Updated: Jun 13, 2020
Several years ago, my friend Greg asked if I’d like to help him explore a stream he’d just discovered. He’d been on his way home from a Boy Scouts outing with his son and had crossed over this stream, and it looked too good to pass up, so they stopped and walked down to the first nice pool. Within a handful of casts, he caught a 20-inch palomino trout, and then several other trout after that. A week later, he returned to that same section and slammed the smallmouth bass. I liked the sounds of that and agreed to meet him at the bridge one afternoon in June.
The stream was Slippery Rock Creek and the meeting place was Kennedy Mills off of Frew Mill Road in Lawrence County. For three hours, Greg and I pool-hopped downstream, picking up fair numbers of bass and trout as we went, and I couldn’t help wondering why I don't fish “The Rock” more often.
Slippery Rock Creek begins near Hilliards in Butler County and flows west-southwest for approximately 30 miles before emptying into Connoquenessing Creek near Ellwood City in Lawrence County. Located less than an hour drive from Pittsburgh, the stream is a popular destination for paddlers. Although Slippery Rock Creek is wadable in many sections, road access is limited to a handful of bridges and only a few sections closely follow the road. A canoe or kayak helps anglers reach more productive water away from the bridges while enjoying a peaceful float through scenic country.
Perhaps the most scenic water flows through McConnells Mill State Park. Roughly 140,000 years ago, a large glacial lake burst, which caused water that had previously flowed in a northern direction to begin flowing southward. The sheer volume of water carved out what is known today as the Slippery Rock Creek Gorge, a National Natural Landmark. Here you’ll find Class II and III rapids and the opportunity for a quality whitewater adventure.
Keep in mind that this is rugged country and dangerous water. The stream is named Slippery Rock for a reason and wading can be treacherous. Also, the vehicle-sized rocks dotting the stream’s course create tricky currents and undertows that shouldn’t be taken for granted by even the most experienced paddlers. Every year or two, it seems, somebody underestimates the power of the water and pays the ultimate price.
Three sections of Slippery Rock Creek are stocked with trout. Sections 2 and 3, which comprises the 15-mile section from Slippery Rock Road just south of the town of Slippery Rock downstream to the lower property line at Heinz Camp, receive one preseason stocking and two in-season stockings. Section 4 begins at the lower property line at Heinz Camp and ends just downstream from the bridge on Armstrong Road. This half-mile section is deemed Catch and Release Fly Fishing Only and receives one preseason and one in-season stocking of trout.
Most years, Slippery Rock Creek is only marginal trout water during the summer months. By late-June, temperatures reach 70 degrees and trout seek out the cooler tributaries and deeper holes found throughout the gorge.
Of all the tributaries that flow into Slippery Rock Creek, Hell’s Run is the most interesting because it is the only stream in Lawrence County where natural reproduction has been documented. In fact, Hell’s Run carries a Class A Waters designation with a good population of wild brown trout. Be forewarned, though, that accessing this isolated little gem is not for the faint of heart. You must either hike up from the bridge on Mountville Road or come in from the top via trails found near the parking area on Shaffer Road. Before attempting it, I recommend you be in good physical condition and take a friend because it is challenging, canyon-like terrain.
Slippery Rock Creek is best known as a smallmouth bass fishery. Days of 40 to 50 fish are relatively common, with sizes ranging from 9 to 16 inches, sometimes bigger.
Although the gentler gradient upstream and downstream from the gorge makes wading safer, I still prefer fishing from a canoe or kayak because it allows me to cover more water. Much of the stream above the gorge consists of long stretches of knee- and waist-deep water between large pools.
Anywhere you find structure, though, you will find fish, and when I come to a good stretch I paddle to shore and get out so I can really work it over. A good float trip can be had by launching at one of the public access points on Studebaker Road or Stoughton Road and pulling out at the bridge on Old Butler Road near Rose Point Park.
Downstream from the gorge, Slippery Rock Creek widens considerably, reaching 80 to 100 feet in most places. There’s lots of good bass fishing in this section, too, as well as potential for Walleye, Muskellunge, and other warmwater species. The lower sections truly are a mixed-bag fishing experience.
Slippery Rock Creek is home to a handful of mayfly hatches, some of them quite good. In the spring, Quill Gordons, Blue-Winged Olives, and Light Cahills along with a mix of caddis can be found. August marks the beginning of the White Fly hatch, which provides a unique opportunity to catch smallmouth bass on dry flies.
The only real drawback to Slippery Rock Creek is that it flows through so much agricultural land. It muddies quickly after a rain and takes a long time to clear. Before heading here, be sure to track the weather leading up to your trip to ensure good fishing conditions.