Fall 2023 issue: Gone Fishing

The thrill and heartbreak of catching fish with a fly

by Carla Robinson
Posted 10/1/23

As anyone who loves fly fishing can tell you, it’s a sport that requires skill, artistry and focus.  It can also steal your heart.

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Fall 2023 issue: Gone Fishing

The thrill and heartbreak of catching fish with a fly


As anyone who loves fly fishing can tell you, it’s a sport that requires skill, artistry and focus. 

It can also steal your heart. 

“That moment when you feel the tug of a fish on the end of your line is just exhilarating,” said Putnam Coes, a Wyndmoor resident and fly fishing enthusiast. “There’s nothing else like it.”

While spin fishermen drop their bait into the water in hopes that a fish will swim by and eat it, fly fishermen use the line itself – which is embedded with tiny weights – to tempt their prey. When they cast their line out over the water, they’re trying to make their tiny flies dance across the surface just as an insect would.

“And that’s where all of the beauty of the sport actually is. You have to manipulate the line in such a way as to make it look like a real bug,” Coes said. “The insanity that sometimes characterizes a fly fisherman is that attempt at perfection.”

No wonder the sport is growing.

“More and more people – and different kinds of people – are gravitating to it,” said Mike Moran, manager at Orvis Outfitters in Plymouth Meeting. “We’re starting to see more women show up for our classes, and also younger people, including teenagers.” 

Jim Leonard, president of Valley Forge Trout Unlimited, Montgomery County’s chapter of the cold water conservation group, is seeing the same thing. 

“I’ve seen tons more female anglers, and these are not women who are just going along with their husbands,” he said. 

Where to go

Here in Pennsylvania – which has more miles of trout water than any other state in the nation except Alaska – fly fishing is a year-round sport. And while the vast majority of the state’s best fishing creeks are found west of the Susquehanna River, some are much closer.

Valley Creek, a class-A blue ribbon wild trout stream in Valley Forge National Park, is about a 20-minute drive from Chestnut Hill. Just a bit further away, Aquetong Creek in Bucks County is also once again home to wild trout, because of the 2017 removal of a dam. And for some of the best fly fishing anywhere in the country, the headwaters of the Delaware River are just a few hours' drive north.

Lenny Gliwa, store manager at TCO Bryn Mawr, said his clients go up there often.

“The Pocono Mountains are the birthplace of modern fly fishing,” Gliwa said, explaining that it got started at the turn of the last century, when wealthy industrialists from both Philadelphia and New York City bought large tracts of land to found private fishing clubs such as Pohoqualine, the Bright Creek Park Association, and the Brodhead Hunting and Fishing Association. 

Valley Creek

Leonard, who first discovered Valley Creek in 1982, describes it as one of nature’s happy surprises. It had been a stocked stream until the mid-1970s, when the discovery of PCBs in nearby soil put a stop to that. 

“Within a few years, people realized that the stream was full of naturally producing wild brown trout,” Leonard said. “We think that enough of the stocked fish survived that they were able to breed, although it is also possible that some trout are coming down through cold water tributaries.”

The Wissahickon Creek, which is stocked every spring by the PA Fish and Game Commission, is also popular. While that creek isn’t cold enough to support wild trout, the temperatures stay cool enough until about mid-June that “they’re usually pretty thick in the water starting from Bells Mill Road down to the Valley Green Inn,” Leonard said.

“It’s what they call a “put and take” fishery, which means pretty much what it sounds like,” he said. “And you can also eat those fish if you choose to. They test the water before stocking.”

Getting started

Just the basics – a rod, a fly line and a starter set of flies will run you about $350, Moran said. Orvis offers its own line of fly fishing products and also runs a Saturday casting class in their parking lot starting in March, which lasts throughout the summer, and fly tying classes in the winter. 

“That’s really fun - when you catch a fish with a fly that you tied yourself, that’s a pretty good feeling,” he said. 

For those who want something more, TCO Unlimited is the only full-service fly fishing shop in the area. It has four Pennsylvania stores within an hour’s drive from Philadelphia – and offers a much wider range of products.

“We have a guide service, a variety of classes and schools, and we host international trips,” he said Gliwa. “I just got back from the trip to Belize. We went down there to fish for Tarpon.”

In addition to a wide range of sophisticated fishing gear, TCO has a whole building dedicated just to the art of fly tying.

“There is indeed an art to that, and a big part of the sport for some people,” he said. “In my shop right now, I have hundreds of different animal skins and feathers, which we use to make things that imitate something that a fish would want to eat.”

Tips from the experts

Once you’ve got your gear, you can head out on your own, take a class or join a club. Whichever you choose, most experts suggest starting with something easy – a small panfish, perhaps, or a stocked trout stream right after opening day, when the stream is full of hungry fish. 

That’s especially true when you're teaching kids, he said.

“If you want them to take to it, you have to make sure that they actually catch a fish,” Coes said. “Whatever you had to do - make sure they catch one.”

“It can be very frustrating, especially at first,” Coes continued, adding that fly fishermen “spend an inordinate amount of time tying new things onto the end of their line.

And once you’ve caught on, they say, it’s important to keep at it. 

“You won’t get good at it if you just do it once or twice a year,” Leonard said. 

It’s particularly important to slow down and pay close attention to how you interact with the natural world. 

“Trout can see on both sides of their head, and they are very wary of anything moving above them. They notice the slightest little thing – and can feel something being tossed into the stream from 10 feet away,” Coes said. 

And yes, there is some entomology involved. 

“Your task is to identify what bugs the fish are eating that day, what stage of its life cycle it’s in, and then look through your fly box for a reasonable imitation of that particular bug,” Coes said. 

Words of wisdom

But most of all, they say, just relax and enjoy the beauty of it all. Because wherever you find good trout fishing, you’ll find a naturally beautiful place. And if you do it right, fly fishing can be a kind of meditation.

“Once you get out on the water and start fishing, everything else can just fall away. You’re concentrating so hard on what you’re doing that anything that may not be going right in your life just disappears,” Leonard said. “And then, when you look down at that wild fish after you’ve caught it, and you're getting ready to let it go, it looks like a jewel in your hand.”