The bright shades of early summer green and billowy white clouds against chicory skies were reflected in the shimmering flat as I surveyed the water upstream. It was already mid-June and the river was nearing its summertime low flows.
I waded into the water about halfway down one of the larger islands in that section of river. The side channel carried only a third of the flow so it was easily waded, and the shallow riffle was great habitat. It was a warm day, and the first thing I noticed while stepping into the shadowed riffle was the cool air washing over my face, and the soft sound of water rushing around my boots. It’s strange how when the river envelopes you, the worries of the day just fade away.
As I stood soaking in the calm beauty and watching for clues, I noticed that there were already caddis in the air moving slowly upstream. A few fish were rising—not steady, but here and there—so I tied on a size 14 olive Woodchuck Caddis dry fly.
In a nice run along several submerged boulders, a feisty 14-inch brown took the caddis on a dead drift. Upstream in the faster part of the run, a 13-inch rainbow rocketed out of the water to land on my caddis, but only after I twitched it slightly. Both the fish were healthy, fat, brightly colored, and used the current to fight strongly. This was turning into a pretty good evening—I already had two fish and the main event was still ahead.
I quickly worked through the pocketwater at the head of the riffle, as it seemed too shallow to hold many fish. However, as I approached the top of the riffle and the tail of the next pool, I noticed trout rising in a smooth glide just a foot out from the branches of a large overhanging tree. I had noticed fish in these spots before, but whenever I tried try to wade up into the tail, or cast upstream over them, they disappeared. I think they were onto me.
I stood like a tree watching the evening progress. As the shadows lengthened, more caddisflies showed themselves, and clouds of mayfly spinners gathered for another evening spectacle. I noticed two or three fish feeding on the growing number of insects on the water. When the lead fish revealed itself with deliberate head-then-dorsal rises, it gave the impression of a 2-foot trout. To fool this fish I would have to make a careful approach.
I devised a plan to sneak along the shore under the overhanging tree to get above the fish, but even crawling on my hands and knees 25 feet from the lie was too much for the big fish, and it stopped feeding. I waited the rest of the evening, but the big brown never returned to the glide.
The next evening before the spinners began to form a fog over the riffles, I quietly positioned myself above that same glide. Not wanting to disturb trout I couldn’t see, I waded into position from the opposite side of the river and stopped about 50 feet upriver and 20 feet off to the side of the spot where the big brown had fed the night before.
It was another calm evening, and the hatches developed as they had the night before, with a few Brown Drakes showing up alongside the olive caddis and Pale Evening Duns I had seen the day before. Shadows became longer, and streams of yellow/orange sunlight highlighted massive clouds of spinners dancing over the riffles below me. I stood for nearly 30 minutes wondering if I had clumsily spooked the glide (again) before the first trout poked its nose up into the air.
As the mayfly hatch peaked and overlapped with the spinner fall, I could see fish rising in other parts of the tailout, in the smooth currents above me, and in the riffles below. I was about to give up hope, and start casting at other targets, when in the glide the large brown began tipping his hat in the exact same spot as the night before.
It was all I could do to continue waiting, but I wanted him to develop a feeding rhythm, and build confidence before I made my cast. When I felt I could time the pace of his feeding, I placed the fly 15 feet above the fish and fed line into the drift.
The first cast fell short, and the next two attempts succumbed to drag. Fearing I had spooked the big brown, I waited for him to rise again, and then made a parachute cast to introduce extra slack into the leader. This cast landed 10 feet above the fish and as I cautiously fed line into the drift, the fly drifted naturally toward “the spot.”
The fly seemed to hesitate momentarily or even rise as a bulge formed beneath it, and then it disappeared in one gulp under a large, spotted nose that rose nearly 2 inches above the water.
I pulled tight to a surprised but somewhat angry brown trout, and the fish charged upstream toward the shelter of deeper water. The current worked to my advantage as the trout alternated between throbbing head shakes and deep runs into the body of the pool. Within a few minutes I slipped the net under a 20-inch Allegheny River brown trout decorated with a size 12 Sulphur Compara-dun in the corner of his noble mouth.
Kinzua Brown Trout
In the East, notable fisheries like the upper Delaware River and the fertile spring creeks of central Pennsylvania are famous for large, surface-feeding brown trout, but the Allegheny River below Kinzua Dam has flown mostly below the radar. Granted, it’s not the perfect year-round fishery, but at the right time of the year, the match-the-hatch dry-fly fishing for trophy brown trout can rival any trout stream east of the Mississippi.
From Kinzua Dam, located in northwest Pennsylvania near Warren, the Allegheny River flows along the Allegheny National Forest on its way to Pittsburgh where it meets the Monongahela and forms the Ohio River. Besides being a productive, high-quality fishery, the Allegheny is renowned for its pastoral character and natural scenic beauty.
Named La Belle Rivière (The Beautiful River) by French explorers, the river passes through narrow forest valleys, around wilderness islands, and across rural landscapes rich with the early history and culture of the region. The 87 miles of river from Kinzua Dam to Interstate 80 were designated by Congress in 1992 as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
Helping to define its majestic character are many undeveloped forested islands that divide its flow into more intimate ribbons of exceptional fish habitat. Seven of the islands within the Allegheny National Forest were designated in 1984 as the Allegheny River Island Wilderness to remain forever protected and available for public use. Nearly all the islands up and down the river are undeveloped and popular for camping, exploring, fishing, and viewing scenery and wildlife.
In the 45 miles between Kinzua Dam and Tionesta, the river is trophy brown and rainbow trout water. Downstream of Tionesta, the river becomes a quality warmwater fishery known more for its smallmouth bass and musky fishing.
What qualifies as a trophy on the Allegheny? On some small streams I’ve caught “trophies” that measured little more than the span of my hand, but on the Allegheny it takes fish nearing 24 inches to register a “wow!” and there are many smaller trout.
Kinzua Dam, constructed in 1965, changed the river fishery, especially in the 8 miles directly below the dam, from a largely warmwater fishery to a coolwater fishery. In recognition of the upper river’s potential, the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission has not only released thousands of fingerling trout, but has instituted special regulations to reduce creel limits to two trout 14 inches or larger. Trout can only be kept from the traditional trout opening in April to Labor Day. The remainder of the year is catch-and-release.
There are two seasons for fly fishers on the Allegheny—I call them streamer season and the classic dry-fly season. Streamer season is long, lasting from October through May, when large trout feed mainly on abundant baitfish. River flows are high and water temperatures range from the mid 30s to the upper 50s. Many of the largest trout of the year are caught during this time. Last February on an unusually warm day a beautiful 25-inch brown found my Clouser Minnow in the cold swirling currents.
Once the water temperatures begin to climb toward the 60s, the trout switch over to aquatic insects. This classic fly-fishing season is short, beginning in May and running through June. Several caddis and mayfly species provide dependable dry-fly fishing, particularly in the evenings. During the day, fishing nymphs under an indicator is a common practice and can produce some great catches.
Strange as it may seem, in the period between late June and October, the trout seemingly disappear. There are sporadic hatches of both mayflies and caddis all summer, but few trout rise to those occasions.
Water temperatures soaring into the 70s probably have a chilling effect on their willingness to feed, and the trout may find deep holes to provide shelter from the heat. Bigger fish are known to feed under the cover of darkness, so fishing after dark may be the most productive method during the summer. In any event, in the heat of the summer, the daylight fishing is poor, and I don’t recommend fishing for trout when water temperatures exceed 70 degrees F.
During streamer season, a 9- or 10-foot 7-weight rod is the best tool for the job. A weight-forward line such as the RIO OutBound or Airflo Streamer Max helps you turn over larger weighted streamers at greater distances. A heavier rod makes battling the larger fish in heavy flows much easier.
Effective streamers vary from weighted olive, black, and white Woolly Buggers to Conehead Marabou Muddlers and Bunny Leeches. Use something that has lots of movement and a bit of flash. The old adage “big fly, big fish” is often true on the Allegheny, and I generally use streamers from 3 to 5 inches long.
Even saltwater and warmwater patterns like Lefty’s Deceivers and Clouser Minnows are great patterns in various combinations of white, chartreuse, gray, blue, and olive. Most of the native minnows and chubs have light bellies and darker backs, so any streamer with this color scheme is a good bet.
During fly season, use a 5-weight rod with the power to make long casts and punch large dry flies into the wind. If you are planning to nymph most of the time, a 10-foot rod has better line control for long, drag-free drifts. If you are planning to fish the surface, the 9-foot rod is more accurate and easier to cast through a long day.
The Allegheny is an aquatic insect factory during this time period. Caddis are the most prolific and can be found hatching or egg laying nearly every day. Carry several caddis patterns in sizes 12 to 18 in both light and dark colors.
Mayflies during this period range from Blue-winged Olives and Blue Quills to the large Yellow and Brown Drakes. Early and late-season Sulphurs seem to be the most abundant species, and they provide more surface activity than the Olives and Blue Quills.
There is insect activity nearly every day. Sometimes there’s not enough of them to bring trout to the surface, but if conditions are right the trout will likely appear on cue. If you wade sloppily you can spook an entire pool, so walk and wade slowly and carefully. Be observant—the best fly fishers always are. If you spot a rising trout and are able to get in a good casting position, Allegheny trout are not fussy about your pattern. Choosing your flies is the least of your worries.
Access and Flows
The Allegheny River is a large river with limited public access, and difficult wading. Much of the shoreline is private land, and it can be steep and rugged. For wading fly fishers there are Allegheny National Forest and Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission access points, but good fishing may be quite a hike away.
Wading fly fishers can also access the river at various undeveloped pull-offs along State Routes 6, 59, and 62 where the river is adjacent to the road. Some of the shore is part of the Allegheny National Forest. Of course, if you encounter posted signs or private homes, seek permission before walking across private land.
The placid, clear water of the Allegheny can be quite deceiving to visiting fly fishers. The current is swift and the water is often deeper than it looks. A wading staff is recommended.
Because of Kinzua Dam, which is managed for flood control, water levels fluctuate artificially. The best way to determine flows is to check the USGS water monitoring site at: http://waterdata.usgs.gov/usa/nwis/uv?03012550. Do not wade at water levels exceeding 1,500 cubic feet per second (cfs). Water levels below 1,200 are most comfortable for wading and give you access to the most productive runs in the river.
For Spey casting aficionados, anyting above 1,200 cfs is your time to shine. The wooded banks don’t allow for much of a backcast with a single-handed rod. An 11- or 11.5-foot switch rod or light Spey rod, and the ability to throw basic double and single Spey casts, puts you at an advantage. I have several friends who fish with two-handed rods all streamer season, and they catch some big browns.
One of the most effective ways to fish this river is by boat. In fly season, I prefer a kayak, canoe, or drift boat because they are quiet and allow you to beach or anchor your craft and get out to fish good water. In streamer season when flows are higher, motorized boats allow you to move quickly up- and downriver to cover lots of water.
Between Kinzua Dam and Warren, the river is interrupted frequently by many islands, creating a series of riffles and runs with deeper pools between. Most of the trout seem to hang around the islands in the deeper riffles and runs where insect production is greatest. The best runs contain small boulders and rubble bottoms that provide good cover and respite from the strong current.
Trout are most abundant and easiest to catch in the riffles and runs. It is easier to approach them undetected, and the choppy surface is more forgiving of presentation errors. In general, fish in the riffles are smaller, with more rainbows in the mix.
The larger rainbows and the truly large browns feed adjacent to these areas, in either deeper quieter runs or, as mentioned earlier, in the pools just below the riffles or in the tail.
There are a variety of techniques to catch these tailout fish, but most successful anglers prefer an across-and-downstream approach. In the tricky multiple surface currents, you can get longer drag-free drifts with this tactic. In the normally clear water it is best if the fly is the first thing the fish sees.
Wade and Wait
One of my favorite techniques to catch large browns on dry flies is to fish the tail of the pool as I described at the beginning of this story. These spots are especially good during the Brown Drake and Pale Evening Dun hatches in late May and early June.
Brown Drakes are one of the largest mayflies that hatch in abundance on the river. These meaty flies, a good size 8 or 10, bring some of the largest trout in the river up to feed. Combine that with many size 12 Pale Evening Duns, and it makes for an exciting time. These hatches can begin in late afternoon and continue through twilight. However, feeding activity usually spikes in the evening, when both hatches and spinner falls overlap.
Over time I have worked out a “wade and wait” approach that has turned out to be quite successful. The key is to arrive in the early evening and wade slowly up into the tail and then simply stand statue-still and wait for the fish to feed. Of course experience is the best teacher, as there are certain parts of the tail fish prefer and if you know that, you can position yourself carefully for a good presentation.
What I’ve found most successful is to cast quartering downstream with a parachute mend (reaching the rod tip upward, right after the “stop” on the forward cast, while the line is still in the air). After the fly lands, drop your rod tip and slowly feed line into the drift.
If you need additional length to drift the fly down to the fish, use vertical hump mends to feed slack line into the current. A “hump mend” is merely flipping your rod tip up and down and using water tension to pull loose line from your hands.
These fish are wary and don’t move far for a meal. The fly should land 5 to 10 feet upstream of the fish so it doesn’t land in its field of vision, and drift within 6 inches of its nose.
Here is where being able to cast 40 to 60 feet with accuracy is important. If you can’t reach a trout and you have to wade closer, the shock waves you create by wading will often put the fish down. Then it is a waiting game until it resumes feeding, and even then you may discover that the fish has moved even farther away, and the wading/waiting game begins all over again. Distance and accuracy—along with patience—are the game changers that lead to success.
Even with accurate casts, you are casting upstream of the fish and the vagaries of the current may cause the fly to miss the fish’s feeding position. If this happens, you’ll need to reconsider how the current affects the drift of your fly, and try again.
If you let the fly line drift over a fish, forget it, you are done. If the leader or the fly drags over a fish it may also spook and disappear. Again, wade and wait.
To add to the challenge, some fish cruise while they feed, and create unpredictable targets. The easy fish are the ones that set up a feeding station and rise rhythmically.
A specific fly pattern is not the key to success—these trout are not pattern junkies. I have caught many trout on an old pattern called The Usual tied with nothing but snowshoe rabbit’s foot hair. The way I tie them, it looks like belly button lint tied on a hook, but it’s just one of those go-to patterns that have taken fish everywhere I’ve been.
During the Brown Drake and Pale Evening Dun hatches, I use Compara-dun style dry flies because they are easy to see on the water, and quick to tie. The upright deer-hair wing splayed 180 degrees around the hook—with fibers laying flush in the surface film—gives the impression of a spentwing spinner as well as the silhouette of a dun. Parachute patterns work as well, but are more difficult to tie and sometimes not as easy to see on the water.
With the Compara-dun Brown Drake pattern I use a lighter 2X-long size 12 hook, which seems to float longer than heavier size 8 or 10 hooks. To give the impression of a longer body, I tie the tail using a small bundle of dark brown calf tail nearly as long as the body. To better imitate the actual tails, I sometimes pull two or three fibers out from the bundle to make them longer. I always carry a number of size 12 and 14 Sulphur Compara-duns that are just as effective.
Risk and Reward
The Allegheny is big, difficult to wade, and requires good casting skills to find consistent success. However, the rewards can be great with fat, healthy rainbows and browns. A successful trip on the Allegheny is often just one or two fish per evening, but they are regularly large, memorable trout that require a great deal of stalking.
I have been skunked more times on the Allegheny River than any other place, but it is also where I’ve caught most of my largest trout. Tremendous hatches and spinner falls can occur, but one day you’ll find rising fish everywhere and the next day, only a fish here and there. Surface activity—clearly unpredictable—usually depends on air and water temperature, river flows, insect abundance, and other mysterious factors.
If you want to catch a lot of very easy trout, the Allegheny is probably not the place for you. But if you enjoy the thrill of the hunt, join me on the Allegheny River. I’ll be the guy standing stock still at the tailout of my favorite pool, just waiting for the big fish to appear.
The Allegheny River Paddling Guide is an excellent 34-page waterproof booklet with detailed topo maps, mile markers, and descriptions of the river from Kinzua Dam to Tionesta. Available from alleghenyoutfitters.com
The Middle Allegheny River Water Trail is a Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Comission brochure with a large-scale map of river with public lands, recreation areas, access points, river miles, and other features. It is available on-line at fishandboat.com.
The Allegheny National Forest Administrative Map is a detailed administrative map of the entire forest including the Allegheny River from Kinzua Dam to Tionesta. The map is available at fs.usda.gov/allegheny
– Warren County Vacation Bureau
– Grizzly Gary Outdoors (Local Flies) (814) 726-7475
Gary Kell is a certified Federation of Fly Fishers master casting instructor. His website is theflyfishingcoach.com.