I needed out.
In our part of the state there lingers a barely visible shadow of the good-old-days in semi-rural Pennsylvania. Somewhere between Philly and Harrisburg you can still see the mule-drawn handplowed spring-green fields of Amish farms silently raging against the tightening tentacles of urban sprawl. All that’s left is really just a shell of the farms and fields that were once so prevalent that they were all you could see when you looked out across the county. Now the rolling hills and lush valleys are intersected and slashed with jutting neighborhoods, strip malls, parking lots, warehouses, amazon trucking terminals, pharmaceutical plants, so on and so forth.
The pace has picked up too, it’s much too fast for horse drawn carriages here now. Heck, it’s too fast to even have a fly shop in these parts as the former owners of our last one found out. Internet sales and big box stores priced them out years ago. They couldn’t get enough gear, brands, and new fangled specialty supplies fast enough to compete. How could they? They were just a small mom n’ pop store in the middle of Amish country. I can’t wash my hands of that completely, I was one of those who bought online to save cash. Still, I remember buying my first “real” fly rod there. Even won a couple casting competitions with it a few years later. Still, I never liked going into that shop because I felt like the regulars in there seemed snobby and elitist. I get it, I was the new guy, I dressed funny and was (sometimes still) foul smelling. Just another punk millennial looking for a handout or some scrap of knowledge that would fall off the counter while I eavesdropped on their conversations. I was young and had a chip on my shoulder. I judged them for judging me and instead of paying my dues I was going to stick it to them by figuring this out by myself. It’s probably one of the earliest reasons I decided to start guiding. I like helping people have more fun. This sport is about having fun after all. I made up my mind. I’d show them, I’d learn this on my own, what did they know about that anyway?
That brings me to the PaFlyFish.com Spring Jam. The JAM, as it is often affectionately referred to by site members, is a gathering of fishy folk. I mean real fishy folks, not the polished and trim types you see on the covers and pages of industry rags, I mean real down and dirty fly anglers. No offense meant to the magazine models, it’s just that you’re way too pretty to hang with this crowd, seriously, that’s a good thing. The gathering brings people from across the commonwealth together for one weekend a year in central PA for the kind of fellowship, indulgence, and airing of grievances that is critical for the ongoing success of any serious open-source, online community, niche-interest site. I mean really, did you ever get into it with someone in an online forum? Yeah, I dare you to get that up-tight and in their face when they hand you a cold one around the fire. It’s basically a nerd-fest for Pa fly anglers. If your having trouble imagining this just think LARPing for anglers. We all drive to a campground and dress up like fisherman and pretend that we catch fish for a weekend.
That might be an exaggeration, the JAM is a really good time with seriously laid back anglers. I have attended several of these throughout the last few years. There are many legendary tales and fails that could be told about the JAMs past and present. None of them fitting for putting into permanent, searchable record but they will always exist around the campfire when they are resurrected once a year at the next JAM. And that is the magical part of this sport, it’s really not just about the fish. If you make it only about the fish you are missing the point and your half of the deal. Without the angling culture, without the community in this day in age it can all go away. The fish are still there because they are still important to some of us. They only stay there if we share this sport and the fun with others. That’s what the JAM is all about.
I left Lancaster around 8am on Friday and picked up my buddy at Dauphin Boro around 9am. We weren’t in a big hurry although we were both stoked to get some stream time in. Both of us had busy winters finishing classes and taking on extra work. G had just finished his MFA and I finished more classes towards my AFA in photography, the semester wore on us both right up until we pulled out onto 322 west. Then it was all in the rear-view mirror and fading fast. We made it to Penns by 11am and met up with Rick and Dan, two of my most trusted fishing buddies. We had all agreed to bring the bikes for the weekend to recon more of the water along the creeks.
Friday night was a nice evening on the creek below Coburn. The sulphurs were sporadic and we saw very few fish on top. We took several fish deep on the bottom with Miller’s Tactical +1 light. I showed G some tight-line techniques and he lit them up. All in all it was a really fun time on the creek. It would have been nice to find some risers but the creek was packed and the fish were spread out. There was no need to encroach on another angler. The nice thing with the bikes was that we were able to check the water from Coburn all the way down to Ingleby.
Friday evening at the JAM we heard familiar stories told from one end of the pavilion to the fire-ring. Some folks crushed them while others only landed a few. It seemed like everyone caught and the weekend was shaping up to be a good one. The fire went well into the night and next morning, I hit the cabin around midnight to get rest for the morning. We planned to take the bikes up spring creek in the morning after hitting a local greasy spoon. Saturday morning we headed to Fishermans Paradise after stopping at the Waffle Shop in Bellefonte. If you need breakfast (and lets face it, you always need breakfast) and you are in the Bellefonte area, stop at the Waffle Shop, great pancakes and bacon.
We took our bikes up the rail trail and rode past several anglers until there were no more anglers to ride past. We were in the middle water between access points, that sweet spot that doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic. I’m sure I’m not the first one to say this but when it comes to fishing highly pressured streams during the most pressure of the year your success often hinges on finding unmolested water. A fish that hasn’t been bothered for a few hours is a fish you can catch. Of course, I’ve caught the same fish twice during the sulphurs on Spring Creek so take that bit of angling wisdom with a grain of salt.
There we were on beautiful open water without another soul in sight during one of the busiest weekends of the year. What a crazy thing. Sometimes I think that old adage about Fishermans Paradise is true, “it’s so crowded that no one goes there.” Other days, I know it’s not when I pull into the parking lot. Saturday was one of those days, most of the cars were joggers or PFBC officers re-certifying their qualifications. So there we were, bikes loaded and the water looked great. G went up stream with an ant and I hit the riffle pool bend with some nymphs. I thought for sure I was going to crush them.
Several fly changes and dropped fish later I was frustrated. Why was I making this so hard? I had brought all these new “tactical” flies I had been crushing with at home and I did well last night so why can’t I land a fish today? I went to see how G was doing. G is a Stoney Creek veteran and the water he hit was right in his wheel house. He read the water and the over-hanging trees to perfection and landed several fish with his dry-dropper rig. Never under estimate the ultimate Pa hatch, terrestrials. I was more than a little jealous, not of his fish, but of how simple he kept his approach. After all, we were there to have fun, and that’s what a good fishing buddy does, keeps it real.
We rolled back to Rick’s cabin on Penn’s and made some burgers and dogs and discussed the evening plans. We would head to the lower creek to see if we could meet the early emergers of the legendary green drake hatch. There’s a stretch of water back an old road in the open regulation water where we found a great mix of stocked and wild fish a few years ago. Best thing yet is we have never seen any other fly anglers there. Fly anglers get in a weird habit where they only fish special reg water. It can get a bit claustrophobic in the special reg areas during the mayfly season.
We found our water sans-anglers and it was on. I think Rick caught half a dozen before I ever finished getting my waders on. They were all on the bottom, and nice mix of brookies and bows. I finally got in the water and proceeded to land several nice stocked fish on tight line tactics, again, right on the very bottom. “Finally,” I thought. A real shifty local angler gave me a great piece of advice recently, he said “if they’re not on the top, they’re on the bottom. Never in the middle.” He’s the kind of seedy character that sometimes just walks the creek without a rod and just watches, straight up creeper-like, they call him Antique John down at The tavern in Marietta because he’s a used tackle dealer. I kind of think he’s right though. If the hatch isn’t happening, get down, way down till your bouncing off the rocks. That’s where they are. We fished till dark, I had an amazing brown straighten my signature fly the scuddisoworm hook on 3x, it was a hog and I only saw if for a second right as it rolled of the edge of my net and bent the hook. Those are the fish that keep you coming back, the ones that haunt you. I thought about driving up to catch him after work several nights this week. What’s a 2 hour ride up and back for a fish like that? Nothing!
We made it back to the JAM Saturday night for the main event. Saturday night is like the pirate’s ball. All of the stories, tall-tales, and flat-out lies go into turbo mode on Saturday night. It’s amazing to just sit back and listen to all the BS pour off that mountain right down 322 into the valley below us on Seven mountains. The Johnstown flood has nothing compared to the flash flood of falsehoods that flows out of that campground on a Saturday night at the JAM. That historic catastrophe barely holds a candle to the resulting Sunday morning massacre of decent folks laid to waste in the pursuit of late night story-topping. Their hungover shapes barely visible in the late morning mountain fog of daylight marching along their walk of shame to the showers to rinse off all the BS from the night before. It is tremendous.
You might not believe it but this loose-knit band of rouges also do a lot to support the greater Pa fishing centered causes. There is a raffle held every Saturday night (that I swear is rigged!) that benefits various fishing organizations throughout the state that work within their communities. Dave Weaver hand paints a beautiful trout on canvas and frames it every year which is raffled off and Risen Fly Fishing Company has donated rods and gear several years in a row. It’s truly a grass-roots community giving back. And that’s what it is all about. Here’s a group of folks that know what it’s all about, having fun, paying it forward, opening the sport up to as many people as possible. You could show up at a JAM with no idea of what to fish or where to fish it and I guarantee someone would help you out, probably even offer to take you along with them. That’s how these folks roll, slow and low, down to earth. What a much needed change of pace.
I dread returning home to the shadow of the mega-polis. It can feel fake and busy at times but I know that there is another way because one weekend out of the year the folks at the PaFlyFish JAM remind me that we might come from different corners of the state but we all fight the mechanization of our lives one beer and bad cast at a time. That’s my report from the JAM, no fish were hurt in the production of the weekend.