A few weeks downstream from his 90th birthday, Joe Humphreys still dreams of future trout, the muscled browns he lost during the fight, and those rare, wily titans he couldn’t conjure up from the cold eddies of Pennsylvania’s legendary streams.
Humphreys, a mystic in the sport of fly fishing, dreams of his first brown trout, too. He was 6 years old, wading through Centre County’s Spring Creek, a waterway that “runs through his soul."
“It was eight inches long, and to me, it was one of the most beautiful things I ever saw. And my mother made a sandwich out of it for me, and that was the best sandwich I ever ate,” he said Monday night, a smile beaming across his face from the decades-old memory.
Wearing a black turtleneck and an autumnal tweed blazer instead of his traditional rubber waders, he was sitting in a cafe inside the Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center in downtown West Chester. Outside, snow was falling, but the room was packed. Some had driven hours to see him, and many clutched a thick, yellow book as if it were a bible: Joe Humphreys’s Trout Tactics: Updated & Expanded.
“Oh my God, wait till my husband sees I’m sitting next to him,” one woman exclaimed.
Humphreys, an Oak Hall, Centre County, resident, was in town for a screening of the documentary Live the Stream: The Story of Joe Humphreys. The movie is about Humphreys and the lifelong passion that landed him in the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame. It is a love story about his late wife, Gloria, and their daughters, but also about Humphreys’ love of Pennsylvania’s beauty, and of Pennsylvania State University, where for 19 years he taught fly fishing as an accredited course.
“There is more to fishing than just fishing, and he is that ‘more,'” said Charles Boinske, a financial adviser and avid fisherman who helped bring the film to West Chester.
One doesn’t need to know anything about angling to appreciate directors Lucas and Meigan Bell’s film. The audience laughed throughout. A few people cried. The most seasoned fisherman marveled at the thickets Humphreys could cast in, his prowess at night fishing, and the encyclopedic knowledge of every creeping, crawling insect and fly that lived in and around Pennsylvania’s cold creeks.
“It’s not going to be an easy day, but it’s going to be a great day,” Humphreys says in one scene before hitting the water.
Humphreys would have been remembered for a remarkable life even had he never picked up a fishing rod.
Born in Curwensville, Clearfield County, Humphreys moved to State College as a boy and found a classroom in the many creeks and streams that course through Centre County. He was also a boxer, wrestler, and figure skater. Lucas Bell, a Penn State graduate and Pittsburgh native, believes Humphreys’ athleticism helped him remain steady on slippery rocks.
“His balance is ridiculous,” Bell said. “I filmed him for three years, and I never saw him fall once.”
Humphreys served in the Navy in the 1950s and at Penn State majored in exercise and sport science. He remains one of the few Penn State athletes to letter in two sports in the same season, for wrestling and boxing. Humphreys is a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, having coached some of the greatest high school wrestling programs in Pennsylvania. He later became an assistant coach at his alma mater. In one movie scene, Humphreys, in his late 80s at the time, rolls around on the mat with Penn State coach Cael Sanderson, the greatest collegiate wrestler of all time.
Humphreys still “pumps steel” with weights in his basement to counterbalance his love of hot dogs. Every Christmas since he was boy, he’s set up a custom nature scene beneath his tree.
“He’s just a nice guy, that’s what it comes down to," his daughter Johanna said Monday night. "He’s a good-hearted person.”
Wrestling coach could have been a secure job in Central Pennsylvania, but fishing captured that heart. He’s spent thousands of hours catching thousands of fish, and stalked his record 34-inch, 16-pound brown trout for three years before he landed it. That one almost caused a divorce, he joked. Many times, other fishermen will stop what they’re doing to watch and follow him along the stream. One even waded out into a stream so Humphreys would autograph a book.
“That actually happens a lot,” longtime friend and fishing partner Denny Shannon said. “He puts people in a trance.”
While Humphreys has fished with Jimmy Carter and Dick Cheney and hosted a show on ESPN, his favorite fishing partners have always been students. He’s also taught thousands: Penn State students, veterans, and children who never caught a fish in their life.
“It’s got nothing to do with strength. It’s all about finesse," he said of fly fishing. "It’s a thing of beauty. It’s an art form. "
Humphreys still seeks one fish, a 20-pound brown trout. In the film, he travels to the Little Red River in Arkansas in the dead of winter, looking for his first 20-pounder, and leaves "heartsick.”
He wants to go back for one last cast.
“The secret of life,” he says in the film, “is to have something exciting to look forward to.”