Are you looking for big-water trout action reminiscent of a Western trout stream, but without the 2,000-mile trip and expense? Then look no farther than Clearfield County.
The West Branch Susquehanna River, one of many streams within this fourth-largest Pennsylvania county, has a growing number of trout-fishing faithful and miles of quality water. Most people envision the Susquehanna as the mile-wide, shallow, warmwater fishery that it is for much of its length.
But in Clearfield County, better known for its strip-mining, lumbering and tanning industries than for the quality of its trout fishing, the Susquehanna is still a small, boulder-strewn river 30 miles from the West Branch source at Carrolltown, with plenty of potential for great rainbow, brown and brook trout fishing.
The past 30 years have seen great changes as the mining companies and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection have worked to clean up the Susquehanna and its tributaries from the acid run-off that turned the river rusty red with rust in the 1950s and ’60s. The ugly streams of raw sewage are also gone, as each community now must maintain its own waste treatment facilities.
Not only has the river cleared up tremendously, but it also supports a healthy population of trout. The river is not yet on a par with the legendary freestone streams in Lycoming, Elk and Potter counties to the north or the limestone streams of neighboring Blair and Centre counties. But if you have the time and the desire to try a newly developing location with some truly big holdover and native trout, the West Branch Susquehanna is a destination worthy of your time.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Upon entering Clearfield County’s southwest corner near Cherry Tree, and for the next 23 miles (along Route 219 and then Route 969 at Bells Landing) to Curwensville Lake, the West Branch is a small to mid-sized river varying from 15 to 35 yards in width. The stream is peppered with round, smooth boulders from the size of a dime to car-sized rocks. This rocky bottom keeps the river oxygenated well into late June and early July and provides ideal trout habitat. Pocket water abounds, and the subsurface angler will get plenty of opportunity to search for nymphing fish.
Long pools and riffles also offer opportunities for dry-fly and streamer fishing. Bait-fishermen using earthworms, wax worms and mealworms will also enjoy great success. Many of these pools and riffles reach well over 100 yards in length.
Throughout its course from Cherry Tree to Lumber City, the West Branch Susquehanna is what you would expect from a mid-sized freestoner. During the spring, late fall and winter, water levels are excellent for trout. The river runs clear on the majority of these days. It turns chocolate-brown quickly during any amount of rain, but seems to clear just as quickly. However, siltation can make wading tricky, as much of the bottom can develop a fine layer of silt on it.
If you are unsteady in the water, a wading staff is highly recommended. The upper section above the Curwensville Dam is picturesque and affords the feel of the great Western trout rivers. (Cont’d)
Famed Keystone State angler Charlie Meck and I spent a hot June day fishing the Susquehanna above and below Curwensville, and he said this upper section was Ã¬the best looking trout waterÃ® he’d seen in some time. At which point, we both promptly landed heavy 16-inch fish.
One-half mile upstream of the Route 729 bridge in Lumber City, the river begins to flatten and deepen due to the flood control dam at Curwensville Lake. Trout may still be caught within the lake, but most of the success here is in the deep water near the breast of the dam.
Unfortunately, the mile of the West Branch below the dam is exceptionally slow, allowing the water to warm up quickly in summer. At Irvin Park in Curwensville, a swimming area was created at one point by a cement walkway flush to the riverÃs surface. This creates a small dam. Once the water pours over this obstruction, trout habitat returns. The river here is approximately 50 to 60 yards wide and continues for the next 10 miles to Clearfield. Some of the most remarkable and surprising fishing for trout can be had in this section.
The entire 10-mile stretch is easily accessible along Route 879 and there are plenty of places to park. None of this stretch, in fact, none of the river’s course through Clearfield County, is posted. Wide riffles, deep cuts and long flats dominate the river from Curwensville to Clearfield. Throughout this section, many tributaries inject cold water throughout the hot summer days, giving trout places to ride out the hottest days of summer.
FROM POLLUTED TO PRODUCTIVE
The amazing thing about all this quality water is that none of it, save the last stretch below the Hyde Bridge in Clearfield, is stocked by the state! Yet, there are plenty of quality trout throughout the entire 30 miles of water from Cherry Tree to Clearfield. Most of these fish, I believe, exist in the river because of the considerable private stockings the river gets, like the annual Kid’s Fishing Day sponsored by the Curwensville Moose Lodge in Curwensville and from the fish stocked in the Susquehanna’s tributaries.
Chest Creek, for example, enters the Susquehanna at Mahaffey and receives the county’s highest allotment of stockers, mostly rainbows but some browns and brookies as well. Curry Run is also well stocked with brook trout. These trout must be moving into the bigger waters of the main river.
Stories of trout fishermen on the river catching 20-inch fish are accurate. Ken Elensky of Grampian routinely catches big browns using Muddler imitations around Curwensville.
At the confluence of Bell Run and the Susquehanna in Bells Landing, I caught a fat holdover rainbow that was 19 inches and pushed 2 pounds.
Joe Kendrick lives at the mouth of Hartshorn Run and routinely catches 15-inch and larger fish using hellgrammite imitations.
FIND THE TRIBUTARIES
The tributaries are the key to finding good fishing. Many of the tributaries of the Susquehanna are also excellent native trout streams. These hard-to-fish streams generally spill some of their brook trout into the river.
Have you ever seen a 16-inch native brookie with a hooked jaw? Try fishing the West Branch near Shryock Run north of Cherry Tree or Boiling Springs Run or Sawmill and Rock Runs near Burnside for an opportunity at these fish.
Bear, Miller, Whiskey and Laurel runs near Mahaffey all have their own native populations that wander into the main stem. Haslett Run is a nice small stream in its own right if you like small-stream brookies. The aforementioned Curry Run and McCracken Run also have good fish in them. Bell Run at Bells Landing is my personal favorite. The fish caught at the stream’s mouth are truly big. Bell Run itself holds many good-sized brook trout, as well as migrant rainbows and browns, which seek its cool water when the river warms up.
Using sucker spawn, I caught a hefty 14-inch rainbow over a mile up Bell Run from the mouth. Below Curwensville dam, Anderson Creek (polluted, but recovering), Blooms Run near the Hogback Bridge, Hartshorn Run and Montgomery Run hold trout and help to cool the river in June and July.
A note on Anderson Creek: The top half of Anderson is stocked and has its own devoted following. Along its course through the gorge from Rockton to Curwensville, Anderson Creek picks up mine drainage and is no longer stocked. It is a tough trek, but trout do survive and in fact thrive throughout the entire section.
All the fish from these streams are attracted to the larger river for protection and for the abundance of food that is available in the bigger water. Numbers of fish throughout this section are highly variable, which is why I suggest staying closer to tributaries where the most fish are likely to hold.
However, the size of these trout more than makes up for the quantity of fish that are caught. When you tie into a trout on the upper Susquehanna, chances are you’ve got a fish in the 15- to 20-inch range. Most of what you will catch will be holdover stocked rainbows and truly big brook trout. Don’t rule out a nice brownie, either.
This is not to say that the rest of the river is no good. On the contrary, there is so much holding water that trout can be found anywhere. For four to five miles between Bell Run and the backup from the dam, there are no major tributaries adding to the river. But in this area, you can find locally- known sections, such as Watts Bottom, Ring Rock, Sheeps Pen and Camp Bennar, where the river takes on the appearance of a Western trout stream. Fish will hide under large boulders or stick to the bottom of fast cuts.
Once again, the numbers of fish aren’t spectacular, but the size is notable. You shouldn’t go fishless here!
WHERE TO FISH
Because state routes 219, 969 and 879 run the length of the West Branch as it passes through Clearfield County, there are many public access spots where park and fish opportunities exist. As noted, the West Branch will offer a variety of water throughout Clearfield County. It transforms from a small freestoner in the southwest corner to a Western-style valley stream in the middle section above the Curwensville Lake, to a mid- to large- sized river below the dam until its exit from the county.
Hundreds of pull-off spots dot the length of the river, but the following three locations will test all of your trout-fishing skills:
From Cherry Tree through Patchinville, Burnside and McGees Mills, many small trout streams enter the West Branch and any of these locations are good places to start because they offer the best opportunity for locating trout.
In Mahaffey, at the junction of routes 219 and 36, Chest Creek enters the river, almost doubling its volume. A public parking lot is in the middle of town at the Route 36 bridge. From here, an angler may walk upstream or downstream to fish the confluence waters. Chest Creek is heavily stocked and many of these fish end up in the West Branch. Grannoms, blue-winged olives, Hendricksons and slate drakes are great fly patterns here. Streamers are a good idea at any time of the year. Spinners in bright colors are a solid choice for spinning anglers.
The bonus to fishing the Susquehanna near these stocked tributaries is that the river contains plenty of trout and there’s no closed season for them, because the West Branch is not yet considered Approved Trout Water.
Above the confluence, the river is smaller, with long riffles and fast water. Below, the river deepens quickly and long pools and boulders dominate the streambed. Probing the river bottom and pocket water with your favorite live baits will also produce well.
In the small town of Bells Landing, Route 219 continues north and route 969 heads east to Curwensville. Bell Run dumps into the West Branch at this location under the Route 969 bridge. Bell Run is a tremendous fishery in its own right, but this is just the beginning of a glorious stretch of the Susquehanna that is well suited for float-fishing.
A nice picnic area-campground may be found at the mouth of Bell Run. This is a popular launch point for kayaks and canoes for some float-fishing.
Just 1 1/2 miles upstream, Curry Run contributes stocked brookies to the river. Above the Curwensville Dam, there’s no better place to fish. Launching from here, float-anglers can drift through a beautiful boulder-strewn valley for five miles. Trout hiding in pocket water will attack quill nymphs and caddis fly larvae. Spin-fishermen will need a medium- sized rod to reach out to the fish in this section. Ultralight tackle may not do the trick.
The Lumber City bridge is the most popular exit point for this float trip.
Below Curwensville Lake, anglers may access prime fishing waters near Riverside Stadium, the local high school’s football field, off route 879 in Curwensville. Plenty of public parking is available at the town civic center. Walking this section of the West Branch is very easy. Anderson Creek dumps in nearby and a rails-to-trails footpath continues the length of the river from Curwensville to Clearfield.
Hellgrammites, caddis, slate drakes, the entire quill family and the March Brown/Grey Fox combo all work particularly well throughout this section in spring through fall. Don’t be shy about the size of your spinning gear lures and bait, either. These fish aren’t all sophisticated and tend to like large morsels.
The best local source of information is the staff at Jim’s Sports Center in Clearfield. It is the best, most comprehensive fly shop in Clearfield County, with a good supply of all the flies you may need, as well as spinning gear, tackle and information on what’s happening on the river.
Call (800) 300-5467 and ask for angling supplies manager Terry Malloy, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Over the last few seasons, Terry has helped to sponsor large private stocking programs for the Susquehanna between Curwensville and Clearfield, and then from the Raftsman Dam in Clearfield downstream.
The West Branch is a beautiful, emerging trout-fishing destination that few anglers think of. All tackle is presently allowed. You won’t be awed by the number of trout you catch, but you will be challenged by the size of the fish. They aggressively take to a fly and use the river’s size to their advantage.
If you’re looking for new fly water, put this easily accessible, highly productive “warmwater” stream in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country on your list. You may be surprised at what you find!