“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. ”
Spring Ridge Club
"I've never had a day when we didn't catch lots of fish," said Brad Frankhouser, one of 20 fly-fishing guides at Spring Ridge Club in rural Spruce Creek, Pa. "Some days are tougher than others, but if people do what I suggest, they're going to have a great day."
Frankhouser, who has been fly fishing for 24 years and guiding for seven, advised me to use a Number 16 Caddis Emerger and he pointed to a riff in Spruce Creek where he wanted it presented. The eye of the hook was so small it could barely be discerned without a magnifying glass. I seriously doubted anything that small could catch a fish worth reeling in. I was seriously wrong.
My first cast produced a 26-inch brown trout that took 30 minutes to net. It was the first of many I would bring in that day, thanks to a combination of expert guiding and some of the world's best-managed trout streams.
"We want people to have so much action that they're pooped at the end of the day," said Donny Beaver, the club's owner. "When a section of a stream produces that quality of an experience, we call it a 'beat.' If, by noon, guys are looking at their watches saying, 'Is this all you're going to give us today?' we don't have a beat."
The club has a catch-and-release policy. "We will put up to two members on a beat and fish it three days a week on average," Beaver said. "We're careful to give the fish time to rest. Keeping them in good condition is good for the fish and heightens the experience for the fisherman."
Also heightening that experience is Spring Ridge Club's ability to offer its members exclusive access to about 30 miles of 15 of the world's best trout streams. It owns some of the land, and leases rights from landowners for members to use other sections.
To have a trout stream, there must be cold (spring-fed) water and food. These streams have both. The landscape is made up of carbonate rocks, such as limestone. As water passes through the rocks to get to the surface, it picks up calcium carbonate, which provides fertilizer that encourages plant growth. Plants attract insects, making the stream an ideal environment for lots of big trout.
Two days of fishing here yielded more trout than I'd previously caught in my life. The club's Spruce Creek has browns and rainbows as big as 11 pounds, with average weights in the six- to eight-pound range and lengths of 22 to 24 inches. Brook trout average 14 inches, and 16 inches isn't uncommon.
It's no wonder this has been the trout-fishing ground of the rich and famous. Herbert Hoover, who noted that "all men are equal before fish," was a regular here. So were Presidents Eisenhower, Ford and Carter (who continues to fish Spruce and adjoining creeks).
I happened to arrive at Spring Ridge Club at the same time as Stan Bogdan, who has been hand-machining what are arguably the world's finest fly reels since 1940. Now 88, he has fished "wherever there's water," including Norway, Argentina, Chile, British Columbia and the Cascades. "I've always read about Spruce Creek but have never come here before," Bogdan said. "Today I had the greatest day of trout fishing that I've ever had."
Spring Ridge's headquarters occupy 125 acres astride the confluence of the Little Juniata River (known as the Little j) and Spruce Creek in the town of Spruce Creek. The club has three preserves-Spruce Creek, Stillwater and Erie-each of which has equipment for members and guests who don't bring their own.
One reason members value those preserves is that good fishing has become harder to find in Pennsylvania. The state has 12,000 miles of trout streams (only Alaska has more) and stocks 5,000 miles of them with trout. But 4,000 of those 5,000 miles run through private property, as do 4,200 of the 7,000 miles that aren't stocked.
"When I was a kid, you could walk on just about anyone's property and fish the streams," Beaver said. "Landowners were happy to share them with the public. Unfortunately, the public developed a sense of entitlement. There's been litter, camp fires, people using private yards as toilets, parking all over the property and a host of other thoughtless actions. And any clean-up or repair to damaged property comes out of the owner's pocket. Now, as a result, you can't drive a mile without seeing a no-trespassing sign."
Beaver has detractors who feel he's making trout streams the exclusive territory of the rich and famous, but Spring Ridge Club has never asked a landowner to post no-trespassing signs. "We look for property that is already posted," Beaver said. "We help turn a fallow resource into an income-producing resource for landowners. Not hoards of people parading across their property, but a controlled situation."
Spring Ridge Club members park in places specified by the landowners and walk to the streams along approved routes. The club lets landowners know who's coming and when, and it provides the owners with compensation and insurance.
One of its long-term goals is to earn a strong enough relationship with landowners so that if they choose to sell their property, the club will be given the first opportunity to purchase it. By the end of this year, Beaver estimates, the club will own about one third of the property its members use.
"Take this property," he said of the club's headquarters. "Had I waited one more year before approaching this landowner, it would now be a retirement community. The offer was already on the table from the biggest developer in the area. There would be wide expanses of blacktop, hundreds of cars, a heavy toll on fresh water from the wells, sewage, pollution and everything else that goes with many people living in a relatively small area. What we've done is renovate the few existing structures, preserved this portion of the Little j and kept it in pristine condition."
Beaver said he targets high-quality streams, then drives along them looking for "no-trespassing" signs. "When I see a property with a sign along a stretch of desirable stream, I find out who owns it. We then send a letter explaining what we have to offer. I tell them our goal is to preserve the land and the lifestyle. It resonates with landowners."
Beaver explained that having the greatest water in the world isn't enough; the club's other big attraction is the service it provides to members. "We had a big thunderstorm last night," he said. "If someone was scheduled to drive up from Philadelphia to fish the Little j this morning, we'd be on the telephone telling him to go to Yellow Creek instead. If the entire area is blown out, we'll tell him to get a day's work in and we'll call him when things clear up."
If customer service is the heart of the business, the club's 20 guides, each assigned to specific streams, are the heart of customer service. About half of the beats require use of a guide as part of the lease agreement with landowners. However, the guides knowledge of fly fishing and the streams makes them invaluable to fishermen.
One of those guides, Bob Bizak, has been a fisherman for 58 years and has been fly fishing since 1972. As we approached Yellow Creek, he looked at my fly line and explained a more effective method of hooking fish.
"I rig my line with an old method called bounce nymphing," he said. "The weight is on the very end of the line. Then you have two flies connected to the line, one or two feet apart, and there's no tippet, so there's no tangle. Then on top of that, you have your indicator."
Bizak said that because the weight is upstream, there's nothing between it and the strike indicator but the flies and the fish. "If a fish so much as looks at 'em cross-eyed, that indicator gets nervous and shakes, I yell 'strike' and you usually have a fish." The second cast produced a beautiful, vividly colored rainbow that nibbled so lightly I probably wouldn't have felt it using more conventional rigging.
Beaver said such experiences happen every day and that word of them spreads throughout the fly-fishing community. "It took the club about a year to get momentum, but we're now taking in two to three members a month," he said.
Traveler Fast Facts
What it is: Spring Ridge Club, now in its sixth year, is a private fly-fishing club with nearly 120 members. It has access to more than 30 miles of world-class trout streams.
Where it is: In Spruce Creek, Pa., about a four-and-a-half-hour drive from New York City and three-and-a-half hours from Washington, D.C. (Spring Ridge recently established a second fly-fishing club in Edwards, Colo., and members of the two clubs
have reciprocal privileges.)
What it costs: In addition to $600 monthly dues, the club charges an $85,000 lifetime membership fee that actually represents an interest-free 30-year loan and is used to purchase more stream access. Members who resign before 30 years receive a percentage of the membership fee being charged at the time they leave.
Climate: Central and western Pennsylvania see mid-summer high temperatures occasionally hitting the mid-90s with evening temperatures sometimes falling as low as 60 degrees. Winter temperatures drop below zero once in a while, but because trout streams are spring fed they rarely freeze.
Where to land your jet: State College University Park Airport (UNV) is 30 miles from the club and has rental cars. The airport has a 6,701-foot runway and an FBO that sells avgas and jet fuel. Altoona-Blair County Airport (AOO) in Martinsburg is only a 10-minute drive from Yellow Creek. It has a 5,466-foot runway and Penn-Air, a full-service FBO. You can rent a car or the guide will pick you up. You'll be in the water in 15 minutes.
Traveler Report Card
Accommodations (B): Spring Ridge Club maintains eight cabins, cottages and lodges, with one to five bedrooms, that can accommodate a total of 40 guests. They are primarily nicely renovated, pre-existing structures, such as farmhouses. The clubhouse includes a lounge, casual dining area, kitchen, Orvis fly shop and offices.
Dining (B): The lodge provides a self-serve continental breakfast that includes many homemade goodies. The club also sets out a diverse lunch bar, so guests can make up their own meals, which guides will store in coolers in their vehicles. Spring Ridge doesn't serve dinner, but restaurants are nearby and the club will bring in a chef and food at a guest's request.
Activities (A+): The club offers some of the world's best trout fly fishing. It also features a concierge service to help arrange a wide variety of non-fishing activities.
Ambiance (A+): The club provides a totally laid-back experience where the member decides how that day will play out. The hardest thing you'd have to do would be finding a spot where your cellphone works; then again, no one recommends you bring a phone.
Quietude (A+): All the properties are in quiet, rural areas. The loudest things you'll hear at night are crickets.