Philadelphia Metropolis


Wissahickon Days

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By Lucien Crowder

It's a cloudless morning in the middle of May. The sun shines pale and lemony. The winter was a brutal prison. This day is joyous release.

I have disembarked the R6 train at the Wissahickon stop. I'm hauling a backpack that contains one peanut butter sandwich, two clementines, a thermos of strong tea, a set of waders, a pair of waterproof boots, a graphite fly rod, and tackle ranging from nail clippers to midge pupa. Today I'll be fishing for trout.

Avoiding the noise and fumes of the traffic agglomeration formed by Ridge and City Avenues, Kelly and Lincoln Drives, and Main Street, I climb through prosperous side streets to reach a path that hugs the Wissahickon Creek's west bank. I'll stay on this path, not descending to the water, until the creek jags sharply northwest, finally separating itself from loud Lincoln Drive. As I walk, I scan the riffles and the pocket water for trout. Trout thrill me. They thrilled me when I was a boy of eight and they thrill me half a lifetime later.

In truth, this is marginal fly fishing water. The creek is stocked each spring with lots of rainbows and brownies but most of these hapless innocents are harvested soon enough by cynics with wriggling worms. Some survive the spring, only to succumb in summer to the heat. Do a few hardy specimens endure year to year by finding small, cool-water tributaries or lurking near underwater seeps? Reports vary, but I've yet to see a convincing holdover in this water. What I've seen is plenty of white-bellied trout corpses floating past my knees.

Thumbnail image for Wissahickon Creek.jpgThe Wissahickon tempts us with certain illusions. One is the illusion of wilderness, purity. The creek, under proper conditions, can seem to run as clean as any stream you'll find. But when the water goes gin clear after days without rain, you perceive the countless items, from ancient pipes to small appliances, that live out their half-lives on the bottom. Then again, after a storm, the flow goes muddy and foul-smelling, like some backwater fit for nothing but bass.

We are tempted too by the illusion of solitude--by an absence of Philadelphians! You can pretend in midstream, with steep impassive hills on either side and high-angled light shafting in, that you've got this creek and this world to yourself. But just then a family of bicyclists rattles past in homely joviality, two little girls ringing handlebar bells, their parents shouting indulgent cautions. Crackling tires, vanishing laughter.

If it's not a wholesome family destroying your solitude, it's probably an oddball, a nutter, or a shady character. The creek side is a fine place for outrageous costumes, for full-body camouflage, for safari hats. I once saw a man with a monocle inspecting passersby. The mentally dispossessed of Northwest Philadelphia amble these footpaths in defiant insanity; the park is a public resource, intended for the equal enjoyment of all, just like the restrooms in the basement of the Free Library.

I have a beautiful day in the water. I read the surface and capture insects and test patterns and adore the practice and care nothing for results. At times my brain stops thinking, merely absorbs. The warm white boulders, the sunshiny riffles, the dark and light of deep and shallow, the glug-slosh glug-slosh of a forest forever cleansing itself. I let my rod tip sink to the water and stand midstream without purpose or plan.

I head back toward the train, once again paralleling Lincoln Drive. And for the second time I scan this stretch of water, but this time with lazy eyes. Not only is my fishing done for the day, but common sense says that worthwhile trout have little incentive to set up shop in a stream section with so little tree cover.

But. if I can believe my eyes. Four mammoth trout are holding in the midstream shallows. No hole to lurk in, no boulder to dart behind, no undercut bank to cling to. Not even a shadow. Just holding. Effortless, savvy, contemptuous.

I can't deliver a fly to these fish from where I stand. To reach them I'd need to put my waders and boots back on, reassemble my rod, clamber down the steep embankment many yards downstream, and then work my way toward them with delicate casts and a surreptitious approach. Anyway, I'd be kidding myself. These crafty old codgers look as likely as rocks to rise to my fly. I've got a train to make. A child to retrieve from school.

But it seems I've underestimated this creek--this urban flow, this repository of toasters, this graveyard for hatchery fish. Somehow, despite the thermal pollution and the rumble of trucks and despite the boys with sinkers and worms, this stream holds trout that an angler could be proud, very proud, to pull from the state's most famous waters. I can barely believe what I've seen today. But it was no illusion.


Lucien Crowder last wrote Riding Their Bikes for Metropolis.


Illustration: Wissahickon Creek, James Peale, 1828



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