Ed Shenk and Pennsylvania’s
Letort Spring Run
The gin-clear limestone spring creeks of Cumberland Valley, Pennsylvania have become a fascination of mine. They offer a window into the birth of an American style of fly-fishing and tying, a product of the area and its challenges. A community of famous anglers such as Charlie Fox, Ernie Schwiebert, Vince Marinaro, and Ed Shenk grew up on these streams. They pioneered many traditional fly patterns imitating sculpins, hoppers, and mayflies; even the names "sulfurs" and "terrestrials" were coined by Marinaro and Fox respectively. Many more sportsmen whose names are not as recognizable walked these streams during the height of their fame and productivity, catching wild trout the size of which now only exist in local legend.
It was hot and humid for early September in Carlisle, a good excuse to drag my feet and postpone fishing in order to take the midday to trade stories. Since our accidental meeting on the Letort in the fall of 2010, I had wanted to talk with a man who had as much knowledge about a network of streams as one could possibly acquire in a lifetime. The renowned fly-tier and angler Ed Shenk has, without a doubt, accomplished that task. Just read his book, Fly Rod Trouting, which details every bend, riffle, and pool of the Letort that Ed grew to know and love.
I met Ed at his home off the campus of Dickenson College, and even at eleven it was too hot to fish. After shaking hands, I offered the most predictable question I could invoke.
"Ed, have you been fishing lately?"
"Nope." Ed led me across the porch strewn with drying felt boots and waders to a living room cluttered with books, rods, fly boxes, and old pictures. I was later amused to learn that he knew where everything was.
"When Charlie Fox was the age I am now, he used to tell me that he didn’t want to go fishing that much anymore. He felt that he didn't need to. I thought I'd never get like that, but I have, and I don’t get out as much as I used to."
Of course the frequency of Ed's outings is only relative, falling somewhere in between the average angler and his former storied past - one that has placed his recognition as one of the last of those whose culture of innovation in fly fishing and fly tying defined an area and an era. The art of Cumberland Valley anglers grew in response to spring creek fishing and persnickety trout, a sportsmen's Darwinian evolution or sorts. The clear, cold, and slow moving waters of the Letort demanded better flies and better fisherman. What it got was a group of sportsmen, in every sense of the term, who through trial and error found what worked on this blue-collar Yankee version of the English "chalkers".
Ed still spends his days tying and fishing in Carlisle, though the local streams are far from their original condition. "I've been tying a lot for Harry Murray's fly-shop in Virginia and in preparation for a fall trip that I've been taking in recent years to Nova Scotia."
This prompted Ed to fetch two large fly boxes full with Atlantic salmon streamers. I scoped the room for what other fishing articles might be woven into the clutter. I saw pictures of "Goliath" brown trout, fishing books, and short rods of bamboo and fiberglass - the iconic tool or Mr. Shenk (His affection for short rods is amply explained in his book).
"I have really enjoyed these fall trips, taking Atlantic salmon off skimming a double hooked streamer on the surface." Ed stated as he flipped through the boxes finding examples of good flies.
With a vivid memory, he reflected about a fish of last year's trip, the kind that makes one go back the next. It was drawing toward evening in Nova Scotia and the wear of the day translated into a critical mistake: an unfixed wind knot at the end of his tapered leader. Ed hauled a cast up and across the current, skimming the fly on the swing toward the tail out. There was a firm but slow pull on the line, the type to which even the best fisherman doesn’t know how to react at first except to keep the tension and wait for something to move on the other side. The salmon, who Ed guessed was tired from being caught the day before, threw its weight around rather than responding with an angry flash and run. We often forget that a strong river strains a big fish more than our arm, and the twenty pound salmon all but conceded the fight. He drew the fish across the current with surprising ease. When the salmon was only a few rod lengths away, it shook its head and predictably snapped the leader at the knot - the fish was gone. It was the scenario that Murphy's Law deemed would happen the second he left the wind-knot unfixed. Walking downstream in the growing darkness he passed a group of fishermen pounding the deeper pool.
"He's not there" proclaimed Ed. "He's upstream"
"I knew those men were looking for that fish." It made sense. Big or small water, you have to trust the word of someone who knew the habits of large fish like Ed does. "Trout are creatures of habit and, if left undisturbed in their daily routines, will feed at the same locations every day" (Fly Rod Trouting).
The conversation inevitably ran full circle back to the Letort and Ed's stories there. He showed me pictures of Old George (George was a 27 ½ inch female brown trout), the 5' fiberglass rod he built and caught her with, and the white marabou streamer that fooled her. We spoke about the stream's challenges of the past, its current conditions, and what is being done to bring it along. Ed was the first Co-President of the Cumberland Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited, and has lived long enough to see its membership grow to over 400 angler-conservationists. His biological, entomological, and conservation sense has grown out of irreplaceable experience in the field as an angler.
Fishing the Letort today conjures mixed feelings. Anyone who knows of its past respects the fishermen and innovations its waters produced; and the memories of those who knew it best recall large and abundant fish. On the other hand, the modern day Letort is a mere facade of its former self. Sedimentation from over a century of upstream land-use practices has warped its natural course. Gravel spawning beds are sparse and are often assisted by the work of local conservation-minded anglers. The sediment has pushed water levels well above the grassy banks, in places creating a background of swamps. Fortunately, in addition to stream clean-ups, TU's Cumberland Valley chapter has worked to stabilize the banks of the Letort below the quarry as well as preserving a 1/3 mile riparian buffer zone from development.
Ed compared the Letort of days past to the spring creeks of South America. "Limestoners" are not exclusive to the Cumberland Valley, and as such, he has demonstrated his prowess all over the world. When questioned about fishing the streams of Montana and Patagonia, he made it known that the Shenk Hopper of his own design can be tied to match the durability of any foam bug. He cited examples of strategies used to gingerly pull browns over 20 inches from undercut banks and log-jams. Perhaps this is where my fascination with these fisheries stems. Spring creeks require unparalleled strategy and thoughtfulness, from tying to presentation. Cross currents create drag, watercress fouls up hooked fish, and shadows from daylight or moonlight spook intelligent trout. Ed is a product of his surroundings and of those that he fished with; a design any angler can appreciate.
For more information on Ed Shenk's experiences as an angler read his publication, "Fly Rod Trouting" (1989). Within, Ed shares stories and strategy with a strong focus on spring creek fisheries and the Letort. Vivid descriptions describe the famed stream's past, the men who fished it, and its trout.