BIG FISH ON THE LITTLE LEHIGH

More than two dozen years ago, my wife and I went on a two-day pilgrimage to southeastern Pennsylvania’s Cumberland County where I had cast my flies in limestone streams once fished by fly-fishing luminaries, Charlie Fox and Vincent Marinaro, and more recently by another member of fly-fishing fame, Ed Shenk. It was late summer, and the brown trout that call the state’s limestone creeks home were especially spooky.

I did my best to fish with the upmost stealth. Although I never entered the water, at the sound of my boot steps, the trout in Big Spring Creek fled toward the undercut banks and under the vegetation that grew in long wavering strands.

I had no better luck the following morning, casting my flies on the Yellow Breeches.

But it was the LeTort Spring Run that I really came to fish, to follow in the footsteps of the amiable Charlie Fox and those of Vincent Marinaro, who had a reputation for not suffering fools lightly. I carried with me a dog-eared copy of Marinaro’s A Modern Dry-Fly Code. A book, I purchased while in college. Since then, I’d underlined many of its passages while adding notations along the margins. It had never occurred to me that the first edition of this groundbreaking book would have any value beyond the wisdom I’d found between its covers.

V_Marinaro

As you might expect, the brown trout of the LeTort were no kinder to a mediocre angler than those of Big Spring Creek or any of the other streams I’d sampled as we toured the region. Like the ghosts of those anglers who spent their lives beside its banks, the brown trout of the LeTort would momentarily appear in those few openings between the watercress and other sub-surface vegetation for which the stream is known, only to fade from sight whenever my fly touched upon the surface.

Last week, with the water in Bonnie Brook as low as I’ve seen it, Trish and I decided to travel to another of Pennsylvania’s hallowed waters, the spring creek known as the Little Lehigh. In particular, I wanted to fish the short stretch of stream from the parking lot below the fish hatchery to the Route 78 overpass. I’d read about the stream’s fussy brown trout and wondered if whatever skill I’d acquired over the past twenty-four years would serve me well on a stream that was once the home water of another fly-fishing legend, Jim Leisenring. Big Jim, as he his friends called him, became known for the wet flies he created and the methods he used to fish them. His technique of swinging a wet fly to a holding fish and then lifting his rod to simulate an insect rising to the surface became known as the Leisenring Lift.

IMG_1038

Trish and I were pleasantly surprised to find a park with a manicured lawn adjacent to this stretch of the Little Lehigh, with a high ridge bordering the far bank. On this sunny day in the middle of October the hardwood trees along the stream were ablaze in hues of yellow and gold.

A path bordering the stream provided easy access to a number of placid pools and gentle riffles. Although in early spring, local songbirds take advantage of the many houses set out along the path, this afternoon, they chattered from bushes, perhaps gossiping about the change of season. Located within the City limits of Allentown, the park makes for a pleasant place to spend an afternoon.

Trish decided to hike up a trail that extends above the parking lot while I tramped across the road onto the grass beside the Heritage section of the stream. There were a few other anglers present, but plenty of room to get off by myself.  I began by knotting a #20 wet fly to a 7x tippet (Think small!) and swinging the soft-hackled pattern through a set of riffles. Like Leisenring had espoused, I lifted the tip of my fly rod at the end of each drift, but without any result.

After an hour or so, I decided to employ a technique I learned on the West Branch of the Delaware, where the fish are also known to send the novice home grumbling at their selectivity. It’s called look before you cast. I placed my fly rod across my waders and sat upon the bank, my eyes on the surface of a glassy section of stream.

west branch

It took some time, but eventually a set of rings emanated from the far side of the pool. Still, I waited, unsure of whether what I saw was a beechnut falling from an overhanging branch or one of the stream’s resident brown trout.

Over the next few minutes, I fidgeted with my gear, until a dorsal fin broke the surface, not any dorsal fin, but one large enough to make me shudder with anticipation. I snipped off the wet fly and tied a #22 blue-winged olive emerger (Think really small!!) to a twelve-foot leader. (Think really long.)

Taking my time getting into position, I cast the fly a number of feet above the fish and watched as the fly floated back down. After a number of casts, I noticed that my exceptionally long leader had become tangled. Back on the bank, I told myself that I hadn’t expected to actually entice one of these fussy fish to my fly, and so there should be no regret. After all, it had been a lovely afternoon, on a fine piece of water.

I switched to a more manageable nine-foot leader, but was unsure as to what fly to use. With one eye on the water and the other scanning my fly box, I remembered a chapter in Marinaro’s book about the use of patterns that imitate terrestrials. At the time, it had been a revolutionary insight, but these days it is common knowledge that fish will readily take any ant, beetle, or grasshopper unfortunate enough to fall into a stream. Heeding the ornery sage’s advice, I knotted an #18 black ant (Not so small) to my tippet.

Two casts slipped harmlessly over the seam where I’d seen the trout rise, but on the third, the surface erupted, the ant lost in a vortex of water. Unbelieving, I nevertheless had enough presence of mind to pull back on the butt of my fly rod. To my utter astonishment, I felt the power of a serious fish on the other end of my line. The Little Lehigh is not a wide stream, no more than thirty or forty feet from one bank to the other, but the fish used what water it had by swinging from the far side to the near while taking line from my reel.

After a number of runs, the trout drew close enough for me to confirm it was one of largest browns I’d encountered. I was sure the fish would break me off or slip the hook.

Whispering a prayer to the fishing gods, I imagined Marinaro growling at my ineptitude as the fish fought on, while after a number of minutes, Big Jim Leisenring merely smiled when Mr. Brown measured twenty inches against the side of my rod.

I was still trembling with excitement when Trish came walking across the lawn.

“Any luck?” she asked.

“Nothing but,” I replied.

10 Responses to “BIG FISH ON THE LITTLE LEHIGH”

  1. marylandflyfishingshow Says:

    Always enjoy reading your passages. I feel like I am right along side of you!

  2. Dean Blumetti Says:

    Thanks Bob. Always love reading your posts and stories. It was great seeing you back in June on the Magalloway.

    Dean Blumetti

  3. pbergamo123 Says:

    I spent a lot of my early fly fishing years on the limestone streams of Pennsylvania and was on the Yellow Breeches every mid-August for about 15 years for the white fly hatch. I had the pleasure of being guided by Charlie Fox on his piece of the Letort and managed to land one sizeable brown using a Letort Cricket. I also spent a fair amount of time on the Little Lehigh catching mostly stocked browns with tiny flies when my eyes were much better. Although it was artificially created, the section of the Paulinskill on Limecrest Road near Sparta had a steady flow of cold, nutrient rich water that was pumped from the limestone quarry. It was like a mini Letort with a chance to land 2 or 3 holdover or wild brown trout on a Summer morning. The quarry shut down and the trout are gone.

    Fond memories to be sure but I have become a diehard fan of the wild brook trout and spend what time I can get since moving to South Jersey on waters like your Bonnie Brook.

    • forgottentrout Says:

      I live so close to Pa. and only now exploring the streams across the border during those months when Bonnie Brook is too low. Part of the allure is fishing in the shadows of fly-fishing royalty, whether in Pa.,the Catskills or western Maine, where I have my seasonal camp.

  4. rivertoprambles Says:

    Great job on a spring creek. Awesome fish!

  5. Leighton Says:

    Love the article, Bob. Leighton

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

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