Blue-Line Brook Trout in Sullivan County, Pennsylvania

For several months now subscribers to my blog and YouTube channel have been asking me to do more wild trout fishing. A week ago I decided to give everyone what they’ve been asking for, a series of content focused on wild trout in Pennsylvania. One thing is for sure, the Keystone State is not lacking for opportunities to catch wild trout. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission maintains an annual list of wild trout waters where natural reproduction is occurring. You can find this list by quickly typing “PA Wild Trout Water List” in Google, and you’ll find a PDF that is kept updated by the agency. This list is over 100 pages long and each page has over 40 bodies of water listed. No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of wild trout water. One thing that is important to note is that many of those streams are not public. You cannot find a stream on this list, locate its physical location and fish it. You’ll need to first determine that the stream is publicly accessible. If it is not and you are able to locate the owner, then you can ask for permission. I’ve taken this list and started to cross-reference it with maps of state game and forestland in an effort to find public access to wild trout water. This can be a painstaking process and as you’ll read later, just because water looks accessible on a map, does not mean it is easily accessible.

Last weekend I spent time chasing wild brook trout in the mountains of Clinton County, focusing on tributaries of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. This weekend, I decided to move further east and search for wild brook trout in Sullivan and Wyoming Counties. There is a popular State Park located in Columbia, Luzerne, and Sullivan counties called Ricketts Glen. This park is well known in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York because of its many hiking trails and magnificent waterfalls formed by Kitchen Creek. Just north of Rickets Glen State Park is a large track of state owned property known as State Game Lands Number 57.  This track of game lands is made up of over 45,000 acres and has several streams running through it that hold populations of wild brook trout. The challenge I found is getting access to them. 

On Saturday morning I drove north to Wyoming County and attempted to enter Game Lands 57 from the north. Google Maps makes it easy to find entrances and state roads that head into the forest, what they don’t show is where roads are gated. I drove a few miles into the forest on 4x4 roads and had no issues. About a mile down this road, I ran into a State Game Commission Truck with two officers that were patrolling for spring turkey season. I chatted with them briefly and they explained that the road I was on would only be open for a few more days and would be gated after turkey season ended. I asked them about the streams I was looking to access, specifically South Brook and Opossum Creek. They said that both of these creeks were a long way back and would only be accessible on foot or by bicycle due to a second gated road. I was frustrated. I continued down the road and sure enough, where I wanted to turned left was a shut and locked gate. One truck sat at the small lot in front of the gate, probably a bird watcher, or perhaps someone even crazier than me, wiling to hiking a couple miles on foot to get entrance to a small stream.

When you’re deep in the forest, cell phone signals are usually non-existent. I had no way to search for a back up entrance to access these streams. I drove all the way back the way I came. I drove out of the park and headed towards Forkston, Pennsylvania, hoping to find at least two bars on my cellphone. Eventually I hit a “live” spot and pulled into a small gas station to set my next course of action. I found that there was an additional entrance to the state land to the west, but it would require an additional thirty minutes of drive time. Did I really have a choice? I headed west.

Once I reached the second entrance I followed my GPS to the first left turn that was to take me to the lower reaches of Opossum Creek. Unfortunately I found that this road was also gated and locked. It was turning into one of those days. I looked at my GPS and the map showed the road I was on continuing for another couple of miles and I saw there was an unnamed body of water crossing it. I decided it couldn’t hurt to check it out. As I drove towards this stream, I passed a small stream that paralleled the road for a bit. This water had a bronze tint and appeared to tannic. Water that is tannic is often that color due to decaying vegetation and can also be a sign of acid mine drainage. I was concerned that any water I found might be void of life, but to my surprise, when I arrive at the small bridge crossing, this unnamed body of water appeared to hold clear spring water. I looked upstream through the trees and the water didn’t look very wide. For a second I considered leaving, but I’d come this far, it was only noontime. I rigged up my 8’-4wt G-Loomis Pro-4X with a 9’-6X leader. I put 24” of 6X tippet at the end of the leader and tied on a #16 Psycho Prince Nymph pattern that was purple, had bright flash wrap on the hook and a gold bead head. 

 The view on the blue-line water I found, just above the bridge.

The view on the blue-line water I found, just above the bridge.

I hadn’t made it 25 yards into the woods and I heard a snap. It was one of my Boa laces breaking on my Simms boots. Again, one of those days. I decided to keep on going with a loose right foot. I came across a small pool and thought I saw some fish moving in it. I cast up to the top of the pool and my indicator shot under the surface. I set the hook and brought in a beautiful wild brook trout. This was good news! I continued working my way upstream. Eventually I came across a large pool of water that lay at the bottom of a nice run. After I cast my nymph and let it drift, I saw two good brook trout attack my indicator. I decided I’d give the dry fly action a try and tied on a #14 Red Humpy pattern. On my first cast with the dry fly, a brook trout splashed and took my fly. I reeled him in and marveled at how perfect he was. 

 My first Sullivan County native brook trout.

My first Sullivan County native brook trout.

As I continued upstream I found it difficult to keep the humpy patterns floating as I’d forgot my floatant and didn’t have a mechanism for effectively drying out the flies. I moved back to my nymph rig and caught several more brook trout as I moved up into the mountain. Eventually the stream narrowed as another stream that fed it moved off in another direction.  I continued to catch some very small brook trout but I decided to head back down the mountain as casting became very difficult with an 8’ fly rod.

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When I got back to the road, I headed downstream and started looking for deeper water that I could sneak out and around to approach from downstream. Using this approach I covered another couple of miles of water. I caught a handful of wild brook trout, all on the small Psycho Prince Nymph pattern. The mosquitoes were almost unbearable and I was kicking myself for wearing a short sleeve shirt. Eventually this unnamed body of water dumped into a large stream. This larger body of water looked like it had tea flowing through it. The tannic water looked void of life. I walked the bank for seventy-five yards and couldn’t find signs of bug or fish life. It appeared the stream I’d caught brookies in was essentially trapped in a few mile stretch of clean water. Tired of slapping mosquitoes and looking forward to a cold bottle of water, I started my trek back up through the hollow to find my truck. When I arrived, the sun was setting on a hot and muggy day. I broke down my gear, packed up my truck, drank a bottle of water, and headed back out the bumpy road that’d brought me to this blue-line stream.

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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.