Pennsylvania offers plenty of great fishing waters, and most anglers have their favorite spots to cast for trophies. But with temperatures warming up and the school year winding down, this is the perfect time to focus on a different kind of destination: the best locations for a family fishing trip. The goal this month is to find waters where your kids can actually catch fish, and perhaps enjoy some fun diversions along the way. Here are a few places where you can make some memories.
Some fishing trips just sound different.
There are outings marked by only the whisper of leaves dancing gently in the breeze, or by ducks murmuring when you get too close or by the plopping of your bait when it hits the water.
This wasn’t one of those.
A buddy and I were casting close together on the bank when the air was ripped by high-pitched squealing. It wouldn’t have broken glass or made dogs cover their ears, but it was certainly screechy and giggly.
“Ooh, let me try, let me try,” his daughter said.
Twelve years old, she’d been swimming at the beach further down shore with my same-aged niece. Now, they were both ready to fish and wanted rods.
“You should have stayed here,” her 8-year-old sister said. “I’ve been catching fish the whole time.”
Just then, flashing a superior smile, she set the hook on another bluegill.
Our boys, meanwhile, were off on their own. Young teens, they’d eaten a few grilled burgers then set out for lunker bass away from the girls.
That’s the recipe for a successful family fishing trip, though, isn’t it? If you’re going to mix together relatives of varying ages and interests and have the day be fun for everyone, there had better be options beyond the fishing.
Here are five parks that offer just that.
RACCOON CREEK STATE PARK
This park is one of the largest in Pennsylvania at more than 7,500 acres. Add to that the fact it’s located in Beaver County, just west of Pittsburgh, and it’s no wonder it’s so heavily used.
It never really feels overcrowded, though. And either way, the fishing makes a visit worthwhile.
Raccoon Lake, at 101 acres, gets stocked heavily with rainbow trout in spring, and they remain available through mid-summer. Warmwater species are abundant and available year-round, though. Surveys of the lake by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission revealed good populations of bluegills — they’re often especially nice in terms of size — along with white crappies and largemouth bass, with the more-than-occasional walleye mixed it.
There’s good access, with some of the best located on the south shore, just off Raccoon Park Road. There are also two launches — boating is limited to electric motors only — for those with their own craft. For those who don’t have a boat, there is a concession offering canoes, kayaks and rowboats for rent.
And while here, don’t overlook Traverse Creek. The section that flows between the park’s wildflower reserve and the spillway on Raccoon Lake gets stocked with trout and is typically underfished. It requires some walking, but it’s usually worth the effort.
The park has lots of creature comforts in terms of bathrooms, picnic areas, a swimming beach and more, too. If there’s one thing missing it’s a variety of bait shops; there’s only one really close by, so come prepared.
Along The Way
When the family tires of fishing, Raccoon Creek State Park offers other options.
There are more than 40 miles of hiking trails. Some of the most unique are in the park’s wildflower reserve. It’s home to more than 700 species of plants, enough to rank it as one of the most diverse places in all of Pennsylvania. Visitors can explore on their own or via one of the many public education programs offered.
There are also diverse opportunities to camp. The park has the usual campground for tents and RVs and modern cabins. If you’re feeling adventurous, though, there’s a backpacking trail with Adirondack-style shelters.
PYMATUNING STATE PARK
This is another big park, located in northwestern Pennsylvania in Crawford County, and home to the largest lake in the state. Pymatuning Reservoir, which straddles the border with Ohio, encompasses more than 17,000 acres.
Not surprisingly, the lake is home to a lot of fish. Pymatuning has a growing reputation as a fine largemouth lake; clubs hold frequent tournaments as it’s one of only a few waters open to bass fishing during the spawn. It remains a good place to target walleyes, too. In fact, recent trap net catches show the population is at its highest in a decade. There are as many walleyes, and as many legal-sized fish, here as anywhere outside of Lake Erie. Pymatuning also draws muskie anglers from all over as it annually gives up fish exceeding 40 inches, and occasionally anglers have hooked muskies up to 50 inches.
There are lots of kid-friendly fish, too. Channel catfish are super abundant. Casting a nightcrawler, chicken liver or piece of cut bait into the lake at dusk often leads to nice catches.
Panfish are plentiful, as well. There are nice crappies and bluegills and even smallish yellow perch.
Shoreline access is good. There are a number of boat launches (motors up to 20 horsepower are permitted) and marinas in Jamestown, Linesville and Espyville that offer rentals while selling bait, snacks and gear.
Along The Way
Like all state parks, Pymatuning has plenty of tent, RV and cabin camping, and lots of picnic areas and restrooms for day trippers. There’s swimming, as well.
No trip to Pymatuning is complete, though, without stopping at the spillway on Hartstown Road, just south of Linesville. It’s here where “the ducks walk on the fishes’ backs.” Bring lots of day-old bread or buy it on site and you can feed the tens of thousands of carp that congregate and slurp down goodies in a splashy, noisy, wild frenzy.
Nearby is the Fish and Boat Commission’s Linesville fish hatchery, where visitors can see walleyes, muskies and other fish being raised, and check out displays and exhibits.
Another once-popular attraction, the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Pymatuning wildlife education center, located between the spillway and hatchery, is closed for renovations. Visitors can park and walk its trails, however. It’s common to see white-tailed deer, bald eagles, squirrels, waterfowl and other wildlife.
FRENCH CREEK STATE PARK
French Creek State Park is the definition of an oasis. Straddling the Berks and Chester county line west of Philadelphia, its 7,700-plus acre are the largest block of contiguous forest between Washington, D.C., and New York City.
It’s also home to good fishing. The park has two lakes: 22-acre Scotts Run and 68-acre Hopewell. The former is primarily a stocked trout fishery. It traditionally gets two loads of rainbows, in March and mid-April. They’ll hold over a while, so anglers still get them into May on everything from paste baits to meal worms, wax worms, red worms and the like.
Hopewell Lake provides most of the action as spring and summer progress, though. It’s managed under “big bass” regulations, meaning anglers can only keep those longer than 15 inches. The minimum is 12 in most waters. That’s an attempt to produce more quality-sized fish. It’s worked, according to some follow-up surveys, as biologists have reported increasing numbers of larger fish.
The lake also holds black and white crappies and bluegills, with some quality-sized fish available. There are lots of brown and yellow bullhead catfish, too, and anglers using nightcrawlers get into them frequently. It’s even possible to hook a northern pike or pickerel. Neither is native to this drainage, but past stockings have led to some surviving.
Just be aware, the lake can get weedy.
Along The Way
Both Hopewell and Scotts Run offer good shore access; Hopewell also has a boat rental concession.
Away from the water, French Creek has hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding trails, as well as a disc golf course and camping for tents and RVs. Cabin, cottage and yurt rentals are also available.
There are two other things worthy of note. First, the park — labeled the “orienteering capital of North America — is home to a permanent self-guiding orienteering course for practicing map and compass skills. Second, for history buffs, the park is where you’ll find Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site. It’s a restored 1830s cold-blast furnace. In summer, costumed historical interpreters tell its story.
LACKAWANNA STATE PARK
Found in northeastern Pennsylvania, just north of Scranton, Lackawanna State Park is, like many parks, designed to be a multi-use facility. That doesn’t mean it’s not good to fish, though.
At 198 acres, Lackawanna Lake is small enough to get stocked with trout. Anglers do well on its rainbow trout into early summer and again in fall using natural and artificial baits, particularly by targeting deeper water. That deeper water is found near the dam breast, the Route 407 bridge, at the mouth of Kennedy Creek and where the lake narrows near the Bullhead Bay boat launch.
At the same time, the lake is big enough to support healthy populations of warmwater fish, too. The largemouth bass fishery is particular noteworthy. Past surveys have turned up largemouths going 23 inches and nearly 7 pounds. If those are exceptional, even the lake’s more typical bass are still nice. When biologists last analyzed fish, the majority fell between 11 and 18 inches.
The lake also holds a good population of bluegills, many of them quality size. Black crappies are common, if sometimes smaller, while brown and yellow bullhead catfish are plentiful and frequently big enough to be worth keeping.
Access is good — trails follow the shoreline around much of the lake — and anglers can launch their own boat at any of three sites. Be aware that only electric motors can be used. There’s also a boat concessionaire located near the swimming beach.
Along The Way
Lackawanna State Park offers camping for tenters and owners of RVs, as well as cottages and yurts for those who want to be under a roof. Visitors who come just for the day can swim, hike, mountain bike and more.
If you’re looking to perhaps try something new, the park offers a full schedule of environmental and interpretive events throughout the year. Offerings range from guided paddling trips and scavenger hunts to looks at once-injured live animals being rehabilitated by the Second Chance Wildlife Center. A full season schedule is available by contacting the park.
CLEAR CREEK STATE PARK
Here’s one to try if you want to experience something a little different.
Located in Jefferson County, Clear Creek State Park lies along the Clarion River. It’s a peaceful if gorgeous Class I water, meaning it’s ideal for beginning canoers and kayakers. It’s also full of fish. Smallmouth bass are the predominant species. It’s hard to beat slowly rifting downstream, casting anything from a nigthcrawler or minnow to a soft plastic tube or swimbait to the river’s many rocks and boulders. The result is often feisty action from fish that can sometimes exceed 15 or even occasionally 18 inches.
Be advised to go early. The Clarion can get shallow; it’s best floated in spring and early summer. Try this in August and you’ll likely be dragging your boat as floating in it.
People know that, so expect crowds. Weekends bring out lots of pleasure boaters, both paddlers and people floating in tubes. Some fish, some don’t. Getting space is not usually an issue, though.
There are several launches along the river so you can bring your own boat or rent one from any of the numerous concessionaires.
Either way, be sure to rent a campsite in the “canoe only” section of the park campground. There are only a couple of these, and you can only stay one night at a time. But their presence allows you to launch upstream and float right back to your tent. It’s a neat experience.
Along The Way
While in this area, be sure to see nearby Cook Forest State Park. Also on the Clarion, it’s unique for being home to the “forest cathedral.” A National Natural Historic Landmark, it’s a stand of white pines and hemlocks that includes some of the oldest, tallest trees of either species anywhere east of the Mississippi River.
The park’s Log Cabin Inn, meanwhile, is a 1934 structure that houses logging tools, taxidermy exhibit and other displays.
Visitors can also walk to the fire tower at the Seneca Point overlook. It’s always possible to climb its stairs for a view; at times, the tower’s cabin-like top itself is even open.