Trout Bum of the Week LXV: Derek Eberly

Derek and his buddy David head out for an evening on the the White River in Arkansas.
Photos courtesy Derek Eberly

Welcome to our series called “Trout Bum of the Week,” in which we highlight some of the folks living the good life. . .of a sort. (See the bottom of this post for a link to the previous installments.) Most of the subjects are guides who have turned their passion into a vocation, spending their time in an outdoor “office” that may include a drift boat, gorgeous mountain scenery, and crystal clear water. Others do have day jobs but manage to spend every other available minute on the water with a fly rod in hand. Whether you aspire to one lifestyle or the other, it’s illuminating to explore the different paths these men and women have taken on their way to achieving “trout bum” status. 

Derek Eberly is a fly-fishing guide for Keystone Fly Guides in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He also works at Orvis Lancaster, is a board member of Donegal Trout Unlimited, is a member of Donegal Fish and Conservation Association, and is working on his casting instructors certification for the International Federation of Fly Fishers.

1. When did you start fly fishing?
I started fly fishing in 2001, after high school. My friends were all headed to college, and I was working at home, spending most of my free time skateboarding and going to local punk and ska shows. One of the local ska band drummers, Pete, and I became good friends over that summer, and he was into fly fishing. My prior experience with fishing had only been with my grandfather, “Pap,” who was a hardcore outdoors type. Pap mostly spin-fished locally, and when he would take us grandkids, he spent most of the time trying to keep us out of the water. Fishing around here was mostly older dudes chucking corn at schooled-up stockers, and it was dreadful for me.

When Pete took me out fly fishing for the first time, to what would become my home water, everything changed. I watched him read the water, adjust his leader, change flies, move into position, and then cast. At first I thought, “How hard can this really be?” and then I tried it. I knew nothing about knots, flies, fish, or what they eat. Pete taught me everything and patiently worked with me through it all for months until one night on Kettle Creek in northern Pennsylvania. It was during an amazing sulfur hatch when I could do no wrong, and I looked at him and got to bust out the classic Darth Vader line “I was but the learner; now I am the master.”

The years went go on, and Pete and I forged an awesome friendship over music and fly fishing. We were groomsmen in each other’s weddings, and our kids are the same age. Pete dedicated a lot of his final years to his family and church. The last time we fished was where we started; it was completely coincidence that we had that last chance to hang out on the stream. I lost my fishing buddy and best friend in 2014. His attitude and friendship on and off the stream is what inspired me to start my own guide service to introduce others to fly fishing and help them on their journey.

The author’s fly-fishing teacher and best buddy, Pete, with a big brown.

2. What’s your favorite water?
Wherever there are fish and few to no people! Fishing in the shadow of the megalopolis of the Philly – DC – New York urban sprawl means you have to be adaptive and open to trying often funky, sometimes seedy, water. If I had it all to myself, I would be on a mid-state spring or freestone creek, but that doesn’t happen too often in the people-packed Mid-Atlantic. There are very few secrets and many of our blue-ribbon trout waters are well read about. So I look for good water hiding right under our noses in the suburban jungle of, well, suburbia! Thanks to the efforts of Trout Unlimited (shout out to my chapter Donegal TU) there are several gems hiding in plain sight. Now these are not big waters, and they can’t handle a lot of pressure, but there are some trophies to be found if you’re into that kind of thing. Mostly I try to figure where I can find a little solitude. If I’m feeling social, I love the Yellow Breeches because of its good hatches, good fish, and good people.

3. What’s your favorite species to chase with a fly rod?
Hands down, steelhead. Don’t get me wrong, I love dry-fly fishing, and one day I will catch one of those chrome buggers on a dry. Nothing beats the take or the run of a fresh slab of steel. To quote Mr. Rosenbauer from one of my favorite podcast episodes ever, the feel of a fresh steelhead on the other end of your line is “electric.” The other fun part of steelhead is that there are many opportunities for the angler who is willing to fish outside the box. You can find them in the fall and spring, and they will take anything from beautiful Intruders, to plain ol’ eggs, to crazy nymphs, to mice.

My steel fever started on a trip with my best friend Pete and one of his friends from his church. I didn’t know what I was getting into; actually I don’t think any of us knew what we were getting into. We left southeastern Pennsylvania only to arrive in Erie too late to check in to our motel. We ended up getting lost, and eventually we found the creek somewhere around one in the morning. We got out of the car and shined a light down into the water from the steel singing bridge we were parked beside. There below us were what looked like a hundred mini submarines. We were stoked, to say the least, and we spent the next four hours sleeping in a 1995 Taurus, dreaming of the magic that would surely come in the morning.

The next day was tough. We didn’t know the first thing about steelheading or where to find fish. I spent the entire day trying to find fish and trying to understand why my trout tactics were not working. It was at the very end of the day–after I had given up all hope of catching a steelhead and I was cursing these damn fish–that I had about as close to a spiritual epiphany as you can have on a crowded Erie tributary. I was staring at a run after I had floated my Prince Nymph through it, and I was trying to figure out just what in the hell I was doing. My nymph was hanging behind me about thirty feet, swaying in the current, as I picked my rod up to cast again and BUMP. I was stuck on another shale ledge, for what felt like the hundredth time that day. Then, as if the devil himself had grabbed the other end of the line, something was trying to pull my 9-foot 5-weight out of my hand. (This was early in my fly fishing career, and it was my only rod, which other anglers assured me was fine for Erie tributary steelhead.) It took me a second to realize what had happened because, after the day I had had, I was sure there was no way in hell I had actually done what I had come there to do. Sure enough, though, I had indeed hooked one of these ghosts, and it put on a fight I will never forget. Pete helped me land her, a decent hen with all the color of a spring creek ’bow. It was a lesson I carry with me to this day: sometimes you have to abandon all hope and expectations and just lose yourself in the moment.

A fascination with steelhead draws Derek to Lake Erie tributaries.

4. What’s your most memorable fly fishing moment?
Well the steelhead story is up there, but the best time I was when Pete and I spent a week camping at Leonard Harrison State Park in Tioga, Pennsylvania. We had so many great evening hatches that week. The highlight was fishing the bend in Ansonia during a decent evening dun hatch. The cabin at the head of the bend was having a bonfire and blaring Ozzy Osbourne. We watched a bald eagle come down and pick off a rising trout; it was very American and we had a great laugh.

That whole week we learned so much about the Pine Creek area and hatches in general. Tom Finkbiner and Jeddy down at Slate Run Tackle were awesome to us and never looked down their noses at us. We explored what was for us uncharted territory and made several friends along the way. Thursday night, a front moved through, and I woke to what felt like a river running through my tent. We were planning on staying through the weekend but ended up bailing early on Friday. On our way out, we stopped at the Wellsboro diner and grabbed some breakfast with some rally-car drivers. Apparently the X-Games were holding a rally race that weekend so that was a fun way to end our trip.

5. What’s your most forgettable fly fishing moment?
I try to make it a point not to talk badly about people or businesses so I will be as vague as possible. For my 30th birthday, I had arranged a trip to the Salmon River to try to target Atlantic salmon on the dry. As a fan of Lee Wulff, this has always been on my bucket list. I had heard there are some Atlantics in the system in late June, so I figured, “What the hell. . .why not?”

My very good friend, David, and I left Friday morning, and I called the shop we were booked with to make sure everything was copacetic. They assured me everything was good. I called them again halfway up, after I checked my phone and saw the river level going up. They again assured us it would be fine. When we arrived, the river was pushing hard, but we stayed optimistic. We paid the shop owner for our lodging, and they took us up to the apartment above the shop, which was on the third floor above another full-time rented apartment. There were kids playing on the steps, dodging the trash that littered the stairway. There was a domestic dispute in the apartment below, and the air was filled with the distinct aroma of Budweiser and Pall Malls. We finally reached our room, which smelled about the same as the stairway. Needless to say, things were going from bad to worse.

We dropped our bags but didn’t unpack; at that point it was an unspoken understanding between two optimists that we needed to seek a second opinion. We headed out to grab some food and some unbiased insight. We talked to a few local anglers who, after a good chuckle, informed us the river was going to 3,000cfs. Apparently everyone knew this from calling the dam water release hotline.

We headed back to the “ashtray,” which was the now the name of the apartment. We grabbed our gear and headed home. We never heard anything back from the shop, which was fine by us. The trip was only salvaged by a little Italian restaurant in Cortland, which had fine food and a live jazz band. That was a trip that I wish I could forget!

Although a modern angler, Derek can often be found on the water with an old rod and a side bag.

6. What do you love most about fly fishing?
It’s as simple or sublime as you want it to be. When guiding and teaching casting, I can get as technical as a client wants. When I am out on my own, I like to keep it simple. I used to get into the latest craze for my personal fishing, but I get enough of that just trying to stay current for guide purposes. When it comes to my personal fishing, I strip it all down to bare bones. I love the Finn utility side bag because I started carrying all my gear in a creel. So I’ve gone back to a side bag on a creel strap with maybe 4 fly boxes, an Orvis Far & Fine rod, and CFO reel. That’s it, back to the basics. I enjoy my personal fishing a lot more when I’m in that Spartan mode. Don’t get me wrong, though: when conditions call for it, I still bust out the high-stick/Euro-nymph, 10-foot 4-weight and large arbor reel with a brake system that could stop a Ferrari. But my real Zen moments come when I’m just using the basics. I love that fly fishing lets you play with intricacies but rewards you for keeping it simple.

7. What is your favorite piece of gear?
This is so tough but I have to say my 795 Far & Fine. I bought my first one many years ago when another member from forum moved out to Colorado. I picked it up for $100! A steal now. I cast it a while and thought, “This thing sucks! It’s whippy.” This was back in the day when faster meant better, and I was casting a 2×4 (but I was casting very poorly).

Years went by and I started learning how to actually use a fly rod. I brought the Far & Fine with me when I went to the Joan Wulff school and instructors school. The rod was already growing on me, but I fell in love with it after Dennis Charney, one of the school’s instructors and fellow Keystoner, showed me how to control my casting stroke and application of power. After that, it has become my go-to dry-fly rod. And dry fly is my favorite technique. So between the memories and the application, that has to be my favorite piece of gear.

8. What’s your go-to fly when nothing else is working?
Oh, man that’s tough, too. Honestly, if things get real tough, I start tossing weird stuff that I tie up when I’m cleaning up my tying bench. But really, I think most times I just sit on the bank, crack a brew, watch, and learn. Probably not good to say that, but if it’s not going well, I think it’s a good opportunity to apply the advice I learned from Art Lee and Bobby Clouser: the O4P’s of fly fishing. Observation, Position, Presentation, Presentation, Presentation.

Having created a life on the water, Derek knows how to have a good time in any conditions.

9. What was your favorite fly fishing trip?
The first real sulfur hatch I ever witnessed was with Pete and his brother, Andy. We spent several nights at their cabin in Potter County. One night, we went to Kettle Creek, and right before dusk the bugs just exploded. I was still really new in the sport, but every cast–and I mean every cast–you were rising a fish. There was a moment, after about a dozen trout apiece, where we just stopped and watched in awe. I will never forget that. We spent many years after that chasing that memory, but it just never quite seemed to come together like that evening. That was really special, and I’m lucky I got to share that with two good friends.

10. How do you define the difference between someone who loves fly fishing and a true trout bum?
I’m going to say this at the risk of sounding like I’m getting high on my own supply, but I think it comes down to fighting for the resource. I love fly-fishing, but I think you cross over when you start giving back or paying it forward or whatever cliché you want to apply. It might be cliché, but it’s true and it’s part of that journey or the levels of fly fishing that folks talk about when they’ve had too many PBR’s on a tough fishing trip and there’s nothing left to talk about around the campfire. There’s a reason why the conversation goes there, and it’s not purely the beverages. I think that when you care enough to devote more than just stream-time to your craft, you begin to convert to the church of trout. I think you see that in all of these folks you have here as trout bums. It’s a pretty cool group of folks that really care about the sport and the resource and dedicate a large amount of their lives to promoting and protecting it. Cheers to you bums!

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