Chesapeake Insider

Leo Vensel


Leo Vensel is a fly fishing guide in Southwest Pennsylvania, focusing mainly on wild trout on the Little Juniata River. Leo started fly fishing in the early 1970s and is completely immersed in the sport. He has taught hundreds of students the fundamentals of fly fishing and truly enjoys guiding others in the pursuit of wild fish. His passion for the sport has taken him to the American west, Great Lakes, Florida, and the Mid-Atlantic. He is a Federation of Fly Fishers certified casting instructor and former President, Forbes Trail Chapter, Trout Unlimited.

How long have you been fishing the Juniata River and its tributaries and how has the river changed during that time?

I started fishing the Frankstown Branch in the early 80s and I came across the J in the early 90s. The Little J has improved dramatically through the years. The bugs just keep getting better and better. You see a lot more healthy vegetation and the fish remain healthy. They have grown in population over the years and I over the years I have noticed the size of the fish has gotten bigger since I started. Everything is headed in the right direction.

I spend the majority of my time on the Little Juniata, but a lot of people overlook the Frankstown Branch and the Juniata, which flow down to the Susquehanna and the eventually the Chesapeake Bay. It’s extremely healthy. There is a place not too far down from the confluence of the Little J and the Confluence that you’ll find everything—warm water species and trout as well—just below the dam at Petersburg. It’s a smorgasbord of species.

What do you love about the river? How would you compare it to other trout rivers?

What I love about the Little Juniata is that it is a pretty large river to have a wild trout fishery. I’m a big water guy; I love casting. There is a lot of opportunity to make a long 60-foot cast and take long drifts. And the wild trout! That’s the deal! It has miles of Class A water with a strong wild trout population. There is no stocking. I love a lot of the rivers in Southwestern Pennsylvania, but on the Little J you are getting into a notch above. It is blue ribbon stream, up there with the Yellow Breeches, Spring Creek, or Spruce Creek. It is high quality water.

Where is your favorite place to fish along the river?

It changes based on the season. I think I’m going to let some of my secrets out, but in the winter and the spring through mid summer I like the lower part of the Little J. For the last six years or more, I have a little game I play. I fish the confluence of the Little J and the Frankstown Branch. Right there I have fun making the longest cast I can make out to the very center of the confluence. Were they join, the water forms a seam that is dead slow and it is perfect for a good drift. You get a dead drift with your fly and then a swing at the end of it. The fish just line up there and will hit the fly usually one out of every three times you swing it. At that length, the hit feels so much harder and the fish feels that much heavier. It is just a blast!

How does someone get into fly fishing? After they have the gear and know how to use it, what would you say is the best way to go about finding a place to fish?

Get involved with a conservation group like Trout Unlimited. They are usually more than willing to help. They want to encourage others to enjoy the sport and eventually appreciate and support conservation efforts to protect fish habitat.

Also read. There are so many books written on the subject, as well as magazines and the Internet that offer instruction and places to fish. Then, if you are fortunate enough to have a shop near you, small privately owned fly shops have a lot of people who hang around that are very knowledgeable. When you travel, you need to talk to people that are in the area who can help you dial it in and find fish.

Lastly, you can seek out a guide. It’s always nice, as guide and instructor, when people have questions for me. I certainly enjoy working with someone who has never even assembled their gear and fished. I get to start with an empty canvas and I don’t have to break any bad habits. But what is also really enjoyable is helping someone out who knows how to fish, but is having some trouble with things like casting or catching fish consistently. For a guide or instructor to be able to answer those questions is very enjoyable.

The Juniata is a tributary of the Susquehanna River, which contributes almost half of the freshwater in the Chesapeake Bay. When you fish a much smaller stream like the Little J, do you ever think, "This water will eventually end up in the Chesapeake Bay"? How does that make you feel as someone who works with a conservation organization?

I do a lot. I have a habit—and I think it’s a healthy habit—to try and get out of my comfort zone. When it relates to a question like that, it is about stepping back and looking at the big picture. There is a saying, “We all live downstream from someone,” and it is so true. We’re all interconnected. A great example of this are the plastic islands out in the ocean. It doesn’t just come from the shore or the beach; it comes from everywhere—even the Juniata River. We’re all connected and I think about that often. We’re the headwater for someone else and I know here we protect the headwaters for the Juniata so that other organizations can protect the waters that flow into the Chesapeake Bay.

I think fishing—especially fly fishing—and other outdoor activities make it so evident how we are connected and how we impact each other. When you’re on a stream and you are able to absorb that, those thoughts come to the forefront of your consciousness and you start to realize the big picture.

What other activities do you do in the area? Have you ever paddled or fished any part of the Juniata River Water Trail?

My wife and I are very active and we hike a lot. All of our big vacations are centered around National Parks. We are pretty busy people and we don’t have a lot of spare time, so National Parks provide great opportunities. We made a pact that we wouldn’t go to the same place too many times, but we have a few favorites. We love hiking in North-Central Pennsylvania, Lake Placid, out west to Banff to hike and fly fish. Also, the Appalachian Trail offers fantastic hiking that goes all they way up through Pennsylvania.

Peter Turcik

Peter is the managing editor for the American Fisheries Society's magazine, Fisheries, and a contributor to FishTalk Magazine. He has a writing, editing, and photography background that includes work for the Chesapeake Conservancy, Trib Total Media, the National Geographic Society, and the National Park Service. Peter is an avid and passionate kayak and light tackle angler.

May 29, 2017

Main image: Leo Vensel
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