Remembering Big Spring

Big Spring, post hatchery and pre “improvement”

The story of Pennsylvania’s Big Spring is a story of politics, grass roots conservationists, the marvelous resiliency of Mother Nature, and the boastful pride of a State agency that could not leave well enough alone. In terms of the volume of spring water discharged, it is the Cumberland Valley’s largest spring creek, at one time the home of a State record brown trout, and a treasure that was manipulated by man for his own desires.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, none other than Theodore Gordon fished the stream and wrote of the tremendous head of wild brook trout the winding spring creek contained. It was said that trout of two pounds swam in numbers in the gin clear limestone water. The brook trout population declined as mills and private hatcheries changed Big Spring. Brown trout, once introduced, prospered there at the expense of the brookies, and it was a brown of some fifteen pounds that claimed that State record for several years.

In 1972, the Pennsylvania Fish Commission built a trout hatchery at the headwaters of the stream that was to be the end of a spectacular wild trout fishery. The hatchery was faulty from its inception and polluted the stream for nearly three decades in the name of “better fishing”. Local anglers and conservationists fought back and, bolstered by a 1995 study prepared and published by the late Dr. Jack Black and local biologist Gene Macri, the anglers and conservationists finally won. The hatchery was closed in November 2001 and later dismantled. Quietly at first, Mother nature began to heal Big Spring’s wounds.

During my first decade living in the Cumberland Valley, I fished Big Spring only a handful of times. Mush of it seemed barren, save for a cluster of hatchery escapees in “The Ditch” growing fat on the waste fish food and other organisms pumped out of the hatchery outfall. To me it was a very sad place.

Three years after the forced closure of the hatchery, I stopped along the stream one summer afternoon. The water looked better, there was bright gravel in spots amid the aquatic weedbeds, and I decided to explore a bit to see if the stream had begun to heal, or if it was simply a mirage born of hope. I was standing on the bank tying a Baby Cricket to my 6X tippet when I froze, gasping as a behemoth rainbow trout eased past along the edge of the stream at my feet. As the fish moved away, I flipped the fly out, moving nothing but my wrist. It fell short, but the trout continued idly away from the bank, finally allowing a pickup and a proper cast. The cricket landed to the right and a couple of feet ahead of the trout and he tipped up, as if in slow motion, and inhaled it.

My strike and the monster trout’s screeching run lasted perhaps a second before my CFO reel backlashed from the speed of the departing line, the balled up line stopping the spinning spool abruptly, as the trout snapped the tippet and escaped. Such was my introduction to the healing of Big Spring.

After that encounter, I began to fish the stream with intent, and began to find an increasing number of wild rainbow trout from parr marked fingerlings to wide flanked brutes well over twenty inches long. Oh, and I finally purchased a disc drag trout reel.

This is one of the early monsters that got away, a wild rainbow well in excess of twenty inches. He was kind enough to hunker down between weed beds after breaking me off and pose for photos.

During my early explorations I caught some beautiful rainbows, but landing the monsters did not come easy. Tackle was refined beyond the disc drag reel, to include somewhat longer, softer rods and fluorocarbon tippets. An eight and a half foot three weight outfit was common for lunker hunting, something with as much give as possible to protect the 5X and 6X tippets the clear water and wariness of these trout demanded.

Perfect presentations were often ignored, particularly with the dry flies I preferred. While the rainbows adapted beautifully to the improving water quality, their spectacular growth was attributed to the heavy biomass of crustaceans in the stream. There still weren’t a lot of winged insects available to the fish. A few sparse blue winged olives and some midges provided a rising trout or two very rarely until summer, when terrestrial insects improved the odds of tempting a resting bow to rise to the fly.

Throughout the winter months and into spring, subsurface fishing with the Limestone Shrimp I developed in 1993, and Ed Shenk’s classic Cressbug, produced most of the fish brought to net. These two flies represented the major forage base.

Mark’s Limestone Shrimp: In a departure from the myriad plastic shell back patterns, I developed a color matched three material blend of dubbings, used Antron yarn for the vein and tail, and ribbed the fly with clear monofilament. When the fly is saturated, the effect is very lifelike, with a transparency that mimics the Gammarus scuds that are prolific in Pennsylvania’s spring creeks.

While fishing these two imitations with stealth and drift control allowed me to hook up with any number of heavy Big Spring rainbows, landing them was a brave new world. These fish were true heavyweights, spring creek rainbows with steelhead-like proportions, exceedingly strong and lighting fast when hooked. Big Spring offered large areas of heavy aquatic weeds, blowdowns, and large rocks and timbers from old stream improvement structures in it’s resume of escape cover. You can’t muscle a four or five pound, frantic, hard charging trout out of this cover with light tippet and small flies, you must learn to think ahead of them to play them away from disaster. More were lost than landed for a while, but slowly the odds tipped in my favor a bit more often.

There are some glorious memories of battles with Big Spring rainbows, including the first big boy brought to net on a dry fly. The Baby Cricket was my favorite Cumberland Valley dry fly throughout the summer, and I was fishing it on my 8′ 4″ Orvis two weight in early July 2007. I spotted a shimmer in a gravel bottomed pocket upstream and cast the little cricket just above it, allowing a drag free drift that was interrupted with a hard, quick take. The gentle flow through that pocket exploded into crystalline mist when I raised the rod, and a big trout bolted upstream toward a tangle of rocks and heavy water weeds!

I laid the rod down, pulling a full arch into the shaft, back and away from the snag, turning that bow just short of the edge. Each time he targeted a new obstruction, I flopped the rod to the opposite side to turn him, saving my fish by inches each time. The big downstream run came once I had turned him short of three or four of his nearby weed beds, and I let the light drag of the reel do its job until he headed for a new obstruction. Finally tiring him, I walked down and scooped him into my big catch and release net, laying him on top of one of those weed beds he so coveted for a quick photo before release.

The Babyeater, resting on a favorite weed bed.

I look back on the elation of that day and sadly realize that that breakthrough catch I believed heralded an amazing future for angling on Big Spring, instead heralded the beginning of the end. On April 5, 2008 I attended a symposium on the past and future of Big Spring at the Shippensburg University Foundation Conference Center. The mood was bright and I was impressed with the work that was underway to assess the stream and plan for it’s continued health. I remember leaving that presentation with a new, positive outlook on the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission and their careful, scientific approach to determining what, if any, stream improvement would be undertaken for the future. I was to learn the hard way that this was simply the old enemy in new clothes.

The first stream improvement project appeared to do some good, invigorating a formerly barren reach and adding habitat, though at the expense of a few old favorite fishing spots. The project area attracted a lot of new fishing pressure, so I frequented it less as time passed, enjoying my favorite reaches elsewhere. The numbers of huge trout increased gradually as Nature continued her healing process away from the project waters and insect hatches began to appear. There were some sulfurs and caddis in spring and early summer and fishable hatches of early black and brown stoneflies that provided some early dry fly fishing in February and March.

On the first day of summer 2010, I landed the fish of a lifetime, a gorgeous wild rainbow better than two feet long and calculated to weigh more than ten pounds! That fish took a size 18 beetle and fought me for an eternity. Three years later to the day, I was stalking the gravel runs between the weeds when I spotted another gargantuan bow on station. The light bamboo rod delivered my special size 18 caddis dry above the leviathan, and he tipped up and inhaled it! To this day I find it hard to believe that lightning struck twice to begin those two summers, but it did: and I netted another massive wild rainbow of ten and a quarter pounds!

June 21st, 2013: 24 1/2″ in length, and an astounding 17 3/4″ in girth, a ten pound Big Spring rainbow on a
7 1/2′ Dream Catcher bamboo rod, a well named article of fly tackle if there ever was one!

Today that lovely glide of bright gravel has been obliterated by the second PAF&BC “stream improvement” project. The reach downstream of the project water was also destroyed by the siltation from the work, performed with heavy earthmoving equipment in the stream. The growing population of trophy wild rainbow trout has been sacrificed to an impossible management plan which purposely destroyed them.

The Willow Pool was drowned by silt from the second major stream improvement project perpetrated by the PAF&BC, as were all of the trout holding areas in the section of the Special Regulation area downstream of the project reach. Heavy equipment in the stream and a lack of filtering managed to wipe out a long reach once populated with wild, trophy rainbows. I waded bright gravel stream bottom throughout this water for several years, catching rainbows from fingerling to trophy size, until the construction silt migration rendered it unwadeable and nearly devoid of trout.

The sad fact behind this plan is that the Fish & Boat Commission wanted to be able to take credit for the Big Spring fishery, for the healing that Nature produced when they were forced to end their decades of pollution, and they could not. They formulated a plan to eliminate the wild rainbows that Nature had chosen to repopulate the stream in a thinly veiled, ludicrous effort to bring back the historic wild brook trout. The plan included “habitat improvements” that were unfavorable to rainbow trout spawning and, ultimately establishing catch and kill regulations for rainbows on this catch and release water. Public outcry stopped them short of catch and kill, but they allowed poaching and habitat destruction to take care of those politically incorrect rainbows.

I have always believed that the very special original genetic strain of brook trout indigenous to Big Spring was eliminated long ago. The loss of that unique genetic strain, changes in land use, the chemistry of the rainfall that ultimately feeds the spring source, soil chemistry and the myriad of physical habitat modifications that have occurred simply will not allow this fishery to regress by a century. The day will not come when two pound brook trout dimple the surface like rain at the evening rise, as Theodore Gordon once observed.

I believe that the agency was driven not by a desire to renew the heritage of Big Spring, but by their passion to save face, to be able to take credit for the comeback of a stream they had devastated for decades.

My fishing frequency declined as the stream and its wild rainbow fishery declined, in the wake of that second project. Eventually the loss of that wonderful fishery caused me to all but abandon my home waters, and formulate my plan to retire to the Catskills. Despite the efforts and accomplishments of a remarkable grass roots conservation effort, the legendary Cumberland Valley spring creeks have become faint shadows of their former selves. I have no doubt the state of those once bright waters today brings spectral tears to the eyes of the ghosts that still walk the water meadows.

One can only hope that reason might one day return to those entrusted with the preservation of our natural resources. These great waters can yet be saved, thought the political task far outweighs the physical effort required.

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