Penns Creek Education

This post was written by Andy Wagner, a good friend and fishing buddy.

My informal education began the day after Thanksgiving in the first year of the new millennium.  It was my senior year of high school, and as my formal education was coming to an end, I was unsure of the future, and what career to pursue.  That Thanksgiving a friend of mine, knowing that I had been fishing for some years and that I had recently purchased my first fly rod, invited me for a day of fishing on Penns Creek.  He warned that the fishing would probably be slow but that I might enjoy the river and the surrounding landscape regardless.

We took off sometime around noon and drove north over the rolling Pennsylvania mountains as a light snow dusted the higher elevations. These same mountains have junked 3 of my vehicles and countless sets of brakes since that first trip. We put on our waders and warm clothing and trudged upstream to a few of his favorite sections of pocket water.  I was unprepared for a stream of this size and more than a little intimidated as I waded in and began throwing weighted nymphs into the icy runs.  The stream bottom was terribly slippery and to be quite honest, I saw no fish activity as I peered through the surface of the stream.  He spoke of strange insects, patterns that represented the bugs, and unfamiliar techniques to catch trout.  These were things of which I had never heard of, let alone could possibly understand at that point.

I struggled throughout the entire day and never managed to land a trout, but the scenery was captivating, and the valley was beautifully remote. I was sucked in by the hills, dark oak forests, and minty green flow of the river.  In the fading light of late afternoon, my friend and guide for the day hooked, then landed a fat wild brown trout and held it up for me to admire. It was a beautiful fish, maybe 15 inches, and was painted with colors I had never seen before. The fish looked nothing like the stocked trout that I had mastered in the streams near my home. The gold flanks, creamy underside, and red spots with bluish halos were unreal.

I believe that was the very moment wherein I began my new education.  Standing there knee-deep in that icy flow of water, I took the first step that would change the rest of my life.  That day, scared and trembling like a 5-year-old, I left the familiarity of home and stepped into the classroom like it was the very first time.  I enrolled in the elementary school of fly fishing, and there was no turning back.  For the first time in my life, I loved learning, and there is no better place to learn than Penns Creek.  It is a school that has been rated by many as one of the more difficult places to learn, but there is also the argument that it turns out a better class of students.  We are students that understand things like wild trout, insects, and techniques, as well as the deeper meanings of a life spent angling.  Now, as I finish the end of my 15th year on Penns, questions about the future seem to be coming to the forefront as they did in my formal education. Questions like “What do you want to do with your life? and Will you continue your education?” seem to be pending, waiting for my answer.  Just like my senior year of high school, I am nervous about the future, but things are slightly different now. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt what I want out of life.  The truth is that I simply want to be a life-long student.  You know, that guy you see semester after semester walking around campus. He doesn’t really fit in with his graying hair, out of date clothes, and 1992 edition Jansport backpack. He doesn’t talk much but always seems to be on his way to some important class or lecture. Everyone thinks he’s a little strange, and the comments about him are always the same. Everyone agrees that, He should probably grow up someday and get a real job instead of bumming around like some kind of kid for the rest of his life.

-Andy Wagner

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Erie Steelhead Alley: Road Trip

A few weeks ago Walt Young, a good friend of mine, and myself decided to take a trip to fish in Erie. Neither of us had been to Erie for a couple of years and were well over due for hard fought battles, heavy weight rods, and fresh steelhead. Steelhead are known for putting up lengthly struggles compared to Trout, this is mostly because they reach the same sexual maturity at a much larger size than Trout do. In the spur of the moment, Walt and myself gathered our things and hit the road towards Erie. We had no idea how long we were going to stay in Erie, unsure of where we wanted to spend our time fishing, and not a clue where we were going to stay each night. This seemed very fitting for our friendship and sure helps in having an adventure.

Fortunately, we were able to find a room at the Riveria Motel which was 50 dollars a night, directly across the street from 2 bars, and had a “Welcome Fisherman” sign out front. This seemed as though fate was on our side, at least for the moment. Unfortunately, it did nothing but rain the first two days that we were there and we had very little time to fish due to streams being unfishable from high water. This was not a big deal, we spent the majority of our time those two days either touring the Presque Isle State Park, visiting a local bar, or in the Presque Isle Casino. Not quite the fishing trip we had intended, but according to me this vacation is getting out to a great start. All that we needed to do was catch a couple fish the last day of our trip and we go home very happy men.

On the last evening of our trip I was monitoring the stream gauges using my phone with an app called “Fishhead” (If you do not have this app, it makes checking stream gauges a breeze and you absolutely need to purchase it.). Walnut creek appeared to be dropping very rapidly, which is very typical of the Erie tributaries, and it looked as though we were going to be able to fish the next morning. The Erie tributaries are small streams that drain small areas, relatively. This is the reason that these streams have the tendency to rise and fall very quickly. To give you more of an idea, Walnut Creek peaked at nearly 500 cubic feet per second at lunch time and by the next morning at 7 am it was back down to only 150 cubic feet per second.

Successfully put a fish in the net working off color water near the mouth of Walnut Creek.

The high water had receded which created perfect fishing conditions the last morning of our trip. The water was still a tannish or greenish color depending on which section of the stream you were fishing. High water and zero fishing pressure from all the rain left the fresh fish (often referred to as “chromers”) that came in the stream untouched for two days. The peach colored egg bite was on and we were into fish almost the entire day on both Walnut Creek and Elk Creek. Fortunate to have a good friend who is a writer and photographer, I was able to be the “model” for some great pictures that Walt took. If any of you are from the Altoona area, Walt wrote his column in the Altoona Mirror last week on our steelhead trip and included a picture of the fish I caught on Elk Creek.

A nice fish coming to hand on Elk Creek.
A nice fish coming to hand on Elk Creek.

It is always nice to be able to spend time getting away on fishing trips with good friends. This “mini” trip to Erie with Walt will be one that I will remember for a long time. Erie is always one of my favorite places to go fishing during the winter months. The steelhead fishing can still be very good and you will see a lot less angling pressure during this time of the year. I try to make it a habit of getting to Erie at least once a year for some steelhead fishing. After checking out the Presque Isle State Park, I think my next trip to Erie will be in the spring pursuing bass in the bays. If you have never fished for steelhead in Erie, or had the privilege of viewing the Presque Isle State Park (which has more visitors per year than Yellowstone National Park) these are two things that you need to put on your bucket list.

Thanks to Walt Young for taking all of the pictures from this trip, below are a few more awesome shots from him.



Trout Tactics for Low Water

Due to the absence of rain in the Central Pennsylvania area lately, many streams are at very low flows with crystal clear water. Many anglers tend to steer away from fishing streams when low, clear water conditions are present. What they may not realize is a lot can be learned while fishing streams that have low clear water flows. Not to mention, with the right approach, it is still very possible to catch fish in these conditions. The tactics used to approach the stream is the most crucial part to being able to catch fish in low, clear water.

When water is low and clear, an angler needs to “hunt” fish much more than when water is at normal flows. Low, clear water presents an opportunity to “sight fish” which, in plain terms, means locating a specific fish and then trying to fool that specific fish into eating your offering. This can be very appealing because aside from being able to see the fish, often the strike (fish eating your offering) is visible in plain eye sight. For myself, this is one of the most challenging but equally satisfying aspects of fly fishing.

The golden rule to catching fish in low clear water is to be very cautious while approaching the stream. An angler should always fish in an upstream approach under these conditions. Fish face the current in almost all situations, therefore by fishing upstream an angler can keep himself behind the fish. This can perform wonders for limiting the number of fish an angler spooks. The second most important thing an angler can do is to simply slow down. Take your time and move very slowly getting into position, this also will limit the number of fish spooked drastically. In low clear water, the battle between an angler and fish, is often won with the right approach.

Low Little J Brown
A brown trout taken in during very low, clear water conditions.

Aside from utilizing this approach, following these 6 tips will  increase the number of fish put in the during low clear water conditions.

1. Lengthen the leader. By lengthening the leader, the fly line will be a farther distance away from the fish while making casts and drifts. Aside from the way an angler approaches the stream, throwing the fly line too close to fish when water is low and clear is often how most fish are spooked.

2. Fish lighter tippet. When water is low and clear, an angler should fish lighter tippet in order to fool more fish into eating the offering. Lighter tippet, with a smaller diameters, allows for much cleaner drifts than heavier tippet. I recommend fishing at least 5x and in some situations 6x in order to improve catch rates during low clear water.

3. Eliminate flashy flies. Often times drab, natural toned flies are the way to go during low clear water. These flies will not turn fish off the way that flashy flies can during these conditions.

4. Be careful with bead-head flies. Bead-head flies are designed to get flies deep very quickly which is often not necessary in low water. Aside from the extra weight disturbing fish, gold beads also tend to turn fish off in these conditions. If fishing beads is necessary, try sticking to colors such as black or copper in order to spook less fish.

5. Subtle Strike Indicators. Low, clear water is not the time and place for very bright, big indicators as these types of indicators can spook fish. Thin white yarn indicators, as well as small white foam stick-on indicators are both solid choices

6. Blend into the surroundings. This can be done by matching the color of apparel worn with background colors around the streams. Camouflage is often the best choice, but anglers can get away with black, brown, or olive colors as well. By blending into the surrounds makes anglers much less noticeable to the fish.

By keeping these tips and tactics in mind, anglers can approach low, clear water conditions with confidence. Despite contrary belief, these type of conditions can produce some of the best days on the water of the year, but only if approached the correct way.

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Gear Review: Orvis Helios 2 – 10 ft 3 wt

Standing 10 foot tall and weighing in at only 2.5 ounces, the 3 weight Helios 2 by Orvis is in a superior class of it’s own. There is no other 3 weight rod that can compare to the Helios 2 in terms of performance in both casting and fishing ability. For tight line nymphing purposes, which refers to nymph fishing that uses “feel” with the flies to detect strikes, the 10 foot 3 weight Helios 2 is by far the best rod of it’s weight class.

What exactly is a tight line nymphing rod?

Before specifically discussing the Helios 2, lets discuss some basic principles of how nymphing rods of this kind are designed. This type of rod is usually built in lengths ranging from 9.5-11 feet in order to allow the angler to reach farther away with the rod tip. The longer the rod, the easier it becomes to maintain drag-free drifts at farther distances. In order to effectively gain drag-free drifts at maximum distances, most anglers choose to “high-stick”(which refers to drifting with the rod tip high in the air). As the rod increases in length it will also increases in weight. The heavier the rod, the faster fatigue sets in the on arms and shoulders of anglers. Along with decreasing fatigue as a factor while fishing, a lighter rod also improves sensitivity. Having improved sensitivity is very beneficial while depending on “feel” to detect strikes. A longer rod in most cases tends not to cast as well as a shorter rod because the longer the rod, the longer it takes the rod to recover between casting strokes. Rods of this type often consist of a little slower, softer actions that are offer tippet protection. Tippet protection allows anglers to fish small tippets in order to sink small bugs faster (due to faster sink rates of smaller diameters of tippet), get cleaner drifts (due to smaller diameters of tippet), and to help fool spooky fish in technical water. These slower, softer actions also prevent anglers from “bouncing off” and losing small fish. The problem with these slower, softer action is that it makes casting accuracy and fighting fish a real challenge. Now that the characteristics of tight line nymphing rods are understood, we can effectively answer the real question of the matter.

How does the Orvis 10 foot 3 weight Helios 2 out perform all other predecessors of tight line nymphing rods?


The Helios 2 outperforms all other 3wt tight line nymphing rods in the casting department due to it’s tip flex action. The Helios 2 recovers very quickly in between casting strokes for it being a rod that is 10 feet long and merely a 3 weight. This rod’s tip flex action has the ability cast long-line nymphing style rigs with ease and pinpoint accuracy. It was impressive to see how well it was able to throw these rigs into the wind, which is not a characteristic that would normally be prevalent in a 3 weight. A lot of tight line nymphing rods either have slower actions that to fail to cast well, fail to fight small fish well, or fail to offer tippet protection. In terms of casting performance, there is no comparison, the Helios 2 10ft 3wt has set the standard very high for casting ability in tight line nymphing rods.

Fighting Fish.

The Helios 2 is the only 3 weight nymphing rod I’ve fished that has enough back bone to efficiently fight fish in swift currents. It is also the only nymphing rod I’ve fished that is capable performing these tasks while maintaining a soft enough tip to keep from bouncing small fish off during the set of the hook. This soft tip also provides ample tippet protection, allowing anglers the option of fishing small tippet diameters. The Helios 2 is the best of both worlds in having enough backbone while still maintaining a soft sensitive tip, giving it the ability to fight fish better than any other rod of it’s kind.


Overall the Helios 2 10ft 3wt is the best tight line nymphing rod in it’s class. The first time this rod touches your hand will be the last time you ever look to another 3 weight tight line nymphing rod. It excels in casting and fighting fish, which are the two categories that most tight line nymphing rods perform the worst in. Aside from this, it is a premium product from Orvis that was manufactured with the highest quality components and hardware. Orvis refers to this rod as a “feather light war club” and they are completely right. According to Orvis, This rod is 20% light in the hand, 20% stronger, and has a 100% increase in tip-impact strength when compared to the original Helios. Orvis also labels the Helios 2 with a “fine tuned taper for unrivaled tracking, accuracy, and lifting power”, which is a major contributor to its outstanding performance in casting and fish fighting ability. While I would recommend the Orvis Helios 2 10ft 3wt to anglers that fish tight line nymphing methods, this rod is more suited to smaller streams, light flies and tippet, or medium to smaller sized trout. If you fish a lot of heavy flies, larger rivers, or for larger trout, you may want to consider a 4 weight.



For more information on a Orvis Helios 2 visit their website by clicking HERE.


Trout Tactics for High Water

Often anglers tend to steer away from fishing in conditions that do not appear to be ideal, sometimes this can be a very big mistake. High, off-color water from rain events can produce some of the best fishing conditions, especially for targeting trophy trout. I’ve never been a fair weather angler, this is most likely because I feel as though the best time to fish is whenever the opportunity is given. It is also because I found it very rewarding to learn to catch fish in water conditions that are deemed “unfishable” by a large majority of anglers. Since most anglers retreat from the streams under these conditions, it leaves the water wide open for those still willing to lace up their boots. Frequently anglers struggle to have success fishing water that is high and off-color, this is usually due to the way they approach the water. Producing fish in high, off-color water requires very a different approach regarding fly selection and techniques. Knowing how to adjust to these conditions properly will dramatically increase catch rates, and allow anglers to get on the water on days they otherwise thought were “unfishable”.

A solid fish taken during high. off color water conditions.
A solid fish taken on a San Juan Worm during high. off-color water conditions.

What leads to the success of catching fish in high, off-color water?

1. Banking on the edges. When the water rises fish often head for the banks, there are several different reasons for this. When water rises it washes a lot of debris into the water that fish evade by moving to the edges. The water rising also causes fish to slide to the edges of rising swift, strong currents  to avoid expending extra energy. Along with trout, bait fish also evade these currents by moving to edges which makes them viable targets for trout during these times. Anglers often over look the streams edges by trying to concentrate on fishing the areas of streams that they usually catch fish in at normal flows. It is possible to produce fish in these areas if anglers are capable of getting flies down deep to the fish usually in those areas(which have hunkered on the bottom to avoid the increase in water speed and strength). It is much easier to focus on the fish along the edges, and often very practical to fish banks and edges during these conditions without even getting your feet wet. Casting where the fish are is the holy grail of fishing, and where the fish are located fluctuates as water levels change. When the water is high, bank on the edges.

2. Nymphing dirty. Nymphing during high, off-color water is not the most gracious technique of fly fishing, for high success rates be prepared to get a little dirty. High off-color water requires lots of extra weight to get flies deep and large strike indicators that is capable of suspending the extra weight. “Thingamabobbers” can be a great tool for suspending large amounts of weight and still maintaining sensitivity and visibility. Aquatic worms play a huge part in fishing high, off-color water and are often a great fly to start with. Aquatic worms get washed into the stream frequently during rain events, therefore San Juan Worm varieties can be deadly during these conditions The other key to producing fish on nymphs in these conditions is fishing flies that the fish will be able to see. This means flies that are on the larger size (14+) and have some type “hot” bright colors, dark contrasting material, or flashy material incorporated in them. Some other great examples of these types of flies are egg patterns, flashback nymphs, prince nymphs, girdle bug stone fly nymphs, pheasant tails with bright orange or red collars, etc.

3. The big, bad, and ugly. High, off-color water is one of the ideal conditions to tie on the big, bad, ugly streamers and sling them towards the banks. The fish tend to feed aggressively and lower their guard in the mask of the high, off-color water, which creates one of the best opportunities possible for catching trophy trout, and is often overlooked by anglers. Fishing very large streamers (size 2-8) that consists of movement, flash, and contrasting dark colors is the weapon of choice. The key to fishing these flies is making sure to get them down deep to the fish, which can be challenging with all the extra water. Fishing streamers that have lead eyes, lead wire, cone heads, or beads make them sink much faster to get down into the feeding zone quicker. Another way of getting flies down deeper is by fishing sinking fly lines which allows anglers to fish less weight flies that have much more movement and action in them than heavy weighted flies. Another key thing to remember is fish have less visibility during these conditions so you make have to fish slower, giving more casts towards each spot, which gives the fish more of a chance to see the fly being presented. When the streamer bite is on it can lead to some very exciting days on the water where these are increased chances of catching trophy trout.

The Tequeely is a great streamer for high, off-color water due to it’s bright yellow legs, flashy body, and dark contrasting colors.

Take these tips and venture out into conditions that otherwise would be over looked. The weather will always look worse through the window. Fishing conditions that are not the “normal” will lead to many lessons learned on the water. In this case, it may also lead to some very productive fishing and a trophy trout.


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