Eating Humble Pie on Penns Creek

Fly fishing is a pursuit that provides endless opportunities to learn. You can learn about the subtleties of the way a fly rod moves, the lifecycle of mayflies, the feeding habits of fish, and characteristics of a body of water. Just when you think you’ve figured it all out, you discover a new layer to peel back. And so it was for me this past weekend on Penns Creek (“Penns”) when this amazing trout fishery served me a big piece of humble pie. This wasn’t the first time Penns Creek served me. I still remember my first several visits to Penns Creek during my time at Penn State. I remember hearing about how amazing the trout fishing was, how large the brown trout were, and how prolific the hatches could be. On my first three trips, I didn’t catch a fish, let alone hook up with one. Penns has a funny way of either giving you the greatest day on the water, or grounding you and reminding you that even the most experienced fly fisherman can’t tame it.

Late last week the weather forecast was calling for above average temps for February over the weekend. I think this got the attention of all fly fishermen here on the east coast. I had already planned a dinner date on Saturday evening in State College so I decided I’d fish Penns for a short time Saturday morning and all day Sunday. Because I was up late Friday night tying nymphs I decided to sleep in Saturday morning. I hit the road around 8:30am and arrived in Coburn around 11:00am. Before heading out to fish I stopped in at the Feathered Hook Fly Shop to grab a couple of flies. I said hello to Jonas and he gave me a giant hug before I left which made my day. And in case you were wondering, hugs at the Feathered Hook are free. I decided I’d start my fishing in the section of Penn’s that parallels Tunnel Road.

 Looking upstream on Penns Creek along Tunnel Road.

Looking upstream on Penns Creek along Tunnel Road.

I spotted some familiar riffle water and pulled off to park. I rigged my 5wt Winston with a 5X fluorocarbon leader and tippet to my first fly. I fished a #10 Golden Stone Fly and tied a #14 Light Hare’s Ear Nymph off the hook bend. I had rubber legs tied into both patterns. The flows on Penns were good and just slightly below average, flowing around 325CFS. The water had a little color with a green tint to it and looked incredible. I thought I was in for a few hours of spectacular fly fishing. On my third drift through the riffle I hooked into a nice brown trout and as I fought him, he launched out of the water with my stonefly falling out of his mouth. And like that, he was gone. On my next cast I again hooked up with a fish and this time the hook set was solid and I landed a beautiful wild brown trout that measured around 10”. I was telling myself this is going to be easy. Then as has happened so many times in the past, Penns Creek taught me a lesson. I fished hard for the next four hours, covering a lot of water and only hooking up once to another fish that threw my hook.

 The only wild brown trout Penns Creek would give to me over the weekend.

The only wild brown trout Penns Creek would give to me over the weekend.

By 3:30pm I had to head out to State College but I knew I had Sunday morning to make up for lost fish. After spending the night in Lamar, I was up before first light on Sunday morning and heading to the section of Penns Creek that winds through Poe Paddy State Park. While the sun rose to warm the mountaintops, the roads and lower valleys were chilly and the stone roads leading to Poe Paddy were still covered in ice. It made for some adventurous driving. When I arrived at Poe Paddy I decided to park down at the trailhead to the tunnel. When I got there I was surprised to find a couple of cars already parked there. You have to get up pretty early to beat the locals to the water on Penns! I walked down to the bridge. This was the first time I’d seen the old train bridge since it was refinished. They did an amazing job. Rather than cross the creek, I decided to head downstream and fish the riffle water below the bridge.

 The refinished bridge that leads to the famous tunnel on Penns Creek.

The refinished bridge that leads to the famous tunnel on Penns Creek.

 Looking upstream while standing on the refinished bridge.

Looking upstream while standing on the refinished bridge.

The challenge you have with these out of the blue warm days in winter is that the air temps will warm quickly, but it doesn’t equal an immediate rise in the water temperatures. I the water temps I took were in the mid 40s. I spent a solid three hours working riffle water all the way down to the parking lot at the campground. During that time I got stuck on the bottom close to one hundred times and only moved two fish, both of which I lost. Both fish were in the slow and deep water and right on the bottom. When you know the fish aren’t cooperating and you have so few opportunities, it is really frustrating to hook up and then lose the fish. By the time I reached the lot it was lunchtime and the sun was shining bright. The air temps were in the mid 50s and it felt good to sit down and take it in. After I finished a sandwich I walked up the trail back to the bridge and walked through the newly finished Penns Creek tunnel.

 The refinished tunnel entrance on the other side of Penns Creek.

The refinished tunnel entrance on the other side of Penns Creek.

The state did a beautiful job. I walked down the trail and eventually turned and walked down the hill to the long stretch of flat water. I made my way to the end of that stretch where the riffle water starts. When I arrived I discovered that this was where most of the other fisherman had decided to come as well. I spent another three hours fishing the runs and riffles and made it another three hundred yards downstream before stopping. I couldn’t find a fish to save my life. The warm temperatures did have some limited bug activity happening. I observed a few tan caddis flying around, but not many. Eventually I lost my patience, which takes a long time, and I decided that I’d eat that slice of humble pie Penns was serving. It never tastes good going down but it’s part of fly fishing. As I headed back up the trail, I was thankful to be fishing in unseasonably warm temperatures in February, but I couldn’t help but think of fast forwarding a month or two to the conditions that March and April will bring. While walking through the tunnel and listening to my wading boots echo off the walls, I decided that I’d be back to Penns Creek.