Week 20. Joe Humphreys: Penn State Fly-Fishing Legend
I recently had the distinct honor and privilege of interviewing a fly-fishing legend, Mr. Joe Humphreys.
Few anglers can come close to the skills and experience that Joe has amassed over eight decades on the water across the globe. But what most people remember and admire about him is his generosity of time and endless patience as a teacher.
Mr. Humphreys ran the Angling Program at Penn State for 19 years and has taught countless anglers, from novices to experts. When he first started at Penn State in 1972, Joe says that his mentor George Harvey, founder of the Penn State fly-fishing program, told him that you “owe it to your students to learn every facet of fishing” — “And that’s what I tried to do.”
When Presidents and Vice Presidents visit State College, they make a detour to seek out Mr. Humphrey for fishing advice, and some of today's best-known anglers call him a mentor, including George Daniel. His book Trout Tactics is also page-for-page the most useful fishing book I’ve come across, and even at 88 years old, he’s still hitting half a dozen fly shows this winter.
One of the most endearing traits about him though is his constant desire to try new approaches and techniques. While he’s truly a living almanac of fly-fishing, one of his key rules is that there are no formulas in fishing and that even the same stream is different every day and requires flexibility. “We never stop learning,” he says, “the good Lord made it that way.”
When I spoke with him on a February evening, he had recently gotten back from a trip to Arkansas where he was on a quest to catch the US record brown trout and had hooked up with a couple of “heavyweights,” as he calls them. He already has the Pennsylvania record, a 16 lb., 34” heavyweight that he stalked for three years before catching it one night in 1977.
Hump would be the first one to tell you that there’s no substitute for getting out on the stream and getting experience, but talking to him and picking his brain was a real treat. The interview below is just scratching the surface and really doesn’t do justice to Mr. Humphrey’s full life as an angler, Pennsylvania Hall of Fame wrestler, and family man. To see more, check out the upcoming documentary about his life called Live the Stream that is in the works from Lucas and Meigan Bell.
Below are my questions in bold, followed by his answers.
How would you tell the story of your life fishing?
I’ve fished all over the world. I grew up fishing — and hunting too — as a child in State College. We had fantastic fishing on Spring Creek, which was just a short bicycle ride from State College. That was my classroom, along with Dutch Run and some of the mountain streams.
I wouldn’t change any of it for the world — we didn’t have the distractions that they have today with TV, and you basically had to find your own activities for your own amusement. Fishing is what I wanted to do. My father didn’t know any more about fishing than I did at the time, but he wanted the companionship of his son, and was instructional in getting me into my first fish at age 6.
Our area was a fly-fishing paradise, and I think we had the first all-fly fishing project in the country and maybe the world at Spring Creek. It started in 1934 with the first special regulation stream.
Central Pennsylvania was an unusually popular fly-fishing venue at the time. We kids did bait fish some, but even then the idea of catching a fly was there. We had some good fly-fishers in the area at the time, and there was a mystique do it and we wanted to learn.
You’ve fished all of the world. What are some of the most memorable places?
I’ve fished Argentina on the Chimehuin, not just for trout by for golden dorado too. I’ve fished the Bahamas and a lot of other saltwater. Coast to coast in the US and through the Canadian provinces, from the Bow [River in Alberta] to Labrador for big brook trout.
One of the more challenging and exciting spots was on the Little Red River in Arkansas. We were filming with Fly-Fishing America and hooked into a real heavyweight on camera. I lost the fish, but we thought it could have been a world record brown.
So I went back this year with Lucas Bell and his wife Meigan who are filming my life story. We were back down on the Little Red and hooked another that could have been the record that I played for 15 minutes, but couldn’t keep it out of the brush. I couldn’t hold him and never did get to see him.
So I’ve had two chances at getting him, and if I’m 120 years old and still on the Earth, I’ll still be trying for him!
You’re a great ambassador for the state of Pennsylvania. What is unique about central Pennsylvania that makes it such a great fishery and what are some of your favorite spots?
We have the limestone of course which just makes for a myriad of hatches and a tremendous amount of fish. Growing up, Spring Creek and Penns Creek didn’t have a lot of people fishing it, and so it was just superb. They still have a lot of fish today, including a lot of natives, but back then it was something.
On Penns, the higher up-river, the better it is. When some of the bigger tributaries are feeding in — like the Pine or Sinking Creek — it’s all spring water and stays cold. As they say, the higher up, the sweeter grows the berry, and I like to work higher up where you have cooler temperatures.
There are some areas [on Penns] that have deep holes and deep runs, and some patches of water that you fish are more prolific, relative to the water temperatures. Unfortunately this was the year of the drought , and I’ve never seen Penns this low — Spring too but especially Penns — and the fish migrated to the colder water and colder streams.
I’m a member of the Spruce Creek Rod and Gun Club, and I can enjoy those open waters a lot and kind of pick and choose when to go. If there’s a good day to work a patch, I’ll do that, or I’ll move on to what is fishing well.
The mountain streams are good too because of lot of them go underground, which keeps them cold and keeps a good amount of brook trout. Those mountain streams are underrated because nobody really bothers them, because they’re all so busy fishing the limestone.
What does a year in the life of Joe Humprheys look like in terms of your progressions through the seasons?
January, February, March, I’m doing a lot of the major shows. I’m going to Denver, Atlanta, Richmond, California, Lancaster — I’m still at my age doing a lot of shows and it keeps my busy.
Early in the season, we play to the relative temperatures of our streams and have to understand their metabolism. I’ll roll the bottom with nymphs, or as temperatures increase and come up into the 50s, insects start to move, and we’ll work wet flies and [dries] on the top as the temperature tells. I’ve always enjoyed the sulfur hatch, and the caddis hatch can also be excellent.
If I had to pick a favorite month it would be May. I really do enjoy May! The hatches are excellent, the water temperature adjusts, and you can fish after dark too. The hatches get varied too — so many different bugs! That’s one thing people don’t realize, it’s not only the prolific hatches, but the variety of hatches. One is over, and another one is coming in.
I’ll continue to fish all through the summer. The nice thing about the summer is you can fish all day and night. You get tricos in the morning, then fish terrestrials, ants, and crickets during the day, and then wet flies in the evening, and then turn into your night game and go for the real heavyweights!
When I first started teaching, my mentor George Harvey told me, you owe it to your students to learn every facet of fishing, and that’s what I tried to do. There’s just so many facets of this game, it’s so much fun!
Do you have any personal favorite facets to the game?
I enjoy nymphing, and wet flies can be very exciting — working a wet straight upstream or a triple set down a pool. There’s all kinds of ways to work them. Underwater, you have all of the nymphal activity, crawfish, and minnows. There are times you after a heavyset, that you work the streamers dark and deep, and it’s amazing what can come out of nowhere. Dries are fun too, and can sometimes be effective.
I also love night fishing. Hatches dictate what you do, but you can fish around the clock and a lot of people don’t realize that. For example, the green drake on Penns: once that hatch starts to subside, everyone goes home, but the fish are still looking — the fish don’t stop eating — that’s when I go in with wet flies at night.
Any go-to bugs?
I use a lot of cressbugs or fresh water shrimp patterns. Cressbugs and freshwater shrimp are there year round in our stream, and I wouldn’t trade those for the world. I learned that early in life and found out what they were eating, and developed a pattern that looked like it.
I also created a Green Drake nymph back in ’51 or ’52.
Another under-appreciated fly is the fan-wing Royal Coachman. You’ll sometimes see that around here, but people don’t really use it anymore. It can be very effective, especially when the water is low and clearing up, and it’s dancing and bobbing on the surface — and then all of a sudden, a 18-20” brown pops up, and you say where did that just come from?!
I do tie a bit, but I’m the kind of guy where I don’t tie till the pressure is really on. You know what that’s like! You’ve been there! I get out there an say “oh my” and look down at a naked fly box and then rush and knock out a dozen of what I need. I tie more when it’s a necessity based on what’s hatching.
It sounds like you mostly target browns?
Browns are most dominant in Pennsylvania — they’re the survivors! They can stand just about anything. Rainbows come and go, and brook trout have to have the coldest water.
I love brown trout. If you’re going to take a trophy trout, they’re the heavyweight. I think I still have the record for a Pennsylvania brown trout on a fly — 16 lbs. and 34 inches.
When we think about brown trout, you don’t realize how big they can get. Three weeks ago, when I was on the Little Red River, they have a record there of a trout that is 40 lbs. 4 oz., and is 42”. That’s a trout?!
The biologists say that in the White River system or the Little Red, there could be a 50 lb.
I do love mountain streams too, and of course a 10” brookie is a beauty. We are kind of losing our brook trout in Pennsylvania, though. A lot of good streams have been overfished, and a lot of people take fish too instead of catch and release.
Have you seen some major changes over your fishing career?
One project of mine is working on Thompson Run. It comes out of Big Spring. It was my classroom and stream of choice as a child because it was so loaded with trout. When they relocated the highway, they took that stream and shoved it into a duck pond and into a storm sewer runoff. Water temperatures went bad because it was being drained from a sewage pond — and Spring Creek went to hell.
It’s taken me from 70s to now, and we’re just finally getting it completely isolated. All that Trout Unlimited has done to Thompson Run is amazing, and the water flowing into Spring is now as clean beautiful water.
So we need to be stewards of the stream, and have to be cognizant of the stream. We have to work on water quality.
Another thing is catch and release. You don't have to pick the fish up out of the water and wave it around — of course, the cameraman wants to see it — but don’t take it out of the water. Keep it in the water. You don’t have to fight it as long and don’t touch it. Too many people are handling the fish far too much and we have more mortality than we should have. We need to be stewards of the stream.
Well Mr. Humphreys, it’s been a real honor talking with you. I’m excited to see your movie.
Thank you. I’m excited they’re doing my life story, and it’s not just about fishing, but also about my wrestling career and hunting and my family.
I do still get out a pretty good amount. I was just wading and fishing at night in Arkansas, and when that whistle blows [from the dam outflow], you getter get out quick. I’m wading and fishing in pitch darkness at 25 degrees, and I’m 88!
I still keep my hand in the game. We never stop learning, the good lord made it that way.