I followed Route 453 South from Tyrone, glancing down at the Little Juniata River flowing low and clear in the early morning light. For years, I’ve been threatening to fish it, and this was finally the day – or so I thought. But after making a few turns and heading into Spruce Creek the town, for some unknown reason I made the turn to head up Spruce Creek the stream.
A mile or so later, I pulled into the parking lot of the George W. Harvey Experimental Fisheries Area. I always figured my odds of seeing a unicorn were better than finding that parking lot empty. But there it was, a bright sunny morning and not a vehicle in sight. I took it as an omen and decided the Little J could wait until evening.
After suiting up, I walked the beaten path to the downstream property boundary where a wire spanned the creek with a no trespassing sign hung on it. At this point, Spruce Creek is maybe 30 feet wide and fairly shallow, although it’s hard to tell since we’ve had such little rain this spring. Many streams and rivers across the region are running well below normal levels. Despite this, I immediately spotted some nice holding water.
One of the many odd quirks I’ve noticed about myself is the tendency to turn my back to the fish as I’m tying on or changing flies. Not sure what that’s all about. Perhaps I’m looking for an edge, the element of surprise. Like I’m going to suddenly whip around and fling my fly out into the current…aha, Prince Nymph! Aha Pheasant Tail! And the trout will gulp it up before realizing he’s been duped.
I can imagine that same trout rubbing its jaw long after I’m gone, saying to his buddies, “I never saw it coming, man…never saw it coming.”
A number of caddis flitted above the water. Mainly Grannoms, although some looked smaller. I opted for a size 16 green X-Caddis. When searching new waters, particularly wild trout waters – and particularly wild trout waters that consist of mostly shallow runs and little pockets – my first choice is typically some sort of attractor dry fly. A caddis pattern is perfect because caddis are present on almost every trout stream in the country, and wild trout are generally so tuned in to surface bugs that fishing “blind” can be quite productive.
My third cast on Spruce Creek brought a beautiful 10-inch, yellow-bellied brown up to the surface. It caught me completely by surprise, and I almost forgot to set the hook. Perhaps that little delay made a difference, for the fly came up and there was no fish attached to it. Only in fly fishing, I think, can we purpose to do something while expecting failure and then somehow get caught off guard when things turn out successful after all.
Upstream, I floated the X-Caddis several times through a deeper pool, and then switched to a brown caddis pupa that I’d tied the night before. A few casts later, I felt the twitch and set the hook a little too emphatically, and out of the water flew a 5-inch brown trout.
I regained composure, netted the little fella, and did a couple fist pumps in the air. It might seem ridiculous to fist pump over such a small fish, but it wasn’t so much the fish as what it represented that got me excited. My first Spruce Creek wild brown trout was actually a bucket list moment.
I picked my way upstream, lobbing a nymph or dry fly into every likely lair and tangled with a few more small browns. At another, bigger pool I landed a very nice wild rainbow, an almost-perfect fish that fought hard and even went airborne a couple of times. Unfortunately, I released it before remembering to take a photo. Oh well. Some images are meant to exist only in memory.
It was now shortly after noon and I’d been fishing about 3 hours. There was one more very nice pool to work over before coming to the end of the open water. Caddis filled the air. Some Grannoms, some tan caddis, and who knows what else. Trout rose sporadically to bugs I couldn’t see, although I assumed they were feeding on some type of caddis. One of these trout was a substantial wild brown, the largest I’d encountered so far, and an overall damned nice fish.
I nymphed the pool first and came up empty. The big brown continued to rise, although not with any consistency.
Finally, I tied on the green X-Caddis and made a few short casts. Feeling confident, I stripped out more line and placed the fly exactly where it needed to be. It drifted down into the feeding lane. The ideal drift. No drag. The large brown lifted off the bottom and put his nose to the fly, refused at the last second, went down, came back up, turned away, came back. I wanted to scream, “For godsakes, eat the damn thing!”
Instead, the large brown backed off once again and sunk in the current until it blended perfectly with the stream bottom. I don’t think I’ve ever had a trout so completely undress my fly like that. I felt violated.
After toying with the brown a few more minutes, I tipped my cap and moved on, working every bit of water that looked “fishy” until I came to the end of the section. Four hours and a handful of fish. Not a bad outing on what has always been a bucket list stream for me.
When I was a kid, the photos of huge browns and behemoth rainbows caught in Spruce Creek got my imagination going, and I viewed more than one fly fishing video that had been filmed on these famous waters. From these, I assumed Spruce Creek was chock full of giant trout, and I made it a point to someday fish there.
As time went on, I realized the deception. Yes, Spruce Creek is full of big fish, but most of them reside behind posted signs and in club-owned stretches of stream that can only be fished for a price.
There are currently only two short sections of Spruce Creek open to the public, .1 miles of stream owned by the PFBC (section 3 of the stream/Indian Cavern) and the .5-mile stretch owned by Penn State University (section 5) which is used as a study area for wild trout. The latter is regulated as a Catch and Release Artificial Lures Only.
It’s easy to get bitter about losing access to what some consider one of Pennsylvania’s best trout streams. Spruce Creek has been referred to as “The Trout Stream of the Presidents” because of past visits by presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter, but I have a feeling they had access to just about anywhere they wanted to fish. Truth is, it’s the private waters that have made Spruce Creek famous.
Every year, we lose access to countless streams via posting or development, and some of them may even be better than Spruce Creek. We just don’t hear about them because they don’t have the history of private clubs with mammoth trout.
Such is life, or as Billy Pilgrim says in Slaughterhouse-Five, “So it goes.”
For the record, if given the chance to fish one of the sections of private waters on Spruce Creek, I’d jump at the opportunity. Until then, and perhaps as a sort of consolation prize, there's always the hope of latching onto one of the occasional lunkers that wanders into the public access from the club waters.
No matter how you look at it, Spruce Creek is a part of Pennsylvania’s fly fishing heritage. Public access may be limited to just over half a mile worth of stream, but it’s a great half mile. When you have something that beautiful, I guess it’s only human nature to want more.
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