Sometimes ground zero isn’t always obvious. Sometimes it takes years to realize that one moment at one particular spot was the start of something big.
For me it was Big Elk Creek I was 13 years old. Big Elk Creek isn’t the one you’re thinking of. It’s not an Erie Trib, not the piece of water in downstate W-by-G-V. It’s not one of many similarly named streams out west. It’s a little freestone stream originating 45 minutes sw of Philadelphia that winds into the extreme north east corner of Maryland where it meanders through to the town of Elkton, then ultimately joins the Susquehanna River at Turkey point creating the Chesapeake Bay. Several miles of Big Elk Creek flow through a quiet bucolic jewel in the east coast megalopolis, Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area. It was this stretch where The Stream, fly fishing and an unfailing love for the outdoors started.
It wasn’t an easy start. My first trip there was in the days well before google earth and my only knowledge that this stream held trout was from a stocking schedule and a green dot on the little blue line on the map, “Non-tidal, Freshwater Sport Fishing Map of Maryland.” indicating both brown and rainbow trout were stocked It was close to home in Jersey and also close to where we spent the summer weekends along the Northern Eastern Shore of MD. The map showed rt273 crossing the stream, so it must be easy access down to the water. At 13 I wasn’t much aware of topography being from pool table flat Jersey, nor would it have mattered if my precious map had any indication of contour. My dad and I arrive at the bridge over the Elk and look down to the water an easy 60 feet below the deck of the bridge. We look at the far embankment down to the stream which was determined to be impossible. We walk back to where the jeep was parked and decide to try this closer embankment. It seemed to have a more gentle slope down over some rip rap then up and over a chain link fence to what appeared to be a fairly well used hiking trail. My oldman goes down first. He leads the way and scrambles up and over the fence. I follow behind carrying all of my gear, wisely deciding to climb into the waders once safely over the fence. With a thud I’m on the fishy side of the fence.
I hadn’t really fished moving water before and it was my first time trout fishing somewhere other than in New Hampshire with my uncle. I was piecing together the stream diagrams in my head from Fly Fisherman, American Angler, and Lefty’s Little Library to figure out this deal. In front of one of the bridge pilings there was a little trough and I could see fish holding in the gentle current. I tie on the ancestor to Ryan’s white bugger, a woolly worm with its red yarn hemoroidal ass. No bead, no split shot, and hanging just below the surface with the fish hunkered on the bottom 4 feet below. There was a look up, but then that may have been some food just above the fish’s head. My flies at that time were barely limited to the assortment I got up at LL Bean and what I could get at the local big box stores. Meanwhile, my dad is running around in the woods living out the native heritage in our blood.
I spook the fish slipping on a rock while still trying to get my wading legs. I move below the bridge and blindly cast for the next hour or so. I get my first visit from the fish cops. He yells down asking to see my license, and I courteously tell the officer that I was only 13 and asked if I needed one (knowing that I didn’t). He says no, and tells me good luck. A short time later my dad shows up and I’m ready to get out of my non-breathable waders in the late June heat. We walk up the trail a ways to check out some ancient stone bridge and he tells me of the cool things he’s seen and I tell him I saw some fish but didn’t catch any, a sentence I would say hundreds of times more. But we agreed that it was such a cool place and not like the wood lots from home or the tidal streams we were so used to. We help each other back over the fence and up the hill and head home.
We would later find out that not far from where we were there was a parking lot along the stream adjacent to a covered bridge. Now that we knew an easier way to get to the water, we would go there on a regular basis. There’s a picture not much different than the one above where a very young me is fishing with the covered bridge in the background. A very river runs through it kind of picture that my mother ate up, enlarged and still hangs in the hallway of my childhood home today. Until I left for college, Fair Hill would become a frequent outlet to enjoy nature, whether it was fishing, mountain biking, or hiking. It was my ground zero for fishing. As often as I tried I never caught a fish there though. Chocking it up to paying dues didn’t diminish the fun and enjoyment.
While home for Christmas a couple days ago my brother and I made quick run to get some eastern shore fried oysters and cream of crab soup and agreed to stop by Fair Hill where I was going to make a few casts. As much as Fair Hill has changed in the 10 years since I’ve been there, it’s character, charm and beauty is still there. The covered bridge is still there, but the ravages of this fall’s storms in the area are very evident. Even with a fall stocking and seeing a pair of goofy hatted fisherman land a fish, my fishless big Elk record is still in tact. Even so, I’ll make a point to stop by again whenever I’m home visiting the family.