The Gentleman Angler
Mar 31, 2020 10:34AM
By Kevin McJunkin
“I have fished all over this country and around the world, but my favorite and best fishing experiences have been here in Pennsylvania.” ~ Bob Rinn
If you take a map of Pennsylvania and draw a one-hour-drive radius circle around Williamsport, you will see one of the unheralded centers of American fly-fishing culture. This northcentral region—bordered by Wellsboro and the upper Pine Creek watershed to the north, Spring Creek to the west, Penns Creek to the south, and Columbia County’s Fishing Creek to the east—encompasses a great diversity of mountain freestone and valley limestone creek fisheries. Noteworthy waterways include Lycoming, Loyalsock, and Muncy creeks, and many of their tributaries are fine trout streams in their own right, including Slate and Cedar runs (Pine), Pleasant Stream and Rock Run (Lycoming), and Mill and Hoagland runs (Loyalsock). Though this area lacks a catchy name, like Catskills or Adirondacks, our “creeks” are as large and productive as their “rivers.”
Our region has also spawned many renowned anglers, including Al Troth (inventor of the elk hair caddis fly), Ernest Hille, Bill O’Connor, Horace Hand (artist), Don Daughenbaugh (fishing guide to the presidents), John Alden Knight, and George Harvey. Charlie Fox and Sparse Grey Hackle often visited and wrote about our streams. My longtime friend, Bob Rinn, of Muncy, knew and fished with many of these legendary anglers. He was my connection to the storied angling heritage of our area.
Robert Marks “Bob” Rinn was born on June 22, 1924, in Jersey Shore. His father worked for the New York Central Railroad. Bob grew up fishing Pine Creek and its tributaries with his dad and brother Fred. His father had a 1919 Maxwell “machine” which they used for transportation in the mountains during his early years. Bob would pass his rod through the side curtain while the car was parked on a bridge or alongside a pool. Traffic did not exist. After serving in the U.S. Army and Army Air Force in World War II, and graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, he worked as a mechanical engineer for SKF in Philadelphia and then Sprout-Waldron in Muncy. He was also a good salesman, so he travelled extensively for his job and had opportunities to fish throughout the country and around the world. I first met Bob at a meeting of the Susquehanna Chapter of Trout Unlimited, and soon discovered that we had a common interest not only in fly-fishing but also old fishing tackle and angling history.
Bill O’Connor, former owner of the E. Hille Anglers fly shop in Williamsport, remembers night fishing with Bob on Loyalsock Creek in Sullivan County, just below Girl Scout Camp Lycogis. They worked up and down the long Cold Watch pool with their big wet flies and caught many large trout, as had their predecessors including Charles Lose, author of The Vanishing Trout, published in 1931. “Fifty or sixty years ago the angler on our mountain trout streams was diverted at times by the sight of a flock of wild passenger pigeons feeding in the woods along the stream,” Lose wrote. Around two in the morning Bob wanted to rest so they laid back in a field, looking up at the stars. “You realize how dark it gets up here,” he said, and then he launched into one story after another. “He was a great storyteller and could go on for hours,” says Bill.
A simple trip to the nearby cliff pool on Muncy Creek at Picture Rocks, a favorite spot in Bob’s later years, was treated as a special celebration. Bob always carried compact folding stools in the back of his “fish mobile.” He’d brought them back from France after WW II, and they were great for putting on and taking off waders. “Hey Manhattan, fetch the sit-upons!” he would call out to his grandson, Andy, who was visiting from New York City. I remember sitting on those stools during a break from fishing, sipping 7-Up and munching on homemade raisin-filled cookies, listening to Bob tell stories about members of the fly fishing community who had passed on to “the great stream in the sky.” Here are a few.
Ernie Hille, who founded E. Hille Anglers in the late 1920s, an important source for fly tying feathers, hooks, and many specialized items not found in tackle outlets, was a gruff person who didn’t suffer fools lightly. Bob was in the shop one time when a sport came in and said, “I need to buy a fishing pole.” Ernie snorted, and responded in his most authoritarian German accent: “SIR, we do not have fishing POLES. We sell fishing ROOODS!” Bob almost rolled on the floor laughing.
Bob recalled fishing the Game Farm pool on Loyalsock Creek with Bill O’Connor and John Alden Knight, noted fishing book author and contributor to Sports Afield and Outdoor Life magazines. Knight expected good fishing, in accordance with his special Solunar Tables that predict daily fish activity based upon the lunar day of twenty-four hours and fifty-six minutes. However, there was no hatch and the ‘Sock was dead as a doornail. Bob questioned him: Are you sure the poor fishing wasn’t because it was too bright, or the creek was too high? Could it have been the water temperature, barometric pressure, or many of the other factors (and excuses) that figure into fishing success? Bill, whose father-in-law Ernie Hille was involved in the development and marketing of the Solunar Tables, kept his mouth shut. Bob continued to rib Knight. “Do the Solunar Tables really work? What are they good for?” Knight finally had enough and retorted, “Well, during the Depression they were good for $30,000 per year!”
Bob and a companion once arranged to meet Sparse Grey Hackle (Alfred Miller), legendary fishing writer (author of Fishless Days, Angling Nights and a prolific sporting columnist for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Sports Illustrated), at a tavern near the Beaverkill River in the Catskills. Sparse was going to take them fishing, but he said it would be a while before the evening hatch starts, so why don’t we have a round of drinks? Bob obliged him. One round led to another, and dinner and cocktails were ordered. It soon became apparent to Bob that Sparse had little interest in going fishing, but just wanted to take advantage of the free food and booze—and good conversation, no doubt.
Bob liked to carry a frying pan, coffeepot, and provisions several miles up into his favorite stream, Raven Run (his pseudonym—“To divulge its true identity would risk destroying it”), build a small cooking fire at the High Falls, and make coffee and buckwheat pancakes. He was not a “rip the lips” kind of fisherman. He said, “Trout fishing and other outdoor sports should remain essentially primitive—one of their values is in the contrast with high speed modern living.” His angling was orderly, contemplative, and civilized.
Bob took meticulous care of his gear. He would splice braided silk fly lines of various diameters together to create his own special tapers to bring out the best in his vintage split bamboo fly rods. He made his own fly line dressing that floated his lines better than commercially available dressings. He stored the lines in winter on handmade large diameter spools so they wouldn’t develop kinks. He made canvas sleeves for his rod tubes so they wouldn’t bang around in the back of his fishing car and get dented. He designed his own lightweight tackle packs, ahead of their time. He tied his own flies, of course. Bob was a self-reliant man, as were many of his generation.
Bob introduced me to the pleasures of fishing with good vintage split cane bamboo fly rods, rods that have grace and feel seldom found in their stiff, modern graphite counterparts. His favorite was an eight foot, two piece rod that he built up from a blank obtained from Paul Young, the renowned Michigan rod maker. It was light and strong with handsome flamed cane, still arrow straight after many years of use. I acquired my first bamboo fly rod, a beautifully wrapped circa 1940 Kingfisher, at an estate auction near Benton. I showed the rod to Bob. He looked it over carefully and joined the sections by their metal ferrules, gave it a waggle and pronounced it ready to fish, other than needing a minor repair. One of the two tip sections had delaminated near the tip-top guide, so I took it to E. Hille Anglers and their rod maker, Hal James, glued the bamboo strips back together, wrapped the damaged part with silk thread, and varnished it so it was good as new. Casting it was a revelation.
Joe Radley, who, like Bob, is an avid fly fishing historian and collector of books, told me about an unexpected find while helping Bob catalog his extensive collection of angling memorabilia. While fishing the Schoharie Creek in the Catskills, Bob went over to talk with another angler (Bob would seek out anyone on the stream) who turned out to be Art Flick, author of the classic book, Art Flick’s Streamside Guide to Naturals and Their Imitations. Bob had the book and had tied many of Art’s fly patterns. Bob told Art that he really liked his Hendrickson dressing but was not able to find any pink fur from a vixen red fox (the color comes from urine burns), an essential component. A week later, a letter arrived from Mr. Flick with a patch of urine stained vixen fox fur attached.
Bob decided to let go of one of his favorite split bamboo rods, a 7 ½’ three piece, two tip Wright & McGill Granger Special built in the late 1940s, after he was too infirm to hike into Raven Run, where he liked to use it. Bob had fished it hard and caught a lot of fish on it, wearing out the guides. He had neatly rewrapped it with silk thread, although the wrap color wasn’t a perfect cosmetic match with the original. He had also reset both tip-top guides, so the rod was down about an inch in length, although it had no discernible effect on casting. The cork grip was ridged and soiled. Being an engineer, he plated the nickel silver ferrules with copper when they wore down and became loose. They fit together as snugly and smoothly as any bamboo rod I have ever used, disjointing with a solid “pop.” Although to the purist collector the rod had been devalued by hard use and the functional repairs, the rod’s “mojo” far outweighed any loss in monetary value.
So, I gladly purchased Bob’s rod when he offered it to me at a fair price. I christened it on Raven Run at the pool Bob named Twin Hemlocks for a matched pair of hemlocks that shade it. The creek runs into the side of the mountain here and makes a sharp right turn. There is a ledge rock at the bend that shelters many nice trout. On the very first cast, I dropped an inchworm imitation into the run. A thick, brightly colored seventeen-inch brown trout swam out from under the ledge, grabbed my fly, and turned back. I set the hook, and a strong fight ensued. I worried that the slender tipped rod would not hold him as the trout seesawed back and forth in the pool, first trying for the undercut on one side and a brush pile on the other, but the rod had plenty of power in the butt and I was able to turn and quickly tire out the fish, releasing it unharmed. It was the most beautiful trout I have ever caught. What a pleasure it was to tell Bob about catching the fish on his rod, and to show him the photo! Bob smiled, and said, “Well, even a blind squirrel finds his nut! I told you that rod was lucky!”
Bob was a charter member of the Susquehanna Chapter Trout Unlimited and developed the Susquehanna Ripples newsletter for the members. Inspiration for the newsletter came from Pools and Ripples, a delightful assemblage of fishing essays by Bliss Perry, reprinted in 1936, according to Bob Baker, the current newsletter editor. Bob appreciated Perry’s idea about long life: “If the rod and reel are working well, and the fly book is wisely filled, and the sky a bit overcast, and there is just enough ripple on the water, your life extension institute is already functioning!” Below is an excerpt Bob wrote—it’s from the first Susquehanna Ripples, Vol. 1, Number 1, April, 1974:
“Opening Day – Finally!
Most trout fishers will be streamside on April 13th. This is the time we look back over the seasons … Let us hope that we never forget the tradition and lore that forms such an important aspect of our sport.
There is an accepted fiction that fishermen go fishing to catch fish. Some do, of course, but most don’t. The lesser catch is the fish. The real reward of a day in the open is the little things that feed the eyes, the ears, and the soul. It’s the startled deer around the bend of the stream. It’s the Trillium, the rich green moss and Cinnamon Fern. It’s the drumming of a grouse or a turkey’s cautious call.
It’s fishing, yes. A dry fly bouncing along a riffle or the easy sweep of a cast of wet flies into the mysterious depths of a trout pool. It’s friends, old and new, around a campfire or in the dimming light after the last cast of the evening. Memories will be made, on April 13th. May they all be good ones.”
Fishing was a spiritual experience for Bob. He used to say that he saw no conflict in being on the stream on Sunday mornings instead of sitting on a church pew, plus it was much less crowded! When asked why he wasn’t at church by his minister and friend Rev. Bruce Smay, Bob would say he was having “streamside services.”
Bob wrote a “Tall and True” column, a mix of tall tales and true stories, for the Muncy Luminary in the mid 1980s. His legendary character “Old Jed” once caught a trout so big that its photograph weighed five pounds. Old Jed and Bob used to ice fish when it was “cold enough to freeze your shadow to the ice.” As a youth, Bob watched for Gollywobblins on fishing trips up Pine Creek with his Dad and brother, Fred. “Gollywobblins are birds resembling gigantic Great Blue Herons with wings spanning a distance of seventeen feet. Dad startled one which was resting atop a woodcutter’s cabin. It became so frightened that it neglected to release the roof as it flew away. I saw the evidence—the roof was discovered in the woods 200 yards distant. The next time you watch a Great Blue Heron flying overhead, it might be a Gollywobblin flying at 3,000 feet altitude.” Bob always had a twinkle in his eye. His daughter, Melanie, didn’t like to get up early for school because she was such a night owl. Bob knew that she really wanted a horse, so he would call out to her “There’s a horse in the front yard! Come down to see it quick!” Of course, the “horse” was always gone by the time she got up. Melanie plans to publish a book of his wonderful stories.
I would be remiss to characterize Bob as solely an angler, although that was how I knew him. He was also a hunter and outdoorsman who enjoyed all of the seasons. As he wrote in one of his Tall and True columns, “Those persons who limit woodland experience to only one type of endeavor miss the joy of broader horizons.”
Many times Bob told me that he was lucky to have lived in the time that he did. He wrote “There was a time, starting in the late 1920’s, when automobiles became more reliable for travel to trout waters, and the trout were plentiful.” I remember a trip we took up Loyalsock Creek. He drove along the old back roads to the valley mouth, eschewing the faster but soulless interstate highway that was completed in 1969. We were not in a hurry. As we rode up the valley and passed by favorite fishing holes he fondly recalled his friendships with previous owners who would allow him to fish on their land, and talked of the great fish he had caught from each stretch. Now, much of the land is posted. Bob said that he had many good memories of that time that will forever be beyond the comprehension of trout fishermen in the future—this is the crux of the problem. As he often said, “we never miss what we have never known” and “there will never be another yesterday.”
Bob sometimes seemed discouraged by the degradation of many of his favorite trout streams from problems such as erosion and siltation, channelization and floodplain development, and invasive species like knotweed. He had first hand knowledge of the environmental problems caused by poorly regulated coal mining, and spoke out at public meetings about his concerns with fracking and natural gas development. I tried to buck him up by citing some examples of restoration, including Babb Creek, an acid mine drainage impacted stream in Tioga County brought back from the dead under the leadership of his contemporary, Bob McCullough, now supporting trout and downstream mayfly hatches in Pine Creek.
Bob worked tirelessly to preserve and improve Pennsylvania’s woodlands and waterways through Trout Unlimited and as a founding member of the Muncy Creek Watershed Association. Bob was an effective advocate, and was on a first name basis with many local and state elected officials. When they helped secure funding for stream improvement projects, he made sure they got credit. Lycoming County representatives have a strong conservation record in part because of the positive encouragement and support of environmental champions like Bob Rinn and Bob McCullough. Walt Nicholson, past president of the Susquehanna Chapter of Trout Unlimited, appreciated Bob as a great “motivator.”
Bob was actively involved in Earth Day celebrations and often gave conservation talks to civic organizations and school groups. His presentations would often start out with the ancient Roman adage: “First you must breath. Then you must drink. Then you must eat. Before all other things.” He believed the most important problems in the U.S. and the world are pollution of our air, land, and water. He would cite local examples of environmental problems and how some of them were corrected, and others remain unresolved. He gave advice about how to influence matters of the environment. “Polite letters to newspapers and Government representatives and Agencies. Petitions are mainly a waste of time. Personal letters are more valuable. Demonstrations should only include well-dressed men and women—no shouting. Use well made signs. Must have TV coverage to be effective. Choose site carefully – do not cause problems. Do not be militant. Partner with sympathetic organizations.” I think this is still good advice for being taken seriously by the powers that be. Bob was always the gentleman! He was also a vocal backer for our recreation resources. When a farmer threatened to post a popular special regulation section of Muncy Creek if the old County Bridge at Tivoli was not rebuilt (the commissioners were considering closing the bridge), he rallied many anglers to the cause and called Commissioner Rebecca Burke every day about the bridge project. The bridge was rebuilt. This stretch continues to provide splendid fishing for many anglers to this day.
Bob died on June 14, 2016, just eight days shy of his ninety-second birthday. He told me that one of the hardest things about living to a ripe old age was outliving his wife and friends. He told me that he was saddened by the loss of Evelyn, his beloved wife of nearly sixty years, his daughter Robin, and close friends Dick Leaver of Muncy, and Al (Jack) Eschenbach of Milton, among others. After he passed, his grandson, Andy, found several of his poetry books, bookmarked with poems about loss that helped console him.
In his later years he walked with a pronounced stoop from painful back injuries sustained during the war (he was at Omaha Beach during the invasion of German occupied France), relying on a walking stick when hiking or wading. Like many veterans, he did not talk much about his war experiences. Melanie thought it was to shield his family from the horrors of war. Andy interviewed him for an oral history and he became quite emotional when talking about his service. He came back a different person after the war, losing much of his innocence. His family and friends predicted correctly that when he was no longer able to walk without assistance that he would not be long for this world. When the pain became too much to bear, Melanie made an appointment to have him fitted for a walker “to ease the pain.” The night before the scheduled appointment, his heart stopped, and he slipped away peacefully.
The last few times we went fishing he was content to sit on the bank, look at the water, and watch me fish. We took a trip up Pine Creek on a cold and blustery spring day and didn’t even wet a line. We pulled over at the Black Walnut Bottom access and contemplated the silvery creek, butted up against the steep light green mountain. Bob said he often saw eagles here, and, as if on cue, a pair of bald eagles crested the ridge and circled overhead.
The day after he passed, I decided to take Bob’s Granger fly rod up Raven Run again. The stream flowed crystal clear over rose colored slate ledges. Hemlock trees clung to the steep gorge walls, their gnarly roots exposed. Cold springs dripped from mossy rocks. I fished several miles up to the High Falls pool, where Bob had once hooked a giant fish on a small fly, a fish that threw the barbless hook before the battle really started. I spotted a mink, a kingfisher chattered at me, and I spooked a great blue heron in the distance. In Bob’s own words from a Tall and True column: “The birds contribute beautiful background music for changing scenes of form and color, for tis not unlike visiting an art museum. Masterpieces of nature appear around every bend.” I didn’t catch many fish, but it was a therapeutic experience.
On the way back out, I stopped at the Round Hole, one of Bob’s favorite spots. I sat on a slate bluff for a long time, listening to the stream cascading into the large pool, thinking about Bob. I realized that I would not be able to tell him about this fishing trip or any others, and it felt like there was a hole in my heart. My father died of Alzheimer’s when I was only forty-three. Like Bob, he was an engineer. I was just starting to enjoy an adult relationship with my Dad when he became afflicted. In some ways, Bob helped fill the void. I remember thinking not long after meeting Bob, “should I become close friends with an older man, because I will lose him, too?” I answered my own question when my affection for Bob outweighed my fear of loss.
On that day in June, I decided to flip one final cast into the center of the deep pool. To my wonderment, a large brown trout rose up from the bottom and sipped in my fly—this on a bright day in the middle of the afternoon. I felt like Bob was there with me. It’s been a few years now, and I still feel that way. I’m so glad I knew him.
Chalmer Van Horn of Muncy was one of Bob’s best buddies. When Bob was in charge of engineering at Sprouts, he had hired Chalmer to work as a mechanical draftsman. They co-founded the Muncy Creek Watershed Association, along with Rev. Bruce Smay and Dick Leaver.
Not long before Bob passed, his grandson, Michael, brought him down from Rochester, where he was living in a retirement community, for one last visit. He stayed with Chalmer in his cabin near Big Run, a Muncy Creek tributary. “That evening Bob just wanted to sit in the swing between two large sugar maples and listen to the sounds of nature,” Chalmer recalled. “We sat there for hours, it seemed, and Bob recounted many experiences that we enjoyed together. Bob would always put everyone ahead of himself. That was his character. Before we returned to my cabin, he turned to me and said, ‘Chalmer, you are the luckiest person in the world. You have this little cottage in the mountains where excellent trout fishing exists, hunting is plentiful, and where neighbors and friends care for one another.’”
Andy told me about fishing at Chalmer’s trout pond with Chalmer and his grandfather, smoking good cigars and sipping from a flask of whisky, listening to him reminisce over his many years of fishing all over this country and around the world. However, Bob decided in that moment that his favorite and best fishing experiences had been in Pennsylvania. He would not have wanted to live anywhere else.
The last time I saw Bob was as the plume of his ashes swept down Manor Fork into Slate Run, and then into one of his favorite fishing holes. It was so beautiful and perfect that it took my breath away. Bob was an inspiration to me, and to others who knew him. I hope you know him a bit, now. We can all honor his life by working together to preserve and protect the trout streams that he cherished.