Winter has had a lock on Central Pennsylvania since November. The snowstorms that hammered the Northeast coast were kind enough to sweep around us but we’ve had more ice than any reasonable fly fisher needs to see.
The extreme cold has kept me from any winter steelheading. With Lake Erie being five to six hours away, there has to be a serious warm spell to get me on the road. Sure any of the little thaws might bring fishable conditions, but they don’t last long enough for those of us a day’s drive away.
Living in the Cumberland Valley there are a handful of waters close at hand that play savior to the snowbound angler. Our limestone springs: Falling Spring, Big Spring and the Letort meander through the countryside at about 52 degrees even in the bowels of winter. The wild trout feed and grow, and they can be caught with the right presentation of the right fly.
As much as I love the spring creeks, they are small waters and can become a bit too familiar when they offer the only available fly fishing for several months.
So here we are a couple of days past Valentine’s Day and the sun shows up. Fifty degrees, sixty, even sixty-five makes you want to believe its springtime even when you know its not. Rods, reels and waders are in the truck so there’s no holding back.
The Little Juniata River has a reputation as one of Pennsylvania’s best trout streams. She’s come a long way to earn that reputation. Coming back from decades of pollution, the stream boasted good hatches of mayflies and caddis until a still undetermined spill killed off the insect life in 1996. The river rebounded again, and the last few years have offered heavy hatches of Grannom caddis and fishable emergences of olives, sulfurs, Cahills, Isonychia and tricos.
Driving through the mountains toward the village of Spruce Creek I note the variations on my Envoy’s exterior thermometer: 45 on top of the ridges, 36 in the valleys. I remind myself it’s only eight o’clock and the forecast is calling for the upper fifties.
By 9:30 I’m wading the river and my feet are feeling the cold. I nymph slowly and painstakingly through the big riffle above Spruce Creek but nothing touches the fly. The need to warm up my feet convinces me to head to my favorite pool, and I welcome the break.
There are memories in this pool, many memories of the Grannoms that are still two months away from making the appearance that will kick start the dry fly season. The water and the gravel look dark, and the morning sun reveals only the snow flecked bare gray and brown landscape of winter.
The river banks hold patches of ice and snow in the low places, and I long for a hint of green and the dimple of a rising trout. It is understood this trip is about going fishing and not about catching trout. Dangling my thermometer as I rig a heavier tippet, I tie on a fox tail streamer before I pluck it from the icy flow. The 38 degree reading confirms my plans for the day: fishing, not catching.
Halfway down the pool I am used to the rhythm; cast to the bank, mend and swing, then twitch it gently back. To say I am surprised when the fly stops is understatement, but the pull increases as I tighten and the rod slowly throbs with life. The foot long brown is scrappier than expected in water so cold and I chuckle to myself with the thought that he’s two kinds of fish… a trout and a fluke.
Where the pool deepens to the point that the water laps at my vest pockets I stop and turn, heading back to the head where the fast current rushes past the island. Knowing better I make a few more casts into the bank, twitching the fly as the current pulls it back downstream. No more “fluke” here.
I wade slowly back around the island, sure footing it on the slippery stones to avoid a 38 degree bath. At the top of the island I throw that streamer into the pockets I nymphed earlier, with the same result. Cold feet get me thinking about a walk back to the truck and the ham sandwich I packed for lunch.
My path to the bank brings me to the tail of a deep, flat pool where I see the unbelievable dimple of a soft rise. Staring for a moment I note that I am not dreaming, there are 3 or 4 trout sipping midges in the glassy tailout.
Now the spirit of the afflicted dry fly angler is awakened, and I cut back and rebuild a suitable leader to present a tiny midge. A compound tippet works well with the poly leader butt I’ve been using for nymphs and streamers. Finishing with a long soft section of 6X, I dig a size 22 biot midge out of my spring creek box and knot it fast.
The trout are holding in inches of water, so a single bad cast will erase this magical opportunity before my eyes. I slide into position still standing in the riffle, and just below the lip of the tailout. I prepare for the cast, and the devilish wind springs up out of nowhere, and my heart falls. I have lived this exact moment a thousand times. I think of God with his hand on the fan switch, laughing.
For a few moments I stand there in the river and the darkness of unending winter begins to take hold of my spirit, then the wind calms and I compose myself, waiting tensely, even praying for another rise.
The first cast alights perfectly, the tiny fly drifts with the line of current as designed then disappears in a soft rise. The foot long brownie races toward me then away, and I am sure he will send his brethren scurrying from their exposed positions. Once again I am surprised at the trout’s vigor in this frigid river. Sliding my hand beneath him, it takes but a touch of my finger to dislodge the fly.
The frantic movements of the hooked trout have put the others on the alert but did not scatter them as I feared. The next one to rise takes a couple of casts before he is satisfied with the fraud. He thrashes wildly and the tiny hook comes free.
Another gust ripples the surface and the action dies for awhile. Eventually trout number three sips again and my cast offers the midge. This one is more difficult. The long winter has not dulled his instincts. I loose count of the casts and drifts he ignores. At last the fly and the slack of the tippet fall perfectly in his line of drift, defeating the micro currents, and bringing him to the table.
Releasing the brown I smile at the deep gold and bronze flanks, the blood red spots, and the remarkable spirit that has helped his clan thrive despite the river’s turmoil. He slides from my hand with a kick of his tail.
It takes a few minutes before the last of the four risers reveals himself. He has chosen the position where drag is all but assured, where a little rise in the stony bottom, breaks the seemingly smooth flow into thousands of swirling, dancing eddies. The best lies for the best fish I muse as I make a few cautions steps, choosing an angle to present the fly.
The game continues: a sip, a cast, repeat. I want to fool this trout, though part of me wants the game to continue indefinitely. I know this comfortable afternoon is but a tease and winter is not ready to release us.
When the perfect drift intercepts the perfect line, the trout takes the fly. Immediately it is clear that he is the largest of this little troop of surface feeders, and I enjoy every minute of his energy. At fourteen inches he is not a trophy on this river, though he means a great deal to me, coming as he does on a tiny dry fly amid the icy surrounds of a river struggling with the season.
The tailout is again calm and lifeless. Though the temperature has reached the mid-sixties the sun has hidden during the afternoon, and it does not feel warm amid the breezes crossing the cold water.
After such an interlude, I cannot bring myself to rig another weighted fly and search the bottom. I have already had the best the river will offer for the day.
Walking out I still long for April, for green leaves and grass, and caddis on the wing, but the want is less tangible. The river has smiled briefly, blown me a kiss, and I am still savoring the sweetness.