Some sections of Pennsylvania trout streams are open outside the regular season in March, and have excellent fishing.
There’s an engrained notion that “fishing season” kicks off with the traditional April opening of trout season. This is changing as folks learn to take advantage of the many early spring fishing options available to them.
Indeed, some of the best action of the year for bass, walleyes, muskies, northern pike and crappies, particularly for larger fish, occurs before some anglers remove their gear from winter storage.
Early season options certainly include trout as well, though streams (or in some cases portions of streams) included in the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Stocked Trout Program, with a few exceptions, are off-limits during March.
But there are many stream sections governed by special regulations where March fishing is not only allowed, but has the potential to be outstanding. Here are a few of them.
SPRING CREEK — CENTRE COUNTY
The central part of Pennsylvania is blessed with trout streams enriched by underground limestone aquafers. Flowing through the shadows of State College, and Penn State University, Spring Creek continues its long tradition of providing fine trout fishing, primarily for wild brown trout.
A 16.5-mile stretch of Spring Creek is managed as Catch and Release, All Tackle, from its merger with Bald Eagle Creek upstream to the Oak Hall area. All legal means of fishing are permitted (including live bait), with no closed season, but no trout can be creeled.
Exceptions within this stretch are the 0.8 mile Fisherman’s Paradise section, which is managed as a Fly-Fishing-Only project, and the Exhibition Area in Bellefonte, where fishing is prohibited.
Though urban sprawl is a reality in the State College area, access to Spring Creek is surprisingly good.
From the Benner Springs Research Station (a PFBC facility) down to the Fisherman’s Paradise area, over three miles of Spring Creek is available. Fishing pressure can be fairly heavy, even at this time of year, especially if the weather is relatively mild. Most of the attention, however, will be close to the two accesses.
Those willing to walk (downstream from Benner Springs; upstream from Fisherman’s Paradise) will find plenty of space. A trail parallels the stream, though it can be snow/ice covered at this time of year.
Good access can also be found downstream of Fisherman’s Paradise toward the town of Bellefonte. The Fish and Boat Commission has several parking areas along or near the stream.
Tactics-wise, during late winter and early spring, many fly anglers rely on small nymph patterns such as Walt’s Worm, pheasant tail, and Copper John. Crustacean life is rich in Spring Creek, so small scud and sowbug patterns are also productive sub-surface offerings. Blue-winged Olives sometimes make appearances that coax trout to rise to the surface.
Spin anglers can score by casting small inline spinners and spoons, as well as natural baits like red worms, mealworms and minnows. Remember that these options are only allowed in the All-Tackle portions of the stream.
Of particular note: New Zealand mud snails, a non-native and invasive species, have been found in Spring Creek. To prevent its spread, anglers should thoroughly clean their wading gear after fishing Spring Creek.
Specific directions on how to properly accomplish this is available on the web. Folks that frequently fish Spring Creek (and other streams) would be wise to invest in wading gear for exclusive use on Spring.
BUFFALO CREEK — ARMSTRONG, BUTLER COUNTIES
The nearly four miles of Buffalo Creek that comprise its Delayed Harvest Artificial Lures Only (DHALO) project is representative of similar areas scattered across that state that are of such importance to early season anglers.
Buffalo Creek is well stocked, is stocked early in the month of March (conditions permitting), and is a within a reasonable drive of the many anglers of western Pennsylvania.
And starting this year, Buffalo Creek’s DHALO project is one of eight being added to the state’s poplar Keystone Select Stocked Trout Program, where extra 14- to 20-inch trout are stocked during the spring.
The project waters of Buffalo Creek — which run from the mouth of Little Buffalo Run in Butler County to a point about a half mile above the bridge in Craigsville — have benefitted greatly from work done by the Arrowhead Chapter of Trout Unlimited. The group has spearheaded extensive stream improvement in the form of defectors and bank stabilization, as well as angler access.
Buffalo Creek DHALO is stocked with both rainbows and browns. In addition to liberal stockings by the state, the Arrowhead Chapter adds many fish via its cooperative nursery. Bucket stocking and float stocking both take place, though the latter is at the mercy of stream conditions.
Bottom Creek Road parallels the lower portion of this project. Anglers can access the creek from a couple pull offs located along the road. Much of the road is located high above the creek, so it takes some effort to fish this section.
Easy access is found near the Nicola Bridge, which carries Fennelton Road over Buffalo Creek near the Armstrong/Butler county line. Fennelton Road parallels about a mile of the stream, with several turnouts present. To get to the upper portion of the project take Morrow Road off of Fennelton Road. Some nice water extends upstream of the Morrow Road Bridge.
Buffalo Creek trout can be taken on a variety of subsurface patterns, including nymphs and egg patterns. Transue’s Tackle (www.transues.com) in nearby West Kittanning is a good source of information on Buffalo Creek conditions and productive patterns.
LITTLE JUNIATA RIVER
The Little Juniata River is a tale of two rivers. It starts off as a freestone river, and is stocked with adult trout. Around the Tipton area the Little J begins receiving heavy doses of limestone spring water, hence its classification as being “limestone influenced” as it picks up spring water along its course.
It’s generally felt that trout in limestone streams tend to stay more active during the winter months than their freestone counterparts.
Limestone waters are rich in food, hence it’s worth the effort to feed, since food is more readily available. And limestone waters tend to be warmer, rarely falling below 40 degrees. A few degrees can make a big difference in trout activity, especially when it’s toward the extreme ends of the range.
From Ironville to the Little J’s mouth it’s managed under Catch and Release All Tackle regulations. This means that anglers can use any legal manner of tackle, but that all trout must be released. The fishery is maintained through the natural reproduction of brown trout.
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When the Fish and Boat Commission surveyed the Little J in 2010 they collected wild brown trout at an estimated rate of nearly 3,000 per mile. Rainbow trout show up, including some exceptionally-sized fish, the origins of which are likely stocked private club waters on Spruce Creek (a Little J tributary) or a short section of the Little J that is controlled by a private fishing club.
It’s worth noting that upriver of the Catch and Release water there is a stretch managed as Delayed Harvest Artificial Lures Only.
This project is stocked with both brown and rainbow trout, typically in early March (last year’s stocking date was March 2). This project — which runs from the Route 220 bridge near Bellwood down to the mouth of an unnamed tributary — is another March option. The Little J is smaller within this stretch, and much easier to wade.
The Catch and Release water flows for 13.7 miles. Angler access varies. There are many places where one can find a roadside turnout and drop down the bank to fish.
State Route 45 upstream of the town of Spruce Creek is a good example of this, as well as spots along Union Furnace Road farther upriver. There is also good roadside access near the town of Barree.
Keep in mind — and this applies to all the waters discussed, not just the Little J — that roadside access might be more limited at this time of year. If the winter was a harsh one you might find turnouts clogged with plowed snow.
My favorite section of the Little J is within Rockrock State Forest, upriver of Barree. Mountain Road extends off or Barree Road, running along the river until it dead ends in the state forest. From there one can hike upriver into the gorge section. Expect tough going, though, if you’re hiking over unbroken snow.
I always carry a wading staff when fishing the Little J. The rocks are slick, and often the shape of bowling balls. Even at low flows, which can be common during late winter before snow melt off, the Little J can be a challenge.
Tactics-wise, all-purpose nymphs like Hare’s Ear and Pheasant Tails work well in sizes 12 through 16. Flashback versions seem to be especially effective in the cold water of late winter. The addition of Lively Legz (www.livelylegz.com) into the pattern can make them even more so.
ALLEGHENY RIVER BELOW KINZUA DAM
The discharge areas of many of the state’s reservoirs provide early season trout fishing options, and are managed under a variety of regulations. One of the most notable of such spots is the outflow of Kinzua Dam as well as the Allegheny River between the outflow and the city of Warren.
Special regulations apply to the 8.75 miles of the Allegheny River that flow from the Kinzua Dam outflow downriver to the mouth of Conewango Creek in Warren.
From opening day of trout season through Labor Day two trout, a minimum of 14 inches, may be creeled per day. From Labor Day to the start of the trout season the following year trout may be fished for on a catch-and-release basis. There are no tackle restrictions.
Kinzua Dam — a major impoundment of the Allegheny River — features a multi-level discharge which allows for more stable water temperatures in the river below throughout the year. During the winter months water temperatures remain slightly warmer than what they’d be without the presence of the dam, hence much of this area remains relatively ice free at this time.
Kinzua is a flood control dam, however, and is subject to wide variations is discharge levels. Flows can vary from as little as the 2,000 cubic feet/second range up to nearly 20,000 cfs.
Naturally, high discharges most often occur following periods of substantial rain and snow melt-off, when operators are releasing excess water pooled in the reservoir. Current discharge rate — as well as the projected discharge for the next three days — can be heard by phoning the Corps of Engineers at 814-726-0164.
This portion of the Allegheny River, known officially by the Fish and Boat Commission as Section 7, is regularly stocked with fingerling-stage trout (2 to 4 inches in length). Such stockings (both brown and rainbow trout), along with contributions from other sources like adult trout that migrate to the river from stocked tributaries, result in a quality fishery that boasts fish in the 6- to 8-pound range.
Route 59 runs along the east side of the river from Warren to Kinzua Dam; on the west side of the Allegheny take Hemlock Road out of Warren to access points along this bank town all the way up to the dam. A fisherman’s pier – which is handicapped-accessible – is found at the discharge on the Hemlock Road side of the river.
A boat access is also located below the dam, off of Route 59. The Allegheny is a shallow river, most suitable for car-toppers and jet-driven boats. Guide service for this section of the river is provided by Allegheny Guide Service (www.alleghenyguideservice.com).
During the wintertime the most popular stretch for trout is close to the dam, in the tailwaters section down to Dixon Island. Since the trout in this section are accustomed to feeding on injured/disoriented baitfish that pass through the dam’s outflows, many fish are taken with a rig that mimics this: threaded minnows.
Suspending jerkbaits like Rapala’s Husky Jerk also score in this area.
Editors note: The previously described waters are representative of excellent March trout fishing in the state, but are by no means the only options. For instance, limestoner Valley Creek in southeastern Pennsylvania offers challenging fishing for stream-bred trout. Another southeastern stream, Tulpehocken Creek below Blue Marsh Reservoir, is a popular fishery that, like Buffalo Creek, was added to the Keystone Select Program this year. And there are many other good special regulations areas — most of the DHALO or Fly Fishing Only — that get stockings early in March.