Streams of Consciousness Series
We are proud to share the stories and experiences of fellow guides, expert anglers, and conservationists from across our commonwealth. If you have story you would like to share please contact us.
About guest contributor: Brian Trussell
Brian has been fishing the wild trout haunts of South Eastern Pennsylvania for as long as he has been able to fish. I met Brian years ago on PAFlyFish.com and learned that we lived near each other. It would take several more years before our schedules would align and we could fish together. Brian has a unique insight into fishing SEPA as he frequents not only class A but Class B and uncharted waters. His experiences on these waters also places Brian on the frontline of conservation in PA. He is often one of the first to discover returning wild populations on regional creeks. This has made him a next generation conservationist and his efforts have culminated in the resurrection of the formerly defunct Upper Hammer Creek Watershed Association. Brian has shared with us an intriguing and inspirational tale of modern grass-roots conservation.
“IF ALL YOU HAVE IS A HAMMER, EVERYTHING LOOKS LIKE A NAIL”
By: Brian Trussell
When it comes to conservation and wild trout management in Pa the 20th-century psychologist Abraham Maslow might have us nailed. I too fell into this trap all too often when it concerned my home stream. I have fished Hammer Creek in Lancaster County Pennsylvania for over 29 years now. I have seen it go from bad to good and back to worse but all the while knowing of its true potential. Unlocking the secrets of how to go about helping it have been trying to say the least, but today I’m finally starting to understand.
In the beginning, I was just a learning angler at the age of ten. I always felt that this was a special place every time I came here and felt the cool, humid, swampy, wetland air that filled my nostrils with “that” smell. It just felt unique and at that time, it was. To have a trout stream surrounded by woods in Lancaster County is rather rare and extremely precious. Still, it wasn’t this reason it felt precious to me but rather that it was just one mountain removed from my front door. To have this place so close to home made that humid honeysuckle air all the sweeter. The land that adorned the watershed is part of beautiful SGL#156 and a large wooded tract above this is owned by the Boy Scouts of America’s J. Edward Mack Scout Reservation. I even went to school with the Camp Mack Ranger sons, I even rode the same bus as his sons and that speaks volumes to just how close the waters of Hammer Creek were to my home.
In my middle years, I traveled here on my own just for nostalgia sake after having moved a few miles away. I could drive now, had teenage girls on my mind more than trout but I still fished and fished hard really when I wasn’t sneaking in a window. Except now I traveled more to fish and got to see the best of what Pennsylvania trout fishing had to offer. Every once in a while, though, I would find myself on the banks of Hammer Creek smelling that all too familiar air. It just felt like home and it would bring back all kinds of memories of fishing with my father. Shortly after this time the Game Commission had breached a dam at Pumping Station and also removed dams up at Rexmont in Lebanon County in the headwaters. This dramatically changed the way I viewed the creek from my early years as it was no longer a temporary stocked trout fishery but rather became a wild brook trout fishery. Suddenly the potential of this stream, or at the very least, the way nature intended it to be was being realized for the first time. This was exciting and it got me going on trying to do more for the creek, it got me wanting to learn more about its history also.
Located in rural Schaefferstown, Lebanon County, used to lie the national landmark that, before it stopped operation in 1990, was the oldest distillery in the United States. According to Linda Moore in the Gettysburg Times, America’s first distillery began in 1753. Brothers John and Michael Shenk established the distillery to help increase profit from their crops, such as corn, rye, and barley. Revolutionary War soldiers were supplied with this whiskey to help them get through the brutal winters, and it is speculated that George Washington himself may have stopped at Shenk’s to buy whiskey for his troops on his way to Valley Forge. Word spread and other farmers wanted the Shenks to distill their surplus crops as well, which in turn helped expand their product and their name. “Michter’s, as the saying goes, was ‘the whiskey that warmed the American Revolution,’ and it continues to warm today’s resurgent American whiskey revolution.” Although the story ended in 1990 for the Michter’s in Schaefferstown, the preservation of the name and its legacy still live on to this day. Yes, the whiskey industry lives on in the South, but let us remember where it all started. Not surprisingly, just the next mountain over where my house was lies other amazing historical landmarks. These include but are not limited to the Coleman Estate and Cannon Ball Hill. Here German Hessian Soldiers were captured and forced to make arms for the American Revolution. There is even a “Hessian Ditch” were they were forced to try and dig around Cannon Ball Hill in the attempt to connect Segloch Run to Henry William Stiegel’s Elizabeth Furnace near Brickerville. This project was to help boost the weapon making capacity of cannonballs and shells to fight for our independence. While that project was abandoned due to the loss of life and the amount of time it was taking to complete, it is an amazing thought to what was accomplished between the two mountains where I grew up and were I fished as a child.
It didn’t dawn on me until just recently the amount of significance these stories would metaphorically play out in my recent dealings to save my home watershed. In the years following the Rexmont Dam removals I had approached several agencies and clubs with the hopes of garnering a movement to save Hammer Creek from all of man’s interference. The watershed is threatened by agriculture and loss of fish habitat because of the old dam that gathered sedimentation from the agriculture. The amount of response I got was lack luster to say the least and everyone seemed fine as long as it was a stocked fishery. Yet, to me, I kept seeing it as something more special than that. Every year, I would catch my largest wild brook trout from here or from Big Spring in Newville. This is a trend that even continues to this day but the fish population of Hammer Creek is low. It started to dawn on me that there is too much politics and worse yet, dare I say, egos when it comes to stream restoration and conservation. I made the mistake of having the mindset that I needed to go and speak to only fisherman, fisherman groups and the PFBC to get these goals accomplished. This excluded a large majority of the population that also has a stake in the health of our environment. I have finally come to realize that this watershed is used by so many people from so many walks of life that its focal point cannot be narrowed down to simply the fishing aspect.
In this past summer of 2017 the final nail was driven in the coffin when I watched the newly refilled and restocked Speedwell Lake bass population migrate upstream and start eating the trout population in an already suffering watershed. During this time, there were also illegal dumping along Pumping Station Road and it made my blood boil to new heights. Finally, enough was enough, and I decided to take it upon myself to try and start The Upper Hammer Creek Watershed Association. In doing so, I had come to learn that one of the fisherman I got to fall in love with the watershed, got someone else to fall in love with it, who told someone else and talked to someone else and well now there is a multi-agency project coming to one stretch of Hammer Creek. Donegal Trout Unlimited, the PFBC, the PGC, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Lancaster County Conservation District and the Boy Scouts of America are all working together to fully remove the breached dam, another dam and a culvert on a tributary to allow fish passage. I had already contacted the paper to do an article on the issues facing Hammer Creek in the attempts of garnering support for my group and the Watershed, it worked in ways I never imagined.
Since our inception and the article, we have been approached by multiple groups and landowners in the Watershed that are all eager to help. In fact, I just got off the phone last week with Camp Mack’s Ranger and he is still the same guy I knew from my youth. I’ve talked with Townships, state agencies, fishing clubs, local landowners and just plain local folks all interested in helping. During our stream clean-up on August 19th 2017 we had several members of SAMBA, Susquehanna Area Mountain Bike Association, come out and help pick up trash. Their response to me was, “We use this area too, so we should come out and help.” There was another guy who belongs to no group or fishing club, he just came out because he read the article. These are the people we need to pull in and harness and understand how to get them involved because in the end, they far outnumber us.
Today, I still visit the banks of Hammer Creek and it still has that familiar hometown air about it. Like the hanging white linens out to dry on a clothes line on a sunny lazy Sunday afternoon or maybe the glistening sparkle of the candles in the windows of a Lancaster County farm home, somehow it just feels welcoming. Either way, a lesson can be learned from our fore fathers in the history of Lancaster County alone in that when you want to accomplish something great, it takes everyone from all walks of life. The waters of Hammer Creek were bottled and transformed into a whiskey that warmed the revolution but today they are free flowing cold but have warmed the hearts of so many in the present day. The spirit of Abraham Maslow is probably laughing as I type this because I finally understand “if all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail” concept and with that somewhere, I like to think, John and Michael Shenk are smiling while looking down at their old haunt knowing it’s still inspiring a revolution unto its own.