Centre County’s Class A Wild Brook Trout

I think I can officially say that I’ve caught the “brookie bug.” It happened more quickly than I expected. I’ve now been on five adventures across Pennsylvania chasing these colorful native fish and I still haven’t had enough. On Saturday I focused my sights on a familiar area, Centre County, Pennsylvania. I was student at Penn State’s Main Campus around the turn of the millennium. This is around the time I first picked up a fly rod. During this time, the iPhone didn’t exist yet and Pennsylvania Wild Trout lists were not available in seconds via a PDF in Google. This was a simpler time where I was happy to get out on the Little J or Penns Creek for a few hours with a college friend and hope to catch anything on a dry fly. Who knew there were so many brookies in streams just a few miles from campus.

Centre County is blessed with good trout water. Just northwest of State College, nestled between the towns of Snow Shoe and Houtzdale, is a chunk of public land made up of State Game Lands 33 and Black Moshannon State Park. Almost every blue line that crosses the map in this area holds a population of brook trout. When I research brook trout streams to fish, I look for water that offers several miles of exploring and bends in the stream where one would hope to find deeper pools around structure. Two streams that I found in this public area were Tomtit Run and Black Bear Run. Tomtit seemed less accessible and moved to the top of my list as I was deciding where to head for the weekend.  

I found an access road named Game Reserve Road just beyond the Pennsylvania State Police barracks on Port Matilda Highway. This area of public land appeared to intertwine with private but still offered access to a large portion of the run. When I arrived at Game Reserve Road, it turned to gravel and then two dirt tire tracks separated by grass. I turned on the 4x4 and drove until I came across a parking area with an open gate where Game Reserve Road continued. I was surprised to see the gate open as it appeared similar to other gates I’d encountered on previous weekends that were closed after spring turkey season. I decided to keep driving and the road headed downhill. After a while I could see the road appeared to be heading toward private land, although it was difficult to tell. Rather than take chances, I found a pull-off, turned around and headed back up to the parking area. On the way up I imagined what I’d do if I got locked inside State Game Lands 33.

 The road that lead downhill away from the parking area.

The road that lead downhill away from the parking area.

When I arrived at the lot I parked and put on my lightweight waders, geared up my 8’-4wt G-Loomis and headed down the road I’d just driven down. I figured I’d walk downstream, hop into the woods, find the creek and then work my way upstream back toward my truck. Tomtit Run flows northwest through a deep hollow and eventually dumps into a body of water called Cold Stream. When I arrived at the bottom of the hill I headed into the thick forest and eventually found Tomtit Run. I was immediately surprised by how shallow the creek was. Although it is not uncommon for brookie streams to move from wide and shallow to deep and narrow, this stream was different. As far as I could see upstream, the water appeared only a couple inches deep with rocks and sandy gravel exposed here and there. I was also greeted by a swarm of mosquitoes and I knew this was going to be adventure. I tied on a #18 Psycho Prince Nymph that was tied onto a scud hook. I also dropped a #18 Frenchie nymph off the hook bend. I rarely fish a dropper set-up in small streams but I decided to give it a try. Ten minutes later I was cutting the dropper nymph off. 

 My first view of Tomtit Run in Centre County, Pennsylvania.

My first view of Tomtit Run in Centre County, Pennsylvania.

In the first couple of hundred yards I missed a couple of small brook trout and I was disappointed by the lack of good holding water. The water was crystal clear. I decided to walk the water until I found a deeper pool of water. After a long hike, I finally came upon a pool surrounding a tree that’d fallen into the creek. I knelt down in the cool water and crept up to within several feet of the pool. I threw my line and indicator toward the fallen tree and watched my nymph disappear into the water. My indicator quickly disappeared from view and I set the hook on a native brook trout. He splashed on the surface and I grabbed my net so that I could scoop up my first Tomtit Run trout. He was beautiful, colored in deep shades of dark green with light par marks covered in a layer of yellow and orange dots. After releasing him I moved another fifty yards upstream and found more deep water. In this hole the stream cut under a large tree on the bank and the flow of the water created a pocket in the creek and a perfect hiding spot for a hungry fish. I approached from the left side and using my best bow and arrow cast, launched my nymph to the head of the run. As soon as my nymph reached the deepest part of the hole a trout hit and gave me a good tug on the 8’-4wt. This turned out to be a very solid brookie, one that’d obviously been eating very well.

 My first Tomtit Run brook trout that took a #18 Psycho Prince Nymph.

My first Tomtit Run brook trout that took a #18 Psycho Prince Nymph.

Catching two great trout energized me, but my anticipation for better fishing quickly faded as I continued upstream. Areas that looked as if they’d be teaming with trout produced nothing, not even the dark form of a fish swimming away. Eventually a small blue-line stream that fed into Tomtit run branched off to the east and Tomtit Run was cut in half-making fishing even less desirable. At that point I made the decision to hike straight up the side of the hollow and back to my truck and head to my back-up stream, Black Bear Run.

 The upstream view on Black Bear Run.

The upstream view on Black Bear Run.

Black Bear Run was just northeast of Tomtit Run and in a different part of Black Moshannon State Park. It took twenty minutes to reach the marker I’d dropped on my global positioning device. I had marked what appeared to be a stone parking lot. When I arrived I was correct, there was a spacious parking lot, but I wasn’t so thrilled about the well-worn hiking trail leading upstream along the creek. I got geared up and headed across the road and up the trail into the woods. I was quickly engulfed in large rhododendron bushes. Rhododendron looks a lot like mountain laurel but you can tell the two plants apart by the shape and length of their leaves. Rhododendron has a long and narrow dark green leaf while mountain laurel has a short leaf that is sometimes a lighter shade of green or yellow. Both plants are found in Pennsylvania and line many of the banks of the brookie streams in the northern part of the state. I was able to find a small trail that cut through the thick rhododendron and down to the water. I could immediately tell upon first look that Black Bear Run was a superior body of water to Tomtit Run. The water was much deeper and there were plenty of rocks to provide structure for the fish. Just above me was an almost perfect brookie run. The edge of the current seam flowed along the edge of the overhanging rhododendron. I knelt down in the cool water and used the bow and arrow cast to launch my #18 Psycho Prince Nymph pattern into the current. About half way through the run my indicator darted under the surface and I set the hook on a beautiful brook trout. My first Black Bear Run brookie was an incredible fish. 

 A beautifully colored Black Bear Run native brook trout.

A beautifully colored Black Bear Run native brook trout.

My day of fly fishing took a turn for the better as I moved upstream, methodically working each area that looked as if it would hold fish. I started catching a lot of brook trout. A majority of the fish I caught were a good size and well fed. I spent a few hours working my way upstream. At times the rhododendron was impassible and I had to walk out of the stream and around the bushes. The hiking trail followed the creek the entire time I moved upstream. I passed several campsites with recently used fire pits. In these areas it seemed as if the trout were nowhere to be found. I wondered if campers had fished for the brookies and then ate them over an open campfire. I’d say Black Bear Run was one of the most beautiful brook trout streams I’ve fished in Pennsylvania. They are all beautiful in their own way, but this one was special. As the sun dipped down over the tree line and the last light of the day muted the colors of the forest, I decided it would probably be a good idea to exit the water, hop on the hiking trail and make my way back to where I’d started. It took a good thirty minutes until I emerged from the trees to see my truck sitting in the stone lot. I broke down my gear in the twilight, paused for a few minutes to drink water and appreciate the evening. I packed up and headed south toward State College, Rt. 322, and other familiar haunts.

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