A Life Lesson Learned on Penns Creek
By Robert Fravel
There are few streams east of the Mississippi that compare to Penns Creek in central Pennsylvania. Penns Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River is a large limestone stream with many free stone characteristics…and an insane amount of wild trout per mile. Recent studies have indicated that parts of Penns Creek hold upwards of 2,500 stream bred trout per mile! In addition to the physical characteristics, “the Penns” is also a stream steeped in mystery, tradition and local lore. Penns Creek runs through the “seven mountains” region of the keystone state, a remote and rugged mountainous area teeming with local legends of old Indian burial sites and hidden treasures stashed in secret caves by outlaws from the early 1800’s. If that isn’t enough to draw you to the banks of Penns Creek, then rumors of monster 28 inch wild brown trout should do the trick. It certainly did for me, however Penns Creek made sure to put me in my place during my time there.
This past weekend, a good friend and I decided to head out to the mountains of Centre County for three days of October fly fishing on Penns Creek. We camped at Poe Paddy State Park, which is a small state park located on the banks of Penns Creek and surrounded by 193,000 acres of uninhabited wilderness known as Bald Eagle State Forest.
We arrived on a rainy Saturday afternoon and were staying until Monday afternoon. The plan was to fish as much as we could, and every once in a while try to squeeze in some food and a little shut-eye. After arriving, we quickly set up camp, hoped into our waders and hit the stream. We had about 2 hours of light left. After pulling up a few suckers from a pool near the camp, we worked our way around to a pool about a ¼ mile below our campsite where some fish were rising. Both of us tied on a #16 green caddis pattern and that seemed to be the right choice. We each had a number of hits and brief hook-ups and eventually we netted a couple trout – one small brown and a decent brook.
Once the last bits of light began fading from the evening sky we made our way back to camp, reliving the exciting night of fishing we just experienced and dreaming about all the trout we will surely catch tomorrow with a full day’s worth of fishing…..we could not have been more wrong.
By 5:45 a.m. the next morning, breakfast was on and coffee was brewing over the fire. Following a few cups of coffee, hot dogs and tippet changes, we headed upstream at first light. There were plenty of fish rising in the first pool, but nothing taking our flies. After each fly change, our spirits once again filled with hope – but that hope was shortly squandered by the fickle nature of Penns Creek. We fished upstream for miles with nothing to show for it. We switched from dry flies to nymphs to streamers and back to dry flies with no luck.
Finally, around 1:00 p.m. my fishing partner Tim, landed a small brown trout on a caddis larvae nymph. That brown would be the only trout caught that day…and the remainder of the trip.
On the final day I desperately fished terrestrials hoping that ants and beetles were still hanging on to the final shreds of warm weather. The terrestrial patterns certainly interested the trout, as I had numerous last second refusals, but the story was still the same – no trout.
As we packed up camp Monday afternoon, I couldn’t help feeling rather disappointed. After three days of fishing what many anglers consider to be the best trout stream in the eastern United States, we only managed 3 trout?! How is that possible!? But as we made the drive back home, both of us exhausted from long days on the water, I began to reflect on the past few days and realized that there was really nothing to be disappointed about. I just spent the last three days camping and fishing with a life-long friend in one of the most scenic parts of the state. I didn’t have to worry about work, money, deadlines or bills – the only thing that I had to worry about was choosing my next fly. I lived the dream for those 3 days. Did we catch as many trout as we would have liked? Certainly not. But that simply means we will have to come back and try to unlock the secrets of Penns Creek another time. While the mighty Penns Creek did not provide us with large quantities of trout, she did provide us with something else – a life experience that neither one of us will soon forget. And that is more valuable than any fish.
“Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”
~ Henry David Thoreau