New Water: Little Schuylkill River

Lately I’ve fallen into a predictable routine of fishing the same few limestone creeks that are the closest to me.  These streams only have a limited amount of public water, so I end up fishing the same runs and pools time and time again.  Sure my methods might change from time to time depending on hatches (or lack thereof), water clarity, water level, etc.  But overall, my fishing had become stagnant.  I wasn’t advancing as a fly fisherman.  I wasn’t reading new water, identifying unfamiliar aquatic insects, placing myself in new/uncomfortable casting positions or simply enjoying some new scenery.  Hence the birth of my “New Water” series.  The New Water series is designed to push me to explore unfamiliar streams in unfamiliar parts of the state, outside of my home stream comfort zones.

Over the holiday, I was able to get out and wet a line in some new water: the Little Schuylkill River.  schuylkill countyThe Little Schuylkill is a picturesque stream located in Schuylkill County, that averages about 30-40 feet in width (at least in the DHALO Section).  It begins in the lower Pocono mountains around the town of Tamaqua and flows for about 25 miles before joining the Schuylkill River below Port Clinton.  This region of the state was once an epicenter for coal mining.  And like many streams in the area, the Little Schuylkill suffered tremendously from the ill effects of the mining industry.  Silt, and acid runoff polluted its waters and decimated the stream.  In the 1960’s, a stream survey showed that the Little Schuylkill was completely devoid of aquatic life.  Thanks to the dedicated efforts of outdoor enthusiasts, conservationists and concerned citizens, sixty years later the Little Schuylkill is once again full of life.  The stream boast a healthy population of both wild and stocked trout, a steady supply of caddis flies, otters, minks, blue herons and supposedly harbors some bald eagles as well.

Early in the morning on July 4th, I loaded up my waders, fly rods, and chest pack, grabbed a cup of coffee and headed up to Schuylkill County.  I originally planned on fishing just above Port Clinton, as I had driven by the parking lot for this area dozens of times before.  However, when I got there, the parking lot was full.  So, I decided to continue to drive upstream until I found an access that was less crowded.  Eventually I reached the Delayed Harvest section of the water around 8:45 a.m.  To my surprise there was not another soul in the parking lot, despite it being a holiday.

Apparently, that area had gotten a fair of amount of recent rain because the ruts and holes in the gravel parking lot were full of off colored rain water.  Before putting on my waders and rigging up, I took a walk down the water’s edge just to take a look.  The water level was slightly above normal, with just a hint of murkiness.  Clear enough to see the bottom in three feet of water, but skewed enough to make the finer details invisible.  There was a small island to the right of where I was standing, blocking my view of the upstream landscape.  After putting on my waders and rigging my 9 ft. 5 wt. St. Croix Rio Santo, I made my way around the island via the near bank.  When I rounded the tip of the island, I found a long, deep, fast moving run that extended upstream for about 40 yards where it met a set of shallow rapids.  On the far side of the rapids, was another long, deep, fast moving, picture perfect run that had my mind racing about the number of trout contained therein.  IMAG0094Initially, I had a size 16 tan deer hair caddis tied on, but upon seeing the deep runs, I decided to tight line my way upstream and switched to a tandem nymph set-up with a size 14 hare’s ear on top and a size 16 caddis larva dropped off the bend.

The fast moving, broken water combined with the tinged water clarity allowed me to stand fairly close to the runs without spooking the fish.  On the second cast, I brought a 12 inch rainbow to net.  As I slowly worked my way through the first run, the fishing got better.  By the time I got to the end of the first run I had already netted 10 trout, about half of which were wild browns, and I probably lost just as many.  The second run provide to be almost as fruitful as I netted more browns, all between 10 and 15 inches.

By 11:45 a.m. I was getting ready to call it a day.  While I would have loved to stay and fish till dark, I unfortunately did not have that luxury.  As I was walking back downstream, I decided to make a few more casts into the tail end of the first run.  At that point the Little Schuylkill offered up her finest treasure of the day, a stunning wild brown with some spectacular coloration. IMAG0137

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With this royal farewell, I made my way back to the truck, whistling Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and wondering what new piece of water I’ll explore next.

Happy Birthday America.

 

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The Truth Behind Catch and Release Fishing

In my eyes, I consider the majority of outdoorsmen and women as conservationists by default.  Regardless of whether you are an avid hunter, angler, hiker or camper, you have a genuine interest in making sure that the resources necessary to pursue your passion (whether that be fish, game or large tracts of forest or water) are protected and preserved so that you and others may enjoy them for years to come.  Pretty simple logic.

Accordingly, many anglers, including myself, frequently practice catch and release.  However, there is a proper way to catch and release a fish (trout in particular).  When not practiced properly, the mortality rate of caught trout increases dramatically.  A day of poorly practiced catch and release can do more harm to a stream’s fish population than a day of catch and keep fishing.  Hopefully this article will provide some useful information on C & R fishing.

Use barbless hooks.  Using barbless hooks or pinching your barb decreases the harm done to the fish and makes the hook easier to remove, thus causing less stress to the fish.

Know how to properly play a fish.  If you play a fish for too long, you will subject that fish to a dangerous level of stress.  Land the fish as quickly as possible.  If you can control the fish’s head, you are in control of the fight.

IMAG0141 (1)When landing the fish, don’t drag the fish up onto the bank.  Use a landing net.  Fish (especially trout) have very fragile skeletal structures and can severely damage themselves when flopping on rocks or a hard bank. Using a landing net prevents this.

Wet your hands before touching the fish.  Fish have a protective film (slime) that covers their body.  While it may seem strange, this slime aids their immune system.  By not wetting your hands before handling the fish, you are removing large amounts of this slime and making the fish more susceptible to harmful disease and infection.

Don’t keep the fish out of the water for very long.  We all like to take pictures of the fish we catch.  But make sure you don’t keep the fish out of the water for more than 10 to 15 seconds when taking the photos.  If you don’t get the right shot in those 10 to 15 seconds, simply place the fish back in your landing net and let the fish relax in the water for a while before the next photo shoot.  And when taking the photos, make sure you hold the fish over the water, so in the event that the fish wriggles out of your hands, it will fall into the water rather than onto the bank.

IMG_20160624_185446Revive the fish before releasing it.  Don’t just dump the fish back into the water.  Gently grab the fish by the tail and point it upstream so that water is running over and through its gills.  This may take anywhere from 20 seconds to a few minutes.  My method is to give the tail a gentle squeeze.  If the fish is sufficiently revived, it will swim off when it feels the squeeze.  If not, I know the fish needs to be further revived.

Nobody practices perfect catch and release 100% of the time.  I certainly include myself in this.  However, as anglers who enjoy the sport of catching fish, we can all benefit by making a conscious effort to implement these procedures into our release routine so that we can increase the survival rate of released fish and return to catch them time and time again.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

Every fisherman has their favorite waters.  For some it’s a lake, for others it is a river and for people like me it is usually a small countryside or mountain stream.  Those waters become favorites for varying reasons, but typically there is a correlation to the amount of fish caught in those waters.  On the flip side, most anglers also have a list of places where they have had little or no success and as a result rarely fish those locations.  I am no different.  Up until recently I considered Saucon creek to be my arch nemesis.

Saucon creek is a small limestone stream with a thriving wild brown trout population that runs through Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley before dumping into the Lehigh River.  Saucon creek is also one of the few wild trout streams within a half hour drive for me.  So when I was first getting really serious about fly fishing a number of years ago, I naturally spent a lot of time trying to cut my teeth on Saucon creek.  However, Saucon creek seemed unwilling to share her trout-bounty with me.

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I cannot tell you how many days I spent on that creek without catching a single trout.  Sure, I hooked up on a few, but as soon as a trickle of hope entered my thoughts, the trout would spit the hook and leave me in a state of disbelief.  Eventually, I gave up on Saucon creek entirely and searched for trout in other area streams.  I reasoned to believe that the fish in Saucon creek were simply took picky.  But if I’m being honest, the truth was my fly fishing skillset was subpar and I was humbly outmatched.  Back then (in the “not so” good o’le days), I had no idea what a dry dropper or tandem rig was.  Didn’t know how to match the hatch.  Had no idea what the difference between a caddis and a midge was.  And I thought a terrestrial was a character from the movie Alien.  About the only thing I knew was that dry flies float on the surface and nymphs are fished under the surface (I was also convinced that streamers were party favors and every used fly was a wet fly).  Looking back, it’s really not surprising that my constant efforts of throwing a pheasant tail 16 inches underneath a pinch on indicator with no regard for the water depth didn’t produce fish.

Fast forward three years (or maybe four), my fly fishing IQ and skillset have improved.  How much they improved is up for debate, but nonetheless, there has been a least a scintilla of improvement.  As such, I recently decided to once again square off against my old rival Saucon creek on a cool, windy November afternoon.  The first 30 minutes started off the same – no fish.  But after making some on stream adjustments to get my flies down to the right depth, I finally broke the curse!

saucon-brown

It definitely wasn’t a wall-hanger, but to me it was a trophy.  I finally cracked the curse of Saucon creek.  All in all it turned out to be a very pleasant day of fall fishing.  I managed five small browns that day.

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What a relief.  With all that said, the moral of the story is this: If at first you don’t succeed….fish a bunch of stocked trout streams until you figure out what the hell you are doing!

Enjoy the day,

-Robert Fravel

The Tragic Tale of Pennsylvania’s Eastern Brook Trout

Few animals resonate with Pennsylvanians the way the brook trout does.  It is our state fish.  It is also an iconic image of the mountain streams of central and northern Pennsylvania that exemplifies the wild spirit of Appalachia.  However, Pennsylvania’s once vibrant population of America’s southernmost Artic Char species is rapidly declining.

Once upon a time, brook trout were abundant in streams throughout the Commonwealth.  Brook trout are only able to survive in the coldest and cleanest of streams and rivers, and as such their presence is used as an indicator of a watershed’s quality.  Nowadays their population range has largely been reduced to small pockets within the state’s most remote and rugged areas.  The reasons for this decline are plentiful.

brook-trout-map

  1. Acid Mine Drainage

Acid Mine Drainage or AMD, is defined as the overflow of acidic waters from abandoned mines (Websters Dictionary).  AMD can originate from many mining practices, but in Pennsylvania AMD primarily comes from coal mining practices.  AMD is Pennsylvania’s largest non-point water source pollutant.  AMD from abandoned mines has negatively impacted over 3,000 miles of Pennsylvania streams, and is thus taking an enormous toll on the brook trout population.[1]  The remaining side-effects of over 100 years of rampant coal mining are the leading cause of brook trout decline.

  1. Habitat loss and land development

Just like any other animal species, habitat loss due to land development significantly impacts brook trout population.  Unlike hardier warm-water species like smallmouth bass, trout need clean, cold water to survive.  When the land along a trout stream is cleared for development or turned into a grazing pasture, the riparian buffer (a vegetative area along a stream that keeps the stream shaded and protects it from adjacent uses) is destroyed.  Without the riparian buffer, the water warms much quicker in the summer months resulting in higher trout mortality rate.  Additionally, without the riparian buffer in rural areas, grazing farm animals are allowed to roam through the stream thus creating further pollution and bacteria.

  1. Stocking of hatchery in streams where a wild brook population exists.

Many Pennsylvania anglers have become accustom to fishing for stocked trout during spring (and sometimes during the fall as well).  Pennsylvania’s yearly trout opener is a time honored tradition for many keystone families, and a day that many people look forward to every year.  I, for one, have been out fishing for stocked fish on opening day on many occasions with my father.  Preserving the tradition and sport of trout fishing in Pennsylvania is very important, and I believe that the PFBC stocking program does a good job keeping those traditions alive.  However, when streams that have a population of wild brook trout are stocked with their non-native cousins, the brook trout population gets hammered.  The main reason is because more trout in the stream equals increased competition for food.  And with the stocked fish typically being larger than the native brook trout, they will win that competition majority of the time.

For me, the thrill of finding and catching a native Pennsylvania brookie on a fly is something that I greatly enjoy and something that I hope future generations will enjoy as well.  However, I fear that without significant change in the future, this iconic Pennsylvania species will be rendered to a fond memory of distant times past.

 

-Robert Fravel

[1] https://www.bucknell.edu/Documents/EnvironmentalStudies/Acid_Mine_Drainage%5B.pdf