American Fly Fishing

A Keystone State Classic
By John Hoffman

“The Breeches,” as it is affectionately known by locals, holds a special place in my heart and mind—most notably because it was the first Pennsylvania limestone stream I fished. And through the years my affinity for the creek has grown stronger with every visit. One hike down its banks is all you need to see why this creek is one of only 13 rivers in the Keystone State designated as a Pennsylvania Scenic River. A 56-mile-long tributary to the Susquehanna River, Yellow Breeches rises from the side of South Mountain, in Michaux State Forest, and then meanders through and around several small towns while forming the boundary line between Cumberland and York Counties.
   The creek is home to a major state hatchery, located in Huntsdale. In the spring, state hatcheries and local clubs stock the creek with brown, brook, and rainbow trout, including a few palominos, or golden rainbows. In addition to the robust stocking programs, the creek supports a fairly healthy population of wild brown trout. Several smaller creeks feed into the Breeches along its path to the Susquehanna, the most notable being Mountain Creek, just below the town of Mount Holly Springs; Old Town Run, which enters just as the creek passes through the town of Boiling Springs; Dogwood Run, which joins south of the town of Williams Grove; Stony Run, below Messiah College; and finally Pippins Run, above the town of Lisburn. These feeder creeks are critical for both wild and hatchery trout in Yellow Breeches—they provide ideal spawning habitat for the wild fish in the creek, as well as providing escape and much-needed prey bases for holdover hatchery trout through the fall and
winter months.
   Yellow Breeches produces such regular hatches that it’s nearly a year-round fishery for dry-fly enthusiasts, with only December and January being lean in that regard. On any given day, particularly in the warmer months, you may, or may not, encounter hearty hatches of Little Black Stoneflies, Hendricksons, Grannom Caddisflies, Blue-Winged Olives, or tan and dun caddisflies. In cooler months, when flows are higher, streamers fished on sinking lines work well.
   The creek is widely accessible, with several large parking areas, as well as numerous roadside parking spots available along most of its length. High on the stream, one of the uppermost primary access sites is on Sheaffer Drive, just below the Huntsdale State Fish Hatchery. Here, you can park and then walk the angler access trail to tucked-away spots on the stream. Fishing on the upper Breeches is highly technical, calling for skills in tight-quarters presentations. Short light-line rods are best suited for fishing these upper waters, where riparian vegetation closes in tightly along the stream. Progressing downstream, Stuart Park at Barnitz Mill (along Barnitz Road, about 2.5 miles west of Mount Holly Springs) is the next popular access point, offering several trails leading to different productive parts of the creek.
   Not until it reaches the quaint village of Boiling Springs does Yellow Breeches finally widen substantially. Casting becomes easier to manage, and wade-fishing is a good option. At Boiling Springs, the famous feeder creek known simply as The Run enters Yellow Breeches, providing a significant infusion of cold water and creating excellent conditions for aquatic invertebrates and, in turn, the trout that eat them. The Run is a popular catch-and-release fishery in its own right, shallow and clear, and usually well stocked with large trout that fin within sight of anglers, but are not necessarily easy to fool. It flows less than a quarter mile, from Children’s Lake—the picturesque centerpiece of Boiling Springs—to Yellow Breeches. The Run and the adjacent reach of Yellow Breeches, starting at a large pool below the Boiling Springs Stone Bridge on Mountain Road and running downstream to the Allenberry Resort Inn & Playhouse, are part of the 1-mile-long catch-and-release stretch. Allenberry Resort provides parking and another angler access site.
   Widely used access points on the lower creek, downstream from the Boiling Springs area, include Creekside Drive next to the campus of Messiah College (in Grantham, south of Mechanicsburg), and Lower Allen Community Park off Lisburn Road (west of Mechanicsburg). Other access sites are plentiful for anglers willing to explore, but be mindful of extensive private property along the banks of Yellow Breeches where trespassing is prohibited—respect the landowner’s wishes, always tread lightly, and obey signage.


Yellow Breeches hosts a White Fly (Ephoron lukeon) hatch, one of the most impressive mayfly hatches I’ve ever seen. During the dog days of August, anglers flock to the creek, hoping to witness the famous hatch—a spectacle all by itself, never mind the excellent fishing that usually accompanies the evening emergence. 
   A few years ago, I was lucky enough to experience the hatch firsthand. It was a hot summer afternoon, a day when wading wet—sans waders—was the preferred option. I pulled into The Run’s parking lot to find it packed with other anglers, whose license plates ranged from California to Maine. This spot always draws other anglers, sometimes lots of other anglers, but I’d never seen the lot completely full, and I assumed the community must have been throwing a festival of some kind, or a
fishing contest.
   I lucked into a parking spot, and with evening approaching, I slid on my waders and boots. I couldn’t help but overhear excited chatter among other anglers who were gearing up to head down to the creek. They were discussing the forthcoming White Fly hatch, which until that point I had no idea even existed. Fate was on my side. Around 6 p.m., groups of anglers, one by one, began heading down toward the creek. I had no idea what was about to unfold, but the vibe from the other anglers told me it was going to be special. I made my way down the foot trail and tried to put a little distance between myself and the main mob, still quietly wondering about the source of all this excitement.
   Some 30 minutes later, I had my answer.
   Tentatively at first, little white mayflies began emerging from the creek’s shadowed surface. Soon, however, the hatch intensified, and within minutes the entire stream corridor looked like the scene of a dense snowstorm. Anglers only 40 yards up- and downstream from me disappeared from view in the whiteout. The trout binged, rising all up and down the stream, everywhere, from bank to bank. All one had to do was cast a properly sized white dry fly with some degree of patience.
   For the next 30 minutes or so I watched in amazement as anglers near me brought trout after trout to the net. I landed seven fish in the short amount of time it took for the spectacle to unfold, and it could have easily been more had I focused on the fishing instead of being mesmerized by the frenzied action all around me. The entire event was over in an hour, as darkness fell upon the creek, but those 60 minutes provided indelible memories. Not every White Fly hatch becomes the epic event I witnessed—they vary in intensity and duration—but when the stars align and the hatch reaches apogee, it is truly a sight
to behold.


Icy and Unforgettable
On a bright mid-February day, friend and fellow angler Brian Judge and I headed out to Yellow Breeches for an afternoon on the water. Our wading boots crunched crisply through 3 inches of fresh powder on top of 3 inches of rock-hard ice. I love such winter conditions, and that day in Pennsylvania reaffirmed for me just why I do: serenity, peace and quiet, a handful of butterball-fat trout that fell for our flies, and one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever witnessed.
   During the cold winter months, most anglers—whether fly casters or gear fishers—stow their gear until more favorable weather returns in spring, and die hard fly fishers with the fortitude to withstand (and properly dress for) the cold can have vast stretches of undisturbed water to themselves.
   Brian and I began our winter afternoon at Boiling Springs. As we walked along the bank, we noticed a Little Black Stonefly that had somehow managed to get to the surface of the seemingly impenetrable layer of frozen crust covering the ground—no wonder these little insects are also known as Snow Flies. We took it as a good omen, hoping it meant trout would be feeding. We fished our way carefully upstream, working along the brush-tangled banks to various pools and riffles. Brian was first to hook a fish, which rocketed from the frigid water, turning a full somersault in the air. He played the fish quickly, guiding it into the bank, and then gently netted it. We took a quick photo and returned the trout to the icy depths. We later joked that the trout’s acrobatic antics were probably in reaction to the icy air—24 degrees that afternoon. 
   If you are not accustomed to fishing in subfreezing temperatures, here’s a valuable tip: use a safe and nontoxic de-icer on your rod guides or they’ll soon cake with ice. I use ChapStick. Applying a thin layer of the substance to your guides repels water and keeps ice from building up inside the eye of the guides, allowing the line to move through freely.
   In winter and early spring, Yellow Breeches often carries substantially more water than in summer and fall; currents are stronger, wading trickier. When the region receives considerable snowfall, runoff from the melt kicks the streams into high gear.
   To combat the heavy currents that February day last year, and get flies down to the fish, I was casting a sinking line and Brian had opted for a sinking-tip line. After an hour or two, we decided to change direction and started fishing downstream toward the Allenberry Playhouse. Subject to heavy angler traffic during the warmer months, the stream’s catch-and-release area is typically all but deserted during winter.
   Allenberry is a beautiful, rustic property fronting Yellow Breeches and featuring a fine restaurant, playhouse, and rental rooms and cottages. It also houses the Pennsylvania Fly Fishing Museum,, a wonderful exhibit space highlighting the many innovative anglers from the state who have profoundly influenced the sport. Each inductee has donated personal items, such as rods, vests, and fly boxes; the museum is definitely worth a visit. It also hosts the monthly meetings of the Cumberland Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited,, a robust and joyous group that welcomes visiting anglers to their meetings.
   As daylight faded on our all-too-brief February afternoon, and the last bit of feeling had drained from our frozen fingertips, Brian and I decided to call it quits. On our walk back to the truck, we were treated to one last unforgettable moment when the sunset erupted into exquisite colors—pastel pink and a range of yellow shades, with bright streaks of orange reflected by the snow-covered landscape. It reminded me of a colorful aurora borealis.


Soaked in the Surroundings
In a state rich in productive and famous trout streams, Yellow Breeches stands out as a true gem. Few other Pennsylvania waters can compete with the Breeches for density of trout, and anglers of all skill levels and disciplines enjoy successful days casting along the sycamore-lined banks of the Yellow Breeches. Whether you prefer high-stick nymphing, matching the hatch with dry flies, or sliding big streamers into tight pockets, this stream offers ample promise. Trout inhabit the entire creek, and access for anglers abounds. 
   When you visit this stream, start with a visit to the historically significant Yellow Breeches Outfitters in Boiling Springs. The friendly staff will happily reduce your learning curve by getting you up to speed on tactics, access, hatches, and flies—and don’t be surprised if you run into well-known Pennsylvania fly anglers perusing the patterns in the shop’s old wooden fly case. Another worthwhile side trip is the state hatchery at Huntsdale. The facility has been in operation since 1932 and produces 461,280 pounds of trout annually, many of them destined to bolster the fish population in Yellow
Breeches Creek.
   Going hand in hand with the spectacular fishing are the beautiful scenery and rolling hills surrounding the watershed. The region is rich in 19th-century Federal-style architecture and Dutch influences. Civil War–era homes and farms still occupy the stream banks in many locations. The famed Appalachian Trail reaches the creek near Boiling Springs, and on any given day you may see hikers making their pilgrimage north.
   After a long day on the water, many anglers head to the Boiling Springs Tavern for a four-star formal dinner. The tavern, originally named The Boiling Springs Hotel, was built in 1832 as a roadside inn, restaurant, and small pharmacy. Anheuser-Busch purchased the tavern under the direction of its founder, Adolphus Busch, and owned the building from 1902 until Prohibition in 1920.
   The region abounds in cultural and historical significance—indeed, Gettysburg is only 30 miles away. The trout, of course, are the prime draw for anglers, but history is inescapable, for even the stream’s name—Yellow Breeches—carries a unique genesis: reputedly during the American Revolution, British soldiers washed their white pants, or britches, in the creek, but the water’s hard-mineral content turned them yellow.


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