On a sun-splashed afternoon along Spruce Creek, Joe Humphreys stalks his quarry.
He steps through a clump of brush, slow and steady like a cat, eyes locked on the gurgling water. A flick of his wrist whips his long rod forward, the cast sending his line and dry fly under a low spruce bough and drifting toward the brown and rainbow trout hiding below the glittering riffles.
Almost his entire life, he has repeated the motion to the point of second nature. His fellow anglers consider him a legend, among the world’s best, a Zen master of the sport known for his pinpoint casting and prowess at landing a wily and elusive opponent.
“He’s like a vacuum cleaner on the stream,” says Steve Ensky, the owner of the Flyfisher’s Paradise shop in College Township. Ed Shenk, a veteran fly-fishing instructor from Carlisle, says, “He can make it look easy at times, that’s for sure.”
By now, Humphreys has done it all in the fishing world. The author of a classic guide, the Oak Hall resident has competed on the U.S. Fly-Fishing Team, produced instructional DVDs, written magazine articles and columns, run Penn State’s famous fly-fishing program and guided celebrity anglers such as President Jimmy Carter, basketball coach Bobby Knight and actor Liam Neeson.
Given such a resume, the charge from a sudden splash and an arching speckled body might have dimmed long ago. And yet, a strike leaves him almost chortling. “And there’s one!” Humphreys says, his left hand tugging the rod while the right controls the line. “Wasn’t that nice?”
He reels in his modest catch, maneuvering it back and forth, turning its head and drawing it closer. But a few feet from the shore, the fish wriggles off the hook. Humphreys isn’t disappointed. On the contrary, he beams like a little kid.
“To me, that was exciting, even though it wasn’t a great trout,” he says. “It’s fishing. It’s about the cast, fooling the fish, and it’s just a wonderful thing to do.”
After so many years, fishing isn’t about ego or prestige any more, not for someone who excelled against the world’s best anglers or once caught a state-record brown trout 34 inches long, weighing almost 16 pounds.
Rather than proving grounds, streams have become his personal fountains of youth, whether he’s in Patagonia or Penns Creek. Each triumph pulls not just a trout, but the hands of time.
“I’m 81, but today, I was 26,” he says after two hours with Spruce Creek, his old friend. “I take that back. I was 16 today.”
Learning from the master
On the Kitka River in Finland, Humphreys placed 13th out of 125 anglers in the 1989 World Fly-Fishing Championship, the top American.
Two years later, he won the Michigan One Fly event, and in 1999, he took eighth out of a field of 64 in the Worldwide Open Championships in Ireland. He has plied the finest waters the country and world have to offer, but to him, none tops the one he and his wife, Gloria, live beside in the 1822 gristmill they restored.
“Spring Creek is my favorite because I caught my first trout there, and I’ve fished it my whole life,” he says.
Ah, his first: He remembers it well. It was Opening Day, and he was 6 with his father and a Kingfisher bamboo rod. Upstream went his worm — and then, magic.
“The trout flew out of the water, right over my head, and dropped on the bank,” Humphreys recalls. “I was thrilled. I didn’t catch another fish all day.”
Not only the trout was hooked. At his father’s side, he spent much of his childhood in State College casting into pools and riffles in Spring Creek and Thompson Run. One day on the creek, the youngster met his mentor, the legendary angler George Harvey.
A lifelong friendship was born. When they began fishing together, Harvey, 23, had already started Penn State’s fly-fishing program. Humphreys learned all he could from the master.
“He was an icon,” Humphreys says. “I revered the man because he had such a reputation as a fly fisherman. As I always said, he was advanced beyond the time. He was doing things and had insights nobody at the time had any inkling of.”
Harvey, a fishing-instruction pioneer, taught thousands of university students and wrote articles and books — an inspiration to his protégé. After serving in the Navy in the early 1950s and attending Penn State, where he majored in exercise and sport science and met his wife, Humphreys pursued education and became a successful wrestling coach at Penns Valley, Kittanning and Bald Eagle Area high schools.
While at BEA, Humphreys started the state’s first public school fly-fishing program. In the school’s gymnasium, he taught casting, and for more practice, he took classes to nearby Bald Eagle Creek. Harvey had not only taught him tricks; he had instilled a love for teaching the sport to younger generations.
“I had so much enjoyment from fishing, and it was such a wonderful thing for me to experience and — how should I say — it was a great way of life for a kid,”
Humphreys says. “We didn’t get into trouble. My classroom was the trout stream. I wanted to share that with others. I wanted them to experience what I did.”
It was only natural that Harvey, retiring two years after inviting Humphreys to the Penn State program, asked his former student to be his successor in 1972.
Seventeen years later, Humphreys passed the torch, but he still dedicates himself to sharing tips at events such as the annual PA Flyfisher’s Tournament on Spruce Creek, which raises money for the Centre County Youth Service Bureau.
“He’s kind of one of the most sought-after guys for fly-fishing shows and camps,” says Mark Belden, the current Penn State fly-fishing instructor. “People just know that Joe’s the real deal when it comes to fly-fishing.”
Jesse Arnelle was impressed. The Penn State trustee liked fishing with Humphreys so much, he financed a university program to introduce the sport to city children.
Belden organized the Arnelle Fly-Fishing Initiative with the proviso that Humphreys would assist the Penn State students serving as one-on-one mentors. It wasn’t a hard sell.
Twice a year now, Humphreys joins the fun, teaching by example. Belden says his outgoing personality, which won over Arnelle, makes him an effective instructor by putting students at ease.
“Joe has a confidence that is brought about by the fact that he’s absolutely one of the top anglers around,” Belden says. “He doesn’t have to prove anything. What he’s able to do is relax.”
Notes freelance outdoor writer Reed Hellman in his blog about an outing with Humphreys: “Spending a day with him ... can be a graduate course in casting the long rod.”
In 1984, Humphreys’ classroom widened when he hosted the first nationally televised fishing series, “The Fly-Fishing Journal,” on ESPN. He had already made a name for himself with “Joe Humphreys’ Trout Tactics,” which in its second edition has sold more than 100,000 copies since 1977. It’s one of the best-selling fly-fishing books of all time, Steve Ensky says. Ensky’s former business partner, Lemont angler Dan Shields, with three fishing guides of his own, calls it “one of the absolute finest books on fly-fishing technique that I’ve read or seen.”
One of Belden’s fish stories — minus the fish — helps illustrate Humphreys’ fame among anglers.
After fishing the famous Bighorn River in Montana, Belden walked back to his car. Another fisherman parked in the lot spied his Penn State fly-fishing hat and eagerly came over.
“He says, ‘Excuse me, are you Joe Humphreys?’ That was quite a compliment.”
Conservationist at heart
Crouched slightly on a stream bank, Humphreys cuts a trim figure, looking like he has lost little since his days as a muscular athlete.
Trying to out-catch his father nurtured a competitive streak beyond the streams. He wrestled in high school, good enough to go to the Olympic trials in 1948, win Navy tournaments and earn letters three years at Penn State. A middleweight boxer also, he fought successfully while serving and in college — one of only two Penn State athletes ever to letter twice in a season.
Ed Shenk has known Humphreys for more than 50 years and teaches a weekend course with him at the Allenberry Resort in Boiling Springs. He thinks of his friend as a “competitive flyfisher, but more competitive with himself.”
“He works a little bit harder when a problem comes up,” Shenk says.
Maybe the trout aren’t biting the dry flies, and Humphreys will sink nymphs with a touch Shenk believes few can equal. Perhaps a mountain stream’s cramped quarters require one of his innovations, the “bow and arrow” cast meant to avoid snags.
“He’s made the mistakes,” Shields says. “But the difference is, he’s learned from them. That’s what sets him apart. I’ve never met anybody else that I thought was as flexible on the stream.”
But how daunting can trout be — even the monster brown he landed at night Aug. 8, 1977, on Fishing Creek after a “terrific explosion” — when he transformed a derelict mill into a beautiful home straddling a raceway? That required shoveling out tons of old grain and pigeon droppings before he and Gloria could move in, in 1965, to raise their two daughters.
And what could be harder than saving a stream, as he did with Spring Creek in 1974? Road construction had pushed Thompson Spring, a creek fountainhead, into the contaminated Duck Pond. Heated water and sewage jeopardized his childhood creek.
Incensed, Humphreys went to work. Forming the local chapter of Trout Unlimited, he appealed to the sympathetic head of the state Department of Environmental Resources and secured the necessary permits. With the pond drained, chapter members used donated construction equipment and concrete to install a pipe, divert the spring around the pond and restore the creek to health.
“That’s one thing I did that I’m proud of,” Humphreys says.
He’s a conservationist at heart for a reason. He maintains the vitality of streams, and they return the favor. Harvey lived to 96, but toward the end, he lost interest in fishing. Humphreys doesn’t see that in his future. With every trout, every adrenaline jolt, he becomes the 6-year-old boy gazing wide-eyed at his prize sailing above him.
“I call this ‘Romancing the Trout’ because the cast is a thing of beauty,” he says, narrating one of his films from the State Theatre stage during a fishing show. To bluegrass music, the screen Humphreys tackles a pristine North Carolina stream: an ageless figure in a timeless scene.
“I love everything around me,” he tells the audience. “A day on the stream, catching a few fish, feeling the wonders and beauty of the earth around me. ... Is this not a game of love? Oh yeah.”