For a Fly-Fishing Treat, Go No Farther Than the Gunpowder River

Guide Stacey Crossland-Smith cradles a 12-inch brown trout caught in the cool waters of the Gunpowder River just north of Baltimore.
Guide Stacey Crossland-Smith cradles a 12-inch brown trout caught in the cool waters of the Gunpowder River just north of Baltimore. (By Angus Phillips For The Washington Post)
By Angus Phillips
Sunday, September 16, 2007

The gateway to heaven will look a lot like the Gunpowder River in autumn. The chosen few will don chest waders and walk over to Glory Land, and diehard anglers among them can stop and fly-fish in dappled runs and placid pools as long as they like.

They probably will not be rewarded with big fish, because there aren't a lot of big trout in the Gunpowder. They won't catch all that many, either, because while the river holds a sizable population, the trout are wary, experienced and tough to fool. Nor will they get to keep them for the pan, because the best parts of the river are catch-and-release.

But they will surely catch a few, and some will be beautiful beyond measure -- wild, mature, stream-bred browns dressed in buttermilk and gold with brilliant spots of ebony and vermillion. To hold one in your hand even briefly is to touch heavenly perfection.

Okay, okay, pardon me for bubbling over again, but I'm just back from a half-day autumn outing on the Gunpowder and the flowery prose has to get out. I'm still in the thrall.

The Gunpowder tumbles over rock ledges through deeply forested banks just a few miles from downtown Baltimore and has been named one of the 100 top trout streams in the nation by folks who know. That's doubtless an overstatement, given the abundance of spectacular trout water in mountain states out West.

"I'm sure you could find 100 streams that are better," said veteran trout guide Stacey Crossland-Smith, with whom I shared the water last week, "but when you consider accessibility and location, this one is definitely up there."

It is also a remarkable success story. Twenty-five years ago, it was just another mid-Atlantic gully connecting the bottom of Prettyboy Reservoir with the top of Loch Raven Reservoir, Baltimore's main freshwater supply. In 1986, local trout fanciers came up with the idea of regulating the flow out of Prettyboy to encourage trout survival.

It wasn't nuclear physics. With the guarantee of a steady, year-round supply of cool, clear water from the depths of the reservoir, a natural resource sprang to life. A few years of trout stocking provided the seed, catch-and-release regulations on the productive upper stretch from Falls Road up to the dam protected the fish and the rest is happy history.

These days, the Gunpowder rarely gets above the low 60s (Fahrenheit, of course) in water temperature, even in the hottest summer stretches. Anglers joke that it's one of the rare places you can suffer hypothermia and heat exhaustion at the same time.

Brown trout in particular thrive among the Gunpowder's rocks and rills, alongside a few rainbows and brookies. The fish feast on a year-round supply of hatching insects including caddisflies, stone flies, tiny tricorythodes, mayflies and terrestrials such as ants, beetles and inchworms that drop into the water.

You can catch fish on dry flies here, but as in most Eastern waters it often pays to go deep to attract the bigger ones.

Crossland-Smith led the way down a dirt path to the stream from the parking lot on Falls Road, not far from the roaring traffic on Interstate 83. You couldn't hear any traffic noise down in the valley, just the chirping of cardinals and chickadees and the lively chuckle of water over rocks.

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