhead that squeaked up river during the brief periods of increased flow and at the very least, we both got some much deserved time away from work to relax, even if we didn’t catch a bunch of fish.

The weekend finally arrived and although Mickey had re-injured his back, we still hit the road early Friday morning to arrive on the Elk before daybreak.  We crept into our first spot under the cover of darkness and cracked a few early morning refreshments while we discussed our hopeful plans for the day.  As day broke and the river revealed itself, we were disappointed to see zero fish and staggeringly low flow that rendered this particular spot nearly unrecognizable were it not for the landmarks on the river bank.  Discouraged, we ventured up stream to see if maybe some of our other regular spots held some fish.

Mickey hiking up the Elk searching through ridiculously low water.

Eventually, we figured out that there simply weren’t any fish up that far.  We had, however, learned that the mouth was loaded up.  That would seem like a good thing, except that Mickey and I had tried the mouth of Elk Creek at the start of last year’s run on a day trip and basically found it to be intolerable.  This was truly combat fishing with a scarcity of personal space and manners combined with slow flow and bait chuckers.  In this situation, the scentless and artificial flies pale in comparison to egg sacks and minnows, making the likelihood of hooking up wholly unworthy of the stress of fishing in that environment.

Mickey cracking a cold one in low fishless waters

That in mind, we were both in agreement that the mouth of the Elk was not a option either of us were willing to entertain.  We started running through the options close by and decided to go check out the mouth of Walnut creek.  Neither of us had been there but we knew it was a popular spot.  We were definitely a little cautious to get our hopes up though, expecting that it would resemble Elk’s mouth in flow and the number of grumpy fishermen.  But having few other options, we figured we’d check it out.

We soon arrived, and as expected, we saw lines of elbow to elbow fishermen lining the banks of the river.  There was one important difference though.  The mouth of this creek was dynamic.  The water carved through the bedrock in zig zagging channels and dramatic waterfalls with deep pools.  The Elk’s mouth, by comparison, was a long slow slog of a “run” where all of the fish were crammed against a cliff wall.


Walnut’s narrow stone channels

Mickey and I walked into the river valley and started moving upstream.  We were essentially getting the lay of the land and trying to figure out a spot where we could cast with as little angler pressure as possible while still fishing to fish that might be feeding.  One thing that I noticed as we walked was that the other fishermen were all grouped together at the waterfalls, pools, and slow runs.  As many of the fishermen were casting bait and eggs, they seemed to prefer the slow moving water where fish were piled up.  Given their tackle, that’s likely the right approach, but personally I am always very reluctant to fish those spots.  Granted, we did do just that for a bit, setting up at the foot of a waterfall that seemed to be the current end of the road for their run upstream due to the low flows.
End of the line at a rare moment when Mickey was the only one fishing the pool.

As we started to realize the fish in these pools were highly educated and not at all interested in biting, I began to wander back downstream.  Between each of these slow pools were riffles and runs that moved through deep cuts in the stone.  Some of these cuts were no more than 2 or 3 feet across but at least 2 feet deep straight down into the rock.  The water moved quickly through these chutes and among these, I started to see the flicker of fish tails.  Here, in these narrow cuts, fish were hugging the edges while the majority of the fishermen simply walked right past them to the pools.  What’s more, I noticed that the educated fish in the above pools kept dropping back into these cuts out of sheer annoyance from the pressure above.

I found a small swirling eddy between two of these chutes.  It was no bigger than a bathtub and even less deep, but 2-3 fish kept dropping back into it before either moving back up or dropping back even further.  I put on a size 12 nameless baitfish pattern I had been working on and swung it through the churning eddy.  On my third or fourth swing, the largest of the fish aggressively slammed the fly and suddenly a day where we had lost hope of catching fish turned quickly to hope.  Mickey was still tinkering in the pool above and noticing that I hooked up, dropped his rod and ran down towards me.  I ended up netting a healthy male that was easily the heaviest fish I’ve ever caught.
Captain Hefty
After that, we exclusively targeted those areas for the rest of the weekend.  Over Friday and Saturday, I landed 4 and Mickey landed 3.  Those aren’t crazy numbers but considering how the weekend started, we were really happy to have those fish.  Unfortunately, I woke up Sunday morning with the stomach flu, so we had to abandon day three of our journey.  By Saturday afternoon though, we had seen a dramatic decrease in the number of fish in the stream.  As is often the case in these PA tributaries, the locals regularly keep their fish.  Those fish that weren’t caught were highly educated and frankly, we just didn’t have the heart to cast to them.
Beautiful color on this fish for Mick

So while we weren’t able to duplicate that Valhalla-esque trip of a few years back, we ended up adapting to the conditions we had available and making the most of it.  I wonder if we’ll ever be able to duplicate that trip.  I know my schedule, at least, becomes more and more unpredictable and restrictive with every passing month.  On top of that, the heavy Fall rainfall that typically would kick off a season’s run seems to be coming later and later, delaying the runs and making it harder to put in my vacation requests ahead of time.

– Gabriel

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