Flyfisng Notes from the coasts

Flyfisng Notes from the coasts
Wallowa River OREGON

Tuesday, March 7, 2017



As a note of introduction, rivers in this part of the west flow big and swift. Even small tributaries carry two or three times the amount of water that an eastern stream might if given that they are both the same width. As an example Horse Creek feeds the McKenzie River about forty miles east of Eugene. It is about as wide as the West Branch of the Perkiomen near Bally, Pennsylvania or Schoharie near Westkill, New York but the volume in summer is easily three times higher than those other two streams. Care must be taken to even wade a stream of that size as you can easily get knocked off balance. Rivers like the Willamette, McKenzie or Santiam must be treated with the utmost respect and waded with exceptional care. Many fly fishers use drift boats in these rivers. I prefer to wade but I am not suicidal. Respect the flows out here if you fish in waders. A wading staff is a must.
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The Willamette River is a part of a very large watershed that dissects much of western Oregon from Eugene up to Portland, flowing north in a broad agricultural valley. It officially begins where the Coast Fork and the Middle Fork meet, just east of Eugene. The Coast Fork rises in the Calapooya Mountains, a spur of elevation just to the west of the Cascades that divides the Umpqua and Willamette watersheds. The river is fed more by rain than by snow melt hence the dry season lowers the level more than the Middle Fork. The Cascade Mountain Range is a spine of volcanic peaks that bisect the wetter western Oregon landscape from the drier high desert of eastern Oregon. The highest peaks are over 10,000 feet in elevation. The Middle Fork receives both considerable rain and great volumes of snow from its headwater and tributary sources. The snow melt continues over the summer keeping the water volume relatively high and steady. The Row River adds to the volume of the Coast Fork at Cottage Grove and the North Fork of the Middle Fork (are you still with me?) adds flow to the Middle Fork at Westfir. This all adds up to a big river in Eugene and a bigger river when the Mckenzie adds its flow to the Willamette a few miles north of Eugene. The flows in summer can average between 3500 to 6,000 cfs in Harrisburg, a town fifteen miles north of Eugene. Winter flows can be more than triple those numbers. The best eastern comparison I could make for this segment of the Willamette would be the upper Delaware from Hancock to Callicoon after an all-day rain.
Fishing the Willamette can be both daunting and fun. Game fish include rainbow trout, coastal cutthroat trout, steelhead and salmon. The steelhead and salmon (coho and chinook) are anadromous species the vast majority of which are of hatchery origin for a complex set of reasons, primarily the presence of dams and past riparian stewardship practices involving forestry and agriculture. Coastal cutthroat are present throughout the system in their historic range down to the Willamette Falls near Oregon City. Seasonal warming causes them to move within the system to cooler water and reproduction occurs most often in smaller tributaries. Resident rainbow trout are present in the main river and can be found as far downstream as Corvallis when conditions permit but their numbers diminish as water warms in the heat of summer. Most of my fishing occurs on the main stem of the Willamette for a variety of reasons but the biggest is proximity. I can find very good fishing for rainbows and cutthroats within a ten minute drive of the house, in relatively secluded surroundings. The river holds the largest of the cutthroats I have come across and my personal best is seventeen inches but twenty inchers are present in the big water portion of the river below where the McKenzie enters the main river. Rainbow trout populate the same segment, but in slightly less numbers. I catch more of them in the early fall. I don’t fish for steelhead, but I have had four hook-ups so far while fishing for trout. They can be a lot of fun, but I can’t bring myself to target them exclusively. My brain can’t handle the thought of a thousand casts for one take. There are supposed to be ways to up your odds, but then you might find yourself addicted and start fishing in god forsaken places in damnation weather.

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Ah, the nationally famous McKenzie River, a riddle wrapped in an enigma. When I decided to move to Eugene I thought that there could be no better landing place than to be within casting distance of a renowned trout river, one noted for acrobatic redside wild rainbows. With such great fishing you might wonder why I only visit the stream two or three times a year. It all has to do with welfare queens. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife feels the great need to stock its 35 mile middle section with 130,000 fish per year. There is a long and convoluted history of why this happens going back to the 1950’s which I will address in another post. In any case there is a no stocking wild fish management section from Hendricks Bridge to the confluence with the Willamette and it is that section where I fish. Access is a hopscotch affair but there is sufficient public parks and boat ramps to get on the river. As long as the wader stays below the high water mark in this navigable river, access is guaranteed. Many fish the river in drift boats but I am not among them. When conditions are right, 15 to 17 inch hard fighting rainbows offer great fun. These of course are mixed in with other year class fish and coastal cutthroats mostly in the 8-12 range but a few larger can be caught.

Steelhead are supposedly not native to the McKenzie but the OFFW plants about 100,000 hatchery smolts a year that results in a summer run of 2000 to 3000 fish. There are some opinions that a wild fishery has established itself in the river, fish that have migrated past the Leaburg dam release point. I have a friend from Pennsylvania who visited a certain tributary of the McKenzie who spotted steelhead in October so there may be some truth.  Spring Chinook salmon are present both as wild and hatchery fish. The wild fish must be released and the fin clipped hatchery program is operated as part of mitigation for the Army Corps of Engineer’s Cougar Dam located on the South Fork of the McKenzie. This is a popular fishery for the meat seekers, as is the hatchery steelhead program.

Bull trout are present in the upper McKenzie and in the South Fork above Cougar Dam. These are a protected species and must be released unharmed immediately if caught.  Much to my pleasant surprise I caught a 9 inch bull trout near the mouth of the South Fork while trout fishing in the area. It was good to see a juvenile fish trying to make a living in that portion of the river. You can turn up whitefish in this river as well, but I have not encountered great numbers of them.

I actually only fish the McKenzie a handful of times a year, what with the middle section being overwhelmed with hatchery fish and the lower sections more heavily fished because of its closeness to urban centers. My tendency is to seek out the oft neglected portions of rivers and streams for both the discovery and the solitude. Sometimes it takes a little hiking and other times some bushwhacking but the rewards are there for those willing to make the effort.

The very upper reaches of the McKenzie are on public lands and access is much better, but boating is still a viable option and many anglers and white water enthusiasts crowd the upper sections near the popular campgrounds like Paradise. The river is fed by snow melt that rushes through volcanic formations which enrich the stream with minerals increasing the river's aquatic insect density and diversity. There is a lot to like about the McKenzie and I have a lot more of the river to explore.

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The Row (sounds like cow) River is a branch of the Coast Fork of the Willamette. It’s headwaters begin at the juncture of Laying Creek and Brice Creek where it flows westward. It is then interrupted by the Dorena Reservoir, mixed warm water and cool water fishery. Trout are present all the way down to its confluence with the Coast Fork near the town of Cottage Grove. The upper reaches are rarely fished and hold mostly coastal cutthroats in the 6-10 inch range with some fish to 12 inches. Below the reservoir spillway there are some larger rainbows that make their way through the dam that were originally of hatchery origin. Closer to the town of Cottage Grove there is a park where access is pretty good. Hatchery salmon and a few steelhead are present in this section. I have turned up a place where 16-18 inch rainbows roam but spot burning would negate this fishery so let’s just say that if you spend time on this river you can have a lot of fun and turn up a nice fish or two. My first summer in Oregon I spent a lot of time on this river as it was small enough to wade like a lot of Pennsylvania creeks.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Home Waters - East


I was born in Frankford Hospital in 1947 two years after the end of World War II in a section of Philadelphia know as the Lower Northeast. My parents moved when I was seven to Lower Bucks County near the village of Hulmeville. Fortunately for me, our new house was about three hundred yards from the Neshaminy Creek. Neshaminy was the name of the Lenape band that inhabited the area before European settlers. The creek serves as the border of Bensalem and Bristol townships, a heavily populated suburb north of Philadelphia. The headwaters are in central Bucks County and it traverses in a southeast direction to the tidal Delaware River near Croydon, PA. The topography is lower Piedmont Plateau and Coastal plain. Just upstream of Newportville the tidal water starts and continues to where it meets the Delaware. For me the creek served as a forested refuge from noise, traffic, and family dysfunction. As my first home waters my best memories of childhood reside there, and also my worst. Between my junior and senior years in high school a sewer line broke upstream by Hulmeville. In a matter of a day, thousands upon thousand of fish lay dead along the edges and shallow pools of the stream. The stench was beyond horrible as was the sight of all those dead fish. It impressed my environmental consciousness for the rest of my life.

Large and smallmouth bass are the primary gamefish in the creek. I once caught a chain pickerel there, but they were rare then and may be nonexistent now. Today a few stripers can be caught today, mostly juvenile, as the stream has become a nursery water for them and young of the year shad. Near Newtown the stream is stocked in early spring by the PA Fish and Boat Commission with trout that never make it through summer as the stream temperatures become lethal for trout in summer. I caught my first stocked trout in this section as a teenager, but the thrill didn't last long. The experience was so artificial that even back then, trout fishing was akin to fishing out of a barrel. As a kid I used primarily live bait and hardware for all my fishing ventures. I only fly fished there once, about 12 years ago, behind the former compound of the legendary 'Indian Joe'. I caught nothing though it was probably the best water along that section between Hulmeville and Newportville when I was younger. Over forty-five years much of the stream contour stayed the same excepting a deep hole that was gorged by seasonal flooding in a place that used to be knee deep. Low head dams at Hulmeville and Oakford prevent the upstream migration of anadromous species. Today it offers an escape from the bustling highly developed northern suburbs of Philadelphia. It is far from being a fly fishing destination, though large bass can be had if you know where to look. My brother still lives near the stream and tests the waters with a fly rod when the weather is pleasant.

The Wissahickon Creek in many ways is the success stories of urban planning from the days of William Penn (an original city plan dates to 1683) who conceived of a “Greene Countrie Towne”. By 1868, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed Acts of Assembly incorporating the Wissahickon Valley within the Philadelphia city limits as part of the famous Fairmount Park system. So imagine if you will a sizable stream running through the bustling northwest section of the city with a protected riparian buffer of 2500 feet on either side of the bank, 1800 acres in size, for the enjoyment of generations to come. Historical records seem to indicate that brook trout, the native char of the Pennsylvania, occupied the Schuylkill River watershed down to Philadelphia and likely resided in the Wissahickon. Today, the stream holds no wild trout as development by Europeans resulted in forests being cut, dams erected, and runoff of sediment and pollutants destroying the habitat. Recreational stocking is the only source of trout in the Wissahickon and a few brown trout holdover each year finding cooler aerated seeps to survive.

I rarely fished during my college years and even a few years after that. It was tumultuous times when the Vietnam War was raging, as were street protests and campus upheaval. By the mid 1970's I moved to the West Mount Airy section of Philadelphia, began a career and started fishing again. At 5 minutes by car or 15 minutes walking, the Wissahickon became my home water. It's where I first used a fly rod, a Browning Fiberglas 5 weight bought at a now defunct sporting goods store in center city Philadelphia. My first time out I was mentored by a friend self described as downwardly mobile, who spent his college years at Goddard in Vermont, much of it fly fishing on local trout streams.
At 50 to 75 feet wide in most locations, the Wissahickon was a lot like the Neshaminy, flowing off the Piedmont Plateau to the Coastal Plain and eventually entering the Schuylkill River near the East Falls section of the city. Hosting mostly bass and sunfish with the usual mix of rough fish like carp, suckers and catfish, my time on the Wissahickon was well spent though. Since I did not have waders every cast from shore became a challenge of either finding a slim opening for the backcast amid the tree canopy or roll casting, cross body casting and non-dominant hand flailing. Never caught a trout on the fly rod there but enjoyed plenty of solitude and probably added half the birds on my life list from the nearby woods.


I have broken the Perkiomen Creek in to two sections. This first section will cover the warm-water fishery in the central and lower sections of the stream. Later I will cover my trout obsessed years on the upper Perkiomen. After I met my wife we eventually settled just outside the borough of Schwenksville in upper Montgomery County. It is best know as the location of the Philadelphia Folk festival, a yearly August event that draws 20,000 plus people to one of the longest running folk festivals (55 years and counting) in the country. Name any renowned act in blues, bluegrass, Cajun, Zydeco, and international in scope and they have probably played there.

The stream in this section is anywhere from 75 to 125 feet wide here and has played host to all the usual suspects; dams, deforestation, runoff, point source pollution and all that goes with 'progress', or as more accurately stated, 'progress with blinders'. The result is a warm water stream somewhat cleaned up by the Clean Water Act but still in the path of the outward expansion of a great metropolis. A rails to trails is a recent feature that allows much more access to fishing as well as other pursuits like canoeing, hiking, and other passive recreation. The headwaters start off South Mountain, a forested ridge line rising to 1,000 feet in elevation arcing between Reading and Allentown,  flowing south with a major interruption by the Green Lane Dam, a water supply facility completed in 1957. From the village of Hereford on downstream, it flows through the Piedmont Plateau and eventually empties in to the Schuylkill River near the present day Valley Forge National Park.

By 1983 when we landed in Schwenksville, I started using the fly rod a lot more along the Perkiomen, targeting smallmouth bass, a very forgiving game fish as long as the bite was on. Helgramite imitations worked like a charm on the warm evenings where the the East Branch of the Perkiomen entered near Schwenksville and further downstream close to the Graterford Prison. The prison owned some prime property along the creek and one early summer morning a decent caddis hatch was coming off. After about my tenth cast, the calm of the morning was broken by machine gun fire that lasted about 45 minutes. It seems the prison guards had to practice and in a not so subtle way let the inmates know that attempts to escape would not be looked upon kindly. Right below the prison was an old rail road bridge that was at the head of a large pool. Some nice size fish always showed themselves during the hexagenia hatch but they were Ph. D. candidates wise to the ways of fishing lures and flies. A fisheries biologist who electro shocked the stream there told me they turned up trophy size fish in that section. To my knowledge they are still there.

One evening I decided to seek some panfish near the Route 73 bridge that crosses the stream. After about seven casts skittering an elk hair caddis I already brought in three saucer sized sunfish. After I hooked my fourth, who started flopping and splashing along the surface about 10 feet from me, a freshwater barracuda otherwise know as a musky of about three feet in length shot out from behind a boulder and ripped the fish off my line in an instant. Suffice it to say I was both startled and impressed. There are folks who target these monsters in this section of the creek, and they are truly a fish of ten thousand casts, but I'm here to tell you that a hyperactive sunfish impaled by a #10/0 Octopus Circle bait hook attached to a wire leader could really increase your odds.


I wouldn't ordinarily call the Tulpehocken, affectionately known as the 'Tully' in the Reading area, as a home water. A 45 minute drive from my house in Schwenksville, there were trout streams closer to my home, some of them possessing wild trout, but this one had a special regulation known as Delayed Harvest Artificial Lures only. That meant the trout would be there throughout the season as opposed to the put and take waters that were often cleaned out by Memorial Day. So let me back up a bit. French Creek in Chester County allowed me my 'ah ha' moment as a fly fisher. Determined to catch a trout on a fly, I went to a shaded, remote section of this stocked stream in early June one year hoping to find a leftover trout from the spring stocking. Not knowing what to tie on, I pulled out a large dark stonefly nymph about a size 8 from on of those assortment boxes they sell to novice fly fishers and slung it upstream at a lazy pool. To my surprise and amazement the leader straightened out almost immediately after the fly plopped in to the water. I quickly brought the trout to hand, a chunky little 10 inch brown that somehow evaded all the bait casters. This was my first trout on a fly and my clumsy attempt paid off in future dividends in ways that I would barely imagine. A wave of triumph came over me as I released the trout back in to the stream. A couple more hits without hookups affirmed that I must be doing something right. It had been ten years since I bought the fly rod. Persistence is a good attribute to carry to a trout stream. For me the appeal of the Tully was the availability of trout throughout the season. Virtually all who fished it released all their fish so harvest was nonexistent even though it was legal after the middle of June. This was a game changer.
The headwaters of the Tulpehocken lie in Lebanon County. It flows eastward in an arc roughly connecting Lebanon PA with Reading. Rt 422 parallels much of the stream as both pass through a large limestone influenced upland with the Appalachian Mountains to the north and the South Mountain ridge to the south. The banks for the most part butt up against farmland and cattle pastures which have all but removed riparian buffer.Hence, the stream is badly degraded with sediment washed with every rainstorm. In 1972 a terrible flood from Hurricane Agnes caused considerable damage to Reading and downstream cities, so the solution was an Army Corps flood control dam known as Blue Marsh. Construction started in 1974 and was completed by 1979. This dam came equipped with a bottom release creating a tailwater fishery along a large riparian park space several miles in length. The beginning few years produced outstanding results from fingerling plantings in the fall that resulted in 8-10 inch browns and rainbows and 14+ inch fish by year two on the plantings. The stream became a veritable trout buffet with the prime hatches being the Mother's Day caddis and the July 4th tricos. From about 1984 to 1990, I went their regularly every weekend (my wife thought too regularly) from April 1 to December 1. The word quickly spread and everyone within a 50 mile radius who owned a fly rod soon showed up, particularly on weekends. This onslaught of anglers produced super smart fish who could tell you where you bought your fly and how much you paid for it, and if you tied your own, they opined on the quality of you hackle. To top it off, this was for all intents and purposes a limestone stream where tiny flies ruled. You might see #16 caddis in May but by June they were taking #18's and #20's and by August you better have #22's. When the tricos hit, anything larger than #24 were scoffed at. At the beginning and end of the season (my season as the stream was open 12 months a year) midges carpeted the water in sizes #25 and #28. Needles to say, this is where I got my fly fishing education on flies, cobweb thin tippets and casting accuracy. And tying my own flies. It was technical, demanding and fun.

Then, after about 1990 the quality of the fishing started to decline. Some droughts set in, the discharges were warmer, the hatches were sparser and the fingerlings did not survive in as good numbers as before. Some preliminary investigations revealed that the basin behind the dam was filling in resulting in a shallower pool thus offering a smaller volume below the cold water thermocline layer. One TUer told me that if it wasn't addressed the Tully might become the best smallmouth fishery in the state. Needless to say trout aficionados  were not going to let this happen without a bold and energetic response. The Tulpehocken Chapter of Trout Unlimited and others have been working to influence farmers to yield some land for riparian buffers, including getting grants for fencing. Some farmers only grudging give up a few feet so the progress has not been easy and with a 39 mile stream length with some cases where both banks needing riparian buffer to produce remediation, silting has been an ongoing problem. Progress remains slow but steady. The Fish and Boat Commission decided to plant adult stockers rather than fingerlings. The fishery is still popular, but not like 'the good old days'.

By 1990, I stopped going to the Tully except for a once or twice a year visit, not so much because of the fishery decline (though that had an influence) but because of the crowding. I started looking around and reading more and became a magazine subscriber to TROUT, not thinking that I was an actual member of a reputable national conservation organization. The impetus of the organization was enhancing wild (stream born) trout. I had never sought such an animal and didn't even know if ones existed near me. It turns out some were practically at my doorstep.


In 1990, motivated by a call from by an outdoor editor editor for the formation of an environmental group concerned about the effects of development on the Upper Perkiomen Valley, I attended a meeting to listen to the concerns. They were in my mind legitimate and necessary and there was no one speaking for the environment in what was a sleepy agricultural area surrounding the three contiguous boroughs of Red Hill, Pennsburg, and East Greenville. One of the things that I found out was that there was an active Trout Unlimited Chapter that went dormant. I hunted down the former treasurer who maintained all the chapter filings to keep the chapter organizationally alive, got the names of the former officers and called an organizational meeting. By the end of that meeting I was handed boxes containing the chapter history, old newsletters, and a bank account with $2700 in it. It became Perkiomen Valley Trout Unlimited V. 2.0 and I became the next president.
As I mentioned earlier, the Perkiomen Creek rises from the hills often referred to as South Mountain but in reality it is part of the geologic feature known as the Reading Prong. It consist primarily of recrystallized rock known as gneiss. The highlands in this area reach an elevation of 1000 to 1200 feet at their highest. It is currently considered rural with second growth forest. The Perkiomen starts about one mile southwest of the unincorporated village of Harlem and arcs in a semicircle before flowing south to the village of Hereford. At Hereford the land flattens out to a broad farming valley with limestone influences. It continues to flow south just to the west of the three boroughs mentioned earlier before emptying in to the Green Lane Reservoir, a water supply for suburban Philadelphia communities. At the time that I took over the presidency of the chapter, I did not know that the stream above Hereford had been surveyed by Fish and Boat Commission biologists as a Class A wild trout stream (brown trout), the highest designation given by the commission. After I became president I took a drive to all parts of the watershed and found out why the Fish and Boat Commission stocked the sections below Hereford. The stream was decimated by agricultural practices, primarily cattle grazing of both dairy and beef mixed in with some hay growing right up to the edge of the stream. In essence, much of the main branch of the Perkiomen had ruptured riparian buffer. There was no root material from trees or shrubs holding the soil to prevent erosion, and there was little in the way of shade canopy so the stream easily reached lethal temperatures for trout on hot summer days.

The West Branch of the Perkiomen is of similar size and the headwaters rise from the same Reading Prong. It also had a Class A rating (brown trout) by the Fish and Boat Commission for much of its length  who stopped stocking it because of landowner complaints. Turns out the cessation of stocking was the best thing that could ever happen to that branch. So the upshot of all this from a fishing standpoint was that 25 minutes from my house there were two high quality wild trout streams. My trout hierarchy of needs was being fulfilled and wild trout Holy Grail was achieved. They actually seemed easier to catch (with some exceptions) as they were more opportunistic feeders  and the pressure on them was less than the Tulpehocken. Special regulations seem to have a way of drawing the crowds and these streams were consider open water to any angling method. And for those concerned about bait angling, I went fishing on the West branch with a dedicated TU volunteer who was an avid bait casting trout angler and he caught none while I think I lucked out on two fish.
Without getting too involved in all the details, our Trout Unlimited chapter accomplished great things in a short amount of time. We convinced twelve farmers to allow us to  fence off their cattle and one to create a 'mow line'. Inside the newly created riparian buffers we planted hundreds of trees. We formed partnerships with allied organizations, obtained grants and technical assistance and have seen drastic improvements in places that were not carrying trout but are now. In another writing I will acknowledge these stream heroes who sat on our board and rotated in and out of all the board positions that were available. The chapter members were full of information, shared 'secret' locations and bonded for trips to distant locations and chapter picnics right on our home waters. We made all the presidents look good in my twenty plus year association with the chapter and it is some of the most valuable work I ever performed in my life without having received a single dime. I'd urge you to give it a try.


About the time our two daughters graduated from high school my wife and I decided to build our 'dream home'. Seventeen miles west of Schwenksville you might come across a narrow two laner called Hill Church Road located in the 'Oley Hills'. At the crest of the road sits the old Hill Church. We lived about 1/2 mile down the other side of the crest, technically in the Manatawny watershed. This is a little south and west of the headwaters of the West Branch of the Perkiomen, a place where we bought a parcel on the side of a hill overlooking fabulous western views. It was in that same Reading Prong area and contained a number of Class A wild trout streams, the Pine Creek being one of the more prominent ones. The move required adding some home waters to the upper Perkiomen I had fished and helped restore with the  work done through TU. The Pine holds some nice wild brown trout and a few wild brook trout in its very upper reaches. The Manatawny suffers some riparian buffer issues due to agricultural issues but those were addressed through fencing programs in the past few years. It holds some larger wild trout if you know where to look, though the Fish and Boat Commission still stocks it in many sections. In a few years, as the buffers mature, it may not be necessary, though many 'sportsmen' like to catch the easier trout addicted to pellets so one can expect some push back if the idea of stocking cessation is brought in to the conversation. The Manatwany was the last stream I fished in Pennsylvania before moving to Oregon.


While not considered my home waters, I lived close enough to the Lehigh Valley to spend sufficient time on the limestoners in that region to know them well enough to enjoy their best features. The Little Lehigh, Monocacy, and Bushkill were often visited. The Bushkill, know by the locals as the Little Bushkill was one of my favorites and offered the best urban trout fishing of any city I ever visited. The section above and below the 13th Street Bridge was a fascinating piece of water I got to know well. Of course I made my way to the big Lehigh, the Upper Delaware and streams in the Catskills like the Esopus, Beaverkill and Willowemoc. My favorite stream in the Catskills was the West Branch of the Delaware above the reservoir, a few miles west of the village of Delhi by an old covered bridge in Hamden. A fair number of wild browns populate the place and after the stocker chasers left you had the whole section pretty much to yourself. The Lamoille in Vermont offered similar fishing for wild rainbows. Central Pennsylvania boasts Penns Creek, Spring Creek, Fishing Creek and the Little Juniata, all limestone influenced. However, if humility is your game, try the spring creeks in southcentral, PA. The Letort will humble you.