Punk’nHead and I
Friday Night and Saturday:
I met up with Tim at the campsite Friday night. Tim already had a nice fire going among the leafy camping area. I added some pallet wood and the flames shot up brightening our surroundings. We sat around drinking beers, smoking cigars and making plans for steelhead fishing Saturday. Punk’nHead was pretty content smoking a Cohiba and just sitting around with us by the fire. Later that night, while we slept, he sat on my cooler keeping an eye on things and warding off any stray animals.
We rose to a chilly Saturday morn. After a quick cold breakfast we got our fishing gear on and headed out in search of steelhead. Punk’nHead stayed behind at camp doing what Jack-o-Lanterns do. Being lazy and keeping a bright eye on things.
I never fished this section of creek before so I followed Tim down to the creek and we headed down stream past all the other early fishermen. We stopped at a section of rolling water that had a bit of a limestone color tint to it. I instantly liked this section instead of the slow clear pools I normally end up fishing in.
I picked a spot and tied on a streamer, added weight, and started the early morning swing. The high shale wall was littered with fallen leaves. The water flowed with good color and if you looked into it long enough you can occasionally catch a glimpse of darker movement gliding around near bottom.
The two fellows, just up creek, were hooking up pretty regularly in the early morn but I noticed a few fish that passed me, on their lines, were foul hooked. I kept changing from buggers to Triple Threats to Bunny Leeches until I came to the conclusion that the fish below didn’t want streamers at the time. I tied on a tandem rig beneath an indicator and started drifting the flies deep through the current flow.
The first couple of steelhead I caught were less than 20”. The young ones hit the pink sucker spawn pretty hard as it drifted beneath. A good fight in the swift current made for some excitement. The first big steelhead hit my Depth Ray Stonefly. As the indicator sunk below the surface water I reared back and set the hook. A dark object appeared from the deep and shot its way towards the slower water near the high wall. Line shot through the eyes as the reel spun with utmost momentum. Once on the other side he battled with headshakes that vibrated back through the line and rod tip. I kept the rod tip high and after a short spell he headed upstream against the current. After a little more of a frisky battle I had him near shore in about a foot of water. As I moved towards him, with rod practically bent in half, he turned away. With all the energy he had left he shook his head and headed back out into the open water, free from the hook.
For the next few hours Tim and I fished in the same general area hooking up on occasion.
Sometime in the afternoon hours Tim started drifting a Triple Threat under his indicator. It wasn’t long before he had a battle on his hands. He brought to hand a fresh looking steelhead.
It wasn’t long after that that I was able to land a long silver chromer also.
As we started to slowly move our way upstream we each connected again to good fighting steel. It started to drizzle by then and the chill in the air found ways to penetrate the layers of clothes we wore. We decided to head towards camp.
At the campsite we found everything damp and wet from the drizzling rainy day. Punk’nHead had done a fine job looking over our campsite and still had a bit of a stogie left beneath his Ausie Oilskin Safari hat. It was about 4:30 by now with still a few hours of daylight left. I bid Tim good-bye and safe trip back towards Harrisburg. I headed off to another section of creek hoping to hook up to more steel. It ended up not to be.
I ended the evening eating a rib & wing combo at the Avonia Tavern and washing down the Cajun and Lickers seasoning with a tall Yuengling draught. After that I found a safe place to park the van, rest my body for the night and get ready to fish a mile creek on Sunday.
The steelhead took the Triple Threat like a passing dead minnow as it entered his path of flow in front of him. That’s what I figured, even though I couldn’t see him take it, I’ve seen others! The line that followed started to ‘U’ upon and beneath the surface so I swung the rod back taking up any slack and setting the hook. The figure beneath moved towards the pull slightly as if he couldn’t believe there was an attachment to the ‘dead minnow.’ The initial hook set evidently didn’t excite him in the swifter current. He just pulled back and forced the soft rod tip down while he returned to his original position. I didn’t know what was to come but I pulled again and added a sharp jerk, this is when all hell erupted.
Sunday with Jeff:
After shutting the alarm off I peeked from under my sleeping bag and immediately noticed crystal frost on the windshield. The light, from the parking lot flood lamps, made it look like my windshield was shattered. A smoky frost was matted on the other windows of the conversion van. I looked down on the floor and ole’ Punk’nHead looked tired. There wasn’t that glow in his eyes as usual. His pukish orange skin was a bit wet. I was hoping he wasn’t getting a fever.
After warming up the van and eating another cold breakfast I headed to the mile creek. Jeff was to meet me around 9:00am so I had a couple of hours to fish solo. There were already a dozen vehicles parked along the road when I arrived and it wasn’t even light yet. I took my time getting my gear together. I fumbled with tying on fresh leader and tippet under the light given off by my headlamp beneath the early blue/gray sky. Just before leaving I put Punk’nHead on the icy van roof. I put his hat on and stuffed a cigar in his mouth. He was on his own until I returned.
The first hour or so was slow. The steelhead I found in a good deep run along the far bank didn’t want anything I had to offer. From there I made my way down creek searching for steelhead in the slightly tinted water. It was still a blue/gray sky early morning as the sun hadn’t risen much to light things up. At times I would stop and watch for movement in the slightly deeper sections and runs. As I continued down creek the morning lightened up and I found what I was looking for in an area I shouldn’t be crowded over.
The high wall across creek was decorated in fallen leaves of color. It made it impossible for anyone to fish on that side. I stood on a small stone island just wide enough for two people but I would move about the stone island for positioning my drifts. A few guys fished down a short ways in a slow flat section of creek and left me alone. Before me I occasionally saw a fish or two move about. It looked as if most of the steelhead were aligned against a dark ledge that ran the length of the creek. A congregation of steel appeared a bit further down when the congested wrinkled surface flow gave an opportunity to see through.
I started off with a sucker spawn and stonefly dropper. I had a few strikes but was only able to land two of the brutes before Jeff showed up.
When the sun finally came around the bend of the high wall and trees the steelhead began to bite more frequent.
By this time I was down to my last Depth Ray Stone and shy of black stoneflies. I began to cast Triple Threats up and across stream into a good flow of water nearer the high wall. The quick dip of my fly line tip or a sudden jerk and I’d rear back on the rod and immediately felt resistance and a new battle would begin. After a couple of break offs at the knots I came to the conclusion that the 5x fluorocarbon I was using wasn’t strong enough for these furious fighting steelhead like it was for trout. After sticking with 4x flouro I got more steelhead landed.
Jeff had been fishing among a few others guys in the long stretch down creek from me. After seeing my more frequent hook ups he came over and I gave him a few Triples. It wasn’t long before, he too, started hooking up with steel.
It was a matter of preference, I found, that got the steelhead to react to my streamers. Sometimes it was a slow swing that one would grab the streamer. Other times it was a good mend upstream and letting the streamer lead the way near a pod of steel that one would suck it in like a dead minnow. Yet other times it was getting that perfect deep drift, dropping off the ledge drop-off beneath, that a steelhead would grab it before it drifted by.At times the bigger steelhead would freeze on the hook set and I would think I had a snag. I learned to never let my guard down, as a stronger tug of the rod meant for a more positive reaction of the staging brutes.
The fights were furious and each one wasn’t like the last. Some would head down creek right off, stopping briefly and struggle in a forceful manner. A few would headshake just above the surface causing quite a commotion before returning beneath for an unseen battle. Than some would take off up creek pulling line and forcing me to muscle the rod tip up while bracing myself for his next move. At times one would dart towards me and I would have to immediately back-step to keep the line tight while reeling in quickly. Knowing when to give line, let him fight the drag, backing up to keep a tight line, relaxing the rod on a furious headshake or following him to pull from his side wasn’t at all predictable. It was making quick decisions and hoping those decisions were enough to keep the fight going. Some broke off from me over forcing as others simply found a way to release themselves from the hook. Though some of those big brutes I was able to land after a hard fought battle
There were two I landed that had a hole, from fighting the hook, in the skin of their jaw big enough I’d swear you could drop a pencil through.
At times I found my lit cigar went out from my concentration of fishing and fighting. Other times, after a good rumble with a quick silver, I found the butt of my cigar was chewed to a soggy strand of wet leaf. I would in turn bite off the soggy section and relight the stogie before my next cast.
The last take of the day was on a short strip and relaxed drift of my ghost pattern. The big fish took the pattern within my sight just out in front of me. On my quick hook set he lifted his head towards the surface and shook it like a pit bull trying to rip a rag doll into shreds. I stood and watched this steelhead thwarting, waiting at any moment for my rod to relax and my line to go slack. After his furious display of anger he took off downstream like a raging bronco bull with no planned path of escape except to bully free by erratically tugging on the tight line.
This was the meanest, teeth clinching fight I had all weekend. At times I felt he would never exhaust his energy. I tried my best not to horse him in though times I got tired of his antics. When I got him near he would throw a temper tantrum when he felt the stones below his belly just off from the island. I had to back off the island and fight him towards the slower shallow pool of water near the bank. Even when I closed in, he attempted to break the Orvis Clearwater rod in half. A quick plunge of my gloved hand and I was able to get a good tight grip of the neck of his thick tail. I tossed the rod onto the bank and lifted him to shore. I followed my tippet and found my Triple Threat embedded in his tongue. A quick push and twist of the hemostats and he was free from my imitation at last. He settled down within my grip until he felt submerged beneath the water again.
We walked up creek and through the woods feeling good about the day’s activities. When we reached my van ole’ Punk’nHead was still atop the van roof gazing out over the field. I knew he was glad to see me.
Jeff’s ride pulled in while we drank a beer and talked about the following weekend of camping up in the ANF with the Pittsburgh gang. I changed out of my fishing clothes and put on a pair of jeans, fresh pair of socks and a sweatshirt for the drive home. We finished our beers and headed on our way.
After stopping for gas I headed south towards home. I looked over at Punk’nHead as I lit up a Vintage Cameroon. I swear he winked at me as if wanting to say ‘It was a great weekend!’