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There are many places in the world where the fishing isn’t nearly as good as it used to be. Most places actually.
Steelhead runs in the Pacific Northwest are a shadow of their former glory. Atlantic salmon have been decimated in the U.S. to where wild populations are just barely hanging on in a few streams in Maine. Guides in the Florida Keys have been scratching their heads over a lost generation of bonefish. The oceans are depleted by 90 percent in terms of large gamefish, and you have to walk far and work hard to find a single native Eastern brook trout due to habitat loss and acid mine drainage.
On a planet where fish habitat everywhere seems to be constantly downgraded, and every year opportunities get worse and worse, it stokes your soul to find a river winding through open ranchland that is untouched and unchanged, and both scientific studies and angler results show brown trout fishing is getting better and better with every passing decade.
John Goodall, a Scottish settler who inherited estancias Viamonte and Haberton on the Rio Grande, between 1935 and 1937 stocked tributaries of that river hoping to provide a little recreation. He stocked brown trout from Hamburg, Germany, and rainbow trout from the McCloud River in California into the Ewan, Herminita, Menendez, and other rivers, thinking that some European sport could relieve some of the isolation on the island of Tierra del Fuego at the far end of the South American continent. His hope was to seed wild populations of resident trout similar to other mutton-farming outposts like New Zealand.
Brown and rainbow trout in the tributaries and in the main stem of the Rio Grande used the river’s endless spawning gravel to quickly reproduce and become self-sustaining. By the end of that decade, Goodall was catching the offspring of those original transplants.
But the conditions are harsh in this river—probably the only one of its size this close to Antarctica. The trout population found plenty of spawning and nursery habitat, but there was little forage in the Grande, and the resident trout were skinny and underfed.
In the decade of World War II, outsiders paid little attention to the Tierra del Fuego trout experiment, but in the early 1950s when recreational fishing in North America was exploding and becoming a middle class pastime, rumors spread of some exceptionally large trout in the Rio Grande that locals called una plateada or “the silver one.” Clearly, some of Goodall’s fish had found their way to the ocean and returned.
Outdoor Life writer Joe Brooks journeyed to Maria Behety Ranch three times during the 1950s and found many resident trout, and a few heavily muscled sea-run brown trout. Over the course of those trips, he caught two sea-runs larger than 10 pounds; one was 14 pounds, the other was an 18.5-pound trout that was considered spectacularly large at that time. Curiously, although there were still resident rainbows in the river, none of them migrated to the ocean to become steelhead.
Brooks was ecstatic with what he found in the Rio Grande, but what he was seeing was just the incubation period of what would become the greatest sea-run brown trout fishery in the word. In every decade since his visit, the fishing seems to be getting better as these northern immigrants evolve from one generation to the next.
Genetically they are becoming a larger race of fish as the largest males and females successfully compete for and hold spawning territories. Each generation is also becoming more adept at finding the most robust food sources in the south Atlantic. In recent decades the tourism industry has also shaped strict catch-and- release regulations through much of the river, and done away with netting in the river and estuary near the town of Rio Grande. Fewer big fish have been culled from the herd, and bigger fish are surviving and reproducing. When Brooks visited, his fish pushing into the high teens was a monster. A 20-pound fish was unfathomable.
Today, one in 50 fish weighs more than 20 pounds, and with average catch rates of three to six fish per day, the odds of running into big fish like this are pretty good. Fish over 30 pounds are caught every season and the biggest to date is Brian Yamamoto’s 46-inch-long, 25-inch-girth fish that was estimated to weigh more than 40 pounds.
The most recent scientific research shows returns of 45,000 to 70,000 adult sea runs annually to a watershed that stretches 200 kilometers into its headwaters in Chile. When the water is exceptionally high, the fish disperse throughout the watershed, but early in the season (which starts in January) and whenever the water is low, the fish are stacked mostly in the lower pools in Argentina, which are all on the site of the original Menendez Ranch. Quick math says that with 55,000 fish in the river, there is an average of more than 500 fish in each of the 102 named pools.
There are three fishing lodges in the lower river that share 32 beats of this private water in an efficient and effective manner so you can fish closer to the ocean or much farther upriver, depending on the season and how and where the fish are moving. With the assigned beat system, you fish two beats per day, one in the morning and one in the evening, and over the course of a week, you’ll rarely see the same water twice.
The middle of the day is siesta time, when you can catch a few hours of sleep—and you’ll need it badly. Sea runs (like brown trout everywhere) go on the grab in low light, so you’ll need to fish late (until 10 P.M.) on the longest days of the year in January, and get back out there early in the morning. The trout don’t bite well in the middle of the day when the sun is high and shining directly in their eyes, and almost as important, the wind peaks in the middle of the afternoon and subsides in the early morning and late evening.
Near siesta time you’ll fish with longer leaders and small traditional flies like #12 and #14 Blue Charms and Silver Stoats to try and cajole a trout into taking a fly at midday. You’ll make long quartering casts downstream and make small, distinct strips with your left hand while moving steadily through the pool to find a trout willing to play.
Another strategy in high light is to swing/jig a heavy Girdle Bug in the deep broken water where the bank is eroding and sod clumps in a deep slot provide relief from both the sun. You’ll need to land the fly inches from the bank (while casting from the opposite shore), throw a large upstream mend to sink the fly, and then jig it using short strips so the fly jitterbugs along the bankside cover. When I use this technique I cast, mend, then take a step or two downstream before I hold position and allow the fly to start swimming away from the bank. Taking your step during the sink instead of after the swing gets the fly deeper and keeps the fly near the shoreline cover for longer.
In that last hour before dark it doesn’t pay to work just inches from sod clumps you can’t even see in the failing light. Bring your American steelhead flies for that last 45 minutes because the fish turn aggressive when the sun hits the horizon, and any fly will work as long as it’s big and easy to find. A 3- or 4-inch-long black Intruder-style fly shows a strong profile in fading light and has great movement in the water—I’ve had great success with Brian Silvey’s steelhead pattern called the Extractor.
When you fish the Rio Grande, you’ll arrive at the river in a 4WD pickup or SUV and often park on a football-field size gravel bar. Before turning off the ignition, the guide makes a pilot-like assessment of wind direction and turns the vehicle so it faces directly into the wind. They’ve found that if they park in the other direction, the wind can (and frequently does) rip the doors off the vehicle when the guests get in or out. That’s just a little glimpse at how the omnipresent wind affects every part of this fishing experience. The clarity of the water, the pools you fish (and from which bank), the casts you make, and the tackle you use are all predicated on the wind.
I’ve had many saltwater fishing days canceled completely due to 25 MPH wind forecasts, and when it’s blowing that hard at home, it’s a good day to be in the office. Guides on the Rio Grande describe 25 MPH wind as “a good day for fishing” and they don’t consider it challenging until gusts hit 40 MPH. They have become experts at casting in the wind and more importantly, choosing specific pools that offer partial protection from the wind or at least put the wind at your back.
With a single-handed rod it can be tough to make a complete and effective backcast but with a two-hand rod and a short, heavy Skagit line with a sinking tip you can make many kinds of “extended anchor” Spey casts like a double Spey, snap T, or a Perry poke. The advantage of these casts are that there is very little line in the air, and you use mostly water tension to load the rod. A Snake roll is a good choice too, depending on wind direction. I used a 13-foot G.Loomis NRX 7/8-weight rod with a RIO 550-grain Skagit Max line and a whole set of Skagit MOW tips to fit the water depth and speed in different pools.
That fat, heavy line has momentum to beat the wind when you’re making the cast, and with the wind at your back you can really sail it out there even in gale-force winds. It doesn’t often look pretty but it works. Despite the wind, you can fish successfully here nearly every day of the season.
Timing the Run
I like the looks of a big fire-engine red steelhead from the headwaters of the Skeena River almost as much as I like a dime-bright silver fish that has just come from the estuary.
Almost, but not quite.
With sea-run brown trout it’s much the same. A dark, heavily spotted brown with a twisted kype is a spectacular fish, especially if it’s a 15-, 20-, or 25-pound trout. Americans can relate to this type of fish—it looks similar to an October fish from the Madison or the Missouri, only much larger. Who wouldn’t want to catch that?
But if you’re going to catch a sea trout, it’s even better to catch a trout that looks and acts as though it just came from the sea. Like an ephemeral mayfly hatch, a “fresh” sea trout with faint spots, reflective flanks, and see-through fins is a special fish that exists just for a few days or a week at most. After more than a week or two in fresh water it assumes a darker, heavily spotted camouflage to match the mottled colors of the river. It begins to look less like an ocean fish, and more like a brown trout.
Interestingly, North Americans seem to relish the idea of a big brown trout that looks like . . . well, a brown trout. And having maximum numbers of fish in the river doesn’t sound bad either so the last two months of the season—February and March—are filled mostly with visitors from Canada and the United States looking to catch a lot of really big trout.
Experienced fly fishers from sea-trout countries in Europe, however, don’t come looking for “old” trout that have been in the river for a month or two. In fact, they can be quite snobbish about it. They time their trips for January to coincide with the arrival of the first fresh fish of the season. They aren’t looking for a river that is chock-a-block full of old fish that will soon start spawning. What these chrome-hunters want are shots at that first trickle (and then a flood) of fresh silvery fish that move aggressively to the fly, and leap like Atlantic salmon when hooked. Fresh sea trout don’t just look different, they act different, and they are rare specimens of a natural world that is transient and evolving right before our eyes. Cast a rod in these waters and you are engaged in more than just a hunt for one of the world’s great gamefish . . . you are taking the Southern Hemisphere sacrament of anadromous salmonids. You’re looking for the silver one.
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When Fly Fishers talk about fly fishing in Pennsylvania, several different thoughts come to mind. It is a state that offers a tremendous range of opportunity, with over 85,000 miles of streams and rivers, as well as a diverse range of stream types from the fabled limestone spring creeks of the Cumberland Valley; the freestone mountain streams that flow through the Pocono and Appalachian mountain areas; the large Susquehanna, Delaware, and Schuylkill river systems, and some excellent tailwater fisheries. Many Pennsylvania streams and rivers are known to anglers around the world, and most fishermen know of the legendary Letort Spring Run, the famous Green Drake hatches on Penns Creek, and the chess-like game of matching the multiple hatches on the West Branch of the Delaware River. The Keystone State also has a rich history of author anglers who have left bold impressions and influences on our entire sport, such as Vince Marinaro, Charlie Fox, Jim Leisenring, and George Harvey. While many of those famous streams flow through the heart of some of Pennsylvania’s most scenic areas, there are also a surprising number of fishing opportunities within Pennsylvania’s largest metropolitan area, Philadelphia—the City of Brotherly Love—and the immediate surrounding area.
Philadelphia is by far the largest city in the Keystone State, with a population of over 1.5 million residents and more than 7 million in the greater metropolitan Delaware Valley area. It’s a city that rightly claims a significant role in the creation of a new nation and is steeped in history and culture, but interestingly it is also a place worth exploring with a fly rod.
Many fly fishers may find it difficult to believe (given the sensitivity of trout and the conditions they require) that there would be opportunities to fish for them in Philadelphia and the greater urban area surrounding it. Surprisingly, Philadelphia’s easy-access streams provide recreational experiences that can satisfy your appetite for fly fishing just as easily as you can pick up a Philly cheesesteak.
These are not destination streams like the Bighorn or the Green in Montana and Utah. You wouldn’t come here strictly for the fly fishing. But if you are visiting one of the area’s historic sites, you’re there on business, or you’re a local looking for a quick getaway from city life, the fishing on these urban gems can be very good.
The winter of 1777-78 was a bitter one for the Continental Army under the command of General George Washington. Losses at the Battle of the Brandywine and the Battle of Paoli had allowed the British to capture Philadelphia, forcing Washington’s men to winter in an area several miles west of the city. Known as Valley Forge, the area took its name from a forge built around 1740 along Valley Creek. The forge itself was destroyed by the British in 1777.
The site afforded a good defensive position thanks to the natural barriers formed by the Schuylkill River and Valley Creek on two sides of the encampment. Washington chose a farmhouse near the confluence of the two rivers for his headquarters. The winter was a harsh one, and the troops suffered from a lack of clothing, food, and shelter. An estimated 2,500 soldiers perished.
Today Valley Forge is known as a symbol of American resolve. The area of the encampment is now preserved as Valley Forge National Historical Park, and it’s visited annually by more than 2 million people who come to view the headquarters used by Washington, his officers, and the Marquis de Lafayette; to visit the crude shelters used by the soldiers; and to hear the story of one of America’s defining moments. Quiet little Valley Creek flows through this beautiful park on its way to the Schuylkill River, and although it is one of one of southeast Pennsylvania’s finest trout streams, it is hidden in plain sight of the park’s many visitors.
Valley Creek is a 10.8-mile-long limestone stream that begins in East Whiteland Township in Chester County and consists of runs, riffles, and long, glassy pools flowing through a mix of woodlands and meadows. Numerous undercut banks, deadfalls, and large rocks create ideal cover for trout. The stream is seldom wider than 25 feet and is fed by Little Valley Creek and numerous springs, which help to keep water temperatures below 70 degrees F. even in the hottest days.
At one time Valley was a stocked stream, but a PCB spill caused the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PF&BC) to impose no-kill status on the creek, which allowed the wild browns in the stream to flourish. Today, Valley Creek is classified as an exceptional value stream by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and a class A wild trout fishery by the PF&BC. Within Valley Forge National Park, both Valley and Little Valley Creek are managed under catch-and- release, all-tackle regulations.
Insect life here is healthy as well, and anglers can find good hatches of Blue-winged Olives and Tricos. Caddisflies include Speckled Sedges (Hydropsyche sp.), Little Black Sedges (Chimarra sp.), and Green Sedges (Rhyacophila sp.). Midges and crane flies are also important, and terrestrials play a significant role in the summer and fall.
U.S. 422 cuts through the upper corner of the park and turns into the park at the visitors center. From here, take North Outer Line Drive to South Outer Line Drive and turn right onto PA 252 (Valley Creek Road). PA 252 runs parallel to the stream from the south side of the park. To access the stream from the north side, take PA 23 from the visitors center to Gulph Road and turn left onto PA 252 (Valley Creek Road). There are several parking areas here.
Fishing inside the park is open to the public, however the water outside of the park is mostly private with limited accessibility. Rods from 7 to 9 feet matched with lightweight 2- to 4-weight lines and longer leaders of 12 or more feet tapering to 6X to 8X tippets are important to avoid putting fish down. Steve Spurgeon and Jared Ellis have both fished Valley Creek for years and emphasize the importance of using long and light leaders with small patterns. Neutral-colored clothing and quiet wading are also important to avoid spooking fish.
Cutting through northwest Philadelphia, Wissahickon Creek (Lenape for “Catfish Creek” or “Stream of Yellowish Color”) flows through the steep, wooded valley of Fairmount Park—America’s largest urban park at just over 9,200 acres, and one of 600 U.S. National Natural Landmarks.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote the story Morning on the Wissahiccon in 1844, inspired by the beauty of this valley and the stream that courses its way through it.
The valley of the Wissahickon is one of remarkable contrast to the urban environment immediately outside of the park, and it attracts many hikers, bicyclists, and horseback riders to its network of trails.
The stream begins near the town of Gwynedd in Montgomery County and flows for nearly 23 miles before its confluence with the Schuylkill River southeast of Manayunk. The creek’s long riffles and pools are easily waded, but it does have some deep pools here and there.
The stocked trout water is in two separate sections, the first of which begins west of Flourtown at Lafayette Avenue and continues downstream to Stenton Avenue. The stream in this section flows through Fort Washington State Park and downstream into Wissahickon Valley Park and then Fort Washington Park South.
The stream is accessible here by Stenton Avenue at the upper limit, at PA 73, and by West Valley Green Road and West Mill roads. The second section of stocked trout water begins at Germantown Pike and continues downstream to Lincoln Drive. Access to the stream is by Valley Green Road, Kitchens Lane, Walnut Lane, and Lincoln Drive.
Forbidden Lane provides another excellent access point and is popular with hikers, bicycle riders, and joggers, and there are a number of parking areas close to the creek.
Wissahickon is stocked with trout each spring, and is managed as a put-and-take fishery. This stream has been degraded ever since the first colonists arrived in Philadelphia, so visiting anglers won’t see prolific fly hatches. The insect life here is limited to a few hardier insects, namely several caddis varieties including Speckled Sedges (Hydropsyche sp.) and Little Black Sedges (Chimarra sp.) and midges, but there are a surprising number of scuds.
Pennypack Creek flows 22.6 miles through Montgomery and Philadelphia counties before entering the Delaware River just north of Philadelphia. Pennypack Creek begins west of the town of Horsham. The stream is relatively low gradient, with a mix of riffles and long, flat pools, and is easy to wade. It is stocked with browns and rainbows in the spring and fall, but the water temperatures become too warm for trout during the summer. There is, however, good warmwater fishing for largemouth and smallmouth bass, rock bass, crappie, bluegills, and pickerel.
Pennypack’s stocked trout water begins at the upper limit of Lorimer Park in Montgomery County at a rail-trail crossing and continues downstream to PA 13 (Frankford Avenue) in Philadelphia County. Access can be gained from the upstream boundary of the stocked trout water via Moreland Road and, continuing downstream to the lower end, via Moredun Road, Verree Road, Krewstown Road, Bustleton Avenue, Roosevelt Boulevard, Holme Avenue, Rhawn Street, Welsh Road, and Frankford Avenue.
Ed Jaworowski needs no introduction to the fly-fishing fraternity, but many may be unaware that this is where his journey as an angler began. “A favorite uncle, immediately after his return from World War II, first introduced me to a fishing rod and bluegills during our regular visits to Chain Bridge, a popular fishing and bathing section of this stream back then,” Jaworowski says. Neshaminy Creek is a 40.7-mile-long stream in Bucks County that begins just south of the borough of Chalfont and flows southeast to its confluence with the Delaware River at Neshaminy Park southwest of Croydon.
Neshaminy Creek provides a great resource for local residents. The stocked trout water (rainbows and browns) flows within heavily wooded park areas that make it a great place to introduce a child to fishing or to hold a family outing.
Like many streams in this area, the trout fishing here is limited to the early part of the season because water temperatures become too elevated by the middle of June or before. Warmwater species are the game on this stream during the summer and fall.
Neshaminy creek is also surrounded by an extensive park system, which provides a buffer from the city. Like the other streams in this section, it is stocked with trout and also has carp and bass in it, with smallmouth bass and panfish abundant during the summer.
During the early season the stream is stocked in two sections; the first begins at Bridge Valley Road in City Park west of PA 263 (York Road) and continues downstream to Mill Road near the town of Jamison. The second section of stocked trout water begins at the dam at 1,711-acre Tyler State Park and continues downstream to PA 332 (Richboro Road). The stream is fairly wide in places, sometimes more than 50 feet, but is easy to wade.
Due to its proximity to Philadelphia, Ridley Creek is not a stream for solitude, but it does provide convenient and readily accessible fishing in one of the most beautiful parks in this corner of the state. It also has a stretch of catch-and-release fly- fishing-only water, and the best hatches in the Philadelphia region.
Sixteen miles west of Philadelphia and five miles north of Media lies Ridley Creek State Park. Prior to the 1960s, the 2,606-acre property was held privately by Walter M. Jeffords Sr. and his wife, well-known horse breeders who had acquired properties adjacent to their original land holdings. The land became a public park in 1972.
The property contains a number of historic buildings, many of which predate the War of Independence. In 1826 there were 15 gristmills, sawmills, and other types of mills in operation on Ridley Creek, the oldest of which was Providence Mills, established in 1718. America’s first railroad, the Leiper Railroad, operated here from 1810 to 1828. The many historic structures are a treasure for visitors who come to tour these buildings or hike, jog, or ride the park’s 12 miles of trails.
For trout anglers, Ridley Creek offers excellent fishing opportunities close to Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs. This charming stream begins in Chester County, formed from two branches that originate near the villages of Frazier and Malvern.
Ridley Creek flows for nearly 22 miles before emptying into the Delaware River. Most of it flows through wooded and rural areas before reaching its confluence, which is more industrial and urbanized.
There are two segments of the creek classified as stocked trout waters; the first begins 1.25 miles above Gradyville Road and continues downstream to the falls in Ridley Creek State Park; the second is from Brookhaven Road downstream to Chestnut Street at the lower edge of Taylor Arboretum Park southeast of Brookhaven.
Immediately below the upper stocked water is a 0.6-mile section from the falls in the park downstream to the mouth of one of its tributaries, Dismal Run. This section is managed as catch-and-release fly-fishing- only. The trout population consists of stocked and holdover rainbow and brown trout that are released in the spring and fall.
The stream in most of the regulated areas is seldom more than 20 feet wide. Ridley does not have a diverse array of aquatic insect life, but there are good hatches of Blue-winged
Olives in the spring and fall, along with Early Blue Quills, Sulphurs (E. invaria and dorothea dorothea), and some Light Cahills. Spring also brings Early Black Stoneflies.
Caddisflies are abundant and include Speckled Sedges (Hydropsyche sp.), Little Black Sedges (Chimarra sp.), Green Sedges (Rhyacophila sp.), and Grannom caddis (Brachycentrus sp.). Also important are crane flies and pale olive, red, and black midges.
Access to the stream is via Gradyville Road; turn south on Providence Road and proceed to East Bishop Road. Go to Chapel Hill Road, which crosses the creek and becomes Barren Road, or continue straight to follow North Ridley Creek Road, both of which parallel the stream. There are several parking areas near the intersections of these four roads.
If you find your business, recreation, or historical education taking you to Philadelphia, be sure to bring a fly rod and waders and cast a line on some of these urban gems. You’ll be surprised by what you find. If you live in the greater Philadelphia area and have overlooked these waters, there is a peaceful escape from the noise and pace of the city and an opportunity to cast to trout within a short drive from center city.
Henry Ramsay (ramsayflies.com) is a fly-fishing instructor, photographer, and a contributing author of the new book Keystone Fly Fishing (Headwater Books, 2017). This article is partially excerpted from that book.
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Terrestrial or land-born insects play an important role in the diets of trout throughout the season. These food items include ants, beetles, grasshoppers, cicadas, crickets, and among other things, caterpillars. Wormlike, with spines and covered by hair, or sometimes hairless, caterpillars feed primarily and aggressively on leaves. Spend any time in a forest with a gypsy moth infestation, and you’ll notice that you can actually hear the caterpillars feasting, and the droppings falling out of the infected trees.
The first time I realized how important caterpillars can be to fly fishers was in the early 70s. I was fishing on the upper Huntington, a small freestone trout stream in northeastern Pennsylvania. My favorite pool was an old jack dam that backed up a hip-boot-deep pool for about 50 feet and it always held good numbers of wild brown and brook trout. The right bank was deeply undercut and densely tree-lined, creating the perfect environment of shade and security for the resident trout.
It was a Wednesday afternoon, and as usual I had the afternoon off from working at my parents’ tackle shop. I could hear the trout even before I approached the bottom of the dam. The quickly dissipating wave from the rise gave up a feeding trout’s position. A quick look at the surface showed no clues, so I started by tying on a Parachute Adams.
A cool May wind was blowing as I made my first cast and watched what I thought would be a perfect cast disappear into the trees. A few coaxing tugs and the Adams came free from the tree limb, and then two fish immediately came to the surface and took something with a vicious swirl. I checked my fly and waited to make another cast. I looked to my left, and at eye level was a small green worm hanging from a thin silken thread. It was about an inch long, and with the next wind gust it disappeared into the water.
I watched it float for a short distance, slowly sink to the stream bottom, and then I forgot about it. An hour later and still fishless, I was starting to get a little frustrated. A number of trout continued to feed but not on a regular basis, it was here and there, and my flies went unnoticed. The only observation I could make was that there was more feeding activity after a gust of wind. Whatever these fish were feeding on had to be falling out of the trees. A window of light allowed me to see the backlit glare of another silken string with a green worm attached hanging from a tree branch directly across from me. This could be it! I opened my fly boxes, filled with all kinds of terrestrial patterns, but I had nothing even close to the green worm. There was no question the leaves held a large number of the little green worms, so I collected a few samples and headed home.
That evening at the tying bench I went through my materials trying to match the chartreuse worm, but nothing I had came close. The next day I sent off a sample of the color to E. Hille in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, then a major supplier of tying supplies. Hille responded by sending me a greenish cotton chenille that they thought might work. Thinking that it was not a close enough match, I tried Reed Tackle in New Jersey, and they quickly came back with a nylon chartreuse chenille, which looked almost perfect.
The following Saturday morning found me back on Huntington Creek with a selection of green worms. I checked the trees and the worms were still there, so I quickly geared up and attached one of my new creations. As usual there were a few feeding fish so I added fly floatant to the fly and made a cast. The fly landed and immediately started to sink, which I thought was not good—until the leader straightened out and I almost forgot to react. A few minutes later I held a 12-inch wild brown trout with my green worm firmly planted in his jaw. The next two hours of fishing were almost too easy, simply pop the worm in and get ready to strike. Although I saw trout take floating inchworms, I found that the faster my inchworm sank the better it worked, so I eventually added lead wire under the chenille body with a size 12, 2X-long hook. It was the perfect match to the natural insects.
The next weekend, noted authors Vincent Marinaro and Charlie Meck showed up to fish my home stream, Fishing Creek. I was excited to show them the new worm and have them give it a try. Marinaro declined because the fly sank, and he was a committed dry-fly fisherman. Meck had no problems with a sinking fly, and he later added a tail to the pattern and called it the Green Weenie. Tail or not, the fly works!
Inchworms are actually not worms at all, but small caterpillars, and are the larval stages of a moths—in this case the geometer moth. Inchworms have legs at both ends and when they move, their bodies arch. As the body straightens out again, the worm moves about one inch. Inchworms hatch in the spring of each year, and they molt several times as they eat leaves and grow. They can spin silky threads which they use to move through the tree canopy.
They are not limited to the Northeast, in fact there are 35,000 different species of geometer moths around the world. In South American rivers like the Collen Cura in Argentina, they literally defoliate the bankside willows, and often provide fly fishers with some of the best fishing of the season.
Mopping them Up
Small inchworms are hard to miss because they are so prolific, but sometimes larger caterpillars are even more important to trout, yet undetected by fly fishers. One of the most common of these is the caterpillar of the sphinx moth (family Sphingidae).
Like inchworms, these chartreuse caterpillars spend their time eating leaves and they often fall into streams and sink toward the bottom. Many of these larger species grow to be three or four inches long, calorie-rich morsels that are comparable in food value to some species of cicadas or stoneflies. In other words, they are a big deal.
Fly Fisherman magazine editor Ross Purnell and I spent one unforgettable May afternoon casting sinking size 10 chartreuse caterpillars under overhanging tree limbs and watching as trout raced out from the undercut banks to charge the flies. The biggest trout in the river were looking for them.
For years I tied oversized chartreuse caterpillars simply by going to a larger size 10, 4X-long hook, doubling the wraps of chartreuse chenille, adding a green beadhead, and creating what looked to be an inchworm on steroids. Then Sage Rod Company’s Russ Miller showed up from Seattle with a chartreuse worm tied from the tentacles of a dust mop.
The color and size were perfect, and Miller spent two days showing me just how well the mop fly worked. In fact, it was so good that I made a mental note to never fish behind this guy because he literally mopped up every trout in his path. The chartreuse body material he used is actually from a washing mitt or mop that can be found at most any grocery, hardware store, or auto supply. You can visit YouTube and find easy-to-follow videos on how to tie the Mop Fly. You may think this is an off-the-wall pattern and even joke about it, but a chartreuse mop with a green beadhead is the perfect imitation for large chartreuse caterpillars.
There is also a dark side to caterpillar fishing, as there are a lot of caterpillars with black bodies, including the common Eastern tent caterpillar and the invasive gypsy moth.
There are six species of tent caterpillars in North America. These caterpillars build a large tent-like web in trees where they can move from one tent to another to feast on host tree leaves. Fully grown tent caterpillars are about two inches long, and have hairy mostly black bodies trimmed in brown with additional areas of blue or orange.
Appearing in about the same sizes and colors is the gypsy moth, brought to the U.S. in 1869 to start a silkworm industry that failed miserably. The gypsy moth has become a major pest in the Northeast. These caterpillars have voracious appetites and can quickly defoliate a tree. Both the tent and the gypsy moth caterpillars have long hairs that increase their surface area and make them more buoyant when they land on the water.
While the inchworms and larger Sphingidae caterpillars float only short distances before they sink, gypsy moth and tent caterpillars float on the surface for long distances.
Floating or Sinking?
Both caterpillars are easy to imitate by using a size 10, 4X-long hook, a body of peacock ice dubbing with a black foam cylinder, and a palmered ginger grizzly hackle. A floating tent caterpillar has solved some problem fish for me, and provided some explosive surface strikes, but the downside is that the naturals move and twist as they float on the surface and this movement is difficult to imitate just by stripping and twitching the line. The dry flies are stiff and lifeless compared to the movement you can get underwater from a pattern like a Mop Fly. I’m convinced that the twisting and turning of the naturals both in the water and on the surface draws the attention of the trout.
Another caterpillar that shows up in the Northeast in the fall is the banded woolly bear (tiger moth), which if you believe in legends can forecast the severity of coming winter weather. These bristled caterpillars have 13 distinct segments of either rusty brown or black hairs. According to legend, if the coming winter is mild, the caterpillars are dominated by the rusty brown sections; if a severe winter is coming, the caterpillars will be mostly black.
As you might expect, woolly bears are widespread in cold trout-bearing regions and are found as far north as the Arctic. We see a lot of them in September and October in Pennsylvania, New York, and New England, and yes they do often find their way into the water. Like other caterpillars covered in hair or bristles, they often float for long distances and I have had some surprising (yet inconsistent) success with a clipped black and brown deer hair body tied on a size 10, 2X-long hook.
I have always had my best days with sinking inch worms or the larger chartreuse worms. There have been some productive times with a floating caterpillar, but the sinking chartreuse patterns win hands down. Often, if I’m casting into the shadows with a sinking caterpillar, I use a small strike indicator and try to be ready for that magic moment when the fly hits the water and just starts to sink. It’s in that moment that you’ll often get an instant response from the trout. Honestly, in the right water conditions when I have good visibility and can sight-fish, I have watched trout move five feet to charge the sinking inchworm.
One thing for sure, if you fish in areas that have inchworm populations you definitely want to carry a selection of chartreuse imitations, and always carry a few floating patterns for the tent moths and gypsy moths in your arsenal.
Cathy and Barry Beck are on the advisory staffs of Sage, Redington, RIO, and Tibor Reels. They are also hosts for Frontiers International. Their previous story “Beetle Up!” appeared in the Aug.-Sep. 2013 issue and is on-line at flyfisherman.com/beetle-up.
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