I like adventure. I like fly fishing. I like to explore new bodies of water, small towns, states I’ve never visited. I like driving in the middle of the night to some destination I’ve never been to. Ironically, with all the exciting experiences I’ve pursued, there are still places close to home I know little about. One of these places is the Donegal Creek in western Lancaster County. I grew up in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, and the Donegal Creek was just a short drive from my home. Friends and I would frequently fishing the all tackle water off of Rt. 772 during the spring trout season, dunking worms or PowerBait® on spin rods. We would often walk down to the boundary where the fly fishing only section of the stream started and that’s where we’d end our day. For years I’ve known there was a fly fishing only section on the Donegal Creek. I’d met many fishermen who’d tell me about it, I had friends that would fish it regularly, but I never visited. That is until May 29th, 2017 on Memorial Day. My friend Jon Fuddy has been learning how to fly fish and the Donegal Creek has been one of his classrooms. He’s been tying fly patterns for the first time and testing them out there. In April I received a text from Jon telling me he’d caught his first 20” trout. A rainbow that he’d caught back in the pasture.
After arriving home from New York on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I thought about the Donegal. I sent Jon a text and asked him if he wanted to meet me there the following day and give me a tour of the creek. The Donegal Creek originates upstream at the Donegal Springs. Here the creek is a classic limestone and as it flows towards the Susquehanna River the water maintains some limestone characteristics but feels more like a freestone stream.
I met Jon along a farm field off of Donegal Creek road. We met just after lunchtime and the air temps were in the mid 70s. We got geared up, rigged our 9’-5wt fly rods and I followed Jon along the farm field and down to the creek. Jon explained to me that this section of the creek held stocked fish that were scattered throughout but that he prefers to hike in to reach less pressured water. We ventured on. I followed Jon across the creek, along a large farm field that a farmer graciously allows fishermen to access, and then back across the creek again. I was surprised how far we were walking and how even though I was close to home, I suddenly felt like I was truly on an adventure. Eventually Jon found a small opening in the woods that lined the creek and we ducked under the heavy tree canopy. We found ourselves standing next to a long deep still section of water.
The water had that classic green limestone cloudiness to it. Jon explained that he’d fished this section and been very successful in the past and he offered me the chance to fish it first. With the cloudiness of the water I decided to fish a bright pink Squirmy Wormy first. I dropped it off of a Quasimodo Pheasant Tail Nymph and floated both under an indicator. The water was slow but without weight on the line, my nymphs did slowly drift downstream. During the first couple of casts, I could tell a fish was grabbing the ends of my Squirmy Wormy and running with it. I wrote it off as a chub.
On my next cast, just as I was about to pull my line in, I felt a tug. I set the hook and then my line went limp. I waited and started to pull my line in again and then my indicator suddenly shot under the water. I set the hook and I had a fish on. I thought I had a standard stocky but then the fish started to really fight and bent the Orvis Recon. As I made gains on the fish I finally saw it up close and I was surprised at the size of the brown trout on the end of my line. I fought this fish for a couple of minutes and was finally able to land him in my net. Wow, what a way to get introduced to the Donegal Creek. It was an honor to catch this fish. There is still a debate as to whether this fish was wild or stocked.
After releasing the big brown trout, I caught a couple of smaller rainbows before Jon stopped over and asked if I wanted to explore upstream. I followed Jon deeper into the woods. We walked down a small trail, dodging burn hazel and trying to keep our rods from getting stuck in the foliage. Eventually we worked our way to the back of a small house that butted up against the creek. Jon explained that he’d met the fella that lived there and that he fished the creek quite often. He was sort of the patriarch of Donegal Creek. Just above the house was a beautiful run and pool that looked like it would hold fish. Jon explained that he’d caught quite a few fish here and gave me the first opportunity to cast into the water. After hooking up and landing my fifth good fighting rainbow trout out of the hole, I thanked Jon. The fish here were healthy and had beautiful fins. Perhaps they were holdovers.
Jon and I spent the rest of the afternoon working our way upstream, fishing every run and hole that looked liked it would hold a fish. Most times, the fish were there. Before the sun set, we walked back to our vehicles and drove over to the Rt. 772 access. We walked the fence, along the cow pasture with the big bulls in it and worked our way through high weeds and grass to the fly fishing only boundary. There we found Sulphur Dun mayflies laying eggs in a riffle. Each fly had a round egg sack at the end of its thorax. At one point Jon and I had to climb over an electric fence to keep moving downstream. It was a dicey climb but made the adventure even greater. As we got downstream we heard a familiar voice and saw Jon’s fraternal twin brother Matt making his way across the field. We laughed as he attempted to jump the electric fence with rod in hand. We fished downstream for thirty minutes or so and caught several more rainbows and brown trout. The number of fish holding in this water is amazing but few people venture through the brush to find them.
Before it got dark, we hiked our way back to the all tackle section along Rt. 772. There were found a school of small brown trout feeding on emerging Sulphur Dun mayflies. Matt and Jon tied on Sulphur parachute patterns and began catching one after another. For a moment it felt like we were back in high school. And as the light faded I realized that sometimes adventure is right in our backyard, you just have to look for it.