A Morning Chat with Joe Humphreys

By: Levi Opsatnic


It was a snowy morning, the air was cold and the overnight flakes were quickly morphing into thin shards of occasional flurries. I was driving along Boalsburg Road in Lemont on my way to Joe Humphreys’ house. By now, I’m sure most of us have heard that there’s a film in the works detailing the life of longtime fly fisher and State College local, Joe Humphreys. With that, I wanted to ask Joe a few questions about the film and his lifetime of fly fishing. Whenever I arrived, I noticed that his walkway was free of the morning’s snow and when I got inside, I heard Joe on the phone. With a tone of determination, Joe was talking about how he needed to clear up and work on a tributary of Spring Creek and how he was going to get in there with a chainsaw himself if he had to. Pair a freshly shoveled driveway with a statement like this, and you’re sure to have a hard time believing that Joe is a cool 87 years old. As strong as an ox, I’m not sure if there’s anything that Joe isn’t up for, and this interview was high on his list of things to tackle. We discussed everything from antique pottery to how he met Appalachian Outdoors’ owner, Geoff Brugler, at a wrestling practice years ago, and in between that time, we were able to discuss the following questions. So brew a cup of coffee and kick back and read everything that Joe has to say; even if you’ve never seen a fly rod in your life, this one is sure to put a smile on your face.

1. What’s one thing that you want your viewers to take away from Live the Stream?

Conservation. We have the most beautiful streams in the country, and I’ve had the joy through my life to be on them and to fish them and they have been such an important part of my life, and the preservation thereof, I think, is so important. And as people see the teaser and the overhead shot of Spring Creek and all the different shots of the water itself, and the beauty thereof and, to me, without it, what do we have? And without it, what would I have been? It’s absolutely shaped my life, and like I say, I think I’ve felt the water running through my veins at times. I was so mesmerized and taken by it. I think God has given this to us, and it’s such a wonderful gift that we have to preserve it.

2. How do you think that Live the Stream will differ from your previous films?

I think from what I’ve seen so far, I think that they’re telling a story about my life and the events and ambiance of the whole scene of the streams and how it’s shaped my life but also how it’s probably shaped many lives. I hope that they tell a nice story and a story that isn’t hokey. From what I’ve seen so far and from what we’ve shot and how they’ve gone after it, I think that they do want to tell a story and it should be an emotional thing, too. But I think that when they’re filming and what they want out of this, also, is the beauty of the earth, and that’s what I’m looking for as well. So far, in the teaser, I’ve seen some pretty things and some really nice things.

3. What is it about Pennsylvania that’s kept you here for so long?

From my childhood, from the first fish I caught at age six, I’ve been mesmerized—I’m drugged, I’m hooked on the most powerful incentive in the world. The beauty of a trout, it’s God’s gift, oh my gosh, and each trout has its own rare beauty, from the brook trout, to the rainbow, and the brown trout. And then, like I say, these streams have been my classroom. I’ve learned from childhood so many little things. I’ve learned pecking orders and how fish lined up—big ones there and little ones here—and all because the little ones didn’t want to end up inside of the big ones. I learned that if you learned what trout ate and if you went into a stream and found what’s there and then you could imitate it and could present your imitation in some manner and catch a trout doing this with something that you’ve made yourself. The (fly fishing) game has been so comprehensive because, to learn the insects and the entomology of a stream, that’s fascinating and a whole, complete study; and then when you think of the casting and your approach, that’s a whole different world. From your approach to the waters you’re fishing and how, if it’s (the stream) tight, you’re shooting a bow and arrow, maybe, or you’ve restricted the stroke to an imperceptive cast, and, then, your leader construction and how you’ve developed your leader for what you’re doing, your adjustment for a slack leader cast for a dry fly or your adjustment for gaining depth in waters that are fast and heavy and how you adjust the weight according, and you learn to tie movement within the flies, it’s so comprehensive, it goes on and on and on. And then the other aspect of this game is, look up, look at the beauty around you, what does God give us? It’s just a treasure. Look at the flowers, what are they? Are they marigolds? They’re mixing with other flowers, maybe even wild iris, and oh my god, the beauty.

4. What’s your favorite Pennsylvanian (insect) hatch?

Well, you know, everybody loves the Green Drake, but overall, the Sulfur hatch. The Sulfur’s been on Spring Creek, it’s on 98% of the waters that contain trout, and so, it’s something that I’ve enjoyed fishing and imitating for a lifetime.

5. What’s your favorite Pennsylvanian stream?

Spring Crick. It’s been my life.

6. How does it feel to see the progression of fly fishing?

With the progression, it’s good, as long as we’re stewards of the game. I see that progression, when I was a kid, the mark of a top gun was if you killed your limit. If you could pull ten trout, or fifteen, or whatever the limit was at the time, you were the big gun. George Harvey and some of the other fisherman of that time, they could go on a stream and get their limit every time, they were top guns. But we’ve progressed, we’ve learned catch and release, our fish commission has been so progressive and has done such a wonderful job that now we have streams with no kill (regulations). When this happens, it gives everybody a chance to catch fish and enjoy it. I’ve seen mountain streams where bait fisherman have invaded them over the years and they’ve caught everything that they can catch and killed everything that they could catch, and streams that were beautiful, blue ribbon streams, have become not-very-exciting streams. Anyhow, the good aspect is we have far more fisherman now than we’ve ever had; it’s given so many people so much joy. The one thing I’m concerned with now is that we need to bring children into this game, we’ve gotta have more youth programs and incentives for these kids; who else is going to preserve these streams? I’ve worked with a lot of youth. The Arnelle Initiative, Wayne Harpster and all of the kids from Trout Unlimited who fish his waters. When I think of my childhood and how exciting it was for me, and to try to capture a trout and to try to get him to come take a fly, whoa, that was big; it hasn’t changed, kids still have the same drive and excitement and feelings that I had, and that hasn’t changed, it’s just that we need to get them involved.


7. What’s one of your most memorable times with George Harvey?

George Harvey was way above and beyond his time, and he was my mentor. But one of the things that people don’t realize, when I was younger and fishing with George, back in those days, it was a whole different outlook, the top guns didn’t share. “What I know, I learned myself, I’m a top gun, I can catch a limit, I know how to take fish on a streamer, on a fly, on whatever, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to show anybody how I’m doing it because I don’t want that competition and I don’t want anybody to ever upstage me” and that was the mentality. So, I didn’t learn from George very much, until later on when he wanted to bring me into Penn State and we were fishing together more often then, that I learned some things. But, I taught him some things, too—we shared. I was a trout-bitten kid and I learned a heck of a lot in my lifetime. A couple bow and arrow casts that I taught George. George taught me how to gather the cast in my hand, but I taught him the loop and the bow and arrow roll cast, well, I didn’t teach him, he just watched me. I’ll never forget, I was down on my knee, and I didn’t know he was behind, he stepped up behind me and he was standing there and I made this bow and arrow roll cast up in this pool, and he said “never saw that” and I thought “holy hell” I turned around and there he was standing there, and my head got so big ‘cause he never gave me any credit for anything. One of my favorite stories with George, and this is on more of a moral basis, but George said to me “now, you go and fish the top of this stream and you come down to this bridge and you wait for me.” He was in his sixties then. And he said “I can’t fish as fast, so it’s gonna take me longer, but you just wait at the bridge.” Pretty soon, he comes around the bridge and fishes up to me and he’s standing in the water and looks up at me and says “boy those trout sure were easy today, weren’t they?” and I said “well, George, I guess they were for you but they weren’t for me, I didn’t get one legal fish.” And he looked at me square in the eyes and he said, “neither did I.” Now all I had to do is lie, all I had to do was say “oh wonderful, I bet I caught twenty trout eight inches or better or some BS” and that would have done it with George. My father always said honesty is the best way; even if it hurts, be honest. And I’m saying “no, I couldn’t catch ‘em,” and he said, “neither could I.” Then one time, this is how relative to how sharp he was in this game, we were fishing another mountain stream, and he didn’t say anything. I’m rigging up my rod, I wasn’t watching him, I should have been observant but I wasn’t. So we’re fishing this patch of water and he’s taking five fish to every one I catch. I’m saying, “I don’t like this, this is embarrassing, and I’m not into this.” So finally, I said to George “what are you using?” he says “I’m using the same thing you are” I told him “no you aren’t” and he waded over to me and he pulled his fly out and it was a humpy, a tailless humpy like I was using. And I’m thinking “what the hell?” So, we continue to fish, and he continues to beat me. We go back to the car and I say “I don’t understand what happened today, you were a lot better on the stream than me.” And he said “when I saw you rig up, you were using a seven foot rod, I was using an eight foot rod. I looked at this stream and I looked at this water, and this water gave me a lot more casting freedom, so with the longer rod, I could lift more line over more currents and my flies had more time in the productive waters than yours did. You couldn’t lift over as many currents and your flies were scooting out of there long before they should have.” He said, “you didn’t have very good line control; my flies had time in the productive areas, drag-free, longer than yours and that’s why I outfished you—the rod length.” And then one time we were down on Spruce Crick and he saw this fish coming up steady and he said “okay, Hump, let me see you take that fish.” So, I kinda position around him and I make this cast and the trout comes up and stops and backs off; he does that about three times. So, George doesn’t say anything, he just steps up to where I am, he makes one cast and the trout comes up and sucks it in. And I’m really upset, so I said ‘the fly again?” he said it wasn’t the fly and we compared flies—he was using an ant, a deer ant and I was using a deer hair ant, we were both fishing the same thing—and he said “first, your leader isn’t right, you don’t have your leader built right. And secondly, you’re not making a slack leader cast, you’re straightening your cast out and that fly is going over that fish at an unnatural speed and your fly has to be at the same speed as the floatum and the bubbles on the water.” And he was right. So, there was another lesson.

8. What’s the plan after Live the Stream? Are we going to get another book out of you?

No, probably not. At my age, I’m just happy to be able to enjoy the streams. I want to be able to hunt some more and enjoy the streams. I may write; I don’t feel that what I have to say hasn’t already been said, and here again, probably by the Macedonians.


Click here to watch the teaser for Live the Stream: The Story of Joe Humphreys.

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