A 3-Stream Tour of the Allegheny National Forest
Updated: Dec 28, 2022
It was a foggy, rainy Saturday morning when Greg Wickline and I headed to the Allegheny National Forest (ANF). Salmon Creek and a few other area streams had recently been stocked. We had options, which isn’t always a good thing because it made us indecisive about where to spend the bulk of the day. All we knew for certain was that we were going to start out on Salmon Creek. After that, we could end up anywhere.
There are dozens of quality trout streams scattered throughout the ANF, both stocked and wild trout streams. The ANF was established in 1923 and consists of around 517,000 acres spread across four northwestern PA counties: McKean, Elk, Forest and Warren. You could spend a lifetime exploring many of the nooks and crannies that comes with so much public land and hard-to-access areas.
Salmon Creek originates at the outflow of Beaver Meadows Lake. According to the PA Fish & Boat Commission website, the first stocking point is the bridge on Bluejay Road, which on most maps is labeled Greely Farm Road. Downstream from that bridge, Salmon Creek flows away from any access points. I’m guessing this stretch gets real small real quick once spring flows diminish, because according to the schedule, it’s only stocked during the preseason and once in season whereas the lower half is stocked twice in season.
The best-known section of Salmon Creek, and the stretch that Greg and I fished, begins at the bridge of Forest Road 145, a.k.a Salmon Creek Road. It’s a beautiful, bumpy drive down Salmon Creek Road, through mature forests and along steep mountainsides. The road has been a dead end since 2019, when the Forest Service closed the final 1.3 miles due to a slump that destabilized the road along one of its steepest sections. Still, a little over 7 miles of road is open, most of it paralleling the stream, but it can seem a lot longer when you’re excited to start fishing.
Despite the recent stocking, the stream wasn’t crowded. That’s one of the perks of fishing around here in early May – it corresponds with turkey hunting season, and most folks are out chasing gobblers until noon.
I’d never fished Salmon Creek before – in fact, I’d never even seen the stream – although Greg has spent many years exploring this area. He’s always said that you have to be careful when visiting the ANF. Spend too much time here and you may never want to leave.
Salmon Creek is a typical mountain stream, 20-30 feet wide. The past year or so, it’s been difficult to judge a stream due to low water levels. At normal flows, Salmon Creek has numerous big pools and pockets of holding water. Even now, with low water, there were still some attractive pools, but much of it was shallow, knee-deep flats with a scattering of good-looking pockets, usually up against some sort of log or brush pile coming off the bank.
I made my first few casts near some undercut roots and didn’t draw a strike. Meanwhile, across the creek from me, a guy and his two kids plied a pocket of water roughly the size of a table top with spinners and minnows. Eventually, one of the kids latched onto and landed a nice brook trout. A few minutes later, he caught another. The dad netted both fish for his son while untangling a mess of line for his daughter. When the son hooked a third trout, the father threw his hands up and jokingly said, “Come on, man, can’t I even get a chance to fish?!”
I know my days of fishing with my kids are coming. I feel prepared. I mean, heck, I’ve spent my whole life getting caught in trees and untangling birds nests of line while watching others catch trout. I got this.
Eventually, I worked my way downstream and came to a big, deep pool where a guy and his girlfriend were fishing. I asked if I could squeeze in below them and fish the tail end of the pool and they were very genial. He said they’d caught a couple but it had been slow overall. The weather didn’t help. It rained pretty much constantly, varying between soft mist and downpour, and it was cold. Supposedly it was going to switch over to snow around 9 o’clock. Welcome to the ANF!
The color of the water and the conditions were perfect for a fluorescent green Squirmy Wormy dropped off the bend of a white/pink Y2K. The trout thoughts so, too. I caught my first Salmon Creek trout after only a handful of casts near the tail end of the pool. Right after that, the guy caught one, too, and he wondered aloud if maybe I had brought some good luck with me.
After a while, they called it quits and decided to head back to their camp. Greg had worked downstream and caught one on a spinner, so I waved him over to fish the pool with me. We each hooked a couple and lost a couple. I landed 3 or 4 more, and then we went for what seemed like a long time without a hit. By now it felt colder, although the rain hadn’t yet changed to snow, and we decided to head back to the truck and take a drive and see what else we could get into.
We ended up on Bluejay Creek. I fished this little stream once a few years ago, but only for about an hour or so and didn’t catch anything. Bluejay Creek has always reminded me of one of those streams that, if you don’t hit it within a few days of being stocked, you may as well go somewhere else. It’s beautiful country, though. You can find native brookies in its headwaters, but for the most part it’s a stocked trout stream.
Larger ANF streams, such as Tionesta Creek, get mainly browns and rainbows, but the smaller tributaries receive brookies. When water levels are low, those brookies don’t stick around long in Bluejay Creek. They head downstream to bigger water or else they’ll get picked out one by one by raccoons, avian predators, or fishermen.
We pulled off at a stretch with some deepish water to fish. Greg went downstream and I walked up. I stripped out some line and made a perfect roll cast, but before my fly even hit the water, a brook trout shot out of the pool, streaking downstream. That trout was more skittish than the last rooster at a chicken BBQ!
I crossed the stream and worked along the bridge abutment where Greg said there always seemed to be a few trout. He was right. The water was knee deep and clear, and I could see two trout holding tight against the wall. They weren’t interested in what I was selling, so I figured I’d cross back to the road-side of the stream and head down to see if Greg was doing any good.
When I got near shore, I noticed a trout tucked against the bridge abutment only a few feet away. I inched closer and reached my boot out and actually nudged the trout with my toes. At first, the fish didn’t move, and I wondered if my eyes were playing tricks on me. So I nudged it again and this time the fish took off.
Greg and I had the same luck on Bluejay, which is to say we had no luck, but it was lunchtime and the Bluejay Inn was calling our names. It felt good to get out of the rain, and I think we were both experiencing the midday fatigue that comes with getting up too early after too little sleep.
“I’d have a beer with my burger, but I think it would put me to sleep,” said Greg. “It’ll taste good when I get home tonight, though. Hey, speaking of that, how’s your resolution going?”
A few weeks ago, after a hard day of fishing and little to show for it, I made a resolution to drink more beer. I’d even bought a 6-pack on the way home.
“It’s going well,” I said. “I’m definitely drinking more. I opened the fridge yesterday and, sure enough, there are only 5 beers left from the 6-pack I bought two weeks ago.”
The burgers were delicious, the Diet Pepsi was cold and refreshing, and after lunch we headed down the road to Tionesta Creek for the afternoon. I may have fished Tionesta Creek years ago, but I’m not sure. It seems weird that I’ve driven by it so many times without fishing it, but I guess it’s possible. I’ve always loved the look of this stream.
Tionesta is stocked once preseason and only once in season, mainly because it warms up so fast in the spring. When I checked the USGS site for Lynch, PA, the other day, water temperatures were already up around 70 degrees. If we get some rain and a little cooler weather, trout fishing will stay good for another couple of weeks, but after that, Tionesta Creek becomes a primarily warmwater fishery.
Tionesta Creek forms just south of Sheffield, PA, where the West Branch Tionesta Creek and East Branch Tionesta Creek meet. Throughout the summer, this stream offers good bass fishing, and the lower reaches are known for muskies. I wouldn’t doubt a few trout could settle into some of the deeper holes and survive the high water temps of summer.
More likely, trout gather at the mouths of the many tributaries which typically run cold year round. In fact, many of the brook trout stocked in these small tributaries (such as Salmon Creek and Bluejay Creek) end up in Tionesta Creek shortly after stocking, but as Tionesta Creek warms, whatever’s left of those fish slowly start working back up into those cooler streams.
Greg and I parked along a heavily-fished stretch of Tionesta Creek and waded upriver to a series of deep pools around some huge rocks. The current was much stronger than expected, which made it hard to get my fly to the bottom. Eventually I tired of putting on more sinkers and decided to start walking downstream to find softer water. I came to a nice side channel behind a little island that had a few deep pools and great structure. My fifth or sixth cast produced what I think was my first Tionesta Creek trout, a fat, 12-inch rainbow.
Greg joined me in the side channel and we worked down to another deep pool. “There we go!” he said, and when I looked toward him, I saw the bright orange flash of a big palomino trout on the end of his line. And then just like that, his line went slack. Greg was surprisingly calm for having a big palomino just break off. I think we were both kinda shell-shocked by it, actually.
As it turned out, that pool was loaded with trout, including two palominos. The second one kept looking at my fly but wouldn’t hit. We caught a number of trout. Once again, the fluorescent green Squirmy Wormy was effective, but I landed just as many on an orange Sexy Walt.
All day, I also had a lot of trout shake off halfway in. I lost a few on Salmon Creek, and then a few more on Tionesta. The main reason, I think, is that the pools were so deep that in order to get my rig on the bottom, I had to move the strike indicator up the leader. The greater the distance between the nymph and indicator, the longer the delay in strike detection, so essentially, by the time I reacted, the trout were probably already trying to throw the hook.
It’s hard to get too worked up about it, though, when you’re still landing a lot of fish. And Greg was using spinners and had a number of shake-offs, too, so it wasn’t just me. Part of it could be that the cold weather and conditions had the trout hitting light.
We moved around to a few more stops along Tionesta Creek that afternoon and even hit a small native brook trout stream along the way. I can honestly say there’s not a stretch of Tionesta Creek that I don’t like. It’s a beautiful waterway. At one point, I had to stop and just look upstream and admire the mountains crowding the river.
Despite the rain, we had a great day exploring streams in the Allegheny National Forest. I think maybe Greg was right. Country like this could spoil you.
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