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.

The Fly Fisherman’s Winter Trout Survival Guide

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The Fly Fisherman’s Winter Trout Survival Guide

By Robert Fravel

Here in the northeast, winters can be downright brutal.  With blizzards and sub-freezing temperatures lasting well into April.  Once the calendar changes from November to December, a lot of fly fisherman begin what they call “tying season” and don’t hit the water again until spring.  But for those of us willing (or crazy enough) to brave the cold, the rewards of winter fishing can be immensely satisfying.  Fly fishing in the winter presents a unique set of challenges, but following this advice will help you overcome those challenges.

Narrow your fly selection.

In winter, there really are no prolific hatches, so it is unnecessary to bring fly boxes containing 50-75 different patterns.  Keep it simple.  Do your homework on the waters you plan to fish. Find out what trout feed on during the colder months and limit your fly selection to those food sources.  Here in eastern Pennsylvania, I will typically use some combination of five different patterns during the winter.

Nymphs:

  • Zebra midge, size 18-22
  • BH pheasant tail, size 14-18
  • Scuds, size 12-18

Dries:

  • Griffith’s gnat, size 16-22
  • Parachute adams, size 14-20

Use fine tippet and keep a low profile.

During the winter, my initial setup on my home waters is typically a tandem nymph rig fished under an indicator.  Since water levels are generally low and the water clear, I will use 6x or 7x tippet on my setup.  I absolutely hate big bulky, football-looking indicators.  Sure you can adjust the depth of your flies with ease, but they also spook 90% of the trout in the stream.  I prefer to take a foam, pinch-on indicator, cut it in half with my pocket knife and then take that half and fold it around my tippet.  I find that this method spooks far less fish and is still buoyant enough to support my flies.

Be persistent and thorough.

Trout are sluggish during the colder months.  They are less likely to chase flies this time of year.  As a result, you literally have to put your fly on top of their nose.  In order to increase your chances of this, you need to thoroughly cover every area that looks like it holds fish.  This could mean making 15 to 20 drifts through an area.  Make the effort and you will be rewarded.

Apply cooking spray.

imag0167-1 Yes, you read that correctly.  If you are fishing in below freezing temps, ice will start to clog up the eyes on your fly rod.  In order to combat this, spray your rod eyes with cooking spray before rigging up.  This will prevent the ice from forming for at least an hour or two.  If you do not have any cooking spray handy, you can also try using WD-40.

Bring a thermos full of hot liquid and something to start a fire with.

Obviously, any time you are wading into a body of water there is some degree of risk involved.  That degree of risk is exacerbated when you are in a remote location and/or in low temperatures.  In my opinion, fishing in the winter time is more dangerous than any other time of year due to the risk of hypothermia.  If you slip and fall into the water, you are in serious trouble.  During the winter months here in Pennsylvania, temperatures can frequently fall into the teens and occasionally even single digits.  If I took a spill and managed to get the clothing underneath my waders wet, I could become hypothermic within minutes.  Carrying a thermos full of hot coffee or tea is a great way to help raise your core temp and having a lighter, matches or another way to start a fire could potentially save your life.

Lower your expectations.

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As I mentioned earlier, trout are sluggish during the winter months and there are no dazzling hatches like the spring and summer.  Don’t expect to see dozens of trout rising to pick bugs off the surface.  Set your expectations accordingly.  In the colder months, I approach a day of fly fishing with the expectation of catching one fish.  That way, if I manage to net three or four trout, I feel like a fly fishing guru.

Enjoy the serenity.

In my opinion, the best part about winter fly fishing is the lack of other people.  Fishing a mountain stream surrounded by a valley blanketed in freshly fallen snow, without another soul in sight is something that cannot be replicated through pictures or words.  Go out and experience what the great outdoors has to offer.  And while you are out there, take some time to absorb your surroundings and cherish the moment.  You just might find yourself searching for that wild sense of unbridled adventure, rather than fish.

 

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!

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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.

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  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

Tips and Tactics for Fall Trout

By Robert Fravel

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Once the mild weather of September passes, many Keystone anglers will exchange their fly rod for a bow or shotgun, and stash the fly rod in the basement where it will collect dust until next year’s trout opener.  But just because the weather has cooled off, and the hatches have died down does not mean that the trout fishing has slowed.  In fact, quite the opposite is true. Fall is my favorite time of year to pursue trout.  It is the time of year where you have the opportunity to land some big fish, and most of the time you will have the stream to yourself!  However, fly fishing for trout in the fall is much different than the spring/summer and anglers must adjust accordingly if they want to have success in the cooler fall months.

  1. Use streamers – In the fall, hatches will substantially decline (with the exception of midges – they will come off all year long).  Additionally, after the first solid frost of the season, most of the terrestrial fishing will taper off.  As a result you will not see a lot of fish actively rising to take bugs off the surface.  That means if you do not spot a fish, you will have to fish blind – and the best way to effectively cover a lot of water is with a streamer.  The most popular way to fish a streamer is to cast across stream, let the line swing downstream like a wet fly and strip it back upstream, periodically jigging the tip of your fly rod to give the streamer some action.  A lesser utilized, but effective method of streamer fishing is to dead drift a streamer with a midge pattern (or other small nymph) dropped underneath.  With streamers, there is no need to repeatedly cast to one specific area.  If a trout does not take the streamer on the first or second retrieve, work a different area.  Once you’ve covered the surrounding area, take a couple steps downstream and repeat.
  2. Use big streamers – Remember, streamers are designed to imitate bait fish, other trout, crayfish, leeches, etc.  All of which are large meals for trout.  So if you tie your own flies, use big hooks.  Don’t be afraid to create an ugly monstrosity on the vice.  Big streamers = big trout.  Popular streamer patterns include the clouser minnow, muddler minnow and wooly bugger, but there are literally thousands of proven patterns to choose from.  I always carry wooly buggers in black, olive and white. I use the olive and black when the water is high and stained, and I use the white when the water is low and clear.
  3. Wear camouflage – I know this sounds a bit over the top, but it works.  Fall streams are usually low and clear, making it easier for the trout to spot an approaching angler.  Wearing camouflage or drab/natural colored clothing could mean the difference between spooking a 20 incher from 50 feet away or getting in position to make a good cast and hooking a hog. 0620160712c
  4. Wear polarized sunglasses – A good pair of polarized sunglasses are an important tool in any serious angler’s toolbox.  In fall fly fishing, being able to spot a trout that isn’t actively feeding is crucial.  Polarized sunglasses, are essential for this.
  5. Stay out of the water when possible – Just because you are wearing waders does not mean that you have to get in the water.  Trout detect movement and vibration in the water through their lateral line, and if you are stomping through the water like a drunk hippo you will spook every fish within casting range.  You want the fish to use their lateral line to detect your streamers, not your feet.
  6. Dress in layers – Fall temperatures in Pennsylvania, or anywhere in the northeast for that matter, can fluctuate.  It might be 30 degrees in the morning, but 65 degrees by mid-afternoon.  There is nothing more uncomfortable than being cold on the stream.  Wear multiple layers, including a base layer that keeps the sweat off, and layers of fleece.  Wear a couple pairs of socks under the waders (I prefer wool), a hat or hood and fingerless gloves.
  7. Pick your fishing time wisely – Remember, fall is different than summer.  Trout will not be active during the same time frame as they were during the summer months.  If you arrive at the crack of dawn you might be in for a disappointing morning.  I find the best time to fish for trout in the fall is between 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.  If you can hit the stream between those times, you should give yourself the best opportunity to hook into some fish.  As an added safeguard, be sure to check your local stream report before heading out.
  8. Stay off the redds – If you are not sure what a redd is or what one looks like, google it.  Wild trout are a valuable resource here in Pennsylvania, and as anglers we need to make sure we protect that resource.  If you see a pair of spawning trout, leave them alone.  And if you see a redd, do not walk through it and trample the eggs.

 

Now go head out to your local trout stream and catch that 25 inch slab!

Be sure to follow along on Instagram @parodandreel or click here.

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Chasing Brookies

In late July I found myself having something which I very rarely have in large quantities these days – free time.  In fact I had almost three full days of it.  So, like every other fishing obsessed individual, I packed up my camping and fly fishing gear and headed 4 hours northwest to the wild and rugged mountains of Potter County, PA to chase some native Pennsylvania brook trout.

While brook trout are abundant throughout most of Pennsylvania (there is a reason why the brook trout is our state fish), they are almost non-existent in the southeastern region where I reside.  I have to drive at least an hour to find water with a native brook trout population, and even then, those populations fluctuate year to year.  For me, an opportunity to fish the mountain streams of Potter County where healthy, hungry brook trout occupy just about every stream, was something I could not pass up.

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I set up my base camp at Lyman Run State Park, which is located outside of Galeton, PA.  This is a small state park, comprised of a two campground areas and a small lake.  However, it is surrounded by 265,000 acres of beautiful untouched wilderness, known as Susquehannock state forest.

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The first day I fished the lower end of Lyman Run (the stream from which the park derives its name).  The water was low and clear, which made it difficult to move into position without spooking the fish.  I only managed a few chubs that day.  That evening it rained for a solid five hours.  While the rain forced me to hunker down in the tent for the entire evening, it seemed to rejuvenate the wildlife in the surrounding forest.  That night, the coyotes were going absolutely insane.  Between the fighting and the constant howling, I did not sleep well to say the least.

The following day I decided to expand my search for mountain brookies into the state forest.  I followed Lyman Run north into the state forest and fished upstream for a few miles.  I had numerous hits, but only managed to land one 4 inch brookie.  As I ventured deeper into the forest, the environment seemed to turn wilder with every step I took.  Eventually I found a tributary that looked promising and decided to follow that upstream.  After 15 minutes of following this trib upstream, I was nearly frightened half to death when I flushed two ruffed grouse from a streamside pine.  It took quite a while for my heartrate to return to normal after that!  As I stood there recovering from the minor heart-attack I just suffered, I took a minute to look around and really take in my surroundings.  There was not another person to be found.  There were no sounds of cars moving up and down a roadway.  The only dominating sound was the sound of a babbling mountain stream.  There was no human trash on the forest floor, and the only other footprints to be seen besides mine were those left by minks, white-tails and black bears.  For someone who loves the outdoors, this was as about as close to heaven as you can get.

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After a few more minutes of exploring the trib, I came across a nice plunge pool.  I sat down on a nearby log (after meticulously searching the area underneath the log to ensure there wasn’t a timber rattler nestled underneath my seat) and watched the pool.  Sure enough, after a couple minutes, a small mouth appeared to sip something off the surface…and 30 seconds later it appeared again.  With my quarry in sight, I tied on a size 16 griffith’s gnat and slowly moved into position downstream of my target.  I made three casts into the plunge pool to no avail.  On the fourth cast, I finally convinced my quarry to strike the fly.  After a short fight consisting of two acrobatic aerial leaps, I had the brook trout in my landing net.

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It was in my opinion, the most beautiful fish I had ever caught.  After a few quick photos I released the brookie back into the plunge pool.  Mission accomplished.  I returned back to camp that evening in the best of moods.  Needless to say, I slept like a baby that night.

 

Until next time,

-Rob Fravel

PA Rod and Reel

 

Be sure to follow along on Instagram @parodandreel or click here.