Peter Brookes: Holiday fishing the ‘Little J’ up Pennsylvania way
I’d heard a lot about Pennsylvania fishing – mostly that it could be pretty challenging. Descriptions of its streams and rivers included worrisome words like “technical” and “pressured.”
Not exactly encouraging.
So you can understand my concern when guide Dan Baughman, of Little J Guides (littlejguides.com), told me he was happy to meet on Memorial Day weekend to hit the Little Juniata River in central Pennsylvania.
In our email exchanges, I kept repeating “Saturday of Memorial Day weekend,“ assuming that he hadn’t realized it. It was a perfect time for other – clearly less-worthy – anglers to be on the river, aka the “Little J.“
The guide assured me he knew it was.
Baughman again blew my mind when I asked what time we’d meet up, dreading the almost–inevitable “Zero-Dark Thirty” alarm for me to make the three-hour drive up to Spruce Creek. He said: “Eleven o’clock.”
“You mean we’re going to hit the water at 11 a.m. on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend?,” I wrote, once again wondering what I’d gotten myself into with these guys. “Combat fishing, here I come,” I thought.
I started to think that Little J Guides were responding to my emails after hitting the bar scene at nearby Penn State since their responses often arrived in my inbox late at night.
I figured: “What the heck…it’ll make for a good story if it turns out to be a disaster.”
I met Baughman and his partner Andrew Allender at Spruce Creek Outfitters fly shop, perched on the banks of the Little J. I gave them a once over to see if they had bloodshot eyes or smelled like a brewery.
Nothing. Completely sober. Professional. Knowledgeable. Friendly.
Baughman told me that the plan was to begin with some European-style, tight-line nymphing to be followed by dry fly fishing when the bug hatch kicked off in the early evening.
I’d done plenty of “hopper-dropper” and indicator nymphing before but, let’s just say, I was deeply suspicious of anything “European.“ It turns out that this technique is used widely in central PA for wild brown trout.
Allender told me that most of the browns we’d get into on the spring-fed, limestone-influenced Little J would be in the 12-inch to 16-inch range. There are browns over 20 inches, he told me.
Much to my shock, the first stretch of water we hit on the Little J was deserted, leaving me to work on European nymphing, using a weighted, two-fly rig below a highly visible, colorful piece of tippet known as a “sighter.”
Using the sighter as a strike indicator and “high-sticking” the rod through the water allows you to stay tight to the flies, improving the chances of feeling a trout’s soft take — which anglers often miss while fishing subsurface.
It takes a little getting used to, but in seemingly no time, I hooked up with a 12-inch “brownie,“ using a 10-foot 3-weight rod, a very common setup for tight-line nymphing. That continued throughout the afternoon with lots of hook-ups.
As the sun started to sink in the sky, it was time to rig up for some dry fly fishing in the expectation of one of Pennsylvania’s prodigious mayfly hatches, including Sulphurs, Gray Foxes and Cahills.
A friend recommended I try a Moonshine 4-weight fly rod (moonshinerods.com) for the dry fly fishing. It turned out to be great advice as the rod’s gentle presentation snagged me a couple of buttery browns just as the hatch was kicking off.
As the ambient light disappeared around 9 p.m., the water began to boil as fish pounded mayflies emerging to the surface. For a few minutes, I frenetically cast into the expanding rings hoping for the feel – not sight, due to the darkness – of a brown engulfing my fly.
Nothing this time: As quickly as the feeding frenzy started, it inexplicably ended.
No matter, it’d been a great day. Contrary to the reputation, I didn’t see another fisher all day and while some of the techniques used were new to me, in the hands of great guides, I quickly owned them.
Considering how terrific the fishing is, next time someone asks me about central PA, I’ll continue propagating the clearly self-serving myth by saying – hopefully, without a smile: “Don’t bother: It’s way too busy and much too hard ... just stay home.“
Dr. Peter Brookes is a Washington, D.C., foreign policy wonk who escapes to the great outdoors and his Fort Valley cabin as often as he can.