Laurel Highland Hiking Trail a pathway to adventure for anglers
The day's adventure is about to begin.
The season of the stocking truck is largely over. The hordes of fishermen who populate the opening weeks of trout season are gone, the craziness of the first day already a memory. Still, there are decent crowds of people fishing the lowlands.
But things are different here.
Morning has come to the ridgetop. The embers of last night's fire are cold, but breakfast was a warm serving of oatmeal and instant coffee, prepared in one pot on a pocket-sized stove and enjoyed from a single mug. Home — a backpack stuffed with a sleeping bag, food, clothes and more — leans against the wall of an Adirondack-style shelter. A fishing rod, broken down for easy carrying, is at the ready.
It's time to explore wild country and wild fish.
This is Western Pennsylvania mountaintop fishing, done along the edges of the 70-mile Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. The trout aren't large — a legal one is a rarity — but the setting is remote, the scenery spectacular and the competition scarce.
“It's probably one of the most unique experiences we have in the state park system,” said Mike Mumau, manager of the Laurel Hill State Park complex and trail. “There are some areas along the trail that are pretty remote, where you can have pretty close to a wilderness-type experience. We don't have a lot of that kind of thing in Pennsylvania.”
The Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail is perhaps better known to backpackers than fishermen. Stretching from nearly the banks of the Yough River in Ohiopyle in the south to the Conemaugh Gorge near Johnstown in the north, it runs across state park and forest land, state game lands and other public and private properties.
Parts of it will test your lungs and stamina as the Keystone Trails Association warns — or promotes — to members.
Backpackers who start out at Ohiopyle begin their trek about 1,200 feet above sea level. They'll climb nearly 900 feet in the first 2 1⁄2 miles, lose half of those gains in the next mile, head up another steep climb to nearly 2,200 feet, then drop back below 1,500 feet.
Then the going gets rough.
The first official camping area — like the other seven, a mix of five Adirondack shelters and spaces for tents — is a short way up what is ultimately a two-mile climb, one taking backpackers to a height of more than 2,700 feet.
“The hike nearest the Ohiopyle end is definitely one with a lot of vigorous elevation changes,” said Bruce Cridlebaugh of Monroeville, who leads outings along the trail for Venture Outdoors. “It tends to be a challenge.”
The middle 55 or so miles of the trail — despite getting as high as 2,950 feet, just 262 feet lower than the high point of Pennsylvania at Mt. Davis — is comparatively gentle.
“Once you get on the ridgetop, the terrain is more rolling or flat,” Cridlebaugh said. “Because it follows the ridgetop, there are only a few saddles to go up or down.”
The northern end of the trail presents one final challenge, dropping more than 1,000 feet in a largely unbroken four-mile descent.
Still, lots of people tackle it each year. Though only 2,000 or so people hike the complete trail annually — going end to end in four to seven consecutive days — as many as 100,000 annually hike it in pieces, Mumau said.
“Every section of the trail has some uniqueness to it,” Mumau said. “It's probably best maintained and established in the south, though we've been moving north and working at it to make the experience similar the whole way.”
Tackling the trip
Going on a backpacking trek, even on an established trail like the Laurel Highlands, takes some preparation and a mindset. But it's definitely doable, said Orville Steininger of East Liverpool, Ohio, who leads backpacking trips for Venture Outdoors and serves on a wilderness search and rescue team.
“If you really get into backpacking, you can spend as much as you want. Maybe you get a pack that better fits you, or a better sleeping bag or lighter cooking utensils,” Steininger said.
The key is to minimize weight, he said. Some minimalists will carry no more than 15 pounds on a weekend trip, he said. He typically carries 35 to 37. Getting even to that means doing more with less, though.
“You've really got to think, do you need that particular piece of equipment, or can you do without it? Or can one piece of equipment serve multiple functions?” he said.
Ounces count. So if he's carrying a mug, for example, he might leave his bowl at home. A ground cloth might replace a tent. Premade peanut butter sandwiches and granola might eliminate the need for a stove.
There are some things he won't do without. A first aid kit, complete with wraps and braces for sprains and quick-clotting military bandages for puncture wounds, goes on every trip, given that cell phones don't always work and help can be hours away.
Wool or synthetic clothing — anything but cotton, which loses its ability to insulate once it gets wet — is a must to avoid the possibility of hypothermia, even in summer.
“Cotton kills, and people don't understand that,” Steininger said.
Water is also a necessity. Steininger always carries three liters.
“Staying hydrated is really critical,” he said. “You're always losing moisture, so you need to replace that to avoid dehydration.”
That often means finding and treating water as you go. None of the water along the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, be it from streams or the hand pump-operated wells at the shelter areas, is potable. It must be filtered, treated with tablets or boiled or you run the risk of getting giardiasis, an intestinal disease that results in diarrhea.
But do grab a pack and go, Steininger said. Backpacking opens up a new world to those who like the outdoors.
“I like nature. I like the wilderness. It's a lot different from taking a walk in a city park,” he said.
“Backpacking lets you experience that. You'll kind of be busting your hump to a degree because you're carrying all of your gear on your back, but it's just a lot of fun.”
Along the Laurel Highlands Trail, that fun can include fishing, especially if you're willing to explore.
“Most any stream coming off the Laurel Ridge has trout if the pH is high enough and there is enough water in the summer that it doesn't dry up,” said Mike Depew, a fisheries biologist in the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's regional office in Somerset.
A few Class A trout streams — the highest designation awarded by the commission — directly cross the trail. Rock Spring Run and Lick Run, both near the Ohiopyle end of the trail, stand out that way, Depew said.
A number of other waters offer good fishing for wild brookies, browns and even rainbows if you're willing to go off the trail a bit. Harbaugh Run, Middle Fork Laurel Run, Neals Run, Roaring Run, Pike Run and Beaverdam Run, among others, can offer good classic freestone fishing, Depew added.
That doesn't mean it will be easy.
“Those kinds of streams, they're heavily canopied, and they usually run fast, so they're clean and cold,” said Leo Vensel of Murrysville and paflyguide.com. “But because they're low and clear, you often get only one shot at those spooky fish. If you mess it up, you can put them down.”
Mumau, who often backpacks and camps along the stream, compared fishing such small waters to hunting in that there are “elements of stealth and camouflage” involved.
“It's a whole different kind of fishing. You literally have to sneak up on the stream, otherwise you're not going to catch anything,” he said.
Expect tight quarters, too, given overhanging brush, laurel thickets and more. That necessitates small gear.
Mumau leaves his 9-foot fly rod at home for a 7 1⁄2- or 8-footer. Vensel goes even smaller, with a 6- to 7 1⁄2-footer. Roll casts and even dabbling a fly over a rock or limb will be the order of the day, he added.
As for flies, Mumau fishes nymphs like a hare's ear or pheasant tail, sometimes as a dropper off a dry fly, especially early in the season. Vensel prefers dry flies.
“A lot of these fish, the brookies especially, don't get too picky. As long as your fly is big and bushy they're going to take it,” he said. “It's a food source to them.”
Depew prefers dry flies, too.
“I like an ant or a beetle pattern, a little yellow stonefly or some stimulator pattern, in a size 18 or 20. The fish just love them,” Depew said. “I do really well on them in May and June.”
No matter what you use — even ultralight spinning gear will work — the fishing can be spectacular in terms of action, scenery and solitude.
“Many of these streams, you have to want to fish them. Meaning you're going to have to put in some extra effort,” Vensel said.
“But, boy, there's nothing like it. The waterfalls with plunge pools, the logs crisscrossing the water, the big timber, big ferns, the laurel and rhododendron, that's just Western Pennsylvania mountain fishing. And it's drop-dead gorgeous.”
“When you can take that little bit of solitude and add in some hiking and fishing, combining two hobbies into one, that's pretty hard to beat,” Mumau said.