Exploring New Waters: Spring Creek, PA
Updated: Dec 28, 2022
A crew of workers and machinery blocked the road leading to Fisherman’s Paradise, and the woman in charge of traffic informed me that it would be several hours until the road opened up again. She looked sympathetic to my plight, which caused me to wonder if maybe she knew how it felt to be so close to Paradise…and yet so far away.
That’s how it often goes. That which we want most looms just beyond our reach. But this was Spring Creek in Centre County – THE Spring Creek – and so there were many other options to explore that morning. And since it was a rainy, dreary Monday, few other people had yet to hit the stream, so I had my pick of spots. Almost.
I drove past a flat pool close to the road and spotted the rises of a couple trout. I would’ve stopped except that two other guys were already walking up the far bank toward that pool. So I went farther down to one of the PFBC access points and geared up and started fishing a little stretch of riffles and pocket water.
Honestly, I wasn’t impressed, mainly because there were no trout rising in this location. So rather than slug it out with nymphs, I hopped back in the truck and went down to another access point. There I followed a foot trail through some woods and entered the stream at the tail end of a large pool where a handful of trout were rising for Grannoms.
I tied on a size 16 green X Caddis and a trout sucked in the fly on the third drift. It caught me so much by surprise that I hesitated setting the hook, and the fish shook off about halfway in. Damn. On the heels of that, I then missed a nice trout, about a 12-incher. But trout continued to rise and redemption was sweet, and just a few casts later I landed my first Spring Creek trout, a fat 10 incher.
I fish a lot of new streams every year. For me, one of the joys of fly fishing is experiencing new water, new fish, and that thrill of not knowing what to expect. Some days are a bust, for one reason or another, but some days are pure bliss. No matter how it goes, something I’ve learned about fishing so many new places is that if you don’t like a stretch of water, and other options are available, then don’t waste time in a spot that doesn’t excite you.
Sure, I know that Spring Creek is a bonafide wild brown trout factory, and you can bet that just about anywhere you cast that you’ll be over fish. But sometimes, fly fishing is an attitude, and it helps when the spot you’re fishing “looks good.” Also, had I stayed in that first riffle stretch, I may not have had the experience of matching the hatch on my first time fishing Spring Creek. Sometimes it pays to keep exploring.
Another piece of advice when fishing new streams is to schedule your trip on overcast or rainy days. Any time I’m looking to fish somewhere new, I cringe when the forecast has nothing but big sunny faces and fluffy white clouds every day for the foreseeable future. Sure, they’re beautiful days to be on the water, but they can make for lousy fishing. Nothing can suppress the bite on a wild brown trout stream quite like those hot, cloudless blue skies.
That especially goes for places that receive a lot of pressure, such as Spring Creek. I actually got really lucky because it had rained pretty hard the day before I got there, so the water was up and off-color, and it probably hadn’t been fished as hard over the weekend. In a way, the trout were fresh. And since rain was still in the forecast for the day, angling pressure continued to be sparse.
Fishing famous waters for the first time can be hit or miss. There are the expectations you have of a place, and then there’s reality. For instance, since I first read about Letort Spring Run back in high school, I dreamed of fishing there and catching a big trout similar to Ed Shenk’s Old George. Over time, the Letort had grown almost larger than life. When I finally visited the stream a few years ago, I almost asked my friend, who lives near Carlisle, “Are you sure that’s the Letort?” Don’t get me wrong, it was beautiful water, but it looked so much smaller than I’d imagined.
What also shocks me about many famous Pennsylvania streams – Spring Creek included – is the amount of human encroachment along their banks. Some of the most written about streams flow through countless backyards and industrial centers. In many cases, our most valuable resources are just one accidental spill, or one “oops”, away from disaster. For example, do an internet search for fish kills on the Letort and see how many hits come up. It’s heartbreaking.
Fortunately, Spring Creek has numerous riverkeepers and conservation watchdogs looking out for its future while also trying to restore it to its former glory. Decades ago, Spring Creek had great diversity as far as mayfly hatches, but human encroachment has its pitfalls, one of which is that we sometimes neglect the environment in the name of progress. Years of pollution and disregard for the resource decimated Spring Creek’s hatches and water quality.
On the bright side, thanks to conservation efforts, some hatches have rebounded – but don’t take this to mean that the resource is no longer in danger. Urbanization, societal and economic demands all pose major threats to Spring Creek and many other famous trout streams in this state.
Spring Creek has lots of caddis as well as good baetis and Sulphurs, but it’s primarily known for its midges. In other words, if you don’t like fishing tiny flies, Spring Creek may not be the best place to spend all your vacation days. Unless you’re a dedicated nympher, of course. Just about any nymphs will work when trout are in the mood.
Even with my limited experience on Spring Creek – a single day of fishing – I am certain of one thing: the trout in this stream are well fed. They are all fat and healthy. And even though most of them range from 8-11 inches in size, they have spunk and fight a good fight.
Fishing a new stream is as much about learning its history as it is about catching trout. Yes, I love a good day on the water, but that experience means even more with some historical context.
For instance, Fisherman’s Paradise, which begins downstream from the Bellefonte State Fish Hatchery and goes upstream for a little over a mile, was the first special regulations sections established in Pennsylvania and is no doubt the most popular stretch along Spring Creek, in 1934. Fishing was limited to flies with barbless hooks, and this stretch was heavily-stocked with large trout with a limit of two fish per day. In 1961, Fisherman’s Paradise became a “no-kill” section, and in 1981, trout stocking was discontinued.
My grandpa used to tell me about a time in the 1950s when he and my grandma stopped at Fisherman’s Paradise and looked off the bridge near the hatchery at all of the big trout finning in the current. He always marveled at how these trout seemed utterly disinterested in anything anyone drifted by them, and it was a memory he related to me many times over the years. For this reason alone I’d been hoping to try my hand along Fisherman’s Paradise, but unfortunately PennDOT had other plans.
Sometimes it’s hard to wrap my brain around just how many people fish Spring Creek every year. Recently, I came across an article online called “The Fishery of Spring Creek: A Watershed Under Siege.” Here’s a link to it: fisherySpringCreek.pdf (fishandboat.com). The article states that in 1952, over 44,000 anglers visited Fisherman’s Paradise during the two-month season.
Here’s another statistic to put fishing pressure on Spring Creek in perspective. According to the article, “From April to June 2006, estimated pressure was 5,063 angler-h/km, which was 34 times higher than the estimated average fishing pressure on wild trout streams statewide in 2004.”
There’s a total of 91 days in those three months, and 2,184 total hours. If my math is correct, that means that every kilometer of stream was fished for approximately 2.3 hours a day, every day, over the course of three months. Wowsers!
Spring Creek’s accessibility certainly contributes to the pressure it receives. The stream closely follows the main drag through Bellefonte, and continues following the road all the way up through Fisherman’s Paradise. Along the way, you’ll encounter numerous PA Fish & Boat Commission public access areas as well as turnouts where you can safely park.
I wouldn’t be surprised if angler pressure on Spring Creek was even higher now than in 2006. One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in fly fishing today compared to years ago is the fact that there is no offseason nowadays. Many of these well-known streams get pounded year-round. Sometimes I think the only reason we catch anything at all on a stream like Spring Creek is because the trout population density is so high.
However, a high density doesn’t always mean you’re going to catch lots of fish. Spring Creek is notorious for its selective trout, and a lot of great fly fishermen have had some very slow days there. I approached Spring Creek the way I approach any stream I’m fishing for the first time. I expected to spend a lot of time learning the water and getting acclimated to a new stream. I hadn’t expected to hit a hatch of Grannoms and find so many trout rising for them. I’d stumbled into an ideal situation.
I don’t know how many trout I caught before the rain started pouring and the Grannoms stopped emerging. It felt like a lot but probably wasn’t as many as I think. Numbers don’t matter anyway. It was a great first experience fishing one of Pennsylvania’s most famous trout streams.
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