I watched half-groggy as the tiny black woolly bugger dropped into the clear swirling water under overhanging branches. But when I tried to strip in a bit of the four-weight fly line to "swim" that bugger, I couldn't.
For a split second, the tip of my fly rod danced furiously before stopping. And I was reminded that super light 4X tippet breaks not with a bang but a whimper.
"You thought you were hung up on the bottom, didn't you?" Butler-bred Michael Watriss asked with a chuckle from over my shoulder. "Yeah, we've fished for him twice. He broke the line once before, too. But we got him out of there another time, and he was 16, 17 inches."
"He" was a fat brown trout that has never seen the inside of a stocking truck, Watriss swears. Me, I couldn't tell you - he was the one that got away while I was almost napping. I should have had a cup of java.
Adventures with wild trout can be found throughout northern Baltimore County on cool mornings this time of year, much like the one that Watriss and I enjoyed recently as we probed deep holes with flies on a stream that will remain nameless.
Watriss, who owns Great Feathers on York Road in Sparks - the county's only Orvis hunting and fly fishing shop - fishes a select few side streams in the area with a short, four-weight bamboo rod. Unlike the famous Gunpowder Falls, which gets pounded by good numbers of fishermen because of its blue-ribbon reputation, the side streams rarely bring anglers together.
Much of the technique resembles mountain trout fishing. You kneel down a lot to hide from the trout, make "bow and arrow" casts that look nothing like classic fly rod casts, and fish the deepest holes you can find. And it is about discovery of good-size wonders.
"Some of these side-stream trout tend to be thicker and heavier because they're eating more meat - crayfish and minnows - than the bug-sipping Gunpowder trout," says Watriss, an award-winning decoy carver who also guides on the small streams.
Sure, you'll encounter plenty of six- to eight-inch fish, and a few even smaller. But on that short, morning fishing trip a few weeks ago, we caught one eight-incher, one 12-incher and one 14-incher. The two double-digit fish were fat and sassy, with the 14-inch fish thicker than any stocked trout I've caught on Morgan Run or the Gunpowder.
Finding side streams is not tough with an ADC Map Book of Baltimore County. The trouble is finding public access. Piney Creek and the Jones Falls, for example, have trout populations but meander mostly through private property.
Because Watriss, 36, grew up in the area, he has gotten permission from a number of landowners to fish a few streams. It helps that the Skoal-chewing Watriss tends to be polite.
"If you want to fish, you've got to knock on some doors and ask permission," he says. "They can only say no." He knows that trespassing and bad behavior usually result in streams being posted and landowners saying "no" far more often than not.
Some streams, however, have great public access - among them, the tributaries to the Gunpowder in Gunpowder Falls State Park, and the Beetree Run along the North Central Railroad Trail.
Charlie Gougeon, central region fisheries manager for the state Department of Natural Resources, says his cadre of biologists tend to be close-mouthed about streams with naturally reproducing trout that are no longer stocked. Their fear is that some people won't practice catch and release, especially given the fact that some streams have a two-fish limit.
"It's an extremely sensitive resource, and these streams are extremely vulnerable to over-harvesting," he says.
Many of the side streams with wild browns today were stocked at one time or another, though, Gougeon says. Browns, of European origin, were first stocked in Maryland more than 110 years ago. More than a few streams have developed naturally reproducing fish in the meantime. When stocking has ended, fish have continued to reproduce.
Brook trout, native to the area, continue to be found in the coolest and cleanest water of the side streams - although Watriss says he rarely sees one in the streams he fishes.
Gougeon says you can find trout if you take a little time and energy to do so. Look on a map for tributaries to the Gunpowder, for example. Go to the headwaters and drop a thermometer in the hours between 3 and 6 p.m. on a July day. If the water is 69 degrees or less, you've probably found a trout stream.
A 7- to 8-foot fly rod with a 4-weight floating line and 9-foot leaders ending in 5X and 6X tippet works well on side streams, Watriss says.
Watriss jokes that you could stick bubble gum on a hook and catch some of these fish, they're so dumb. But a few fly-fishing standards should find their way into your pocket for a trip. An elk wing caddis, a hare's ear nymph, a soft-hackle pheasant tail, and a yellow humpy, all size 16, should be joined by size 8 and 10 woolly buggers in olive and black.
The fish we caught weren't terribly particular about the flies - unlike the Gunpowder trout, they haven't seen all of the trout flies in Orvis' catalogue.