Chasing Green Drakes and Brook Trout in the Upper Savage River
By John Neely
Maryland is home to the nation’s first state-wide Fly Fishing Trail. I’ve had experiences at many of its 48 sites. In fact last spring in late May I was hiking near a trail site along the Upper Savage River at Big Run State Park. I had been hiking for just under an hour - about two miles upstream from the road - in search of the elusive Green Drake mayfly and brook trout, Salvelinus Fontinalis, Maryland’s only native trout.
It’s been written that in the pools or riffles of a mountain stream, a ten-inch brook trout is every bit the predator that an eighty pound tarpon is in its own mangrove environment. Deposited here some 10,000 years ago after the last ice age, eastern brook trout in western Maryland have made considerable progress, numbers growing steadily, thanks to policies implemented in the last decade by the Department of Natural Resources. While not in fact a trout but rather a subspecies of the char, the brook trout is known for its brightly colored pumpkin belly, vivid blue and red spots and mottled green back.
The upper Savage River drainage and several of its smaller tributaries are considered by many to be the finest brook trout habitat in the eastern United States, south of Maine. Small streams in Garrett County such as Big Run, Monroe Run, Poplar Lick, Middle Fork of the Savage River, and the Little Savage River now support a healthy and growing population of brookies, or natives as they are called by locals. Many years ago, the state implemented a catch and release policy on these and other streams that historically have supported naturally reproducing brook trout populations. Angling can only be done with artificial lures - including artificial flies - and possession of any bait is prohibited.
But it’s the Green Drake mayfly and brook trout that I’m after. It’s this hatch that causes fly fishermen throughout the mid-Atlantic to get that glazed expression in their eyes, dreaming of trout drawn to the surface to inhale large insects. About the size of your thumbnail, Green Drakes typically hatch on warm late May and early June afternoons. If you have never been to the mountains of western Maryland at that time, it’s then that nature explodes in renewal. Green Drakes take a long time to shake free of their shucks and get off the water, and the trout can be very selective.
Making it even more difficult is that the upper Savage and its tributaries are located in old growth hemlock forests, with overhanging limbs and brushy undergrowth. A decent cast can be challenging, and I like a seven-foot, three or four weight fly rod. Just remember to watch your backcast.
This is not the time to fish standard eastern mayfly imitations. In addition to the Green Drake fly, patterns such as the Royal Wulff, Royal Coachman, various trudes and parachute Adams can draw violent strikes from these opportunistic trout.
Brook trout are truly the “canaries in the coal mine” for the Savage River drainage and other western Maryland streams; they not only survive, but flourish in cool and clean waters. Other states such as Pennsylvania and Vermont have adopted similar management policies, and have seen dramatic fish population growth. Hopefully this small but fine trout will continue to expand its territory into its once historic range in Maryland’s home waters.
Get Ready for Your Next Fly Fishing Trip
In need of additional information on where and how to fly fish? Check out Maryland’s Fly Fishing Trail. The first state-wide trail in the nation highlights 48 sites spanning from the shorelines of the Chesapeake to the mountain streams in Western Maryland.
Before you head out, be sure to acquire your license and check out the latest regulations from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
And if you’re up for turning your fly fishing trip into a quick getaway, check out Visit Maryland for places to stay, dine and things to do.
Information about the author: John Neely is past Chairperson of the Maryland Sport Fisheries Advisory Commission, a long time board member of the Chesapeake Conservancy, and a life member of Trout Unlimited and Coastal Conservation Association.