In fly fishing, most lessons are hard-earned


THURMONT -- It was right there, Jim Phillips remembers. Over there, along the far bank, between the end of that sunken log and the roots of the next tree, the one on that small point where the current breaks.

"I had just landed a big trout. It was taken on a nymph, I recall," Phillips says in the easy manner of one used to stringing thoughts together into sentences, paragraphs and stories. "My son, Justin, was with me and, geez, I can tell you my chest was puffed out and I was just as proud as I could be.

"I mean, I was standing among my peers, with the biggest trout taken that morning -- and then Justin began to run up and down the bank telling everyone it was the first I had managed to take on a fly.

"I was shattered."

It has been several years since Phillips took that first trout from Hunting Creek in Frederick County, and the business of fly fishing has grown on him.

These days, with a decade and a half as a reporter with the Associated Press some years behind him, Phillips can be found, at times, at little league practice with a box of flies in his pocket, a set of magnifiers clipped to the bill of his camouflage cap.

Usually there is a story on the tip of his tongue about an escapade to an Eastern Shore pond for bass and bluegills or to Thomas Point for stripers, or a question about the future of living things great and small. Always there seems to be a yearning to get back to Hunting Creek more often than he does.

Last week, while the coastal plain baked in the midst of a heat wave, we headed for Catoctin Mountain, where Hunting Creek trundles down along Route 77 from Cunningham Falls Lake to Route 15 at Thurmont.

On the drive west, it becomes obvious that Phillips is something of a maverick, a guy who would prefer to write his own book than read and blindly accept only the works of others. His approach to fly fishing is much the same.

"We could go out to Hunting Creek and fish pocket water with woolly buggers, like most people like to do," Phillips says as we drive out and he whips the loop on my line, "and our frustration levels would be low and the activity level would be high.

"But we wouldn't learn a thing about those trout except that if you fish enough pocket water, eventually a fish is going to take whatever you throw at him."

Instead, we would fish the slower water, where the trout could be seen -- holding in the depressions, their noses to the bottom, ready to rise slightly to a nymph or streamer -- and then move downstream to a series of undercut banks fronted by sunken logs and draped with tree roots, within which trout would hold until a morsel slipped down with the current.

At the Joe Brooks Memorial, a small, cleared area, two pools offered false promise. Each contained dozens of trout, all crowded into shaded areas where they could escape the heat of the day, and all apparently off their feed.

But downstream a couple of hundred yards, as Hunting Creek again begins to find a course altered only occasionally by improvements made by fishing clubs and the state Department of Natural Resources, the forest begins to close in. The riffles are faster, the pools deeper and the outer edges of bends undercut by the stream.

Phillips has rigged each of us with an unnamed gray and green nymph of his own creation. It is smaller than a pencil eraser, and the majority of trout we have seen are the length of a football. Somehow, it seems as sensible as sending Eddie Gaedel out to battle George Foreman, a midget against a monster.

"But that is the nature of this sport," Phillips says as we cross and recross the stream in the riffles and crouch down well back on the banks to keep from spooking the trout. "That is why people love it and that also is why people are intimidated by it."

Right. You've got this little speck of a fly that imitates a natural food source. You are going to drift it on a strand as thin as a spider's web into the trout's lie -- and catch a hard-fighting fish.

"So what do you want?" Phillips asks as he assigns me 50 yards of creek and begins to work his way upstream. "Monel leaders and trolling spoons?"

The stretch of creek looks promising.

A small feeder stream enters at the top-outside of the bend. The current has scoured some depth into the stream bed on its exit from the riffle and cut into the far bank. The butt of a 20-foot section of tree trunk is wedged into the bank and deflects the surface flow while allowing the subsurface current to carry into the undercut before escaping 10 feet further on.

It is, in fact, wonderful trout territory, protected from aerial predators, supplied with a steady stream of food and oxygen from the current and equipped with hiding places where the fish can run if spooked.

In the shadows, a trout can be seen, stationed on the edge of the main current, awaiting a meal.

The nymph is cast to the upstream end of the log, its drift, marked by a green float, consistent with the stream flow, the nymph barely visible a few inches off the bottom. Twice in perhaps three dozen casts, the trout moves toward the nymph and backs slowly away. The level of frustration is rising.

Upstream, there is an occasional grunt, a soft curse as Phillips works a group of fish at the head of a pool for an hour or so before making his way downstream.

In the meantime, I have moved farther downstream, where a group of trout is gathered under a group of hemlocks. The Phillips nymph has been replaced with a hare's ear, the hare's ear with a grey ghost. I have even tried to slip them a Mickey Finn, but provoked no takes.

Phillips, meanwhile, has moved into my earlier position just below the bend and has been working the downstream end of the log with his gray and green nymph.

A few minutes later, Phillips is waving for me to come upstream and have a look.

"I just knew there would be a trout there," Phillips said. "That's the same place I caught my first one."

I was shattered.

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