I began this simply as a letter to a fly fishing friend on April 15, 1997, and have since updated it several times, sending it to my fishing buddies and interested anglers. This is just a sampling of what Spring Creek and Fishing Creek in Central Pennsylvania have to offer.
Note: Until today, April 5, 2012, the most recent editing of this article had been done about ten years ago. Long before I was on-line I was writing letters like this to my friends. Much of my writing was a sort of fishing journal typical of this article. The subject matter is still relevant, and I thought this might make for interesting reading about some great trout fishing experiences. There is also some valid tactical fishing information here. This entry is over 3000 words in length so reading it will take a bit of your time. My updated editing is in parenthesis. I intend to add some relevant photos to this post as time permits.
I also want to preface this article by noting my extensive nymph fishing experience. At the Somerset New Jersey Fly Fishing Show, I asked Aaron Jasper to sign my copy of Dave Klausmeyer’s new book, The Master’s Fly Box, since we are both featured in that book. As Aaron signed my copy, he asked, “Do you ever fish nymphs, Don?” A reasonable question, since the flies in my chapter are all traditional wet flies. I did submit my RSP but it didn’t survive the author’s cut.
I replied to Aaron, “The license plate on my car is NYMPHS.
I love tying and fishing wet flies, but posted on my profile on Classic Fly Tying Forum is my conviction (and that of Pennsylvania fly fishing legend George Harvey) that “Nymph fishing is the most effective method to take trout consistently”. For many years I conducted three-day nymph fishing clinics on Spring Creek. These sessions always began with my 1-1/2 to 2 hour stream-side nymphing demonstrations, on public water. On some occasions I used whatever water was available and conducted my demonstrations.
“Trout Season in North-Central Pennsylvania”
The Monday after (the 1997) trout season opened, I spoke to Ron Poles of Benton, Pennsylvania. (Ronnie and I met in 1989 when we were both working for Cathy and Barry Beck). He had fished Opening Day weekend on the freestone Fishing Creek in Columbia County near his home. In relating his weekend of fishing, he complained, “Nada fly! Not one mayfly hatched.” That’s typical of early season, considering the normal cold water temperatures on freestone streams. (Most freestone waters don’t get major hatch activity going until the water temperature attains 50 degrees). I couldn’t hold back from enthusiastically sharing my fishing experiences on the limestone waters of Fishing Creek and Spring Creek during the same weekend. As I began, Ronnie kept telling me with an envious tone of voice, kidding of course, that he didn’t want to hear it. (Ronnie was a good friend, an affable fellow that joined us during the 1990’s on some of our trips to the Moosehead Lake Region of Maine. He passed away a number of years ago. Not long after this letter was written, Ronnie and I spent a memorable day fishing together on Penn’s Creek and Big Fishing Creek near Lamar, Pennsylvania).
On Wednesday April 9, (1997) Ted Fauceglia, with his superb macro-photography of mayflies, presented the evening program for our local (Susquehanna) Trout Unlimited Chapter. Thursday afternoon, he, Dave Rothrock, and me went to Fishing Creek in Clinton County. We started fishing at 1:00 PM, without any noticeable insect activity. During a half-hour period, I began to see some Baetis duns drifting by, and then some larger flies. The “Spring Jumbos” as Ted calls them, turned out to be Quill Gordons, which began emerging in numbers sufficient enough to incite several larger trout to feed on the surface. A short while later, the hatch was compounded further by the addition of some Blue Quills, and then, finally, Hendricksons added to the buffet of mayfly duns. Individual trout were taking some or all of the above, both randomly and selectively, as all four species of mayflies hatched simultaneously. I took 3 nice browns and 1 brookie on a #12 dubbed-body Quill Gordon, which may seem surprising to those expecting Quill Gordons to be a size #14. As a rule, limestone-bred aquatic insects tend to be of larger average size than their freestone counterparts. Five more trout took a #12 Olive Hare’s Ear Nymph – a good Quill Gordon nymph imitation, drifted through the runs after the hatch subsided. This wonderful fishing took place in under three hours.
For the opening weekend, my friends Rick Whorwood and Jim Poling came from Ontario, arriving mid-afternoon on Friday April 10th. Another friend from Maryland, Jack Tokach, met us on Fishing Creek, where we fished from 4:00 PM til dark. During that time, we took trout on #22 Griffith’s Gnats, Blue-wing Olive parachutes, midges, and small Blue Quill Patterns. Subsurface, we fished small midge larva, San Juan Worms, #18 & #20 BWO nymphs, taking fish consistently until we stopped fishing on account of darkness. I netted a 16″ rainbow on a Griffith’s Gnat, and another 20″ rainbow on an egg pattern. The combined total for the four of us was over fifty fish.
Saturday, we fished Spring Creek in Centre County. We were joined by Truman McMullan of Pennsylvania and his boyhood friend Jeff Laws, also from Maryland. Rick landed four trout right beside the parking lot on a #18 BWO nymph before the rest of us had our rods rigged. We experienced much anticipation and nervous fingers trying to rig our rods, and Rick of course, couldn’t keep it subtle as he hollered, “Fish On!” with each hook up.
For the next two hours, everyone took some fish on a wide variety of nymphs. I had seen four trout rising sporadically in one pool – riffle area I was fishing around 11:00 AM, but I couldn’t get onto them. About that time Rick and Truman came walking past, and TG said, “We’re gonna go get a snack and a beer.” Arriving at my van I placed my rod on the windshield and secured the grip with a wiper blade, and as I did this I noticed a few Baetis spinners resting on the window glass. Suddenly a light went on in my mind, and right after a beer a few hard pretzels, I anxiously returned to the same spot I had been fishing, delighted to see the same four trout still rising. Basing my pattern choice on the bugs I saw on the windshield, I tied a #18 Baetis spinner onto 5x tippet. (A Baetis spinner is a chocolate brown fly with spent wings of clear Hi-Vis). Bingo! Each of the four browns succumbed to this fly, one right after another. Shortly afterward, Baetis duns began to hatch. Rising trout followed on cue, and for an hour and a half, the browns fed heavily, snapping the duns off the surface, despite the 45 degree water temperature. As I mentioned earlier, the cold water on limestone streams doesn’t seem to inhibit either the bugs or the fish. It had begun to drizzle, and the weather was overcast – perfect conditions for this type of heavy hatch to occur. Truman netted 12, and missed many more, in one pool where more than 40 trout were steadily rising.
When the hatch petered out, we enjoyed a stream-side bar-b-cue lunch. We were back on the water about 2:30 PM, and it was still raining. For a half hour or so, nothing much happened. Then, during a stream-side conversation with Rick and Jim, I happened to notice small mayflies drifting next to shore. Catching one in my hand, I showed the small dark fly to them, and then looking more intensely, pointed out and said, “There’s one! There’s one! There’s one! Another one! And another!” We were amazed by the numbers of mayflies that had suddenly appeared. Looking over the flat-water pool, there was no sign of feeding activity among the patter of raindrops, but there were now scores of small duns across the water. I said, “It’s gonna’ start happening again!” meaning another Baetis hatch was probably just beginning. Then a single trout rose, and within a few minutes that lone feeder was joined by a half dozen more. Inside of ten minutes, over thirty trout were feeding on the duns in front of us. It kept drizzling, the air temperature was around fifty, and the duns floated haplessly on the surface as the trout gobbled them up. In another ten minutes, the number of rising trout doubled! No exaggeration, there were sixty or more trout feeding in the pool we were fishing! (Spring Creek is No-Kill, no tackle restrictions, and is not stocked. These are stream-bred fish). About 4:00 PM, Truman stopped his truck in the road opposite the pool to say goodbye over the guardrails, since we were fishing right beside the road. He had to leave early, but told us that Jack and Jeff had the same thing going on in the pools upstream where they were fishing.
There was a pod of six or seven trout between 15″ and 17″ that fed as a pack right in front of me. They poked their heads out of the water repeatedly, accentuating their feeding activity with audible slurps! For some reason, perhaps because we didn’t have the right color fly, we had a bit of a tough time. Another reality was the shortage of dark-bodied Baetis patterns in my fly box. There were so many flies on the water though, that quite possibly competition with sheer numbers of the naturals was the most limiting factor. These fish also experience heavy fishing pressure, which makes them drift-shy. We caught some more trout, but not one right after another. Nonetheless, it was truly enjoyable to see such a huge hatch, on opening day, and Spring Creek was not crowded at all. The steady rain splattered the surface of the pool so intensely that we could not make an accurate assessment of the number of duns on the water, though it seemed that every square foot of the surface was occupied by a Baetis dun. It was the heaviest Baetis hatch I’ve ever encountered. That’s what Spring Creek can offer under the right conditions, which is so fertile and contains so many trout, all acclimated to the colder water.
During my very first weekend nymphing clinic in 1995, we had also enjoyed trout rising to Baetis duns on March 16, even with ice in our rod guides, a high temperature for the day of 29 degrees Fahrenheit, and a stream temperature of only 40 degrees.
While I was fishing with Jim Poling I took the opportunity to pick up a stone to show him the bug life. The rock was no bigger than my hand, the first one I randomly selected from a shallow riffle. Among the moss, there were over two dozen cress bugs, three dozen larger sulphur nymphs (size #14), and dozens and dozens of #18 and smaller dark olive, and blackish-gray mayfly & caddis nymphs, unidentifiable to my amateur entomologist eye. There were easily over 100 individual insects on that one rock. A second rock yielded a comparable density of “bugs.”
On Sunday, we fished a different section of Spring Creek, five of us, and everyone began to catch trout immediately on nymphs. Bead-head caddis larva (one of the first basic fly designs introduced in 1991, very similar to what are now part of the trendy group of patterns called, “Czech nymphs), dark sulphur nymphs, Baetis nymphs, brassies, flash-back pheasant tails, etc. About 10:30 AM, dozens of trout were found rising in a long pool. They appeared to be midging – Griffith’s Gnat time again! It worked well as usual, not on every fish, but I caught my share. Again, some Baetis were on the water, and the others took some fish on dun patterns, but a heavy hatch never materialized. The trout still took various nymphs readily. By lunch time, the five of us had caught nearly 60 trout.
We went to Fishing Creek after lunch to finish the day. There were midges, some Baetis, and rising trout in the pools. Few other anglers were around, so the four of us had the water to ourselves for an hour. This is unusual for Fishing Creek. Later, a couple more anglers arrived, but that was it. We caught lots more trout on a variety of small patterns. In late afternoon the air temperature dropped around 4:00 PM as the bottom fell out of the thermometer, and there were even some slushy snowflakes at one point.
On Friday May 2, good friend Bill Fish and I spent a little over four hours on Spring Creek, starting about 10:00 AM. We both got a few fish right away, and then separated because I was lagging – taking my good ol’ time as I fished a large riffle into a nice pool. I caught my third trout, a big one, at 11:15 AM in the pool where Bill had started. I spotted this fish in the shallows and thought it was a huge sucker, because they were spawning and were very active moving about the riffles. When the fish got within twelve feet of me, I saw spots! He was feeding in a seam off the edge of the current in two feet of water. This was sub-surface sight fishing, and I changed patterns four times. He finally took a #20 Goose Quill nymph (one of my original nymph patterns), and ran downstream almost 100 yards before being brought to net. (I followed him, he never took me into my backing – why would I allow him to do that?). It was a 20 inch brown, which I photographed and measured. (One of these days I’ll start converting some of my 35mm slide images to digital). When I caught up with Bill, I discovered that he had landed over a dozen trout on five different colors of Bead-head Caddis Larva. I did likewise on sulphur nymphs, flash-back pheasant-tails, etc. for the remainder of the morning.
About 12:30 PM, we arrived at a flat pool where lots of trout were rising. I tied on a #18 Baetis spinner, since few duns were about, but there had been spinners in the air over the riffles all morning. In thirty minutes, I hooked and landed six trout, had a few long-distance releases, and several missed rises, which all-in-all provided plenty of action. Then, I went immediately below the pool to the faster water where Bill and I had earlier found three nice trout rising from the depths, feeding within four to twelve inches below the surface. Sure enough, those same trout were still rising to feed on something beneath the surface. What were they taking? Earlier attempts by both of us with some nymphs, emergers, and drys had proved futile. As I pondered my strategy, I remembered Charlie Meck’s advice about sunken spinner patterns. “Why not give it a try?” I said to myself. I placed a #8 micro-shot about four inches from the Baetis spinner that was tied to my 6x tippet, and a small strike indicator about 18″ above the fly. Two casts, two fish, bang, bang! The third and largest trout, positioned closest to the head of the run was about 18″, and he moved suspiciously twice within the area of my drift without making a detectable strike, though I suspect the fish took the fly so subtly that I failed to detect the take. I never hooked that one.
I then walked upstream to the head of the flat pool, and there, in the faster water, with the same rig, I missed five strikes in succession before taking a nice rainbow. In the next half-hour, I caught six more from that run on the sunken spinner, which was drifting just a few inches beneath the surface in two to three feet of moderate flow. The best fish were two browns only a few casts apart that were 16″ and 17″ respectively. I am definitely going to use this sunken spinner technique again.
Bill had brought a cell phone along because he wanted to check in at his real estate office. Upon doing so around 2:00 PM, he received tragic news that one of his best friends had passed away just hours earlier. We quit fishing and headed home so he could be of some comfort to his friend’s bereaved family. Life goes on beyond the trout stream, and the fishing would be there for another day.
Late April and early May finds the Grannom and other caddis species hatching on Spring, Fishing, and Penn’s Creeks, along with blue quills, crane flies, and the ever-present Baetis. Soon the March Browns will follow, and the Ephemerella rotunda sulphurs predictably start early in May. This type of fishing is likely to continue through Sulphur time – mid-May thru early-June. The heavy hatching and feeding activity I’ve described is not always predictable, it occurs only when conditions are prime. But even on average days, the patient, watchful observer can usually find a few surface-feeding trout, if only in scattered locations.
The added ingredient of scattered March Browns and the sporadic but beautiful #12 Yellow Cahills further enhances the mid-season fishing on Spring Creek. By the second week of June, as the larger rotunda, invaria, and Epeorus vitreus sulphurs dwindle in numbers, the surface-feeding activity becomes compressed into less than thirty minutes right at dusk as the small Ephemerella dorothea duns become the dominant insect. While some trout surface-feed on these #18 pale evening duns which literally seem to rise from the riffles in droves, most of the big trout can be observed in the failing light, rising repeatedly from previously out-of-view depths to become visible as dark subsurface shadows, intercepting the emerging nymphs just prior to the moment of eclosion at the surface film. The best tactic for this situation is a tandem dry fly and nymph rig, using a buoyant #14 sulphur spinner, quite visible in the fading light, and a #18 Pale evening Dun nymph on the point, tied to the bend of the hook with about 18 to 24 inches of tippet. Use 4x for both patterns. That’s right, 4x! One has only a short time span, perhaps less than fifteen minutes to fish during this period, and if you break off in the bushes or a fish, you’re basically done for the evening unless you have exceptional night-vision to rebuild your leader. Not to mention the valuable fishing time it would take to reconstruct your rig even with good lighting. If proper dead-drift presentation with a slack leader cast is made, the heavier tippet does not negate your chances to take fish, and in fact allows you to apply more pressure to subdue each fish as soon as possible, which enables you to quickly move on to the next trout before darkness sets in. Besides the abundance of hatching insects make the fish less cautious as they gorge themselves.
By late-June, the angling pressure during the week drops off dramatically, with the summer months providing very good fishing opportunities. Along with the Sulphurs, the terrestrial fishing begins, and continues all summer long. Bank-hugging browns often can be taken with a cautious approach and an accurate presentation of an ant, beetle, hopper, or cricket, even during the mid-day hours if you can stand the heat. To avoid heat exhaustion, drink lots of water. Tricos start in mid-July, a second Trico hatch occurs in September, and both Tricos and terrestrials provide good fishing until the heavy frosts. There are also significant summer and fall Baetis hatches that can occur anytime from August through October, with almost nightly summertime bursts of surface-feeding activity right before dusk.
By persistently drifting small cress bugs and other nymphs through runs and riffles, above all taking care to make the proper dead-drift presentation at the right depth, one can take trout consistently throughout the day. You may not always “hammer ’em”, but it is possible to catch trout routinely when there is no hatch. And, don’t forget sunken terrestrials, especially ants, as summer nymph patterns. (My favorite is the hard-body, shiny Black Ant wet fly tied in the Bob McCafferty style that was presented in Bergman’s Trout and With Fly, Plug, and Bait).
Wet Black Ant - a great default "nymph" pattern for spring, summer, and fall.
This photo of the Black Ant is almost “too macro,” (It was among the very first images I ever took with my Canon G9 Powershot). but I want to convey the pattern image. Below is the set of this pattern that I have for sale. I will very likely be listing this pattern for sale on my product pages at MyFlies.com.
Wet Black Ant wet fly / nymph selection, tied by Don Bastian.
See also: https://donbastianwetflies.wordpress.com/2010/04/22/wet-black-ant-tied-by-don-bastian/
Immediately after summer thunderstorms, Spring Creek is almost a sure bet for good sized browns on a Wooly Bugger. The only thing you have to do is be there when the conditions are perfect, though the reality is that one can encounter any type of favorable or adverse weather conditions at any time. Like an imaginary roulette wheel in the sky that spins throughout the day, the weather is largely a matter of luck, especially if you pre-plan your visit and are unable to take advantage of the “perfect” time on short notice. Regardless of weather, the best time to go fishing is whenever you can! Fishable water temperatures can always be located somewhere, and the trout eat quite well all summer long.
Wheatley Fly Box - this belongs to my niece Emily, tied by Don Bastian. Nymphs on flat foam. Left to right: Zebra Midge, Disco Midge (lower left), and five rows of my favorite, Flashback Pheasant Tail (using pearlescent Krystalflash for the wingcase), a row of Hare E. Roosters (an original pattern), and two rows of Gold-ribbed Hare's Ear Nymphs. The first row has shiny black wingcases made of black scud back, something I started using about ten years ago. The row on the right has wingcases made of black Antron yarn.
Don’t subscribe to the notion that the trout fishing in the East is over by the end of June. In the heart of Central Pennsylvania’s “Golden Triangle” – Penn’s Creek, Fishing Creek, Spring Creek, the fishing goes on 365 days a year. You don’t have to go to Montana to enjoy good summer trout fishing!