15 WITHIN 15: Fishing the Wissahickon

The Wissahickon Creek as seen before the start of a fishing session on April 19, 2020. [Photo: Kyle Bagenstose]

By Kyle Bagenstose

15 minutes.

That’s the driving distance limit being championed by an increasing number of groups, including the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, for outdoor recreation under the novel coronavirus.

The idea is to stay near home and limit the spread of the disease by decreasing community-to-community infection. But it’s a tough pill to swallow: those not blessed to be immediately adjacent to their favorite recreational spots might not have much recreational opportunity within a quarter of an hour. I know it’s put my plans on hold: a guys’ trip to the Poconos in early May is off, planned visits to new state parks in northwest and southwest Pennsylvania delayed, and a goal to visit Acadia National Park by the end of the year is up in the air.

Nevermind my usual trips from Philly to campgrounds like French Creek and trail networks like Hawk Mountain.

But, I’ve decided to give it a go. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to do 15 outdoor activities within 15 minutes (maybe a few extra depending on the red lights!) to see how it feels. I’m trying to approach this with what some call “beginner’s mind.” Looking carefully for nature and taking it slow in places I may have only sped through before. But I also plan to turn it up a notch from time to time: Can I get my vigorous exercise and strenuous accomplishment kicks within 15 minutes of home?

We’ll see.

Activity 2: Fishing the Wissahickon in northwest Philly

When I was an undergrad at Temple from approximately ’06 to ’10, I don’t recall if I ever even stepped foot in the Wissahickon. These were some of the years of my life when I got away from outdoor activities, focusing on academics and social life instead.

I’d love to see the steepening curve of my visits ever since then. After some bouncing around post graduation, I landed in a Roxborough row home with a few friends for several years of my early 20s. It was there my love for the outdoors began to rekindle. We were just a short walk away from the Manayunk Canal and edge of the Schuylkill, and a short drive from all the trails along the Wissahickon Valley. I retrieved an old fishing pole from my parents’ house and started pulling up sunnies, bass, and even the occasional sucker or catfish from the waterways.

I also loved driving the “backroads” through the western edge of Roxborough, taking Umbria Street to Shawmont to Hagys Mill to Spring Lane. This section is heavily wooded and hilly, with a field or two along the way. Driving through reminded me of the green hills back home in Berks County, if only for five minutes or so. Then, the route ended in the Wissahickon’s Bells Mill section, where I quickly learned I could hit the trails and feel like I was many miles away from any urban center. Since these discoveries, the Wissahickon and this section of the city have been my main destination when I need a healthy dose of the outdoors without leaving town.

In case you can’t tell, I love the Wissahickon.

So naturally, it was high on my list to visit for a “15 within 15.” Last Sunday, I set a destination for a trailhead in a neighborhood on the north side of the park, which shall remain unidentified here since it hasn’t been too crowded. I brought a standard spinning rod, along with my fly ride, intent on trying to catch whatever trout may remain after the initial angling push likely cleared out many following a surprise opening of trout season earlier this month.

Long story short, I came up empty in my hour and a half of time there. But I loved every minute of it. It was just a short walk down from the car to the creek, offering easy access but still putting enough distance between myself and the nearest roadway to feel surrounded. It was a cool but beautiful morning, with blue skies and bright sunshine.

The creek ran super clear at the spot where I was standing, enabling me to see straight through to the bottom and admire the different shades and shine of the rocks and pebbles on the bed. I noticed one shaped like a turtle just a few feet away. Then it moved just slightly and I realized it was a turtle. It could see me just as easily as I could see it.

I moved about in my waders, casting both lines into tiny nooks behind rocks, surrounded by the shining, bubbly rush of mini-rapids. Spots where I thought a trout could be, trying to catch bits of food rushing past. But there were either none, or none that liked what I was offering, and no bites came.

Toward the end, right in a moment where I felt some frustration sneaking up, I was treated to a surprise. A belted kingfisher came into picture downstream, moving toward me, then past me, at impressive speed about eight feet off the water. I watched it until it disappeared up around a bend, I believe my first sighting of one at the park. Adding it to a list of ducks, geese, and smaller birds I saw that day, the creek felt alive with life.

On my way back up to the car, I stopped to notice all of the different buds still springing up into life. With the foliage in the trees also beginning to leaf out, it was reassuring to think of the natural world still pressing on with its natural rhythms, waiting for us to come back and explore once we too can return to normal.

Other 15 within 15’s:

A walk around my Philly neighborhood

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