Pennsylvania's Best Early Trout
April 16, 2019
There are plenty of places to fish for early trout in Pennsylvania. Here are the best.
Trout fishing opportunities have certainly changed over the years. It doesn’t seem that long ago that spring trout fishing was synonymous with the mid-April trout opener. A few “Fish-For-Fun” projects were scattered around the state, where fly-fishing was permitted on a year-round basis. But for most anglers trout fishing didn’t start until around the time the lawn needed its first mowing.
Today, the trout angler has numerous options for jump-starting the year’s adventures. At least a half-dozen special regulations programs exist that feature no-closed seasons. A host of waters – many of them stocked trout lakes – are open to trout fishing in March. And many wild trout streams can be fished in March (providing they aren’t also stocked) on a catch-and-release basis.
Before going any further, though, it’s important to emphasize the fact that there are many trout waters were fishing is not permitted in March. Namely, these are ones that fall into the category “Stocked Trout Waters.” These waters are off-limits to fishing of any kind from March 1 to the opening day of trout season; basically, these are managed as put-and-take trout fisheries, and receive the bulk of the stocked trout.
When in doubt about the status of a stream (or stream section) as to whether or not it’s considered stocked trout waters, it pays to make a call to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission regional office. I’ve done this several times and have received prompt, courteous answers. Contact information for regional offices is included with your yearly summary of regulations and is also available on the Fish and Boat Commission’s website at fishandboat.com.
What follows is a look at a selection of high-quality March trout fishing adventures. It includes a tailwater fishery, a wild brown trout stream, a stocked stream that also has a high level of wild fish, as well as some thoughts on pursing native brook trout, which are better distributed than most people realize.
While it’s unlikely the action will be as good as it will be in a couple months, during peak water temperatures and bug activity, typically there is enough action to help clear out the cobwebs collected from the past winter.
ALLEGHENY RIVER BELOW KINZUA DAM
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 in 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 (two- to four-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 six to eight 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 (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 dams outflows, many fish are taken on a threaded minnow rig that closely duplicates the stunned baitfish that pass through the dam.
The rig consists of a 24-inch length of line that serves as the leader. Tie both ends of the leader (by stacking the ends together, then tying an improved clinch knot) to a small swivel. You will end up with about a 12-inch loop as the leader. The other end of the swivel is tied to the main line. Clip the eye of a minnow-threading needle to the end of the leader loop, and then insert the needle into a shiner’s mouth, exiting through the minnow’s vent.
After detaching the needle, run the end of the loop through the eye of a treble hook, pulling along enough line to loop it back under the hook by way of a girth hitch. By pulling the leader from the swivel end, draw the shank of the hook into the minnow’s body, using enough force to put a slight bend in the shiner’s body so it slowly spins during the retrieve. Pinch on some split shot above the sinker for weight (or slide on a small egg sinker prior to tying to the swivel). The amount of weight will vary, depending on the flow level of the day.
The Kinzua tailrace fishes best when discharges are low, basically less than 2,000 cfs. Besides the spinning minnow rig, suspending jerkbaits in the 4- to 5-inch size, also excel in this area.
LITTLE JUNIATA RIVER — BLAIR AND HUNTINGDON COUNTIES
The Little Juniata River (commonly called the Little J) has overcome the water quality sins bestowed by man, recovering remarkably during the past couple of decades to currently support an outstanding wild trout fishery.
Starting out as a freestone stream near Altoona, the Little J picks up numerous limestone tributaries and springs on its journey to merge with the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata. Nearly 14 miles of this “limestone influenced” river section is managed as “Catch and Release, All Tackle.“This means that the stream is open year-round, and that any form of legal tackle is permitted, but that all fish must be released.
The Little J is fueled mostly by stream-bred brown trout. For many years the Fish and Boat Commission stocked the river with fingerling trout. Survey work done several years ago suggested that fingerling stockings were making little contribution to the dense brown trout fishery, that the vast majority of the fish were stream-bred. According to the agency’s fingerling trout stocking listings the Little J is no longer stocked (in the Catch and Release section). Some rainbows are present, often good-sized ones in the upper teens. These fish are likely renegades from private waters located in tributary streams.
Access is good along much of the Little J. Good roads parallel the upper portion of the river. There are several turnouts near the town of Spruce Creek. Below Spruce Creek (where the stream of the same name joins the Little J) there is a section of privately owned fishing club waters. Anglers can access this stretch but are not permitted above the high water mark.
Below the private club waters, the Little J flows through Rothrock State Forest. I’m particularly fond of this section, which can be accessed via a state forest lane that runs up along the stream from the town of Barree. Remember, though, that it’s still winter. Allow current conditions dictate where you fish at this time.
Besides the Catch and Release water, there is also a Delayed Harvest, Artificial Lures Only project on the Little J. It’s near the town of Tyrone, just at the start of where the spring water influence begins. This section is stocked, and also has wild fish. Fishing is permitted at this time of year, in accordance with the regulations that apply to DHALO areas.
All-purpose nymphs like the pheasant tail, muskrat and Prince are effective on the Little J this time of year, in sizes 14 through 18. Spin anglers can score on natural baits (red worms, ’crawlers) drifted through likely areas.
Despite being cold out, when Little J trout are feeding — and they do feed consistently during the winter months — they’ll be in the same type of fast current seams as later in the year. So, don’t make the mistake of spending all your time dredging the bottom of deeper pools.
YELLOW CREEK — BEDFORD COUNTY
Two of the Commission’s most widespread trout management programs – Fly-Fishing-Only and Delayed Harvest, Artificial Lures Only – account for a lot of early season fishing attention. Yellow Creek’s project falls into the former category and is one of my favorites.
Typically, these areas are stocked with adult trout. Yellow Creek receives stocked fish, but also has a good supply of stream-bred brown trout.
Like the Little J, Yellow Creek is supplied with a flow of limestone spring water, keeping it cool in the summer, but also ice-free in the winter. Its upper stretches — in the Waterside and Woodbury areas — are characteristic of a typical meadow spring creek. Around Loysburg it picks up gradient and flow.
The special regulations area is found below Loysburg and runs for nearly a mile from a cable near Red Bank Hill down to the mouth of Maple Run.
Access this area by way of Jacks Corner Road (SR 1024) off of Route 36. A nice parking area is provided, courtesy of the landowners. The Yellow Creek Coalition, a non-profit group, has done much to improve this project, including keeping it open for public fishing. You’re liable to find a flier from the YCC under your windshield after a day’s fishing, one mentioning upcoming fund raisers. Do what you can to help this group continue its fine work.
Yellow Creek and the Little J are all sizeable trout streams, ones likely to be running cold and full at this time of year. They aren’t the easiest to wade. Chest-high waders are recommended, as well as a wading staff.
The same nymph patterns suggested for the Little J and also be effective on Yellow Creek. Also, since Yellow Creek receives a good supply of stocked rainbows, be sure to keep bring along some egg patterns. Glo bugs have saved the day for me on this stream during the early season.
WILD “BACKCOUNTRY” TROUT
Much of Pennsylvania is laced with runs and streams that have fishable populations of wild, stream-bred trout. This includes native brook trout, as well as wild browns, even rainbows in some instances.
I recall some trips I made a couple years ago to a splendid Northwestern Pennsylvania trout streams during late winter, before the season closure the end of February. The creek was running full, but several quality browns in the 14- to 16-inch range were willing to chase down my #1 Rooster Tail. It made the day of hiking snow-lined banks well worthwhile.
The Fish and Boat Commission publishes a listing of streams where natural reproduction has been documented. As more streams are assessed, and more wild trout waters documented, the list gets longer and longer. It’s on the agency’s website. This document — organized on a county basis — serves as a starting point for finding wild trout waters. Understand that not every stream in the state has been assessed. Many have not. The ones with the highest level of wild trout – brook, brown and rainbow – receive a Class A distinction. Class A listings are also available on the Fish and Boat Commission’s website.
I look for streams that flow through wooded, road-less tracts, commonly state game lands, state forest, or national forest. Big tracts owned by timber interests also harbor some gems. Maps such as Penn Dot’s Type 10 county maps are great resources for locating such small streams.