Fly-Fishing the Lehigh River
January 30, 2018
It's one of the oldest river valleys in North America, and during an early October morning, the frost holds rein over peak fall colors of crispy hard maples and oaks. High above, on its eastern crest, the strikes of first light slowly dissolve gray morning dullness into burning ridges of fire. While I'm standing cold, rigging rods and throwing on yet another layer deep in this gorge, it will be many hours before any direct light reaches the valley floor to warm the soul. As with the start of most days on this river, there is the always the promise of the unexpected and the unknown. This rings more indisputable here on the Lehigh than on any river I've fished in the East.
The Lehigh Gorge is a 1,000-foot-deep trench with no road crossings in 25 miles, and only two access points. Many spring-fed tributaries feed the Lehigh River, keeping the water cold enough in summer for a healthy population of wild trout. Photo by Jay Nichols
Here on the Lehigh River, the effort is directly proportional to the reward of a wild experience. Wild is something of a sacred commodity in this part of the country, which 56 million call home, but nearby in the hard recesses of the section affectionately known as "The Gorge" it's yours, but it will not come easy.
With the day's provisions and gear all packed on the bike, I slip past the gate at the trailhead and start the journey up into the heart of the Allegheny Plateau. The biking is leisurely, and every mile seems to strip away the chains of a taxing life in the busy world. It's hard not to become mesmerized into a trance by the intense kaleidoscope of crimson reds and deep oranges drifting overhead.
To my right there is an overwhelming line of boiling water crashing into boulders dissolving into long slow and silent pools. Eventually I stop and slip down one of the few trails (or more accurately a barely controlled slide) to the water's edge. Carefully moving across the field of greased bowling balls and contending with the relentless push of water, I'm able to reach a deep cut fed by broken water rolling over Class II and III rapids.
That rhythm of casting and working the water falls into perfect balance with the sound of rushing water echoing off the mountainsides. At the point of almost losing track of how long I'd been there, all hell breaks loose as a fairly robust wild brown shoots clear out of the water, reaching for the blue sky above. Quick, guiding movements of the rod and jumping from rock to rock help keep my connection to the fish intact. The struggle certainly is weighted more in favor of the trout in such fast water.
A few moments later I find myself looking down at my net admiring the golden belly and bright spots along its muscular body. I can't help but wonder if this is the first time it has fallen for a fly made of fur and feathers. Quickly it whisks away from my hand, dissolving into the depths of the dark tannin-stained water. Suddenly, the promise of the day's start is fulfilled. This is fall fishing on the Lehigh. Days here are not counted in numbers, but measured in the currency of the wild experience.
The Lehigh stays cold due to the influence of Class A wild trout tributaries like Mud Run, Hickory Run, Hayes Run, Stony Creek, Pohopoco Creek, and several others. Photo by Jay Nichols
For many, the Lehigh isn't a name that comes to mind when speaking about the best rivers in the Northeast. For many years this large tailwater had the odds stacked against it. Years of inhospitable releases from Francis E. Walter Dam, acid mine drainage (AMD), and high summer water temperatures resulted in a stunted and struggling trout fishery.
The Lehigh developed a reputation as a put-and-take fishery. Yet underneath it all—and framed by some of the most stunning and wild scenery on a big river in the East—was the potential for an exceptional wild trout fishery.
In recent years, the Lehigh Coldwater Fishery Alliance has worked closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to ensure minimum flows from Francis E. Walter Dam, and that during months of excessive heat, extra water is directed toward maintaining survivable flows. The trout have also benefited recently from the hard work of the Lehigh River Stocking Association, which has worked tirelessly in monitoring and improving water quality from years of AMD damage. With greatly improved management, and a more trout-friendly flow plan from Francis E. Walter Dam, the river's trout are now reproducing more regularly, and stocked fish are holding over for multiple years.
While the nearby West Branch of the Delaware River is considered the king of the Northeast, the Lehigh (which is the Delaware River's largest tributary) has a contingent of loyal and faithful followers who happily play in its shadow. Regulars know that the Lehigh does not give up fish easily, and is extremely difficult to wade. Most serious anglers in the region have driven right past the Lehigh to fish the upper Delaware River system, or to fish more forgiving waters in the Poconos. Fly fishers willing to take their lumps and spend time unlocking the Lehigh's secrets are often rewarded handsomely.
The Lehigh is a blue-collar river, and does not boast the same number of fish per mile as the West Branch of the Delaware River. It does, however, have a higher gradient, interesting holding structure, and close to 30 miles of nearly uninterrupted public access. You certainly do not need to be a member of any exclusive club to sample its finest offerings.
History of Abuse
The Lehigh has an extensive history of abuse. This was once the heart of the anthracite coal region, and the river flanks once hosted the busiest railroad route in the country, connecting New York seaports with the Great Lakes. Much of this abuse was part of the Industrial Revolution, which swept the Northeast in the early part of the last century.
In 1961, under direction from Congress, the Francis E. Walter Dam was constructed. Built for flood control, with a tailwater release, it was far from perfect. With only the ability to release from the very bottom, its cold water did not last through the hot days of summer. Another fault in the design was a low road crossing upstream, preventing the dam from realizing its full storage potential.
Fly fishers and other river users in 1988 pushed for a bill authorizing recreation to be added to the official dam mandate. This key milestone allowed groups like the Lehigh Coldwater Fishery Alliance to spearhead projects such as rerouting the low road to the crest of the dam, allowing a seasonal higher storage level of the reservoir from 50 feet deep to almost 170 feet of icy aquatic gold. Larger capacity also paved the way for annual flow plans that could provide more reliable recreational opportunities.Drift boats are useful on the Lehigh from Glen Onoko down to Treichler’s Bridge. There is also plentiful wading access from the lower D&L Trail. Photo by Jay Nichols
Whitewater rafters and fly fishers spent years working with the Army Corps of Engineers to achieve an agreement serving all recreational interests in the form of annual flow plans. Years of tweaking these plans resulted in enough water to prolong the benefits of cold water and hit minimum flow targets during the hottest months. This is evidenced in the wild trout now found throughout the river in larger numbers, along with the enhanced survivability of stocked trout.
The next chapter for the dam is the pursuit of structural changes allowing a multi-level release capability. A recent study shows these changes could allow cold water releases year-round and significantly change water temperatures 30 miles downriver. A feasibility study is currently underway and then it's off to Congress to authorize the $11 million to complete it.
Preliminary assessments show that increased revenue from having such a high-quality tailwater fishery would more than offset those costs. The Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau estimates there is already more than $2.4 billion in annual visitor spending in this region due to the recreational opportunities of the river as of 2013.
The Lehigh River Stocking Association (LRSA) doesn't sound like a group that would advocate for a wild trout fishery, but it has taken every opportunity to put itself out of business. The group built an extensive water quality monitoring network and has conducted fish migration studies to pair with it.
LRSA constructed the largest acid mine drainage remediation project on the river at the mouth of the Luzerne Mine outflow tunnel near Jim Thorpe. The next move is the construction of a fish ladder near the mouth of the Pohopoco Creek that would allow spawning fish to once again gain access to this high-quality Class A trout stream. The LRSA is working toward a future where the importance of stocking is diminished, but for now continues to stock thousands of fish in the river every year.
Faces of the Lehigh
The Lehigh forms in the highlands atop the Allegheny Plateau, and runs nearly 109 miles to merge with the Delaware River in the city of Easton. The most productive stretch of the river is from the Francis E. Walter Dam to the Treichler's Bridge access approximately 40 miles downriver.
Tailwater section. The upper tailwater section of the Lehigh starts at Francis E. Walter Dam in the town of White Haven and reaches downstream to the Lehigh Gorge. From the dam down to Sandy Run, wild trout and holdovers can be caught, but most of the trout are stocked by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission. Unfortunately, this section of the river warms considerably once the coldwater storage from the dam runs out around mid- to late June. While the scenery is beautiful, angling here is mostly supported through stocking and tends to be a put-and-take situation.
You can access this section of river during low or normal flows via the Delaware and Lehigh Trail (D&L Trail) which runs along the west side from Whitehaven. A detailed map is available at delawareandlehigh.org/map. Anglers can also park and walk to the river right below the dam or behind the supermarket parking lot in the town of White Haven.
You can also float with rafts or pontoons, but drift boats are prohibited on the Lehigh River until you reach Glen Onoko. You will run Class II and III rapids in this section.
Lehigh Gorge to Jim Thorpe. As you move south into the Lehigh Gorge, the fishery offers a more remote, scenic, and wild experience. Over 6,000 acres of the Lehigh Gorge State Park border the river from White Haven down to Jim Thorpe. The river here has carved an almost 1,000-foot-deep canyon into the Pocono Plateau, with no roads crossing the river over a distance of approximately 25 miles with only two main access points. The river here is wild and fast in sections, with heavy riffles, long glides, and large pools, and sees little pressure.
Oddly, the Lehigh is a river where the water temperatures during the hot summer months drop as you move downstream and away from the dam. Here, with the help of a number of icy Class A wild trout tributaries (Mud Run, Hickory Run, Hayes Run, and Stony Creek to name a few) along with the deep, shaded nature of the gorge, the colder water temperatures support the most significant wild fish population on the Lehigh. This is by no means a high fish-per-mile situation, but if you are looking for a fishing experience with no stocked trout, and a chance to hook into wild trout while drifting a big, fast river, this is the best place in Pennsylvania.
Access by foot or bike is easy along the D&L Trail, but in most places, getting down to the water requires an eye for strategic and difficult bushwhacking. Wading is a serious game here. Studded boots, a wading staff, and fishing with a partner are good ideas. Think of greased bowling balls with nearby Class III white water, and you get the idea. Solitude in such a populated part of the country does not come easy.
Large, weighted gold or black-and-brown stonefly patterns along with standard nymphs such as Pheasant Tails and Hare's-ear Nymphs drifted deep in fast, aerated riffles often turn up decent-size wild browns. During elevated flows, throwing streamers on sinking lines can turn up some of the river's more aggressive trout.
One of our favorite ways to fish in the spring is by casting March Brown, Sulphur, or stonefly dry flies to likely looking runs and seams. This is gorgeous water to watch a fish rise from the bottom of the river to suck down a dry. Given the fast water here, these fish are muscled, and will not give up easily when you try to bring them to the net. Sometimes landing the fish is impossible due to whitewater or other obstacles, but just the thrill of the fight (if only brief) in a remote location is worth it. Trout in the 13- to 18-inch range are caught here with regularity, and there's always a chance at something bigger.
To get to Lehigh Gorge, park at Rockport Access in Lehigh Gorge State Park. From here you can explore 10 miles upriver to White Haven or 12 miles downriver to the next access point at Glen Onoko. The river here can be fished from rafts during periods with sufficient water, but it's a challenging row with miles of Class II and III rapids. Drift boats are prohibited for obvious reasons until you reach Glen Onoko.
At Glen Onoko there is also a boat launch and access to the lower D&L Trail that runs through the remaining 3 miles of the Lehigh Gorge to the town of Jim Thorpe. The river here still maintains its remote and burly nature but it is the first section of river where it is safe enough to use a drift boat if you are capable of handling some moderate rapids.
Jim Thorpe to Treichler's Bridge. Below Jim Thorpe the rivers starts to relax and slow down. This stretch stays cool due to the effect of the gorge and many coldwater tributaries. It is best fished from a drift boat or raft, given the depth and width of the river here, but with a little exploration, you can find wadable areas. Most of the rapids for these lower 20 miles are Class I and II, but during times of elevated flows some are upgraded to Class III.
The Lehigh stays cold due to the influence of Class A wild trout tributaries like Mud Run, Hickory Run, Hayes Run, Stony Creek, Pohopoco Creek, and several others. Photo by Jay Nichols
In the lower river, hatches become heavier, and the fishing is a mix of wild and stocked trout. Overall this section provides the best and most reliable fishing. It is here that the river truly takes on the appearance of a Western tailwater. Structure is abundant and what may appear to be a slow lazy run at the surface can reveal ideal holding water just below. Great access can be found throughout from the southern section of the D&L Trail, which runs the full length to Triechler's Bridge access and beyond.
The lifeblood of this stretch of river is Pohopoco Creek or the "Po," as locals call it. The Po is a Class A wild trout and stocked tailwater that enters the Lehigh in the town of Parryville. Amazingly, even with the great access, the difficulty in wading and boating the river scares many anglers off and gives motivated fly fishers relatively unpressured water. A typical spring evening consists of nymphing riffles, and then waiting in some of the better dry-fly water for the fish to come to the surface.
Prime time on the Lehigh is between April and the middle of June, and from the middle of September to early November. During early spring, afternoon hatches on the Lehigh are prolific. The hatches and fishing conveniently shut down about an hour before the sun sets, which leaves plenty of time to head on over to Riverwalck Saloon to grab a beer and dinner after a long day on the river. As the spring progresses we find that those midday hatches change to early morning and late evening hatches that go well after dark, which on some nights causes us to miss last call at the saloon. The lower river has some tremendous hatches that include Hendricksons, March Browns, stoneflies, various caddis, and Sulphurs. Many of the hatches overlap, and in the right conditions they can last for an entire day.
Typically, by the middle of July we seek out other waters to fish for trout or just focus on smallmouth bass, but during wet or cool years the summer can provide some fantastic fishing as the water temperatures stay low enough to safely catch-and-release trout without killing them with thermal stress.
September and especially October is the second hatch season on the Lehigh, with Blue-winged Olives, caddis, and Isonychia providing some phenomenal dry-fly fishing. In November, streamers can be an effective way to target fat pre-spawn brown trout.
Winter is a tough time of year to fish the Lehigh. I wouldn't advise wading here during times of particularly cold weather. Low and slow is the most effective way to fish using weighted stonefly, caddis pupa, and small nymph patterns. Using streamers to target post-spawn brown trout normally produces our biggest fish every year. If you are willing to brave the cold weather and the risk of being around fast-moving cold water, the payoff can be a brown trout that crawls up your arm to eat a streamer, but there are much easier and safer places to fish this time of the year.
For those doubters who have been wondering if there is truly a viable trout fishery on the Lehigh, the answer is most certainly "yes." Currently, there isn't much more tweaking that can be done with the flow plan, and there seems to be a great balance and common ground between the whitewater enthusiasts and angling community. The biggest prize we can hope for is getting that 30 miles of year-round cold water by fixing the release tower on the dam. While this is a huge goal—and will be difficult to obtain—the tailwind provided by various angling and conservation groups and the people that love this river could make it a reality.
The Lehigh River has the potential to be one of the East's greatest trout fisheries and is gradually becoming a regional destination. Cooperation between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lehigh Coldwater Fishery Alliance, and the Lehigh River Stocking Association has improved the quality of the Lehigh as a fishery tremendously. Gradual improvements are taking place on the Lehigh every year, and those of us who are on the river on a regular basis would rather be on the Lehigh than anywhere else. This is our home away from home, and it can be yours too.
Mike Stanislaw is an IT project manager and lives in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Nicholas Raftas is a guide with Sky Blue Outfitters in Coatesville.