Although located in the heart of central Pennsylvania trout country, and in the midst of such famous fisheries as Spring Creek, Penns Creek, and Yellow Breeches; the Little Juniata has no real fly-fishing heritage. That is because prior to 1970, the “j” as it is referred to locally, was little more than an open sewer. Upstream towns–including Altoona, a city of 50 thousand–dumped raw sewage and industrial waste directly into the river. A large paper mill in Tyrone added color and foam to the mix. The Clean Water Act of 1972 brought about significant changes to the way we treated our rivers—including the Little Juniata. Within a few years, three modern waste treatment plants were built on the river and the pulp mill was closed. Then Hurricane Agnes flushed the watershed with an epic flood in 1972. When the flood waters receded, the Little Juniata flowed clear and cool for the first time in over a hundred years. Wild brown trout living in unpolluted tributaries, including Tipton Run and Spruce Creek, rapidly populated the once barren Little Juniata from Tyrone to Barree. The browns from Spruce Creek are remnants from early stockings of fish obtained from Germany in the 1890’s. Trout numbers grew fast in this big, newly hospitable river.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocked the Little Juniata with hatchery trout fingerlings for all but a few years between 1975 and 2010 under the guise of supplemental stocking. At the request of Little Juniata River Association, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission agreed to fin-clip the fingerlings stocked into the river for a period of two years. The goal was to conduct extensive electro-shocking surveys after the fact to evaluate the effectiveness of the stocking efforts. The results showed that the Little Juniata had what would be categorized by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission as a Class-A population of wild brown trout, with more than 3000 wild, stream-born trout per mile. This confirmed what we already knew, stocking was not needed.
In 2006, the Little Juniata River Association, with the assistance of Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, initiated a program to preserve public fishing access on the Little Juniata. To date, $200,000 has been paid to landowners, thus guaranteeing that more than five miles of stream is permanently open for fishing and boating access. This includes the Green Hills Campground property, where fly-fishers intermingle with campers from March to October. Access downstream of Greenhills is limited to the south bank only (the Norfolk Southern tracks parallel the north bank). Plans for a ten car parking area at the end of the road are underway. This will provide parking for approximately two miles of fishing at the Allison Public Fishing Access.
The Little Juniata is a veritable insect factory. The first hatch is the grannom caddis in mid-April. This is followed by sulphurs in May. Various caddis hatch from April to late June. Tricos hatch in July and August. Hatches wind down with Slate Drakes in September. Add to this several sizes of Cahills, crane flies, Grey Fox, midges, BWO’s, a few green Drakes—found only below Spruce Creek, and you have reliable match-the-hatch dry fly fishing for much of the season. In addition to the hatches, there is good mid-summer terrestrial fishing. For most of its length, the river has a dense tree canopy consisting primarily of sycamores, oaks, maples and black willows. Caterpillars, beetles, inchworms and especially ants, live in this canopy. The trout below eagerly wait for these to drop out of the trees, feasting on the high protein insects from above. You will often need accurate, side-arm casts to get your offering under the overhanging limbs, where the big trout lurk.
In addition to bountiful insect life, the Little Juniata has a healthy population of minnows. Sculpins, dace, common shiners, and suckers are all present. Crayfish, once extremely abundant throughout, but reduced as a result of a pollution event, are making a comeback, especially in the lower river. Float fishing on medium to high flows, while throwing large wooly buggers and streamers to the banks and side eddies, can be very productive for those here at the right time. Even boats as large as driftboats can be effectively used in flows over 500 cfs. However, float fishing in any type of watercraft, including one-man pontoons, at normal flows during May thru October can result in frequent dragging over dry rocks. Any summer rain event can provide good flows for boaters for a few days.
In the last 30 years, the Little Juniata River has gone from a sewer to a “Class A” wild brown trout fishery”. It provides the longest stretch (13 miles) of regulated C&R water in Pennsylvania. Its wild browns, plentiful hatches and unique setting, as it flows under historic stone arches and through steep limestone gorges, will challenge and entertain the most discerning fly fisher.
For additional information about the Little Juniata River please contact Bill Anderson, president of the Little Juniata River Association.