When Fly Fishers talk about fly fishing in Pennsylvania, several different thoughts come to mind. It is a state that offers a tremendous range of opportunity, with over 85,000 miles of streams and rivers, as well as a diverse range of stream types from the fabled limestone spring creeks of the Cumberland Valley; the freestone mountain streams that flow through the Pocono and Appalachian mountain areas; the large Susquehanna, Delaware, and Schuylkill river systems, and some excellent tailwater fisheries. Many Pennsylvania streams and rivers are known to anglers around the world, and most fishermen know of the legendary Letort Spring Run, the famous Green Drake hatches on Penns Creek, and the chess-like game of matching the multiple hatches on the West Branch of the Delaware River. The Keystone State also has a rich history of author anglers who have left bold impressions and influences on our entire sport, such as Vince Marinaro, Charlie Fox, Jim Leisenring, and George Harvey. While many of those famous streams flow through the heart of some of Pennsylvania’s most scenic areas, there are also a surprising number of fishing opportunities within Pennsylvania’s largest metropolitan area, Philadelphia—the City of Brotherly Love—and the immediate surrounding area.
Philadelphia is by far the largest city in the Keystone State, with a population of over 1.5 million residents and more than 7 million in the greater metropolitan Delaware Valley area. It’s a city that rightly claims a significant role in the creation of a new nation and is steeped in history and culture, but interestingly it is also a place worth exploring with a fly rod.
Many fly fishers may find it difficult to believe (given the sensitivity of trout and the conditions they require) that there would be opportunities to fish for them in Philadelphia and the greater urban area surrounding it. Surprisingly, Philadelphia’s easy-access streams provide recreational experiences that can satisfy your appetite for fly fishing just as easily as you can pick up a Philly cheesesteak.
These are not destination streams like the Bighorn or the Green in Montana and Utah. You wouldn’t come here strictly for the fly fishing. But if you are visiting one of the area’s historic sites, you’re there on business, or you’re a local looking for a quick getaway from city life, the fishing on these urban gems can be very good.
The winter of 1777-78 was a bitter one for the Continental Army under the command of General George Washington. Losses at the Battle of the Brandywine and the Battle of Paoli had allowed the British to capture Philadelphia, forcing Washington’s men to winter in an area several miles west of the city. Known as Valley Forge, the area took its name from a forge built around 1740 along Valley Creek. The forge itself was destroyed by the British in 1777.
The site afforded a good defensive position thanks to the natural barriers formed by the Schuylkill River and Valley Creek on two sides of the encampment. Washington chose a farmhouse near the confluence of the two rivers for his headquarters. The winter was a harsh one, and the troops suffered from a lack of clothing, food, and shelter. An estimated 2,500 soldiers perished.
Today Valley Forge is known as a symbol of American resolve. The area of the encampment is now preserved as Valley Forge National Historical Park, and it’s visited annually by more than 2 million people who come to view the headquarters used by Washington, his officers, and the Marquis de Lafayette; to visit the crude shelters used by the soldiers; and to hear the story of one of America’s defining moments. Quiet little Valley Creek flows through this beautiful park on its way to the Schuylkill River, and although it is one of one of southeast Pennsylvania’s finest trout streams, it is hidden in plain sight of the park’s many visitors.
Valley Creek is a 10.8-mile-long limestone stream that begins in East Whiteland Township in Chester County and consists of runs, riffles, and long, glassy pools flowing through a mix of woodlands and meadows. Numerous undercut banks, deadfalls, and large rocks create ideal cover for trout. The stream is seldom wider than 25 feet and is fed by Little Valley Creek and numerous springs, which help to keep water temperatures below 70 degrees F. even in the hottest days.
At one time Valley was a stocked stream, but a PCB spill caused the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PF&BC) to impose no-kill status on the creek, which allowed the wild browns in the stream to flourish. Today, Valley Creek is classified as an exceptional value stream by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and a class A wild trout fishery by the PF&BC. Within Valley Forge National Park, both Valley and Little Valley Creek are managed under catch-and- release, all-tackle regulations.
Insect life here is healthy as well, and anglers can find good hatches of Blue-winged Olives and Tricos. Caddisflies include Speckled Sedges (Hydropsyche sp.), Little Black Sedges (Chimarra sp.), and Green Sedges (Rhyacophila sp.). Midges and crane flies are also important, and terrestrials play a significant role in the summer and fall.
U.S. 422 cuts through the upper corner of the park and turns into the park at the visitors center. From here, take North Outer Line Drive to South Outer Line Drive and turn right onto PA 252 (Valley Creek Road). PA 252 runs parallel to the stream from the south side of the park. To access the stream from the north side, take PA 23 from the visitors center to Gulph Road and turn left onto PA 252 (Valley Creek Road). There are several parking areas here.
Fishing inside the park is open to the public, however the water outside of the park is mostly private with limited accessibility. Rods from 7 to 9 feet matched with lightweight 2- to 4-weight lines and longer leaders of 12 or more feet tapering to 6X to 8X tippets are important to avoid putting fish down. Steve Spurgeon and Jared Ellis have both fished Valley Creek for years and emphasize the importance of using long and light leaders with small patterns. Neutral-colored clothing and quiet wading are also important to avoid spooking fish.
Cutting through northwest Philadelphia, Wissahickon Creek (Lenape for “Catfish Creek” or “Stream of Yellowish Color”) flows through the steep, wooded valley of Fairmount Park—America’s largest urban park at just over 9,200 acres, and one of 600 U.S. National Natural Landmarks.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote the story Morning on the Wissahiccon in 1844, inspired by the beauty of this valley and the stream that courses its way through it.
The valley of the Wissahickon is one of remarkable contrast to the urban environment immediately outside of the park, and it attracts many hikers, bicyclists, and horseback riders to its network of trails.
The stream begins near the town of Gwynedd in Montgomery County and flows for nearly 23 miles before its confluence with the Schuylkill River southeast of Manayunk. The creek’s long riffles and pools are easily waded, but it does have some deep pools here and there.
The stocked trout water is in two separate sections, the first of which begins west of Flourtown at Lafayette Avenue and continues downstream to Stenton Avenue. The stream in this section flows through Fort Washington State Park and downstream into Wissahickon Valley Park and then Fort Washington Park South.
The stream is accessible here by Stenton Avenue at the upper limit, at PA 73, and by West Valley Green Road and West Mill roads. The second section of stocked trout water begins at Germantown Pike and continues downstream to Lincoln Drive. Access to the stream is by Valley Green Road, Kitchens Lane, Walnut Lane, and Lincoln Drive.
Forbidden Lane provides another excellent access point and is popular with hikers, bicycle riders, and joggers, and there are a number of parking areas close to the creek.
Wissahickon is stocked with trout each spring, and is managed as a put-and-take fishery. This stream has been degraded ever since the first colonists arrived in Philadelphia, so visiting anglers won’t see prolific fly hatches. The insect life here is limited to a few hardier insects, namely several caddis varieties including Speckled Sedges (Hydropsyche sp.) and Little Black Sedges (Chimarra sp.) and midges, but there are a surprising number of scuds.
Pennypack Creek flows 22.6 miles through Montgomery and Philadelphia counties before entering the Delaware River just north of Philadelphia. Pennypack Creek begins west of the town of Horsham. The stream is relatively low gradient, with a mix of riffles and long, flat pools, and is easy to wade. It is stocked with browns and rainbows in the spring and fall, but the water temperatures become too warm for trout during the summer. There is, however, good warmwater fishing for largemouth and smallmouth bass, rock bass, crappie, bluegills, and pickerel.
Pennypack’s stocked trout water begins at the upper limit of Lorimer Park in Montgomery County at a rail-trail crossing and continues downstream to PA 13 (Frankford Avenue) in Philadelphia County. Access can be gained from the upstream boundary of the stocked trout water via Moreland Road and, continuing downstream to the lower end, via Moredun Road, Verree Road, Krewstown Road, Bustleton Avenue, Roosevelt Boulevard, Holme Avenue, Rhawn Street, Welsh Road, and Frankford Avenue.
Ed Jaworowski needs no introduction to the fly-fishing fraternity, but many may be unaware that this is where his journey as an angler began. “A favorite uncle, immediately after his return from World War II, first introduced me to a fishing rod and bluegills during our regular visits to Chain Bridge, a popular fishing and bathing section of this stream back then,” Jaworowski says. Neshaminy Creek is a 40.7-mile-long stream in Bucks County that begins just south of the borough of Chalfont and flows southeast to its confluence with the Delaware River at Neshaminy Park southwest of Croydon.
Neshaminy Creek provides a great resource for local residents. The stocked trout water (rainbows and browns) flows within heavily wooded park areas that make it a great place to introduce a child to fishing or to hold a family outing.
Like many streams in this area, the trout fishing here is limited to the early part of the season because water temperatures become too elevated by the middle of June or before. Warmwater species are the game on this stream during the summer and fall.
Neshaminy creek is also surrounded by an extensive park system, which provides a buffer from the city. Like the other streams in this section, it is stocked with trout and also has carp and bass in it, with smallmouth bass and panfish abundant during the summer.
During the early season the stream is stocked in two sections; the first begins at Bridge Valley Road in City Park west of PA 263 (York Road) and continues downstream to Mill Road near the town of Jamison. The second section of stocked trout water begins at the dam at 1,711-acre Tyler State Park and continues downstream to PA 332 (Richboro Road). The stream is fairly wide in places, sometimes more than 50 feet, but is easy to wade.
Due to its proximity to Philadelphia, Ridley Creek is not a stream for solitude, but it does provide convenient and readily accessible fishing in one of the most beautiful parks in this corner of the state. It also has a stretch of catch-and-release fly- fishing-only water, and the best hatches in the Philadelphia region.
Sixteen miles west of Philadelphia and five miles north of Media lies Ridley Creek State Park. Prior to the 1960s, the 2,606-acre property was held privately by Walter M. Jeffords Sr. and his wife, well-known horse breeders who had acquired properties adjacent to their original land holdings. The land became a public park in 1972.
The property contains a number of historic buildings, many of which predate the War of Independence. In 1826 there were 15 gristmills, sawmills, and other types of mills in operation on Ridley Creek, the oldest of which was Providence Mills, established in 1718. America’s first railroad, the Leiper Railroad, operated here from 1810 to 1828. The many historic structures are a treasure for visitors who come to tour these buildings or hike, jog, or ride the park’s 12 miles of trails.
For trout anglers, Ridley Creek offers excellent fishing opportunities close to Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs. This charming stream begins in Chester County, formed from two branches that originate near the villages of Frazier and Malvern.
Ridley Creek flows for nearly 22 miles before emptying into the Delaware River. Most of it flows through wooded and rural areas before reaching its confluence, which is more industrial and urbanized.
There are two segments of the creek classified as stocked trout waters; the first begins 1.25 miles above Gradyville Road and continues downstream to the falls in Ridley Creek State Park; the second is from Brookhaven Road downstream to Chestnut Street at the lower edge of Taylor Arboretum Park southeast of Brookhaven.
Immediately below the upper stocked water is a 0.6-mile section from the falls in the park downstream to the mouth of one of its tributaries, Dismal Run. This section is managed as catch-and-release fly-fishing- only. The trout population consists of stocked and holdover rainbow and brown trout that are released in the spring and fall.
The stream in most of the regulated areas is seldom more than 20 feet wide. Ridley does not have a diverse array of aquatic insect life, but there are good hatches of Blue-winged
Olives in the spring and fall, along with Early Blue Quills, Sulphurs (E. invaria and dorothea dorothea), and some Light Cahills. Spring also brings Early Black Stoneflies.
Caddisflies are abundant and include Speckled Sedges (Hydropsyche sp.), Little Black Sedges (Chimarra sp.), Green Sedges (Rhyacophila sp.), and Grannom caddis (Brachycentrus sp.). Also important are crane flies and pale olive, red, and black midges.
Access to the stream is via Gradyville Road; turn south on Providence Road and proceed to East Bishop Road. Go to Chapel Hill Road, which crosses the creek and becomes Barren Road, or continue straight to follow North Ridley Creek Road, both of which parallel the stream. There are several parking areas near the intersections of these four roads.
If you find your business, recreation, or historical education taking you to Philadelphia, be sure to bring a fly rod and waders and cast a line on some of these urban gems. You’ll be surprised by what you find. If you live in the greater Philadelphia area and have overlooked these waters, there is a peaceful escape from the noise and pace of the city and an opportunity to cast to trout within a short drive from center city.
Henry Ramsay (ramsayflies.com) is a fly-fishing instructor, photographer, and a contributing author of the new book Keystone Fly Fishing (Headwater Books, 2017). This article is partially excerpted from that book.