This story was first published on August 10, 2018
It’s just before sunset, and 27-year-old Matt Kowalchuk is standing in the river, near the bank of Penns Creek in central Pennsylvania, not far from State College. He’s a fly-fishing guide, and chooses a leggy-looking lure from his box. It’s meant to catch wild trout.
“We’re going to see if we can get one to eat a stonefly,” he explains. “It’s hard to pass up a big meal.”
LISTEN: Fly-Fishing is Big in Central PA. Can We Keep it That Way?
Kowalchuk attaches the fly to his line, and walks deeper into the center of the fast-moving creek. He casts upstream. His line doesn’t dance through the air like in the film A River Runs Through It, but the lure lands lightly on the water, and floats downstream. He doesn’t get any bites, so he pulls the lure out, and casts upstream, again.
“And you do it again, and you do it again, and you do it again, and you do it again,” he says. “The next thing you know, a bar of gold just rolls up and annihilates your fly. It gets the adrenaline pumping.”
Kowalchuk considered moving to Montana or Colorado after college to work as a fly-fishing guide. But he loves it here in the middle of Pennsylvania, he says, with the mountains all around, and he loves watching the bald eagles chase the osprey for the trout.
In high summer, the water is still cool at about 60 degrees. It stays that temperature because it’s fed by cold springs and mountain creeks. Unlike some streams, the state doesn’t stock Penns Creek with trout.
“It doesn’t need it,” Kawalchuk explains. “This water is Class A wild trout water, meaning that it has a naturally sustaining population of fish that does not need us to do anything. If you come here in October and November, you can find the fish actively spawning, and that is cool to see.”
This summer, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission added four miles, which means the upper 29 miles of Penns Creek is now designated Class A for wild brown trout.
One reason the trout do well here is the abundance of food. In late June, Kowalchuk was just finishing up with the angling frenzy around the hatch of green drake, an especially large mayfly.
“That’s the reason that everyone comes to fish, the green drake,” he says. “It’s actually pretty insane.”
Even closer to State College, in nearby Spring Creek, a spill of cyanide at Penn State in the 1950s wiped out the green drake population. The mayflies have never recovered there. Other industrial toxic releases followed.
Unlike Penns Creek, the state used to stock trout in Spring Creek, but it stopped when the contamination started poisoning the fish. Pittsburgh native Tom Doman, a fly-fishing guide, heard about this in the 1970s.
“I wondered where Spring Creek was,” he remembers. “I looked on a map, and realized, ‘Well jeez, that’s close to Penns Creek. I want to go up there and check this out.’ And I did, and I just fell in love with the area.”
He never really left, and has lived along Penns Creek for nearly 40 years.
CLEANING UP HISTORIC POLLUTION
The Clean Water Act now protects these creeks from large-scale chemical dumping, and has led to improvements in sewage treatment and stormwater management. As a result, wild trout populations have rebounded.
Doman volunteers with the Penns Valley Conservation Association (PVCA), a local non-profit that works on persistent problems.
There’s usually not one big pollution source anymore,” he says. “Today, it’s more like death by a thousand cuts.”
Urbanization and growth in State College, like rooftops, roads and parking lots, cause runoff and pollution in Spring Creek.
In the more rural Penns Creek watershed, farms cause much of the pollution. One-third of the land here is used for agriculture, such as corn, soy and dairy.
STREAM BANK RESTORATION
Farmland owner David Martinec is working with PVCA to prevent the erosion of his former cow pastures from ending up in the stream. He points to the high bank on the far side of the creek, where a backhoe is moving hemlock logs brought in for a bank restoration project.
“When we took the cattle off, the non-native invasive species just took off, and choked everything out,” Martinec says.
He wanted to encourage native wildlife, like wood cock and songbirds here, but the land got inundated with invasive plant species like autumn olive, and Chinese honeysuckle.
Martinec says they start choking out the native plants and grasses, which means that the seeds that the birds eat disappear. Then the birds leave.
The PVCA’s Lysle Sherwin leads many area landowners on projects like this. He says the bare soil of the cow pastures left these stream banks without tree roots for structure.
“They’re falling into the stream,” he says.
You can see silt from the eroding bank filling up the shallow stream here. Sherwin says this limestone bed is the spawning ground for trout, and the sediment literally smothers their eggs.
That’s why they’re building what’s basically a reinforced wall of logs along the stream.
“It simulates an eroded bank that has structure and function to it, but it’s a stable bank,” he explains.
Sherwin has worked on 14 improvement projects like this in recent years, and says the more they do, the more landowners who want to try it.
“It’s sort of keeping up with the Joneses. ‘Oh wait a minute, they did that stream project, and it worked for them? And they seem happy with it?’” he jokes.
Sherwin says the more stream restoration the better for the brown trout in Penns Creek. It’s better for the anglers who pour in to catch them, too.