IN PENNSYLVANIA: Penn's Creek

For 40 miles of its course through the eroded ramparts of the Appalachians, a rare and fertile limestone stream offers varied opportunities to trout fishermen
April 07, 1958

Karoondinha, theIndians called it, but the white men named it after William Penn's grandson,and it appears on maps variously as John Penn's, Penn's or Penn Creek. Mosteastern anglers would call it a river. It has brown and rainbow trout,certainly up to seven pounds' weight and possibly twice that, throughout itsmore than 40 miles of fishing. It is rated by the few experts who know it asthe best fly-rod trout water in the East.

In a manner ofspeaking, no one knows this splendid stream which flows so close to the homesof a million anglers. Even its name is scarcely known outside the KeystoneState, because it is fished mostly by Pennsylvanians. And only a handful ofthose realize its fly-fishing potential, since nearly all of them are eitherbait fishermen or spinners.

Penn's Creek liesin the angle between the main Susquehanna and its West Branch tributary and is60 miles long. The first 40 miles of it are trout-fishing water; the last 20miles are visited only by bass fishermen. It emerges as a full-fledged troutbrook, too wide to jump across, from Penn Cave, near Bellefonte in CentreCounty. At its mid-point, around Weikert, it is as wide as the big Beaverkill,a hundred feet or more, but has more water in it. From Glen Iron down to WhiteSprings, where the trout fishing is ordinarily said to end, it is really boatwater, it being impossible to cover the big, long pools otherwise. In fact, itis possible to "float" and fish the river from Coburn down, on thespring high water, and each year a few adventurous anglers do so.

Penn's Creekflows between two great Appalachian ramparts, through a V-shaped valley whichis gentle farmland at the lower, wide end but steep and rugged at the upper,where the sides crowd close to the stream. For the middle half of its fishinglength it runs between steep, forested and infinitely lonely slopes, a typicalmountain stream with white water, rapids and rocky bottom which requires stronglegs and a staff to wade in the early season. But on both its upper and lowerends it flows quietly through open fields, over a fine gravel bottom which isweeded in some places. There are but four tiny villages on its 40 miles oftrout water. There is not an inch of posted water on Penn's, for it isnavigable; the early settlers ran loaded 40-foot "arks" down it on thehigh water.

The first 14miles from Penn Cave to Coburn are open meadow water, dead smooth, quiet,gravel-bottomed and easy wading. They are fished hard at the beginning of theseason, but this is such lovely dry-fly water that the visitor should plan totry it out after the fly season is far enough along to have discouraged thebait fishermen. Below Coburn there are four miles of water beginning to be amountain stream, down to Poe Paddy State Park. The "village" (oneresident family) of Ingleby is the fishing capital of this upper river. Intothis stretch empties Elk Creek, an excellent fishing stream, which just abovethe junction receives Pine Creek, a small but also excellent stream. The wholearea is notable for its fishing. From Poe Paddy State Park down to the junctionof Cherry Run, above Weikert, are some five miles of relatively inaccessibleand therefore lightly fished mountain stream which is such fine water as to beworth the trouble of walking to it—fast, broken water and deep pools. One,which has the remarkable name of Aumiller's Bottom, has produced someunbelievable fish.

Cherry Runitself, though small, is rated one of the half-dozen best brook-trout streamsin the state and can be fly-fished with a short rod. From Cherry Run down toGlen Iron there are about 10 miles of cabin or camp country; the woods aredotted with them, including a number of colonies or groups. Here the valley iswidening out and the slopes become gentler, but it is a rough and ruggedstretch of water with deep holes, white water, flats, "spinning wheels"(big deep eddies) and every variety of water, all rough-bottomed. Here is wherethe fishing pressure centers so that parking is sometimes a problem, for spaceis limited.

Below Glen Ironthe river is flat, gravelly and weedy and it is really boat water, but a manwith high waders and high determination, plus a good casting arm, can do a lotin it. The trout fishing is generally held to end at White Springs, but everyknowledgeable and experienced angler whom I queried said emphatically thatbigger fish than the upper water holds can be found in the junction pools andcold holes clear down to and including the confluence of Penn's with theSusquehanna River.

Penn's Creek is alimestone stream. Limestone trout streams are comparatively rare in the UnitedStates, but in the central part of Pennsylvania, where the Appalachians end andthe Alleghenies begin, there is a whole group of them. "Downstate,"around Harrisburg, they are meek, muddy and choked with weed althoughunbelievably fat with fish food, as are all limestoners. But the northernstreams are mountain and forest waters, among which Penn's Creek is outstandingfor its size, its wooded valley and its bold and varied aspect. At first sightit appears to be a typical dashing "freestone" (non-limestone) river.But it is a limestoner, and its basic characteristics are those of an Englishchalk stream however little it may look like one.

FOOD FOR THEFISH

It is sofantastically rich in food elements that every stone is covered with theunderwater forms of stream insects, and the water is a milky gray-green withplankton and other microscopic food organisms. It is always so cool that it hasfine fly-fishing all summer long. It carries through the winter as much as 75%(an incredible proportion on any other type of stream) of the stocked fish leftin it at the end of the fishing season, since it never has destructive"anchor," or bottom, ice. Its flow is so stable that even after goingwithout any rainfall worth mentioning between early April and late Septemberlast year, it was down by only about two feet and fishable right up to itssource. And all because of its limestone spring origin.

As a"composite" stream, Penn's Creek has fewer of the round-bodied,free-swimming and burrowing types of May fly nymphs than are found in the"pure" limestoners. But it has incredible quantities and innumerablespecies of the flat-bodied clambering types characteristic of fast water. It isloaded, too, with the big black-and-yellow stone fly nymphs and with variouscaddis, including the grannom with the green egg sac. Fishermen coming out ofthe stream often find the whole front of their waders covered with crawlingcaddis flies and gluey egg masses.

The main hatcheson Penn's Creek begin in early April with a small dark-winged Ephemerella,which is imitated by the artificial Hendrickson and the Red Quill. Then fromlate April into late May there comes every day, conveniently between 10 o'clockand noon, a good solid hatch of small "sulphurs" of the Ephemerellasubvaria group, which look like the familiar Light Cahill (Stenonema ithaca) ofthe freestone streams but have bodies ranging in color from cream to butter.This hatch is always a dramatic event. One moment the stream is entirely deadand the next it is covered with rising fish as the golden-bodied littlebeauties begin bursting from the surface and taking wing.

Penn's Creek isfamous for its hatches of the shad fly, or green drake, between May 25 and June15, which, normally though not invariably, are tremendous in volume. As onother waters, the duns—green drakes—hatch sporadically through the day, butPenn's hatches are often so large as to bring the fish to the surface and thusprovide good dry-flyfishing during the day. The fall of spinner—graydrakes—comes at dusk like a thunderclap, a tremendous thing. The air is sothick with the huge white-bodied, black-tailed, gray-winged flies that onecannot see a man a hundred yards upstream, and every backwater is covered withdrifted windrows of the spent insects. That is when every fish in the riverfeeds, and it is nothing unusual for an angler to get into four or five hugetrout, one after another—fish so big and strong that they cannot be held butrun off downstream to the end of the line and break the leader unless thefisherman has a great deal of backing line, skill and luck.

It is a specialglory of Penn's Creek that even after the green drake is off, there continue tobe intermittent hatches of a great variety of flies, right through to LaborDay, and, hence, good fishing. In fact, the fishing is so uniformly good onPenn's that one expert prefers the first weeks of the season, to April 20;another, late April through May, for the sulphurs; a third, May 25 to June 15,the shad-fly season; and one of the best prefers July and August. Among theselate-hatching flies are some, variously identified as blue dun and iron bluedun, so small that they are successfully imitated only with Nos. 20 to 24artificials.

So littlefly-fishing is done on Penn's Creek, relatively speaking, that, to myknowledge, no special fly patterns have been developed for it nor is there asingle custom flytier in the area. However, the following standard patterns arepopular (note that all except the drakes—which imitate the shad fly—should beNo. 14 or smaller, whether wet or dry):

For dry flies,the Hendrickson, Red Quill, Light Cahill, Pale Sulphur (like the Light Cahillbut with yellowish silk body in a range of shades), Red Fox, Ginger Quill, PaleEvening Dun and Spinner, Grannom, and the Green, Gray and Black Drakes.

For wet flies,the Hendrickson, Light Cahill, Light Sulphur, Leadwing Coachman and all theflat-bodied nymphs, particularly the Stone Fly.

Everyone whoknows Penn's Creek agrees emphatically that it is very difficult to fishbecause the fish are so well fed. They do not strike vigorously but sipdelicately after careful inspection, and will not come at all unless theoffering is perfectly made and the artificial matches the hatch. With the dryfly long floats are necessary, since the fish often follow a fly, artificial ornatural, for five feet or more, inspecting it closely before either taking orrejecting it. The catch of the average fly-fisherman on Penn's is poorer thanon many freestone streams but the good angler can really clean up after helearns the water.

It is impossibleto bring such well-fed fish to the surface by "fishing the water" withbig, fancy patterns when there is no natural hatch. Even when there is a hatch,it is usually too sparse to bring the fish up and start them feeding. So mostof the good surface fishing is confined to the period after sunset—and, toooften, after dark—when the more concentrated falls of spinner occur. For thisreason Penn's is generally regarded as primarily a wet-fly stream. But the manwho wants fun more than fish can have rare sport with the dry fly in thedaytime if he will fish only to rising fish, and match the hatch.

A CONSTANTSTREAM

It is difficultto fish a wet fly upstream on Penn's, since the water is colored and one cannotsee the fish coming to the fly. The standard method is therefore "acrossand down," throwing slack behind the fly to give it a natural drift andallow it to sink as much as possible; ordinarily, it is advisable to fish deep.Many Penn's anglers fish a wet fly or a nymph during a hatch instead of a dryimitation of the emerging dun.

In the earlyseason there is fishing all the way from Penn Cave to White Springs, but afterthe middle of June the fishing will be better above Weikert. In the inlet poolsof Weikert Run, Cherry Run, Poe Creek, Elk Creek and—in Elk—Pine Creek, thereare always fish and often big ones, for there the water is always cold. Inbrassy mid-August of a drought year I found the water at Weikert to be under70° in the morning and 72° in midafternoon.

Of course thereare no records, but casual inquiry elicited the following reports of good fishtaken, mostly last year but a few in 1956; bear in mind that Penn's fish runvery heavy for size—a 22½-inch fish will go a full five pounds. There are nobig-headed lanky slinks in this fat water.

Near Coburn, oneman—a great expert, to be sure—got 32 fish, 16 to 18 inches, on locust in 1957and took five, same sizes, in an evening, on natural May fly. In the same areaanother great expert took four fish over 20 inches, a 16-inch and an 18-inchfish, all in one day and night. The foregoing were all brown and rainbowtrout.

The followingwere also taken: below Coburn, a 27-inch brown and a 20-inch rainbow; in PoePaddy Park, a 23-inch rainbow and a 14-inch speckled brook trout; in Aumiller'sBottom, below the park, a 27-inch brown; in Butter Rock Hole (pool) belowCherry Run, a big rainbow. In the same place, the previous year, Guy Gheen ofSunbury lost "a tremendous fish" on a big Irresistible when the hookstraightened—probably after dark. And in the next pool below, Mr. Chapman saw a36-inch brown run right aground while chasing a 15-inch brown last year.

Also last seasona Weikert angler got a limit of brook trout up to 12 inches and turned overanother of about 16 inches in Cherry Run, on grasshopper, in mid-August. And aweek later a boy, Skip Vonada of Woodward, got a 21½-inch brown and a 15-inchrainbow and lost "the big one," on grasshopper, all in one day, inlittle Pine Creek right in the village.

Note that most ofthese fish were taken in the upper river, and most of them on bait. The twofacts are interrelated. There are just as many big fish in the lower water; infact, more and bigger. But fishing there requires long casts, a nearimpossibility with natural bait and a complete one for fishermen who don't haverods capable of it and can't cast anyway.

BIG BY DAY,BIGGER BY NIGHT

Although thePenn's Creek angler always has a real and substantial chance of getting into abig fish by daylight, the devoted big-fish fisherman will go after them atnight. And, considering how the Pennsylvania anglers demand meat, it is curiousthat so little night fishing is done in this, one of the few states in which itis legal. The universal lure for big fish is grasshopper, although in a locustyear the fiddle-playing cicada is as popular as the saltatorial,tobacco-chewing 'hopper, and I think the difficulty of getting either one outof a box and onto a hook in the dark is the reason why there is so little nightfishing.

But just aseffective and capable of being cast far and often besides are artificialimitations of these naturals, along with a hair mouse, a bass plug spanked downand wiggled like a drowning June bug or a salmon dry fly "worked" toimitate a big moth that has run out of gas and ditched.

Night fishing isthe most dramatic and thrilling form of fly-fishing, and on the lower ends ofthese northern limestoners one has a sporting chance of getting into two orthree or four big fish, three pounds or better, in a night. However, the angleris categorically warned that under no circumstances should he go at night intowater which he has not explored by day. He should carry at least twoflashlights, have a companion and refrain from swinging his arms in heavybrush.

The fisherman onPenn's Creek should not grasp tree branches to pull himself out of the stream,and in general should keep his hands off things. That is because there are somerattlesnakes in Pennsylvania, just as there are in every other state that hastrout fishing, except possibly Maine and New Hampshire. Fishermen do not seethem or even know of their existence because usually they are not found alongstreams. But they live mostly on mice, and mice must have water, green food andgrasshoppers for subsistence. When drought drives the mice down to the swampsand streams, the rattlers follow them. The Pennsylvania angler's chances ofbeing bitten are astronomically smaller than his chances of being killed on thehighway driving to the stream.

ExperiencedPenn's Creek fishermen agree that the spring wading is rough, difficult andeven somewhat dangerous; a wading staff is a necessity and maybe even a MaeWest, they say. But two things indicate that this alarmist advice needs a grainof salt. One is that the country boys get along pretty well in plain rubberboots, which are mighty slippery footwear. The other is that the strongestwarnings come from the most daring waders, those who try to cross the stream inhigh water or attempt to follow a big fish downstream over the boulders.

"I got intoan enormous fish and tried to follow him down," said Bill Grant, awell-known Sunbury angler. "He had me all the way under water three timesbefore he smashed me up [i.e., broke the leader]." No one but a real"algerine" would even try to follow a fish over those boulders.

And that bringsus to a fascinating and curious word which is not merely local to the area butapparently dying out. Its derivation is a mystery, unless it refers to thefierce, bearded Algerine pirates whom the U.S. Navy trounced off "theshores of Tripoli" in 1804, but its present meaning is, approximately: anative; an oldtimer; a hard-case hunter or fisherman whose passion for thesport drives him to any lengths, a fisherman who will wade up to the chin andtake any chance in order to reach a big fish, one who doesn't shave from thetime he goes into the woods until he comes out, nor is touched by water,internally or externally, except when he falls in. It is not necessary to be analgerine to fish the limestone creeks but a touch of it helps.

SLIPPERYFOOTING

Much of thestream bottom is composed of rough, closely spaced, parallel limestone ridges,the eroded tops of folded strata. This makes for difficult wading, but hobnailshold well on it. But in the mountain section from Ingleby to Glen Iron, thereare a lot of water-rounded stones too big for hobnails to grip and slipperywith stream growths. Here the local experts use chain sandals over felt soles,but good piano-felt soles and leather heels studded with big, widely spaced,iron hobnails will do as well.

The rest of thetackle is conventional—good high waders, an eight-or nine-foot rod, accordingto preference, and at least 100 yards of backing on the reel. Hard-braided,waterproofed, nylon bait-casting line, 10- or 12-pound test, is strong andcompact and tends to float, making it easier to retrieve one's backing. Foreither wet or dry fly, 4x leader points are standard except for the tiny Nos.20 to 24 flies, which require points finer than 5x (.005"). For theseplatyl must be used. Leaders should be nine feet for wet and 12 feet for dryfly. The best wading staff is the one you cut on the stream bank and tie toyourself with a yard of cord. You will need a landing net and, by all means,let it be a big one, a full arm's length deep.

On a stream withsuch densely overgrown banks the angler is apt to have difficulty in findingthe place at which he left his car and entered the water. If he has a smallroll of toilet paper in his coat, he can drape a few yards of it on the bushesfor a conspicuous marker which may save him much futile tramping and worry.

Although thepampered Beaverkill angler, who will not go a hundred yards from his car toreach the farthest bends, would call Penn's Creek inaccessible, it is easier toget to than any other stream of the area. A decrepit one-track railroad (onetrain a day some days; no passenger service) closely parallels the river fromWhite Springs to Penn Cave and offers a direct route although it is rough andcindery walking. It is the only means of covering the stretch between CherryRun and Tunnel Mountain (which is a mile below Coburn) except for a gravel roadwhich comes in to Ingleby and another which starts outside Coburn and, aftergoing up and down some hearty grades, winds up in Poe Paddy State Park at theriver. A gravel road follows the stream from Penn Cave down to Tunnel Mountain.From Cherry Run to White Springs, various gravel roads come in to the river atfrequent intervals, as any road map shows. Along the more popular stretches thefishermen soon beat paths along the bank.

There are tworemarkable fishing spots along this river where one can leave his car, fisharound three sides of a mountain spur—a mile for Tunnel Mountain and 1½ milesfor Poe Paddy Park—and end up within 25 or 50 yards of his car, to which hereturns by walking through the railroad tunnels which pierce each of thesespurs. Both stretches of water are fine fishing.

The people of thePenn's Creek area, you will find, are courteous, helpful but independentPennsylvania Dutch descendants of the early settlers. Some curiosa of the areaare worth noting: the area is making one of the last gallant stands for thedouble bed. Usually a double cabin or hotel room means one big room and one bigbed. Also, meat is uniformly cooked to death. What you call a rare steak,around Penn's Creek is regarded as still bellowing and struggling.

Your firstfishing trip to Penn's Creek should not be a picnic with the wife and kids butan expedition with a stouthearted companion and a thoroughly reliable car withnot too little road clearance. Distances are long and lonely, and towcars andrepairmen few and far between. Take a week early in the season to findaccommodations, learn the river and the roads and make friends. Then go back inMay fly time and convince yourself that there is no fishing in the East tocompare with that on Penn's Creek.

HOW TO GET THERE
WHERE TO STAY
WHAT TO BRING

Route to Penn's Creek. The car traveler from the northor east aims for Williamsport, Pa., on the West Branch of the Susquehanna 30miles north of the Penn's Creek confluence. To reach Penn's headwaters fromWilliamsport take U.S. Route 220 to Milesburg, then State Route 53 throughBellefonte to Centre Hall on State Route 45, not far from Penn Cave. To reachthe lower water from Williamsport take U.S. Route 15 to Lewisburg, then west onState Route 45. One can also go to Lock Haven; take State Route 880 toLogantown and then take a narrow gravel road through Livonia to theintersection of State Route 45, which parallels Penn's Creek at some distance.It is from this route that fisherman can pick the gravel roads running to anumber of the good fishing spots I mention on these pages. To reach the lowerwaters from the south or west take U.S. Route 15 from Harrisburg to Lewisburg.For the upper part of the creek, take U.S. 220 from the west to Milesburg.

Allegheny Air Lines maintains a good schedule toWilliamsport, where the air traveler can rent a car. The Pennsylvania Railroadhas service between Harrisburg and Williamsport.

Food and lodging. Penn's Creek is a good place tofish, but no place for the fisherman who feels obliged to eat and sleep ingrand style. Few tourists move through the area, so there are no motels ofmerit. Roadside food is scarce and mediocre. The best bet for the fishermantrying the upper creek is the Brinkerhoff Hotel in Bellefonte. For the lowercreek, about the only place close by is the Mifflinburg Hotel inMifflinburg—decent accommodations and good food at low prices. At Woodward, onState Route 45, there is the small, clean Woodward Inn.

Tackle recommendations. In addition to the equipment Ihave favored in my full report on these pages, for the visitor who plans nightfishing I suggest also a nine-foot bass bug rod.

Special equipment. Beyond my recommendations on thesepages, I indorse, for the fisherman intent on prowling, a good insectrepellent, a good compass and good detailed maps. The fisherman would do wellto order from the Geological Survey, Washington 25, D.C., the Centre Hall, theMillheim, the Mifflinburg and the Sunbury quadrangles—with woodland coverage,scale 1:62,500—of the topographic series of Pennsylvania.

Guides. There are no guides explicitly for hire assuch, but I found plenty of local fishermen who offered to take me along as acompanion, gratis. In Weikert, right on Penn's Creek, the Union CountySportsmen's Club has taken over an old C.C.C. camp. They have pretty good food,double-decker bunks (for which members supply their own bedding) and a beerbar. It is the place for meeting the men who know the creek. You can join theclub for a $2 initiation and $4 annual dues. At least go in the club and gazeat the 34-pound brown trout that was speared in the Bellefonte hatchery and nowhangs on the wall.

Licenses and laws. The resident license costs $3.25;nonresident license fee is reciprocal with your state but $3.25 minimum.License available from Department of Revenue, Miscellaneous Licenses Section,Harrisburg, Pa., or county treasurers or from local sporting goods stores inLewisburg, Bellefonte, Mifflinburg and Millheim. Season is from April 15 toLabor Day. Limit eight trout (any species) a day, six inches minimum. Checksyllabus given with license for exceptions.

PHOTOPENN'S CREEK, FAMOUS FOR YEARS AMONG LOCAL BAIT ANGLERS, HAS SELDOM BEEN TRIED BY SERIOUS FLY-FISHERMEN MAP PENN'SCREEK emerges from the strata of Penn Cave as a full-fledged trout creek. Inthe first winding miles, it moves easily over a gravel bottom, then, belowCoburn, it takes on the aspects of a mountain stream, finally widening andflattening again. Below White Springs, while there is still chance for trout,it is essentially boat water.
ELK CREEK
PINE CREEK
PENN CAVE
MILLHEIM
COBURN
WOODWARD
INGLEBY
CHERRY RUN
WEIKERT
GLEN IRON
WHITE SPRINGS
PENNS CREEK
POE PADDY STATE PARK
MIFFLINBURG
WILLIAMSPORT
LEWISBURG
WEST BRANCH
NORTH BRANCH
SUSOUEHANNA RIVER
HARRISBURG
PENNSYLVANIA
WILLIAMSPORT
HARRISBURG
OPEN MEADOW WATER, QUIET GRAVEL BOTTOM, WADING
VERY GOOD
FAST BROKEN WATER ALMOST INACCESSIBLE
GRAVEL, WEEDY
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)