Searching for Wild Trout on the Gunpowder

On Saturday morning for the first time in a long time I drove south to fly fish. I headed to one of Trout Unlimited’s Top 100 Streams in America, the Gunpowder Falls River (“Gunpowder”), located in eastern Maryland. The Gunpowder Falls River is a tributary to the Gunpowder River, which eventually flows into the Chesapeake Bay. The Gunpowder is a tail water of the Prettyboy Reservoir and the water stays cool year around because of the bottom dam gate water release. The cool water temperatures make it the perfect environment for trout. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website, many years ago their fisheries biologists populated the river with brown and rainbow trout using fertilized eggs and fingerlings. In the years that followed, these trout flourished and began naturally reproducing and the stream can now be called a wild trout stream that receives no ongoing stocking in the first seven miles below the dam. This area is designated as special regulations, catch and release fishing with artificial lures only. In the fly fishing community the Gunpowder Falls River is also well known because it is the water that legendary fly fisherman Lefty Kreh grew up fly fishing. To this day I believe he only lives a few minutes from the river.

 Looking upriver just below the Falls Road Bridge.

Looking upriver just below the Falls Road Bridge.

Having never fished the Gunpowder before, I had to do some research online to determine access points. A majority of the upper portions of the Gunpowder flow through the Gunpowder Falls State Park property. There are a handful of bridges that cross the river and these are the primary access points. If you decide to head to the Gunpowder, the bridges you want to look at starting upstream and heading down are Falls Road, Masemore Road, and York Road. I decided to head to the Falls Road Bridge and explore the water directly below the dam first.  I arrived at the Falls Road Bridge around 9:00am. There is only room for one or two cars at this access point. I got geared up with my Winston 9’-5wt and decided I’d use a 9-foot leader with 6X tippet. I tied on the winter combo that has been bringing fish to hand for me, the Hare’s Ear Nymph and the Black Zebra Midge. When I got down to the water I found that the south side of the stream has a well-used hiking/backpacking trail. I started just above the large steel bridge. The views on the river are incredible. Steep wooded hills covered with rhododendrons and mountain laurel surround you. The water on the Gunpowder was clear with green pockets in the deeper areas. On my first couple of casts I learned lesson one on the Gunpowder, it has become a victim of Didymo, also known as “rock snot.” If you know anything about this invasive algae’s growth, it is most prevalent during the winter months. I was hitting the Gunpowder just in time! Nymphing in rivers where Didymo covers the rocks is frustrating because almost every cast requires cleaning your flies and line. After several casts I pulled on my rod thinking I was stuck on another Didymo covered rock, only to find I’d hooked into a wild brown trout. And just as quickly as I hooked him, he was off my line.

 Closer to the dam, the Gunpowder narrows and is strewn with large boulders.

Closer to the dam, the Gunpowder narrows and is strewn with large boulders.

Over the next couple of hours I worked my way upriver. The further you move upriver, the narrower the Gunpowder gets. Large boulders start to define the edges of the river. The river becomes a collection of deep runs, pools, and occasional shallow riffles. On two occasions I had brown trout unexpectedly take my nymph for a short hook-up, only to get off. I certainly spooked more wild fish than I hooked up with. I was surprised at the number of wild fish I saw as I explored. The water depth is such that it can hold some large wild trout and I’m sure there are a few in there. As I got closer to the base of the dam, I decided to turn back and head downriver. Some of the hiking to move upriver is what I’d grade as moderate. If you follow the hiking path there are some steep areas to climb, jump over boulders, and with wet ground it can be somewhat dangerous.

 The monument to Lefty Kreh at the Masemore Bridge parking lot.

The monument to Lefty Kreh at the Masemore Bridge parking lot.

I headed downstream having yet to land my first Gunpowder wild trout. When I got back to the bridge I decided I take my truck to get down to the Masmore Road Bridge. At the Masemore Bridge there is a large parking lot and nice memorial to Lefty Kreh. The river takes on a much different look here. It is wider, with long areas of deep flat water, occasionally broken up with very nice runs and riffles. It was lunchtime at this point and the warmer January temps had a few fishermen out. I walked down stream to find some open riffle water. In the first riffle I drifted my flies through and wham, I had a brown trout aggressively take the Hare’s Ear. I fought him for a short time and landed my first Gunpowder trout, an 8-inch wild brown.

 My first Gunpowder wild trout.

My first Gunpowder wild trout.

I spent the next three hours walking close to two miles downriver. I didn’t visually see as many trout as I’d seen upriver closer to the dam, but I’m sure they were in there. Some of the longer flat stretches had me thinking that in the spring the dry fly fishing is probably great. I nymphed every fishable area hard and was unable to hook up. I tried many different fly combinations to no avail. Eventually I headed back to the lot and before leaving decided to walk upriver a couple hundred yards. On my trip up I hooked into and landed a small wild rainbow trout. Apparently the natural rainbow reproduction is there but only makes up 2-3% of the entire trout population.

 The small wild rainbow I caught.

The small wild rainbow I caught.

As the day got later I decided I head down to the last bridge access at York Road. Hiking into this area you are greeted by the giant cement columns of the Rt. 83 bridges. It is quite a site to see over the water. Above the bridge is some beautiful water.

 The Rt. 83 bridges ominously rising above the Gunpowder Falls River.

The Rt. 83 bridges ominously rising above the Gunpowder Falls River.

In the last half hour of daylight as I watched a large herd of whitetail deer bound away, I hooked into another beautiful wild brown trout. He took a small micro-egg pattern that was swung. I saw quite a good number of fish in the slow water in this part of the Gunpowder, again, another spot that must be spectacular in the warmer months as the mayflies are hatching. It started to get too dark to see and I started my hike out. As I crossed the river one last time, I was thinking that a day spent catching two or three small wild trout is sometimes more rewarding than a day full of catching hefty stocked fish. And I was sure Lefty Kreh had reached the same conclusion.

 The wild brown I caught on a micro-egg pattern above the Rt. 83 bridges.

The wild brown I caught on a micro-egg pattern above the Rt. 83 bridges.