Updated: Dec 28, 2022
The day started with a plan to fish East Branch of Tunungwant Creek. I’d read an article boasting the stream’s wild brown population, and like any self-respecting addict, I felt obligated to check it out. Unfortunately, I had my dog Charlie with me, and navigating a stream with brush crowding the banks all the way to the water’s edge was difficult without spooking every fish before we actually got up on a pool. So I filed away that adventure for another day and instead found myself at Kinzua Creek, which was much more conducive for my furry friend.
The Delayed Harvest
Kinzua Creek looked better than I’d imagined it all these years. For whatever reason, I’d always pictured a mud bottom, slow-moving trough rather than a classic mountain stream. Driving along the Delayed Harvest Artificial Lures Only section of the stream, I noted numerous pools, productive-looking riffles and pocket water. It also had a good mix of rock and wood structure along the banks that surely harbored trout.
Kinzua Creek is now part of the Keystone Select Trout Waters Program, which means it gets stocked with a larger proportion of trophy-sized fish than most streams. Also, the DHALO section is 2.3 miles in length, extending from SR 219 downstream to Camp Run, a substantial amount of water to explore.
Kinzua Creek receives a lot of fishing pressure, and that certainly held true that day. For a Thursday morning, there were plenty of fishermen already parked at the prime locations and I basically settled for a spot that was a little out of the way so that Charlie wouldn’t disturb anyone. Like most streams, though, you can almost always find solitude if you’re willing to walk some distance, and parts of Kinzua Creek are secluded and worth exploration.
Although I stuck to the Delayed Harvest section where there were more people, it didn’t seem to matter. I got into fish right away and within a few casts landed my first fish from Kinzua Creek, a nice brown trout.
In terms of scenic beauty, Kinzua Creek rivals just about any that I’ve fished. The lower 15 miles flow through the Allegheny National Forest. Most of the upper half of the stream runs through private land owned by mineral, gas, or logging companies. Many of the reports I’ve read say that the upper reaches are void of fish due to its natural acidity and the effects of the industry that once lined its banks. That’s also why the stream doesn’t contain an abundance of mayfly hatches, although they’ve gradually improved over the years.
I spent a little time flipping over rocks and seining a couple of spots to get an idea of what sort of aquatic insects inhabit the stream. I found samples of what Charles Meck in his book Pennsylvania Trout Streams and Their Hatches described as baetisca, also known as “armored mayflies.” They’re goofy-looking little things, roughly size 14, with a protective, diamond-shaped, shell-like cover. Meck writes that the duns are chocolate color, which makes sense because all of the nymphs I found were almost black.
I was amazed to find decent numbers of giant salmonfly nymphs (pictured below). I mean, these guys were whoppers, size 6 or bigger, and about 2 ½ inches in length. There were also scads of tiny green pupa, possibly caddis. An assortment of other midge-sized larvae clung to many of the rocks, too, ranging from cream to black in color. Rounding out the aquatic life were brown stoneflies, sculpins, and various sizes of crayfish, from itsy-bitsy, almost translucent babies to the dark, ornery-looking big daddies. It seems there’s plenty of food options there for even the most discerning trout.
Despite an abundance of insects, Kinzua Creek’s water quality is generally poor. A strange sediment covers the rocks, enough so that your boots leave scuff marks as you wade, and when you look back at the path you’ve taken, you can see your tracks on the stream bottom. And then, within a short time, those tracks are slowly camouflaged by more sediment, which gives the water a brownish cast. In his book, Meck speculates that this could stem from the mud-and-tar bottom in the upper portion of the stream due to an old chemical plant.
The line of demarcation between uninhabitable and habitable trout water seems to be Kinzua Bridge State Park. Here Kinzua Creek basically shifts from a swampy, willow-lined mess into the beautiful mountain trout stream you see downstream. The water does stay cold enough to support trout year round. Since the stream feeds the Allegheny Reservoir at its southernmost point, I’d venture to say that some good fishing can be had there in the fall as brown trout migrate into the lake’s tributaries to spawn. Also, like many good-sized streams that empty into reservoirs, a decent run of smallmouth bass finds its way into the lower end of Kinzua Creek every June and provide quality fishing into the fall.
Perhaps the combination of aquatic life and water quality (and color) is why I had the most luck with black-colored flies. That particular day in late May, I did very well dead-drifting a size 12 beadhead black Woolly Bugger with Krystal flash through the pocket water. I don’t see why black wouldn’t work year round, too.
I didn’t stick around to see if there would be an evening hatch, but my experience fishing Kinzua Creek was good enough to more than justify a return. Perhaps in this fall, when spawning lake run browns are a possibility. Or perhaps sooner. I’m sure a few of those big, stocked fish are still finning in a few those beautiful pools with nothing else to do but take a fly.