Spur of the moment fishing trips are the best. Like when my friend Brian Pitell called up on a Tuesday and asked if I’d be available to go fishing that weekend. “I have a reservation at Trout Haven to fish Spruce Creek,” Brian said. Long story short, another guy was supposed to go but canceled, so Brian called me. “Can you go?”
“I’d love to,” I said, “but I can’t afford that right now.”
“No worries,” Brian said, “I got it covered.”
After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I stammered out a “Yes, yes, I’ll go!”
After I got off the phone with him, I called my wife Natalie to make sure it was okay that I went away that weekend. Natalie often says my personal motto should be “It is better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission” and I can’t argue against it, mainly because I know she’d never stop me from spending time outdoors. (Quick disclaimer: this motto and method of reasoning may not work for everyone in every situation. Reader discretion is advised!)
Last year on this blog, I wrote about a trip to Spruce Creek where I fished the George Harvey Experimental Fisheries Area, which is one of only two very short sections of the stream open to the public. I did well that day, landing a couple nice little browns and a beautiful wild rainbow. (You can read about that experience and the history of Spruce Creek HERE.)
A few folks commented on the post and emailed me, one of them saying that it was a shame that I couldn’t have gotten the “real” Spruce Creek experience. Alas, I lamented not being able to access the private club waters which have given Spruce Creek the reputation as a premiere trout stream in Pennsylvania, if not the country. At the end of that article, though, I said that I’d jump if ever given the opportunity to fish those waters. Well, Brian’s generous offer certainly made me jump!
And that’s how I came to gaze down at a beautiful brown trout well over 20 inches. My fingers loosely gripped the narrow part in front of its tail as I snapped a few pics with my cell phone. And then I watched it fin back out into the cold, soft current, perfectly visible beside a rock in the crystal clear water.
My first introduction to Spruce Creek was probably when I was about 14 or so and I’d gotten a VHS tape of Doug Swisher’s Strategies for Selective Trout, which I believe you can still view on YouTube in all its fuzzy, low-resolution glory. But the tips and techniques in that film are as relevant today as they were then. From it, I learned things like how to set up your fishing vest for quick and easy access so that you wasted less time searching for whatever item you needed – clippers, leader, tippet – and more time fishing. The idea was that every second saved throughout the course of the day added up, and by day’s end you could have your line in the water longer and, therefore, catch more trout.
Now that I think of it, I could probably use a refresher on that lesson. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more complicated, which is really just another way of saying I’m even more disorganized now than I used to be.
Another lesson gained from the Swisher video was the effectiveness of attractor-style dry flies when there’s no hatch to match. Swisher championed flies such as the Ugly Rudamus and Madam X. After watching a mammoth rainbow trout attack a Madam X in the video, I ordered a dozen of them from Cabela’s until I figured out how to tie them myself.
Much of the video was filmed on Spruce Creek. Although I hadn’t known back then the exclusive nature of the stream, I filed it away in my “someday” list of streams to fish. Only once I got older did I realize the price tag to fish Spruce Creek was as large as the fish that lived there.
Needless to say, I feel incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to experience the “real” Spruce Creek, and I’m extremely thankful to Brian for thinking of me to fill the vacant spot. And by the way, along with being an avid fly fisherman, Brian Pitell is a financial planner and founder of BPG Planning. If you’re in need of financial services, you can check out his website HERE.
Back to the fishing…
There’s little doubt that Trout Haven is trout heaven. Not only do the clubs along Spruce Creek stock some whopper browns and rainbows, but there are also lots of stream-bred browns and brook trout already present. And from what I understand, the Trout Haven section of stream is arguably the best section of all and has the highest density of fish. Even still, these fish weren’t exactly pushovers, and a poor cast sent them diving for cover as quickly as any other trout in any other stream.
We arrived at noon at Trout Haven and had lunch. After that, Brian and his brother and dad headed downstream with two guides while I worked upstream from the lodge. I tied on a Chubby Chernobyl and got a decent drift under some low-hanging willows. A large shadow moved out from the far bank and charged the fly but refused at the last second.
I floated the Chubby Chernobyl through a few more shaded spots and likely lairs with no luck, and then crossed a small bridge. The afternoon temperature already approached 90 degrees and the sky was a cloudless blue with little to no wind. The stream surface has that smooth glass appearance of a typical limestoner. Fortunately, Spruce Creek runs cold on even the hottest summer days, seldom getting higher than the mid-60s.
On the downstream side of the bridge, I stripped out a bunch of line and let the fly fall directly out in front of me. I thought that perhaps if I got my fly over the fish ahead of the line that I would have better luck, and I was right. On back-to-back casts, I landed a 14-inch brown and a 16-inch rainbow. They chomped on the Chubby Chernobyl like it owed them money.
One of the many oddities of trout is their shyness towards any fly that doesn’t match the hatch perfectly, yet they’ll slam a Chubby Chernobyl with great enthusiasm. Sometimes fly fishing just doesn’t make sense.
I landed a couple more nice browns before heading upstream. Much of it was either pocket water or sheltered lies that only perfect casts could reach, and although I’m confident in my abilities, it’s only a matter of time before luck runs out and the willows get their way. I picked up a fish here and there over the next hour, but nothing substantial.
And then, around 3 o’clock, the wind picked up. The tall grasses bordering Spruce Creek waved in the wind and the water’s surface got choppy, which helped conceal my presence on the bank. Prime conditions for the Chubby Chernobyl, and I landed 8 good-sized trout on what felt like 8 consecutive casts.
I ended the afternoon with 16 trout in approximately 3 hours of fishing, and then walked back to the lodge to enjoy a good dinner. After dinner, conditions were completely changed and the trout were hunkered down for the evening. I landed only one fish, a 12-inch brown on a Sexy Walt, before dark.
The next morning, we changed things up and I headed out with the guide Tom farther downstream. I picked up a nice rainbow on the Chubby Chernobyl on about my fourth cast. After that, the trout snubbed that fly and barely even looked up at it as it floated over their heads, one perfect drift after another. We dropped off Brian’s brother and dad at a huge cascade pool loaded with fish, and Tom and I headed down to a nice pool below a culvert. We were there only a few minutes before trout started rising near the far bank to some bugs we couldn’t see.
After messing around with the Chubby Chernobyl, we added a dropper nymph and picked up a couple of browns. We probably could’ve caught trout consistently on nymphs, but the mysterious morning hatch seemed to gain intensity and more fish started rising. Finally, Tom tied a small Blue Wing Olive on my tippet, saying, “If the fly they’re feeding on is too small to see, a Blue Wing Olive is usually as good a fly as any to start with.”
And he was right. First cast, an 18-inch brown came up and inhaled the BWO. Although it wasn’t the biggest catch of the trip, it was the hardest fighter, most beautiful, and my personal favorite since it was obviously not a stocked fish. The coloration reminded me of the wild browns I’ve caught on LeTort Spring Run.
Hitting a mayfly hatch on Spruce Creek was one of the most memorable experiences of my season so far. Everything about it was “classic” fly fishing. To get a take, the fly had to land perfectly in their feeding lane and have absolutely zero drag, otherwise all you’d get were refusals.
It was also nice to have a guide, which I hadn’t anticipated. Being the last-minute guest, and more experienced than the others, I was more than happy to fish alone. But it was nice to have someone to chat with, someone to tie on my flies and untangle any messes I’d made with my leader and tippet. It was a relaxing and enjoyable experience, a reminder that fishing doesn’t always have to be serious business, and, in fact, can even be fun!
The BWO fooled about a half dozen more browns before it was time for breakfast. By then, the hatch had subsided and the fish were feeding subsurface again. After breakfast, although I still could’ve fished another hour – our time slot wasn’t up until noon – I decided to pack up my gear and call it a day. After catching lots of big trout on over-sized Chubby Chernobyls one day and tiny mayflies the next, I didn’t feel a need to catch any more. My “real” Spruce Creek experience was complete.