We left Columbia at 4 am, but it rained so hard between Frederick and Hagerstown that the few cars on the road slowed to 50 mph and the rain did not ease until we crossed through the notch at Sidling Hill. Making Westernport about 20 minutes late, Will Amland and I pulled into the MacDonald’s to find Tim Bowers already at the counter. The grill was down. The Egg McMuffin I’d been Jones’n for since about Frederick was no longer an option, however, what was optional was whether we wanted mild or hot sauce on our burritos. Evidently burritos don’t require a grill to prepare. Having that decision unexpectedly thrust upon us so early in the morning seemed to put us all in a state of confusion and for several minutes we just stood around looking at each other stumped and stupid while the counter person smiled patiently waiting to take our order. She was too cute to bitch at, and finally we decided burritos were probably better than nothing, and with plans to wade the North Branch we did need to eat something. A 100-mile rule wasted; at least they had plenty of hot coffee.
Getting to the Barnum parking area on the North Branch we started fishing just above the wire. It looked pretty good, the flow was about 150, but an hour of drifting nymphs and dries produced nothing, so we headed to the upper section. This section has really changed since my last visit. The mega releases have the channel on the WV side of the island scoured of all vegetation 10 feet back from the water line for about 50 yards from near the still pool down to the series of pools that run along that side of the bank. They used to be deeper with good holding water, now, partially gravel filled and clear, they weren’t holding any fish. The island’s far channel on the Maryland side is the better now; it’s a rushing gush where it pulls out of the still pool over shallow rubble then breaks into a series of medium sized pools and runs that drop into each other all the way down to the main stem.
Within minutes Tim was into a good fish, an 18 ½ inch bow that succumbed to an olive wooly booger. He made three strong runs and put up a good fight all the way to the net. Now, there was some inspiration! For the next hour we fished with a little more intensity. I plodded up the far channel methodically throwing a nymph covering the tail, shoulders, and head of each pool in succession. The only real excitement was me falling in once. Going through my box I found a foam hopper that Dick Friis gave me on Yellow Creek, and while tying it on heard Tim and Will yell that they were headed elsewhere downstream. The first two casts with the hopper brought strikes; I missed the first altogether but had the other on for a second before he let go, I think he just had it by the foam or a leg and not hooked. After working it back up the channel for another 30 minutes I gave it up, climbed out and headed down the path to meet Ken Bowyer, Steve Fletcher, and Lou Reichel coming up. They said they were looking for those afternoon Blue Winged Olives they had heard about and decided to try the upper section. Wishing them luck, I headed down stream dropping off into the river at likely looking spots to float my hopper, eventually working my way down past the island below the old bridge abutments.
Meanwhile, up river, Lou got a hook up on Pheasant Tail but lost it before he got it to the net, while Ken racked up the most fish for the day landing two rainbows and a brown on a Royall Wullf plus stirring up a huge brown twice with his grasshopper but couldn’t quite get him to take it.
Moving back up river I found Tim and Will just above the lower wire working the long pool. We hung out there until about 4pm fishing and marveling at the huge showers of leaves blown into the river on sudden gusts of wind. Will had a fish on briefly then lost it just before we decided it was time to head out to make camp and go for supplies.
Getting back from a gas and ice run we found Rodger Johnson at the pavilion frying up his supper, the last member of the group camping at Big Run State Park, the other boys opted for more modern accommodations in Keyser, WV. The park service has really done some work on the pavilion since last year. This thing was built sometime between 1934 and 1942 by the CCC boys, and was getting in a little disrepair. It now sports a new roof, ceiling lights, and a big yard light that had Tim’s two-tone green dome tent lit up like a Japanese lantern the first night.
Just as we were getting camp under control the park ranger stopped to tell us we were under a tornado watch. She said a tornado had been sighted in Preston County, WV and looked like it might be heading our way. She said that she just wanted to stop and make us aware. “Have a good night” she said, as she climbed back in her truck and left.
Tents up, a roaring fire in the hearth, and a big pot of venison chili cooking on the stove, we cracked some beers and settled back to relax. I’ve been noticing as the years go by beer consumption on fishing trips has gone way down, many of us now even preferring the alcohol free brands, which seems more indicative of a drinking club with a real fishing problem than vice-versa. Lounging around the fire we seem just as inclined to expound on the medicines we take and the food we can’t eat instead of bragging about our last brush with death on some dangerous adventure. Then I overhear Ken regaling Tim and Will between bites of spicy chili about the 5 days he just spent wading the Salmon river up in New York, wresting monster king salmon into the shallows before rolling back down here to go on this outing and do three days of battle with the slick rocks and stiff currents of the North Branch and Savage Rivers. Hell yeah, you rock dude! I’m making you my role model for when I can un-ass my nine to five.
Saturday morning we stretched out across the Savage. Will and Tim hiked up near the dam while Ken, Steve, and Lou started down by the metal bridge with Rodger and me somewhere in between. Fishless thus far, I tied on a chartreuse San Juan worm, my Fall Savage River go-to fly. Maybe it’s because I have more confidence in this fly and fish it better, but in the next couple hours I landed my first couple of fish, a nice brown and smallish brookie. Heading back to the truck for lunch I ran into Rodger who told me he had just gotten a good brown on top with a grasshopper, his first ever on a dry fly.
Ken reported picking up another brown down by the bridge on a bead head brassie before moving up to the Garrett Bridge where Steve got a nice rainbow just below the dam on a Woolly Bugger. This being Rodger and Lou’s first trip to the Savage, Ken took them up to the upper section above Popular Lick where there was supposed to have been a recent stocking of 350 rainbows on October 7th, but reported finding it so low and clear and seeing no fish that he wondered later if the stocking had really taken place.
Heading down stream I entered it 200 yards below the Garrett Bridge, eventually nymphing my way back up to the 7X pool finding a hatch, that after some hashing on the list serve has been decided were some type of paralep, not baetis, the obvious difference of course being that blue winged olives have two tails and these little devils had three. I think I have card on this somewhere… I managed to catch some. Whatever else they might be, they are beautiful. Dark head and thorax, big red eyes, and almost clear abdomens (that curled upwards in Trico fashion in my hand when caught) with a dark tip at the tail. Fish were rising all over the pool taking the emerger stage, I think, but I had nothing in the box to match. Instead, I tied on a size #30 cream midge, the other fly on the water, and had a take on the second drift. I could plainly see the yellow fly against the darker surface and the tip of the fish’s snout when he rose and took it, but raising the rod there wasn’t even a tic of resistance as I pulled that itty-bitty fly right out of the fish’s mouth. A couple of casts later I could see fish rise to just under the surface and give it a good long look, but no takers.
Later at the truck, I met up with Tim and Will. Tim said he had great day, taking three brookies, one a 9 incher, and a fat butter colored 15 inch brown. He pulled out his fly box and showed us the Czech nymphs he tied and took them on, a dark olive body with some sparkle tied in on a #14 scud hook. He said another bigger brown teased him with false rises throughout the afternoon; finally taking a parachute dry, but the knot gave way and was lost. I’m not sure why, but losing fish that take on top always seems worse than losing those off a nymph rig.
Ken and Steve finished up at the Alleghany bridge, Steve getting a brown on a red San Juan Worm, then saddled up for the ride back to Keyser stopping in Piedmont along the way for supper at Ducky’s.
Back at camp and half starved, we roasted hot dogs, cooked vegetable soup and clam chowder, and then finished off with wild salmon filets from Michigan baked right in the fire. Before waddling off to bed I noticed the skies had cleared, and for the first time since getting there we could see stars. It was also cooling off right nice, and later in the night I heard some unfortunate unzipping his tent flap to answer nature’s call and thought ,“poor devil” then burrowed down deeper in my warm bag.
It must have been around 40 degrees or maybe even a little less Sunday morning and we were glad we had saved a little wood for a fire while we broke down the tents and packed up camp.
We all fished the lower Savage and met at the PhD pool before splitting up. Rodger, Ken, and Steve headed down to the Alleghany Bridge while Tim, Will, and I headed upstream close to the no trespass sign near the dam. The morning sun was out for the first time this outing, and had the foliage on the hillsides lit up in bright yellow, red and orange streaks. The wind was also blowing and standing exposed to it for an hour just below the island had me moving downstream in search of new pools and more cover. I could see Tim 300 yards downstream working a long deep pool where he collected yet another brookie.
Wading across rivers, climbing steep banks, and slip sliding over all those submerged slick pigs for three days had me thinking if I lived out here, and did this every day, I could just quit the gym. I’m not a rock climber, and clamoring over some of those big rock piles in full fly-fishing gear is an excellent stretching and leg strength exercise. It paid off though, I found a nice pool and hooked what I thought was just a tiddler from the little ticking jolts coming down to me through the rod, then a couple strong runs later it had me wondering how I was going to land it. I was standing waist deep in a chute between two rocks water piling up in my front with a chute on each side of me. A few feet ahead there were another couple of chutes and some slack water running back into a cleft in the rocks off to my left. Usually these things don’t work out this slick for me, but I was able to climb out and up into the next chute while working the fish along the high bank on my left, net already in the water I maneuvered the fish over it and just raised the net capturing the 14 inch brown before he was swept over the lip, then moved into the cleft of slack water for the release. Easy.
We fished awhile longer. I picked up another brown, and then looked around to the other guys. We didn’t set a quitting time, but we all seemed to know the time had come. We clawed our way back up the ridge to the path and walked back to the truck spying Ken and Steve from above on the PhD pool. We asked, “How goes it?” They said that earlier, down by the Bridge, Rodger had a couple strikes on a black woolly bugger; Steve had lost a fish in the 7X pool that had taken a poly Rusty Spinner and then caught a bluegill below the dam; Ken said that all he had all day was one strike on a Bead Head Brassie.
The tent dried, sleeping bags aired out, and all the camping stuff put away, I can look back and say it was a very nice trip. We caught enough fish, if not a lot of fish, but camping out amongst the fall foliage and crisp temps made it perfect. Not sure what effect the scheduled dam repairs will have on next year’s fishing but as it stands, October Outing 2010 is scheduled as a campout either on the Savage or North Branch.