The sun has yet to make its ascent over the Appalachian horizon as I slide into my waders and string up for the day. “Morse” by Nightmares on Wax blasts through Buffy’s speakers (my Explorer) as my black coffee cools on the truck bed and smoke from the nearby paper mill clogs the valley sky line in a thick, white veil of economic necessity. For a wild trout fishery, the smell is off putting. But I guess anything that desecrates such wilderness can’t smell good (similar to the goo monster from Fern Gully). Despite this, the Savage River flows on.
It is a new morning on a new river. A light mist rises off the cold, black water in the early morning light. In a few hours it will be running clear and my mere shadow will spook anything resembling a trout, but for now its depths contain nothing but potential. For lack of a better word, the setting couldn’t be more….savage. Hell, I feel like I’m part of a Blitzen Trapper jam. But as I make the final preparation to my hopper set up and look out onto the stream, it hits me. You are so lucky to be here. Welcome to the land of Savages.
At the recommendation of Beaver Creek Fly Shop owner James Harris – I drove up to the Savage to explore this river system for myself. I spent an afternoon and the full following day on the water chasing these wild trout. Located 40 minutes to the south of “The Queen City” (Cumberland, MD) near the towns of Piedmont and Keyser, WV (about 3hrs from the District of Columbia) – the Lower Savage River is a tail water that stretches through Western Maryland’s Savage River State Forest before meeting up with another top 100 TU fishery, the North Branch of the Potomac.
The Savage is divided into two sections (the Upper and Lower with the Upper Savage being more of a brook trout fishery), the Lower being where most fish since it contains a mixed bag of wild trout and a strong population of browns, brookies, and a few holdover rainbows who migrate up from the North Branch. One of Trout Unlimited’s top 100 US trout streams, there are no dumb stocker fish here. Trout are educated and finicky. Technical fishing is a must.
The Lower Savage plays host to a myriad of trout water loaded with riffles and pocket water, as well as some deeper pools below some small falls. When fishing this water, it’s important to work your way out from the bank out as fish tend to hold in the places you wouldn’t expect them to. Think of fishing 3-dimensionally instead of 2-dimensionally as fish can be holed up under rocks or cuts in the bank. They won’t be happily munching in the middle of pools and runs like most stockers. Also, leader and tippet definitely come into play here. Anything over 6x and you’re asking to be skunked – hard. Also, natural flies are a must. Watch your flash. No bead heads. No indicators. No leader (I directly tied on 4lb fluorocarbon with a loop knot at the end to attach a foot or so of 7x tippet for my flies with another loop knot). SO MANY RULES! But if you can adapt and make the necessary adjustments – you know, letting yourself try something new and actually embracing it – you might even catch some fish.
For me, the Savage was a learning experience. Beautiful water that was easy to (mis)read and trout that are as wild and educated as any found on the East Coast. I definitely took my lumps. But you know what? I wasn’t skunked. I managed to adapt my technique and slow down. I fished the shoreline on out and looked for places where a smart trout would be. I offered up my best presentations. In a day and a half on the water, I fooled three browns, one decent rainbow (13”), and a small brook trout. The browns were split between a hopper fished along the bank, my technical nymph set up, and the bow and final brown fell for the dropper. It was tough fishing. There were definitely stretches where getting a bite seemed impossible. Then on the third drift by the exact same rock, a trout would rise from the depths and destroy a dry. This is a river for those who want to have their trout fishing skills and faith pushed to the brink – a place where the last cast can be the only cast that even mattered that day.
While highly touted by most publications as Maryland’s “crown jewel” trout water, the Savage is by no means a fit for all anglers. Technical fishing, tough wading (slick, uneven rocks, strong current), and fussy, wild fish being the main slights— but for anglers looking for the challenge of chasing truly WILD TROUT and perfecting their technical game– this is the place for you. Also, Niner’s Canal Pub on S. Mechanic Street in Cumberland has an incredible selection of craft brews from $4 on down to help you lick your wounds after a long day on the water.