Watching a fire is mesmerizing. Sitting by the campfire, watching the flames slide and dance around the logs distracted me from my thoughts and loneliness. I had a beer, some sausages, and grilled peppers. I was happy with a pretty solid campfire meal. I had just spent about three hours fishing for rising (and jumping) brown trout. I fished until I needed my headlamp to get back to the car. I struggled to catch the two fish I caught and felt frustrated. But watching the fire was clearing the battlefield of my mind.
I had driven to Central Pennsylvania on a whim, the rare opportunity when I didn’t have something else to do, and I was going to be by myself for most of a day. Friday morning, my wife let me know her schedule and by midday my fishing brain took over and immediately thought, where should I go fishing? (See fly fishing addiction blog.) I’ve wanted to follow in the footsteps of Scott Major and fish the Upper Delaware River for a while, but the four-and-a-half hour drive didn’t seem worth it for just an evening and morning. I also don’t know the area well, and I felt like I would need more time to explore the river. I wanted to be able to maximize the fishing-to-drive-time ratio. (Check out a great blog by Jason Shemchuk on embracing the drive here.)
I knew where to go: Penns Creek. The fishing reports hadn’t been good. The water was low, but there is a nice campground, I know the river, and once you get to Harrisburg, it’s a scenic drive. My friend, Mark, had recently been there to catch smallmouth and had some luck with some browns. I checked the campsite online and there were two spots left. I talked to my wife, and it was set. The mental checklist in my head started organizing what I needed to get done before I headed out. On Saturday morning, my organizational autopilot was fully engaged, but my excited kid mind was taking over. I arranged my flies, got together the camping supplies, got my groceries, finished my house to do-list, and headed out.
I had a good set of unlistened-to podcasts queued up (Orvis, April Vokey, Wet Fly Swing, Akimbo) and started the drive. My brain started to play through different fishing scenarios in my mind, equal parts hope, excitement, and fear of the skunk. What would I do if I hooked into a larger fish? How long would I use a particular fly before switching out? What was my strategy for what reaches to fish and when? I was driving myself a little crazy. I wouldn’t have anyone with me, and I’ve never camped by myself before. I did hope that I didn’t get skunked fishing that evening to be left with the skunk and no one to commiserate with.
Turning off the exit, my excitement grew. I knew I had to drive slowly on the gravel roads to try and avoid a flat tire. Mark and I had been through that one before, and he has been through it twice now. You lose cell service almost immediately, so I called my wife to let her know I got to the park. Past the Boy Scout camp, there are a few fishing/hunting camps, trails, and logging roads. Then Little Poe Creek parallels the road as you enter Bald Eagle State Forest. It’s like driving into a fishing dream.
I have not minded being by myself since I was little. I liked playing in my imagination and sometimes struggled opening up or having fun with groups of kids. Even to this day I have a hard time eating lunch with more than three to four co-workers, and larger gatherings stress me. I like the quiet, and that’s part of my attraction to fly fishing: the solitude. The campground where I was staying was more primitive and a little more secluded than many other campgrounds. During the summer months, many kayakers and tubers use the campground, and there are typically fishermen and fisherwomen. It is normally fairly quiet and secluded.
As I pulled up to my site, I noticed it was next to one of the pavilions, which was full of people. It looked like an extended family gathering. I backed into the space and started to plan the spot and unload the car. Within two minutes, a man who appeared to be the father/leader of the group came over to me and asked if I was camping by myself. I felt a little ashamed and friendless, like the person who goes to the movies by themselves. But then he told me they have lots of food and I was welcome to have some and hang out with them, if I liked. I wasn’t really ready to talk to anyone after the drive, so I politely said thank you and that I was looking to unpack quickly and spend some time fishing. I could hear him talking to his wife as he walked away saying I was just here to fish, and she replied that I was probably looking for peace and quiet and he was interrupting me. I smiled at the familiarity and humor of the couple’s conversation. Also, I felt like an antisocial loner.
There were fish to catch or to try to catch. I unpacked and headed to the river. The ritual of putting on my waders, lacing my boots, putting together the fly rod, lining the rod, and tying on the flies is very therapeutic. There were several cars in the parking area, and there were a few anglers in the spot I was planning to fish. Where could I find my solitude? One of the angler’s dogs ran to me and said hi as I approached the river. That led me to talking to his owner, and I asked if I could fish downstream of him. He was welcoming, and we had a nice conversation about what he was using and how he had caught a few smallmouth. After a few minutes, he left and headed upstream.
I fished this reach until dark, caught a brown trout and a smallmouth. No skunk with me for dinner! That led me to the mesmerizing fire. Left alone with my thoughts and the fire, I didn’t get trapped by my thoughts or frustrations. I appreciated the smell of the campfire, the sounds of owls in the distance, and the calm of being in a peaceful place. However, I missed being able to share fishing stories with a companion.
The next morning I woke up early and fished all morning by myself. I caught several more fish and lost a few too. The weather was beautiful: a cool partly sunny start of the day. I saw a couple raccoons and minks at daybreak. I enjoyed my morning of solitude. As I was walking back to my truck I recorded a quick video message for Mark and Brian to summarize the fly selection, fishing approaches, and results. I took off my waders and hit the road. I looked forward to calling my wife. I realized that as much as I enjoy being by myself, I look forward to sharing my life with others, and I appreciate knowing that my solitude is only for a short time.