Ron P. Swegman

Bright Fish, Big Cities

1967 Angler Author
Small Fry: The Lure of the Little

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Philadelphia on the Fly

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Perhaps the greatest attribute of the largemouth bass and the bluegill is availability. These fish have been introduced and stocked throughout the United States and as far afield as Japan. Even urban anglers can find fishing access within city parks. Two of America's largest cities, New York and Philadelphia, possess excellent angling for these two species within city limits: Harlem Meer and The Lake in Manhattan's Central Park, and FDR Park Lake in South Philadelphia's Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park.

I have prided my ongoing self-reliance regarding the commute to my fly fishing destinations, using Wellington boots on the ground or mountain bike on the path rather than a four-wheel vehicle that runs on fossil fuel. City fishing makes this even the most practical way to get to the water, yet never before my first fly fishing trip to New York City had I taken a subway to the fish.

Harlem Meer in Manhattan's Central Park was the destination on the May Saturday morning of my first fishing trip within America's financial and cultural capital. I had once taken a scouting hike to the Meer -- two-hundred-plus city blocks, four-plus walkabout hours, round trip -- on a misty March weekday. This time, to save precious weekend time, my fishing partner and I carried our Metro cards to a West Village underground station. We took the 2/3 line from 7th Avenue up to 110th Street where it meets the start of Malcolm X Boulevard.

Back on street level, only the site-specific formal names of the signage and the traffic passing along the grey strip of 110th prevented the view from resembling an English country garden. The Meer, an 11-acre warmwater pond, sat placidly in the distance; a bent oblong of opalescent jade lined by the verdant emerald green of the surrounding spring foliage.

The low rise of Central Park's rusticated stone north wall separates the noise and bustle of city business from the bird songs of the urban bucolic. This was sadly not the case for several decades after a foolhardy and failed attempt in the 1950's to further urbanize the banks of the Meer with concrete and fencing. This dismal Modernist experiment began a slow decline in the pond's appearance, recreational use, and water quality. A return to natural form began in the late 1980's and by 1993 the Meer had been restored to the original organic vision of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, the 19th-Century landscape architect who refined the plan of this and several other distinctive urban American parks.

Today the Meer, on an early morning, appears to be no more crowded than a suburban park, meaning a few couples walking their dogs on the green, a few joggers exercising out of the gymnasium spotlight, and a few anglers standing beside the water.

Tony Panasita and Edwin Valentia, two of the easygoing good fellows at Manhattan's flagship fly shop, The Urban Angler, situated some 85 blocks south on 5th Avenue, suggest one be kind to these other fishers, fly or otherwise, who might also happen to be contemplating their solitude at the Meer. These metropolitan Yankees are themselves generally friendly and helpful to the inquisitive newcomer. Some even carry show and tell photo documentation of their various caught-and-released trophies on their person.

Valentia, The Urban Angler's resident fly tier, is famous in fly fishing folklore. He is the passionate angler who, inspired by his discovery of the sport, initially learned to tie while using his toes as a vice. He now works with an artisan's touch on a rotary vice located behind the glass display cases in the rear of the store. He also possesses the remarkable gift of avian mimicry. A casual browser might think a robin or some other species of thrush has found its way from the adjacent Madison Square Park and hidden itself in the rafters of the shop. But it's only Valentia, adding a little atmosphere to the space, while he works on a complicated saltwater crab pattern. His advice: "Be persistent and be nice. The fish are educated and some weigh many pounds. You'll be surprised just how wise and just how big."

The Urban Angler's staff and the Meer's local veterans both concur that the good fish are there, although these are street smart species, having all metaphorically seen it all. The average largemouth bass -- the Meer's standout quarry -- is willing and game if the fly caster is careful and able, especially between April and June, when the pond's duckweed and other water plants have not yet grown dense enough to foil a streamer pattern worked on a floating line. There are also perch, pickerel, and sunfish swimming in the Meer which may, during calm, overcast times, sip a popper or dry fly attractor pattern from the still surface. Whatever fly is presented, all hooks must be barbless, and all fishing is catch-and-release in order to maintain a healthy, sustainable fishery. Posted park rules state also that no permit is required, although it is always good form to carry a valid New York state fishing license, be it visitor or resident status.

Muddler Minnows and Woolly Buggers adorned with Marabou flash material are two of the best start patterns to use when exploring the perimeter of the pond. Floating rafts of pondweed and slender towers of duckweed visible near or on the surface provide cover and structure to target. The cast and retrieve of a streamer at various angles to the vegetation's edges is a good strategy for coaxing a largemouth or chain pickerel from the weed. A dry fly twitched or dapped on the same surface areas will inspire a few good-size perch and sunfish to rise.

The pond is generally deep. The rod tip dip test using an 8 1/2-foot 5-weight indicates a relatively uniform two- to five-foot average depth just two feet from the bank. Spin fishers catch their share of fish by bouncing bottom with rubber worms and plugs. Fly fishers, however, stand a much better chance on top, one reason being that baitfish and terrestrial insects -- the major fish food sources here -- mostly confine their activities along the surface film.

My resident companion -- and fiancée -- Maryann Amici found her novice back cast form rather easily within this environment. Her practice of kendo (Japanese fencing) and the general layout of the area combined for success. The Meer's south side, where we began our adventure, is abutted by a high escarpment of schist stone. The projecting outcrop's backward-leaning base and a narrow jogging path, when sans runner, provide plenty of rear room for an adequate loop and subsequent forward cast. The green banks are manicured, chalk stream style, the exception being three shallow areas where stands of pickerel weed and cattails hug the shoreline. There is also a small island on the southeast end, home to turtles, mallard ducks, Canada geese, and at least two species of heron: the stately black-crowned night and the diminutive green. While reserved for the wildlife and off limits to unauthorized humans, the island's edge does provide a fine second stretch of bank area to target.

Spring creek form -- the careful roll or back cast from a crouched position -- is a wise practice to follow along the Meer. First work a fly beside the right and left bank, and then fan out progressively toward the open water. Several hours of this strategy will thoroughly cover the pond's surface area, gradually increase fly placement accuracy, and give the thighs a significant workout.

Our bass of the day, a sporty foot-long largemouth, struck shortly after ten a.m. An unweighted size 8 Olive Woolly Bugger teased the fish just enough as the hook-bound feather and fur passed the far edge of a pondweed raft. The bass made three deep dives and one complete surface leap before coming to hand. The fish, when carefully unhooked and stretched out on the damp morning grass, presented a firm and healthy silver pine profile. This particular largemouth very much fit the "green trout" name both in circumference of girth and color of scale.

We had had fine lesson in fly casting, now an impressive city fish, and the skyscraper island's premiere park was only then awakening in earnest. As the released bass swam out of sight, a memorable Manhattan fishing trip was minted. Massive New York bagels with lox spread were next on the menu, and within walking distance.

Green Trout "Green Trout" -- a Harlem Meer largemouth bass.

Inspired by my experience in the most urban, if not urbane, angling environment, I returned to Philadelphia with a case of what John Gierach has described as "pond fever" -- and I had just the next place in mind to find the remedy.

“Down the lakes . . .” is a phrase sometimes heard along the streets of Philadelphia, and it usually means a daughter, a father, and a few others have gone fishing in -- and within – the city limits of George Washington's capital.

Philadelphia has streams suitable for a sustainable stocked trout population -- the Wissahickon and the Pennypack -- like the rest of the Pennsylvania commonwealth’s 67 counties. Add to this two rivers chock full of catfish, sunfish, basses, and shad: the Delaware and the Schuylkill. Less known is that Philadelphia possesses a fine opportunity for the stillwater angler – FDR Park Lake.

This 18-acre impoundment and its adjacent, fishable wetlands resides within Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park, situated a ball's throw from the sports complex in south Philadelphia. The lake goes by several names -- Concourse and Edgewood are two more – but one certainty is these waters are an urban treasure, one that fits its niche as well as the Commonwealth’s larger, rural waters. Though small in size, it is diverse in its opportunities, and can provide a curious fly angler with solid water to spend an hour or two of casting practice. This is also a great place to teach kids the rudiments of still, spin, and fly fishing for largemouth bass and bluegill.

These are natural lakes that took their present shape after the freshwater tidal marsh between the Delaware and Schuylkill was partially drained to accommodate the growing city’s expansion. The park and its ponds have preserved this liquid legacy, which sustains two nearly extinct ecosystems: coastal plain forests and the aforementioned marsh.

As an angler who enjoys the challenges of fishing cover, I would soon find plenty of opportunities around the circumference of the main lake. A wood dock long collapsed and filled in with soil, marsh plants, and overhanging limbs were all present to challenge my casting skills. The adventurous angler can also work the high brushy edges of Hollander Creek and the twin Meadow Lakes. These remnants of the marsh resemble small, overgrown farm ponds. Anglers familiar with these tight fishing environments will often enjoy a successful outing, and an experienced fly caster can receive advanced lessons in dapping for respectable bluegills and largemouth bass that frequently reach the three-pound class.

The park and its wetlands remain in good condition, despite the park’s popularity and the nearby presence of the city’s sports complex of stadiums and arenas. This gives parents another reason to take their children fishing here. Young anglers can learn to cast, catch, and release fish, plus practice the responsibilities that come along with the sport: Fun, yes! Litter, no! Protect. Preserve. Enhance. And then go to a ball game.

FDR Park The north shore of FDR Park Lake in South Philadelphia.

My day began with a mountain bike commute under a Sunday morning lid of nimbus sky. There were devotees of the Jersey shore perhaps disappointed by the lack of summer sun. I was not one of them. With the direct light off the water and tucked behind the cloud deck, I could count on a mirrored city lake in site of the stadia; a place where the bass and bluegill would be comfortable to feed in the open water between the lime green surface mats of milfoil and pondweed.

The ride "Down The Lakes . . ." was a more or less straight pedal south between lines of slumbering row houses in various states of preservation. Gentrification was sporadic, the only leafy sections being adjacent to Baptist and Catholic churches. Most striking, considering my destination, was this lack of trees en route. These working class enclaves were neither unkempt nor unattractive, they were simply sterile without tree shade, grass, or flowers. The corner shops instead provided the color: Puerto Rican bodegas advertised daily specials with spray paint graffiti; Cambodian convenience stores adorned their fronts with a space alien script rendered in bright red. Nature was represented by feral alley cats, scampering like fearless ironworkers along the narrow curbstones beside parked cars.

This beige brick and stucco monotony opened up as I neared Oregon Avenue, a major East-West thoroughfare that divides South Philadelphia's residential core from its multi-use bottom end. There trees returned and along Broad Street, almost as if to greet me, stood Walt Whitman, poet and citizen, cast in bronze, standing larger than life above leaves of manicured grass.

I passed the man of letters out standing in his field and soon found myself a fisherman standing in the water. Civilization remained apparent: a limestone Tempietto and Concourse, remnants of the Sesquicentennial of 1926, stood on the lake's north shore. The roof of the hockey arena could be seen above the tree line to the southeast, along with a steady procession of airplanes landing at the international airport to the south. All this human activity and technology surrounded the park where, in solitude, a fish jumped in front of me.

I knotted on the same size of Marabou flash Olive Woolly Bugger pattern I had used successfully at Harlem Meer. My plan was to direct more than several casts along the leading edge of the center bound surface of the lake's main weed bed. I felt as calm as the weather and let the fly sink and used patience to fish as slow as the blanket canopy of passing clouds. Bluegills rarely if ever chase a speedy escape speed retrieve. The slow start and stop tease to strike is the most reliable presentation after the fish spawn, leave sight fishing territory, and take to their collective summer home in deeper water.

Minutes later, after a few hook ups that brought strings of soggy weed to my fingers, the first fish struck. A textbook bluegill battle full of semicircular runs took place. The fish, as large as my hand -- seven inches from wrist to middle fingertip -- displayed a vivid coloration as rich as a jade stone polished by a skilled lapidarian.

Four more bluegills -- smaller, yet just as attractive -- followed over the course of the next hour. I had been lifted into a fly fishing high by the good action; a happy mood that was not disturbed by the arrival of two other anglers carrying spinning gear. They joined me in the high grass growing on the reclaimed projection into the lake, but displayed good manners by fishing on the opposite side. I noticed one of the two was using a large rubber worm rig that dwarfed my size 8 Olive Wooly Bugger. Sometimes, when I see an angler fishing with inappropriate tackle or technique, I'll gently offer some implicit advice designed to subtly enlighten the other guy. This fellow remained quiet and revealed a good casting form so I could tell he knew the basics, and maybe much more. I turned away, made another cast of my own, and snagged a frond of weed just as I heard a hearty "YO!" -- Philadelphia's regional greeting and exclamation of good cheer. I turned and saw the rod bending down as far as the cork handle of his medium-weight six-footer. The expanse of floating weed erupted like a geyser in one spot twenty feet distant, a big green fish flopped back into the lake. A minute later he landed a largemouth bass of 16 inches with the pot belly of a three pounder.

I congratulated the pair, who turned out to be neighborhood buddies. They had fished "Down The Lakes . . ." a few times a week for several years. They agreed that access to respectable bass and bluegill within a short walk from the red brick row house was the dotted I and crossed T of a most livable city. We three shook and I moved on, content to continue elsewhere as they divided the spot amongst themselves.

The bike path paved my way to another area where the bank was lined by cattails and sweetgum trees. Knee high in the water stalks I found the grand prize -- a post-spawn hole of sunny honey. There I found bluegills, lots of them, in a feeding frenzy free of nest guard duty. These fish hit near the surface where cork-bodied poppers could be added to the tippet mix. The strikes encountered were not those thrown in the nearby ballpark of the Phillies. These were splashier, the fights harder, than at the first area. The reason came to light after the first fish came to shore. The bluegills holding in the spot were all an inch or more thick and dressed in full attire: evergreen backs, nearly black fins, and bellies tinted the darkest crimson. All of the next five I landed were equally large, extending beyond my outstretched hand by a head and a tail.

Blue Gill ron P. swegman with a Harlem Meer bluegill.

Ten days later I returned to the same spot on the pond for more panfish action. After an hour of fruitless fishing in the open areas I concluded the adult bluegills were off the beds and had retreated to their secret summertime home in deeper water. There were a lot of fry to be seen in the shallows, all untended by aggressive, guardian males.

I exchanged my small wet fly for the now "old reliable" Olive Woolly Bugger with Marabou flash. My new target: water weed edges. I had noticed that splashes and wakes had begun to occur along these spots. I supposed something larger had begun to feed on the fry.

My mind had become more and more centered on ponds and the largemouth bass, which I had neglected for the small stream smallmouth for several years. My trip to Harlem Meer and another classic of American fishing literature -- Lucas On Bass Fishing -- had revitalized my interest in stillwater fly fishing. The author, Jason Lucas, was the folksy fishing editor of Sports Afield for a long spell. His book on the black bass, revised three times by the point my copy of the red hardcover 1962 edition reached print, reveals its pipe-smoking author's voice by way of witty story-telling and subjective practical opinion (that works); an approach lacking in most contemporary fishing books. Hard science and technical guides have replaced personal observation and creative fishing nonfiction.

I personally observed a tight line suddenly bending the tip of my limber 5-weight. A slender green fish attached to my fly jumped once, twice, and thrice above the water beside the weeds. A nice 10-inch largemouth came to shore. After a careful release, I decided to exclusively target a chasing wake whenever one appeared.

This strategy, made on the fly, worked until a full sun broke through the cloud deck near high noon. As Lucas has noted, lakes and ponds evolve over the course of a year, even a day, serving up different species in different areas that do not always mesh with an angler's initial wishes. Still, the fishes are there to be had if the fisher is willing to modify the target species and casting targets during an outing. In this instance, the bluegills might have gone AWOL, but the bass were on the attack, feeding on the sunfish fry and my streamer. Rather than cast off my shoulder in search of subsurface panfish, I focused on the species that was at present dominating the pond's active shoreline area. The fact that these fish were leaping largemouth bass simply added to the fun.

The next spot I began to eye was a stretch of cattail shoreline shaded by a stand of sweetgum trees. Bass and bluegill catching on the fly can keep a day going beyond schedule, sometimes until the entire circumference of a pond has been explored so well that the water's surface has floated your flyline as comprehensively as a second hand passing over a clock face. This was that kind of a timeless day . . .

There are times when we fish, fish hard, and don't catch. We think about why and later find a fault and thus consolation in our conclusion -- time of day, weather, fly pattern color or presentation. Then there are times when we catch in abundance -- times largemouth bass and bluegill often provide -- times when we don't think about the hour or the immediate strategy or act of fishing. This is one zone of mind that feels ideal: we cease to be an angler, confronting a fishing problem; we just are -- an angler, fishing without one.

Blue Gill Maryann Amici with her first fish on the fly -- a Harlem Meer bluegill.