Bob Frye photo
The chance to catch wonderfully-colored brook trout draws many anglers to Kettle Creek.
Dick Sodergren knew exactly what he wanted.
A little more than 30 years ago, the Bellefonte resident decided to purchase a camp. It had to be a place where he could “fish out the front door and hunt out the back.”
Where to find it was the question.
Then, a friend introduced him to the Kettle Creek valley in Clinton, Potter and Tioga counties. His search was over.
“This is the kind of place where from the time you first get here, you’re like, God, this is where I want to be,” said Sodergren, president of the Kettle Creek Watershed Association.
It’s not hard to understand why.
Ninety-four percent of the watershed’s 245 square miles are publicly owned, said Amy Wolfe, Trout Unlimited’s Pennsylvania coldwater habitat restoration program manager.
That means few people. Clinton County’s Leidy Township, for example, which fronts the creek for miles, had 180 full-time residents in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Seasonal camps like his outnumber permanent homes “95 to 5,” Sodergren said.
Wildlife, not surprisingly, abounds. There are, “of course,” the usual white-tailed deer, black bears and turkeys, said Mary Hirst, manager of Kettle Creek State Park. But there are also bald eagles, ospreys and, now, elk.
“Before, they were kind of sporadic here,” Hirst said. “But since this spring, we’ve seen at least 40 animals in our fields pretty regularly. They seem to have settled in.”
The real draw, though, is the fishing.
The mainstem of Kettle Creek and every one of its tributaries above the park’s Alvin R. Bush Dam are considered to have “exceptional value” water quality.
That’s the highest designation awarded by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
There’s no larger contiguous chunk of Pennsylvania with that much clean water in one place.
“That leads to everything. It means bald eagles, hellbenders, trout, everything,” said Jim Toth of Greensburg, a passionate fly angler who has had a camp along Kettle Creek for more than three decades.
Wild trout thrive in the water kept cool year round by the surrounding steep-sided mountains of hardwoods, hemlock and white pines.
Brook trout are plentiful in every creek of every size — from Kettle Creek itself to its feeder streams — upstream of Oleona, where routes 44 and 144 meet, said Jason Detar, chief of fisheries management for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. There are wild browns, too.
But it’s the brookies that are really noteworthy.
They’re sensitive, Detar said. Pennsylvania’s only native trout, they like colder water than other species. The small waters they prefer typically offer short growing seasons, limited food supplies, sometimes-limited flows and lots of chances to get eaten.
The Kettle Creek valley remains a “stronghold” for them, however.
“We always say, it’s not an easy place to survive, these headwater streams,” Detar said. “So wherever you have a population of brook trout, that’s something pretty special.”
Fly fishermen love it.
Trout water is ranked by its pH, a measure of its acidity versus alkalinity. A “perfect” stream is neutral, with a pH of 7.
Kettle Creek hovers around 7.3, said Phil Baldacchino, owner of Kettle Creek Tackle Shop for the last 37 years.
“It has the pH of a limestone stream, even though it’s a freestone stream. I don’t know of another water like it in the state. That’s why we get the bugs,” Baldacchino said.
“We get a lot of good hatches. Any mayfly that’s ever been written about, it’s here.”
That’s not by accident.
The watershed association, Trout Unlimited, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and others have done a tremendous amount of work in the valley since the late 1990s. That’s included planting trees to stabilize banks and create shade and installing in-stream habitat like log and rock deflectors.
“You want riffles because that’s where the insects grow. You want pools for the fish because they need depth and structure to hold,” said Toth, who serves as chairman of the watershed association’s habitat committee. “Plus, some of that habitat allows the stream to meander.”
“What you’re looking for in a trout stream is pool, run, riffle, in that order. Each has a different role to play for the fish,” Sodergren added.
The groups recently have begun identifying blockages — like culverts — preventing trout from moving upstream in search of cold water when temperatures spike in summer.
One culvert that better allows passage has been installed on Little Lyman Run, a tributary to Cross Fork, which flows into Kettle Creek. Surveys indicate nearly three times as many redds — or trout spawning beds — upstream of it since its installation than before, said Wolfe.
Meanwhile, passive treatment systems designed to buffer acidic mine drainage leeching out of the surrounding hills are boosting the fishery.
Mining started in the Kettle Creek valley in the late 1800s and continued sporadically through the 1960s. The result was some streams had pH levels of 2.5 to 3, Wolfe said. That’s comparable to vinegar.
Today, she said “more than 50 percent” of those problems have been corrected, albeit at a cost of nearly $7 million.
“Acid mine drainage is very challenging and complex and expensive to fix. It’s not an immediate thing,” Wolfe said.
Work remains to be done, of course.
“It took decades to create these problems, and it’s going to take decades to repair all that,” Wolfe said.
Already, though, the valley offers tremendous fishing against a backdrop of rugged, remote beauty.
Toth is drawn to spend weeks at camp at a time, fishing. He’s particularly fond of one spot on Kettle Creek, near the Leidy bridge.
He’ll never leave it. Or the valley.
“I had a guy ask me if he’d see me there next year on opening day when he came up,” Toth said. “I told him if I’m not there, I’m dead.”
If you go
Kettle Creek’s wild trout are the region’s most famous draw and bring in plenty of fly fishermen.
Those anglers can expect to encounter various hatches, from tan caddis, blue quills and Hendrickson’s early in the year to sulphurs, light cahills and green drakes later, with many others in the mix.
There are other opportunities, too.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission releases trout into more than 40 miles of Kettle Creek between Ole Bull and Kettle Creek state parks, north of Renovo. Most of that water is within easy walking distance of roads like Route 144.
Fly fishermen do well there, too, as do spin anglers fishing minnows, eggs and worms and silver and gold spinners.
As a general rule, the stream is relatively wide with a moderate grade, which makes it easy to wade. Roadside parking is good. And many camp owners allow “walk-in” fishing across their property, so long as anglers are respectful.
Being courteous will keep that access open.
Most of Kettle Creek is open to fishing under general regulations. But there are exceptions.
There is a 1.7-mile section managed for fly fishing only.
Another 28.3 miles of water — including Kettle Creek and its tributaries — are managed under all tackle, catch and release regulations.
Details on those rules and the limits of those waters can be found by clicking here.
For those who like lake fishing, Alvin R. Bush Dam offers 160 acres in Kettle Creek State Park that get trout, too. It’s also home to bass and panfish.
Just downstream of that dam, near what’s known as Kettle Creek State Park’s lower campground, is another 7-acre dam that holds trout and other fish.
Camping is available at two state parks in the region: Kettle Creek and Ole Bull. Information on the former is available here, and on the latter here.
Primitive camping also is available in the surrounding Sproul State Forest. Details are available by clicking here.
This story originally appeared at triblive.com/sports/outdoors.