Rod and Reel January 1987

The Fly

The Henryville Reprobait: the importance of being earnest

We drove all the way to Stroudsberg with the top down on my father's red Corvair convertible. The hardwood forests along the Delaware Water Gap were thick with the light green leaves of early spring. The warm humid sunshine was alive with buzzing cicadas and thousands of flittering chattering birds. A fishing writer had invited us to spend a weekend with him in May, fishing at the Henryville Lodge. We talked about "matching the hatch" and the differences between the eastern and western traditions of fly fishing. My father agreed the size of the fly was important, but argued color only needed to be vaguely correct. "I'm a biologist," he said, "and I can't see that it's necessary to learn the latin names of these mayflies in order to catch a few fish." Our friend laughed, and said he would catch enough fish to prove him wrong.

Reprobait Henryville was a pleasant surprise for us. My father and I were western fishermen. Although we looked forward to exploring Pennsylvania's famous fishing we thought at best it would be a temporary, second rate substitute for the real thing. The water at Henryville was slower than the western streams we were used to, but it was full of boulders, branches, and gentle runs. The fish were spooky, although not necessarily selective, and the fishing was tough. The rolling, heavily forested mountains were beautiful. Our new friend was a true master. He had a Paul Young rod he could cast further than I imagined was possible. When my father gave up on a fish that was feeding regularly in a difficult, reverse eddy on the far side of the creek, our friend stepped in to show us how it was done. He threw a long, looping double squiggle into the end of his line while gently splashing his nymph into the reverse current just downstream of the fish. There was a nifty splash and swirl as he set the hook, and then, a few moments later, he had a gleaming, fifteen inch brown trout writhing in the bottom of his net. This is the stuff that boyhood heroes are made of.

The sun was warm and the fish were willing, but by the end of the day it was clear something was missing; the trout we were catching were hatchery fish. They all seemed to be about the same size, like peas in a pod. Despite Henryville's great pastoral beauty, it was hard to get excited about a place that offered only make believe fish. "It was true," said our friend. "Wild trout management would be better, but it isn't politically possible just yet, and there were a few wild trout in the river if you knew how to catch them." He told us a good, hard working dry fly fisherman would catch a dozen or more wild fish each year, and that a good nymph fisherman would catch twice that many. "The wild fish are skinny and darkly colored," he said. "And they fight a lot harder too."
"Come on over to my room tonight," said our friend to me after dinner. "We can tie a few flies together and
I'll show you one of my secret weapons."

"This fly is hell to cast," he said, "and it doesn't last very long, but it flashes like a spinner and it is one of the best big fish flies I know. We used it in Argentina for sea trout last year. It out-fished every other fly we tried. We'll head down to the pocket water at the lower end of the Henryville property tomorrow; we'll see if we can't find a native brown trout." he continued. "If we don't catch a native, I'm sure we'll find a few of the spring-planted brook trout, and they're a lot of fun too." he predicted. What he showed me was an enormous white marabou streamer tied on a long shanked #2 hook, with a bunch of peacock hearl on top and a strip of shiny, mirror mylar plastic tied on at the front and draped along each side of the fly. I couldn't believe my eyes. For the past twelve hours we had been arguing about silhouette vs. exact imitation, thorax vs traditional style mayflies and what kind of ribbing, if any at all, to use on the abdomens of our #16 Hendricksons. I'd never seen such a big fly before. He opened up another fly box and showed me his collection of sea trout flies. They were so big you could only fit three or four to the box. He handed me a four or five inch Muddler Minnow tied with a long metallic-gold mylar strip on each side. He told me the story of an Argentine salmon that took such a fly, that stripped off a hundred and fifty yards of backing before breaking off at the spool knot, leaving him with a bare reel in his hands.

I asked him if there were any fish at Henryville big enough to take the sea trout fly. "There are a few," he said. "The larger trout are carnivores. They eat bait fish like chubs and small suckers and even cannibalize the smaller trout. You wouldn't catch many small fish with a fly like that, but if you kept at it long enough you'd find out where the big ones are. The mylar is the best and the worst thing about this fly. The mylar flashes like a baitfish when the sun catches it, but it is wind resistant. It flaps like a flock of birds when you try to cast it. The flapping causes a hinging effect where the mylar is tied on at the eye of the hook, and it isn't long before the mylar creases at the hinge and breaks off." "But if you're after a big fish, it's worth it," he added.

After a hearty breakfast at the lodge, we slipped away early and the three of us headed downstream in my father's car. "You have to be patient with flies like these," he cautioned me. "You can't just march out to the stream and expect to catch a big fish every time. You have to invest a lot of time." We fished the mylar streamers, all three of us, for about an hour without a strike. There was a front moving in and a steady hatch of #14 gray mayflies started coming off the water. My father and our friend switched over to casting small dry flies and started catching hatchery fish almost immediately. I remained stubborn and wandered upstream still fishing with a mylar streamer. "Pick me up at the bridge on your way back to the lodge," I said.

The mylar flies really were hard to cast. And they only lasted for about a half an hour before the mylar got creased and broke off. But I was determined to stick with it until I caught a fish or used them all up. I surprised a spin fisherman at the bridge pool who was cleaning a stringer of trout. He gave me a nervous look. This was private water and he wasn't supposed to be fishing here. I could see he lived in the small, red and white cinderblock house next to the bridge. I wasn't about to say anything to a grown man who was twice my size. I remember thinking I would probably do the same thing if I were him. The man took his stringer of fish and shuffled off toward the back door of his house with a slow, angry walk. He looked back at me over his shoulder a few times.

I waded over to the other side of the creek and crossed the bridge to get to the upper end of deep water by the bridge abutment.
"Western water is nearly all public, I thought. It's better that way."

It had been threatening to rain all morning. A light drizzle was just starting to dimple the water. I decided to give the pool a rest and eat my sandwiches before they got soaking wet. Lightning was flashing and rumbling a few miles further up the valley. I knew it wouldn't be long before I heard my father honking his horn from the highway; so I ate the salami and cheese out from the middle of my sandwiches and stuffed the sloppy Wonderbread back into my fishing vest.

I cast my last mylar fly upstream into a riffle and tried to follow the silver streak as it tumbled down into the deeper water by the concrete bridge pilings. There was a sudden football-sized flash of yellow. I felt a strike that nearly tore the rod from my hands. Just as suddenly the line went slack. I was left standing there dumbfounded in the drizzling rain. What happened? That was some fish. I pulled in my fly line and took a look at my hook. The mylar was gone from one side of the fly and the point of the hook was broken completely off. I looked back over my shoulder and realized that I must have ticked the concrete bridge on my backcast.

A car horn was honking and I could hear my father's voice bellowing through the rain. I scrambled up through the boulders at the side of the bridge and ran up the gravel road toward the highway. A tangle of waders and aluminum tubes in the rear seat made it hard to squeeze in. I told them both about the huge fish, but I couldn't tell if either of them really believed me. My father looked skeptical. I could see him scaling down the size of the fish in his mind to account for my youthful imagination. I wasn't so sure about our friend. He said there was a giant fish in the Buttonwood Pool he had been trying to catch for years. "I caught a fat chub on a Quill Gordon once," he said, "and on a whim I tossed the whole works sidearm into the overhanging magnolia branches at the head of the pool. I knew there was an ancient brown in there that was over two feet long. I was curious to see what would happen. The whole pool exploded," he said. "He tore the chub right off the hook with the force of his strike. It's been a year or two since I've seen that fish. Perhaps he has died from old age since then."

I asked our friend if he had ever fished the mylar streamers in the famous pools up closer to the lodge. "No I never have," he said. "It's best not to talk about it much. There are quite a few of the old timers here who really look down on this kind of fishing. "The important thing is being Earnest," he added. "If you handle the fish carefully, and if you have a strong reverence and respect for the river, I really don't think it matters how you catch them."

I was impressed.

I eventually gave up on mylar-strip flies. The flapping mylar turned out to be too hard to cast while other shiny new body materials--like woven mylar tubing and other shiny, more fibrous synthetic materials came along.
But for me the Reprobait lesson wasn't so much about materials or pattern design. It was more about size and high contrast coloring: big fish like big flies. Now that I think about it, I'd have to say the inspiration for flies like the Roadkill Streamer , Twinkie and Halford's Ghost was born that day, on the banks of the Brodheads river at Henryville. Earnestly.