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.
Statistics back them up: The 7.2-mile catch-and-release section of the Big Gunpowder Falls River holds 2,459 to 4,646 trout per mile, while the two-fish-a-day-limit section downriver holds about 1,442 trout per mile, and the five-fish-a-day-limit section about 920 per mile.
Fly fishers take pride in their artificial lures’ being easier on the fish than bait — worms, cheese, chicken livers, salmon eggs, corn kernels, squid or minnows.
Fish swallow bait, which carries the hook — and the barb that keeps the hook from coming out — often deep into the fish’s body and can seriously damage it as it is landed.
Fly fishers crimp down or remove the barb. Moreover, the moment the fish takes the fly, it knows it’s not edible and starts to spit it out. So the hook catches mainly on the lip of the fish, and because the barb has been removed, many times the hook slips out as the fish “shakes the fly.”
Good fly-fishing requires action, moving up and down a river, studying the insects on a particular body of water and what the fish are eating and trying to imitate this. Normally a bait fisher is stationary, sitting back and waiting for the fish to bite.
Fly-fishing is a male-dominated sport, but over the years, women have begun to join its ranks. Some women were inspired by well-known female fly fishers such as the legendary Joan Wolf, a fly fisher, casting instructor and author.
Take Christianna McCausland, 30, a freelance writer from Sparks, Md., who began fly-fishing just a year ago and now stands chest-high in the Gunpowder wearing pearl earrings and, over her blond hair, a blue baseball cap.
“You get down to the river, and it’s like being in a totally different world,” she says as she casts her neon-colored fly line a short distance across the water even as a big fish breaks the surface, arcs and dives back in.
This offers her a slower pace, she says, and a chance to “tune everything else out.”
“You leave your cell phone in the car, or at least you should,” she says. “There’s nothing worse than watching someone fly-fish with his earpiece in.”
Ms. McCausland got inspired while watching people fly-fish the Gunpowder while on her jogging route in Monkton. A former female roommate who was a fly fisher helped her get over being daunted by the sport.
“There is definitely an intimidation factor,” she says. “There’s so much sort of folklore surrounding the idea of fly-fishing. It seems like it’s this elusive thing that would be really hard to just pick up and start doing.”
Plus, most fly fishers are men.
“Just walking into a fly shop as a young professional woman,” she says, “you feel like the needle is going to scratch across the record and everyone is going to stare at you and be like, ‘What are you doing in here?’”
It hasn’t been as bad as she feared.
“When I’ve been fishing by myself on the river, I’ve had some people, mostly tubers, as they go by make comments about, ‘Man, that was a woman, and she was fishin’ — did you see that?’ But once I actually got started with it, all of that kind of fell away, and I realized it wasn’t a big issue.”
Ounce of prevention
Uppermost in fly fishers’ minds is the continued health of the rivers. Organizations such as the Maryland, Virginia and District chapters of Trout Unlimited — as well as other groups such as the Federation of Fly Fishers, the Chesapeake Women Anglers and the Dame Juliana League of Fly Fishers — help keep the Gunpowder pristine with stream plantings and bank restoration, stream cleanups and picnics to educate fishers about natural-resource conservation.
Grabbing their attention right now is the rapid spread among the fish of Whirling Disease, a parasitic infection originating in Europe that causes skeletal changes and neurological damage that result in the fish’s “whirling,” or appearing to chase its tail.
Brown trout are resistant, but trout raised in hatcheries and released in other Maryland waters — rainbow trout in particular and brook trout to a smaller extent — have been hit hard. Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources has had to kill as many as 154,000 hatchery trout since January.
Prevention efforts center on educating fishers to disinfect their waders when moving from one stream to another, a solution promoted by Mr. Le Gardeur. No cure is yet known.
The Gunpowder is close enough to the Washington-Baltimore region for a fast trip, but it isn’t the only place in the area to find great fishing.
Other spots in Maryland that are worthy of a visit include Morgan Run in Carroll County, Big Hunting Creek in Frederick County, the Savage River in Garrett County and the Youghiogheny River in southern Garrett County.
As Mr. Le Gardeur puts it, “Fly-fishing engages your senses. … It’s not to intrude on nature, but to become a part of it.”
As the old saying goes, the worst day fishing is better than the best day working.