Losing Daylight & The PA Wilderness Trout Stream

In Union County, Pennsylvania just west of the town of Mifflinburg, there’s a thirteen-mile Class A Wild Trout stream known as North Branch Buffalo Creek. The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission designates North Branch Buffalo Creek as a Wilderness Trout Stream. This means that humans have not encroached upon the stream and it provides the fisherman a true wilderness experience. The stream is referred to as providing Exceptional Value. This spring fed creek is a tributary to Centre County’s Buffalo Creek.

North Branch Buffalo Creek had been on my bucket list for months and on Sunday, I finally had the opportunity to explore it. The forecast for Sunday was for cold temperatures. The daytime high was only supposed to reach 35 degrees and I knew that if I headed north too early I’d be dealing with a frozen reel and iced up rod guides. I made the decision not to leave home until after 8:00AM and took my time driving up Rt. 322.

The upstream view on North Branch Buffalo Creek.

The upstream view on North Branch Buffalo Creek.

North Branch Buffalo Creek flows through the eastern portion of Bald Eagle State Forest. The stream’s headwaters lie within The Hook Natural Area. I had dropped a Google Map pin at the start of the Hook Tram Trail, which is located next to the Mifflinburg Reservoir off of Shingle Road. I arrived at the reservoir around 10:30AM and found a small area I could park. I quickly got dressed, wearing a polyester base layer and insulating mid layer and even opened up some hand warmers for the first time this winter season. I rigged up my 8’-4wt G-Loomis, prepped my sling pack, including packing matches, water, and extra insulating clothing. One never knows when something will go wrong and I like to be prepared, especially in the winter.

As I began hiking up Hook Tram Trail it became narrow and was lined with thick rhododendron. A wire cable ran along the creek for the first 25 yards alerting peole to stay out of the areas closest to the reservoir. After the wire disappeared, I found a small trail that crossed the creek. The flow in the creek was full and was moving at a good clip. The water was crystal clear. I tied on a small gold bead head nymph that had foil wrap for the body. On my first two casts I hooked up with good sized brook trout. At that moment I figured it was going to be an exciting afternoon of fishing. Never judge your day of fishing on your first 15 minutes on the water. For the next hour, I attempted to navigate my way upstream, fighting through rhododendron branches, fallen trees, and long deep pools of water. On several occasions I spooked trout, but it was virtually impossible to be stealthy with the depth of the water and lack of a creek bank. I eventually became so frustrated with the rhododendron that I decided to work my way to the south bank and look for a way back to the trail. I figured if I got upstream far enough, the rhododendron would thin out.

When I finally crawled my way out of the rhododendron, I found that a portion of the creek was flowing down the Hook Tram Trail. It would have been impossible to hike this portion of the trail without submersing your legs up to the knees. Fortunately my waders kept me warm as I walked upstream. Eventually the water diverted into the woods and the trail dried out. I could see the trail cutting through the woods far ahead. It appeared to have been an old railroad bed, now raised and full of sandstone rocks. It made for very difficult hiking. After a few minutes of walking, the rhododendron did thin out and I was able to access the water more easily. North Branch Buffalo Creek doesn’t twist like a ribbon through the forest. The stream is generally straight and has many long straight riffles. I kept walking and looking for that slow tailout or plunge pool. Eventually I came to what appeared to be a beaver dam. The upstream side of the dam was like a sheet of glass and had good depth. I set up and put a perfect drift down into the pool. I watched a good-sized brook trout dart off the bottom and attempt to take my nymph. It missed. I placed another cast upstream and this time another brook trout took my nymph and I was able to land him. After a quick release, I placed another drift closer to the far bank and this time I watched my indicator dart under the surface and I set the hook. The fish I had on my line was either not a brook trout or was the largest brook trout I’d ever hooked up with. After a brief fight, I came to realize I’d hooked a brown trout. After landing him in the net, I took a picture and watched him swim away. I was surprised to find a brown trout in the stream.

My first wild brook trout on North Branch Buffalo Creek.

My first wild brook trout on North Branch Buffalo Creek.

The unexpected brown trout I caught.

The unexpected brown trout I caught.

With my will to fish renewed, I marched upstream. Unfortunately, again, I walked a long way before hooking up with another brook trout. During the mid-afternoon I stopped and ate a sandwich I’d packed. While eating I noticed dots of blood and deer hair on the hiking trail. The previous day had been the last day of rifle season for whitetail deer in Pennsylvania. I was surprised at how far back someone had started dragging a deer. The fellow who shot and dragged that deer must’ve been exhausted. As I walked up the valley between the rocky covered mountains that rose on both sides of North Branch Buffalo Creek, I scanned the woods and saw no signs of life. The sun was hanging low and I knew it’d be dark in the woods well before the documented sunset time. I pushed forward, hoping to find better water.

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Eventually North Branch Buffalo Creek turns north and Panther Run dumps into it from the east. By the time I’d reached this area, I estimated that I was a few miles in the woods. I’d caught only a handful of wild brook trout. The fish I did find were hanging low in deep still pools and looking for an easy meal that didn’t require much movement. I’d tied on several different nymph patterns, both natural looking and attractor. At one point I was fishing to a brook trout I could see sitting in a small tailout. I put three different nymphs over him, each one he inspected and in some cases made a half hearted effort to nip at them. As soon as I tied on the Purple Psycho Prince Nymph pattern and dead drifted it, he aggressively took.

The beautiful brook trout that took my Psycho Prince Nymph pattern.

The beautiful brook trout that took my Psycho Prince Nymph pattern.

The air temps were hanging just above freezing most of the afternoon but with the sun dropping, it felt colder. As I kept walking the trail, the daylight kept fading and I kept hoping to look upstream and see slower water. The slower water never came. At some point I realized I was a long way from the parking lot and that I had forgotten to pack my headlamp. After getting stuck on the bottom and launching my nymph into an overhanging tree branch, I decided I’d had enough and that I’d better start heading back towards my truck. At this point it was 4:00PM. I grabbed a granola bar out of my bag and started hiking back. It was difficult to keep a good pace because of all the sandstone rocks on the trail, but I just kept moving. After thirty minutes I was seeing areas I recognized on the way in but knew I was nowhere close to where I’d started. By 4:45PM the daylight was disappearing and I was still way back in the woods. I kept focused on walking but inevitably your mind wanders to black bears waiting in the rhododendron. I kept moving. By 5:15PM it was so dark I had trouble seeing the trail. I had to use my iPhone flashlight to navigate my way down the trail and through the thick cover. Around 5:30PM I shined my phone light ahead and was confused as it looked like the trail ended at the creek. Then I remembered the long stretch of the trail that went through the stream. So in the dark, somewhere deep in Bald Eagle State Forest, I made my way through a spring creek in sub-freezing temperatures. By 5:45PM I finally saw the welcome sight of the no trespassing signs that line the trees close to the reservoir. Eventually I saw the reflection of my truck windshield and I was relieved when I finally rested my hands on my vehicle.

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I’d only covered half of the water on North Branch Buffalo Creek. Winter brook trout fishing here was an adventure and I’m sure it can be spectacular with the right flows and temperatures. A fly fisherman can never know what secrets a stream holds until he gets out and explores it, crawls on his hands and knees through the rhododendron, walks through water on the trail, and hops sandstone rocks for a couple of miles. One thing is for sure; North Branch Buffalo Creek is nothing short of a Wilderness Trout Stream.