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MONKTON, Md. — The lushly green canopy of trees covers the cool water of the Big Gunpowder Falls River in shade. Old logs lean against moss-covered boulders, sending the water rushing by. The sound is a soft hush backed by bird song as the occasional trout breaks the surface for a fly, creating a ring in the water.Summer may be over, but the Big Gunpowder River is alive. Fly fishers come to Gunpowder Falls State Park, nearly 18,000 acres in Harford and Baltimore counties, in hopes of catching the brown trout that thrive in the cold water just downstream of Prettyboy Dam. “Hope” is the operative word. Joseph Reiter, his rod vibrating with the energy of a fighting fish in its watery world, silently works the fly line — then lets out a howl of disappointment.
“That was a big brown trout,” he yells. “That was a good fish, the second one I’ve hooked. They snapped off at the very last second.”
Photo Gallery:Fly Fishing
The Big Gunpowder rises in Pennsylvania and flows into the Chesapeake Bay, but near Monkton in the Hereford area of the state park, just below Prettyboy Dam, it offers year-round fly-fishing with 7.2 miles of catch-and-release trout water from the dam to Blue Mount Road.
This is a tailwater fishery — that is, a stretch of river made extremely cold by water released from the lower reaches of a dam and thus friendly to such species as trout and salmon that can’t survive in warmer water.
Dam releases from Prettyboy gates 55 feet below the surface flow into the Gunpowder at 55 degrees, giving a big boost to a stream-bred population of brown trout. The chill makes this section what many consider a blue-ribbon trout river, a prime destination for fly fishers from around the country even in the dog days of summer.
It didn’t get this way without help: In 1986, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland chapter of Trout Unlimited — a national nonprofit organization that works to protect and restore coldwater fisheries and their watersheds — worked out an agreement with Baltimore whereby the city would provide a minimum release of cold water from the Prettyboy Dam.
Lure of the sport
Fly-fishing promises different things to different anglers. Some come for quiet introspection on a peaceful river, as in the movie “A River Runs Through It.” Others head to the emerald waters of the Florida Keys for fast, heart-pounding action as they fight to land the trophy tarpon or permit, a type of game fish native to the Caribbean.
For both, the sport offers a type of angling steeped in tradition, one that involves not just hooking fish with artificial lures, or “flies,” that mimic insects the fish eat, but studying the fish and what they eat and often making the lures by hand.
For every stage in the life cycle of an insect, there is an artificial fly — the word itself comes from the winged insect. Artificial flies are made of elk hair, feathers or wool.
“Observing what’s in nature and imitating it as best you can” is the way Theaux Le Gardeur, 36, who has been fly-fishing for 29 years on the Gunpowder and other rivers, describes the creation of an artificial fly. Mr. Le Gardeur owns Backwater Angler, a cozy fly shop in Monkton.
Streamers such as the brown or green Woolly Bugger impersonate a small bait fish or caterpillar. Nymphs imitate insect larvae — the Copper John a stonefly, the Loop Wing Emerger a mayfly. Terrestrial flies such as the green and tan Grand Hopper look like grasshoppers. A mayfly lure such as the Rusty Spinner imitates a mayfly in the last stages of life. A wet fly like the Royal Coachman simulates a mayfly.
For fishers who catch and release, there is not just the fun of the sport — the shimmering colors that rise and dance on the water, the rods, reels, waders, floppy hats and the vests of many pockets — but the added satisfaction of knowing they are not depleting the river’s wealth.
By David Keene
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