Week 10. George Daniel: Livin' on the Fly
The limestone creeks of central Pennsylvania stay cool in the summer, open in the winter, and productive year-long — and George Daniel takes full advantage.
George is on the water over 300 days a year and is one of the most versatile and successful anglers in the mid-Atlantic. George runs Livin’ on the Fly, which provides specialized lessons and guided trips in cooperation with the TCO Fly Shop, and has also written two books on two very different styles of fishing, Dynamic Nymphing: Tactics, Techniques, and Flies from Around the World and Strip-Set: Fly-Fishing Techniques, Tactics, & Patterns for Streamers.
Like his mentor, Penn State fly-fishing legend Joe Humphreys, George is also very generous with his knowledge, and spends a great deal of time crisscrossing the region giving speeches and clinics, and hitting beer ties and TU meetings.
I spoke with George on a Sunday afternoon in late October when he was on the road and heading back to his home on the banks of Big Fishing Creek in Pennsylvania’s limestone region.
We talked about what makes the limestone streams so prolific, why browns tend to dominate in Pennsylvania, and of course the world-famous green drake hatch that seems to be only matched by the angler-hatch it produces. We also discussed his own personal 52 week season and some key advice he’d give to mid-Atlantic anglers.
Below are my questions in bold, followed by his answers.
What would you say are your “home waters”?
The limestone region of north-central Pennsylvania and really the “big four” limestone creeks of the Little J [Junianta], Spring Creek, Penns Creek, and Fishing Creek — where I live on the banks.
I grew up on the Pennsylvania-New York border in a little remote village called Germania, which is actually the only place that they deem a “village” in Pennsylvania. I grew up on the banks of the Germania Branch that flows in Kettle Creek. We were kind of stuck in this little village my entire youth, and I grew up hunting and fishing there, and then relocated to State College when I was 14.
You mentioned Pennsylvania’s limestone region. What is it about the limestone streams that make them such great fisheries?
The limestone is excellent for a number of reasons. It has increased pH levels which supports a great vitality of life. It has great bugs and hatches, which makes for an incredible habitat for fish. Because of the limestone influence and spring source, it also always has a constant flow. It rarely gets too hot in the summer, and rarely too cold in the winter. It’s really a 365-day fishery, except maybe in years like this with historic droughts. But in general, the limestone creates a perfect storm of temperature and bugs.
How do your fishing approaches change through the year? What do the four seasons look like for you?
I’m lucky to be on the water 300+ days per year. I guide 100 days a year, and could do a lot more, but cut it off at that. The rest of the time I’m on the road, and doing speaking gigs and clinics, and also writing books.
When I’m on the water…
Once we get into early spring, the first hatch we get is the blue wing olives (BWO), around size 18. I call them the “foul weather bug” because they always seem to show up when the weather gets bad, when we have snowstorms or rain events. The uglier the weather, the more drizzly, the colder, that’s what they thrive in. Early April, you’re praying for bad weather, because that’s when the BWO comes out.
When the weather gets better, we get a lot of other really great hatches in central Pennsylvania too. Around the second week of April, the grannoms show up. Sort of like the Mother’s Day caddis out west — we have our Mother’s Day grannoms. After that we’ll get some sulfurs that will last 4-5 weeks and also the caddis will hatch around then.
Then it’s the mayflies. The green drake shows up around Memorial Day, and thats really something incredible. The locals calls it he “Memorial Day Massacre” because of all the anglers that pound the river for the green drake. It’s one of those pilgrimages, like the hex hatch in Michigan. But other than being a total cluster and a total socioeconomic experiment in terms of how many anglers can fit on the river, it really is a phenomenon. It’s a phenomenon in nature that really everyone should witness sometime in their life. To witness thousands of insects eating and laying hatches is something that everyone should witness.
Moving into the summer, it’s more terrestrials -- beetles are our #1 terrestrial, followed by ants. The terrestrials usually fish the best when the days are longest. We also get the green inchworm the last week of June — we use the green weenie fly which is chartreuse chenille wrapped around the hook shank. It’s a really simple fly, and it looks just like the green inchworm falling off the tree, and you fish it just like a nymph.
But the water is also lower, and the trout activity will die down, and they fish almost go into nocturnal feeding mode. Another favorite of mine this time of year is to swing mouse patterns.
The great thing about the Pennsylvania limestone streams is they typically will fish through the summer. Penns might get a little be warmer into the 70s, but the Little J and others stay below the 70s and stay cool enough.
I also will take five weeks each summer with my son and daughter and go out West for five weeks to Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and different western states.
There are some more great hatches in the fall. Around the middle of October, we get little micro blue wing olives, little tiny BWOs around size 20-22. Believe it or not, this is also the best time of year for flying ants. Fall is generally some of the best dry fly fishing of the year.
In the first week or two of November, you start seeing fish spawning and you start to see spawning fish on their beds. There are really two schools of thought here. The first is to throw eggs patterns at the them and catch them on their beds. The second is to leave them alone and let them do their business so we can have future generations of fish. I’ll leave them alone for a few weeks and do some steelhead fishing.
However, some of the best fishing, if you’re a streamer angler, is two weeks after the spawn. After spawning, they’re kind of stressed out, and they’ll take two week off from feeding. But as winter is approaching, something tells them its time to feed. Biologists don’t know if it’s light or water temperature, but around 2-4 weeks after the spawn, something tells them its time to start feeding hard.
The only hatch really going on is in the winter is in the afternoon in the warmest part of the day, from 11-2 or 11-3, and the bugs I fish are typically pretty smaller, like size 20 or 22 midges.
What fish do you mostly target?
Browns mostly. They’re pretty resilient critters and can be found pretty much anywhere in the state. What’s nice about limestone, is it’s all fairly hospitable and they’ll pretty much live in everything. You find browns in all different stuff, from riffles, pools, pocket water. Even in winter, you’ll see browns in pockets and riffles. You can really chase browns all year long.
On those little feeder creeks, I’ll also catch brookies. It’s on those little blue lines on the map feeding into the river, you can find brookies. Any of the blue lines have wild brookies. But once browns are introduced, they kind of take things over. Browns definitely tend to be more aggressive. We do have some wild rainbows, but a high percentage are browns.
From here in State College, it’s also about three and a half hours aways to steelhead on Erie or salmon on Ontario. And then we also have smallies and carp that you can find in some of the bigger waters in the summer.
Do you mostly fish streamers?
If I had my order of what I like to fish, I would definitely push streamers at the top, and then dries, and then nymphing. Nymphing can definitely catch the most fish. The Czech nyhphing rigs can be effective, but its a limiting tool, really designed for short drifts.
A couple of my favorites all-around flies are the green weenie, size 14, which may imitate a sunken inchworm or a net spinning caddis -- either way, it's an essential one to have. Also a shrimp/cress bug -- many of the spring creeks in our area have an abundance of freshwater shrimp and cress bugs, and it's a 365-day food source for trout.
You’ve fished all over the country. Any words of wisdom to the mid Atlantic angler?
Here in the mid-Atlantic, the streams that we fish are well known and famous and get a lot of pressure. The big thing I would say that would make it better for everyone out there is that all of us could use some stream etiquette. Take into consideration where other people are fishing. If there’s something fishing above you, just ask permission and ask kindly, and there’s very few people who are going to say no.