Remembering the Cumberland Valley

Big Spring, Newville, PA

As I wait for the first hatches of the year to raise my heart and soul from the claws of winter, I cannot help but fish in memory and recall the good times in the Cumberland Valley.

I was drawn there thirty years ago by the promise of difficult trout and the wealth of angling history that evolved there. I had devoured Marinaro ‘s Code and peered into the mystery “In The Ring of the Rise”, and I wanted more; boots on the ground. I came to Allenberry on the Yellow Breeches to meet two of the legendary Pennsylvania anglers: Joe Humphreys and Ed Shenk. Their fly fishing school polished my casting and technique.

Talking to Shenk and reading his “Fly Rod Trouting” lured me to Bonny Brook on the hallowed Letort and I was amazed. The crystalline water gushed beneath beds of watercress and curled around and beneath a maze of stumps and branches shadowed by hardwoods and willows and the head high grasses in the meadow. I gazed in wonder and questioned, how in Gods name do you fish this?

When spring came I returned to the Valley to walk the meadows of the fair Letort with the Master as my guide. Ed Shenk led me through the water meadows, marking the places where some of the history that had captivated me had occurred, as well as the places where we might encounter the legendary wild browns of the Letort.

I had built a small flyrod from a blank Ed had recommended, and he showed me how to take full advantage of it’s 6 1/2 feet to work his Shenk Sculpin through the pockets in the weeds and to prospect the undercut banks. It was a bright day in May and the trout were lurking beneath the weeds. A good cast let the sculpin sink into the upstream edge of a pocket, and a gentle twitch of the rod brought it to life. Then the game began as, in a few of those pockets, a large brown would glide out from beneath the vegetation and follow the fly for an instant.

My nerves were on edge when we crept to the streambank near a tangle of branches and Ed directed me to cast straight up the edge. The sculpin swung in the current as it sank and was pulled back beneath the bank at our feet. On command I began to twitch it back upstream, inches at a time. Suddenly a huge, brilliantly colored brown came out from the undercut chasing my fly. I will never forget the next series of events.

Mesmerized I twitched the fly again, drawing the great trout fully out into the sunlight, Ed screaming “for God’s sake let him take it!” But my brain had already sent the message to my left hand, and I twitched it once more, pulling the fly out of the behemoth’s open mouth before he could close his jaws upon it. Catching himself in full sunlight, he abandoned his chase, wheeled and disappeared with a puff of silt!

We fished the sulfur hatch at Bonny Brook that evening, and I caught five beautifully colored wild browns. It was an evening I will always treasure, though none were to be measured in pounds.

In late June I received the following letter from Ed:

” ‘Your’ fish is a little over 26 inches long and probably 7 1/2 to 8 pounds: one hell of a nice colored male brownie. Apparently he travels because I caught him about 200 yards upstream from where we saw him, and I’m sure I’ve seen him another 200 yards further up. After all, I’m sure there are not 3 or 4 fish the same size and distinguished markings in the area. As a matter of fact, I recall seeing such a bright colored big fish upstream early in the spring.”

“I got him on a sculpin (what else) on a rainy Tuesday morning, so naturally I left my camera in the car. I was fishing in the rain without a raincoat.”

Your friend,


I have dreamt of those moments many times, and played back the sequence such that I can feel the little rod bent double with the great splash of that legendary brown trout as the sculpin sinks into his jaw. The trout of a lifetime, almost.

“The Barnyard” Letort Spring Run

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