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Clarion River delivers the local goods

| Sunday, July 15, 2007

Kurt Thomas admits that he was spoiled.

A 47-year-old native of Ridgway in Elk County, he's been fishing the Clarion River all of his life. Back in the "old days" -- which extended up until five or six years ago -- very few people other than some locals shared the river with him.

That meant he was able to have some fantastic fishing almost all to himself.

"Honestly, I didn't know it was a big deal to catch a 20-something-inch trout every day like I was," said Thomas, now a fly fishing guide on the river. "To a local, a 20-inch fish is not a bragging fish. For myself, it's not until I get one 23-24 inches that I count it as a quality fish."

Word of how good the trout fishing on the Clarion -- and particularly on the 8 1/2-mile section of river between Johnsonburg and Ridgway -- can be is getting around these days, however.

"Clearly, there is a push on to bring people's attention to the river and the other resources in that area," said Brian Burger, law enforcement supervisor in the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's northcentral region office.

Still, there are plenty of fish to be caught. The commission stocks the river between Ridgway and Johnsonburg with brown trout fingerlings each year, and they serve as the base of the fishery.

"They grow up to be really huge," said Allen Woomer, the commission's area 2 fisheries biologist. "There are some real lunkers in there. And because those fingerlings grow up wild, they basically look like wild fish. They're all colored up."

Big Clarion River trout get to grow even larger, even after being caught, too. The river between Ridgway and Johnsonburg is managed under all tackle, catch and release trophy trout regulations, so anglers have to release all they catch to grow ever larger.

"It's kind of like the best of all worlds, so long as you're not trying to fill your frying pan," Burger said. "You can use whatever gear you want and you have a lot of fish to fish over."

That doesn't mean it's easy to catch a trophy trout on the river. The fact that the fish grow to adulthood relying on their own wits can make them tough to catch, Thomas said.

Fishing for about 90 minutes one morning last week, he caught six browns: one 12 inches, one 15, two 22, one 25, and one 28 inches. In 45 minutes later that evening, he caught another 22-incher.

He's also had plenty of days where he's fished for hours without a strike, though. The fishing can be especially tough at this time of year, he said, particularly if you're on the water at midday.

"It's a river of extremes. When it's good, it's fantastic, the best you've ever experienced. But when it's bad, you'll think there's not a fish in there," Thomas said.

The Clarion can be a magical place if you're willing to work, though.

"You have to be confident and expect a strike at any second. And if it takes five hours for that one second to come along, so be it.

"But where else can you go and catch four fish over 20 inches a day?" Thomas asked.

The increasing amount of attention focused on the Clarion River is presenting some challenges.

Littering, parking on private property, noise, and other issues are all growing problems in an area where longtime residents are used to much more quiet, Kurt Thomas said. Two landowners have gone so far as to post their land, restricting shore access to nearly half of the all tackle, catch and release section of the river.

Thomas -- who views himself as a "river keeper" of the Clarion -- and others are trying to keep as much of the river open to fishing as possible, though. They're hoping to get fishing easements like those protecting access to Erie's steelhead streams in place eventually.

In the meantime, though, he's asking anglers who visit the Clarion to be as respectful of private property as possible. Know who owns a piece of property and get permission before going onto it, Thomas recommended. And pack any garbage you take in back out.

Anyone wanting to reach Thomas, either for information about a guided trip or to get involved in protecting access to the river, can call him at Clarion River Wilderness Adventures at 814-772-6217 or visit .

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