Eastern Fly Fishing

Creek in an Urban Corridor
By John Hoffman

“You just never know what you might hook into,” my friend and fellow angler Brian Judge says to me as we don our waders and rig our rods for an afternoon on Pennsylvania’s Conodoguinet Creek. Of Native American origin, the name is said to mean “a long way with many bends,” and the 104-mile-long tributary of the Susquehanna River is one of the most scenic urban rivers I’ve ever fished. I use the term “urban” lightly because there are stretches of the river that are remote, with no signs of development, but the majority of the lower portion of the river is surrounded by the sprawling boroughs just outside Harrisburg.
   Still, the river and the surrounding landscape seem to accept each other’s roles dutifully. While many of the old stone homes and mills along the waterway appear just as they would have around the turn of the 20th century, the distant hum of busy traffic along the Carlisle Pike is an ever-present reminder that change is inevitable. With change and progress comes stewardship, and that is exactly what the Conodoguinet Creek Watershed Association (CCWA) strives for. The association, founded in 1998, is active in monitoring creek management, hosting a monthly river cleanup session, implementing creek improvement projects, and monitoring water quality and invasive species. Thanks to the work of the CCWA, and to the conservation-minded local authorities, the watershed is surprisingly healthy, and, as I am about to find out, home to a very robust and diverse
fish population.
   The Conodoguinet rises from Horse Valley in Franklin County, next to Kittatinny Mountain, elevation 1,680 feet. It then begins a meandering journey to unite with the mighty Susquehanna, passing through the fertile Cumberland Valley, where Judge and I plan to fish along the stream’s lowermost 15 to 20 miles. Several spring runs, including the famous Big Spring and Letort Spring Run, feed into this particular section of Conodoguinet Creek. Those spring runs are what initially got me interested
in the Conodoguinet.
   The Susquehanna is known far and wide as a great smallmouth fishery, while the Letort and the Big Spring enjoy equal acclaim as renowned trout fisheries. I wondered whether the Conodoguinet might actually be a fish highway for these species and possibly others that traverse the river corridors in search of mates or optimal feeding conditions at different times of the year. Judge, an avid fly angler who has been fishing the streams and rivers in this area for years, had confirmed my intuition with photographs of stout brown trout, beautifully speckled smallmouth bass, and one long and toothy tiger muskellunge.
   The trout usually abandon the Conodoguinet during the warmer summer months and retreat up the small feeder springs and tributaries, but during the cooler winter months they venture back into the larger river in search of food. Smallmouth, rock bass, sunfish, catfish, walleyes, muskellunge, and tiger muskies are year-round residents. We are fishing in October, so the trout are still few and far between, but the smallmouth, on the other
hand—wow!

 

Willow Mill Park
The first afternoon, we stop at Willow Mill Park, located off Willow Mill Park Road. The large solid stone building that stands at the entrance to the park once housed the historic Houston Mill. The ancient remnants of the stone dam and support structure for the mill wheel are still clearly visible against the picturesque North Mountain backdrop of the Ridge and Valley Appalachians.
   Judge and I begin just across from the old dam. Before I can get a line wet, Judge lands the first smallmouth, a plump little specimen about 8 inches long and clad in a vibrant green and brown pattern, which is one of the best camouflage patterns Mother Nature has ever designed. Judge is fishing with one of his own renditions of the Clouser Minnow and using a 9-foot, 6-weight rod with a sinking-tip line, both specifically designed for streamers. I ease into the water downstream from the old dam and begin casting an olive Woolly Bugger into the creases and channels created by the large ledges in the riverbed.
   After working the line and fly around and under a large, partially submerged tree for half an hour, I come up empty-handed while Judge proceeds to land two more smallies. I think it’s time to relocate. The river’s undulating bed takes a little getting used to. The rock shelf is constantly folding over on itself, and—because the underwater ledges rise and fall dramatically—you have to get a feel for it to be successful and know how to work the fly (and yourself) through the area. I decide to move upstream several hundred yards to a partially exposed rock shelf that juts out from the bank and runs almost across the entire breadth of the river.
   It’s getting darker now, so I decide to try a crayfish pattern. There’s a nice riffle with a few deep pools below the ledge; certainly there are fish in there. Judge starts to work his way toward my location. I’m half watching him fish and half fishing myself when something fairly large swipes across my face and lands on my cap. It’s a huge Hexagenia, and they’re coming off like crazy. Thousands of the 1.5-inch greenish insects are swarming frenetically around the river canopy, and fish are rising all around us.
   We cast to different pools from the ledge and take in the last few minutes of the day. Bam! I’m not fully paying attention when a loud slap on the water’s surface and a simultaneous sharp tug on my line signals that a decent fish has grabbed my fly. I quickly regroup and strip the line to begin the short battle and bring the fish into my net. It’s not a trout, and it’s not a smallmouth bass. “What is this?” I ask Judge.
   He tells me the odd little fish is called a fallfish. That’s a new one to me, but it turns out there are plenty of these hungry guys in the river. The fallfish is a freshwater chub in the family of Cyprinidae. They typically reach 8 to 10 inches but can grow to 20 inches and put up a fight. Fallfish will even rise to take flies at the surface. Judge lands another healthy smallmouth while I catch two more fallfish before we call it a day. No smallies for me yet, so I figure I may just have to try that Clouser tomorrow—after all, Bob Clouser’s home base is just up the road in Middletown, Pennsylvania.

 

Letort Falls Park
The following afternoon we find ourselves in Letort Falls Park. The park is located at the mouth of the famous Letort Spring Run and features a beautiful cascading 6-foot waterfall where the spring empties into Conodoguinet Creek. The park is easily accessed from North Middlesex Road, just off US Highway 11. There’s a nice boat launch with ample paved parking spots and opportunities for wade-fishing. This is definitely one of the spots where you could possibly catch both trout and smallmouth. Judge has seen nice trout leaping up the falls on more than one occasion. We walk downstream a couple hundred yards and begin to fish our way back toward the parking lot. In no time at all I’m hooked up on a fish and so is Judge. I bring to the net another bright shiny silver fallfish, while Judge lands a nice 10-inch smallmouth. I get the message and switch to a Clouser Minnow pattern, which proves to be a good decision. Eight casts later I have my first smallmouth on the line. The bully fish leaps toward the heavens on two separate occasions. Now we’re having fun. Fish are starting to rise to Sulphurs and caddisflies on the surface. Could they be trout, or just more hungry fallfish?
  I move upstream from the falls and close to a large concrete bridge that spans the river. Just below the bridge the current rushes from the mouth of Letort across a large but shallow rock flat. The water curls around the backside of the flat and creates a nice swift channel with several riffles before being diverted toward the far bank. I pull out the old faithful Elk Hair Caddis and get down to the business at hand. The water’s surface stirs with random disturbances and quick splashes from a feeding frenzy unfolding before us. Before I can finish tying on my new fly, Judge lands another smallmouth and two more fallfish. The action is getting hotter. After a few misplaced casts I connect. This fish feels a little different, and when it leaps into the air there’s no mistaking the slender speckled body and characteristic whips of the tail. It’s a nice 11-inch brown trout. It’s amazing, when thinking about the falls below, that hundreds of trout make that monumental “leap of faith” each year while moving to and between the two different aquatic ecosystems. As the day draws to a close, we each catch a few more fallfish and Judge lands another plump, hard-fighting smallmouth.

 

Orrs Bridge Road
The next morning Judge and I hook up with Dave Burnham, a retired Marine first sergeant and fellow “Conodo” aficionado. We meet Burnham at the Orrs Bridge Road angler parking area. Orrs Bridge is approximately 6 miles downstream from Willow Mill Park. The parking area, barely large enough for two full-size cars, is located right at the bridge. It’s not well marked and can be easily overlooked if you’re not watchful. A stone spring house, built to capture fresh water from an underground spring, stands across from Stone Spring Lane and serves as a good landmark. The clear, cool water builds up in a shallow basin before overflowing and spilling into a small stream that trickles down the bank and into the creek below. Judge tells me of having seen freshwater shrimp in this small feeder. The area just upstream from the bridge is filled with boulders that were once a dam. The creek there expands to more than 100 yards wide and is choked with plant life. I find a nice perch and start carefully placing my fly in the vegetation. I switch back to an orange and red crawfish pattern and can see several different fish darting in and out of the thick underwater growth. Burnham and Judge start fishing 200 yards upstream between tangled weedbeds that have sprouted and grown thick during the summer months. I am always amazed at how much cover the floating flora provides for the inhabitants of the streams and creeks. Time after time I’ve waded carefully through similar large beds—which feel innately sinister because you can’t see the bottom and don’t know what might lurk there—only to look back and see several fish and invertebrates dart back into the dark void as my feet emerge.
  Burnham and Judge are both using 6-weight rods today and casting sculpin and Clouser patterns on sinking-tip lines. I’m using a 5-weight rod with sinking line, primarily with a crayfish pattern but mixing in Woolly Buggers and Clouser patterns. Burnham is the first to hook up, and his knowledge of the creek and its fish is confirmed by a 13-inch smallmouth. He lands another smallmouth and a fairly large fallfish before Judge joins the action with a nice smallie of his own. All of the fish are released after a few quick pictures and before a round of high fives.
  Several white egrets glide overhead, and one of them, eyeing a potentially easy meal, torpedoes beak first through the water’s surface like a javelin. The fish is lucky this time.
  I keep casting around a large log pile on the far side of the river and eventually pique the interest of a hidden smallmouth, which grabs my beadhead Bugger and makes a mad dash back to its labyrinth. Fortunately for me, it’s no brute, and I’m able to keep it from entangling in the debris below. The fish’s sides are a deep emerald green that sparkles as the sunlight reflects from its shiny scales. A double row of sharp, tiny hooked teeth on its upper jaw have done quite a number on my brave
little black Bugger.
  We fish on through the morning and into the afternoon, each of us landing several more fish, all smallmouth and fallfish. What few trout are in here this time of year seem to be concentrated around the mouths of the small springs that feed into the Conodo. During the winter months, though, it will be a different story, and nice trout will be regularly
sighted out cruising.

 

Getting Acquainted
Public access to the creek is plentiful, with literally hundreds of places to wade in and fish. You can also make use of the numerous Pennsylvania Boat and Fish Commission access sites, which offer boat ramps. Watercraft are used for float trips and also for accessing hard-to-reach areas close
at hand.
   Large streamers, minnow and sculpin patterns, and crawfish imitations work extremely well almost any time of the year. And hatches come off sporadically year-round. During our October outing we saw caddisflies, Hexagenia, Blue-Winged Olives, Sulphurs, craneflies, and midges, and the fish responded accordingly. The system is extremely diverse, and, regardless of the species you want to target, the Conodo offers ample opportunities to land nice fish. We didn’t hook into one of the big brawny tiger muskies, but they’re in there and are definitely on the agenda for our next trip. The smallmouth population is thriving, and some anglers say the creek is fishing as well as it ever has. The trout population for the most part ebbs and flows with the fluctuating water temperature, but during the cooler months the action can
be stellar.
   The Conodo is a truly unique watershed and an example of how fisheries—particularly wild places near urban areas—can be managed successfully. Even though it is surrounded by suburban sprawl in the bottom third of its drainage, the creek and its surrounding landscape still have a wholesome rural feel and a natural beauty that seems to fit right in—naturally. 

 

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