Friday, November 10, 2006

Rebirth of Big Spring Creek

Big Spring Creek is perhaps the most stikingly classic looking of all the Pennsylvania spring creeks. It originates from a large limestone spring 1 mile north of Stoughstown, Cumberland County and flows 5 miles on a northeasterly course to it's confluence with the Conodoguient Creek near the borough of Newville, Pa. Once regarded as the finest brook trout stream in North America, it has suffered greatly at the hands of man. Most notably during the last 3 decades of the twentieth century when it's waters were severly depleted of disolved oxygen by the effluent of a large fish hatchery owned and operated by the Pennsylvania Fish Commission just above the headwater spring. Prior to it's degradation by the agency entrusted with it's care it was possible to drive along Big Spring Road on any day of the year, at any time of the day, and see free rising brook trout in the meanders of the stream right from the window of your car. After the mega-hatchery opened in 1972 the brook trout population along with the clean water macroinvertebrates crashed.

The good news is that the hatchery was closed in November, 2001 and with the continued oversight of the Big Spring Watershed Association, the stream is well on it way to making a comeback. Brook trout and rainbow trout are now present in enough numbers to classify the upper reaches of the stream as Class A wild trout water and pollution intollerant mayflies and caddisflies are recolonizing stretches of the stream where formerly only cressbugs could be found. Thanks to the foresight of a few dedicated individuals, the future does indeed look bright again for Big Spring Creek.

The Barrel Factory For years, anglers visiting the upper end of the stream have noticed this picturesque limestone building, known as the Barrel Factory, sitting just below the dam at the lower end of the Headwaters section. Built around 1850, it was part of the former McCracken Grist Mill and may have also served as a stillhouse in what was then the growing village of Springfield. The dam at the site was used to provide power to the mill via the old millpond that was backed up behind it. This is where Don Martin caught his legendary 31 inch, 15 1/2 lb. brown trout back in 1946. In fact, many of today's anglers who still fish the former "Ditch" section, or Headwaters, don't realize that they are actually walking and fishing in what used to be the bottom of the old McCracken Mill Pond. The first public road in Cumberland County was constructed in 1735 and ran from present day Harrisburg to the Potomac. That road crossed Big Spring at this very spot. Today the Big Springs Watershed Association (BSWA) leases this historic barrel factory from the state and hopes to turn it into a museum.

This is the site of the old fish barrier that was put in place by the Pa. Fish Commisson after the hatchery opened. Their intent was to keep the browns and rainbows that, at that time, still populated the lower reaches of the creek from encroaching on the native indigenous Big Spring strain of brook trout that were still hanging on in the upstream sections. Hatchery effluent soon made the fish barrier a moot point and today it is widely accepted that the original strain of brookies are extinct so the barrier has been removed.


Wild rainbows are now making a comeback in the middle sections of the creek that were formerly barren and their colors have to be seen to be believed. There are many large specimens to provide terrific sport for the angler, but bring your "A" game with you as these fish are very wary and spooky. They do not suffer sloppy wading or bad presentations lightly.


The substrate on the upper end of the creek is now sparkling clean and no longer has that rotten egg smell to it that one associates with a stream impaired by hatchery effluent and it high biological oxygen demand. Good numbers of freshwater shrimp are returning along with the Glossoma caddisflies. Baetis mayfly populations are increasing in their numbers. Ephemerella and Heptagenia nymphs have repatriated their favorite parts of the stream. All of these mayflies and caddisflies are now present in enough numbers to bring about a nice rise of trout to the dry fly in their respective seasons.


The upper end of the stream has some nice riffles and areas of broken water that you can't quite call pocket water, and it's these sections that are the favorite haunts of the wild rainbows. There's no doubt that these rainbows, while providing terrific sport right now, will be competition for the brook trout recovery in the upper reaches. There are also a few extremely large browns hanging around in the deeper holes. Just like Johnny or Edgar Winter though, they only come out at night or when spooked.


This is my fishing buddy John with a nice respectable wild rainbow trout taken from a section of the creek that was void of trout 5 years ago. About 13-14 inches long, this one jumped and cartwheeled 5 or 6 times and raced all around the pool before it was released to fight another day.


Cohicks Bridge: Instream structure like this along with deep watercress filled holes provide excellant habitat for the larger denziens that prowl the middle section of the stream. Here's where you'll want to break out the sculpin patterns or Shenk's White Minnow when no rising trout are in evidence.


Rip rap, watercress and sulpher mayflies all provide for a pastoral setting in a delicate valley that is still dominated by agriculture and Mennonite farms.


John with a 19 inch wild Big Spring rainbow trout taken from the lower end of the special regulations stretch in April, 2006. As little as 5 years ago this scene would have been just a pipe dream on this formerly barren water.


More terrific fish habitat on the middle section of the stream as the photos from the latest PFBC Survey will attest. This stretch of water has everything a trout needs; depth, overhead cover, riffles, plenty of food and a steady supply of cold limestone water.



Parting Shot: Fountain Square in Newville, Pa. Newville was, at one time in it's past, a true Trout Town in it's own right. The Henryville of southcentral Pennsylvania. Having all the right ingredients such as a railroad, hotel and a blue ribbon wild trout stream, it drew ardent fly fishermen from as far away as Philadephia. Fishermen would be taken up to the head of the stream and dropped off, then they would fish their brace of wet flies on the way back downstream to town for the evening. Hopefully the rejuvenation of Big Spring Creek will revitalize the town and regain it's rightful place in the cradle of fly fishing in America. Big Spring is back, and with the help of the BSWA it will only get better over the next few years. If only we could accomplish the same success with Green Spring Creek.

6 comments:

fretbored_oh said...

OK - i'll comment! I was there once two years ago in January. It's a special place for sure and i've been craving a second visit. I'm bringing a friend there next weekend for an early February visit.

One of the best writeups i've seen... thanks!

Wade Rivers said...

Thank you for the nice comment, fretbored-oh. You're too kind. It's been a little over 6 years since the hatchery on the headwaters was closed and I have a feeling that Big Springs productivity is going to explode wide open this year.

I hope you have some nice warm BWO type weather for your trip next weekend.

Anonymous said...

Well written, objective article on the Big Spring. May it florish forever!

L

Wade Rivers said...

It was a labor of love, sir. May it flourish indeed.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the write-up. 30 years ago, I read about the Big Spring in Vince Marinaro's "Modern Dry Fly Code" and other fly fishing books in our western Pennsylvania public library. Needless to say, my first visit 25 years ago was disappointing, as were subsequent visits over the years. Sounds like it is time to return to the Big Spring!

caimi said...

I fished Big Spring Creek several times in the early to mid 1990's and, while it was a beautiful, idyllic setting, it was pretty much devoid of trout except for the Ditch section. It is fantastic to read of its rebirth now that the hatchery is closed and I look forward to a return trip there soon.