Frank Nale's 2017 Trout Season Summary
Each year of trout fishing here in central Pennsylvania has a unique personality with different obstacles to overcome. The year 2017 was no different. After suffering through a lengthy drought in 2016, particularly in the north-central region of the state where rainfall was practically nonexistent in the summer and autumn, my biggest concern for 2017 was the effect this would have on trout populations in the mountain creeks.
Though I spend the majority of my time fishing in the central portion of the state, my most anticipated and treasured outings each year usually occur in remote north-central Pennsylvania. I feared some of the smaller streams there may have gone completely dry or nearly so in 2016, substantially reducing wild trout populations or perhaps even wiping them out. In my mind, the future of quality trout fishing for years to come was in jeopardy. This was not exactly a pleasant thought as I entered my first full year of retirement with plans of spending more time than ever upstate. I was anxious to see how the trout fared.
As my thirty-ninth year of spinner fishing unfolded, my concerns were quashed and I made more visits to north-central Pennsylvania than ever. I fished more days overall and had one of my best years. I had many 100-trout outings and caught lots of big trout, too, including the largest rainbow trout of my life and a hefty wild brown trout from a small mountain creek that will never be forgotten.
In addition to catching thousands of gorgeous wild trout on spinners, I enjoyed taking nearly 3,000 digital photographs of the trout, streams, fauna, and flora that caught my eye while fishing in the mountains and valleys of our beautiful state.
White Pines and Hay-scented Ferns:
Two woodchucks that seemed entertained by my antics:
In this summary I will be mentioning numbers of trout caught and other statistics. This is not meant to be bragging but to give you a factual account of my fishing adventures. If this offends you, please read no further. If you choose to continue reading, I can assure you that my numbers are perfectly accurate. I carry a small tablet and pencil with me while fishing. When I get to a stream I write down the date, stream name and section, color of spinner, time, and the air and water temperatures. While fishing, I count only trout I have hooked, played, and landed. After catching a trout, without exception, I get out my tablet and record the size, species, and time-caught before making my next cast. This process takes only seconds and eliminates any chance of double-counting. I accurately measure my trout by holding them parallel against the grid of inch-marker thread-wraps that I put on my custom-made spinning rod. When necessary, I round the size of my trout down to the nearest one-half inch. When I finish fishing for the day I calculate the hours that I have fished to the nearest one-fourth hour. I also try to quit at or very near to one-fourth hour increments. All of my fishing is done in streams open to free public angling.
Trout of the Year
In 2016 my “Trout of the Year” was one that I did not even catch. On November 2nd of last year I was fishing a tiny stream above a reservoir specifically to see if there would be any large brown trout that had moved upstream to spawn. After fishing a couple of the deeper pools without success, I continued upstream until I came to a long shallow pool where one would not expect a big trout.
Water entered the pool from a narrow riffle along a boulder on the right side. The water formed a wheelbarrow-size depression about two feet deep there while the remainder of the flat pool was only about eight inches deep. My first cast flew errantly to the left side in the shallows. Immediately the surface of the water swelled as a large trout turned to follow and attack my White Bead Gold spinner, like a shark after a baitfish in the shallows.
When the rapidly approaching V-shaped bulge reached my spinner I set the hook. The trout hardly budged, but its head came up out of the water as if in slow motion. I recall the long hook jaw and the bright yellow coloration of the trout.
I guess I was already thinking about how to pose the beast for photos because when he turned and plowed back upstream I forgot to open the bail on my reel since there was no time to loosen the drag. My four-pound test Stren line stretched to the max, and then snapped, sounding almost like a .22 shot going off in the distance. My heart sank. I had just blown the opportunity on a trout of a lifetime.
I walked up to the deeper area of the pool to see the trout up close since there was no place for it to hide. My White Bead Gold spinner dangled from the left corner of his hook jaw. I estimated him to be two feet or so long and nearly as big around as a four-pound bag of sugar. Not wanting to disturb him further I quickly moved upstream, knowing that I would be back in the autumn of 2017.
Most anglers I suppose would have been totally bummed, but I always say that it is better to have tangled with a trout and lost than to have not tangled at all. In fact, I think fishing would lose its appeal if I caught every trout that struck my spinner. Setting the hook is spinner fishing’s greatest challenge in my opinion, and if the trout is massive landing it is quite challenging as well, particularly on ultra-light tackle. The “one that got away” raises my anticipation for future visits and motivates me to improve my skills.
On Tuesday, July 18th, 2017, after mediocre fishing on my first stop of the day, I decided to go to this stream since it has a decent population of native brook trout and wild brown trout. I had no illusion of running into this monster trout again, figuring that he lived in the reservoir during the summer.
Despite the overall wet summer that we had been experiencing, the little mountain stream was really low. The entire flow would likely have fit through a 6-inch pipe. The water temperature was a favorable 62-degrees and the air temperature was around 80-degrees. The sky was mostly clear. Bright sunshine broke through the tree canopy in spots. I did my best to stay out of the sunshine since standing in bright sun and casting into deep shade is generally not productive. I began casting at 11:15 a.m. and picked up enough small trout to maintain my interest.
Around 1:45 p.m. I came to one of the larger pools in the stream, perhaps a half mile upstream from where I had tangled with the lunker the previous autumn. Water plunged into the pool near the left side, creating and area of white bubbles. The submerged trunk of a tree claimed the left corner and most of the lower end of the pool.
I sent my first cast to the lower left corner between the tree trunk and the pool’s lip in case a trout would be holding there. I did not want to spook a trout up into the meat of the hole before approaching closer for a better cast. My next cast hit on the left side of the bubbles, a sweet spot for a big trout waiting on an unsuspecting little trout that was moving downstream.
Instantly I saw the flash of a large trout and instinctively set the hook since I knew I would not feel a trout hit in the churning water. Right away I knew I had a huge trout on the end of my line. Luckily, I had just retied my spinner to un-nicked line, something I often do when approaching a deep pool. Unlike last time, while quickly loosening my drag I consciously thought about opening the bail of my reel if the trout made a strong run. Once I got the drag loosened I felt confident that I could land him as long as the hook held and I could keep him away from the tree trunk.
The trout burrowed to the bottom and later thrashed on the surface. Since the water was deep from bank to bank there was no place to easily land the brute. Knowing my net was too small to bother with, after a couple-minute battle I grabbed the trout with my left hand in front of the tail and eased him over to the water’s edge.
Before I even measured him I knew he was in the top ten of the largest trout that I have ever caught out of over 275,000 trout. And from a tiny stream no less. He measured 24.5” against the grid of inch markers on my rod.
Could this behemoth have been the same trout that I had missed in the prior November? If so, what was he doing in the stream and not in the reservoir in July? I will never know the answers but it would not surprise me if this was the same trout.
As a sidebar to this story, I visited this stream again on Thursday, November 2nd, exactly one year after my first encounter. The water was quite high that day and other than catching twenty-some small trout, I saw and caught one large trout – a 21” wild brown.
Multiple Trips to “God’s Country”
I typically wait until after spring gobbler season is over to head north to “God’s Country” so that I am less likely to run into other anglers after making such a large time commitment to drive there. However, this year I was overly anxious to find out how well the trout had survived last year’s harsh conditions.
On Saturday, April 29th, I drove northward to a small mountain stream that typically surrenders over a hundred trout with ease. My lone visit there last year on May 26th had yielded 143 trout in 7.50 hours. Due to its location, I felt that if I could avoid other anglers at daybreak at the lower end of the hollow that it was unlikely anyone would jump in front of me all day.
The conditions looked great. However, the first two pools contained no visible trout. I immediately began to worry that last year’s drought had decimated the trout population. Then much to my delight I cranked out two little native brookies in a nondescript riffle, followed by two more fairly quickly. My spirits rose.
A vehicle then pulled in beside my SUV and two fly anglers hopped out and began fishing no more than fifty yards in front of me. Nice. I climbed the side of the mountain to loop around them and give them a wide berth.
From that point on the action was rather slow for the distance covered and I felt sure the drought had done a number on the stream. In 3.50 hours I caught 30 total wild trout though the action had all but petered out near the end. In the last forty-five minutes I fished over a half mile of stream and saw only one minnow-sized trout, and that was at the beginning of the half mile. My conclusion was that the stream had probably gone dry in the upper reaches and few trout had survived there.
It took an hour to hike through the woods back to my SUV. From there I drove to a larger stream and caught 14 trout in 1.50 hours. I could not tell for sure whether there just were not many trout in the creek or if someone had already disturbed the trout earlier that day. Again, I was relieved to at least catch some trout though.
Next I fished a tributary about the same size as the one I fished earlier. It did not appear to have been fished yet that day but in one hour I fished well over a mile and caught just 15 trout. I was glad there were at least a few trout there, but the population seemed down big-time.
Drawing conclusions from one trip, of course, is not wise. Heck, I have had times on bountiful Spring Creek in Centre County where I did not see a trout. I knew it was possible that the trout were just not out feeding on this day, though I had a strong suspicion that this was not the case.
On Friday, May 26th I returned to north-central Pennsylvania, again to another small stream. This time I was stunned by the lack of trout. I fished one hour and caught four trout. Three were caught at the lower end of the stream and could have been migrants from the main stem. Then I fished nearly a mile and did not catch another trout until I came to a deep pool. I quit there and headed to larger water where I was greatly encouraged by catching 121 trout in 6.50 hours.
In the next couple months I returned to God’s Country seven times and stuck to larger streams, figuring there was a lower chance the drought had adversely affected them.
I caught over one hundred trout on every visit, including one of the most beautiful native brook trout that I have ever seen.
On one of the days I caught a 6.5” wild tiger trout, a rare natural cross between a male native brook trout and a female wild brown trout. Many anglers fish their entire lives in Pennsylvania and never catch one. This was my 21st lifetime wild tiger trout.
I explored three new streams that I had never fished before and caught many beautiful wild trout in all of them.
I saw my first yellow-phase timber rattlesnake in many years.
On one day in the northwoods I even had my most productive outing of the entire year.
Overall I caught 1,150 trout in 72.50 hours during nine fishing trips. Based on my experiences I think that the drought of 2016 very likely negatively impacted at least some of the small streams, while I think it likely did not have a major effect on the larger creeks.