My weekend fly tying consisted of a little personal salute to my lost friend, as I felt compelled to tie a few of his sculpins and minnows. I was lucky to have sat down at Ed Shenk’s tying desk, side by side while he taught me to tie his famous trout flies. Those flies have accounted for some of my most memorable days on the limestone springs of the Cumberland Valley.
My best Falling Spring brown attacked a black Shenk Sculpin in March 2010, a seventy degree day in the earliest spring I can remember. I had spent my morning trying to get a local tire shop to fix the monitoring sytem they had fouled up, missing the chance for my planned trip to fish the blue winged olive hatch on another Pennsylvania limestoner 90 minutes away. The decision to walk the meadows of Falling Spring was at best a consolation.
The fishery had declined even then, and I knew there would be no dry fly action. I trudged grumpily along the path, thinking to myself there were barely any trout left in that reach. I glanced to my right and stopped dead, spying two huge browns finning side by side in a sunny pocket, and finished my thought “except those two”.
The size 8 Shenk Sculpin was tied securely to my 4X tippet, but the cluster of trees I was standing in presented numerous casting problems. I waitied until the pair backed down into a slightly deeper spot in the shade, then maneuvered cautiously where I could aim my backcast between branches and shoot a diagonal cast to the opposite bank.
Despite my excitement, my hand was steady, and the sculpin dropped perfectly to the bottom an inch from the far bank. I let it swing down and toward the trout and twitched it once, then twice. One of the great browns seized it and turned downstream, and I stripped hard and brought the 4 weight rod up into a throbbing arc. The trout churned the placid surface to a froth, then dove toward a root ball and tree trunk sunk in the silty bottom.
I couldn’t stop him, and he shot under the trunk and bolted downstream, my little CFO screaming with the speed of his run, and my fly line sawing against the underside of the tree. I palmed the reel and eventually stopped the run, but the fish had 60 feet of my fly line dragged under that tree, and then bagan thrashing the surface. I knew I would lose him at any moment, but I didn’t.
I fought him like that for an eternity, then gradually began to draw him back upstream, gaining line a couple of feet at a time. Finally back in the hole, I executed a tactic I still can’t believe. The brown was darting and head shaking a few feet from the root ball. When he paused with his head upstream I swept the rod as low as I could, started his head under the root ball, and urged him under and back into the little pool where our fight began.
With no net I stepped off the bank and sunk to my badly arthritic knee in the muck, the trout still thrashing and darting about on a few feet of line. Subdued at last, I pulled him against my sunken thigh to get both hands on him. I slipped the barbless hook from his mouth and measured him along the rod: a broad flanked, beautifully wild brown trout just over 25 inches long!
Another evening years earlier, I had headed out to Falling Spring after supper, taking an old friend for a walk. I built only one flyrod, a 6′ 6″ 3 weight on the G. Loomis IM6 blank my mentor recommended. It is the rod in the old photo that begins this post.
I hadn’t used the little 3 weight in a long while, and decided to refresh our acquaintance. Of course the fly was my favorite dry, a size 16 Letort Cricket. A newcomer to the Valley had purchased the McKenzie Meadow on Falling Spring, putting horses in the meadow between the stream and the road. He had thoughtfully fenced the horses off the fragile stream banks, aware of Falling Spring Greenway’s improvements completed years earlier. Those fences made fishing and casting a bit tricky though.
I had negotiated my way into the water from the nearby bridge and had made a few casts, exploring the lower part of the pool, when I noticed a tiny sipping rise next to a branch sticking up through the thick bed of water weeds along the upstream bank. I flicked the backcast high to clear the bridge abutment and shot a little cast toward the rise, dropping the Cricket with a gentle plop a foot above my stick marker.
The rise to my fly was harder, and I pulled back into weight and power! That little rod doubled over and I battled to keep the fish away from that branch and whatever balance of it might lurk below. The fish dove first into one weed bed and then another, and it was all I could do to force his head up quickly to prevent him from burrying deep enough to break the 5X tippet.
The trout had been hooked in the deepest part of a very shallow reach of stream, and he was reluctant to run upstream into barely a foot of water. My body, now fully blocking a downstream retreat under the bridge, thwarted his other escape, so his only tactic was power: burrowing headlong into every weed bed, slapping the tippet with his tail, and rolling and thrashing the quiet stream into a cauldron!
The splashing and commotion attracted the attention of the new landowner, relaxing at the top of the hill in his yard, though I was unaware of the audience. My attention was fully fixed upon the bucking rod!
Eventually the trout gathered a face full of weeds, taking advantage of the momentary calm, I released my pressure on the fish, eased him closer and slipped my net beneath him. That beautiful dark bronze and golden brown trout taped a bit more than 23 inches, my best Falling Spring fish on the dry fly!
There are many other victories tallied with credit to the teachings of the Master and his magic trout flies: memories for another day.