Flyfishing may be good in the West but it was definitely brought here, not born here. And if you’re looking to source the cradle of the sport, best turn a 180 and squint toward the bustling metropolises of the east and a little place called Pennsylvania. Its list of flyfishing trailblazers is long and Tulpehocken Creek Outfitters (TCO Fly Shop) has been serving and suiting them up since Tony Gehman founded his first shop in Reading in 1980.
“There are a few obvious standouts who helped shape what’s become the largest flyfishing retail store in the East Coast,” Gehman says. “But I would pinpoint the success of TCO to not only the vision and principles that we’re based on, but also to the dedication and expertise of the entire TCO team. Without a talented group of people, we would be just another fly shop… and that’s definitely not what we strive to be.”
What the shop does strive to provide is exceptional customer service, product selection, and fishing expertise. TCO’s three locations—Reading, State College, and Philly—are all situated within striking distance of good fishing all year. Reading is minutes from the Tulpehocken Creek tailwater. The State College area and its surrounding waters, including Penns Creek, The Little Juniata, Spring Creek, and Fishing Creek, are PA standards. And the crew at Bryn Mawr (TCO’s Philadelphia location) specializes in tropical trips, including the Bahamas, Belize, and Venezuela. Along with destination travel, the Upper Delaware System gets traffic from Bryn Mawr, as does the Lehigh River, and the Pocono Mountain streams—all located less than two hours from the shop. In addition, Great Lakes steelheading at the northern tip of the state has allowed TCO to reach a broader customer base.
Between three shops targeting in- and out-of-state options, there’s plenty of fishing to dole out, and depending on the day it can go from relaxing to head-spinning in a flash. But being a flyshop first, good-natured banter and fish stories are never in short supply.
“Our guides are a bunch of dudes who just love to fish and really enjoy teaching others to fish. We’re lucky to have Henry Ramsey, author of Matching Major Eastern Hatches, and Gavin Robinson—probably one of the fishiest guys I know,” says Jake Villwock, representing the Reading shop. “I’m going on my sixth season as a guide, ranging in places from Alaska to PA. TCO as a whole has almost ten guides, all specializing in different fisheries and species. We really want our storefronts to be the picture of professionalism, but again, we’re still a flyshop.”
Operating flyshops in Pennsylvania, with a huge population base and plenty of contentious on-water issues—from public-private access to hydraulic fracking threats—means walking a fighting line at times, too. TCO says the majority of its guiding business is conducted on public waters, and the company fully backed the court’s decision upholding the publics’ right to wade and fish the Little Juniata River. “In a perfect world, Pennsylvania would be like New Zealand where the rivers and streams belong to everyone to fish and enjoy. That said, we do offer guided trips on private water. We have access to two small stretches of local limestone streams,” says State College Shop Manager, Paul Weamer.
Environmental threats to PA trout fisheries are constant, Weamer adds.
“Central Pennsylvania’s limestone geology is a great benefit to trout, providing cold spring water that emerges from underground with a higher PH level to buffer acid rain. But limestone is also a great enhancement for farming. Farming practices have improved in recent decades, but they are still an issue, especially run-off from liquid manure that is spread on frozen fields in late winter and flows into local fisheries with melting snow.”
In an effort to defend the fish, TCO supports local organizations like TU, the Penns Valley Conservation Association, and the Little Juniata River Association and their work to protect local resources. It advertises for these organizations, makes donations to their fundraising events, and members of its staff also support them with their time and money. Some of its staff also share a weird obsession with pouring whiskey into their beer, which rarely ends well.
“We spend many nights above the shop in Jake’s apartment playing cards, tying flies, and drinking Whiskey-Beers. On the rare occasion we went to ‘class it up’ we bring out the Alaskan Ambers,” says Joe McGinley, TCO’s web manager.
For more information on TCO, click here.