Stories From the Water: "The Replacement"
Guest Post and Photos: By Andrew Sarcinello
One of the great things about trout fishing in Maryland is that despite its dense population, it has a few places left that are well-kept secrets among small groups of anglers. There’s nothing I love more than discovering a high-quality, small stream full of unpressured wild trout. About five years ago, my searches brought me to one small mountain stream that was better than any I’d ever fished before, and it seemed as if very few others knew about it. But over the past two or three years, word of mouth caused a steady increase in pressure on my old favorite stream, and I set out in search of alternatives.
Initially what I found was not promising. Although central Maryland has a surprising number of wild trout populations, I came to discover that most streams suffer from erosion and lack of habitat for large fish. Other than the handful of well-known fisheries, it is rare to find a stream that consistently produces wild brown trout over 12 inches, at least on public land. Finding “The Replacement” – the one that will replace my old favorite stream – was not going to be easy.
The search is a full-blown obsession that has taken me to almost 80 different trout streams between Hagerstown and Rising Sun. But on a recent adventure, I may have finally found what I’ve been searching for. It’s no coincidence that the level of effort to reach this stream was enormous by Maryland standards. That, as much as any fish I caught, is a story worth telling.
The week before this grand adventure, I had to get a replacement pair of hip waders – with the Frog Toggs at Dick’s Sporting Goods, you get what you pay for. The ease at which I poked holes in the first pair should have been enough to make me buy elsewhere, but I needed boots now so I went for the familiar. I wore the new, replacement pair that Saturday, the day before the planned excursion. For some reason I went to a thorn-lined brook trout trickle in Baltimore County – and within an hour I had ripped a two-inch long gash in the new waders, just above the left knee. This was going to make Sunday a whole lot more interesting. My goal was a stream whose access required wading across a deep and quick moving river - a dicey proposition during typical high early spring flows, much less with hip waders that were now knee waders.
Sunday was cold, with a high temperature in the upper 40s and gusty winds, but like any good angler I wasn’t going to let a leaky wader stop me. The stream I was after had been on my radar for years, and with rumors of a possible coronavirus lockdown just starting to make waves, I knew I wouldn't have forgiven myself for passing up this opportunity. I drove an hour to arrive at the trailhead in the late morning, donned the leaky waders, grabbed my gear, and began hiking along the river.
I am not sure how far I walked, but it seemed I was never going to reach my destination. Finally, I looked across the river and saw the mouth of the tributary that had been living rent free in my head for well over a year (thanks, Google Earth!). As luck would have it, there happened to be a shallow riffle nearby, and I managed to pick a route across that only partially soaked my left leg. There I finally stood at the stream that I hoped was "The Replacement", a little tired from the hike, but most importantly dry enough to not worry about hypothermia.
At the very first rocky pool I came to, mere feet from the river, I had my answer on whether there were trout in this part of the tributary. I cast a woolly bugger into the middle of the pool, and it did not get far before something slammed it. The fat wild brown trout jumped several times, but tired in short order. There it was: confirmation that my suspicions about this stream were right. Justification for driving over 100 miles round trip and hiking a long way to reach the stream. Relief that my obsession with exploring for trout was still bearing fruit, and that Maryland had not yet run out of surprises.
A bit farther upstream, I came to a classic small stream plunge pool. Spots like this are extremely recognizable, so I am choosing not to share the photo of the pool – just imagine something straight out of any book on ideal trout habitat. A waterfall funneled food along a rock wall, with swirling currents converging on a large undercut boulder in about 4' of water. Once again, one cast was all it took to find the pool’s resident – this time a 16" brown trout!
After catching that nice brown, I switched to a larger streamer tied by a friend of mine in hopes of drawing out an even larger fish. A pair of territorial geese drove me away from the next likely looking spot, but once beyond that roadblock, I continued picking up nice wild brown trout. Although I missed two of the largest I encountered, both about the size of the earlier 16-inch fish, I was in trout fishing heaven. For about a third of a mile, the habitat continued to look straight out of a textbook.
Farther upstream, the narrow valley flattened out, and the deep picturesque plunge pools were replaced with slower runs mixed with pocket water and a few perfectly placed ambush rocks. Here I found multiple trout in every likely holding lie, compared to only one or two fish in each of the big pools downstream. I thought the increased number of fish would mean a smaller average size, but 14- and 15-inch fish continued to make occasional appearances.
I fished until I landed and released my tenth wild brown of the afternoon. Although I still had more water to fish in front of me, the weather had turned cold and rain was on the way. Remembering that I still had to cross a river before I could hike back to my car, I decided to turn back. But, what a day it had been!
It may be premature to anoint this stream as the official "Replacement", but I was impressed by my first visit. Is it really good enough to replace the old favorite that has given up multiple 20” wild browns over the years? Only time will tell, but it was as promising of an introduction to a new water as I’ve had anywhere. One thing I've learned is that the best streams show you enough to draw you in, but take many trips to reveal their biggest secrets. Whether or not this stream someday proves itself as one of the best small streams around almost doesn’t matter. Despite heavy development, millions of people, and heavy angling pressure, Maryland still has secret trout waters – and time and time again, exploring proves worth the effort.
Andrew Sarcinello is the Conservation Committee Chair for the National Capital Chapter of Trout Unlimited (NCC-TU). He enjoys pursuing all species of fish on fly tackle, but has always been most passionate about small stream wild trout fishing in the Mid-Atlantic states. Follow his adventures @suburbanflyfisher on Instagram.