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When you hear about fishing in the Chesapeake, the immediate first thought is rockfish—Maryland’s state fish—and other bay species like red drum, speckled trout, and white perch. Wild trout is certainly not the first thing most anglers think of when choosing a body of water to fish. However, the tailwaters of Gunpowder Falls State Park below Prettyboy Reservoir offer seven miles of wild trout fishing that provide a unique challenge and opportunity to East Coast fly anglers.
A quick stop in fly shops like Backwater Angler in Parkton or Great Feathers in Sparks will provide you with any intel and supplies you need to be successful. Driving through the scenic farmland of Harford County, it is difficult to imagine that you are less than an hour from Baltimore City. This feeling is amplified as you walk along the streamside trails, surrounded by forested hills that hide the open pastures. Even on the hottest day of the summer, the water is too cold to go in for more than a few minutes without waders. Studded wading boots and a staff are also necessary to cross the slick rocks.
This stretch of the Gunpowder is not the kind of place where one picks a spot and fishes it until a limit is reached and it is time to go home and cook a freshly caught dinner. For one thing, special regulations require anglers to practice catch and release as well as to only fish with artificial flies and lures. Moreover, these wild fish are not the fattened up, greedy hatchery trout that race each other to eat every morsel that floats by. A wild trout grows much slower than its stocked counterpart and has to overcome many more dangers to do so. However, growing up in this tough environment makes these fish strong. What they may lack in size, the gorgeously bright brown and rainbow trout of the Gunpowder make up for in iridescent colors and fighting spirit.
Living in a more natural habitat than a concrete hatchery raceway, wild fish take on the colors of the river, making them far better camouflaged and elusive. Often times you do not see the fish until you have spooked it, which is usually the last you will see of it. Most times I do not search for fish. If you can see the fish, chances are the fish can see you.
I look instead for ambush spots where a fish is likely to lie waiting for food to pass by. It may look like there is nothing living in the area—and perhaps there isn’t. However, the upshot of taking this chance is the surprise of having a trout blast through the surface to take your elk hair caddis as it gently drifts along the top of the water. The majority of the time it is a true surprise and I am caught off guard. But after a few misses I am ready for it and properly set the hook and sit back and enjoy the show. Seeing the acrobatics of these fish totally erases any frustration from searching high and low for a good spot, having the right fly—these wild fish are very in tune to what insects are hatching and can be very picky—and possibly fishing for hours without a bite. Downsizing my gear to a 3wt or 4wt fly rod makes for a better fight when the fish digs for the bottom or leaps completely out of the water.
As I bring the fish to me, I try to handle it as little as possible. I bring it out of the water, gently cradling it in my hand only to unhook it. I often use barbless hooks to limit any possible damage to the fish. After one last look at a brown trout’s glowing red spots or a rainbow’s brilliant pink bar, I let the fish slide out of my hand and dart back into the shadows, knowing the trip was totally worthwhile.