Cumberland Valley Alternatives
March 05, 2015
Pennsylvania's fertile Cumberland Valley is known for its cold, crystalline spring creeks and their wary and selective trout. The valley's best streams—the Letort, Big Spring, Falling Spring, and Yellow Breeches—deserve their reputation as some of the most famous fly-fishing destinations in the world, because they offer challenging spring-creek fishing in one of the birthplaces of American fly fishing. They are the streams where Vince Marinaro, Charlie Fox, and others fished, and shaped the history of fly fishing.
While these beautiful streams offer unsurpassed angling challenges, their popularity has a price—too many fishermen. Visit the streams on a weekday and you might have them to yourself. Visit them on a weekend and you may go home disappointed and frustrated.
Fortunately, a trip to the Cumberland Valley does not have to end in disappointment, because if the famous streams are crowded, there are other good spring creeks and freestone trout streams that don't get nearly as much fishing pressure. Also, the Susquehanna River offers easy access to world-class smallmouth bass fishing.
Most of these Cumberland Valley alternatives have tackle restrictions and reduced creel limits to protect their fisheries. This is one reason why they continue to offer consistently good fishing in an area that has seen a dramatic rise in population and suburban development. Most anglers on these waters practice catch-and-release and use barbless hooks. Check the state's Summary of Fishing Regulations and Laws (available where licenses are sold) for each stream's specific regulations.
The tackle needed for the alternative streams is the same as for the famous ones. Most dry-fly and nymphing anglers use light 2- through 5- weight outfits and floating lines with long 9- to 15-foot leaders and 5X-7X tippets. Some anglers fish streamers with shorter 6- to 9-foot leaders and heavier 3X-4X tippets, and still others sometimes use sinking-tip lines in the deeper pools. A short rod (6 to 7 feet) can make it easier to cast in the tight conditions on these small streams.
Most standard spring-creek and match-the-hatch patterns work well, but local favorites like the Green Weenie or Ed Shenk's crickets, hoppers, and minnows sometimes work when nothing else will. [See Ed Shenk's terrestrials article on page 32. The Editor.]
Quittapahilla Creek near Annville in Lebanon County is a spring creek that has yet to become famous. The "Quitti" is about an hour east of the more famous limestone streams. [See "The Quitti," by Richard Henry, FFM, March 1996. The Editor.]
Steel mill waste polluted the creek until the recent past, and now local anglers, Trout Unlimited (TU), the Quittie Watershed Association, and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission have helped improve the stream's fishing and insect hatches. The state and a private game club stock the stream annually. These trout range from 12 to 20 inches long, and about half are stocked during the fall.
The Quitti is a stream with several different characteristics, ranging from a typical limestone spring creek in its upper reaches to a more freestone character in its lower water where it flows into Swatara Creek. Some sections are heavily silted with steep mud banks; others have weedy bottoms and undercut banks.
During summer, the Quitti is full of aquatic vegetation that provides ideal habitat for shrimp and cressbugs, but can make drag-free floats difficult. When the elodea becomes thick, dry flies are the best option, but when the weeds are thinner during colder months, subsurface fishing is the best bet with cressbugs, scuds, crayfish, and generic small (#14-#20) nymphs. Use a small split-shot to sink the fly and present it near bottom with a dead-drift between the weeds.
The only major hatch is the Trico (#18-#22) from midsummer through early fall. It occurs in good numbers on the lower stream, but is conspicuously absent from the upper water and the special-regulations area. Fish throughout the stream take a variety of small beetles, ants, and other terrestrials on the surface, and attractor nymphs on bottom.
About a mile of the Quitti near Annville has delayed-harvest, artificial-lures-only, special regulations. This section is from the Spruce Street bridge on road T-398 downstream to the lower boundary of Quitti Nature Park. To reach the special-regulation water, take Route 422 east from Hershey to Annville. Turn right onto Bachman Road, which takes you to the park.
In Lancaster County, east of the Cumberland Valley, the Donegal Spring offers classic spring-creek fishing in the heart of Amish country. The local Donegal TU Chapter and Donegal Fish and Game have improved this formerly degraded stream and enhanced its wild-trout population, which competes with stocked browns and rainbows. Most fish are in the 10- to 12-inch range, but larger ones are frequently caught. The stream continues to improve.
Donegal Spring flows four miles through farms and fenced pastures that are sometimes too close for casting comfort. An errant backcast could hook a cow or wrap around an electric fence. Much of the stream is fenced, but fence steps are provided at strategic locations. The streambanks have high grass in summer and some wooded sections. Watercress and other aquatic spring-creek vegetation provides ideal habitat for trout and food like shrimp, cressbugs, mayflies, and minnows.
The best hatches include Blue-winged Olives (BWO) and Sulphurs in May. Caddis and midges come off sporadically throughout the season. Terrestrials, bead-head nymphs, BWO Parachutes, and tan CDC Caddis are some of the favorite local patterns. Use an upstream approach with drys and stay hidden in the grass or trees to avoid spooking fish.
The Donegal Creek has 2.4 miles of delayed-harvest, fly-fishing-only, special-regulation water. This section is from 275 yards below State Route 772 downstream to road
T-334. To reach the special-regulation water, take Route 322 east from Harrisburg to the Route 772, Mount Joy exit. Follow Route 772 south through town to the stream.
Although it's more than an hour's drive from Cumberland Valley, Yellow Creek is a hatch-matcher's paradise featuring wild and stocked trout. This spring creek is west of Cumberland Valley and over the mountains in Bedford County.
Depending on where you are on Yellow Creek, you might wonder if it's a limestone stream or a freestoner. In its lower reaches near its confluence with the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River, Yellow Creek resembles a classic freestone stream with rocky riffles and runs interspersed with deep pools. But farther upstream, the water's milky-yellow color reveals its spring-creek origins. Three main springs combine to form Yellow Creek: Potter Creek, Three Springs Run, and Beaver Creek.
The hatch activity begins in late April and early May with Blue Quills, Quill Gordons, and Hendricksons, as well as stoneflies and caddis. In May the action really heats up with March Browns and Blue Quills in the morning, Gray Fox in the afternoon, and Sulphurs and Light Cahills in the evening. Yellow Creek had a good Green Drake hatch until the 1950s, and in recent years this hatch has made a resurgence. Locals say it is nowhere near what it was, but it gets better every year.
In July, there's a decent Trico hatch that usually continues through September. White Flies hatch on August evenings for about as long as on the Yellow Breeches, although the hatch is not as intense. Terrestrials work throughout the summer.
Yellow Creek has 1.25 miles of delayed-harvest, fly-fishing-only, special-regulation water below the town of Loysburg. This section is from the mouth of Maple Run (Jacks Run) upstream to the cable near Red Bank Hill. To reach the special-regulation section, take Route 26 north out of Everett, at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Bedford exit (#11). Turn left onto Route 36, which follows the stream for several miles.
For many fly fishers, the East means freestone streams, and Pennsylvania certainly has its share. Three of these—Mountain, Stony, and Clarks creeks—near the Cumberland Valley offer a change of pace from the challenging spring creeks. They are classic Eastern freestone streams with free-flowing water, alternating pools and riffles, and traditional hatches.
Mountain Creek begins in the Michaux State Forest south of Carlisle and flows into the Yellow Breeches at Mount Holly Springs. It's a typical Pennsylvania mountain stream, about 16 miles long, and is stocked with rainbows, browns, and brookies throughout its entire length. It has a good population of native brookies in its headwaters.
Mountain Creek can be crowded in spring after the mid-April Opening Day, but later it receives little fishing pressure, especially on weekdays. The headwaters flow fast and furious through beautiful mountain terrain. Although the trout there rarely see flies, they will take attractor and imitative patterns. Streamers, such as Muddler Minnows and Woolly Buggers, produce well, but a well-presented dry fly or nymph will take more trout. Fish the deeper pools, pockets, and bankside runs.
In the early season, Mountain Creek has good caddis hatches and fair mayfly hatches. In the fast water, various colors of Elk-hair Caddis patterns work well on top, while caddis pupa and small nymphs work well in the riffles and around log jams. A two-fly rig works well. Mayfly activity can be sparse, but Hendricksons and March Browns come off in April and early May, and Sulphurs and Light Cahills appear in May and early June. In summer, terrestrials can take a lot of fish because most of the stream is covered by the forest canopy and the trout are accustomed to eating ants, beetles, inchworms, and crickets.