Cumberland Valley Mornings: George Gibson and the Dawn of American Spring Creek Fishing

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

At first glance, southeastern Pennsylvania’s Letort Spring Run may seem smaller than imagined. A visiting fly fisherman might object that surely the stream that inspired works by some of America’s most thoughtful and innova­tive fly-fishing writers must be bigger than this. Many fishermen probably think of the Letort as a river, rather than take its name, “spring run,” at face value. As well, the idyllic photographs in Vincent Marinaro’s 1950 fly-fishing classic, A Modern Dry Fly Code, the most enduring and powerfully written book inspired by the Letort, portray only a few stretches where the stream broadens out in spacious, willow-lined meadows.

The size of the Letort may be only the first surprise a visitor experiences, followed quickly by the realization that at least some of those spacious stretches Marinaro photographed are now covered by pavement, apartments, and turnpike bridges. The growing Cumberland County seat of Carlisle, through which the creek flows, lines much of the stream with sprawl, and present-day fishermen spend an inordi­nate amount of time trying to guard the waterway against further damage.

If a visitor is any kind of fisherman at all, the changes won’t stop him from feeling the picturesque little stream’s quiet magic. It is easy to find a sheltered bend where the humming of the traffic is muffled and the only buildings in sight are the grand old limestone farmhouses that graced the setting in Marinaro’s day. And, fishing with some of the stream’s current experts, it becomes easy to understand why the Letort has been such a powerful molder of fishermen.

Although it has only been in the past half century that it has won fame for its difficult trout and its great writers, the Letort Spring Run has had an important role in American fly fishing for four times that long, giving it a continuous history of fly fishing longer than virtually any other American trout stream, including the celebrated Catskill streams that many people still incorrectly consider the “birthplace” of fly fishing in the New World. Most residents of the Carlisle area – fishermen or not – have no idea how much this modest little stream has meant to the development of the sport of fly fishing.

Written record of the stream goes back well beyond two centuries. Reverend Conway Wing’s grand and absorbing 1879 History of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania includes a letter written by John O’Neal to Governor James Hamilton, on May 27, 1753, from the newly established settlement of Carlisle, which at the time had only five “dwelling houses.”

The situation, however, is handsome, in the centre of a valley, with a mountain bounding it on the north and the south, at a distance of seven miles. The wood consists principally of oak and hickory. The limestone will be of great advantage to the future settlers, being in abundance. A limekiln stands on the centre square, near what is called the deep quarry, from which is obtained good building stone. A large stream of water runs about two miles from the village, which may at a future period, be rendered navigable. A fine spring flows to the east, called Le Tort, after the Indian interpreter who settled on its head about the year 1720.

O’Neal’s straightforward description is of great import to fishermen. James Le Tort (also spelled Le Tart, but eventually standardized as Letort) was, by most accounts, the first white person to settle in present-day Cumberland County. He traded with the local Native Americans (who at one point apparently burned his cabin) and eventually became an interpreter, although little is known about his other activities between 1720 and the 1750s.

More important to fishermen than the stream’s namesake is its character, at which Le Tort hints in his letter, and the complexity of the local waterway ecology. One of the most charming features of fishing the Cumberland Valley remains the diversity offered by the distinctive character of each steam and river. For instance, the cold, spring­-fed Letort offers an outstanding trout habitat, while nearby, the slow-moving lowland river, the Conodoguinet, described by O’Neal as “a large stream of water,” provides entrenched meanders that are home to bass and other warm water fish. The Letort empties into the Conodoguinet northeast of Carlisle, heightening the complexity of the local stream ecology.

For fishermen examining the ecology of Letort Spring Run, the most signifi­cant feature of the sweeping Cumberland Valley is its abundance of Limestone. Noted by O’Neal in his letter to Governor Hamilton as a “great advantage to the future settlers” for its fine quality as a building material, limestone builds more than sturdy barns and handsome houses; it also “builds” big trout. The streams issuing from limestone “springs” are enriched by calcium carbonate, creating an extremely hospitable environment for aquatic vegetation (such as watercress, a hallmark of a limestone stream) which, in turn, serves both to oxygenate the water and to host robust populations of aquatic insects and other invertebrates on which trout feed.

Streams originating in limestone country are the product of large subter­ranean aquifers not readily affected by short-term changes in climate and weather conditions. While the typical mountain stream experiences all manner of flood and drought, overflowing its bank one month and running low the next, the “Limestoners,” as they are known, run dear, stable, and steady unless humans tinker too much with the whole watershed – a problem that has affected the Letort Spring Run and its sister streams in recent decades. Of course, such stability makes life that much easier for the fish, who spend no time dodging trees ripped loose in floods, or dealing with a host of other environmental shocks, from anchor ice to overheated water during droughts. A healthy limestoner is one of nature’s great fish factories.

What modern fly fishermen learn from the Letart, though, is that lots of fish don’t directly equate with lots of fish caught. All the conditions that make life so easy for the fish also make them finicky feeders, and a trout in a slow­-flowing stream, marked by tricky currents, and with plenty of leisure to inspect the passing smorgasbord of mayflies, ants, cress bugs, and artificial files, is a trout that will send many disgruntled fishermen home mumbling to themselves about fish whose mouths are sewn shut. The Letort doesn’t just grow big trout; it grows smart trout.

It is exactly that combination of qualities – big and smart – that makes the Letort “great” in the lexicon of anglers. The best fishing, at least for the most thoughtful of fly fishermen, has usually been the most challenging; that is, the fishing that makes an individual think and work the hardest, and learn the most. So the Letort, besides being a trout factory, has also become an idea factory, where new fly patterns and techniques are tested and improved, resulting in a flurry of books by writers whose thinking was largely shaped by this little stream. Local fishermen intone the names of legendary local masters­ – Vincent Marinaro, Charles Fox, Ed Koch, and Ed Shenk – much the same way baseball fans speak in awe of great pitchers and hitters.

Surprisingly few local fishermen, even those well-read, know just how long and deep their fishing tradition is. Even though fly fishermen were working other streams in North America – in Massachusetts and eastern Canada and on Long Island – well before they reached the Letort, the Cumberland Valley waterway is one of the first about which they left any written record, especially of the details that still intrigue followers. Perhaps the most important questions are: Which fly worked? And why?

Photographs taken of nineteenth­-century anglers in their ti.es and bowler hats, staring with grim formality at the slow-shuttered camera, may prompt one to think of earlier generations of American fishermen as a bit sappy and a tad dull. But these earlier generations of fishermen were a lively, thoughtful crowd, a diverse bunch of famous and not-so-famous characters, some jolly, some dour, some silly, some intense, and all just as hooked on taking trout as their counterparts are today. And one of the most intriguing of them all grew up within casting distance of the great Pennsylvania limestone streams like the Letart.

Native Pennsylvanian George Gibson (1775-1861) enjoyed, as did his father, a successful career in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of major general At the time of his death, he was called “one of the patriarchs of the army.” A friend of General Winfield Scott (1786-1866), President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), who reportedly wanted to name him to the Supreme Court, but never had the opportunity, and many prominent personages of his day, Gibson was too busy for many extended fishing and hunting trips, but he performed a rare service for historians and fishing enthusiasts by writing, between 1829 and 1849, a series of spirited little notes and articles about angling and hunting for the sporting press, especially The Spirit of the Times and the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine. Such pieces rank him as one of America’s first fishing writers, and reveal him not only as a creative angler but also as the kind of fisherman one would like to accompany.

According to Gibson’s published statements, he began fishing about 1790 and seems to have made annual trips from Washington, D.C., to Carlisle to fish the limestone streams, particularly the Letort (which he spelled “Letart”) and Big Spring, even during the busiest periods of his career. Of course, it was different fishing this country then. The streams contained brook trout, weighing up to two pounds, instead of the European browns and West Coast rainbows that dominate many streams now. The brookies were easier to catch, being essentially wilderness fish, while the brown trout that were later intro­duced from the Old World had been subjected to centuries of “predation” by skilled British fly fishermen, who presumably removed the “dumber” fish from each generation. (That’s the prevailing theory by which fishermen explain why American brook trout are such easy catches most of the time; some brookies, however, are just as difficult to take as the cagiest old brown.)

There may have been less pollution in Gibson’s day, or at least fewer kinds of pollutants, if only because the Keystone State’s limestone area was less populated. However, even a century and a half ago, trout had too many human enemies. Gibson complained bitterly that the “villainous practice of netting” had pretty much cleaned out some streams, and regulations of any sort were rare. Studying Gibson’s trout fishing is a poor exercise in nostalgia for the good old days; often the old days weren’t that good.

Not only were Gibson’s circumstances different, but his methods were certainly different as well. His fly rod was fifteen feet long, and “very delicate,” meaning that by modern standards it was floppy. Most modern fly fishermen use rods less than nine feet long, and many on the Letort Spring Run prefer rods less than seven feet. Gibson used about thirty feet of line, which may or may not have been stored on a small reel. With this outfit, casting was slow, soft, and decidedly as elegant as it was effective.

What is plainly known as the society of fishermen continues to fascinate both anglers and historians. Fishing has always been a fairly social sport, with sportsmen banding together in clubs and praising their greatest champions. In 1830, Gibson wrote about an admired fishing companion, whom he described as “one of the best fly fishers of the age.”

Jo makes his own lines and flies, holds a rod eighteen feet long, and throws thirty-six or forty feet of line with one hand, and no amateur can avoid a bush, flank an eddy, or drop into a ripple with more certainty or more ease. And there is one trait in his character decidedly sportsman – he never sold a trout in his life ….

Even in George Gibson’s time, it was becoming unfashionable to fish for the market; the true sportsman did not sell his prized catch.

Some modern fishermen might recognize some advantages of Jo’s fishing tackle, once they became familiar with using a rod twice as long as any they owned. On little streams like the Letort, with their narrow, winding channels of water moving between weed beds, eighteen feet of rod could give quite a reach, and allow an angler to literally drop a fly directly on a trout’s nose without the line hanging up in the weeds. Such a rod, with its extremely slow action, would inevitably teach patience and prevent fishermen from rushing casts that should be first thought out. True, such a rod would have its disadvantages, but it would not handi­cap a good angler who took the time necessary to understand its strengths.

What has most attracted fishing historians to Gibson is his discussion of fly patterns. Like many thoughtful fishermen, he seemed interested in the development of flies for the particular waters in which he fished, rather than standard fly patterns purchased in sporting goods shops, of which Philadelphia had several by the 1780s (see “Fishing around Philadelphia” by Steven K Vernon in the spring 1990 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage). Thousands of fly patterns have been developed over the past five centuries of fly fishing, many of which were intended to imitate a certain mayfly or other invertebrate on which fish feed. This process of “match­ing the hatch” has gone on everywhere that trout rise and fishermen cast, and it’s a safe assumption that Gibson and his friends did likewise. Gibson described numerous patterns, unwitting­ly providing some of the first records of flies tied specifically for North American waters. By analyzing his accounts, fishing historians believe they are able to identify certain patterns with certain species of insects that are known to emerge on the Letart.

Because Gibson’s descriptions of the flies he and his friends used are brief, it is easy for frustrated researchers to fall prey to conjecture. His flies with “bodies of dirty yellowish white or bright yellow” could easily be the family of the small yellow mayflies modern fishermen call sulfurs, so common at dusk on those streams. Until more evidence – such as a fishing diary or even an old fly book­ – surfaces, no one can really know with certainty.

George Gibson obviously spent a fair amount of time wondering about flies. After several decades of fishing, he was a practical angler, ready to adapt to what these wonderful little limestone streams required. He had little use for the old British theory of a single specific fly for every month, which he clearly disdained.

It is nonsense to believe there is a colour for every month it is not so for in fishing three mill pools on the same stream on the same day, I have found, that to be successful, I had to change my fly and colour of it at each pool; and in fishing in the same places a few days after, the only fly trout would rise to, was a small grey one, and to such a one they would rise freely in all the pools. In the early part of the season when the trout is poor, he will run at anything; but towards June he becomes a perfect epicure in his feeding at such time.

He went on to observe, as would following generations of fishermen, that his “limpid limestone brooks” required more careful attention to fly pattern than might be necessary elsewhere. The glassy surface of limestone streams hides many tiny vagrant currents and eddies that cause an artificial fly to “drag” unnatu­rally across the flow rather than drift with it – and trout possess an ability to notice such little things. Gibson under­stood that each stream was special, even though he may not have known why.

So what was a day of fishing like for George Gibson? In some ways it was markedly different from today’s experi­ence. He tells of taking “fifty brace” of trout in one outing. Such a catch of one hundred trout would be extraordinary (and illegal!) today, but it seems to have happened occasionally in Gibson’s day. He fished without the rush and tumult of frenzied freeway traffic in the distance but, on the other hand, without the ease of automobile transportation to a stretch of stream he might fancy. He fished with tackle most modern fishermen would find clumsy and slow, but that was beautifully crafted and masterfully handled, not to mention quite effective. He fished without bothersome hordes of experts and beginners for company, but did not share their united power that saves threatened waterways from further degradation. Nevertheless, in many ways the fishing could not have been much different from the present.

The Letort Spring Run is in a lovely setting, lovelier then without all the recent construction, but lovely in any age just because its quiet, weed-draped currents course through a beautiful countryside that even the most hideous of massive development cannot entirely ruin. No doubt the morning meadows were strung with as many spider webs and just as thick with nettles. No doubt the sun was hot early in the day, with July just as muggy and sticky then as it is now. His clothes were probably damp with dew and perspiration by the time he reached the water. The lush, rank vegetation of the trail most likely caught him as he passed. A fifteen-foot rod must have been a nuisance to carry; the line would snag on trees and brush, causing the old fisherman to stumble and cuss.

But on a day long, long ago, when George Gibson – and many others like him – reached the water, and the cold currents soaked his leggings, and the cooler air above the stream cooled the perspiration on his forehead, and the two-pounders began to rise within range of that long gentle fly rod, the Letort’s magic must have taken hold just as it does now, and for a little while every-thing else could be forgotten.

 

Incorporated in 1974, the Letort Regional Authority is the Commonwealth’s first – and only – municipal authority based on the watershed of a stream. The authority encourages zoning regulations that take into consideration the special character of the region’s limestone geology and encourages owners of environmentally sensitive land in the watershed to consider placing conserva­tion easements on their properties. It also promotes awareness of the sources of ground and water pollution and informs individuals, businesses, developers, and municipalities of their part in protection and repair. The Letort Regional Authority has issued two pam­phlets, “Letort Spring Run: A Protection Guide” and “Letort Spring Run Nature Trail,” which are available to readers of Pennsylvania Heritage by writing: Letort Regional Authority, Community Center, 415 Franklin St., Carlisle, PA 17013; or by telephoning (717) 245-0508.

 

More than three hundred and fifty members of the Cumberland Valley Chapter, Trout Unlimited, actively support the protection, conservation, and enhancement of the water quality and habitat of rivers and streams, including the Letort Spring Run. Established in 1969 in a meadow belonging to noted fly fisherman Charles K. Fox, the chapter in the 1970s attracted community interest in the cleaning up of the Letort. The Cumberland Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited also supported the removal of an overburdened and ineffective sewage treatment facility and recovered two and a half miles of the stream which had been heavily polluted. Readers interested in learning more about the chapter’s ongoing activities should write: Cumberland Valley Chapter, Trout Unlimited, P. O. Box 520, Carlisle, PA 17013. Trout Unlimited has a nationwide membership of eighty thousand members.

 

For Further Reading

Fox, Charles. Rising Trout. Carlisle: Foxcrest, 1967.

___. This Wonderful World of Trout. Carlisle: Charles Fox, 1963.

Koch, Ed. Fishing the Midge. New York: Freshet Fess, Inc., 1972.

___. Terrestrial Fishing. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1990.

Marinaro, Vincent. A Modern Dry-Fly Code. New York: G.P Putnam’s Sons, 1950.

___. In the Ring of the Rise. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1976.

Schullery, Paul. American Fly Fishing: A History. New York: Nick Lyons Books, 1987.

 

The editor wishes to acknowledge Kenwood E. Giffhorn, executive director of the Letort Regional Authority, for providing background information and illustrations, and Dr. Jack Beck, first vice president of the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited, for his insightful comments on the Letort Spring Run.

 

Paul Schullery, a native Pennsylvanian, served for five years, from 1977 until 1982, as executive director of the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont. A historian by training, he is the author, co­author, or editor of twenty books, including American Fly Fishing: A History. He has written for a variety of both popular and technical publications, including the New York Times Book Review, Fly Fisherman, Field & Stream, The American Fly Fisher, Outdoor Life, BioScience, American Forests, and the Encyclopedia Britannica Yearbook of Science and the Future. He lives and works in Yellowstone Park, Wyoming, and is an affiliate professor of history at Montana State University and an adjunct professor of American studies at the University of Wyoming.