Last weekend I finally had a chance to return to Central Pennsylvania after a long semester and even longer winter. The cool weather seemed to just hang on a little longer this year. It seems like the seasons are shifting, starting later and lasting longer. That’s a big factor when you’re trying to crack the hatch code. Of course, if you’re like me, with two kids, a wife, and mortgage, you go fishing whenever you can responsibly. Damn the forecast.
The forecast was unstable last weekend, many forecasters were calling for a wash out and the NWS predictions were changing every 12 hours since Tuesday. I had all but given up hope on my long-planned trip to Seven Mountains. Thursday I bailed out and texted the guys that I wasn’t making it citing a Friday-morning pre-school graduation ceremony and a long list of housework. I was crushed, but given the forecast I couldn’t justify wasting a weekend in the mountains fishing over blown-out chocolate milk colored creeks.
Thankfully my friends are persistent. Friday morning before the ceremony I started getting texts about bluebird skies, emerald green water, and rising fish. I told my wife at the ceremony that I was leaving after work. She agreed I should go. Once you have fly-fishing in your blood it’s not good to go to long without some alone time on the water. Up to that point my entire winter and spring had been consumed with work, school, and the house. All work and no play, you get the idea.
Friday evening I ran home after work and threw everything in the car. I’m a self-admitted “Prepper.” Only my bug-out bags are filled with waders, fly boxes, and tippet. Reels and Rods take their place on the rack in my truck and a few fellow anglers are the only ones who know my rendezvous spots. My goal is to always be able to be “wheels up” in 30 minutes when the opportunity presents itself. Basically the life of any fly-fishing dad in PA, you go when you can and don’t look back!
I didn’t have much time to fish Friday night so I had to hit a stream on the way. I called a good friend and fellow guide Josh Miller from “Trout-Yeah!” to see if he had any advice. Of course he did, Josh was already in Central PA for the weekend and shortly I was tossing lines on a wild brown trout stream I had entirely to myself.
Rain had most of the big creeks up and in poor shape, not horrible but not ideal. That night at the campfire most of the folks who caught fish did so on the smaller mountain creeks. With rain in the forecast for Friday night it was pretty clear that Penn’s Creek would be out of the picture. The rain arrived sometime around midnight and we would have to wait and see. Somehow the weather didn’t bother me as much after spending a few hours catching up with old friends around the fire. Ironically, here in the company of some of the biggest trout-nuts in PA fishing the impending poor conditions didn’t matter much. We all knew there were plenty of options and water. You just roll with it, it’s all you can do.
The PaFlyFish.com spring JAM was excellent this year. For those who don’t know, the JAM is a gathering of forum members from PaFlyFish.com. Fly anglers from across the commonwealth meet at Seven Mountains Campground to fish together and enjoy the camaraderie that comes along with being a fly angler in Pennsylvania. The JAM offers members an opportunity to share stories and learn from each other. Various members share their talents of music, cooking, and storytelling. It’s a unique event in a sport that has a notorious reputation for being loved by lone wolves and hermit-types.
Saturday morning we started late, I checked the conditions at 7:30 a.m. and the rain had certainly passed through in the early hours of the morning. Penn’s was on its typical post-storm climbing pattern on the USGS gauge. Spring Creek was “iffy” so we decided to grab a bite to eat at the Waffle Shop in Bellefonte and check on the creek. This would also allow us to stop by Fly Fisher’s Paradise and pick up a few wet flies. Dan, Rick, and I had decided we wanted to focus on this approach since conditions were perfect for it.
After a generous serving of delicious food and perpetually filled coffee cups at Central Pa’s best “greasy-spoon” breakfast joint we beat feet to Fly Fisher’s Paradise Fly Shop to get some wet-flies. Fly Fisher’s is an old-school fly shop, the kind of shop that reminds me of my early days fly-fishing. This shop has everything. All the modern gear and lines you see in the catalogs and online but the real treat is that they have all the high-end tying material and old-school gadgets that many fly shops just don’t carry any longer. They even carry small spools of maxima for those of us who still tie our own leaders and know why it’s critical to high catch rates, more on that later.
Just hanging out and buying a few flies at a shop like Fly Fisher’s can be more valuable than the entire trip when you ask a few questions and listen. Dave Holmes and Steve Sywensky were extremely helpful as we explained what we wanted to do. They pointed us to the best-tied wet flies you can find in State College. These are the best tied because they accurately match the flies you see on the waters surrounding the shop. These are not generic patterns.
To top off the whole experience Dave helped me learn how to tie a wet fly leader knot I was having trouble with. The knot allows you to build dropper loops into your leader. These loops combined with droppers built from the right type of tippet material make the flies swim perfectly and made the difference between “bump and runs” and hooking up.
That brings us to the meat and potatoes of this post: right flies, wrong presentation. So much of our success on the water is determined well before we ever arrive to rising fish. Given the time of year we can fairly accurately guess or determine what types of flies we will see, where we will see them and when. And despite what the experts might say, it’s not rocket science, it’s really quite easy when we slow down and think about what goes into catching a fish.
Over the last few years I have really learned the value of building my own leaders and using the right materials. My friend Tony DiCicco taught me the value of building dry fly leaders out of Maxima in the right proportions to unfurl a 15 foot leader with only 5 feet of fly line. On a brook trout stream in the Catskills it made all the difference between success and failure. Tony’s Tippet Boss is one of my favorite gadgets I own and allows you to compactly bring maxima leader material out on the water with you without carrying a bunch of bulky spools.
Next influence was Dave Allbaugh, whose experience as a wet-fly guide is probably unsurpassed in PA. Dave ties his own unique leaders for swinging wets and they work magic. I remember the first time I unfurled one of his leaders and I thought he was crazy for the size line he was using. I quickly learned how important this was to his technique. The leader is built so that the flies can swing naturally. It’s the most effective approach to soft-hackles I have used to this day. I only swung wet-flies this past weekend and I couldn’t have done better on any other tactic, it was that good!
The final influence on the importance of leaders was Josh Miller. Josh came over to SEPA this past March to teach a tight-line clinic with us and he knocked it out of the park. What an incredible teacher and knowledgeable angler. Josh showed us how he constructed his tight-lining leaders and our catch-rates immediately went up. Understanding the importance and effect leaders and tippets have on the action of a fly makes the difference between success and failure.
Now, I don’t like to look at fishing through metrics like winning or losing, success or failure, or any of the like. If I get out fishing it’s a win, period. That said, we all like to do a little better and we all like to catch fish. So next time you have a rough time on the water or your getting looks but the fish just won’t commit. Consider your leader and tippet. Think about how they may be affecting the action on your fly and maybe make some adjustments. You just may be surprised how something so small can make a big difference!