The Clarion River Revive
August 30, 2015
For several minutes I searched the little pool and riffle below me. A cold, late-fall rain created a choppy sheen on the surface and blocked my view of the streambed. Then a commotion in the riffles caught my attention, and I put on my polarized glasses. I had been tracking down a rumor of "brown trout up to 31 inches" and on that November day in 1999, my search ended. For ten minutes, I watched goggle-eyed as a procession of spawning browns struggled up through that shallow run. Half of them confirmed the rumor; the other half were just run-of-the-mill big trout.
Defining much of the eastern and southern boundaries of the 513,000-acre Allegheny National Forest in mountainous northwestern Pennsylvania, the Clarion River may very well be the least known big-trout water in the eastern United States. The Clarion is an accessible river that requires neither professional guides nor special tackle, and is completely fishable without a boat. Furthermore, the lack of consistent, heavy hatches means that those big browns are generalists that survive on baitfish, hellgrammites, and crayfish that can be copied and fished with terminal tackle stout enough to give decent odds for landing them. And, incredibly, with all these pluses, very few people outside the immediate area have heard of this river.
Perhaps that is because as recently as the early 1990s, when new owners took over an aging paper plant at the confluence of its two branches, the residue and thermal discharge from that mill, plus numerous acid mine seeps and poorly designed sewage treatment facilities throughout the watershed, rendered it nearly lifeless. But that, with a great deal of work by individuals, agencies, organizations, and businesses, has changed.
Nowhere is the evidence of this cleanup more apparent than in the aquatic samplings taken as a part of the environmental permits conducted by Willamette Industries after they purchased and upgraded the paper mill. The electroshocking portion of their environmental samplings turned up those leviathans—origin of the rumor I tracked down—and there can be no greater testimonial to all the work that has been done than the Wild and Scenic designation bestowed on this river by the U.S. Forest Service in 1997.
If you hold your arm out in front of you and make the "V" for victory sign with your fingers, you will have an accurate picture of this watershed. Your fingers represent the West and East Branches where they come together in the small town of Johnsonburg. Although these branches would be immediately recognizable to any small-stream specialist, they're about as different as two small streams can be.
The East Branch. Spilling from a bottom-discharge dam some 6 miles from its confluence with the West Branch, the East Branch is paralleled for most of its length by the Glenn Hazel Road. Water temperatures on the East Branch stay in the mid 50s throughout the summer, and you'll find a limited selection of the standard hatches of Blue-winged Olives, Sulphurs, March Browns, Cahills, and tan and green caddis on this water. Hatches start about a week later than similar hatches on surrounding streams and last a tad longer than the hatch charts tell you. If you want to fish cold water in August, this is the next best thing to a legitimate spring creek.
A #18 or #20 olive-bodied parachute-style dry will cover most of the Blue-winged Olive hatches on this water. I'll frequently tie an olive and dun emerger as a dropper behind a Cahill or a Stimulator when the light is poor—as it frequently is on the overcast days when this little mayfly prefers to hatch—and do much better.
From about the second week in May up to the same date in June, trout readily accept standard Cahill imitations (#14) with a cream-colored body most late afternoons. Mating flights of Sulphurs over the riffles become pronounced by the second week of May. These insects are on the large side (#16) for the species and have an orange cast to their bodies. A lightly weighted emerger fished at the tail of the riffles late in the day—7 to 9 P.M.—will outproduce a dry fly almost every time.
At Bendigo State Park, halfway between Johnsonburg and the East Branch Dam, there's a small impoundment that was originally used as a swimming area. The Willamette Fish and Game Club stocks heavily above this park, and the pools are big enough to support some very nice holdovers. I really like fishing this branch when either the spring melt or heavy showers make the main stem too ugly to fish. Try the new "Delayed Harvest" (artificial lures only) stretch that covers 11/2 miles of stream below the East Branch Dam. Some days, and why I haven't a clue, this water is chock-full of native brook trout in the 5- to 8-inch range. In July and August—again for reasons I can't understand—I generally have this entire section to myself, especially on weekdays.
The West Branch is a quintessential eastern freestoner running through a wide valley from the hamlet of Wilcox down to Johnsonburg and covers that entire 6-mile stretch alongside Route 219. It fishes well early in the year but warms quickly. The hatches here lean heavily to caddis, but there is a decent selection of Cahills (#12 and #14) and March Browns (#14) as well as a hatch of small stoneflies in May and June known as the Little Green Sally, Alloperla imbecilla, that is copied very nicely by a lime-bodied stimulator with a natural deer-hair wing on an #18 hook.
March Browns emerge as early as April 1 and as late as mid-June on both branches, although, as you would expect, hatches are spotty on the extreme ends of the calendar. Standard, full-hackle patterns will work for searching the water, but I prefer fishing a #14, 3X-long, weighted Hare's Ear to imitate the stocky nymphs.
This no-wading, catch-and-release, fly-fishing-only section just below a little cluster of houses at Tambine, while not big water, can be difficult to fish because of the wading restrictions. It is some of the prettiest water on this branch, however, and worth the casting problems its heavily vegetated banks can create.
The big attraction on the West Branch is the Green Drake, which starts around June 1. It's hard to be too rah-rah about this big mayfly because good hatches are weather dependent, and some years it just doesn't seem to come off at all. Most of the regulars who follow this drake fish the spinner fall just after dark with extended body Coffin Flies (the female spinner) on a light-wire, #10, 2X-long hook. When I know the time is right, around June 1, I'll probe the runs and pools with a shaggy, weighted, tan nymph tied on a #10, 2X hook, and will often pick up some of the nicer fish in this branch.
Five-weight outfits in the 8- or 9-foot range, although slightly more stick than you might think you need when you first look at these two streams, will be welcome for the longish casts required in the few large pools. And both branches are classic nymphing water so you'll appreciate both the length and the backbone to throw a little lead.
Both branches receive stockings of nearly 12,000 brooks, browns, and rainbows each year from the Willamette Fish and Game Club and many of these are holding over, especially in the East Branch. The results of this "jump start"—which has been going on for nearly ten years—in rebuilding the fishery is remarkable.
The Main Stem
All-Tackle, Trophy-Trout Water. The 71/2 miles between Johnsonburg and Ridgway was given the designation "All Tackle Trophy Trout" water (bait, lures, and flies are permitted but there is a limit of two trout during the regular season) in 1995 and contains characteristics of both of the branches, as well as a tantalizing preview of the sinewy, rocky river it will become in another 20 miles or so.
If you're a slightly better caster than I am, you can probably throw a 5-weight line across this 60- to 80-foot-wide section of the river. Each bend has either a deep run or rock-studded pool, but the low flows of summer can make for long, shallow riffles in between.
Most of the hatches found on the branches are present in the first two miles below their confluence, but, perhaps because the cooling water of the East Branch dissipates within this distance, these hatches taper off by the time you reach the lower five miles of this specially regulated water.
Take note that two landowners with property contiguous to this specially regulated section have posted their ground against trespassing. The Clarion River, however, is considered navigable, so access may be gained by parking on either end of their signs and walking either upstream or down. As long as you stay inside the normal spring high-water mark on the bank, you are legal.
Either a brown-bodied, deer-hair caddis or a yellow- or green-bodied Stimulator in #14 and #16 will match the dominant caddis that comes off most evenings from May to September. I can usually keep myself busy with either an olive or dark-brown Hare's Ear (#14 or #16) fished as droppers below a heavily weighted Nutria Nymph. An old, low-head industrial dam just upstream from Ridgway punctuates the end of this picturesque riffle-and-pool—and special regulation—section of the river.
An enormous population of hellgrammites dwells in this section of the river. I suspect this plug-ugly creature is why the trout are so wild about the Nutria Nymph and why it is so effective fished right on bottom. If you have another pattern for this species that you have found productive, bring it along and try it. If it works better than the Nutria, be sure to let me know.
Ridgway to Clarington Bridge. While the 20-plus-mile stretch between Ridgway and the Clarington Bridge (accessed handily from Route 949) still looks more like a big stream than a river, this is where the river ceases being a trout fishery. Smallmouth bass become the primary, but not the only, species. This water, spectacularly dominated by large, rocky pools and deep, fishy runs, is postcard pretty, but classic mayfly water it's not.
You may want to leave your 5-weight outfit in the car for this section and break out that 9-footer with the 7-weight line. Around the mouths of the major tributaries, you'll still appreciate having your box of standard dry flies, specifically those previously mentioned. But from this point downstream, you won't be remiss carrying little more than a dozen (you'll lose some to the bottom if you fish them correctly) weighted #4 Nutria Nymphs and a selection of Woolly Buggers and conventional deer-hair caddis.
The tributaries in this portion of the river, especially the Millstone, offer some excellent fishing in their own right, but equally important, they are a source of cooler water in the summer when the river can warm up to 70 degrees or more. While your primary quarry will be smallmouth bass, the tendril of colder water coming out of these tribs, especially if there is good holding water in the river near the outlet, will often surprise you by producing nice trout.
And there's no need to switch flies if you've been flinging Woolly Buggers for bass. The only tactical change I make is treating the bugger like a nymph and dead-drifting it through the runs, because under the stress of warm water, the trout hanging in the cooler water aren't disposed to chase their meals. Naturally, because of the added stress of fighting a trout through that warmer water, you'll need to make certain they are fully recovered before releasing them. A quick fight—requiring the use of appropriately heavy tippet material—and careful release will prevent unnecessary mortality.
While I love it dearly and fish it regularly, the approximately 30-mile section from the Clarington Bridge to the backwaters of the Big Piney Dam is too busy during the prime summer months for my taste. Two state parks, Clear Creek and Cook Forest, with all the privately owned canoe rental operations and tourist attractions located in their immediate vicinity, tend to contribute to the theme-park atmosphere. Coincidentally, this is where the Clarion begins to feel more like a river to me, since two of my best double hauls will not span its 200-foot width. It's also where the most blizzardlike of all the hatches takes place.
Beginning in the last week of May, a little black caddis, Chimarra atterima, comes off the riffles in numbers that can make anglers believe they will suffocate. Forget matching this hatch, however, if you are interested in catching the really big ones, because the bigger fish are more interested in the chubs and shiners that are working the surface than they are in the bugs.
Although it is easily covered—off the River Road that runs on the north shore all the way from Cooksburg up to above Halton—by a wading angler with felt soles and there are plenty of fish (again, primarily—but not exclusively—smallmouth bass), it is not the stretch to fish if you like solitude in the summer. However, if you go early in April and May and then again late in October and November after the "leaf peepers" are gone, you will easily understand why the U.S. Forest Service gave it the coveted Wild and Scenic River designation.
I've caught more big trout in this stretch, specifically between Belltown and Portland Mills, than in all the others combined, primarily because it's closer to my home. I can fish it in off times like early morning and late evening, and of course in those glorious months before and after the aluminum hatch. Of course, if I were into honest subterfuge, I would also tell you that the biggest trout I have ever seen (as opposed to ever caught) in the Clarion are way back up at where your fingers join in Johnsonburg.
A Few Things Worth Remembering
Those big spawning browns I encountered in November 1999 were coming out of the "All Tackle Trophy Trout" section between Ridgway and Johnsonburg. They were congregated in the first pool of cold water in the East Branch at the bottom of a 1/2-mile-long stretch of "nursery water" where fishing is not permitted. That old low-head industrial dam,of which there has been talk of removal for years, just above Ridgway prevents trout from moving upstream. Consequently, if you are interested in doing some real head-hunting later in the fall, those 71/2 miles would be the place to center your activity. Probing the mouths of Mason Run and Little Mill right above Ridgway with the largest Woolly Buggers you can throw could produce some outstanding fish.
As I learned one evening after wrestling a large bass and having it spit out a 6-inch-long creek chub as I was releasing it, there's much to be said for "coming big or staying home." The Clarion, although it is changing and improving every year as the tributaries restock more and more of the mayflies, currently has no "glamour" hatches, so the top predators are true generalists making their living on creek chubs, shiners, sculpins, crayfish, and hellgrammites.
The two patterns I use exclusively to imitate this smorgasbord are the Nutria Nymph and the Woolly Bugger, both tied on #4, 3X-long hooks with ample lead wrapped around the shank. Where the water is too big or brawling, which is typical of where the big trout are found, I use a miniature bullet head on the line at the nose of the fly. Not only does this help me get to the bottom, it also imparts a jigging action that is almost like twitching a string in front of a cat. Be careful about the mini-bullet heads you buy, however, as some of them are meant to be tied onto the shank of the hook like a bead head, and they have very sharp edges that will cut through your line quickly. A weight-forward, floating line makes mending, pickup, and strike detection with this much weight far easier than employing a sinking head.
I carry four colors of Woolly Buggers—chartreuse, yellow, black, and white—and, with the exception of the black model, use Barred Rock feathers for the hackle. In addition, I use a felt tip marker to make bars on the marabou tails. The visual effect of this fly in the water is remarkably close to the dominant food species, the sculpin, and the selection of colors is a great aid in matching the water conditions such as the low water of late summer or the discoloration the river can pick up from a heavy rain. A 7-weight outfit helps a great deal when you're throwing these things.
A Brighter Future
At an accelerating pace, as the effects of the cleanup take hold, the Clarion River will begin to sprout more and more mayfly hatches. Already there are unconfirmed reports of both Yellow (Ephemera varia) and Slate Drakes (Isonychia sp.) at some distance from the tributaries. And undoubtedly, between the stocking efforts of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the Willamette Fish and Game Club, the natural reproduction in the entire watershed is starting to pick up momentum. I've seen clouds of trout fry drift past me while I was fishing. There is, however, one more thing that needs to be done.
In Charles Meck's 1989 book, Pennsylvania Trout Streams and Their Hatches, he concludes his section on this waterway by saying, "The Clarion would be an excellent river for a no-kill area." Today, both the East and the West Branches have "Fly Fishing" or "Delayed Harvest" sections, and the upper part of the river between Johnsonburg and Ridgway is "All Tackle Trophy Trout." But the prettiest and ultimately perhaps the most productive part, the section that is rightly described as "Wild and Scenic," has no protection. Perhaps, after fishing this remarkable watershed, you will help change that to read, "The Wild and Scenic and No-kill" Clarion River.