Never Expect the Unexpected; It's More Fun That Way
My alarm hardly caused me to stir, but woke me enough to find the snooze button by frantically tapping on the touch-screen. I had planned to get on the road early, but the thought of frozen guides and sluggish fish kept me curled up in bed. The day could wait another hour.
Winter fishing isn't always for the faint of heart, but the thought of uncrowded trout streams and hungry fish is enough to get most of us diehard fisherman out into the cold. This day would be no different. Once I opened the blinds and asked Alexa for the weather, my hopes of a solid day on the water were rekindled and I quickly scrambled out the door. I set my sights on the interstate, dialed on the cruise control, and prepared for the long drive ahead.
Living in the DC metro region isn't kind to trout fishermen. You basically have three choices: drive an hour north, drive an hour west, or drive an hour south to find the nearest passable wild trout stream. If you want a Class A or B stream (by Pennsylvania's standard) you'll have to tack on at least another half hour. To fish for trout, expect to be in the car for 3 hours on any given fishing day.
I pulled up to my first spot around 10:30am, having resisted the urge to find a Wawa or take anything resembling a pitstop on the drive. The stream is small (narrow enough to jump in some section) and winds its way through forests and valleys, creating plenty of deep runs and pools for wild trout. Patches of green groundcover and aquatic grasses emerge from the monochromatic brown forest floor signaling tiny springs. These springs keep the stream just a few degrees warmer than others in the region, a key for finding active fish in the winter. This was Plan A for the day, and breaking my own rules, this stream was the only plan I had.
The sun had dipped behind a thick wall of clouds and the breeze had picked up. Three hours had past since I left the warmth of my car and any residual heat from the long car ride had faded. This stream had usually been good to me in the past, but today something was off. I had landed a few small trout, but they all came from the same pool and the other mile of water I covered didn't produce a single hit. As was sure to happen, having gone unprepared, I had blown through Plan A without a backup plan in mind.
I stopped to grab a seat on a fallen tree. I swung off my bag and fished out a granola bar and a bottle of water, wondering what had happened to cause the slow day. With no clear explanation, it was time to change course entirely. I finished my snack, threw on my pack, and headed for the car.
Given the day I'd been having so far, my expectations for the next spot weren't too high. However, I had a stream in mind to put another trout species on the list for the day. I decided to change course and made the drive to find some brook trout.
This stream climbs up in elevation pretty quickly, creating some beautiful plunge pools, deep cuts, and fishy spots. However, as with most brook trout spots in the south-central mid-atlantic, this stream rarely gives up a brook trout in excess of 8". Nonetheless, it felt good to be back on the rugged terrain that usually calls for a dry fly, but today begged for a streamer.
I rigged up and made a long walk from the car, planning to fish back upstream before calling it a day. Surely, I would be able to add a small, colorful brook trout to my accomplishments of the day. After a good amount of rock hopping, I settled on a deep, rocky pool that looked promising. I positioned myself at the head of the pool and started to cast downstream. Cast after cast went unnoticed, so I made a change to a heavier, jig-head streamer that had just a little more flash and was a couple sizes bigger than my previous offering (actually, it was the same fly I had used at the spot before, still wet from its previous trout encounters). I tighten down my loop knot and got back to casting.
I remember the lucky cast well - it felt good, it looked good, and the streamer dug in behind a submerged rock in the tail of the pool. I took advantage of the weight of the fly and continued to let it sink, making sure it would drop below any undercut that may exist behind the sunken boulder. I paused, counted to five, and then began a slow twitch back upstream. Then, in what seemed like a blink of an eye, the line came tight; I made one more firm strip. The fish turned and buried its head, swimming back towards the bottom, determined to find shelter under that submerged rock. I lifted my rod tip, determined not to allow that. The fight was on.
Immediately, I could tell this fish wasn't a 6" brook trout. It wasn't an 8" brook trout either. At this point I didn’t have a clue what it could be. Maybe another trout species had found its way upstream from who knows where, or maybe a stocked trout made a determined journey and had found its forever home under that big rock. Whatever it was, the thought didn't cross my mind that it was a big brookie.
I battled the fish out from behind the rock and into the open pool, where it continued to dive deep, hiding itself from me. Finally, I put a big bend in my 4wt rod and pulled the fish towards the surface. That is when I saw it - the brilliant orange fins of a truly beautiful native brook trout. I couldn't believe it and I knew if I didn't get this fish to the net, no one else would believe it either. So, in I went. I jumped into the pool, water spilling into my jacket pockets and up to my chest, nearing the top of my waders. I dug my net into the water, raised my rod tip, and netted my personal best brook trout. This was a beautiful fish; colorful, fat, clean, and healthy. It had likely escaped the allure of countless other flies and baits from many other fisherman. I was likely the first (and lucky) one to catch this fish, but I didn't want to be the last.
After a few quick photos, I dipped my net a little farther underwater and watched a once captured brook trout swim free, back down to the depths of the pool - under that rock - to fight another day.
Never expect the unexpected; It's more fun that way!
Story by Evan Dintaman
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