High Water Ohio Tributaries & Fresh 20 Mile Creek Chrome

The itch to chase spring run steelhead trout hit me about the middle of last week. A large weather system moved across the Mid-Atlantic Tuesday night through Wednesday and it put a lot of creeks over their banks. Thursday morning, Lake Erie tributaries on “Steelhead Alley” were all blown out. I heard reports that there were still a good number of fresh steelhead staged in the lake prior to the wet weather and all I could think about was how many of these fish were moving upstream. By Friday, folks were posting videos from Walnut and Elk Creek on YouTube and Instagram and sure enough, fresh fish were being caught. Somewhere in the middle of all my internet surfing I came across a podcast by Washington D.C. fly fisherman Rob Snowhite. If you love to fly fish and you’ve never checked out Rob’s podcasts, I’d suggest you do. He’s got a lot of great content posted online that can fill long hours travelling to fishing destinations. Each year Rob spends time fly fishing for steelhead in Ohio. In the podcast I came across he was talking with Dan Pribanic of Chagrin River Outfitters. After listening I made the decision I was going to explore Ohio over the weekend.

On Friday evening I packed up my truck and started heading west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Ironically it takes about the same amount of time to drive to Cleveland as it does for me to drive to Erie. The drive was uneventful, except for the snow squalls I encountered after driving through the Kittatinny Mountain Tunnel. I drove in snowy conditions the rest of the way to Ohio. Once I was outside of Cleveland, I stopped at a cheap hotel and settled in for the night. Before I went to bed I did more research, looked at USGS gauges on all the major Ohio tributaries and decided that I’d first drive to the stream furthest west, the Vermillion River (“the Vermillion”).

The temperature on Saturday morning was below freezing when I woke up. Like I’d done in Erie a couple weeks back, I figured I’d take my time and let things warm a bit even though the high was only to be 32. After breakfast I drove to the Vermillion. The Vermillion is a solid 45-minute drive west from downtown Cleveland. The river is named after a shade of the color red, which is the color of the river after rain causes the soft red clay substrate to dissolve into the flowing water. Like with many of the Ohio tributaries, there are many parks that make fishable water accessible. I decided to enter the river at the Mill Hollow Bacon Woods Park. When I arrived at the parking lot off of Vermillion Road I didn’t see many cars and as I glanced further into the distance, I could see why. The Vermillion River was colored vermillion. The water was moving swiftly and would have been risky to wade with no real way to read the water. I was disappointed and wondered how I could have misjudged the USGS. I walked down to the water, stood on a rock and marked a spot for a future trip with better water conditions.

Knowing that I’d be dealing with tough water conditions I thought back to the Rob Snowhite podcast I’d listened to. In that podcast he mentioned the Rocky River (“the Rocky”). This river is the smallest of the major Ohio tributaries but is world renowned for having excellent steelhead fishing. I figured that maybe its smaller description might mean it’d be fishable sooner. The Rocky River flows through the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood and is criss crossed by highway bridges, although there is a good amount of parkland that immediately surrounds the water. I set my sights on the Memorial Field Park as it looked like easy access on Google Maps. When I arrived at the park I was greeted by high and muddy water, although I did observe quite a few cars. It turns out that a local angling group was conducting a “kiddie fishing rod steelhead tournament.” Apparently it was a “good conditions or bad” event because the water was ripping at the Valley Parkway Bridge. I parked and walked down to the bridge. There were about ten guys there casting two foot long kiddie rods and trying to get their line to go anywhere near the bottom. I didn’t see anyone come close to catching anything. I did however talk to a local who guessed the run below the bridge held many steelhead. With another steelhead stream too high to fish, I headed back to my truck and kept driving east.

The next body of water on my list was the Chagrin River (“the Chagrin”). The Chagrin flows into Lake Erie after meandering through the Chagrin River Park, and before that, through the wooded suburbs of Cleveland. The upper Chagrin offers miles of fishable water that flows through beautiful suburbs with giant homes and backyards. I set my GPS to take me to the Hunting Valley area and when I finally saw the river for the first time, I was shocked to find it wasn’t near as high as the Vermillion or Rock River. The Chagrin was still off color, but it was definitely fishable. At the first bridge I came to, I found a small lot next to a walking trail that was filled with several trucks. I drove over the bridge and saw three guys swinging fly lines upstream. I paused for a second after I crossed the bridge and just didn’t have the desire to fish the unfamiliar muddy water. I decided I’d keep driving east and see if the Conneaut Creek was in even better shape than the Chagrin.

The Conneaut Creek (“the Conneaut”) begins in Pennsylvania and flows through Erie County until crossing into Ohio and eventually dumping into Lake Erie. There isn’t a ton of readily available information online about Conneaut Creek access in Ohio. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources lists two primary areas, close to the mouth, and upstream around the Center Road area. Although these are the only two areas listed, I believe these is quite a bit of water that can be accessed and fished, but as always if you’re not sure, don’t trespass. When I pulled onto Center Road I could see glimpses of the water in the distance and I could immediately see that the Conneaut was blown out. I was expecting to find lower water but of course rain doesn’t fall evenly across a large storm front and the area must’ve received more rain.  I decided to stop and quickly eat a sandwich while watching the murky water swirl.  After thinking about it, I decided I’d leave my first Ohio steelhead to another day and I focused on heading back into Pennsylvania to fish the Erie tributaries I know.

I called Poor Richards Bait & Tackle and they confirmed that Elk Creek was still unfishable but that Walnut Creek and the smaller east side streams had been fishable for a day or two. 20 Mile Creek, the last stocked tributary in Erie County before crossing into the state of New York typically clears well before other streams. I’d fished 20 Mile in my last trip with the Fuddy twins and Mike Haines and it had seen some good runs of fish. I made up my mind to head there and fish until dark, and if I found fish, I’d stay the night in Erie and fish Sunday as well. 

 Looking downstream on 20 Mile Creek just above the Rt. 90 Bridge.

Looking downstream on 20 Mile Creek just above the Rt. 90 Bridge.

I arrived at upper 20 Mile Creek (“20 Mile”) around 1:30PM on Saturday afternoon. I pondered if I’d wasted time in the morning driving across Ohio but I chalked it up to gaining knowledge for the next time I made the trip in better conditions. The wind was blowing and it was cold for April. I bundled up, rigged up my 10’-8wt with a 9’-4X leader and tied on a white woolly bugger with a squirmy wormy pattern dropped off the hook bend. I was the only car in the 20 Mile Creek parking area, which was hard to believe for a Saturday. I headed down the footpath into the shale canyon and ended up at the base of the Rt. 90 Bridge. In the deep run on the other side of the bridge I spotted a large steelhead and drifted several times in front of him. He didn’t blink and I decided to let him be and move downstream. As I walked downstream I followed the main current on the east side of the stream and eventually found a run that held good gravel, which attracts fish. In the deeper green water I could make out shadows of steelhead. I drifted my set-up and after a third drift I felt my line go tight and I was hooked up with my first steelhead of the trip. This fish fought well and took me downstream into a long set of rapids. I was able to land this fish and my adrenaline was pumping. Because of the wind up top I’d decided not to film any fishing with my video cameras. This turned out to be a mistake. As I moved further downstream and the slate walls rose above the water, the wind ceased to exist, and the fishing got better. In the first deep run I tossed my line out and almost instantly my line went tight and I made out the flash of a steelhead as it took my squirmy wormy pattern. It was a beautiful fresh chrome hen. Another 75 yards downstream I fished a good hold at the bend and after a couple of casts my indicator darted under the water and I set the hook. It was another fresh fish and it fought like it. One of my favorite things about steelhead fishing is fishing a hole or run where you don’t know if there are fish and then suddenly something takes your line, it’s an amazing feeling.

 The first steelhead I caught on Saturday afternoon. She made a couple of blistering runs!

The first steelhead I caught on Saturday afternoon. She made a couple of blistering runs!

 The large male steelhead I caught downstream and around the bend.

The large male steelhead I caught downstream and around the bend.

I ended up walking about half way down through the Tomato Patch section and saw very few fish further downstream. Eventually I turned around and made my way back to the last place I’d caught a fish. I took anothher drift through the same run and after few drifts on the opposite side of the hole, wham, a large buck steelhead had run out and grabbed my white woolly bugger. As I was fighting this fish, I realized two younger fellas were watching me from upstream. The fish started taking me downstream and as it did, these two fellas moved right into the spot I’d been fishing. Eventually I landed him and he was a colored up male. After catching that fish it was getting late in the afternoon and I decided to call it a day early and head back to a hotel for some sleep.

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The next morning I woke up early and decided I’d head back to 20 Mile Creek with my camera gear in hand. It was extremely cold for April again. I arrived around 7:00AM and I parked in the same area I had the day before and walked down to the Rt. 90 Bridge. In the deeper water just before the bridge the water was green and you couldn’t quite see what might be lurking there. I tied on a white crystal flash woolly bugger and tossed it to the head of the pool and let it drift down with the current. Immediately my indicator shot under the water, paused, then went deeper. I set the hook and my line snapped. I looked at my line and it was clean cut just above where my woolly bugger had been tied on. I was fishing with 4X Rio fluorocarbon tippet. Large steelhead do have hard jaws, not to the extent salmon do, but they can break tippet if it moves across their mouth in the right direction. I tied on a second white crystal woolly bugger. On my second drift through the pool, my line was jolted again and this time I was hooked up on a large fresh hen. I could see the bugger in her mouth as she came to the surface and barrel rolled. She started violently shaking her head and then was off to the races. First she went downstream and then upstream. When you are fighting a steelhead, you need to be ready to reel line in very quickly and then just as quickly let it back out. It was a wild ride! I eventually landed the hen and she had beautiful shining chrome sides. I ended up fishing that pool for an hour or so and landed quite a few hens and bucks.

 The beautiful colors of a spring run steelhead.

The beautiful colors of a spring run steelhead.

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 A hard fighting buck from Sunday morning.

A hard fighting buck from Sunday morning.

There must’ve been 30 steelhead in that short run. I suspect they were the fish that I’d run into while walking downstream the day before. They all ran upstream overnight and had come to rest before the Rt. 90 Bridge. After the fish weren’t interested in what I was showing them I walked upstream. I hiked all the way to the upper 20 Mile parking lot area. I did hook into two good fish along the way and both threw my hook after a short fight. The water had dropped considerably since Saturday and it was clearing as well, which wasn’t good for the fishing. After walking upstream, I decided to hike all the way to the bottom boundary as well. This proved to be uneventful. I saw one fish during the entire hike, although I’m sure there were a couple of fish hunkered down in deep water or blow downs. Regardless, there were no numbers of fish downstream. As it got later into the afternoon I decided it was probably time to head back towards southeastern Pennsylvania. Amazingly, I only ran into one fishermen on Sunday, an older gentlemen who was throwing eggs on a spin rod. He caught and kept a couple of fish just below me. 

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 Lower 20 Mile Creek in the Tomato Patch section where there wasn't much happening.

Lower 20 Mile Creek in the Tomato Patch section where there wasn't much happening.

As I walked back upstream to my truck, I thought of Elk Creek and that it was probably just coming to a fishable level. Then I thought about Ohio and how Monday and Tuesday would probably bring incredible steelhead fishing to some lucky retired gentleman or some guy who works nightshift. If only I had more time to fly fish. I did come to one conclusion and that was that I’d be back to Ohio some day. After a thirty-minute walk I arrived back at my truck. There were several gentlemen just arriving to fish. I stopped and chatted with a gentleman from New Hampshire that was visiting. He asked how the fishing was and I told him there was nice group of fish down below the bridge but that he’d have to work for them in the clearing conditions. He chuckled and smiled and said he’d give it shot. I broke down my gear, changed my socks and warmed my hands. I hit play on a long list of songs and put my truck in drive and headed back home.

Here's a Toast to Spring Run Erie Steelhead

I typically make a couple of trips to northwestern Pennsylvania each year to fly fish for steelhead in the tributaries of Lake Erie. Coming off of a very active 2017 fall run, I was expecting the spring fishing to be good. There are two types of steelhead you can catch in Erie from March through May. First is the “drop back” steelhead, a fish that ran upstream in the autumn to spawn and is now working its way back to the lake. Second is the “fresh” steelhead, a bright chrome fish that decided to make its trek up a tributary in the spring instead of the fall. A healthy fall run typically means good springtime steelhead fishing because there are drop back and fresh steelhead in the streams at the same time.

On Thursday afternoon I picked up Matt Fuddy and we drove the grueling five and half hours to Girard to meet up with his twin brother Jon and Mike Haines. We met at the Avonia Tavern for dinner and talked steelhead strategy. The fishing grapevine was buzzing about fish in Upper Elk Creek and a couple of the east side streams. Elk Creek being the largest body of water seemed like the logical choice for four guys and so we set our sights on Folly’s End Campground for Friday morning.

 The large hole at Folly's End Campground on Elk Creek.

The large hole at Folly's End Campground on Elk Creek.

Friday morning came quick and although the calendar said it was spring, it felt like winter as we breathed in the morning air. We arrived at Folly’s End Campground a bit later than usual. This time of year, when the air temperatures dip into the twenties overnight, a thin sheet of ice forms on the water and it takes a few hours for it to melt. We were rigged up and on the water by 10AM and decided to fish the large hole behind the campground store first. There wasn’t a soul to be found on the water, but we did immediately spot several large steelhead holding in the deeper water. We all took up spots and started drifting egg patterns, squirmy wormies, and nymphs. I fished my Scott 10’-8wt which is a rod weight higher than what I’d typically recommend for Erie, but it works. After several minutes I had a steelhead take my squirmy pattern and he went berserk. After a two-minute fight, he threw the hook and had me second guessing squirmy patterns on barbless hooks. A couple of casts later I hooked up again and this time I was in the jaw solid. I fought and landed a beautiful 20” fish that had the classic gray tint of a drop back.

During our time at this hole Matt and Mike also hooked up and landed fish. I can’t stay in one spot for long so I began walking downstream. Downstream and around the bend I came across a high slate wall with a water fall cascading down the side. In the turbulence created by the waterfall hitting the creek I swore I saw the tail of a steelhead. I put a drift along the wall and nothing happened. I added a second split shot and made the same cast. This time I saw a large brightly colored fish swim out and grab my squirmy. It was a large buck and he took-off downstream, shaking his head and rolling in the water. After a long battle on 5X tippet I finally landed this fish. It was an old battle-scarred buck, probably a drop back and wow was he neat. This fish had large sunken holes around its nostrils that gave it a distinct look.

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 The battle scarred buck I caught on Elk Creek.

The battle scarred buck I caught on Elk Creek.

I headed upstream with my buddies during the mid-afternoon. We found various pockets with one or two fish and even observed a few fish spawning. At a beautiful hole above the Rt. 98 bridge, we found a deeper run that allowed for long dead drifts. I could make out multiple shadows of fish in the swift current. We took turns drifting double fly rigs, frequently changing weight to find the lane we needed to be in. I felt my line go tight on my second drift and watched a fish dart downstream. I fought the fish the best I could as it jumped out of water and put on a show. I was fortunate to land this fish. Matt and Mike also hooked up and landed fish as well. All were drop back steelhead. While the guys were distracted, I snuck upstream and found another pool that looked promising. I found a hole that had a large tree that had toppled over into the creek.

 The colorful buck I caught by the blowdown several hundred yards above the campground.

The colorful buck I caught by the blowdown several hundred yards above the campground.

Its branches were submerged underwater creating a “steelhead hotel” and staging area of sorts. When the fish hide in cover like this it can be virtually impossible to coax them out. However, sometimes focusing on the upstream side, you’ll find fish staged above the obstacle and in this case, I did. I was able to get behind these fish to make a cast upstream. On my second drift, my indicator darted under the surface and I was able set the hook, fight and land another beautiful buck steelhead. I spent another hour exploring upstream and although I saw a couple of fish I was unable to hook up. Eventually the guys made their way upstream to see what happening. We decided to call it a day and headed to the Avonia Tavern for dinner.

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On Saturday morning we again waited a bit before we headed out. By the time we hit the water it was already getting close to lunch. We decided to start at the park area near Sterrettania and walk downstream. We ran into a couple of guys at the pool below the bend, both of who’d walked all the way from Folly’s End Campground. As they left, we wet our fishing lines and Mike ended up catching a fresh hen steelhead. I walked almost a mile downstream in this area and saw only two fish. At the bottom of this area, I ran into eight other guys fishing. I couldn’t believe they’d all walked that far.

After leaving Sterrettania we decided to head to 20 Mile Creek. We made the 40-minute drive east and arrived at the Upper 20 Mile Creek access point near the Rt. 90 bridge, the area most folks refer to as the “Tomato Patch.” After the walk down the hill we hit the water and found it to be crystal clear. Combined with bright sunshine it wasn’t the best conditions for steelhead. We all split up and walked upstream. I found a nice run and spotted at least two steelhead. As I moved upstream I fished the runs, drifting my egg patterns right along the ledges where the fish like to hide. Then to my surprise there was a giant explosion in the water and I watched a large hen steelhead take my veiled egg pattern.

 Looking downstream on 20 Mile Creek.

Looking downstream on 20 Mile Creek.

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 The large hen I caught on Saturday morning on 20 Mile Creek.

The large hen I caught on Saturday morning on 20 Mile Creek.

This fish fought like a champ and it was so cool to hold her. I walked further upstream and eventually found some large steelhead in a deep pool that were holding under a large tree that’d blown over. These fish were incredible but impossible to get a drift to. After fishing 20 Mile Creek we decided to head back west for the evening and went back to Elk Creek to the hole we’d fished the evening before. In our first fifteen minutes back on Elk we landed several beautiful steelhead. We ended our night early because of cold feet and because the reality was that most of us were satisfied with what we’d caught. We again capped the night off at the Avonia.

 One of the steelhead I caught after we headed back to Elk Creek on Saturday.

One of the steelhead I caught after we headed back to Elk Creek on Saturday.

On Sunday morning I usually head home, but Jon still hadn’t caught his first Erie Steelhead and I was determined to get him one. Mike decided to head home, but Matt and Jon and I drove back to 20 Mile Creek to fish the water downstream. During our walk we again found many fish hiding in debris in the stream, making them impossible to target. At one such location, Jon decided to throw a natural looking nymph and with a squirmy wormie dropper. As I was heading further downstream, I heard Matt shout at the top of his lungs. Well, that was Jon hooking up and landing his first Erie steelhead. I was so happy for him because I remember how awesome that feeling is. About that same time, I stumbled across a long riffle that appeared to hold some fish. I started drifting a bead tipped pink egg pattern. After several drifts, I added a second Dinsmore split shot to get down closer to the bottom. On the next cast my indicator stopped mid drift and I lifted my rod and out of the water came the head of a giant steelhead. This fish was huge. As I was fighting him Jon and Matt had made their way downstream and were watching. This fish was so big it reminded me of fighting a salmon. With Jon’s help I was able to get this fish in the net. He was a beauty, perhaps my personal best steelhead. I measured him before releasing him and he came in at 27”. I can’t confirm he was larger than fish I caught in Oak Orchard in 2017, but he was close. As I lifted him out of the water, milt was pouring out of him telling me these fish were still very much in spawning mode.

 The 27" buck I caught on 20 Mile Creek on Sunday morning.

The 27" buck I caught on 20 Mile Creek on Sunday morning.

After walking to the lower boundary line, we headed back to the car. We ended the day with a celebratory lunch at the Freeport Restaurant for Jon’s catch. Before we sipped on drinks I said “Here’s a toast to spring run Erie steelhead and Jon’ first!” After a very late lunch the three of us headed back to southeastern Pennsylvania, another Erie trip in the books.

March Sunshine & Trout On The Patuxent River

I don’t have any proof that the month of March is windier than any other time of year, but this year it seems that way. The first week and a half of March has brought two nor’easters through Pennsylvania and as I write this, a third is on the way. I’ve only had the opportunity to fly fish on the weekends and the wind has been a problem. It’s not that my fly rod can’t cut through the wind but trying to film video for the Wooly Bugged YouTube Channel becomes problematic, even when using wind screens.

This past week I did a lot of research on stocked and wild trout waters in Maryland. There are so many streams to fly fish in Maryland this time of year that it is difficult to zero in on one location. I focused on streams in the middle to southern portions of the state where the wind speed was expected to be 5mph with gusts up to 10mph. I find that when I attempt to film in wind above the 10mph mark, it is a lost cause. After going back and forth, I finally settled on the Patuxent River. The Patuxent creates a border between Howard and Montgomery Counties and is the longest river entirely contained within the state of Maryland. The river is over 100 miles long and is a tributary to the Chesapeake Bay. The Patuxent also has an interesting history as it was given its name over 250 years ago by the famous settler of Jamestown, Virginia, John Smith. The river is a freestone stream that stays marginally cool in the summer. I’ve read that some fishermen claim to catch wild and holdover stockies throughout the year, but I can’t confirm those stories. The Upper Patuxent River has almost 13 miles of water that is designated by the state as catch-and-return trout fishing. Trout are stocked during the preseason during the months of February and March. There are additional in-season stockings as well. This catch-and-return area is an artificial lure only stretch and the Potomac/Patuxent Trout Unlimited group aides in the stocking, helping to evenly spread the fish out through the many miles of hard to access water. The Maryland Department of Conservation website had mentioned that almost 2,400 trout, some rainbow and some brown trout had been stocked in the river since late February.

 Looking downriver on the Patuxent River in Maryland.

Looking downriver on the Patuxent River in Maryland.

I headed south to Maryland at 5AM on Saturday morning. The stocked portions of the Upper Patuxent start just below Rt. 27 and run to Rt. 97 on the downstream end. If you look at Google Maps, there are several roads that cross the Patuxent in the stocked section. I decided to start at the top of the Upper Patuxent and fly fish upstream to Rt. 27. I parked at the Long Corner Road Bridge and got geared up. There is a small parking lot before the bridge and when I arrived there were no cars. I wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing. The areas around the bridge were well marked with catch-and-return regulation signs. I decided I’d use my 9’-5wt Winston with my Hatch 3-Plus with a 9’-5X leader attached to my fly line. I tied on a #18 Gold Beadhead Prince Nymph and off the hook bend I dropped a red Squirmy Wormy that utilized a jawbreaker style tungsten bead. The Prince Nymph is a great pattern for early March because it does a great job of imitating the Little Black Stoneflies that hatch this time of year. I walked out on the bridge and looked upstream. I was surprised how shallow the water was. I didn’t see any fish swimming below the bridge and figured the fish must be hidden upstream. I started hiking. After I got about 200 yards upstream, I encountered a couple of small runs that had water deep enough to hold trout. I drifted my rig and instead of hooking up with a trout, I caught a fallfish. After another 100 yards of hiking and not seeing a single fish, I found it virtually impossible that they had stocked trout in this section. I remembered seeing on maps that there were several larger streams that dumped into the Patuxent further downstream. I figured more water meant a better chance of finding fish.

I decided to drive all the way to the bottom of the catch-and-return section at Rt. 97. There is a small lot at the entrance to the Patuxent River State Park where you can park. Again, I found no cars which made me question if I was in the right area. The river was holding more water in this area, both in depth and width. I grabbed my gear, jumped in the water and started walking upstream. There is a beautiful stretch of water that sits next to a large grove of bamboo trees. The area looked incredible but with polarized glasses I didn’t see a single fish patrolling the area. I put a few drifts through the deepest pockets with no luck. Where were all the fish? Certainly with 2,400 stocked fish, you’d be bound to at least see one.

I’d covered the top and bottom and was starting to lose faith that I’d find fish. It was going on 9:30 and I decided I’d give it one more shot right in the middle of the catch-and-return section. I found a road on the map named Hipsley Mill Road that cut the section almost in half. When I arrived at the parking area at Hipsley Mill Road, there was already a truck sitting in the lot, an encouraging sign. I walked to the bridge and peered into the water. No fish again. I threw my waders back on, grabbed my rod and headed downstream. After about 100 yards of walking the creek, I passed by a hole where I saw a solitary rainbow trout. It was only one fish, but if it was stocked it meant I may have found fish. I continued walking. As I was walking a high bank I looked into a deep hole on the backside of an old deadfall’s root system. I stopped and did a double take. There in the water was a school of almost 20 trout. I couldn’t believe it. This first batch of fish had been stocked almost 200-300 yards downstream. I’d read that poaching was been an ongoing problem on the Patuxent so it was all starting to makes sense. The Trout Unlimited group made sure these fish were well spread out so that the only folks that would get an opportunity to fish for them were serious fishermen willing to take a walk. I crept back upstream and made a downstream approach on the fish. I got into place and started making casts and then wham, I had my first Patuxent trout on the line. I spent a good twenty minutes in that hole catching fish after fish. They were split 50/50 with takes between the Prince Nymph and Squirmy.

 The first brown trout I caught on the Patuxent River.

The first brown trout I caught on the Patuxent River.

I worked my way downstream and saw a fish or two scattered throughout the riffles. After about another half-mile of fishing, I again stumbled onto a run that was loaded with trout. I stopped and fished here and caught a large number of brown trout on everything from Prince Nymphs to San Juan Worms and Green Weenies. The fish were only somewhat active and many seemed lethargic, perhaps due to water temps that were hovering around 40 degrees. After posting some good numbers, I continued my hike.

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The Patuxent River is a tough body of water to walk downstream on. The stream has very high banks, as high as 6 feet in some areas, and the edges of the river are covered with thorn bushes. To make matters worse, many areas close to the bank are covered with a soft muddy silt mixed with clay. On several occasional my leg was swallowed almost to my knee. I also had an incident where I was attempting to walk around a large deadfall and while trying to walk across what I though was a sturdy log, I soon found that it was dead. Out of nowhere I fell through log into an 8 foot deep hole with about a foot of water in the bottom. I cut my hand pretty bad on the way down but was able to pull myself back-up to safety. Fishing by yourself can be risky and it is probably a good idea to always let someone know where you’ll be before you head out. Also, ensuring you have a cell signal when fishing along can be a savior.

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There are many long riffles and deep holes on the Patuxent. Some areas were so deep you couldn’t see the bottom and I’m sure there were some larger fish holding in some of these areas. By mid-afternoon, I’d walked a few miles downstream. It felt as if I was in the middle of a vast wilderness. It’s hard to believe DC isn’t that far away. During my time walking downstream, I didn’t see another soul. Several miles downriver I had some spectacular takes on the San Juan Worm. I was fishing areas where debris from high water had gathered along the bank. Apparently, the folks who stocked the fish realized these places would provide great cover for the trout. On one occasion I had cast my nymph rig upstream to drift my flies in front of the debris. I watched a brown trout dart out looking for what caused the commotion. I pulled on the rod thinking the fish had attempted to take my fly and I realized he had not. As the San Juan floated for a second in the water the trout charged the pattern and took it. I set the hook and he fought like crazy. I love those types of takes.

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 One of many beautiful runs on the Patuxent River.

One of many beautiful runs on the Patuxent River.

I was keeping my eye on where the sun was positioned in the sky as I kept moving downstream. I knew that at some point I was going to have to stop and head back but I was hoping I’d come across a bridge or road, but as far as I could see the river kept meandering through the woods. I encountered trout the entire way. I finally stopped as the sun fell below the tree tops, took off my jacket, took a long drink of water and started the long trek back towards where I’d started the day. Fortunately, I found a horseback riding trail that sat thirty yards off the river. I was able to follow this a majority of the way back to Hipsley Mill Road. One thing to be aware of if you are fishing the Patuxent River for the first time and walking back in this section is that the Cabin Branch Creek dumps in upstream. If you aren’t careful, the horse trail follows the Cabin Branch Creek and veers away from the Patuxent, and it is not readily apparent that you aren’t on the Patuxent as it looks as if the water just splits into two channels.

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When I made it back to the first stretch of water I started fishing, I threw on a Black Wooly Bugger just for kicks. On my second strip I caught a nice brown trout which was a great way to end the day. As the daylight faded, I made it back to my truck and briefly chatted with another fisherman who’d walked upstream. He’d found a few fish but not as many as I had. He too had encountered quite a few Little Black Stoneflies. After we finished chatting, I broke down my gear and started the two-hour ride back home to Pennsylvania.

Serendipity & West Virginia’s Elkhorn Creek

Last January while fly fishing the Monocacy Creek, I reached down to scoop a wild brown trout from the water with my net and simultaneously watched my wading stick fall from my hands into the rushing water. It floated downstream ten yards before slowly disappearing under the water. I spent fifteen minutes looking for my lost wading stick before giving up and chalking it up to the third one I’d lost in the past six months. I could’ve never known that losing that wading stick would lead me to fly fishing one of the most unique streams I’ve ever had the chance to fish, the Elkhorn Creek in West Virginia.

I wrote a blog entry here on Wooly Bugged about my trip to the Monocacy. A couple of weeks later a gentlemen named Todd Hubler read that entry and contacted me to ask which part of the stream I’d lost the stick on. I explained and figured I’d never hear from him again. Two weeks later I opened up my email one morning to find a picture of my wading stick and a message from Todd saying we should get together and fish so he could return it to me. I agreed and then life got in the way. I was busy and Todd and I weren’t able to connect. Several months later I had an open day to fish and I decided I’d head east to New Jersey to fly fish the Pequest River. The water conditions were terrible that day. The hatchery was supposed to have stocked the stream but they hadn’t. Before I left I decided I’d walk upstream and look at the hatchery outflow. As I worked my way downstream I saw a gentlemen casting dry flies at rising trout. I headed back across the stream so that I wouldn’t disturb him and then I heard “Wooly Bugged.” It was Todd Hubler fishing below me.  I couldn’t believe it. We chatted and I said we must’ve been destined to fly fish together. It was during this conversation that Todd told me about a stream in West Virginia called the Elkhorn Creek. He spoke of a creek that flowed through the poorest county in West Virginia, McDowell County. It was an unregulated body of water that was populated with a large number of wild brown and rainbow trout. After meeting that day in New Jersey, Todd and I kept in touch and made plans to make a trip to the Elkhorn in early 2018.

In the early morning hours of February 2nd, I sat in my truck making the almost seven hour drive to southwestern West Virginia. I’d done quite a bit of research on the Elkhorn Creek prior to leaving and found the place intriguing. The Elkhorn and its trout have a serendipitous beginning, and while all the details cannot be confirmed and will be argued about, the story goes something like this. In the early 1970s a trout stocking truck from the West Virginia Conservation Agency was driving down Rt. 52 through McDowell County. Where that truck was heading no one will ever remember, but at some point the truck broke down and couldn’t make it to its final destination. Because of the remoteness of the area, there was no way the payload of fish could be saved. Not far from the truck was a stonewall left over from the coal era and next to that wall flowed the Elkhorn. The driver decided that rather than let the fish die, he’d dump them in the creek and at least give the locals a good week of fishing. The rest is history. That payload of rainbow and brown trout went on to thrive and populate the entire length of the Elkhorn Creek. The existence of these fish went mostly unnoticed until the state was conducting a stream study and they were surprised when they found large brown trout living in this small body of water. The stream sort of became a secret among locals and eventually some TU members fished it and shared it with close friends. There are many unique stories from the early days on the Elkhorn. Todd shared a story of the time a guy crashed his GEO Metro into the Elkhorn. This car stayed in the stream for some time and the wild trout took up residence in and around it. At one point he said you could drift a fly right off the back bumper and watch a wild trout rise and take. All these stories simply add to the mystique of the stream.

I arrived in Princeton West Virginia at 10AM on Friday morning. I met Todd and we loaded his gear into my truck and we headed down Rt. 52. It had snowed the night before and the snow was heavy on the tree branches. The mountains in West Virginia are steep, much steeper than what you’ll find in Pennsylvania. The further northwest we drove the deeper we went into the coal country of West Virginia. McDowell County has quite a history. During the early part of the 20th century they found coal in the mountains. This brought great prosperity and thousands of jobs to the area. Coal mines popped up in the hollows, and railroads, houses, and general stores were built. At one point McDowell County was one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S. But then as technology changed the way that coal was mined, things changed and between the 1960s and 1990s tens of thousands of jobs disappeared from the area. An area that was once vibrant with life and progress suddenly took a turn for the worse. The lights at the coal mining facilities went dark, the wealth disappeared, and McDowell County changed. Drugs became a large problem and the area disappeared from the public eye.

This history was swirling through my head as Todd and I drove through the small towns of Bramwell, Switchback, and Elkhorn. You can see the remnants of the coal industry there. While some mines are still operational, many are closed. The old buildings line the landscape. As we got closer to our destination I observed many concrete and stonewalls along the Elkhorn creek. The mountains of West Virginia have taken back their stream. Eventually Todd saw a pull off he recognized and we got out and rigged our fly rods and tried to put on waders in air temps that were below 30 degrees. Once we were ready to go I followed Todd down the road as he tried to locate an entry point he’d used years ago. The stream bank was very overgrown and would probably be impossible to access in the summer months. He found a steep embankment down to the stream and I slid down into the water. The Elkhorn has another downside to it. McDowell County does not have a public sewer system. Many of the residents living along the stream have straight pipes that run human waste, bath and sink water right into the stream. Many of the locals affectionately refer to the Elkhorn as “The Sewer.” There is also a significant amount of trash in the stream as there are no dumps or public trash pick-up in the area. Ironically the sewage in the stream seems to add to the lore of the place, as it seems to aid in what is a very vibrant bug life. Almost any and every type of mayfly you can imagine hatches on the Elkhorn. Lifting an old blanket out of the stream will reveal a large number of aquatic nymphs.

 The first run I fished on the Elkhorn Creek.

The first run I fished on the Elkhorn Creek.

A nine-foot fly rod is too long for the upper portions of the Elkhorn. I used my 8’-4wt but a 7’ rod would’ve even been better. I decided to start out by fishing a #18 Red Brassie tied off of a #16 Tan Hare’s Ear pattern. Todd let me take the first several casts upstream into a beautiful run. As a freight train blew its whistle not more than a few yard away, I hooked up with my first Elkhorn Creek trout. It was incredible to hook up with a wild trout in this setting. My first fish turned out to be a rainbow. The fish looked very healthy and after releasing her I was back to drifting my nymphs. The next cast I was into another fish, a stronger fish. This turned out to be a solid wild bow that was over 12” in length. The fight in this fish for early February was incredible.

 The first wild trout I caught on the Elkhorn Creek, a small rainbow.

The first wild trout I caught on the Elkhorn Creek, a small rainbow.

 The second larger wild rainbow I caught on a Red Brassie Nymph.

The second larger wild rainbow I caught on a Red Brassie Nymph.

Fishing between the stonewalls that line this stream was an incredible experience. I followed Todd as we fished upstream along old concrete abutments and stonewalls. There were so many attempted takes by trout it was hard to count. We caught almost all wild rainbows in this first section we fished. Todd explained that there seem to be specific sections of the creek where the rainbows have taken root and other areas where just the brown trout are. After catching a good number of fish, Todd and I decided to change spots and eat a sandwich. After exiting the stream we washed our hands and used hand sanitizer. Some guys that fish this stream go as far as fishing with rubber gloves on. Either way, it is important to not get the water in your mouth as the stream carries fecal coliforms and things like Giardia (Beaver Fever). Don’t ignore this warning! I promise you, you will regret it.

 The stonewalls that were built during the coal era to protect from flooding.

The stonewalls that were built during the coal era to protect from flooding.

That afternoon Todd took me to a section of the Elkhorn that held more brown trout. The stream ran behind small homes, some of which it was hard to believe people inhabited. There is some serious poverty in this part of West Virginia, but the folks there have a way of life and are very cordial and friendly when they see you. We spent the afternoon drifting nymphs under indicators through runs and riffles. We fished under house foundations that stuck out over the stream and caught some beautiful wild brown trout that had a coloration that can only be found on the Elkhorn Creek.

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 The house with the foundation that stuck out over the stream.

The house with the foundation that stuck out over the stream.

That night Todd and I crashed in a hotel in Princeton and we were up the next morning at sunrise to head back into the mountains. On Saturday morning Todd took me further upstream closer to the start of the Elkhorn Creek. The Elkhorn starts as a spring that flows from an old coal mine. This in itself is amazing. Many other streams in the mountains suffer from acid mine drainage and have a deadly orange glow to them that supports no life. Somehow, the spring that feeds the Elkhorn is clean and it allows for miles of cold trout water that sees 40-50 degree temps almost year round on its was to the Tug Fork River. Upstream the Elkhorn gets very narrow and smaller fly rods are even more critical.

 The view on the upper reaches of the Elkhorn Creek.

The view on the upper reaches of the Elkhorn Creek.

It is very difficult to find access to the water because of the brush, briars, trees, etc. Once you get onto the stream, a canopy of tree branches envelops you. There is some beautiful water hiding here and it is no wonder there are large trout that can live in this water. We worked our way upstream and caught a handful of wild brown trout. There are some large old concrete forms and foundations that are overgrown with weeds and trees now that the stream flows past. It makes for a unique backdrop and the trout love to hide next to them. Eventually Todd and I had enough of getting tangled in the trees while trying to put perfect drifts in tight areas. Todd wanted to head downstream and show me areas where the Elkhorn opens up to wider and deeper water and fabled larger fish.

 One of the concrete walls that feels out of place on the Elkhorn.

One of the concrete walls that feels out of place on the Elkhorn.

We headed a few miles downstream and jumped in the water. There was a nice deep flow of water below the highway underpass and I could actually see a couple of large brown trout feeding in the shallow water near the bank. I cast my nymphs upstream of them and immediately one of the brown trout went after my indicator and two times tried to take it, taking it almost to the bottom of the stream. Todd suggested floating a glow bug on top of the water. I tied on a #14 Pink Glow Bug and cast again upstream. This time the fish took again but the hook didn’t hold and I watched a beautiful wild brown trout sink below the surface. On the Elkhorn, once the trout feels the hook, you’re unlikely to see them again. On my next cast however the glow bug sank and I saw a good-sized wild rainbow dart off the bottom and take the pattern. It was awesome.

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Todd and I split up to cover move water for the rest of the morning. I caught numerous wild rainbow trout that morning. By lunchtime we’d met back up and fished more water together. We intermittently caught fish throughout the afternoon. We didn’t catch any giants although at one point Todd had a fish almost yank his rod out of his hands and he swears it was a giant. The closer to the Tug Fork River you get, the water gets much deeper and the opportunity for larger trout certainly increases.

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Todd and I fished into the early evening hours until the sun had dropped below the mountains and we could barely see the freight train rolling buy on a bridge above us. At that moment I wished I had an additional day or two to explore more of the stream. We drove out of the mountains and Todd told of a day he’d caught a 100 fish back in the 1980s. After dropping Todd off, I started my long trek home. It was a unique experience and one I’ll never forget. Thanks for sharing Todd.