May 11, 2020
This story was originally titled "A Walk on the Wild Side: Blue-lining Pennsylvania’s Class A Wild trout streams." It appeared in the 2020 April-May issue of Fly Fisherman.
The little creek flowed cold and clear as it tumbled and sparkled over the stones in a series of riffles before dropping and fanning out into a small pool of calmer water. The pool was shaded by the overhanging branches of a hemlock that grew tight against the water’s edge. Its roots stabilized the streambank, and provided cover and protection for anything that might live there.
My sidearm cast put a Female Adams back under the limbs of the hemlock, and the little fly danced and drifted on the tips of its hackles for a moment before the surface of the pool erupted and the little fly disappeared. The line went tight, and in a minute a beautifully speckled creature lay gasping with exhaustion in the palm of my hand. The wormlike markings across its back, the vividly haloed spots peppered across its flanks, and the brightly edged fins along its belly were the most beautiful things I had ever witnessed. Amazed, I held the fish briefly before letting it slip out of my hand and dart back into the dark shadows of the stream, knowing that I had just witnessed something perfect and pure.
That encounter with my first native brook trout took place almost a lifetime ago in a headwater stream called Hammersley Fork in north-central Pennsylvania. There have been many similar encounters in the 45 years since then, and I always continue to be charmed and awestruck by these wild fish and their beauty.
While I truly love the challenge of matching hatches and the game of cracking the code on big, selectively feeding trout, there’s something very simple and deeply satisfying for me in exploring small headwater streams in a game known as “blue-lining.” Here in the Northeast—where stocking hatchery-
reared trout has been a traditional management practice on larger waters for many years—there is a definite philosophical shift taking place, and many fly fishers are choosing instead to seek out those waters where naturally reproducing populations of wild trout remain.
There also seems to be a change in values—anglers pursuing an experience that offers solitude in a wilder, more natural setting. For most blue-line anglers, it’s about experiencing what nature does better than humankind ever can, and at the same time, finding a closer connection to the natural world.
In Pennsylvania, we are fortunate to have more than 86,500 miles of running water. And while many streams haven’t yet been studied for wild trout populations, several thousand miles of water have been determined to hold “Class A Wild” trout populations. Numerous other streams support lower biomass levels of wild trout.
Most of the Class A Wild waters are smaller, first- or second-order creeks and brooks that are tributaries to larger streams and river drainages. Most of these waters hold resident wild brook trout, brown trout, or a mixture of both species. There are only a few streams with wild populations of naturally reproducing rainbow trout.
Class A Wild streams are the best of the best in Pennsylvania, based on the fish population levels. For a stream to qualify as a Class A Wild brook trout stream, there must be a minimum of 26.7 pounds of brook trout per stream acre, and they must comprise at least 75 percent of the total trout biomass found. A Class A Wild brown trout stream must exceed a minimum of 35.6 pounds per acre, and browns must represent at least 75 percent of the total trout biomass. Wild rainbow trout have the least restrictive criteria and must have a minimum of 1.78 pounds per stream acre and represent at least 75 percent of the wild trout.
Fortunately, we have quite a lengthy list of streams that meet these criteria, and they are scattered statewide. There are even more streams that are designated as Class B, C, and D Wild Trout water, and there are potentially more Class A streams out there—many have just not been studied yet.
There are Class A Wild streams in every region of Pennsylvania, and many of the best small streams in the state flow through publicly accessible land within state forests, state game lands, designated wild areas, and state parks. Some of the areas worth looking at are Tiadaghton, Sproul, Tioga, Susquehannock, Tuscarora, and Loyalsock state forests. Within these are some remarkable state-designated wild areas such as Burns Run, Hammersley, Asaph, and Algerine. Although many of these little gems are on public land, some Class A Wild streams are on private land, where access requires landowner permission.
The small-stream game often begins with long sessions studying maps to find those blue lines that indicate running water, and then determining how to access them. Every large stream system is made up of a number of smaller tributaries, and many of these support wild trout. Some streams are simple to reach from a road or trail, but others may require a lengthy hike to get to them, and this is a big part of the experience.
While most maps identify flowing water with thin blue lines, not all of them clearly show the contours of the land. Topographic maps such as USGS quadrangles are invaluable for identifying the best approaches to a remote stream when a long hike is involved. What appears on the map to be a relatively short hike can turn into a nightmare when you find that the “short” hike takes you down the side of a mountain that drops hundreds of feet to the bottom of a stream valley. Studying the brown contour lines of a topo map will help you determine the best way to get to and back out from a small stream.
Planning the hike into a remote wild trout stream is often the most important part of the trip. Beyond that, the game can be unpredictable, which lends an additional element of excitement. You never know what you may find when you finally get there. Some of my treks into remote streams have led to discovering incredible waters, with beautiful wild brook and brown trout in remarkable surroundings that have probably never been cast over in their lives. Other streams have turned out to be nearly unfishable, with dense, impenetrable thickets of tall rhododendrons or mountain laurels that prevented me from making a cast, or even getting to the water to attempt one. There are no guarantees of what you will find at the end of a hike, and the lure of the unknown and the adventure are big parts of the pull of these ribbons of water.
For hardcore blue-liners who want to go completely off the grid, Pennsylvania has more than 75 streams that are designated as
wilderness trout streams. You can find a list of these at the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission website fishandboat.com by searching for “wilderness trout.” Most of these streams require lengthy hikes to access them, but they offer prime opportunities to backpack in and camp in a remote area.
For much of the year, a typical mountain stream holds populations of smaller brook and brown trout. A 7- or 8-inch brookie represents a real prize, and resident browns are typically under a foot. The trout establish themselves in a pecking order, with the bigger, more dominant fish taking pools that offer the best cover and feeding opportunities. The younger fish are pushed into less favorable holding lies such as smaller pools, pockets, and runs, or into the tail sections of the larger pools. It’s important to recognize this hierarchy when you encounter a larger pool, because a careless approach often scatters the smaller fish and spooks any bigger fish that might be holding in the best lies of the same pool.
Interestingly, in the late evening or at daybreak—when winged predators such as kingfishers and herons are on the roost—larger fish often drop back into the shallow tails of pools, where they can feed on crayfish, moths, minnows, sculpins, and juvenile trout. A cautious approach at these times of day might provide opportunities for larger trout in a small-stream setting.
As spring gives way to summer and stream temperatures begin to warm, larger fish that have spent the winter and spring in bigger rivers begin to seek out water that is more thermally favorable: the spring seeps and smaller headwater tributaries that often remain cold through the summer months. Larger, sexually mature brown trout often migrate into these smaller streams and remain there until they have spawned, and drop back only when water temperatures have cooled in the bigger stream below. My friend Eric Richard of Coveted Waters Guide Service and I know a pool we have named the Gum Line Pool on a very small stream, where we predictably see a pair of large browns appear every fall for the spawn.
Fishing small streams is often more physically challenging than fishing large streams and rivers, but seldom puts you into technical fishing situations with selective fish. It’s an experience that is simple, basic, and refreshing.
It’s a great opportunity to go light, with little more than a box of flies and a few basic accessories. While 7-inch native brook trout are seldom choosy about flies, they can be spooky or difficult to cast to, and on many pools the challenge is merely getting a fly on the water. While a 40-foot cast on a larger stream is easy, a 10- or 15-foot cast on a small mountain stream can be challenging. Blue-liners often cast from their knees, making sidearm or bow-and-arrow casts to get the fly back under a low overhanging tree or rhododendron branch.
While some anglers use long fly rods on small streams, I prefer shorter rods, which are easier to transport through thick cover in the woods, and easier to cast overhead or sidearm in tight quarters. The rods I carry most often range from 6 ½ to 7½ feet and take line weights from 3 to 5. I fish a 7-foot 4-weight rod most of the time, but may go up or down a line size depending on water flows.
One of the most important parts of my small-stream rig is the leader, which is critical to making an accurate cast in a confined area. Generic, prepackaged 9-foot tapered leaders are inadequate for this specialized fishing. The 7½-foot leaders I tie are based on a George Harvey formula, with a long, stiff butt section, a very short transition, and just enough tippet to get a clean, drag-free drift. The leader butt and transition are tied with sections of a fairly stiff nylon material such as Maxima Ultra Green, while the last two sections are made from a soft nylon tippet material such as TroutHunter. At times, you may be casting only the leader and a very short length of fly line, which makes the leader key to making accurate fly deliveries. I seldom find a need to go lighter than a 4X tippet on my leaders for this type of fishing, and a longer leader is seldom necessary.
On the terminal end, I use a very simple selection of flies that have served me well over the years. For dry flies, you can succeed with any hairwing patterns that float well and are easy to see in broken water. I’ve been using Fran Betters’s Ausable Wulff since I first learned of it in the early 1980s. It floats well, it is easy to see, and it will support a nymph below it on a dropper. I carry these in sizes 12 and 14.
My second choice is my Little Yellow Stone in sizes 14 and 16, which imitates the Yellow Sally, Isoperla bilineata. Yellow Sallies hatch on most northern Pennsylvania streams from late May through most of the summer, and trout are very fond of them. My third choice is Craig Mathews’s X-caddis tied on size 14 or 16 hooks. I carry versions with both tan and olive bodies.
I also carry a small assortment of nymphs and soft-hackled nymph patterns, all with tungsten beads to get them down in the zone quickly. The holding pools are sometimes smaller than a bathtub, and nymph patterns need to sink fast. I carry a few soft-hackle patterns that I can use to cover a pool from above when an upstream approach isn’t possible, and a few small streamers tied on size 10 and 12 hooks.
Additional Notes for Fly Fishing Pennsylvania's Small Streams
If you decide to give blue-lining a try, there are a few things to keep in mind. Study a map of the area you will be visiting and understand the area and its topography. There is a very good chance that you won’t have Wi-Fi or cell phone service, and you should always let someone know where you will be fishing, so they will know where to start looking if something goes wrong. Carry a headlamp or a small flashlight to find your way out in the dark, a full container or two of water to stay hydrated, and a few high-calorie snack bars to maintain your energy.
For your safety, always make noise in wilderness areas—sow bears with cubs can be very aggressive and protective if you surprise them. Rattlesnakes are common in many rocky streamside areas during the warm months, so keep your eyes open and look before you step. Snakes generally try to avoid you if you give them the chance. Fortunately, the buzz of a rattler provides a good audible warning. Copperheads also inhabit these areas and can be very hard to see with their markings that blend well with the surroundings, and they won’t warn you of their presence the way a rattlesnake will. If you suddenly smell a strong odor of cucumbers, you could be very close to a copperhead.
The most likely threat to your personal safety is deer ticks, which carry Lyme disease. Use insect repellent, or wear Simms BugStopper clothing to keep the ticks off. Check yourself well at the end of the day, and see a doctor as soon as you can if you have been bitten.
These small wild trout streams are important treasures, and the few fly fishers who know them well enjoy and protect them. They are valuable sources of cold water for their watersheds, and indicators of the overall health of the larger ecosystem, as well as vital spawning grounds.
Remember, too, that the fish in these streams are fragile creatures and can be easily damaged by improper handling. A 7- or 8-inch wild brook trout in a mountain stream can be four or five years old, so it takes a long time to replace one. Pinch down your hook barbs, wet your hands before handling them, keep trout in the water until you are ready to shoot a picture, and release them carefully for another day. In the fall, always be on the lookout for spawning redds, and avoid fishing small streams until the spawn is over.
While the blue-line experience isn’t for everyone, it offers a dose of quiet solitude and a glimpse at wild places that are often spectacular. Sometimes there is nothing better than that kind of diversion in a busy life.
Henry Ramsay is a photographer, custom fly tier, and a fly-fishing and fly-tying instructor. He is the author of Matching Major Eastern Hatches: New Patterns for Selective Trout (Stackpole/Headwater Books, 2011) and coauthor of Keystone Fly Fishing (Headwater Books, 2017). His previous Fly Fisherman story was “Cheesesteak Trout: Urban gems in and around the City of Brotherly Love” in the April-May 2017 issue.