Last week I stumbled across an old Game & Fish Magazine article from 2010 called Our Finest February Trout Streams. In the article, Mike Kaufmann, an Area Fisheries Manager for the PA Fish & Boat Commission, mentions a naturally reproducing wild brown trout population on the Monocacy Creek (“Monocacy”). This peaked my interest because the Monocacy flows through the busy suburb of Bethlehem, located in the heart of the Lehigh Valley. Kaufmann also mentions that three rainbow trout were harvested out of the Monocacy in 2009 that weighed over 10 pounds. That really got my attention. I’d never fished the Monocacy before but I’d heard the name. I recalled chatting with a former employee of TCO Fly Shop in Reading that had shown me pictures of two good-sized wild brown trout he’d caught in the Monocacy. I decided I’d head there to explore some new water.
I did some searching on Google Maps and was able to locate an access point at the parking lot for Illick’s Mill Park. I arrived at the parking lot at 7:00am on Saturday morning. The first thing I noticed was just how urban the Monocacy is. There were multiple houses visible on the other side of the stream from the parking lot. I was finding it hard to believe there was a healthy population of wild brown trout here but I figured I’d find out soon enough. I got geared up, lined my 9’-5wt Winston with a 9-foot 6X leader and tippet, and headed down to the water. At this point on its trek through the Lehigh Valley, the Monocacy ranges from 20-30 feet across. On Saturday the flows were low, under 50CFS. The Monocacy is a limestone stream and it had that nice green tint to the water in the deeper pockets. I tied on a #16 Gold Bead Hare’s Ear Nymph and dropped a #20 Black Zebra Midge off the back. I started working the riffles and pocket water. I felt as if I was fishing in someone’s back yard, but that made it all the more interesting. On my fourth cast I threw my line upstream and my indicator shot to the bottom of the creek bed. I set the hook and sure enough, I saw a wild brown trout on the end of my line. The fish was beautiful and looked to be in great health.
After releasing him I continued upstream. I walked under Illick’s Mill Road Bridge and beyond. Above the bridge the stream flows through Illick’s Mill Park. This park is a nymph fisherman’s dream. There are riffles that are perfect for drifting flies under an indicator. Over the next thirty minutes I hooked and landed three additional wild brown trout.
All were in the 8-10” range and they all took the Black Zebra Midge. On my walk upstream I saw several much larger brown trout shoot out from hiding spots and into deeper water. Several of these riffles in the park pour into deep troughs so I’m sure there are some good fish hiding in there.
After fishing up to the dam in the park, I turned around and headed downstream below the Illick’s Mill Road Bridge. There is a narrow hiking and walking trail that follows the creek here. The trend of fishing in people’s backyards continued as I found new water. I had several hook-ups with good wild browns as I moved downstream and in each instance the nymph pulled from their mouth. All I was left with was a quick flash of gold from the side of the fish. Downstream there were several riffles separated by large flat sections, and in some cases, some very deep holes. It was no wonder that folks were catching 10-pound rainbow trout out of this creek. There is definitely water deep and cold enough to keep a trout happy for a long time. After getting a half-mile downstream, the fish action stopped, the houses disappeared, and I was in the woods looking at industrial smokestacks in the distance. Eventually the stream becomes very urban and flows behind some large industrial business lots. I came across an old railroad bridge that was covered in graffiti. It’s not everyday that you get to take a selfie on a Pennsylvania limestone creek in front of graffiti art.
Further downstream the creek parallels what I believe is an active railroad line. There are some medium sized waterfalls and rapids with deep holes and pockets that were difficult to wade around. I went another 200 yards and felt like I was walking into the heart of an industrial complex and decided not to go any further. While fishing here I dropped my wading stick into the creek and that made for my third lost wading stick in the past six months. I have this bad habit of attaching my wading sticks to my chest pack strap and when I need something, I undo the hook and there goes my stick. It is amazing how those things can get downstream in a hurry.
As it started to get later in the afternoon I found myself walking back upstream still amazed that such a unique stream ran through the suburbs. And then as if to put an exclamation on that point, I looked up to watch a bald eagle swoop down to the creek and attempt to grab a fish. You can’t make this stuff up. Limestone water, wild brown trout, and bald eagles, all in the “burbs,” who would have thought!