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Help Me! I Want to Work the Stream Like Joe Humphreys

by on September 26, 2019 5:00 AM

Town&Gown's "Help Me!" series takes on challenges and interests and finds local resources that are here to help.

There is something magical and wondrous about watching fly fishers reading and working the stream. With a flick of the wrist, the rod snaps back, the fishing line zips back like a lasso, and then out onto the stream, casting a fly out onto the water, hoping to draw in the big one.

It looks intense and peaceful all at the same time, and I wish I knew their secrets. This area is home to some of the best trout fishing streams in the world, and I have been wanting to experience it for myself.

Growing up, I never had the opportunity to get into fishing, and certainly not fly fishing. I do remember fishing once at a day camp. I’m guessing that I was about 7 years old, and the camp counselors helped me cast the bait. After a few minutes of waiting, I got a bite. I reeled it in with the help of the counselors and had my catch dangling on the edge of my pole for them to help me unhook it, but it was too heavy. My arms couldn’t hold it steady and the poor fish started swinging around and it smacked against the side of the dock. I tried to correct it, but the fish swung back into the other side of the dock with a whack. The counselor turned around and looked at me like I was crazy, saying, “You are going to kill it,” before he took the rod away from me, getting the fish back safely into the water.

I was mortified and I never really wanted to fish again, until I moved to Pennsylvania and saw the magic of fly fishing. I wanted to try it, but obviously I needed some help.

Recently, I got to know fly fishing legend Joe Humphreys through a couple of stories I wrote. I asked him if he would teach me how to fly fish. I was thrilled when he was up for the challenge. 

The award-winning documentary Live the Stream: The Story of Joe Humphreys, tells quite a story. And, unbelievably, at 90 years old, he is still out there living the stream. To Joe, every day is a chance for an adventure.

Joe and I started off by meeting for breakfast at the Naked Egg Cafe. Gotta stoke up for a day on the stream. Joe beat me there and when I walked in, he was laughing with the waitress and telling stories. While we ate, at least three groups of people stopped by to talk to Joe about fishing and to catch up. He was quick with a joke, and he had me laughing like he always does. I could sit there and listen to Joe all day, but we had work to do.

After a beautiful drive down Route 45, we got to a perfect spot along the fabled Spruce Creek to catch some trout. Joe has fished with former presidents and other celebrities along Spruce Creek, so I was honored to get the chance to fish with him there. 

Joe was about to give me a crash course in something that I knew nothing about. I would try to keep up.

“That’s good though; you can start fresh and not think that you already know everything,” he said.

Then with a wink, he joked before we got started, “My mother told me there are only two things you have to remember in order to get through life: your name, and I forget the other one.”

We found a spot along the gently running stream, among the old trees. We had a beautiful day and Joe wasn’t going to let us waste it. From his trunk he pulled out his rod, his tackle box, and a couple of foam pads, saying that the pads were especially important. I was soon to find out why. 

We started off learning to cast away from the water, kneeling on the pads, to “get the arm out of the game. When people learn to fly fish, or they are teaching themselves, they are waving the arm. And at the end of the day, their arm is so heavy they can’t lift it to even get their shirt sleeve off.” 

Joe demonstrated that in the kneeling position, we keep our elbow on our knee and it takes the arm out of the cast. 

“I lift up into the cast, and it is like Rice Krispies, snap, crackle, and pop,” Joe said, with an emphasis on the “pop.” He had me lift into the cast with my wrist, bring the rod to a straight up-and-down position, and then wait for the line to fall back behind me before I popped or tapped it back toward the water. 

I was holding the rod with my thumb straight up and when I tapped it back toward the water, my thumb pointed in the direction I wanted it to go.

I had a problem with releasing my rod forward too early. This led to me not casting very far out because the line didn’t have enough to time to get behind me before I sent it back out. Joe had me do a whole count of “one-thousand-one” as I held the rod straight up and down before I cast onto the water. This helped, and I started getting the line out farther.

Sometimes, he said, with all the brush around streams it’s not possible to cast straight back, so you have to cast to the side, sometimes almost parallel to the ground. He demonstrated with ease and I eventually got it. He also showed me a way to cast by pulling the line back almost like a bow and flicking the fly out onto the stream.

After a lot of practice, I was starting to get it, and we were ready to do some fishing on the water. 

I assisted Joe up off the pads, but Joe would go on to help me much more throughout the day.

Joe pulled out his tackle and tied one of his often-copied fly patterns to the end of his line. He thought about what the fish might be feeding on this time of season and this time of day, and found a fly that might draw them in.

“After 84 years, I have learned a few things,” Joe said.

It was as a young boy that Joe started studying the stream, after finding a 14-inch trout in Thompson’s Run that he just couldn’t catch with his normal bait. He studied the fish and what it ate, went home to tie up a fly with some thread from his mom’s sewing kit, and he caught that fish. You could say he has been hooked ever since. 

It would take more than a morning for me to learn to fly fish, but I was getting the feeling.

As we started casting on the open water, I was again not letting the fly back far enough before I tapped it forward. I was using my arm too much, trying to use my strength to get the fly out far enough.

“You can’t muscle this game,” Joe said.

This game is about technique and patience. Joe got beside me, took my hand with the rod and guided it into the right position. I felt the years of experience as he got the fly out to where we wanted it to go.

At one point, Joe took over and had me watch as he fished. He worked the stream and found a fish that he wanted, and I could see it thinking about biting. Before I knew it, he had me come over and reel it in.

Joe and I took turns casting. I was amazed at his determination, never giving up. He was bringing in fish left and right, and I was trying to emulate what he was doing. He moved up and down the stream, and at one point he just dropped his fly in the water and pulled out a trout. I was amazed.

Finally, I got a tug on the line. With Joe beside me, I pulled in a nice brown trout. I was careful not to swing it around like I did as a kid. What a thrill, to catch a fish with the great Joe Humphreys. Maybe I could play at this game. 

A little later, a fish jumped out of the water and Joe said with a laugh, “That fish just made its first mistake.”

Joe was happy that I caught a fish, and he achieved the trifecta of catching brown, rainbow, and brook trout. With great care, he made sure that each fish was unhooked and back in the water very quickly. Joe cares greatly about the stream ecosystem.

Eventually, it was time to call it quits, but I think Joe would have stayed out there longer if he could. After all, there were still fish he hadn’t caught. 

What a day. Joe taught me to cast and I caught a fish, but I still had a lot to learn. But, I had gained something even more valuable from Joe. 

Here he was at 90, still at it, doing what he loved. He was as curious, interested, and determined as he was all those years ago as a little boy working to catch that trout at Thompson’s Run. I just hope that I still have half of that when I am his age. I hope I have half of it now. 

“I just think you have to have things to look forward to in life. Every day can be an adventure. We sure had fun today, didn’t we?” Joe said. “That is what it’s all about.”

It sure is. What a great fish story. 


Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.


Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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