Memories of Gunpowder Falls

Maryland’s Big Gunpowder Falls in winter

I had fished the stream once or twice with an ultralight spinning rod, the only trout worthy tackle I owned at the time, and seen a fly fisher catching the wild brown trout that made the reputation of the place. He fished carefully, with delicacy and supreme concentration, and the trout responded on a day when my Rooster Tails had failed utterly. That day I vowed to buy a fly rod!

Phil Darr was a friend from work, and we talked of hunting and fishing when we had our lunch breaks sometimes. Phil had fly fished a bit and directed me to an old tackle shop in North Baltimore where I could purchase a fly rod and the basic necessities of fly fishing for trout, without the fear of serving time in debtor’s prison. I had been in the Orvis shop in Ellicott City, and choked at the price of the three hundred dollar graphite fly rods they offered.

I procured an eight foot St. Croix rod and a 5 weight Cortland fly line, a basic fishing vest, leaders, tippet and a fly box, then embarked upon my search for trout flies. I spooled the line onto my old Martin fly reel and donned a pair of rubber hip boots and voila, I became a fly fisherman.

The local cable station had a channel that featured Scientific Anglers’ program entitled Fly Fishing Mastery, which I had watched on Saturday mornings even before I was so thoroughly equipped. The episodes with Doug Swisher helped me teach myself to cast once I got that real trout rod in my hands; others revealed the makeup of flowing streams and trout lies, and the marvelous insects that made it all work. They didn’t teach me just how slippery a rocky streambed was for a guy in rubber boots, something I learned abruptly on an early expedition to the Patapsco River, which handily flowed right through Ellicott City. Stream water is quite frigid in March.

I returned to the Gunpowder quickly, finding a little gunsmith and fishing shop nearby. Wally Vait was an impassioned angler who shared space with a gunsmithing friend, christening his realm On The Fly, my first fly shop. Wally freely imparted his knowledge of the Gunpowder and gave me my first glimpse of tying trout flies. His Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear nymphs were distinctive and deadly, even for a newcomer. I bought them by the dozen. It was one of Wally’s GRHE’s that I drifted deep beneath a bankside boulder to take my first big trout, an eighteen and one-half inch monster that made me feel I had truly arrived that first season as a fly fisher.

Though I fished other Maryland trout streams, the Gunpowder was the best wild trout water of them all and truly my first love as a trout river. In those days the fishery was a rather new one. Local conservation minded anglers involved with Maryland Fly Anglers and the Maryland Chapter of Trout Unlimited had worked hard to forge an agreement with the City of Baltimore to maintain a minimum flow of cold water for the section of stream between their Prettyboy and Loch Raven Reservoirs. Once an agreement was achieved, they created artificial redds and planted brown trout eggs to jump start a viable wild trout fishery.

By the time I first visited the Gunpowder Falls the stream was entering its heyday of productivity. Reproduction was firmly established for the browns, as well as some wild brook trout that dropped down from the tributaries. During the early 1990’s the average browns I caught would be foot long fish, beautifully colored and difficult to catch. Despite the allure of Wally’s Hare’s Ears, dry fly fishing became my passion. The first original fly pattern I ever designed was a dry fly: a two bug special that fooled trout taking the ubiquitous midges and microcaddis. There were good caddis hatches in the spring, and the sulfurs of May and June brought out many anglers.

When my Uncle Al learned of my infatuation with fly fishing, he gave me an old split cane flyrod that belonged to my Grandfather. Wally put me in touch with a Southern Maryland Gunmaker who restored the rod to fishing condition, and I cast my first flies with bamboo on Gunpowder Falls. On a mild September afternoon I cast the big 9 foot H-I rod and brought a brace of nice brook trout to hand on a brown nymph I had tied myself.

Bamboo and Brookies

The nature of the fishing caused me to learn quickly, for the little river typically offered low, clear water, and very skittish trout. Presentation was learned early by necessity, and enhanced with reading and seeking out the great anglers of the day at every opportunity. Though much of the stream was easy to wade, the areas that held the larger trout were festooned with uneven rocks and logjams, usually in deeper, slower water, where even the small fish were challenging to catch, spawning a fascination with difficult trout that has lasted to this day.

For several seasons, rainbow trout began to spawn and grow in the upper mile or two below Prettyboy dam. Small, brilliantly colored parr marked bows were common, and they grew rapidly. I fondly recall the late autumn and winter fishing in that first mile, the reach I called The Canyon. Midge hatches were a regular event, along with tiny microcaddis imitated with size 22 to 24 dry flies, and the wild rainbows could be maddeningly selective. There were pods of football shaped rainbows in that water, fourteen to sixteen inches long, that sipped incessantly. I would stalk as close as possible to defeat the variable currents, pick out a particular fish, and work it thoroughly. Success was hard earned but there were always lessons, whether I released a good trout, or felt the pain of utter rejection.

The browns seemed less inclined to take advantage of the midge biomass, and I caught the Canyon dwelling browns nymphing, on my little olive caddis larva or a pheasant tail. On a typical winter day I would work the runs and pockets with my nymphs until I spotted the little rings of a midgeing rainbow. Once absorbed by the fishing I worked part time at that local Orvis shop, and added an eight and a half foot three weight rod to may quiver, so taken had I become by the midge magic! Sadly that amazing winter fishery would not endure.

After a few seasons the rainbows rather suddenly disappeared. Bows became a rare catch as it was the day I landed my largest Gunpowder trout. It was September, a weekday that allowed me some solitude there in The Canyon. By this time Ed Shenk’s LeTort Cricket had become my favorite dry fly, and I knotted one to my tippet in hope of changing my luck on a fishless day. There was a particularly tough spot in the Canyon, where a large tree had fallen atop some boulders, crossing the river at a pinch point. Over time, part of the tree had sunk, though much remained suspended across the boulders: fouled above and fouled below.

I had the long three weight that day, and stayed back to allow my casts to shoot the fly underneath the branches and through the low window crafted of wood and rock. The Cricket made it through on the second try, drifting down beneath Nature’s arch until it was intercepted. That light rod doubled over completely when I struck, and my heart jumped with excitement and fear. The heavy bow in the rod convinced that wonderful trout to swim downstream and away from the tangle, and I managed to keep the advantage he had given me. Shaking when I finally saw him in the net, I waded to the bank and laid my tape along his flaming crimson flank.

That twenty inch trout, my first to reach that hallowed threshold, was the last rainbow I was to catch on Gunpowder Falls. The following season I encountered two DNR biologists along that favored Canyon reach. They were searching for evidence as to the rainbow’s exodus, finding none. As far as I know they never found an answer to that puzzle. I asked frequently for news when I visited the fly shop.

Ed Shenk’s Hardy Featherweight and Letort Cricket

If the Canyon was my favorite fall and winter haunt, the area upstream and down from York Road was my spring and summer haven. There were more anglers there, as well as hikers frequenting the popular trails on either side of the river, but the sulfur and caddis hatches there offered wonderful dry fly fishing. I spent many beautiful April mornings there, with caddisflies swirling and darting around my head and shoulders, while lovely wild browns slashed at them escaping the water.

Come evening the sulfurs demanded my full attention. Walking back from a favorite pool, I can still see the last rays of sunlight filtering through the trees above a long riffle. My favorite sulfur memory came on a warm, gorgeous evening, when the heavy hatch brought every trout in the pool to the surface. At the peak of the emergence the spinners had gathered over the riffle and begun to fall. Trout were slashing in the riffle and I took a beautiful eighteen inch brown on my six and a half foot three weight rod, the rod I had built upon Ed Shenk’s recommendation, to fish his fair LeTort. The rises and slashes continued feverishly and I lost count of the trout hooked; some brought to hand, others played frantically until they leaped and shook the fly.

Twilight caught me fumbling, trying to change my dun for a spinner, but I managed it. Some trout would still take the dun, but others refused. There was one fish rising heavily where the riffle had cut a deeper trough near the bank. I could barely see his take, but when I lifted the little rod the reel screamed in the darkness and the rod bucked violently. The trout charged upstream, showing me only white water amid the gloom as he leaped again and again. Had he turned down and run into the boulder pool he could have easily broken my 6X tippet among the rocks, but he seemed to crave the energy of the fast water that had brought him sustenance.

He was larger than the first big brown, nineteen inches of quivering gold, there in the shallows with the glow of my flashlight upon the tape, and I thanked him as I gently turned the barbless hook from his jaw. He raced away when I pointed him toward midstream and the riffle he loved.

Sometimes life leads us away from the thing we love, and my infatuation with the limestone springs of Pennsylvania eventually led me away from the Gunpowder. I returned of course, though each season the visits were fewer. Rivers change, and even those we know well become less familiar with time away. Four or five trips a year didn’t bring the success enjoyed in those early halcyon days; much less one or two. At first I thought the decline was my own, perceived, due to my own scarcity of time on this water I had so completely adored. Sadly I saw the later posts on the fly shop’s website, anglers truly excited with a nine inch brown, and accustomed to working hard for six inchers.

Didymo was blamed, and the crowds of anglers. The rock snot was bad the last time I visited the Canyon in winter, but there was heavy fishing pressure thirty years ago. The average size of those lovely wild browns began to decline before the invasive algae took hold though. Kayaks and canoes, too much guided fishing bringing too many people to this small, gentle stream too often, too many feet upon the lifegiving gravel; everyone has their theories. Perhaps the reasons are as unknown as those behind the sudden disappearance of the stream’s wild rainbows.

There is better news these days from the winding strip of bright water known as Big Gunpowder Falls. The gentleman who owns the fly shop today is an advocate for the river, the Gunpowder Riverkeeper, and he has gathered enough support to win several victories for water quality and conservation. I hear that good fisherman are catching foot long browns once again. I am pleased to hear that the pendulum is swinging ahead.

The Gunpowder, and yes, I fell in love with the name even before I fished her, was a wonderful classroom, a treasured first love. I would not trade the memories, the experiences there. She gave me the gift of wild trout, of bright water and the joy of angling with the fly.

One thought on “Memories of Gunpowder Falls

  1. Good morning Mark,beautifully written tribute.It made me think of my beginnings and, while many things have changed, many remain the same. Now back to Athertons !


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