Post-Drought Trout: North-Central Pennsylvania
The drought of the summer and autumn of 2016 was relentless and likely merciless to the trout of north-central Pennsylvania. Rainfall was virtually nonexistent and stream volumes plummeted. Though I hadn’t ventured northward for a fishing outing to see the damage first-hand, a couple bike rides on the Pine Creek Trail between Ross Run and Ansonia revealed some bone-dry streams and others with trickles so small one had to wonder if minnows could survive. A detour on one ride in mid-autumn revealed that Slate Run, a FFO stream in the Tiadaghton State Forest that I’m not allowed to fish, still had a minimal life-sustaining flow. Pine Creek itself reached historic lows. But how much damage was done to the streams I fish in north-central Pennsylvania? This is the question I hoped to answer.
In the wee hours of the morning on April 29, 2017, I fired up my SUV for the 100-mile drive northward to a third-order stream in the Susquehannock State Forest. I knew that going there on a Saturday was a gamble, but I hoped that the opening day of spring gobbler season would occupy most of the people in the region. Besides, I only needed a small window of time to get up the hollow before other anglers might arrive since my destination creek was inaccessible except at the lower end.
The northwoods were showing their springtime splendor:
The air temperature was 52-degrees and the water was 49.5-degrees when I arrived shortly after daybreak. I had seen nine deer during the drive but only once had to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision. The sky was cloudy and spotty showers were expected. The high was expected to hit about 70-degrees.
I booted-up quickly and put a few Yellow Delicious apples in my vest, as well as a 24-ounce bottle of tap water. I’m too cheap to buy bottled water. I walked over to the creek. It looked great.
A lone visit to this stream last year on May 26th, 2016, had yielded 143 wild trout in 7.50 hours. But would there be any trout here today? For all I knew the stream could have gone completely dry last autumn.
The first few spots didn’t produce even a whiff from a trout, but then a rather insignificant riffle gave up a pair of native brookies. At least some trout survived, I thought. Great! I was encouraged.
Two more native brook trout were caught before a SUV pulled in beside my SUV. Two fly anglers quickly got out and jumped right in front of me, giving me no more than fifty yards of a small wild trout stream to myself. I mean, really? Nice.
I climbed up on the mountainside and circled around the two gentlemen, giving them a wide berth. By the time I got back into the stream I was soaked from perspiration and a little chilly.
It took a little more than fifteen minutes to corral my next trout but gradually I got into a rhythm. Many pools yielded no trout, however, particularly the secondary ones. Even some of the deeper pools appeared troutless. But since I was basically researching so to speak, I moved onward.
I was glad to see that at least some trout had survived.
In one of the better pools I had a wild brown of over 12” chase my White Bead Gold spinner, but it wasn’t until later that my first wild brown of the morning was landed.
I found a small shed white-tailed deer antler, though I didn’t keep it.
I moved up the hollow rapidly.
But gradually that sinking feeling that there weren’t many trout began to sink in. It’s difficult to take photos of trout when you aren’t catching any.
After about 1.5 miles up the hollow I had thirty trout in 2.75 hours. Then I fished another .75 hours and saw only one minnow-sized trout, and that was in the beginning of that time span. I suspected the stream must have dried up completely in this area, though in the past there was a good two more miles of trout water ahead based on past experience.
I sure would have liked to catch more of these…
…but it wasn’t to be. It was time to hike out. I scaled the side of the mountain in order to reach a State Forest road to walk back to my vehicle.
Though basing my “research” on one outing is probably a little lame, if my experience was typical of reality, I’d have to say that the drought probably put a huge dent in the trout population in the lower reaches and perhaps wiped it out entirely in the upper region on this stream.
After reaching my SUV I drove to a larger stream hoping that more trout survived there. Of course, there was always the chance that other anglers had already fished where I was going, so all bets were off at this point as far as getting a handle on the trout population.
Right away a large native brookie nailed my spinner.
After catching five trout in .75 hours and seeing some smashed down grass on the banks, I figured someone was ahead of me and it was time to move on.
Next I chose another small mountain stream, just a touch smaller than my first stream of the day.
Much to my surprise and delight, I began to pick up trout right away, though the stream has better habitat farther upstream.
But again, for the distance covered, there weren’t many trout, though I was glad to see at least some seeds remained to spawn this autumn.
I also got distracted too by the wildflowers in particular. Large-flowered trillium, a flower I don’t recall seeing for over thirty years, grew prolifically on the slope to the left of the stream.
The flowers were nearly four inches across, so the display of hundreds of these flowers was spectacular.
False hellebore also grew along the stream, its foliage more attractive than the flower that will appear later.
I really like its green textured leaves.
This uprooted tree had many dens or attempted kingfisher dens.
After catching fifteen trout in an hour the action petered out. I looked upstream and saw a fly fisherman glancing back at me, a sure indication he had walked up the hollow on the old logging road that parallels the stream, passed me, and then jumped in front of me.
Before ending the day I fished another section of the larger stream I had fished earlier and caught nine trout in .75 hours.
My total for the day was 59 trout in 6.00 hours. I took about 120 photos today.
So what did I learn on my little journey? Well, for sure the two little streams I fished couldn’t have gone completely dry for their entire lengths last year, unless there was a migration this winter or spring from the streams they flow into. Without a doubt, there is at minimum a remnant population of wild trout remaining. On the larger stream I really have no idea since any or all of it could have been fished earlier that day. I did catch fourteen trout in 1.50 hours in it, but I fished a long ways, casting just one cast to the better spots.
Overall today seemed like just another slow, difficult outing where I felt like I had to work for every trout I caught. Kind of like the obstacle courses streams have become with all of the dying hemlocks and ash trees.
Most of my fishing this year has had this feel. To see if it was real or imagined, I dug back into my stats to compare this year with last year through the end of April. Here’s what I found:
In 2016 I caught 1,394 trout in 123.50 hours during 16 days of fishing through the end of April. I averaged 11.28 trout per hour (TPH) and 87.12 trout per day (TPD). I caught 100 or more trout on 8 of those 16 days; my best day was 174 trout. I caught no trout that were 16” or longer. I fished 17 streams.
This year I have 1,562 trout in 163.50 hours during 21 days of angling. I’m averaging 9.55 TPH and 74.38 TPD. I’ve topped 100 trout on just 6 of those 21 days; my best day is 122. I’ve caught 7 trout so far that were 16” or longer. I’ve fished 25 different streams.
I think the most telling stats are TPH and the number of days over 100 trout, and they are down considerably. From what I’ve seen thus far, trout populations also seem to be down even on the limestone streams. I’m definitely concerned but I also realize that the fishing almost always gets a lot better beginning in early May.
- Frank Nale-