As a kid growing up in Pennsylvania I dreamed of visiting the Rocky Mountain West to fish those big rivers that I saw in the fly fishing magazines. Western rivers seemed so different compared to the smaller fisheries that I spent my youth on and I was a bit intimidated when I first arrived in Montana on a summer long geology field trip sponsored by Penn State. I quickly fell in love with the massive feel of the biggest rivers and the wide open surroundings. There were definitely some new skills that I needed to develop to be successful on the bigger rivers but I found that the techniques and strategies that I had developed in Pennsylvania also worked when fly fishing in Montana. Some of the most talented anglers I have had a chance to guide often come from Pennsylvania and other eastern states and those fertile wild trout fisheries of the Appalachian mountains are a great training ground for some of the world’s best fly fisherman. If you are an Eastern fly fisherman considering a trip to Montana you will be happy to know that your skills honed on your home rivers will put you in a great position to find success on Western waters. Here are five skills that I learned in PA that have helped me on our local Montana rivers.
The rivers and streams in the ridge and valley province of Pennsylvania have some of the most abundant and diverse hatch sequences of any waters I have had the opportunity to visit. Few locations can compare to the overlapping series of aquatic insect emmergences that happen on a single day in late May on waters like Penns Creek, Big Fishing Creek and others. Spending many a day on the fertile limestone streams of central Pennsylvania helped me to pay close attention to the different life cycles of the varied insects. I learned to differentiate between a trout feeding on duns, emmergers or spinners. I also began to recognize when trout were on caddis with splashy rises verses the more delicate takes of mayfly species. I learned that trout would switch from one species (or development stage) to another during the course of an evening and that I had to be constantly aware of these changing preferences if I wanted to be successful during each stage of the hatch. These lessons have carried with me when I am fishing Western waters. Trout feeding during an intense pmd hatch on the Missouri can be just a selective as trout rising to sulphurs on the Yellow Breeches. On some freestone waters such as the Madison river, the hatches do not appear as intense but the same transitions from nymphs, to duns, to spinners still occur and the conditioning to always be on the watch for this frequently pays off.
One of the best lessons that I learned as a kid was how to get close to trout and still catch them. My first experiences with a fly rod in Pennsylvania occurred on laurel choked brook trout streams in the Allegheny National Forest. Because of the thick canopy of trees long back casts were not an option and I had no choice but to sneak in close to make a cast. Western streams and rivers are much more open than their Eastern counterparts and anglers are not forced to get close. I have found that getting as close as possible to the holding water is still a great strategy. The closer you are to the fish the better the presentation will be and the faster the hook set will be. It is very easy to get caught swinging for the fences by making longer than needed casts simply because the wide open landscape permits it.
Spring creeks and tail waters
Pennsylvania is home to some of the most fertile spring fed streams in the world. These productive fisheries are home to high concentrations of healthy wild trout and abundant macro invertebrates. The glassy currents on waters like the Letort and Big Spring require stealthy approaches and carefully placed casts. When fishing these waters as a youth I learned that I needed to carefully plan out each cast before approaching a run. The angle of my position to the fish was extremely important and I began to understand that finding ways to present the fly to the fish before the leader definitely increased the chances for success. Montana is also home to some of the worlds finest spring creeks along with dam released tail water fisheries like the Bighorn, Missouri and Beaverhead that produce spring creek like conditions. My experiences on the Eastern limestone streams helped me to feel right at home when I first visited the legendary Paradise Valley spring creeks like Armstrong and Nelson.
Small streams are fun too!
Even larger Pennsylvania trout streams with the exceptions of tail waters like the Delaware and Allegheny would be considered small by Western standards. When I first moved to the West I spent most of my time on the famous blue ribbon rivers like the Madison, Yellowstone and Missouri because fishing such a massive body of water for trout was new and exciting. As time went on I began to explore the bountiful smaller fisheries that reminded me of home. One of the great things about Montana is that nearly every body of water no matter how big or small seems to hold trout in the Western half of the state. Montana also allows public access to any fishery as long as anglers remain inside of the high water mark.
How to thoroughly work a run
Although there is still plenty of water in Pennsylvania to enjoy there also a lot more people. On some waters like Penns Creek or Spring Creek during famous hatches like the Green Drake or Sulphur the influx of anglers coming for the hatch limited the amount of water available. I learned that if I was in a good run that I had better make the best of it and thoroughly work the water before moving on. Montana rivers receive much less pressure compared to the East and we have the luxury of moving a long way without worrying about being crowded by numerous other anglers (with some exception like the easily accessed wade areas on the Bighorn). Although some days covering as much water as possible is the way to go there are times when slowing down and really dialing into a run is beneficial. When I know that trout are heavily concentrated in a run I will make a few passes through it. If I am nymph fishing I often make a shallow pass with less weight and a shorter indicator to pick off the more aggressive fish first. The shallower rig allows me to detect strikes faster and get a higher percentage of hookups. Eventually I will work the run with a heavier rig and longer leader to get to fish that are in the deeper and heavier water that are not willing to move far to feed.