Falling Spring Branch Fishing
by Mark Sturtevant
The limestone spring creeks of Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley loom large in the annals of American fly fishing. Falling Spring Branch is queen among these historic waterways, a ribbon of quicksilver winding magically through the Valley’s mixture of grassy meadows, farmyards and back yards.
She is a true limestone spring creek, emerging from a rural hillside southeast of Chambersburg, and fed throughout her course by numerous substantial springs. The spring flow maintains an ideal temperature range throughout the seasons, rarely below 52 degrees, or above 65. Coupled with her startling fertility and abundance of crustaceans, these moderate temperatures allow the trout to feed and grow twelve months a year.
The fishable waters of Falling Spring are divided into two regulated sections. The upstream reach, some 2 miles, is designated for Heritage Trout Angling, allowing catch and release fly fishing with barbless hooks. There has been no stocking here in more than 20 years.
Downstream, within the Borough of Chambersburg, a 1.1 mile reach is set aside under Delayed Harvest Artificial Lures regulations, allowing a limited harvest and both fly and spin fishing. Brown trout are stocked in addition to the wild population of browns and rainbows.
Visitors are amazed at the free public access anglers enjoy here, as most of the stream flows through private property. The landowners are gracious, and have worked hand in hand with Falling Spring Greenway and the Falling Spring Chapter of Trout Unlimited to protect the stream for all to enjoy.
While Falling Spring is a prolific fishery, it’s not an easy one. The trout are wild yet schooled in the ways of anglers, and the tremendous supply of natural food means they need never work hard to fare well. Specialized flies and angling techniques, coupled with skillful casting and approach are the requirements for success.
It is the lush aquatic vegetation which gives the stream it’s unique beauty, and complicates the angler’s task. The weeds supply food and cover for the shy trout, and obstruction to the fly caster. Casting accuracy is paramount whether fishing above or below the surface.
The fly must be presented naturally to the trout, seemingly a simple task, yet drifting a nymph on the bottom of a 6 inch wide channel between wavering weedbeds can be demanding of both casting skill and line control. On the surface, the constantly undulating weeds produce swirling, ever shifting currents which define new levels of difficulty in achieving drag-free floats.
Valley anglers gravitate toward the shorter fly rods due to the need for extreme accuracy, as well as the intimacy of the stream. We find that a rod from 6 to 7 feet allows quicker reactions when parrying the charges of powerful fish in close quarters and heavy cover. Line weights 3 and 4 are most often chosen, tipped with relatively long leaders.
For dry fly fishing, leaders constructed to George Harvey’s specifications are the preferred choice, due to their unparalleled ability to produce controlled slack; the key to mastering the stream’s bedeviling currents. Fly size and the challenges of the current dictate tippet sizes and thus the ultimate length of the leader, ranging from 10 feet to more than 13 feet.
Standard 9- to 12-foot tapered leaders work well for subsurface fishing, with tippets from 4X to 6X. I have recently used the new Poly Leader tapered butts from Airflo. These will turn over amazing lengths of tippet, along with enough split shot to send the nymphs to the bottom of Falling Spring’s deepest pools. A Poly Leader butt with 8 feet of 5X or 6X tippet gives the ultimate in stealth nymphing!
The fly patterns used successfully in these waters are chosen with two primary considerations: they must accurately imitate the naturals, and they must give a strong impression of life! My fly box betrays a mixture of new and old.
Noted author and angler Ed Shenk of Carlisle developed several patterns which have become standards. His Shenk Sculpin and Cressbug imitate two mainstays of subsurface forage, while his Letort Cricket and Hopper are renowned terrestrial dry flies. These four classic patterns are always well represented in the limestoner’s flybox.
During the winter of 1993, I developed Mark’s Limestone Shrimp to imitate the countless Gammarus scuds which comprise the major forage base in Falling Spring. It has become my most reliable fly throughout the year. The pattern takes a new approach to imitating the exoskeleton of the naturals, using a unique dubbing blend rather than the traditional plastic shellback.
Similar blending has produced several hatch matching and general purpose nymphs, the most popular of which is Mark’s Beadhead Pheasant Tail. Translucency, a bit of light reflecting sparkle, and movement are the keys to tempting these well fed trout to accept a fly.
For matching the mayfly hatches, Sparkle Duns, CDC Comparaduns, and parachute flies are most effective. CDC also lends it’s wonderful combination of flotation and movement to caddis and terrestrial imitations as well. Black CDC caddis and CDC winged ants in black and orange are reliable flies to carry. Various foam beetle patterns have proven effective, as has another classic: Marinaro’s Jassid.
Stealth is a major component in angling success on Falling Spring. Fly fishers should dress in earth tones and move slowly near the water, pausing to observe carefully before casting. Keeping the flyrod low and minimizing false casts will allow presentation of your flies to feeding trout, rather than departing wakes!
The Falling Spring offers better insect diversity than many similar streams. Winter offers sporadic emergences of tiny Blue-winged Olives (Baetis vagans) in sizes 20 and 22, as well as midge activity. Black and olive midges in sizes from 22 to 28 are predominate in this season.
Late winter and early spring offers increased Baetis activity, with size 18 flies hatching during midday hours from mid-March through early May. Black Chimarra caddis begin hatching in April, offering surface fishing into early summer.
Spring continues with the sulfurs, with afternoon emergences of size 14 Ephemerella invaria mayflies commencing near May 15th. The evening hatches, size 16 Ephemerella dorotheas, begin a week or so later. The length of the fishable sulfur activity varies from year to year, and may continue into August. Little Blue Duns (Pseudocloeon carolina) in sizes 20 to 24 will offer afternoon hatches and evening spinner falls to please the small fly fanatic.
The Delayed Harvest section of the Falling Spring features a nice hatch of large Yellow Drakes (Ephemera varia). This size 8 mayfly appears quite early in the spring, around May 20th, and will tempt our trout through July.
July brings morning hatches of size 24 tricos, afternoon hatches of size 18 Blue Quills, and terrestrial action all day long! When many trout streams are too low and warm to offer quality trout fishing, Falling Spring serves up the finest dry fly fishing of the year. August finds the meadows filled with grasshoppers, and heavy trout eyeing the streambanks for a tasty meal.
Terrestrials and tricos continue into autumn when the Blue-winged Olives return. The crisp morning air, the beautiful foliage on the mountainsides, and reduced fishing pressure makes this a great time to visit the stream.
Falling Spring is easily reached from I-81, via Exit 6 at Chambersburg. My Falling Spring Outfitters fly shop, (717) 263-7811, is ten minutes north, just 2 blocks off Exit 8. We specialize in tackle, locally tied flies, guiding and instruction on the Valley spring creeks.
I came to live in the Cumberland Valley because of the limestone spring creeks and their challenging wild trout. The meandering brightwater haven I know as the Falling Spring has completely stolen my heart. Flyfishers beware, as her magic is contagious