Fly Fishing the PA Grand Canyon: The Pine Creek DHALO
In Pennsylvania, dozens of streams are named Pine Creek, but there is only one “Big” Pine Creek, and that one is an 87-mile tributary to the West Branch Susquehanna River. Beginning southeast of Ulysses in Potter County, Pine Creek flows east into Tioga County to the town of Ansonia, and then south through Lycoming and Clinton counties all the way to the Susquehanna. Although I’ve fished numerous sections along Pine Creek, the one I am most familiar with is the Delayed Harvest Artificial Lures Only (DHALO), which flows through the heart of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon.
Last year, I decided I was going to regularly fish the Pine Creek DHALO, and I was not disappointed. Here, Pine Creek ranges 100-150 feet wide with deep, strong currents, huge pools, and long, productive runs. It’s big water, but not overwhelming.
However, you don’t just wade out into the middle of the stream and start fishing this section. You have to be a little more methodical about your approach, especially earlier in the spring when water levels are up. Once you step off the bank, the water can get real deep real fast, and like many bigger waters that appear more gentle than they actually are, the current can be deceptively strong in some places. Studded boots and a wading staff are two good investments if you plan to fish Pine Creek very often.
The upper limit of the DHALO begins at the confluence of Marsh Creek near Ansonia, just as the creek makes its turn to head south. From there, Pine Creek flows pretty much straight through the canyon with few big bends, which means that, as you’re fishing, you get some tremendous views of the valley. The lower boundary of the DHALO is the confluence of Bear Run, and the total length of this section is 3.43 miles.
Big Water, Big Trout
The Pine Creek DHALO is one of the Keystone Select Trout waters, and in my opinion is one of the best in the program due to its size. At many other Keystone Select streams I’ve fished, the big trout tend to get caught fairly quickly – usually because the big ones tend to be the most aggressive – but the size of Pine Creek actually protects the trout a bit. There’s just so much great holding water throughout this stretch, and some of it doesn’t even become accessible until water levels drop later in the spring, so it feels as if you’re always over fresh fish.
(Photo: Pine Creek is stocked with rainbow and brown trout multiple times every spring and fall.)
Don’t take that to mean that the Pine Creek DHALO doesn’t get much fishing pressure, though, because it absolutely does. It’s a popular destination for anglers from all parts of the country, and during the peak of the mayfly season, the parking areas along the stream get pretty full. On a positive note, Pine Creek is so big that it can handle a lot of pressure and not feel crowded.
Access to the Pine Creek DHALO is best done two different ways. The first is the Darling Run Access Area off of Route 362/Pine Creek Road. From here, you can hop on the Pine Creek Rail Trail, which closely parallels the east bank of the stream all the way through the gorge and beyond, and walk up or down as far as you care to go.
To access the west bank of the DHALO, take Colton Road from PA Route 6 in Ansonia. After entering the Tioga State Forest, look for Owasse Road on your left. This unmaintained dirt road will take you down a fairly steep grade to the stream and follows the west bank for a little over a mile before it dead ends. There are numerous parking spots along this road, but the road can get rough in places and I don’t recommend this access if you’re worried about beating up your vehicle a little bit.
PA Grand Canyon
Every year, thousands of people visit this region to view the Pine Creek Gorge, a.k.a. PA Grand Canyon, via one of the scenic overlooks within Leonard Harrison State Park or Colton Point State Park. These are amazing views and worth the drive to these places, but viewing the canyon from below, while standing in the middle of the creek, is a whole different experience. From above, you don’t realize how narrow the valley actually is or how steep the hillsides are in some places. Also, standing in the shadows cast by these huge, lovely mountains has a way of making you feel small and insignificant, even humbled, which is exactly how you should feel when viewing any natural wonder.
Evening comes a little earlier in the bottom of the canyon, and air temperatures cool off a little faster. Fishing here this time of day offers something you just don’t get while viewing the canyon from above. It’s the feeling of standing in the midst of ancient giants, and if you close your eyes and feel the cool air moving through the valley, you can almost hear the Earth breathing.
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Pine Creek actually flowed in a northeasterly direction until about 40,000 years ago. At that time, the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which covered millions of square miles in this region of the world, began to recede. As it did, this huge continental glacier dammed Pine Creek with rocks and other debris, forming a huge lake near the present-day town of Ansonia. When that lake overflowed, the creek flooded to the south and carved out the 47-mile gorge known today as the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon.
One of the allures of fishing in the canyon is the overall lack of access. Besides the Darling Run Access and Owasse Road, the only other access is near Tiadaghton Campground, via Tiadaghton Hill Road, another unmaintained dirt road that can be a challenge to navigate.
Lack of road access isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. As mentioned, the Pine Creek Rail Trail parallels the stream throughout the canyon, and you can easily hike or bike into areas that don’t receive much fishing pressure. Also, this is prime water for a float trip with either canoe or raft. Pine Creek Outfitters near Rexford can sometimes provide canoe/boat rentals and shuttle service for those looking for a float fishing adventure.
(Photo: I experienced this incredible Hendrickson spinner fall the evening of May 24, 2022. There were seemingly millions of bugs in the air that night.)
Pine Creek Hatches
I didn’t start fishing Pine Creek until the past 10 years, but from what I’ve read, mayfly hatches have gotten better over the years. Read the section on Pine Creek in Charles Meck’s book Pennsylvania Trout Streams and Their Hatches (published in 1989) and compare it to the section on Pine Creek in Keystone Fly Fishing (published in 2017) and you get the sense that conditions are a lot more favorable now than they were 30 years ago. I hope it’s a trend that keeps going.
Big Pine Creek is home to a plethora of mayfly, stonefly, and caddis species. All of the main ones are found here: Little Black Stoneflies, Blue Wing Olives, Blue Quill, Hendricksons, Quill Gordons, Sulphurs, March Browns, Gray Fox, Brown Drakes, Slate Drakes, Green Drakes, Light Cahills, and an amazing variety of caddis. Some of these hatches are heavier than others, of course, but I never fish Pine Creek without having a little bit of everything in my fly box, just in case.
The timing of hatches can vary from year to year. In recent years, milder winters have led to warmer temperatures earlier than usual. Lower sections of Pine Creek have seen much warmer temperatures early on than what have historically been the case, and some mayfly species show up earlier in those stretches. Generally speaking, though, Pine Creek through the gorge stays cold a little longer into the summer than Pine Creek down near Slate Run, and the hatch dates are more on par with other local streams.
The gorge usually stays fishable well into June. The last two summers, though, each of which brought intense drought conditions and long stretches of hot weather, were hard on Pine Creek trout. When water temperatures get up into the 70s, you’re better off traveling to the lower sections of the stream and focusing on smallmouth bass.
Tips for Fly Fishing Pine Creek
As I’ve mentioned several times already, Pine Creek is big water. The best tip I could give anyone is to try and break that water down into smaller sections, otherwise it can seem overwhelming. Yes, there could be fish anywhere, and in truth, there probably are fish everywhere, but a scattered approach isn’t going to be nearly as effective as focusing on one particular section and working it over in a more methodical manner. In other words, don’t try to hit it all at once.
Another tip that has worked well for me, when nymphing, is to add a small split shot above my fly. Pine Creek is big and deep, but also swift. Even if I’m using an indicator, I’ll often pinch on a small weight to help get the fly down quicker so that I get a longer drift through the most productive water. Also, the little extra weight slows down the drift just a bit and allows the trout more time to identify it as food and eat it.
Third, don’t forget the edges. Not all of the fish hold out in the obvious lies within the runs and pools. Many times, in large streams like Pine Creek, just as many trout can stage in the slower water near the banks, especially during hatches. Many of my best browns have been caught during hatches in water only knee deep, in the slower water outside of the main current. These bigger trout will cruise these “flats” picking off bugs as they go.
Fourth, practice your casting, particularly the double haul. This will allow you to cover more water during a hatch and reach a few more rising trout without changing positions. Here’s a video from The New Fly Fisher's YouTube page that teaches you how to double haul.
Lastly, wade carefully and don’t take chances. It can be easy, especially during a heavy hatch, to want to wade out a little farther to reach a rising trout, or get a little deeper than you may be comfortable with. That’s usually when you get into trouble – and I know this from personal experience!
Pine Creek is truly an awesome fishery, and the DHALO through the PA Grand Canyon is perhaps one of the most beautiful stretches of water in the whole state. In 1964, Congress included Pine Creek as one of the 27 rivers to be considered for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic River System. In 1968, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated 12 miles of Pine Creek within the gorge as a National Natural Landmark. In 1992, the 23.25 miles of Pine Creek that flow through the PA Grand Canyon was recognized as a Pennsylvania Scenic River.
I’ve read many articles about Pine Creek in which the writers point out that the Iroquois called Pine Creek Tiadaghton, or “The River of Pines.” But I prefer the other meaning of Tiadaghton, which is “The Lost or Bewildered River.” To me, this more accurately describes the region’s history, from its pristine beauty to near-destruction from pollution and poor forestry practices. For many decades, Pine Creek truly was lost. But up and down the watershed, conservation efforts and better management practices have improved the quality of the water. The stream is surrounded by densely forested mountains again, and the water runs clear and full of trout.
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