Neither of us were all that enthusiastic about fishing. Well, that’s not entirely true – Nigel’s always enthusiastic about fishing. But it was cold this morning and we’d been marinating in Pennsylvania’s tepid fall climate for months. We weren’t inured to frigid flows yet and the thought of getting into the water before sunrise made one wish to pull the blinds, pull the covers back up and re-set the alarm – or not.
Steam spewed from a coffee thermos as the lid cracked open. And there was Nigel, in the dark already waiting at the rendezvous point, perennially optimistic in spite of lost sleep and comfort. We had new water to prospect today, water that just couldn’t wait till April. Tires spun, propelling my car toward the lightest part of the horizon, two coffee thermoses now open. This is what it is to suffer from a compulsion to wing flies across untested waters, or simply to suffer from addiction.
And speaking of untested waters, Nigel produced from his philosophical knapsack, a sort of thought experiment on the cosmic idea of nested realities. What would the implications be if we were living out lives in a contrived world program, realities which we imagine to be the reality though only an illusory sort of machination? Who made this sphere then and is there hope of escape? Is our free will an illusion here in this contrived biosphere? It was weighty stuff but one risked tripping headlong into such profound rabbit holes when sharing a ride with Nige’.
And then, just before settling the matter for all posterity, we arrived at Coalton. Coalton, population 37, sits on the bank of the Kiskiminetas River. Like so much of western Pennsylvania, it’s a place from which inhabitants perform long daily commutes to places where there are actually jobs, if they do work. There’s more than one stream joining the Kiski here at Coalton, none of which we’d fished before. But Nigel had not only scoped one of these out on the map, he’d done a little hiking (a “recki,” if you speak British) to find access earlier in the week.
This has become a favored river valley for the two of us in recent years – Stony Creek River of the Conemaugh down through to the Kiskiminetas and on to the Allegheny. It’s an environmental success story – a once severely polluted watershed recovering nicely, now to the point that the main stem of the river supports fine fisheries of musky, walleye, catfish and more. Many of the watershed’s tributary streams support wild trout too – a situation that’s not widely known yet. Nigel and I don’t even know yet the extent of the re-colonization by coldwater fishes.
Arriving at the mouth of, let’s call it Coal Seep Brook, the sun was not up and everything remained heavily frosted, vapor still effervescing from the river surface. We split here in typical fashion, me plunging into the river (in only slightly leaky waders) and Nigel having a look round and then settling in for twenty minutes or so of considering water and flies. Dries were out today. Streamers were probably out too but it’s what I wanted to fish, imagining on each retrieve a twenty-inch behemoth materializing just off the tail feathers.
The inlet bar in the cloudy river water produced nothing aside from slightly overflowed waders. I was definitely awake now. Nigel’s patience with tiny nymphs stirred nothing from the lowest pools of Coal Seep. I joined him and we took turns with the pools that followed, up to the railroad bridge. Nothing. To all appearances, the stream was devoid of life. The water was at least low and clear enough to assume that we would have seen something.
We quickly reached the conclusion that this wasn’t the right day for experimentation and that there was another brook, twenty minutes off which certainly supported a bevy of waiting browns, one of the really fine local fisheries which cannot simply be driven up to and exploited.
Three hours after arriving, we were hiking back out, fingers frozen and creels full of disappointment. We’d “missed” at our “can’t miss” fishing hole. It seemed as if there were no trout there and never had been any.
“It’s just much, much too cold. The valley never warmed this morning and the trout are really, really put off. They’re just not eating anything,” Nigel consoled and rationalized for us both.
The sun was breaking through the barren hardwoods a bit as we climbed higher, sparkling on clean-water springs here and there in this remarkable little valley which seemed as though mining had never touched it. We both knew this wasn’t true though. Had there been nothing worth coming out for because no trout were hooked, or seen, today?
Well, we’d know Coal Seep Brook only as a blue line on the map had we stayed home. We’d be a little less conditioned to fishing in the cold had we stayed in comfort. We would have missed the scant few winter mushrooms if we hadn’t had a look around. We wouldn’t have learned that even the finest of our trout streams can be turned “off” by the season’s first brutally cold morning. And, by the way, I wouldn’t have seen a single brown leap out in the big river itself today, catching a first ray of sun on a burnished flank. That’s enough to inspire some thinking.
I was still thinking as we rolled across the endless Pennsylvania hills, homeward. Why was there a trout in the river but not the stream and was he alone? Why no bites at all in predictably excellent water? Too cold?
But maybe we were just victims of a glitch in the physics engine, aberrations encountered by a couple of wader-clad ghosts in the machine.