Voices from the River: The floods of change

By Brent Burkey 

Camp chores completed. Venison tenderloin ready to meet fire. An all-night card game ready to start. 

But the faint sound of rushing water coming through the veil of the forest was more than I could resist. 

It was early evening in late June in upstate Pennsylvania’s Loyalsock State Forest. Here, long before natural gas drilling exploded across this region, my grandfather began to come each season for the good deer hunting. Like many back then, he joined a group who leased land to build a hunting camp. 

More than 50 years later, it's still in the family. But thank goodness for needing to cut the grass, or sadly dad and I would never find the time to make it up anymore.  

This particular trip was more a reconnaissance mission than a work detail. For the second time in just five years, a once-in-a-century flood had ripped through the Hillsgrove area the previous fall. 

The first torrents, in 2011, had washed out all three of the bridges that carried the road over meandering bends of the scenic Hoagland branch, up to our cabin. They had finally been replaced, but sadly, just in time for the more recent floods of 2016 to again take out the road. 

Fortunately, we found our back way in from the north remained passable. And camp was luckily unscathed, aside of some silt in the front yard. 

When not swelled, with unnatural frequency, into instruments of destruction, the Hoagland branch and nearby Elk Creek have fueled my passion for this place. 

I can still feel the swatting tail of my lifetime-best native brook trout, 20 years later, tickling my forearm as I removed the hook, released him quickly back into the water and stood on the bank in complete awe of what just happened. 

But for whatever reason, time didn't show kindness to the fishing here.  

Soon, our increasingly infrequent trips upstate came to coincide with the stock truck, and the prospect of temping stocked fish onto our lines. But, by just before the 2011 floods, even this became an effort in futility. Most trips, we were left asking ourselves where all the fish were disappearing to so quickly. 

Still, the creek called to me. So, with hope, I began to walk on this day, with my small coffee cup of post-yard work scotch in hand, from the front porch of our cabin down to the rock-strewn and scoured banks of the upper Hoagland. 

The floods mayhave carved out some deeper channels, I thought, forming new and needed refuges for holdover stockies. Or, maybe even created new holding waters for a few remaining descendants of my beautiful, personal-best brookie to take hold and flourish again. 

Immediately, I noticed a new, deepened run slicing through a stretch of water right below the cabin. Wasting no time, I high-stepped it back to camp to exchange my scotch for a 3-weight. 

Dad was on the porch with my friend and venison chef, Cyle, and chuckled as soon as he saw the look on my face. 

"You're going fishing, aren't you?" he asked, already knowing the answer. 

I started by running a pair of small nymphs through the run. Nothing. But not far down, the stream widened and deepened into a large pool, almost foreign in size by historical comparison.  

And even stranger was the rising pod of feeding fish, clustered about halfway down the pool, breaking the near silence of the mountain valley with an occasional ripple and plop. 

I don't know exactly where the fish came from and when, and to a certain extent, I don't care. But judging by their discernment of almost everything my travel fly box had to offer, they hadn’t been dumped in just yesterday. 

Finally, one took a CDC pheasant tail, lifted slightly as an emerger at just the right moment, and before long a snub-nosed rainbow was in hand. Bigger trout were here, but spooked, so I left them for the next day and retreated back to the cabin to cook the other half of dinner. 

The next morning, I started soon after daybreak, with a repeat of the previous evening netting a second fish but again scattering the hole. With more time to explore, I turned even farther downstream and found promising run after promising run. 

Most just looked fishy, but one had bite to its bark, and a third rainbow of the trip came splashing out of the ripples. 

Capping off the morning was another sign of rebirth in all its beauty, a single daisy taking hold amid a pile of tossed boulders, below a small waterfall trickling off the mountainside. 

I snapped a quick picture for my wife, who loves her daisies, and started back to camp for breakfast.  

On the walk, I'm ashamed to say, I felt some disappointment with that third fish. From the looks of the water, I was hoping for a native brookie. 

All in good time, I told myself. To do anything but celebrate would be an insult to this gift and this moment.     

Here was nature herself saying that from even the worst, she can figure out a way to persevere, and maybe thrive even better than before. 

The Hoagland is holding fish again. That was more than enough. On this day, it was perfect. 

Brent Burkey is the secretary of the Codorus Chapter of Trout Unlimited in York County, Pa. He wrote this piece "for fun" in 2016 but recently dug it up in the wake of yet more catastrophic flooding in Pennsylvania and throughout the country in 2018.



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