Fly Fishing in the Heart of Coal Country
By Ralph Scherder
Populations of wild brown trout are expanding steadily every year, and the future looks bright for the upper West Branch Susquehanna River. All Photos by Ralph Sherder.
As evening settled in, rings left by feeding trout pocked the stream’s smooth surface. Tiny mayflies fluttered in the air, one even landing on the back of my hand. It was like nothing I’d ever seen, with a white body, brownish thorax, and tiny, cellophane-like wings. The closest I came to matching it was with a size 20 Light Cahill, but it wasn’t a Cahill. The trout knew my fly wasn’t a match, too, and several came up to inspect from below, only to deem it inedible.
I didn’t know it then, but that evening I had encountered my first hatch of the Angler’s Curse. Although Angler’s Curse has nothing to do with the occult, sometimes it can feel like it. These mayflies (genus Caenis) are small, ranging in size from 22 to 28, and when trout decide to key on them, anglers are frequently humbled. That’s the nature of fly fishing, of course, and the Angler’s Curse is just one of the intriguing experiences offered by the West Branch Susquehanna River.
Mention of the West Branch Susquehanna River may summon images of a wide, sprawling river that empties into the main branch Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania. But upriver—way upriver, above the Curwensville Dam—it’s a different story. This is where the West Branch Susquehanna River originates and wild brown trout rule.
The West Branch rises on the west side of the Alleghenies in northwest Cambria County and flows in a northerly direction for nearly 40 miles before turning eastward and beginning its 200-mile march to the main stem. Those first 40 miles are especially intriguing because they’ve undergone a serious transformation in recent years, and they provide an abundance of opportunities for trout enthusiasts.
A River Rebuilt
The upper West Branch is a comeback story that is, thankfully, becoming rather familiar in Pennsylvania. As millions of dollars are being invested to correct the environmental damages of decades ago, many of the once-polluted waterways, especially in this part of the state, are being reestablished as viable fisheries.
In this part of Pennsylvania, where coal was once king, train tracks and trout fishing go hand in hand.
Historically, Cambria County represents the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal mining heritage. Commercially operated mines opened here in the 1840s, with large-scale mining beginning in 1856. According to the Johnstown Area Genealogical & Historical Society, the county was home to 130 significant coal mines by 1901, and those mines produced 16 million tons of coal annually throughout the 1910s and 1920s. Only after the Great Depression did those numbers decline, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that coal mining ceased to play an important role in the county’s economy.
Decades of mining at that level of intensity severely impaired the watershed, and it took three events to turn it around. First, many of the small towns along the river built treatment facilities for raw sewage. Second, the removal of the 18-acre Barnes-Watkins refuse pile, which contained 1.3 million tons of coal refuse and was located on the banks of, and in some places directly in, the West Branch. And third, an acid mine drainage (AMD) treatment facility was installed on Barnes & Tucker’s Lancashire No. 15 mine, which closed in 1969.
Prior to the AMD treatment facility, the inactive mine discharged almost 15 million gallons of water laced with iron pyrite and other mining chemicals directly into the river every day. Today, the facility captures the water that naturally rises from within the mine, neutralizes the chemicals, and then pumps it into the river. Since the water originates several hundred feet below the earth’s surface, its temperature when it leaves the mine is in the low 50s Fahrenheit, creating a fishery that can support trout year-round.
Over the past decade, water quality has drastically improved. In fact, the first 8 miles or so, from the plant down to the beginning of the flood control section in the town of Cherry Tree, are classified as a Class A Wild Trout Stream. In 2018, this section, combined with an additional 18 miles of river down to Dowler Junction, began to be managed under Catch and Release All Tackle regulations, and it receives no trout stockings by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC).
Although the section of the West Branch above Curwensville is not stocked, trout from the tributaries sometimes move into the bigger, cooler water during the summer months. This rainbow most likely came from Chest Creek, a Keystone Select Stocked Trout Water.
The main purpose of the additional waters was to protect trout as they move seasonally throughout the watershed by giving them a chance to survive and propagate. All fish here are a product of natural reproduction. Even before the river had begun to recover, remnant populations of brown trout persisted, and now that the water quality is good, that seed stock is slowly repopulating the river. The upper West Branch Susquehanna River will likely never attain the status of some of Pennsylvania’s best wild trout streams—Spring Creek and the Little Juniata River come to mind—but it’s a great place to test your skills against some fine fish.
Appearance Versus Reality
At first glance, the upper West Branch doesn’t look like typical trout water. It has a low gradient with long stretches of mud bottom. It colors quickly after a rain, but clears just as fast. Many times I’ve experienced prime conditions on the West Branch in the morning, only to jump over to the next watershed for the afternoon and find conditions much less fishable.
From fall until spring, the water carries a milky cast, likely a result of the minerals in the mine water treated at the AMD facility. It’s less noticeable during summer months. However, all year, deeper areas appear deep green. When I first started fishing the upper West Branch Susquehanna River, I was skeptical. But the more I fished it, the more I learned, and I quickly realized that looks can be deceiving.
On the West Branch, hatch-matching opportunities are uncommon, but a few insects, including Light Cahills, Sulphurs, and various Caenis mayflies, get the trout looking up.
The West Branch has trout-attracting structure in spades. It’s almost impossible to stand in the water and look up- or downriver without spotting a possible brown trout lair. Whether in the form of a huge rock or, more often, an uprooted tree that has fallen into the river, holding water abounds. The numerous long, deep runs and pools crowded with woody structure make the fishery both challenging and interesting.
Like most wild brown trout waters, the upper West Branch can be temperamental. Fish can get spooky, often hiding deep under the structure, and you have to work to get a fly in front of them. But this river rewards patient anglers who stalk carefully and present flies with stealth and accuracy. Work too fast or get careless with your approach and these fish will only recede farther into their shadowy lairs. Fish carefully and methodically and you can reap big dividends.
The upper West Branch also forms plenty of riffle-and-run stretches. The Class A water above Cherry Tree is a prime example. There you’ll find swifter-moving, well-oxygenated water that is easier to nymph as well as navigate. The river averages around 20 feet wide, but it still has lots of depth and woody structure. By the time the West Branch reaches Dowler Junction, it’s twice as wide and twice as deep, and the good nymphing water is more spread out. Even downstream of the all-tackle catch-and-release section, the river holds wild browns, but the slower-moving water can be more challenging because it’s also easier to spook fish.
The trout aren’t exactly finicky, except when they’re keying on specific hatches, so I generally use a lot of attractor patterns. The typical gamut of nymphs, such as Pheasant Tails, Hare’s Ears, and Copper Johns, all work well. My two favorite patterns, though, are a chartreuse Mop Fly and a black Krystal Bugger. These two colors are ideally suited for the water color, and they catch fish when nothing else will.
The upper West Branch has no shortage of good-looking trout lairs. It takes a deep, slow retrieve to get up under the structure to where the big fish hide. You may lose a few flies, but that’s a price worth paying.
Stocked Tribs and Blue Lines
The first time I fished the upper West Branch, I worked downstream from the bridge in Stifflertownn mid-June. The water was low and clear. I approached a nice little chute between the end of a fallen tree and a rocky sandbar and flicked a black Krystal Bugger out into the current. As it swung downstream into the swirling water behind the tree, I stripped it in, an inch at a time, and my line caught bottom, or so I thought. Turned out to be a frisky 22-inch rainbow trout that gave me a real run for my money.
Rainbow trout are uncommon in the upper West Branch, but they occasionally migrate into the river from several of the stocked tributaries. I theorized that this particular fish had come from Chest Creek, a 40-mile-long tributary that begins just south of Bradley Junction in Cambria County and flows in a northeasterly direction until it joins the West Branch near the town of Mahaffey. The first 3.87 miles are designated Class A Wild Trout water, with native brook trout the main species. The rest of Chest Creek receives multiple spring stockings by the PFBC.
My favorite reach of Chest Creek, though, is Section 3, which is managed under Delayed Harvest Artificial Lures Only (DHALO) regulations and part of the Keystone Select Stocked Trout Waters program. This section receives both spring and fall stockings of fish, with a high percentage of larger-than-average trout. As a bonus, the entire DHALO stretch flows through public property. In terms of looks and layout, Chest Creek is almost identical to the West Branch, possibly because they share the distinction of being located in the heart of coal country.
Surprisingly, given the troubled history of the region, dozens of tributaries along the upper West Branch, as well as immediately downstream of the Curwensville Dam, hold solid wild trout populations. Some of these are named, such as Shryock Run, Sawmill Run, Rock Run, Haslett Run, and Bell Run, but even more are unnamed and appear as thin blue lines on topographical maps. According to PFBC surveys, some 400 miles of streams in this region contain wild and native trout. They offer the full gamut of opportunities for anyone who enjoys the adventure and pursuit of small stream trout.
In addition, the stream junctions, where these tributaries join the West Branch, are almost always hot spots, especially in the summer. In the fall, fish in the West Branch often swim up into these tributaries to spawn. Many of these skinny waters serve as nurseries for the West Branch.
There are plenty of options below Curwensville Dam, too. In April 2014, the PFBC began stocking trout from the confluence of Anderson Creek downstream to Porters Bridge. This 2.8-mile section offers scenic, big-water trout fishing. Huge boulders abound in the watercourse, which has lots of productive riffles and pocket water stretches, as well as long, deep runs that can stretch for a hundred yards or more. Local clubs and sporting groups also stock the West Branch Susquehanna below the dam during the winter. For updates and information regarding these stockings, contact Jim’s Sports Center in Clearfield (see Notebook). During the summer, downriver of the Curwensville Dam is a tremendous warm-water fishery, best known for its populations of smallmouth bass and tiger muskies.
Hatches and Patterns
The West Branch Susquehanna River produces a wide variety of hatches, beginning in winter with the Black Stonefly. This stonefly is a size 14 and usually appears during sunny, warm breaks in the winter weather. Surface feeding can be hit or miss, but a Black Stonefly nymph will take fish. In mid-March, Blue-Winged Olives appear, followed by the spring trifecta of Blue Quills, Quill Gordons, and Light Hendricksons.
Throughout May, heavy hatches of caddisflies are the norm. Hydropsyche (Spotted Sedge) and Olive Caddisflies are the dominant species, and hatches can occur at any time of the day.
In late May, Light Cahills, Gray Foxes, Sulphurs, Slate Drakes, and Green Drakes all hatch, although not in the same densities found on most other trout streams in the region.However, on any given day or evening, insects of some sort are usually hatching.
Like the main-stem Susquehanna River, the West Branch offers a good White Fly hatch starting in mid-August. Below Curwensville, smallmouth bass and any leftover trout gorge themselves on these flies, and action can be fast and furious when the hatch is at its peak.
Of course, the upper West Branch also produces dense hatches of Caenis—aka Angler’s Curse because their diminutive size can be a challenge to match and fish correctly, especially in slow-moving water. Locals often refer to this hatch as a Light Cahill Midge, and you can encounter it anytime between mid-July and mid-September, in the upper West Branch as well as below Curwensville; it’s usually heaviest in the evenings.
Looking to the Future
Although there are small patches of public land around Cherry Tree and Mahaffey, much of the upper West Branch flows through private property. Fishing access is permitted thanks to agreements between landowners and the PFBC. The future of the special-regulations section, which includes all 8 miles of the West Branch’s Class A waters, will be determined by the way anglers treat the resource and respect landowners who generously allow access to the river. Obey “No Trespassing” signs and park only at designated access points—easy enough, considering that the entire 30 miles of regulated water is paralleled by US Highway 219 and there are literally dozens of turnouts along
In many regards, the upper West Branch is an emerging fishery still finding its legs. Barring any setbacks, it will continue to improve. Every year, I catch increasing numbers of 5- to 8-inch wild brown trout, indicating successful natural reproduction. Larger fish, up to 18 inches, are also increasingly common, and the river holds a few fish best measured in pounds.
Many parts of this underrated river are still relatively unknown and seldom explored. For instance, no stream surveys have ever been done on the section of river between Mahaffey and the Curwensville Dam. Although this stretch has traditionally been a warm-water fishery, more and more trout are beginning to show up there, too. These are all indicators that the upper West Branch Susquehanna River is a conservation success story with a very bright future.