Fly Fishing with Lee Powers in Delaware
So Fly: Fooling fish with feather and fur
With the classic 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock casting motion, Lee Powers sends the green line shooting from his 12½-foot, two-handed fly rod, depositing the fly—something called a Chernobyl ant—75 feet from shore. It lands soft and pretty—like a dish served with exquisite presentation by a master chef—on the rippling water of Brandywine Creek.
We are a hundred yards below the post office at Breck’s Mill on a bright September Saturday morning. The 33-year-old Powers, wearing shorts and knee-high boots, has clambered down the rocky bank to streamside. Moments earlier, he had stripped the line from my reel, replacing it with heavier line he took from the array of gear he keeps in the trunk of his car. Then he attached a fly called a sneaky Pete to my leader while commenting with gentle authority that my 7 ½-foot rod was inadequate for the mighty Brandywine. And, in fact, my puny casts are falling far short of his.
We fish for an hour or so and catch nothing, but it doesn’t matter; we are on a beautiful stream on a gorgeous summer day and we have fly rods in our hands.
We went to Breck’s Mill so that Powers could give me some tips on catching fish with flies—lures made of fur, feathers and sometimes foam tied to the tiniest of hooks. I have been fly-fishing casually since high school, and have had modest success in catching brown, rainbow and brook trout. But when it comes to skill and devotion to the sport, Powers is Derek Jeter and I am the Yankees batboy.
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To describe Powers as a zealot would be an understatement. Although 30-odd years my junior, this husband and father of an infant son probably logs more time on the water each year than I have in my entire life. What’s more, he devotes several hours each week to tying his own flies (I have never tied a fly in my life). He has fishing licenses in seven states, and one of his favorite fishing days is Super Bowl Sunday, because he’s sure no one will be on the stream. (As for the cold February weather, he says, “There’s no bad weather; only bad clothing.”)
And, of course, he is strictly a catch-and-release angler; he hasn’t kept a trout since he was a teenager. Last fall he spent half an hour trying to revive an exhausted brown he had caught. Moving to “a more oxygenated side stream,” he says he held the fish upstream so water could flow through its gills. There is genuine disappointment in his voice when he reports, “I’m not sure what happened, but the fish didn’t make it.”
Powers is one of five or six friends who gather most Fridays after work for bull sessions at Terry Peach’s shop, A Marblehead Flyfisher, in Centreville. While this group is made up of expert anglers, Peach says he has seen “all skill levels and all demographics” during his eight years as owner of the shop. “Some are addicted to fly fishing and fly tying and they fish or tie at every free moment,” he says. “Others fly fish a handful of times per year.”
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For about $120, Marblehead can get the beginner on the water with what Peach calls the “Ready to Fish Outfit”: a nine-foot, 5- or 6-weight fly rod, a reel with fly line and backing, and a 7 ½-foot leader. Add pliers/hemostat, nipper, a few flies, hip boots or chest waders, a fishing vest and license, and you’re up to about $300. A small price for what Peach calls “a sport for a lifetime. And it’s all about having fun.”
For some, the sport transcends fun. Instead, it becomes a near-mystical experience, combining the cerebral— outwitting the wily trout with artificial lures—and spiritual—communing with nature. “It can be like recreating yourself,” says Rick Bender, a Marblehead regular. “It washes away the angst.”
Both the fun and the mystique begin with the lightweight rod, traditionally made of bamboo but nowadays more likely to be graphite or fiberglass. When you catch a fish on the wand-like fly rod and play it into submission without snapping the nearly invisible leader, you can feel its strength and power.
Casting the nearly weightless fly is a graceful, precise movement that adds to the mystique. It requires some skill and coordination to deposit the fly in a spot where trout are likely to strike it. “It’s a lot less mechanical than spin fishing, where the reel is like a little machine that does the work for you,” says Desmond Kahn, a biologist with the State Division of Fish and Wildlife. “In fly fishing, the reel basically just stores the line, and it’s up to your timing and technique to make the proper cast.”
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And then there is the fly itself. A man-made imitation of an insect or tiny bait fish, artificial flies come in thousands of “patterns,” with strange and exotic names like zug bug, hare’s ear, wooly worm, bitch creek, blue-winged olive and rat-faced McDougal. They fall into two basic categories: dry—those meant to be fished on the surface; and wet—those fished below the surface. Wet flies usually represent the larva and pupa stages of insects, and generally are more effective than dry flies, which work well only when fish are “rising,” or feeding off the surface of the water. “There’s nothing like a surface strike,” says Bender. “You live for that.”
While most fly fishermen buy flies at tackle shops—for $1.50 or more each— many tie their own. “Fishing and tying go hand in hand,” says Tim O’Neill, a Marblehead employee. The shop sells a $79.95 Starter Tying Kit that includes a vise, scissors, bodkin, head cement, hooks, thread, some feathers, and instructions. “I strongly advise taking a fly-tying class to ease the learning curve,” say Peach.
Artificial flies are made primarily of hair and feathers, along with some synthetic material. The hair usually comes from rabbits, deer, squirrels and muskrats, the feathers from chickens, pheasants, peacocks and ducks. The demand is such that entire chicken farms are devoted to supplying feathers to the fly-tying industry.
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As a boy, Lee Powers made his first flies by cutting bristles off a broom and occasionally clipping hair from the family cat. Today, his set-up in the family room of his Wilmington home takes up an entire table. He also owns equipment that goes with him on most fishing trips. Five years ago, in a quid pro quo on the banks of the Madison River in Montana, Powers traded a couple of dozen freshly tied flies for a skinned pheasant that a fellow fisherman had with him. Now, Powers plucks feathers from the bird to fashion some of his flies.
Whether he ties flies or not, every good fly fisherman must have at least a nodding acquaintance with entomology—the study of insects. This knowledge helps the angler “match the hatch”—select a pattern from his fly box that matches the insects present on the water he is fishing and which, hopefully, the fish are feeding on. This is one of the most satisfying aspects of the sport. “It’s like putting a puzzle together,” says O’Neill.
In addition to entomology, the sport requires a basic understanding of several other sciences, according to Dave Panichelle, whom Kahn calls one of the best anglers in the state. Says Panichelle, who has been casting flies for nearly 50 years, “You should know about ichthyology—the study of fish—as well as limnology and hydrology [sciences related to water and its movement and quality].”
Unlike most experts, however, Panichelle doesn’t carry dozens of flies with him on the stream, and he is no longer “a match-the-hatcher.”
“I was, for many years, because all the books told me I should be,” he says. “But for the past 20 years, I’ve limited myself to six flies, and I rarely fish dry flies anymore. My theory is, if you like fishing dry flies, fish dry flies. If you like catching fish, fish a nymph [a wet fly].”
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While some fly fishermen take a somewhat haughty view of those who cast worms, cheese, or metal lures into creeks and ponds, the guys at the Marblehead shop eschew such an elitist attitude. Their philosophy is simple: Enjoy fishing, no matter what kind of tackle you use, and respect the fishing laws and the environment. Some, like Rick Bender, consider themselves as much naturalists as they are fishermen.
“I always have a camera with me when I fish,” Bender says. “I’ve seen eagles mate, fish spawn. I’ve seen rare birds and plants. It’s about more than just catching fish.”
Says Kahn: “I love wading the streams, and tying flies that imitate insects to catch fish—that keeps you in touch with the habitat. You’re trying to fit into it.”
But make no mistake; these guys love to catch fish. And they all have their secret spots, places they don’t reveal even to each other.
For beginners, there are plenty of well-known, easily accessible areas to get started. In New Castle County, Bellevue State Park and Carousel Park offer ponds that are great for practicing casting as well as catching the occasional bluegill or even bass. Brandywine Creek has plenty of smallmouth bass, bluegill and crappie, and Wilsons Run, in Brandywine Creek State Park, is stocked each year with trout.
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Downstate ponds are home to plenty of panfish, and Tidbury Pond in Kent County and Newton Pond in Sussex County receive trout stockings.
The richest source of trout in Delaware is White Clay Creek. Stocked from the Pennsylvania line to the downstream side of Paper Mill Road, White Clay is restricted to fly fishing from a point 25 yards above Thompsons Bridge at Chambers Rock Road to the Pennsylvania line.
Nearby out-of-state trout streams include the Big Elk and Octoraro creeks in both Pennsylvania and Maryland. Many Delaware fly fishermen make the short drive to Valley Forge to drop a line into Valley Creek, a spring-fed, limestone gem. It teems with wild browns and natural beauty, but long-standing pollution problems make it strictly catch-and-release.
Fly fishing isn’t limited to freshwater creeks, ponds and rivers. Saltwater fly fishing has exploded in recent years, and downstate has become a hotbed for this aspect of the sport. Saltwater Fly Anglers of Delaware, headquartered in Lewes, has been growing since its founding in 1999.
The Internet has enhanced the sport’s appeal with all kinds of data bases. “There’s much more information available on fly fishing today than years ago,” says Peach. “Where to go, what fly to use for the time of year, etc.”
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Beginners should be aware that fly fishing is not the adventure portrayed in “A River Runs Through It,” the 1992 Robert Redford-directed film based on the 1976 novella of the same name by Norman Maclean. The movie features Brad Pitt as uber-fisherman, performing improbable feats like wading neck-deep into a raging western river, his cowboy hat festooned with flies, to land a trophy trout. The romance of it all sent baby boomers flocking to tackle shops to equip themselves with high-priced gear, after which they hied themselves to the nearest trout streams, where they encroached on the space of grizzled anglers accustomed to having those waters to themselves. While fly fishing got a significant bump from the film, the boomer boomlet lasted only until the neophytes encountered the realities of the sport: It requires patience and an ability to accept rejection; trout are skittish and can be maddeningly selective in their feeding habits, and flies and fly lines have a tendency to snag everything but fish, resulting in the old maxim, “Always buy three of each fly—one for the fish, one for the stream, and one for the trees.”
But the appeal of the sport is undeniable, particularly for devotees like Powers, who soon will be off to Montana to spend another few days on its wild waters. Known among his older comrades at Marblehead as a gonzo fisherman and aggressive wader, Powers says he’s a little more careful than when he was in his 20s. Still, he expresses little concern for his occasional falls on streamside rocks. “Go hard or go home, right?” he says. “Anyway, I clot really fast.”