Tuesday, August 25, 2015


As I wound my way through Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon, traffic slowed to a stop. 

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    The Northern Tier is a mostly rural landscape, similar to that of the Shenandoah Valley--traffic is relatively non-existent.  Corn fields and dairy cows cover the rolling countryside in a studded patchwork falling off the slopes of the Appalachian Mountains.  At the center you’ll find the Pine Creek Valley, the artery which carves the mountain gorge that earned the area the Grand Canyon likeness.  At the heart of that valley you’ll find a beautiful freestone creek, finned by the speckled forms of shouldered brown trout.

    When I came to a halt in the line of cars strung along the single road that follows the creek through the mountains, the obstacle became apparent.  Despite a bluebird sky and no wind, a thick pine tree rooted a few feet from the roadside had met its end and splintered, coming to rest across both lanes of the mountain highway.  Travelers applied insufficient brawn to the trunk, while resigned onlookers crowded the scene.

    Luckily, an ax lay in its place in the back of my car.  A few minutes of sweaty swinging split the branches from the trunk and severed the crown.  The resigned onlookers helped clear the road.

    Despite the delay, the fallen pine tree was not altogether inconvenient.  The mountain air was thin, crisp, but warm and dry.  No rain had fallen in weeks, and the creek ran low.  Perhaps “ran” is an inappropriate verb.  Even the pools and riffles were at a relative standstill.

    I fished the morning with no reward.  Crystal clear water and a bright sky were my foremost opponents. 

    And so in an effort to “switch things up,” I visited a friend in the local fly shop for direction.
October caddis were on the water and thick in the air.  So I left the shop with a few Elk Hair Caddis in my pocket, aimed at a stretch of river rejuvenated by a few small tributaries.

    It was 4:00 in the afternoon by the time I reached the parking area where I planned to enter the water, and the early fall sun was oppressive as it hung just above the western wall of the canyon.  

    Wet-wading would suit, and the river water refreshed me as I waded downstream in search of trout in a recommended location, nicknamed “Monster Pool.”

    A sharp bend in the creek channel and visible riffles just downstream from a creek mouth signaled to me my arrival.  A gravel bank was exposed by the low flow on river left.

    As a matter of stealth, I crossed the creek to prepare my attack on the bank.  I examined my leader.  5X had proven itself ineffective against finicky risers in the present water conditions.  So I converted my tippet to a size finer, and lengthened it by three feet.  A caddis found its way on the end.

    As I edged into the water towards the rising forms of wild brown and rainbow trout, a bald eagle erupted from the bank opposite me.  Cast after delicate cast brought no interest from the fish, despite the cloud of October caddis on the scene. 

    Eventually my fixation on fish lost hold.  A red fox trotted over the ridgeline on the opposite bank, scaring a rather hefty groundhog loafing about the rocky crags half to death.  The predator halted at the commotion caused by the rodent, turned, and followed the creek out of sight. 

    Moments later, my backcast caught on grass peeking up through the gravel to my rear.  I turned to see a black bear cub sniffing curiously about the ground, pausing only to stare confusedly at the flailing angler in his watering hole.  The light of day escaped with the beast as it meandered its way out of sight.

    Suddenly, barely visible in the fading light, rises became audial, no longer delicate.  To a pod of several fish, I fired a short cast dropping my caddis in their feeding zone.  Immediately, it was slurped up and I was fast to a 14-inch rainbow trout. 

    I continued picking off fish, and the action grew faster, more aggressive and indiscriminating, as night settled in.

    My fifth fish was a solid brown, caught in the head of the riffle on a blind cast to noise.  I chased it down to land it in the riffle it inhabited.

    As I handled the fish, plucking the fly from its mouth and admiring its strong form in the dark, the discarded fly drifted with the current between my legs.  A familiar sound caused me to find the fly line tangled in my hand and pull.  And just like that, I released the fish in my left hand, grabbed my rod and turned, tight to another trout in the dead of night.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

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