I headed down to Central Pennsylvania at the end of April to fish the Team USA regional. I was super excited because I had not touched a fly rod since last October, and Central PA is becoming one of my favorite places to fish. Obviously, I was feeling a bit rusty and knowing most other competitors fish year round, I headed down with Stackmend teammate and fellow Vermonter Matt Stedina very early three days ahead of the comp the get some practice in. The Comp was slated to be on Big Fishing Creek, Spring Creek, KIshaloquoas Creek (probably not spelled correctly) and Little Pine Lake. We had only fished Spring Creek so we wanted to learn these other rivers as well.
Arriving we found the rivers to be fairly high with about 6-18" of visibility. Apparently fishing had been as good as it gets the previous weeks due to some warm weather, but things had cooled and levels had come up and fishing was a challenge. We managed to fish all of the rivers and get into fish on each one. Here is a terrible pic of a nice brown I caught in about 6" of water right on the bank on the inside bend on Big Fishing Creek. We also had a practice day on the lake. We easily got into the stocked rainbows and were able to make a game plan for all of the venues. The night before the event Kish Creek was dropped due to high flows, and a second session on the lake was added.
I drew Little Pine Lake to start the comp. Weather forecast was calling for 40 MPH winds. Due to the forecast I changed my leader set up on my lake rod so instead of running a longer thinner leader off my fly line and fishing three flies I used a tapered fluorocarbon leader to a tippet ring and fished only two flies. In practice fish were cruising and eating just under the surface. I began with a midge tip line with is basically a floating line with a 7' intermediate tip to sink just below the surface This way I would be able to turn over the flies easier in the wind and have fewer tangles. I was pumped to be in the boat with World Team Angler Pat Weiss and we both agreed on where to start. First cast I landed a rainbow and was off to a good start. The wind started kicking up and our drogue was not working properly meaning we were drifting too fast and had to spend a lot of time rowing and adjusting the drogue. I landed 3 more fish in the next hour all within our first few casts. Pat had caught one to two less than me at this point. We struggled with the wind and drogue through the middle of the session and got off the fish. I think I lost one that ran directly at me and jumped three times. I could not strip fast enough to keep tension on the fish, I also got broke off by a fish on the take and thats about it. I was having trouble managing my leader when we moved because the wind was blowing so hard and when I would start the drift often had to fix tangles. This definitely cost me a few fish. 2/3 of the way through the three hour session we decided to move down the lake where we had seen another boat catch a few fish. Finally we got into more fish. I managed four more and Pat and I ended up with 8 fish each. I ended up with a disappointing 3rd place in the session, while Pat in the opposite group got a 2 with his 8 fish. The winner in my group got 9 and I lost a tie breaker with another angler who also caught 8. I was certainly hoping for better to start the comp.
The afternoon session was on Big Fishing Creek. I had a decent practice on this river catching fish in slow flats and heavy pockets, so was confident heading into the session, but fishing had still been slow considering the overall fish numbers. Big Fishing Creek in this stretch was about 30-50' wide with tree lined banks hanging over the river and heavy pocket water separated by bouldery flats. The beats were long, maybe 400 yards. This was much longer than I could cover in a 2 hour session so I walked my beat and made a game plan. The bottom of my beat began at the tailout of a long flat where it then dumped into another riffle in the beat below me. There were a few features here at the tailout but just above was the flattest slowest part of the beat. There were no fish rising that I could see but the wind was also still gusting about 40 MPH up the river. The middle of the beat was still fairly flat but had more boulders, logs and holding water that got better as you moved up until coming to a beautiful pool, though it was moving fast on the surface, before heading into some heavy pocket water. I decided with 2 hours I would skip the bottom 50 yards of my beat and start on the flat where the current was slightly faster and there were more features. I worked my way in with a double nymph set up on my tight line rig, though I knew I would have to make some adjustments in my presentation because of the insane wind. I also rigged up a dry dropper rod. About 15 minutes into the session I cast up stream toward a nice deeper hole on the bank with some mountain laurel hanging over the water. A few feet after my flies attained depth I set into a fish. It immediately took off ripping drag and testing my 6x tippet. Using side pressure and keeping the fish above me I landed a fat 42 CM wild brown pictured below in fairly quick order. You can see the opposite bank in the pic with the mountain laurel over the stream where the brown was hooked as well as the off colored water. I was pretty happy to get that big fish on the board because in the case of a tie, you'll probably win it and possibly get enough fish points to finish above another angler who caught less but smaller fish. The big brown came on a hares ear variant with a cdc soft hackle that had worked for me in practice and would pay off during the rest of the session. Slowly moving up the flat there was a nice depression with a log on one side of it. I fished it pretty hard from below and didn't touch a fish before positioning myself next to it to get a different angle on the drift. I rolled my point fly along the gravel bottom and when the fly got next to me I began slowly jigging it up and down in the slow river flow. A fish ate about 6' below me as I jigged the fly. As soon as the fish ate I immediately got downstream of the fish in a hurry and knew I had another pretty good fish on the line. I worked hard to keep that fish out of the log on the bank and got another good brown in the net, 38 CM. Continuing up river I hit some really good water with nothing to show for it and no eats. I cycled through flies but kept coming back to my fly from practice. I had no idea how other competitors were doing but was worried my 2 fish were not enough half way through the session. Finally I got another smaller brown out of a fairly shallow riffle/ pocket area maybe 1:15 minutes into the session. I got to the nice pool mentioned above and was shocked I couldn't pull a fish. The entire time I was dealing with difficult drifts and maybe one out of 3 was ineffective because of the wind, but the last hour I really began to struggle with the crazy winds. In fact, my teammate had a near death experience when a 3' pine he was standing under broke and fell directly where he was standing. He literally had to dive out of the way to save his life. Thankfully he was aware of his surroundings. Meanwhile I was trying to keep my rod low to the water and fish a very heavy anchor nymph but honestly it was tough. I tried my dry dropper rig but the wind was blowing the dry right off the water, when it actually hit the water! At this point I moved into the heavy pocket water stretch with 30 minutes left. Knowing the water I caught my fish in was much slower I contemplated heading to the bottom of my beat, but as I walked upstream a fish ate my fly as it dragged behind me. This has also happened in practice in heavy pocket water so I made sure to drag my flies around as I moved and it worked. I got below the fish and just as I was reaching to net it it came off. I was pissed and threw my net in the water like Andre Aggasi. This was enough to make me stay where I was and I threw on a soft hackle and began swinging my flies through the pockets hoping to pick another fish up, but also it was near impossible to get a good drift with the wind in this section of the river anyway. The session came to a close and I landed three fish off four bites. Practice had paid off for me in the tough conditions and and I was happy to find I ended up with second in the session. I just wonder if I could have gotten another fish or two had I gone down to the bottom of my beat instead of staying in the pocket water. I controlled another competitor on this beat right after and they managed a single fish in their session, again in the slower water so probably I should have headed back down. After day 1 I sat in 8th place and knew if I had a good day I could finish very well.
Session 3 was on Upper Spring Creek. It had fished decent the day before and better than during our practice session. I was controlling first and the fishing was slow for most anglers. I was fishing beat 6 which I had controlled Pat Weiss on two years prior, so was familiar with the water though I'd never fished it and the water was so much higher I barely recognized it. My beat had managed 6 fish 45 minutes before. The beat was short and a mix of pockets and riffles with a deeper pool and run at the bottom which was 3-5' deep. The beat was separated by a massive log jam and above that was flat water. I had brought a second rod for dry dropper or dry flies incase any fish were rising on the flat. Starting at the very bottom of the beat I cast far upstream into the run and floated my sighter on the water as my flies sank to the bottom. Shortly my sighter darted upstream and I set the hook. Things felt strange like there was a fish but it was stuck on the bottom, soon it came to the surface and jumped a few times. The first jump looked like the fly was in its mouth but the second it was clearly now fowl hooked. I had trouble netting the fish which was a theme on this session, and it got below me and sideways in the current and broke off my flies. I re rigged the same way and began fishing upstream. in the same manner. Soon I had three fish scored, and I had moved into middle of the pool. I was rolling my flies right along the bottom and I could feel the fish just pick up the fly off the bottom. The takes were really subtle but I was able to detect and feel them, which is what I love about my tight line rod. I caught 5 fish out of the bottom 20 yards of the beat and was off to a good start. I began working the pockets and riffles and picked up fish here and there. I managed to catch one fish I had missed by coming back to it 5 minutes later and fishing a different angle, this time I hooked it almost at my feet. I then had some nice tiny pockets on the banks that were maybe 6-8" deep, 10-14" long, and had a stick or two to hide a trout. I began just pitching my flies into the tiny pockets like a bass fisherman fishing largemouth in the weeds. This was productive and I'd drop that fly in the water and could watch the trout come from under the stick they were under and eat the fly immediately. I landed 2 this way and lost one, including scoring my largest fish of the session. I tried this elsewhere on the beat but there were not any areas that had the exact features on the bank that the trout preferred. I was having a good time fishing this way and was sure the previous angler had not put a fly in front of those bank fish. I kept working up through the beat and soon had 11 fish scored and one that was a millimeter too short. Most of the fish in the upper part of the beat came from 2' of water or less and were pretty close to me. I was fishing well and had only missed one and lost one fish, though for some reason I continued to have quite the adventure netting the fish. It seemed like everyone I caught I had trouble netting but it all worked out. I got to the log jam with maybe 15 minutes left and got into the flat water. I was looking for rises but didn't see any. The water clarity was poor and I could not tell how deep the water was on the flat. I contemplated using my dry dropper fly rod but I had no idea how deep I needed be with the dropper because of the poor clarity and the fish had been sitting on the bottom all morning. Contemplating what to do, and remembering when I controlled Pat two years earlier he had gone back down to the beginning instead of fishing the flat, I decided to make my way back down and fish back through with different flies where I started and landed 5 fish. I got there with maybe 10 minutes left and didn't touch another fish. I don't think this was the right decision in the end and probably could have put a few in the net on the flat with the dry dropper. Overall I was happy and I ended up with second in the session, and I barely beat the guy on beat 6 which won 3 out of 4 sessions.
Heading into the last session I knew If I won it I would be near the podium. It was on Little Pine Lake again and the morning session had beat up on the fish pretty good. Everyone knew where to fish and what to throw at this point so it would come down to who fishes and adjusts best. I was not going to be happy without a win here. The strong wind out of the north the day before had clearly blew the food to the south end of the lake, because thats where everyone caught fish in the morning. There was a metal tube about 2' in diameter that stretched across the entire lake. The fish were near the tube where the food must have collected. We rowed down to the south end of the lake a long way from the boat launch and got into position. With about a minute before the session started I had my flies out my rod tip and dangling in the air. I reached back to adjust the drogue and I must have dropped my rod hand because as I was looking backwards suddenly a fish bit my fly and then fell off. I figured we were definitely in the right spot. This is where things went sideways, very badly and very fast. On my third cast, my spool fell of my reel and sank to the bottom of the lake. I had to pull off all the fly line and nearly all of my backing to get it up off the bottom and back in the boat. Looking at the giant mess of backing in the boat I was worried it would take forever to get it sorted out and untangled. I worked through the huge mess slowly and finally was almost to my fly line when my boat partner, who was in charge of the score sheets and trays all weekend says,"dude I just realized I forgot the score sheets in my truck." With no way to measure or score a fish, we were forced to row upwind all the way back to the other end of the lake. I was watching my session and comp go down in flames, and none of it had to do with fishing poorly. I began to get sour and think about all the time and money I spent only for it to be worthless. In all I lost the first 45 min of my session. Putting the negative thoughts aside and also not showing I was real upset because I know my boat partner felt bad, I just had to do what I could and see if I could salvage some kind of result. I was fishing a floating line and kept adjusting my flies and set up. My boat partner was fishing dry dropper. He landed the first fish and I had a bump while pulling flies. Soon I had a fish eat on the hang and quickly netted him. It was pretty wild, but he had eaten two of my flies. I did another drift pulling flies and my boat partner kept missing fish on the dry dropper. I switched over to dry dropper for one drift but didn't touch a fish and switched back to pulling flies but lengthened my leader and distance between flies. I soon was into fish about every other drift and had 4 fish, and lost one near the net. I was pretty pissed to lose the fish because I rarely lose a fish on the lake and I can't even think of a time in competition I have lost a fish right near the boat. During this time, I noticed My boat partner seemed to be getting more eats on the dry dropper but was missing most of them, lost a few and had landed maybe two fish. I thought about switching over but could not tell if it was the way the fish were eating or something he was doing wrong. Since I was putting more fish in the net I decided to keep pulling flies even though I had less eats. My fifth fish was the big ugly palomino pictured above. I had seen the fish circling my flies on the previous drift, and got him to eat maybe 10 minutes later in the same spot. It was the first palomino Ive caught. Things slowed down and I noticed another boat catch a few fish toward the west side of the lake so we moved over there with maybe 10 minutes left. It paid off and both myself and boat partner caught a fish near the end of the session. I ended with 6 fish for 4th in the session. I was really disappointed with my result and the time I lost but was happy with the fact that I was able to beat a few people and almost pass more. The winner had 10 fish followed by 8's and a 7. Of course people commented that the first hour was when they caught the most fish. I know I could have won that session or at least managed better than a 4. Overall it was a pretty bad way to end the comp, knowing I could have done better through no fault of my own. I learned I need to keep track of the score sheets and trays even if I'm not the one who is responsible for them.
In the end I ended up with a solid 7th place, and won my group. I improved my overall points from 54 to 59 so it was worth while and should keep me near the top 5 in the overall national rankings. Had I not had the poor fortune on the lake I think I could have been around 5-3rd place but I'll never know. Once again I learned some things, had a great time, and became a better angler and competitor. Thanks to my teammates, Roe Bear, Michael Yelton, and Matt Stedina for the good times and help, the organizers of the event, especially Ben Trew, and the rest of the competitors. Congrats to Pat Weiss, Ben Trew, and Ken Crane on their medals.
Ben Wilcox Owner/Guide Maple Country Anglers