Updated: Apr 2, 2021
As I pulled into the parking area within Old Mill Park, I saw a guy downstream netting a trout. In the time it took me to string up my fly rod and tug on my waders, he’d landed and released two more fish. I crossed the creek and ended up at a pool down where the stream made a 90-degree bend to the left. I tied on a yellow and pink Y2K and hooked my first trout in Piney Creek on only my second cast.
Pennsylvania has dozens of streams named Pine Creek, Piney Creek, Little Piney Creek, Little Pine Creek, Pine Run, or some other variation. This particular Piney Creek can be found in Clarion County, originating near Corsica and flowing west almost 12 miles before emptying into the Clarion River.
Piney Creek is stocked with trout once preseason and once in season from the bridge on Forest Drive (SR 2001) downstream to its confluence with Little Piney Creek. The lower half of the stream suffers from poor water quality. Even throughout the sections that are stocked, the rocks have a tint of orange, perhaps from high iron content in the water. I’m no water expert, but I do know this is common for streams in this region. I’ve never fished lower Piney Creek, but the upper half is a typical small mountain stream running through a heavily-canopied forest.
Piney Creek is home to a 1.2-mile Delayed Harvest Artificial Lures Only (DHALO) section that begins at the bridge on SR 2016 (Limestone Road) and extends downstream to the bridge on Route 66 in the town of Limestone. There’s a lot of great access along this stream, so you’ll have no trouble finding a place to park, whether its at one of the wide spots on the lower section of the DHALO, in the park, or a little farther up the road at a fairly large parking area. But getting on the water is only a starting point. If you’re like me and enjoy exploring small streams, you’ll soon find yourself wandering up or down, curious as to what lies around the next bend.
That’s the beauty of small streams. They usually have such neat holding water. Undercut banks. Pocket water behind midstream boulders. Shadowy lies under fallen logs. There can be a lot to dissect in a small stream, and a lot more to discover, and Piney Creek can certainly keep you happily busy for a day.
I’ve always found it curious where trout like to hold in small streams, because they’re not always where you think they’ll be. There can be a great-looking root system with a deep pool where you’ll maybe catch one or two, but if you move to the shallow flat a few feet downstream, you’ll find fish stacked up. That was certainly the case on Piney Creek that day.
This could just be the nature of stocked trout, but I don’t think so. I’ve accompanied fisheries biologists on enough stream surveys to realize that even wild and native trout will hold in the shallow tailwater of a pool before it turns into a riffle. I’ve seen biologists electroshock plenty of awesome-looking pools with perfect undercut banks or root systems and turn up no trout at all, or perhaps one or two small fish. I’ve also seen biologists turn up lunker trout in tiny streams in water barely deep enough to cover their backs.
Any time I’m fishing a small stream like Piney Creek, I remind myself that trout can be anywhere, even in places you’d never expect them. That can be difficult if you’re used to fishing larger waters or streams with the typical big pools where most fishermen tend to congregate. Trout in small streams really like to hold in the riffles. I think this is because they can’t see beyond the water’s broken surface, and so they feel secure because they think that predators can’t see them. At one point, I decided to cross Piney Creek to fish a downstream pool from the other side and almost stepped on a 16-inch rainbow trout in a shallow riffle. It never even spooked.
If you set out to really fish Piney Creek, and not just pool hop, you’ll find trout scattered throughout the stream. Low-hanging branches and trees crowding the stream banks will test your casting skills – and your patience. That particular day, I did a good job of minding my own business and not arguing with any trees, although I did lose a few flies to some undercut banks and root systems. But that’s the nature of fly fishing. If you’re not losing flies here and there, you’re probably not catching many trout, either.
As far as I know, Piney Creek doesn’t have any significant mayfly hatches. Clarion County streams, in general, aren’t known as epicenters of aquatic life. Many suffer from pollution, primarily acid mine drainage (AMD), and many others are on the rebound as efforts continue to improve water quality. Pretty much the entire Clarion River system is a perfect example of this. Only 40 years ago, it was practically a dead river thanks to AMD via numerous tributaries, but as facilities have been installed to treat this discharge, we’ve seen the Clarion River turn into one of the best trout and smallmouth bass fisheries in western Pennsylvania. Also, many of the tributaries that were once polluted are now supporting trout, too.
Because there’s not a ton of aquatic insects available, trout in streams like Piney Creek aren’t known to be selective. They’ll eat anything that looks like food as long as it’s presented right, which means getting your fly to the fish without spooking them. And therein lies the challenge of small streams: trout can get skittish. I make a point to slow down, approach slowly, and study the water for trout. Even in shallow water, trout have an amazing ability to blend in with any rocky bottom, so take your time and don’t give up on a spot just because you don’t hook a fish on your first cast.
That day on the Piney Creek DHALO, egg patterns were the ticket. I sight-fished them with no weight and no strike indicator. Piney Creek had a good flow, but the water was still clear enough that I could see the brightly-colored Y2K drift down, and then I’d see a flash and the fly would disappear, and I’d be into another trout.
In most fly fishing stream guides, Piney Creek doesn’t even get a mention. And while it’s true that it’s not exactly a “destination fishery”, if you enjoy small mountain streams, Piney Creek is a lot of fun to explore.
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