Pennsylvania's Waking Giant: The Lackawanna River

Pennsylvania's Waking Giant: The Lackawanna River

At one time, sewage and mine waste made the Lackawanna toxic for fish, and unfit for human consumption. The river today is one of Pennsylvania’s best wild trout fisheries. Photo: Adam Nidoh.

The Lackawanna River begins in the southeast corner of Susquehanna County, where its east and west branches flow into Stillwater Reservoir, just south of Union Dale and about 4 miles north of Forest City. The lower 40 miles of river running through Lackawanna County provide the setting for a truly remarkable comeback story. Just 50 short years ago, the river was left for dead. Inefficient and substandard sewage systems, along with a booming coal industry that put Scranton on the map, created an acid-filled funnel of waste. For the past 27 years I’ve only known the Lackawanna for what it is today: a wild brown trout mecca snuggled amidst the city I’ve grown up in. Scenery on the river can be hit or miss, and the hatches even less reliable. These two factors have kept crowds off the river and may still for the foreseeable future. What the river does have is character and magnificent trout that rival any in the state.

The Lackawanna contains more fish-filled public water than almost any river in Pennsylvania. The 37 miles of river below Stillwater Dam contain significant populations of mostly wild, naturally reproducing brown trout, with little to no private water. Ongoing rails-to-trails projects are providing more access every day, with an anticipated goal of stretching from the top to the bottom of the river. Nearly 18 of those miles are designated by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC) as either Class A or Trophy Trout water. There is an additional 8 miles of Stocked Trout Water above that. The remaining lower 11 unspecified miles, running through a city of nearly 80,000 people, supports a healthy population of fish as well, and could greatly benefit from some implemented regulation.

A River Returns

Anthracite coal mining began in eastern Pennsylvania as far back as the 1790s and in the Lackawanna Valley by the 1820s, lasting for nearly 150 years. Many of our coldwater fisheries suffered mightily from it, and still do to this day. By 1866, the year Scranton became a city, the Lackawanna was declared unfit for consumption due to wastewater from improper sewage disposal, mining, and other industries. The next 100 years showed little improvement.

By 1900, the river was devoid of its native brook trout and other inhabitants, except for the occasional rat. The coal, iron, rail, and textile industries, along with commercial development, had taken their toll on the river. In 1937, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a Clean Stream Law, unfortunately allowing an exemption for the coal mining industry. By the 1960s, however, coal mining in the area had ceased, and Scranton was finally able to afford an updated sewage system. In 1966, both the Lackawanna River Basin Sewer Authority and the Scranton Sewer Authority were formed. Further protection would follow with the federal Clean Water Act of 1970.

Initial trout stockings began in the late 70s, and the river began its comeback. Water from abandoned mines up and down the valley continues to seep into the river, but the water runs cold and the iron levels have been reduced to minimal significance. The four sewage treatment plants along the river discharge clean water into the river year-round and at approximately 55 degrees F. Water from the city sewer lines enters the river only during periods of heavy rain. Not ideal, but still a vast improvement.

Ironically, the valley mine drainages and sewer plant discharges are what make the Lackawanna the year-round fishery it is. Stillwater Dam was completed in 1941 by the Army Corps of Engineers as a flood control project, protecting the Lackawanna Valley. Stillwater Reservoir is a long, narrow, relatively shallow and weedy lake, where temperatures reach well into the upper 70s, if not the lower 80s, by late summer. Although the gates can be controlled to release more or less water, the river below receives water primarily through a spillway, providing no coldwater relief for the trout downstream until cold water enters the river from the first of four sewage treatment plants in Forest City, and the coldwater mine drainages beginning in Jermyn. Upstream of the reservoir, there are decent numbers of small wild browns and brookies. Wild fish are also found through Forest City, Simpson, and down to Carbondale. However most fish in this section are stocked.

Today, the Lackawanna has become a haven for more than just trout. Growing populations of eagles, hawks, herons, mallards, mergansers, geese, turtles, frogs, beavers, otters, minks, and more have all made the Lackawanna their home. While transformed into something previous generations would have never imagined, the river is still facing potential threats. Harvesting, illegal dumping, flood control projects, fracking, accidental industrial spills, siltation, and rock salt and road runoff all pose possible threats to the waterway. Endless efforts by the Lackawanna Valley chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Lackawanna River Conservation Association keep these factors at bay and preserve this magnificent natural resource.

For me, the Lackawanna stands as the blueprint for how a river heals. As Dr. Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.” Yes, some initial aid was needed, just as every toddler needs a helping hand to make their first steps. But for the most part, the river benefited greatly by being undisturbed.
The strain of brown trout running through the Lackawanna are a special breed: 70-degree water temps in the summer, acidic mine water, urban pollution, subpar food sources, and yet, they thrive. These are circumstances that stocked fish cannot overcome. They are proof—for the PFBC and the agencies across the country who control our waterways—that if you want to improve a resource, you protect it, you don’t try to populate it.

Where to Fish

From the Meredith Street bridge in Childs downstream, the Lackawanna is a thriving, year-round wild trout fishery. The final 3 miles of river, beginning at the Connell Street bridge in Old Forge, have been too severely scarred by abandoned mine drainage (AMD) from the Old Forge borehole to support trout or any aquatic life.

As you follow the river downstream from the reservoir, the first coldwater relief site as well as the first access site can be found at the Forest City Sewage Treatment Plant and the adjacent D&H Trailhead. Downstream through Vandling and into Simpson the river’s trout-holding characteristics begin taking shape. Although the river valley is not densely forested, high banks and thick streamside brush make fishing from the shore almost impossible. Fishing upstream is a must. The water here is small with an abundance of pocketwater.
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The 37 miles of the Lackawanna below Stillwater Dam has plentiful public access, and nearly 18 of those miles are designated as either Class A or Trophy Trout water by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission.Photo: Jay Nichols
The Class A water begins in Carbondale. However, with its bustling Main Avenue and long stretches of stone walls channelizing the water, most anglers don’t fish until the towns of Mayfield and Jermyn, where deeper holes and longer riffles begin to form, providing better habitat for the river’s larger fish, and numerous mine discharge sites inject cold water into the river.

Still narrow in some places, the river’s fish numbers and the scenery greatly improve as the river winds into the town of Archbald. As the river flows 5 miles through Archbald, Jessup, and Olyphant, it is Trophy Trout water. This label has created a lopsided amount of pressure on this area. While this section is wonderful and plenty of trailheads and neighborhood parks allow for easy access, there is a lot of great water downstream as well.

As the river flows into Dickson City and the city limits of Scranton, shopping centers, busy intersections, and denser neighborhoods begin to line the stream. Parking becomes tricky throughout this stretch, as most of the river is accessed via side streets.

Fish numbers remain strong throughout the city, with only the insect life apparently affected by the urban conditions. Pocketwater and riffles begin to give way to longer glides and deeper pools, providing plenty of refuge for larger browns. On the downside, much of the debris and locally discarded trash begins to collect in the lower stretches of the river. It is not uncommon to see shopping carts in the water.

The lowest reaches of the river, through the towns of Taylor, Moosic, and Old Forge, differ greatly from the rest, nearly doubling in size after the three largest tributaries—Leggetts Creek, Roaring Brook, and Spring Brook—flow into the river. Some fish through this stretch might not see a single fly or lure in a year. Long stretches are too deep to wade from either side and accompanied by tree-lined banks. Access is also limited, as many major roads and neighborhoods veer off from the river for several miles. The easiest access points in this stretch are the Moosic Little League field and the Depot Street trailhead in Taylor.

Favored Flies

I’ve had wonderful days of nonstop dry-fly action on the Lackawanna, rivaling any stream I’ve fished in the state, but if you want to catch fish with any consistency, your flies need to be in the water. A basic assortment of caddis and Pheasant-tail Nymphs are really all you need, though I find that showing the fish something new works well at times. Essential nymphs for me include #14-18 natural Soft Hackles, #16-18 Biot/Quill Body BWOs (Fulling Mill), #12-16 Holy Grails (Fulling Mill), #14-18 Rainbow Warriors (Lance Egan), #16-20 black, red, and olive Zebra Midges, #8-10 Golden Nemec Stones (Fulling Mill), #12-16 orange and pink Frenchies, #12-14 Sexy Walt’s Worm (Loren Williams), and my own designs: #8-14 black, brown, and golden Adam Bombs, #12-16 tan and olive Cloud Cover Caddis, #12-16 Hare’s Ear 2.0, #12-14 caddis green Case Closed Caddis, and #14-18 Slanted Pheasant Tails. [For more information on Sexy Walt’s Worm, see George Daniel’s story “Trigger Nymphs” starting on page 32. The Editor.]

Aside from the 8 miles of Stocked Trout Water that are closed from March 1 to the opening day of trout season, the rest of the river is open year-round. I spend about half the year fishing from our fly shop in Dickson City downstream through Scranton and into Old Forge, when the temperatures and flows are of no issue. Areas that run through the city can fish just as well as any of the Class A or Trophy sections upstream. I believe the largest fish in the river roams somewhere within the Scranton city limits.

June through September I concentrate on the water from the shop upstream to Jermyn. These stretches can be a degree or two cooler than the water in the city, and the canopy provides additional shade and relief for the fish.

I prefer a 10-foot, 3- or 4-weight rod for nymphing, a 9-foot, 4- or 5-weight for drys, and a 9-foot, 6- or 7-weight for streamers. Most fish in the Lackawanna aren’t too line or leader shy (although the increased numbers of anglers over the past few years are starting to change that), so I generally try to use the heaviest tippets I can to reduce my risk of breaking off those 20-inchers. I’ve found the fish to be opportunists most of the year, making general presentation and tactics far more important than overall fly selection. That characteristic is certainly welcoming, compared to some waterways, such as the Delaware.

Local Hatches

The Lackawanna has a fair number of hatches, but the most important are midges, BWOs, Sulphurs, Tricos, and assorted caddis. You can encounter rising fish at any time, in any stretch. I have, for instance, come across pods of fish feeding on Early Black Stones in downtown Scranton in early March. Sulphurs are perhaps the marquee mayfly hatch and bring fish to the surface between mid-May and mid-June that are unseen the other eleven months of the year. As the river gets more pressure, low-riding patterns such as parachutes and Compara-duns seem to take the lion’s share of surface-feeding trout.
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Perhaps due to the relative lack of aquatic insect life, Lackawanna trout quickly become piscivorous and show rapid growth rates. Photo: Adam Nidoh
I like to use #14-18 Ramsay’s Sulphur Half and Half or my own Sulphur Biot Body Parachute. Caddis definitely outnumber the mayflies here. A simple collection of caddis nymphs and dry flies is probably all you’d really need to catch fish year-round. A tan or green/olive caddis larva or pupa should be tied on any nymph rig at all times. Lower-riding CDC caddis patterns such as tan and olive Orvis Low Rider CDC and Elk-hair Caddis (#14-18) tend to fool more fish in lower summer flows.

Late summer provides more dependable surface opportunity with morning Trico spinner falls. Your best bet to find Tricos will be on the upper stretches of the river, north of I-81. What Tricos lack in size, they usually make up for in numbers. While this period generally shows off the many smaller fish in the river, catching a 20-plus-inch brown on 6X to 8X tippet is still a possibility. My favorite spinner pattern is a #22-24 Ramsay’s DNA Spinner (Trico).

Even though most of the river runs through urbanized areas, plenty of canopy still drapes the river. Summer terrestrial action can be good, with beetles (#12-16 Orvis Flash Beetle), ants, and inchworms dropping in on a regular basis. The somewhat sparse numbers of mayflies and stoneflies make it rare for the trout to resist a juicy meal, especially the unpredictable and frenzy-inducing flying ant hatch, which can boil the water.

Once summer settles in, the larger fish hunker down for much of the day, returning in the evening to cruise and chase baitfish. Summer nights are great times for streamers. Unweighted flies with some bulk that will push water, fished just below the surface, work best.

Fall usually brings with it low flows, lingering terrestrials, and sporadic hatches of caddis, BWOs, and midges. I’ve found late fall/early winter is a great time to find post-spawn fish aggressively striking streamers. Fall streamer fishing can be hit or miss depending on water flows. Due to mine outflows and sewage plant discharges, the Lackawanna remains ice free, except during the coldest of winters. Streamers are my go-to winter patterns, simply because indicator nymphing a deep slow pool with 6X tippet and two tiny midges has never been my favorite thing (although effective). When choosing streamer patterns, keep in mind that the river has plenty of brown trout, suckers, dace, sculpins, crayfish, and leeches. I think that due to the less-than-stellar insect life, fish in the Lack turn piscivorous earlier in their lives than most trout generally would, leading to rapid growth rates. My favorite streamer patterns include olive and brown Fish-Skull Skulpin Bunny (#4-8), olive and black Orvis CH Woolly Bugger (#6-10), GD Sculpin Snack (#8), olive Fish-Skull Zonker (#4-8), and a Black Tung Jig Bugger (#8).

Rising fish can even be found on the river in winter. Any reasonably warm and sunny winter day, I guarantee there’s a fish somewhere sipping midges in the film. This past Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the sky was blue and the air temperature a balmy 17 degrees F. I waded into a pool in Scranton and saw dimples everywhere. I caught nearly a dozen fish on a Griffith’s Gnat before my fingers became too numb to tie another knot.

Adam Nidoh and his father Greg own A&G Outfitters (agoutfitters.com) in Dickson City, Pennsylvania. He guides on the Lackawanna, Susquehanna, Lehigh, Delaware, and Lackawaxen rivers. Portions of this article are excerpted from Keystone Fly Fishing: The Ultimate Guide to Pennsylvania’s Best Water.

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