August 3, 2008

State’s Outdoors Offers Travel By Paddle

By Bob Frye, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Aug. 3--You needn't be a bushwhacking pioneer to drive from Pittsburgh to Washington. A well-established network of roads and highways will get you there.

Likewise, if you want to hike from Laurel Summit State Park to the overlook at Wolf Rocks, there's a blazed trail to follow.

But what if you want to float from, say, Apollo to Blairsville?

It turns out there's a trail for that, too.

The Kiski-Conemaugh River Water Trail -- which stretches 50 miles, from Freeport to Johnstown -- is just one of 20 official water trails in the state.

Some are massive; the West Branch Susquehanna River Water Trail covers 240 miles. Others are much smaller. The Yellow Breeches Creek Water Trail covers only 13 miles in three sections.

All were designed primarily by people with an interest in paddling for paddling's sake.

If there's one other thing all of the water trails have in common, though, it's that they represent tremendous opportunities for fishermen, too. That's especially true if you like to float fish.

The water covered by the Middle Allegheny River Water Trail -- which flows 85 miles from Kinzua Dam to Emlenton -- is home to trout, smallmouth bass, walleyes, muskies, catfish and more, for example.

"It's just phenomenal for all of those species," said Tom Tarkowski, assistant regional supervisor in the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's northwest region office. "And some of the best spots are ones you can't access from shore, so it helps to have a canoe or small boat."

The Pine Creek Water Trail, which winds through the area known as Pennsylvania's Grand Canyon, likewise offers opportunities to catch everything from walleyes and catfish to smallmouth bass and even native brook trout, all in a wilderness setting.

"Especially if you float it on a weekday, you can have the place all to yourself," said Jim Hyland, assistant district forester at Tiadaghton State Forest. "It's really nice."

Even the once-polluted and lifeless Kiski and Conemaugh rivers are offering better angling now. That's true just in spots on the Conemaugh, but the Kiski is getting good all along its length, said Rick Lorson, another commission biologist.

"The smallmouth bass fishery that was at least there in 1990 has progressed to one that I would fish over now, and I like to fish for smallmouths," Lorson said.

Some water trails are floatable year round. Others, like the Clarion River, can get low in the dead of summer. But even it can produce great fishing -- largely for smallmouth bass -- if you hit it right.

"I've had more than one person tell me they've caught some 20 inchers in there. That's sort of my own standard for a big smallmouth bass," said Tim Wilson, a Fish and Boat Commission biologist.

Fishermen are starting to find those things out, thanks to the state's water trails, said Denny Tubbs, aquatic resource planning specialist in the Fish and Boat Commission's southwest region office.

"I think they're being used more and more by fishermen, by anglers," he said.

If there's one thing that really makes the state's water trails stand out from other river sections, it's that almost all are outlined via printed "water trail guides." The guides combine river maps with historical and geological information, details on the locations of riffles, rapids, lowhead dams, and other river features, and possible campsites.

Most importantly, perhaps, the maps contain information on access points, said Denny Tubbs, aquatic resource planning specialist in the Fish and Boat Commission's southwest region office.

"They also show navigational markers and structures like bridges, too, so a lot of people use them to find walk-in spots to fish," Tubbs said.

You can find details on each of the state's 20 river trails, and the sponsoring organizations for each, at

Conspicuously missing is a river trail guide for the Yough River Water Trail. It's in production, though. A group of volunteers have been meeting to design such a map, and hope to have a two-part publication -- the Yough north and Yough south -- ready by next spring, Tubbs said.


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