Laurel Hill Creek: Almost a river, it's a stream of multiple personalities

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The tiny Somerset County town of Confluence might have had one up on the city of Pittsburgh -- if its first explorers had been a little more imaginative.

At Confluence, Laurel Hill Creek joins the Casselman and Youghiogheny rivers, below which the Yough churns toward Ohiopyle. But at its mouth, Laurel Hill Creek is bigger than lots of rivers. Had its discoverers dubbed it a river instead of a creek, and had they christened the Yough with a different name downstream of Confluence, just as the combined flows of the Monongahela and Allegheny are known as the Ohio below Pittsburgh's Point, Confluence would boast four rivers to Pittsburgh's three.

Such trivia, though, won't be of much concern on April 12 when trout season opens and thousands of anglers descend on this place "where mountains touch rivers," as the slogan touting Confluence says. One of their prime destinations will be Laurel Hill Creek.

They'll go there for good reason. Laurel Hill Creek is one of the most heavily stocked streams in the southwest region. For trout management purposes, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission dissects the stream into seven different sections, each of which gets a preseason stocking and two more stockings after trout fishing starts.

Laurel Hill anglers have plenty of room. Flowing southwestward, the stream drains roughly 30 miles of the eastern slope of the Great Laurel Ridge, from the Pennsylvania Turnpike south to Confluence, a watershed of 125 square miles. Along that length it takes on at least three different personalities, offering anglers different kinds of challenges and rewards.

From the outflow of Laurel Hill Lake at Trent and downstream for several miles, Laurel Hill is more like an average-size Pennsylvania stream. The current in much of this section is slow to moderate and road access is handy.

Just below, several smaller mountain brooks tumbling down from Forbes State Forest join the flow and Laurel Hill swells. From above Barronvale at the junction with Fall Creek, Laurel Hill flows for about 12 miles to Humbert. The stream churns through a remote and scenic gorge, dominated above Humbert by State Game Lands 111. Road access is sparse through this wild region, but anglers willing to walk to the water will find fish.

The lower section from Humbert to the Youghiogheny River is where Laurel Hill truly takes on the appearance of a river. The broad stream meanders through a wide valley with an almost uniform current and is rarely beyond sight of a road.

All along Laurel Hill, private landowners permit walk-in access across their properties and tolerate fishermen who observe good outdoor manners.

"It's the most popular creek in the region, and it has a big following from Allegheny County and Pittsburgh," said Emil Svetahor, Fish and Boat Commission law enforcement manager for the Southwest Region. "There is lots of walk-in access as long as people treat property owners with respect. The most sensitive places are where people have camps near the creek. There are camp owners who don't want anglers blocking their driveway with their cars, but otherwise people seem to get along fine up there. It's a matter of common sense."

Landowners have been good to the anglers on Laurel Hill Creek.

"We wouldn't stock the whole length of the stream if it wasn't open to public fishing," said Fish and Boat's assistant regional supervisor, Tom Qualters.

A big hand-painted sign nailed to the picturesque covered bridge at Barronvale testifies to the hospitable, if enterprising, attitude locals extend to anglers. It proclaims, "Homemade Sandwiches and Baked Goods Sale at Barronvale Bridge, Sat. April 12."

Generally, different fishing methods can be adapted to the stream's different sections.

In the upper and lower sections, where flow is more uniform and there are fewer obvious habitat features, anglers often prospect with spinners or streamers. Casting and retrieving these "attractor" baits helps anglers find trout stationed randomly in water with few obvious holding spots.

In the rougher, more turbulent middle section, more fishermen use typical "pocket water" techniques, drifting minnows, salmon eggs, worms or wet flies and nymphs through obvious holes, pockets and riffles where trout are likely to be.

Trout buffs who just can't wait until April 12 can fish Laurel Hill Creek today if they like. Two Delayed Harvest Artificial Lures Only projects are open to year-round fishing.

A 1.2-mile section runs from the footbridge on State Game Land 111 at Humbert, downstream to Paddytown Hollow Run. Another special regulation area stretches 2.2 miles at Laurel Hill State Park, just above Laurel Hill Lake. Both sections are marked with signs. No trout may be killed before June 15, and fishing with bait is prohibited.

For a creek draining such a large watershed, Laurel Hill Creek has escaped the pollution that has plagued other big streams.

"There are no significant water quality problems on Laurel Hill Creek at this time," Qualters said. "The pH is good throughout. The temperatures do tend to get a little warm in the summer when the water is low, but otherwise we're lucky on Laurel Hill."

Water quantity, though, is an increasingly troubling issue on Laurel Hill Creek. Stream flows have been lower than historic averages during the past 15 years and water withdrawals to supply new development are on the rise.

The Chestnut Ridge Chapter of Trout Unlimited is currently studying flow in Laurel Hill through a Growing Greener grant from the state's Department of Environmental Protection.

"It is our hope that the information gathered and documented will be used by local officials to direct sensible use of land and water in the basin that will benefit both people and the aquatic stream life," said Chestnut Ridge Trout Unlimited president Scott Hoffman.

No major roads parallel Laurel Hill Creek, but anglers can reach the northern reaches on Rt. 31 near Bakersville and access the lower sections via Rt. 281 from Confluence. Rural township roads network the watershed in between. Along Laurel Hill Creek, a map and a sense of adventure can lead to a lot of good fishing.


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