Penn's Creek, Pennsylvania

Green Drakes
Many trout streams flaunt a wide reputation. Penns' Creek's is deserved. A limestone stream with freestone character, it boasts enough water to occupy any one angler, or group of anglers, with several lifetimes of fishing challenge and adventure. Each year thousands of anglers from a score of states and foreign countries enjoy the opportunities afforded by this magnificent waterway. Penn's is home to the most famous Green Drake hatch in the eastern United States, attendance at which is mandatory for the serious hatch-matcher (so is falling in and getting skunked during the hatch). In addition to the main stem, numerious tributaries provide even more sport. As if that were not enough, Penn's flows through pleasant surroundings, offering more to visitors than just fishing fun. The entire drainage provides a tremendous variety of recreation to a host of tourists, yet the term "tourist trap" is never heard in association with the stream or its environs.

Penn's Creek runs deeper in anglers' minds than surface appeal. It is a stream that challenges, taunts, and beckons at the same time. It can be an utter mystery, and even the best angler there, on his best day, cannot brag of having conquered Penn's. In that lies its appeal. The stream always hints at keeping something in reserve for the next time - perhaps. Penn's is one of the last places where a fisherman can detect some romance in the sport.

Orange cahill spinner

There are other streams where I can catch more trout, although I have had some truely mind-boggling days on Penn's There are other streams where I have better assurance of catching a big one, although the largest trout I ever saw hooked on a dry and the biggest brownie I ever saw in "open" water in Pennsylvania were at Penn's. But when I want to go fishing, in every sense of the word from anticipation to memory, I go to Penn's creek.

A Brief Overview

Willow arch near Spring Mills
Penn's Creek is divided by topography into three distinct zones, each with its own appearance and fishing characteristics. The bulk of angling interest focuses on the trout fishery in the two upper zones and the first few miles of the lower, which together totals some 35 miles of stream. Angling pressure and tactics vary from one zone to another. For a MAP of Penn's Creek, click here.

The upper zone comprises 13 miles - fertile agriculture basins known as Brush and Penn's Valleys. Flows, under normal conditions, consit largely of limestone springwater, running gently over a streambed of mud, sand, and gravel. Willow-lined undercuts and smooth flats support a fair population of wild brown trout, but not enough to qualify Penn's as Pennsylvania Class A wild trout stream. Consequently, the stream here is rated Class B water and receives hatchery plants shortly before and just after opening day of trout season. Early-season anglers take a heavy toll with Power Bait tactics.

Fall on Penn's The middle zone, approximately 15 miles in length, is radically different. The stream takes a rough ride through a series of gaps in a succession of high, forested ridges: the Seven Mountains. Dozens of small freestone feeders and seeps add their touch to the water's chemistry. An excellent population of wild brown trout exists in the first dozen miles, harbored by the mountains' castoff boulders that pave heavy riffles and deep pools.

The middle zone is what most anglers refer to when they talk about "fishing Penn's." It receives the heaviest pressure, for it is scenic, has excellent structure, and flaunts an unmatched range of aquatic life, making fishing there both fun and frustrating. Most of this water is rated Class A and not stocked. Anglers here are generally more skilled, because more ability is required to catch the Creator's product than man's. Most fly-fish, but alongside them can be observed the best bait men in the northeastern United States. Unfortunately, many anglers kill much, if not all of their catch.

Pennsylvania's state fish, the Penn's original char

After pushing through the hills, Penn's enters its lower zone - the pastoral Buffalo Valley. The stream is still Class A where it exits the hills, but quickly changes to Class B because of summer warming and liberal creel limits. Trout are stocked for the first few miles of Penns' passage through the Buffalo Valley, and they draw typical Pennsylvania Opening Day crowds. Wild trout are still present, however, and they, as well as the presence of good hatches, attract fly rod pressure. But when summer comes, lower Penn's is considered bass water from the village of Glen Iron all the way to its confluence with the Susquehanna River.

Geologic and Historic Background

Present-day Brush, Penn's, and Buffalo Valleys are located near the center of Pennsylvania's Valley and Ridge physiographic province, a great arc of mountains running diagonally across the state from Bedford County on the Maryland border to a point near East Stroudsbury on the Delaware River. Originally the bed of a vast, shallow sea, the region was formed by intermittent collisions of the African and North American Plates, which reared the Appalachian Mountains. Peculiarities in rock stata under the leading edge of the mountains caused the uplift to ripple, in places exposing massive deposits of soluable limestone.

Grannom caddis clustering on a rock Water repelled from less permeable formation of either side of the limestone wore away at its surface, leaving substantial valleys flanked by long high ridges. Because of fracturing and limestone's solubility, water in large volume was admitted into the ground, often disappearing en masse through large depressions called "swallow holes". This type of terrain, known as karst, conducts groundwater to places where the land's surface meets the water table. Springs result, the water carrying with it nutrients leached from the rock it has passed through. In Brush Valley, where water from a large area is channeled underground to one spring, Penn's Creek is born.

A fascinating aspect of karst topography's effect on Penn's Creek's fishery is that almost every stream in Penn's and Brush Valleys sinks into the ground at some point. This often causes confusion as to just what is flowing where. For instance, the "official" source of Penn's, which under conventional definition of the term is to be found at the farthest point up a stream where water flows year-round, is one of several unnamed runs that trickle down hollows on the side of Nittany Mountain. These candidates all disappear into swallow holes, however, which can be found along Route 192 west of Madisonburg. The sunken rivulets flow underground to Penn's Cave, where they re-emerge at what is considered, for practical purposes, the source of Penn's Creek.

Fanged beauty of Penn's - Watch where you step!

Penn's Creek's resilient trout fishery is the result of a happy set of geologic circumstances. Foremost in importance is the influence of terrain. The watershed's mean elevation is 1,330 feet in its upper portions. At Penn's Creek's latitude, groundwater at these altitudes maintains average annual temperatures of 38-51 degrees Fahrenheit, well within the range trout need. The elevation works in concert with the natal valley's karst topography, which stores exceptional amounts of groundwater and releases it, in constant flow, into the stream. Accordinly, Peen's suffers less of the boom/bust flow and temperature fluctuation affecting freestone streams. Barring heavy downpours, the stream is usually slow to rise. Once high, it take considerable time to drop. While temperatures can get uncomfortably high in dry summers, they do so slowly and with much less negative effect than on many other waters.

Angling History

Coffin flies
Memories of old-time fishing on Penn's Creek are buried with the early fishermen in the little graveyards of the region. The oldest record I have are boyhood recollections of the tales of my grandfather, Paul Dramer, a native of Penn's Valley who fished local waters from just before the turn of the century. At that time fly fishing was not done, being considered an inefficient means of transporting trout from water to table. Anything went, from alder switch with string and worm to trot lines set out at night. Papa's most memorable trout from that era was a big one taken in the tributary Pine Creek, on a rod left unattended (times have changed!) while he went to a nearby store for groceries.

Fishing on Penn's remained relatively unchanged, and undiscovered, through the first half of the Twentieth Century. "A few people fished the stream then, but not many. You could look up and down the stream and not see much competition; pressure was primarily from local anglers." (Joe Humphreys, reminiscing about the fourties.) His words about times past are echoed by his friend and mentor, George Harvey, "You could have the stream almost to yourself, anytime, and almost any stretch."

It was not until after World War II that Penn's became widely known. Prior American angling literature had focused on Adirondack, Catskill, and Pocono waters, which were bathed in limelight by their literate clientele. Publicity awarded to Central Pennsylvania streams centered mostly on northern tier freestoners and on Spring Creek, where Fisherman's Paradise garnered an international reputation. Penn's Creek enjoyed benign neglect, primarily because its location and lack of accommodations made it inconvenient to fish under conditions of the times.

Penn's lack of notoriety changed dramatically with the publication, om the April 7, 1958 edition of Sports Illustrated, of an article by Sparse Grey Hackle, AKA Alfred Miller. The late Sparse, a venerated figure of American fly fishing, had paid a visit to Penn's and was impressed by the water and its potential. His glowing account of the stream finished with ". . . there is no fishing in the East to compare with that on Penn's Creek."

Typical opening weekend: crowded stream, high water

Sparse's article hit the newsstands just before Pennsylvania's Opening Day of trout season, and elicited a response from anglers similar to that one would get by rolling a wine bottle into a flophouse. An army of eager fishermen invaded the watershed, all fired up to get in on the action. Penn's was changed forever in the angling gold rush that followed . . .

Fishing camps proliferated, populated by anglers from all parts of Pennsylvania. The burgeoning streamside crowd was further swelled by travelers from other states, who arrived in increasing numbers as postwar road construction eased travel.

Until recently, typical Penn's flyfisher fished wet flies with the old down-and-across method, unless a hatch brought fish to the surface, when large traditional dries were employed. An amusing note to that effect is found in Vince Marinaro's limestone masterpiece, A Modern Dry Fly Code, where a Union County anglers is quoted ". . . no one in that district used anything smaller than a size 14 in dry flies." These days, anything goes. For the FLIES for Penn's Creek, click here.

The total of trout stream insect species runs into hundreds. According to Penn State entomologist Greg Hoover, there are few major eastern mayflies of which Penn's does have have at least a trace population. Stonefly shuck - common sight on Penn's In additional, over 1,000 species of caddisflies, stoneflies, midges, craneflies, black flies, etc. are also present. Add to that large and small crustaceans and baitfish, as well as terrestrials and more esoteric items such as sucker eggs and aquatic worms, and you can see why Penn's poses a daunting challenge to the flyrodder.

Fishermen looking for "easy pickings" will not find them at Penn's Creek. Instead they will encounter one of the toughest angling classrooms in existence. Even the most skilled flyrodder has no guarantee of success on this stream. On the other hand, those who enjoy a challenge, and are willing to work at angling and observations skills will find Penn's rewarding.

Too many years ago, I spent an Indian summer getting to know Penn's. The stream had been familiar in place, but unknown as a whole to me. I began my exploration at the lower boundary of trout water, and worked my way up. Each day found me starting where the previous day's fishing had ended.

Penn's Creek River Journal

What began as a busman's holiday for a partner in a fly shop turned into a love affair that glorious autumn. As I fished each stretch, unaccompanied by any save birds and deer, I became enamored of the stream and its surroundings. Each little spring seep, each run and rock, each wild brownie caught or hinted at, offered another insight into what makes this wonderful troutway tick. Each peek through one of these windows revealed more than just another facet of naure: there was present a sense of the jewel in entire. By the end of my sojourn, Penn's Creek had captivated me with its abundant charm. ~ Daniel Shields

For a MAP of Penn's Creek, click here.
For the FLIES for Penn's Creek, click here.
To ORDER Penn's Creek direct from the publisher, click HERE.

Credits: From Penn's Creek part of the River Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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