Mark Nale: Fly-fishing legend Joe Humphreys returns to his roots to catch trout

Joe Humphreys went back to his roots trying to catch his first trout from the west branch of the Susquehanna River.
Joe Humphreys went back to his roots trying to catch his first trout from the west branch of the Susquehanna River. Photo for the CDT

Most people associate world-renowned fly fisherman Joe Humphreys with State College or Penn State University, and rightly so. He spent 19 years as the fly-fishing instructor at the university, and he almost always wears what has become his trademark PSU cap. However, many do not know that 86-year-old Humphreys, of Oak Hall, was born in Curwensville, in Clearfield County. He lived there until age 6.

“My father worked at a bank in Curwensville. He lost his job with the crash of 1929,” Humphreys shared. “We stuck it out for awhile, but eventually moved to State College, where he got a job with Penn State University.”

Humphreys has entered the age where he is thinking about his “bucket list.” One of the items on that list was to catch a trout on the rejuvenated West Branch of the Susquehanna River, which flows through Curwensville — a stream that he played in as a young boy. He contacted Pat Domico, who runs the Squirrel Tails for Trout program, to see if that could be arranged.

“I have a photograph of myself as a four-year-old playing in the West Branch in 1933,” Humphreys said. “At that time, the river was so acidic that my mother told me not to open my eyes for the water would burn them.

“It is hard to believe that the West Branch is now a trout stream. The work that Trout Unlimited and everyone has done to improve this river is just phenomenal,” Humphreys said. “Catching a trout there would be special.”

Two sections of the West Branch are now stocked with trout by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, with additional stockings by Squirrel Tails for Trout, a citizen’s group.

Fifty or even 35 years ago, the West Branch was a dead waterway — severely polluted with acid mine drainage — the unfortunate legacy of several hundred years of unregulated deep and surface coal mining.

Sulfuric acid, aluminum, iron and manganese flowed down the river in amounts that could be measured in hundreds of tons per day. At Curwensville, iron stained the rocks — yellow, orange and red. Almost all of the rocks look natural today, thanks to the clean-up efforts. Only a hint of orange was visible at a few spots along the river’s edge as Humphreys fished.

A special Squirrel Tails for Trout stocking occurred in Humphreys’ honor prior to the event on Sept. 24. In the low clear water, it took the master about 25 minutes to hook and land his very first West Branch trout. A video crew, as well as Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission Executive Director John Arway and commissioner Bill Sabatose were there to witness the event.

According to Humphreys, the trout got “lockjaw,” and with a big audience, he had to work for that trout.

“Talk about pressure,” Humphreys said. “I just prayed that one would take my fly.”

A brown eventually inhaled Humphreys’ salmon egg imitation, and the large trout took him about 40 yards downstream before he was able to net it under the Curwensville bridge.

Humphreys, who has authored two highly-rated books, been featured in numerous fishing videos, hosted an ESPN fly-fishing series and caught many thousands of trout, still gets caught up in the challenge.

“When I landed that fish today, I was as excited as when I caught my first trout,” he said. “This river can provide great trout fishing.”

Domico was genuinely touched by the event.

“Watching Joe catch that trout was special for me,” he said, “and I’m so glad that I could be part of it. This is just a festive day for me, Curwensville and Clearfield County.”

What is next on Humphreys’ “bucket list”?

“I’d like to catch the world record brown trout,” shared Humphreys. “I’m willing to spend $3,000, $5,000, $8,000 — whatever it takes in an attempt to accomplish that.”

At least, he will have fun trying. To top the current world record, Humphreys would need to catch a brown weighing nearly 42 pounds. He believes that is possible in the Little Red River. The current world record also comes from that Arkansas river — a tail-water fishery below the Greers Ferry Dam.

Humphreys, who has traveled the world fly fishing, still appreciates what we have in Pennsylvania. He shared that as a youngster, he used to ride his bicycle from his home to be able to fish Spring Creek.

“Spring Creek is just fantastic,” he said. “Pennsylvania is the most beautiful state in the union. I watched the sun rise at Benner Springs on Spring Creek recently and it was beautiful. That section of Spring Creek is my favorite water in the whole world.”

Mentored Youth Opportunity

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission just announced that they will be stocking three lakes with trout for a special mentored youth opportunity on Oct. 18. One of those lakes — Poe Lake — is in Centre County.

Each of the waters will be stocked on Oct. 17. During the Sunday event, adults and children can fish for trout, but only kids with a voluntary youth fishing license or free mentored youth permit may keep trout. They are permitted up to two trout of seven inches or greater. Adults must have a fishing license, but a trout stamp is not required.

The harvest rule is a change from the way the mentored youth trout program has been administered previously. The PFBC modified the program this year in response to numerous comments from participants suggesting that only children, and not adults, should be allowed to keep what they catch.

To participate in the mentored youth program, adult anglers (16 years or older) must have a valid fishing license and be accompanied by a youth. Youth anglers must obtain a free PFBC-issued permit or a voluntary youth fishing license. So far this year, more than 18,700 kids have obtained a free permit and another 9,200 have purchased a voluntary youth fishing license.