Technical Water & Rusty Spinners on Penns

This past week I decided to make the trip to central Pennsylvania to fly fish Big Fishing Creek for the first time. Big Fishing Creek is a stream I’ve known very little about and it’s a stream I’ve rarely heard much about when talking around campfires with fishing buddies. The only time I hear the name of this stream is when someone is retelling the story of the state record brown trout that Joe Humphreys caught at night in 1977. I’ll admit that the first time I heard that story it made me want to check out the stream (here is that story online).

I decided to access Big Fishing Creek just below the Tylersville state trout hatchery. This section of the creek is known as “The Narrows” and is managed as a trophy trout section of water by the PA Fish & Boat Commission. I arrived at the stream around 9:00am and rigged up my Winston 9’-5wt with a 9-foot leader and 5x tippet. I saw Caddisflies on the water when I arrived and decided to fish a #12 Slate Drake nymph with a #14 Green Caddis dropper. In my research on Big Fishing Creek I had read that the wading is treacherous and was that ever true. I missed getting dunked in the creek several times within the first ten yards of water. I slowly worked my way downstream. In one of the first long flat stretches of water I made the mistake of not taking my time to be stealthy in my approach and I watched two large wild brown trout swim away from their lies. Big Fishing Creek is interesting because the water is diverse and moves from flat pools, to shallow riffles, to deep holes. I was surprised at how deep some of these holes were. It is rare to find such deep water in a stream of that size. It is no wonder that several large brown trout, including Humphrey's 34” brown trout were caught in this creek.

I nymphed the first hundred yards of stream methodically with no luck so I decided to swap my Green Caddis dropper for a Pheasant Tail nymph. At the time I was standing in front of a large tree that was reaching out over the creek. There was a deep cut in front of the tree and I dead drifted my line through the cut. Suddenly I felt something grab my line and I was hooked up. I wasn’t able to see the fish as it stayed close to the bottom. The fish scrambled upstream through a riffle and wrapped my line around a moss-covered rock. As I tried to maintain tension, my line became covered in green moss and soon my line went limp. I was disappointed as I was anxious to catch my first Big Fishing Creek trout. This felt like a decent fish too. A few more yards downstream I again hooked up with a fish, but this time it was small enough that I moved the fish right out of the water when lifting my rod. It was a small 5” brown trout. It wasn’t a trophy, but it was my first Big Fishing Creek wild brown and I was happy to catch and release him.

I fished for another hour, slowly working my way down stream and fishing runs and riffles that looked like they’d hold a large number of wild fish, but to no avail. Eventually I became frustrated, especially as the temperature warmed. Big Fishing Creek is a stream that will test your patience. I don’t know how this stream fishes in the early spring as the mayflies are starting to appear, but fish it in early June and be prepared for some of the most technical fly fishing you can challenge yourself with in Pennsylvania. As a fellow I met later that day said, “If you can catch trout on Big Fishing Creek, you can catch trout anywhere.” With the heat of the day on me, I decided to pull out a sandwich, eat lunch, and head to another stream called Penns Creek.

 A small wild brown trout I caught on a Feathered Hook Pheasant Tail pattern.

A small wild brown trout I caught on a Feathered Hook Pheasant Tail pattern.

After finishing my lunch I drove south to Millheim, past the Elk Creek Café, and on to Coburn. I stopped in at the Feathered Hook and talked to a couple of fishing guides who were in the middle of the afternoon lull. They mentioned that Penns was still fishing phenomenally just below Coburn. I bought a couple of nice Pheasant Tail patterns they had just tied up, wished them best of luck and headed over to Tunnel Road to the lot by the old trestle. I arrived at Penn’s at probably the worst possible time of day to be fishing for trout. The sun was beating down and the air temps were in the mid 80s. I tied on one of the Pheasant Tails I’d bought and walked above the trestle to fish the run above the bridge. On my first cast I caught a small wild brown trout and two casts later I hooked into a 14” rainbow that gave me a good fight on the 5wt.  The rest of the afternoon I hiked downstream almost 500 yards to scout some water I’d never laid eyes on before. I saw very few fish on my walk and I’m sure most of them were under rocks or in the shade of the foliage on the banks.

 One of the rising trout I fooled with a Rusty Spinner on Penns Creek.

One of the rising trout I fooled with a Rusty Spinner on Penns Creek.

After a long walk back on the trail to the trestle I decided to walk upstream to fish a riffled I’d seen upstream. At this point it was late afternoon and I figured it was worth a shot to stick around and see what kind of hatch the evening would present. As I walked upstream, I noticed some fish rising in the distance. I crept upstream until I was within 20 yards of these rising fish. I was surprised to find over a half-dozen trout consistently swiping at something on the surface. There would be a rainbow, then a brown, and they went on and on. I watched the water and I could only see two bugs on the water, a spent wing black midge and the tiniest hatching BWO’s I think I’ve ever seen. I dug through my dry fly box and I didn’t come close to having a BWO dun of that size. It was close to a #20. I tied on a #16 BWO and drifted it over the trout with no success. After almost an hour of tying on different flys, the number of fish rising had increased to over a dozen. If I casted my line upstream, I was drifting a fly over a fish. It is amazing how many fish Penns holds. Finally I decided to try a rusty spinner, as I’ve heard many veteran fly fishermen say that when you see trout rising late and you can’t tell what they are taking, tie on a rusty spinner. On my first drift, bang, I was hooked up with a beautiful wild brown trout. Then several casts later another, and then another. I finally keyed in on something they would take. I quickly caught a half-dozen fish—all were in the 12”-14” range. I had a blast as I shared the stream with two older gentlemen who had cabins on the other side of the stream. I eventually decided to call it a night and left the water while the fish were rising. I figured I'd let the veterans enjoy that moment. It didn’t help that I was getting cold due to a small leak in my Patagonia waders. That’s another story in itself. Until the next time, I’ll miss Penns Creek.

 A beautifully marked Penns Creek wild brown trout that rose to a Rusty Spinner.

A beautifully marked Penns Creek wild brown trout that rose to a Rusty Spinner.