If you look up while walking to the edge of the Upper Gunpowder River, you might see a sign warning fishers that they can't use bait. No night crawlers, no cans of worms and absolutely none of that glittery power bait.
The fish in these waters can be legally snagged only if they're tricked into thinking that the balled up feather and wool at the end of a hook -- also known as a fly -- would make a good meal.
Fortunately for anglers, fish are hungry this time of year. With this in mind, we took a day to hunt for trout with Theaux Le Gardeur, owner of Backwater Anglers, a fly-fishing shop in Monkton, close to the river. Le Gardeur, 33, moved here from Western North Carolina specifically to be near the Gunpowder. And he fishes it almost every day.
The river is fed by water from the Prettyboy Reservoir. Gunpowder Falls State Park surrounds this part of the river. This means forests, marshes and grasslands protect the water from pollution and runoff.
The state stocks the river with brown, rainbow and brook trout -- but there are also wild trout in the water. Anglers from Washington, Philadelphia and New Jersey trek to the Gunpowder to try their luck with these fish.
Our first stop is the Falls Road access point -- close to where Falls Road crosses the river. After a five- or six-minute walk on a narrow path though the woods, the Gunpowder becomes audible. The river is narrow here, and it winds as it flows over rough boulders. Picking over the rocks on the bank is a challenge, and the damp leaves make it even more treacherous this time of year. But the spot is pristine, and despite a heavy rainfall the previous night, the water is clear.
Le Gardeur opens a plastic case packed with neat lines of flies. "Trout eat these like popcorn or M&M's," he says and ties one to the end of his line. Fishing on this part of the Gunpowder is "catch and release," meaning the fish can not be taken home. Le Gardeur squeezes down the barb on his fishhook so it will cause less damage to a fish if one strikes.
Before Le Gardeur makes a cast, he watches the surface of the water, searching for telltale ripples revealing where a fish is gobbling surface bugs. He also looks for areas where fast water shoots through slower eddies. "The fast water is like a grocery conveyer belt," he says. "The fish stay in the slow water and watch the food float by."
Le Gardeur has a few strikes, but doesn't catch anything. He moves up the river a few feet, keeps trying, but the fish are not interested. "My thought is if the fish doesn't take the fly, just try for another fish," he says. We head to another part of the river.
The stretch of river by the Masemore put-in, a few miles downriver, could not look more different. The road goes right up to the river. The banks are low. The river here is wider and shallow. It has a gravely bottom, ideal for wading.
Standing in the middle of a cool, flowing river with a canopy of leaves above will make the city, the traffic and the daily world feel a lifetime away.
"People do this because it is pretty; that is the real reason to be out in the fall," Le Gardeur says.
This is a popular spot, and there are a few other people fishing -- even in the middle of a workday.
But, still, nothing bites, so we try farther downriver.
Again the environment changes. Steep, mucky riverbanks border the river. The riverbed is sandy, but underwater logs and holes are hazardous. It is easy to get the fishhook caught in the low branches overhead when casting.
After a short walk along the river, Le Gardeur hands me his rod and points to a patch of water near a tree trunk on the opposite bank. He saw a fish rise. I cast upstream, like he says, and let the current carry the fly just past the fish. On the third try, the fish bites -- a 12-inch wild brown trout.
"If you want to catch that fish again, don't say exactly where you got it," said Le Gardeur. "You'll come back and have 30 people fishing that hole."
So, let's just say it was somewhere on the Upper Gunpowder.
The Hereford section of Gunpowder Falls State Park (where the Upper Gunpowder Falls River flows) is about 20 minutes north of Baltimore. Take Interstate 83 north to exit 27. Information about the park: 410-592-2897 or www. dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/ central/gunpowder.html.