The air smells different, sycamores are beginning to shed large brittle, brown leaves and the vibrant yellows of the river birch and reds of the maples and dogwoods are showing on the edges of the crowns. Pumpkins have overtaken our compost bin and are creeping out into the yard. Summers seem to be expanding their territories into spring and especially fall and I sense we haven’t seen the end of hot temperatures just yet. It’s beginning to feel like fall. The Gunpowder River is about as low as it gets, and even with a few days of rain, the dryness leaves a subtle wilt in the grass and leaves of the trees.
I had 45 minutes to fish this week and caught a beautiful gem of a brown trout. At approximately four inches long, it barely put a bend in the rod, but it attacked the fly with ferocity beyond its size. Bright red dots along the central line of the fish drew my eye off the transition from dark brown to light yellow of its efficient body. I smiled and lowered my hand to the water. The moment my index finger touched the water, the yearling trout propelled itself into the water and disappeared, camouflaged by the sand and gravel of the stream bed.
Brown trout spawn in the fall, most often in October and November within the waters of Maryland and Pennsylvania where I fish. Like students starting the school year, the work of continuing growth and expansion for brown trout begins in the fall. Even as the leaves fall and the season of growth ends for vegetation, below the water surface new generations of fish are beginning a journey. This period of transition washed into my mind holding that brown trout, which likely is finishing its first year of life.
One of the elements of fly fishing that cements my connection to the sport is the continual need and opportunity for learning. Holding that young trout, I thought of what it may have learned this summer. Each season presents different conditions and food sources as opportunities and threats that it must effectively navigate to survive. With a less vital motivation of improving my fishing knowledge, I decided to compile all my data and observations to evaluate my navigation through the summer conditions.
I went through all my fishing records from June 1, 2022, to September 4, 2022, to discern any lessons I could learn from the data and my observations. My diligence to a fishing journal has faded and is inconsistent, but I consistently photograph the fish I catch, and I document the beginning and sometimes the end of each fishing session with a photograph of the setting. These photographs feed my ego a bit, but they also document the time, location, and often the fly used for each fish I catch.
Within the three months of summer, I spent a little under 2300 minutes fishing on trout streams and caught 110 trout. I don’t keep track of fallfish, suckers, or panfish but I’m sure there were a few of those interspersed as well. Over 90% of the fish I caught were on nymphs, either through contact nymphing, indicator nymphing, or dry dropper techniques. Approximately 92% of the fish I caught were brown trout, with the remainder being rainbow trout and a single brook trout. Mop flies, frenchies, pink beaded hares’ ear, and George Daniel’s holo Czech were the flies I caught the most fish on this summer. My dry fly fishing continues to be a weak spot for me, with fewer fish and much longer times on the water per fish.
Other than statistics, I had several observations that I can make sure to learn from, many of which are connected to weather and water conditions. A general trend on the waters I fished this summer (Gunpowder River, Savage River, Little Juniata River, and a couple to remain nameless) was average seasonal flow conditions (mean daily values) through June and into July dropping to well below average seasonal averages in late July through September. Average flows in the Gunpowder are 70 cfs, and the gage data in Parkton currently is at 30.5 cfs, less than half of average seasonal daily flows. With low flows come higher temperatures and more stress on fish.
My observations of fishing matched these weather trends with more fish caught in deeper, slower runs through July. In August, fish were caught in faster moving riffles, especially deeper riffles combining the benefits of increased oxygenation, increased food sources, and higher protection from overhead predators. Understanding spinner falls and spending time on the water with skilled dry fly anglers, such as Dr. Stephen Wright helped me improve my skill and knowledge in dry fly fishing, but I have a long way to go.
Also, terrestrial insects produced less fish to the net for me this summer as compared to past summers. The window for terrestrial fishing was also smaller. I only had success fishing green weenies for one week during the summer, which may be attributed to abandoning them too quickly. In addition, fishing hoppers and cricket imitations as part of dry dropper set ups only produced landed fish (on the hopper) over the first two weeks in August this year.
I’m lucky to have photos and a computer to capture and look back at my summer of fly fishing. I can see where I’ve had success and what I need to work on. Some people may think evaluation of performance doesn’t seem like a relaxing aspect of a hobby, that maybe it induces more stress. For me, I love that there is always something to learn and always room to grow. It helps me improve even without being on the water. Making observations of the world around me and contemplating different cause and effect scenarios that influence those conditions matches and challenges my scientific mind. Looking back and using the data clears my mind of false assumptions, encourages me to break bad habits, and helps me look forward with a curious and engaged mind.
I’m looking forward to the new beginnings of fall and seeing what I can learn the next time I’m on the water, behind the vise, or finding other ways to learn more about the river. What are you observing from your performance and how can it help you move forward?