Fireside Philosophers catch 100 wild trout

Outdoor writers Ben Moyer, Gregg Rinkus and I caught 100 trout over a short weekend in the Allegheny National Forest recently, or perhaps we caught 50 fish two times each, so hungry and aggressive were these wild native brookies. But catching fish was not the best part of our two days in the big woods for the fifth annual Fireside Philosophers reunion.

The best part was just being there, three miles upstream from the nearest road or farm or country home or human being, hiking the tiny, unnamed branch of a small, unstocked stream in Warren County. Being there and witnessing, under a forest cathedral of hemlocks, the astonishing beauty of the wild native brook trout, and recognizing its value. As long as there are brook trout and clean, cold waters to nurture them, I’ll have hope for the Pennsylvania outdoors.

We fished a little stream near camp Friday evening and caught two dozen trout in three hours. Then Saturday morning we geared up and hiked deep into the forest, our backpacks bulging with fishing tackle, lunches, snacks, water bottles, and small portable cameras. It was a fine, late-August day, warm but not muggy, with gentle, aromatic breezes blowing through the evergreens and cooling our necks and forearms, serious outdoorsmen for company, and a wide open day ahead.

We wanted to try far upstream that day at a creek branch we’d noticed on our ANF map, so we didn’t fish at all for the first two miles, although we knew the stream held trout.

“You remember this stream, Ben?” Gregg asked, one mile into our hike. Ben gazed at the clear, cold waters rippling over rocks and falls and running under cutbanks, and nodded. “Redtail Run,” he said softly.

We’d fished the stream together a few years before, during an earlier Fireside Philosophers weekend, and Ben had contributed to our camp tradition of disdaining the “real” names of streams and re-christening them to our liking. He had caught a ten-inch wild brown trout of uncommon beauty just downstream from the branch we were targeting today. Getting a wild brownie that far upstream from the Allegheny was a rare occasion indeed, and this unique fish displayed brilliant red spotting and a grand swipe of scarlet near the tail. “Redtail Run,” Ben had proclaimed, and we’d all agreed.

But on this day we passed up all of Redtail’s trout pools, reached the north branch by 9 a.m. and only then began fishing. I watched my two companions for a moment in their differing styles — Ben the graceful fly-fisherman offering bead head nymphs and Gregg the aggressive bait-fisherman tossing garden worms — and saw each of them catch two fish before I put a line in. We worked upstream along the branch all morning and into the afternoon and caught trout in every riffle and run.

Brookies attacked our baits at almost every cast and we caught and released dozens of them, many under six inches long but several in the seven to nine-inch range, all of them lean, healthy, and colorful. Along the way, we three grown men acted out like youngsters at a bluegill pond, fishing close together and calling out “Come see my fish!” at every catch.

By the time we stopped and sat on a big windfall white pine log at 2:30 for lunch, we had caught 75 or 80, at least. “You know something,” Ben said over his flattened backpack ham and cheese sandwich, “this is public land, open to everyone, but I don’t think anyone comes up here after these trout. I believe we’re the first human beings these fish have ever seen.”

“I agree,” I said. “That’s the best and worst thing about fishing upstream for wild trout. It’s a shame people don’t take advantage of the resource, but it’s also pretty wonderful to have this big woods and this magical trout stream to ourselves.” “We ought to name this branch,” said Gregg, “and write it in the Camp Journal. Call it Hungry Fish Creek or Brook Trout Branch or something.” “Relax,” I told him. “Give the stream a chance. Maybe it’ll name itself.”

A half hour later, as we began our hike back downstream toward the truck, I noticed something bone-colored on the ground beside the stream. I picked the object up and saw that it was a forkhorn whitetail antler shed, something I almost never find in the woods. Gregg looked at my prize and then at me. “Antler Run,” he suggested. I nodded, and the stream branch was named.

“The Evening Campfire” from The Herald, Sept. 10, 2006

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