August 10, 2022
By Henry Ramsay
Kettle Creek is one of north-central Pennsylvania’s crown jewels, and flows through a beautiful region of steep mountains, thick forests, and expansive designated wild areas. Its cool currents and tight valleys have brought me here many times since my first trip as a young boy. I caught my first native brook trout on a fly here many years ago, and still remember it with clarity. In the nearly 50 years that have passed, it’s a place that has provided decades of vivid memories that keep me coming back for more. The Kettle Creek watershed is a large system, and exploring all the tributary streams that create it can take a lifetime.
The Kettle begins on the slope of Cedar Mountain in southwestern Tioga County and flows southwest for nearly 43 miles through Potter and Clinton Counties before it meets the West Branch of the Susquehanna River at the village of Westport. The Kettle Creek watershed encompasses an area of 264 square miles and is comprised of a total of 420 miles of streams. The vast majority of this system is within the Tioga, Susquehannock, and Sproul state forests; the Ole Bull and Kettle Creek state parks; and the Hammersley Wild Area.
During the Civilian Conservation Corps period, there were four camps in operation at Cross Fork (S-87), Conrad (S-89), Carter Camp (S-137), and Tamarack (S-133) that worked to construct the state parks and many of the roads in the watershed.
While Kettle is deservedly one of the more famous trout streams in the Northeast, the real gems are its Class A Wild designated tributary creeks. These are waters that meet the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission criteria for wild trout biomass and represent the “best of the best” in terms of quality fisheries.
There are now 28 streams in the Kettle watershed that meet Class A Wild biomass requirements, and they comprise more than 108 miles of water. Most of the Class A streams in the Kettle system are smaller first- and second-order streams that require some hiking to get to them. This isn’t roadside angling. For blue-line anglers, the streams in this watershed present a fantastic opportunity to explore and enjoy solitude in a remote, wild setting. For the sake of discussion, I will break the watershed into three distinct sections.
Upper Kettle Creek
Kettle Creek finds its headwater source on the west slope of Cedar Mountain in Tioga County. It may come as a surprise that only the upper 11 miles of this beautiful stream meets Class A Wild designation criteria. The Class A water is populated predominantly with brook trout, but there are occasional brown trout. The Class A water is divided into two sections, with Section 1 beginning at the stream source and flowing for 2.84 miles to the point where the Billings Branch joins it. This uppermost section is very small water that seldom exceeds 6 feet in width. Just over 60 percent of this stream section is in the Tioga State Forest.
The Billings Branch is Kettle Creek’s first Class A tributary and can be easily missed unless you study the topography closely to locate the valley it flows through. The Billings Branch joins the Kettle on its east side, a half mile upstream from the bridge on Leetonia Road. The Billings Branch is a small stream of 4 to 6 feet in width that is just over 2½ miles long and flows through a narrow valley on the southwest slope of Cedar Mountain. The Billings is entirely within Tioga State Forest.
The next Class A tributary is the Sliders Branch, which joins a few hundred yards west of the Potter County boundary. Sliders Branch is just over 4 miles long and averages 8 feet in the lower reaches and is easily overlooked due to an expansive beaver colony at the stream mouth. The Sliders Branch flows along the east side of Bear Run Ridge, and the lower half is located on state forest land.
The Germania Branch joins Kettle Creek 2 miles downstream and is designated as a Class A Wild stream for its entire length of 6.36 miles. The lower water on the Germania Branch is public where it enters state forest lands and holds a mixed population of brook and brown trout. The Germania Branch is between 12 and 15 feet in width in its widest sections and flows in the valley between Bear Run Ridge on the east and Rawson Ridge on the western side.
A mile and a half downstream, Indian Run joins with the Kettle. This is a small stream that is only 2.55 miles long and flows through the narrow valley between Rawson and Big ridges on state forest lands. Indian Run is small at 4 to 6 feet at the widest points, but holds native brook trout and adds cold water to the Kettle.
The last Class A tributary in the upper Kettle drainage is Long Run, which is just over 5 miles in length and begins west of the village of Germania. It joins Kettle just west of Pine Hill above State Route 44 near Oleona. Long Run averages 15 feet in width in the lower section and is wild brook trout water. More than 90 percent of Long Run is on state forest land, and most of the stream requires a lengthy hike to get to. The mouth of Long Run marks the lower end of the Class A water on Kettle Creek. The collection of tributaries creates a stream averaging 15 feet in width with considerable flow. Unfortunately, downstream it enters a wide valley with limited canopy and doesn’t hold wild trout populations year round.
Middle Kettle Creek
The midsection of the watershed is roughly 8 miles long and begins at the confluence of Kettle and Little Kettle creeks, and continues downstream to the mouth of Cross Fork Creek just below the little town of the same name. The Little Kettle begins 5½ miles east of Cherry Springs State Park and flows south for approximately 9 miles to its mouth on the Kettle south of the tiny village of Oleona. The upper 2.67 miles from the headwaters down to Hoppe Hollow Road is designated as Class A water and is mostly native brook trout water.
Wenzel Hollow Run joins the Little Kettle 2 miles downstream at the village of Carter Camp. Wenzel Hollow is just over 2 miles long with limited access, as it flows through private land for all but a short section.
Three miles downstream, Little Indian Run joins Little Kettle a short distance above where Hungry Hollow Road meets Route 144. The entire 2.85-mile length of Little Indian Run is Class A brook trout water, and the lower 67 percent is on public land. Fishing here means small, remote water, and you will likely never see another person.
A half mile above Oleona, tiny Miller Run runs off of Hickory Ridge and enters the Little Kettle. Miller is small stream that averages 3 to 4 feet in width and is only 2.13 miles long, but it does hold wild brook trout and is Class A water for its entire length. All the Class A waters in the Little Kettle drainage are relatively small in size.
The next stream immediately below the confluence of Kettle Creek and the Little Kettle is Sawmill Run, which is 2.31 miles long and seldom exceeds 4 to 6 feet in width. Sawmill flows through a steep valley on the slope of Hickory Ridge, with the stream mouth on Kettle Creek providing the only access point for pursuing these tributary brook trout. This stream is entirely on Susquehannock State Forest land.
Not far downstream from the mouth of Sawmill Run is Ole Bull State Park, named for the Norwegian violinist who attempted to create the settlement of “New Norway” and his castle “Nordenskjold” there in 1852. At the southern boundary of the park, Joerg Run joins the Kettle. Joerg is only 2 miles long but holds native brook trout and can be easily accessed from Joerg Run Road, which parallels the lower half of the stream. This water is publicly accessible for most of its length.
Cherry Hollow is the next Class A stream in the system and meets Kettle Creek 2 miles below Ole Bull. Cherry Hollow flows for 3.21 miles in a remote area and is solely accessible by hiking upstream from the stream mouth. This is brook trout water.
Cross Fork Creek is a well-known tributary that joins Kettle just below the little town of Cross Fork. Cross Fork Creek is Kettle’s largest tributary, and it’s a sub-watershed that has five of its own Class A tributary streams. Cross Fork Creek starts at the confluence of Wingerter and Bolich runs and continues for nearly 10 miles to its mouth. Only the upper 6.4 miles of this mountain gem meet Class A Wild criteria. Sadly, the lower section of the stream gets stocked, which impacts wild trout populations there.
The Class A water is divided into three stream sections, with Section 1 beginning at the confluence of Wingerter and Bolich runs and continuing for 1.43 miles to the mouth of Short Run. This water is very small and contains both brook and brown trout. It’s easy to get to, but very hard to fish due to the thick willows that grow close to the stream.
Section 2 begins at Short Run and continues for just over 3 miles to Rhulo Hollow. The stream gains size here quickly thanks to the contribution of Little Lyman Run, which is a Class A tributary that is 4 miles long. Little Lyman is appropriately named and is small brook trout water that is seldom wider than 10 feet. Little Lyman flows through state forest land, and the lower section of the stream is relatively easy to access from a road that parallels the stream. Yochum Run is the next Class A tributary to Cross Fork Creek and is one of the longer tributaries in the drainage at 5.39 miles in length. Yochum is easy to miss unless you are studying the contours of the mountains and valleys. If you choose to explore it, you will probably have a better chance of seeing a bear or rattlesnake than seeing another angler. Yochum is relatively small for a stream of that length, and reaches 8 to 10 feet in at its widest points. Cherry Run is the next Class A tributary and enters Cross Fork Creek just a short distance downstream from Yochum Run. Cherry Run is just over 2 miles in length and supports a Class A population of brook trout.
Section 3 of Cross Fork Creek begins at Rhulo Hollow and continues downstream to the mouth of Windfall Run 1.89 miles below. In this area, Cross Fork Creek is more than 15 feet wide in some places and has some deeper holding water. Windfall Run enters Cross Fork Creek near the intersection of Cross Fork Road and Windfall Road. Windfall Run is the longest tributary in the Cross Fork drainage at over 6.25 miles in length.
A gravel road runs parallel to much of this little stream, but it’s far enough away to provide a quiet fishing experience if you are willing to hike down the mountainside, which can be steep in some parts. Windfall is brook trout water and entirely on state forest land. The mouth of Windfall Run marks the lower limit of Class A water on Cross Fork Creek.
Just below Camp Savage Lane, Elk Lick Run joins Cross Fork Creek and is the last Class A stream in this sub-watershed. Elk Lick is a small stream that begins on the south slope of Elk Lick Knob and flows for 4 miles. Elk Lick Run averages 6 to 8 feet in width and has a population of wild brook trout. If you hike upstream from the mouth, a careful eye will reveal what are the ruins of an old fish hatchery that ceased operations many years ago.
Lower Kettle Creek
The lower section of Kettle Creek begins at the mouth of Cross Fork Creek, and continues to the mouth on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. The most famous of the tributaries to the Kettle in this section is the Hammersley Fork. Hammersley flows for approximately 10 miles, but only the upper 7 miles from the headwaters to the mouth of the Nelson Branch meets Class A criteria. Hopefully that changes over the next few years because of recent improvements. The attraction to the Hammersley is its wild, remote character, and it has been appropriately designated as the 30,253-acre Hammersley Wild Area. This is the largest area of Pennsylvania that isn’t intersected by any kind of a road. The Hammersley Fork begins northeast of Elk Lick Knob in Black Mark Hollow and flows south to its mouth on Kettle Creek a few miles downstream from the town of Cross Fork. The Class A section of Hammersley Fork is also designated as a Wilderness Stream.
Years ago, the Hammersley rerouted its course from the original stream channel to the dirt road that ran parallel to the stream below the Nelson Branch. Access to the camps and cabins below the Nelson Branch required driving in the altered streambed to get to them. Recent efforts have rerouted Hammersley Fork back into its original channel, which is a monumental effort, and should improve wild trout habitat in the damaged section in the years to come.
The Hammersley Fork holds a special place in my heart, as I caught my first native brook trout there almost 50 years ago on a Female Adams dry fly. I’ve spent many days camped along it in the decades since then.
The Nelson Branch flows for 5.38 miles to its mouth on the Hammersley at the site of a long-gone village that existed only during the logging boom era more than 100 years ago. The Nelson Branch is brook trout water that is seldom wider than 8 to 12 feet. Access to the Nelson Branch is a long hike, and I often wonder why it hasn’t been classified as a Wilderness Stream.
Indian Camp Run joins Kettle a mile below the mouth of Hammersley and is a tiny stream that is just over a mile in length. While it’s too small to interest most anglers, it does support a Class A population of wild brook trout. Almost 97 percent of the stream is on private land.
Trout Run is a Class A sub-watershed in the Kettle Creek drainage and is created by the confluence of the Calhoun and Greene branches just above where Wykoff and Trout Run roads meet. The Calhoun is a small stream that is seldom wider than 10 feet and has a Class A Wild population of brook trout and is easily accessible. The Calhoun Branch is 2.59 miles long and is on state forest land. Trout Run is 3.14 miles long from its headwaters to its mouth on Kettle just south of Kettle Creek Road. Ninety percent of Trout Run is located on state forest land and is easily accessed via Trout Run Road, which runs along the stream. While this is designated as Class A Wild brook trout water, there are a fair number of browns here also.
The John Summerson Branch joins Trout Run near its midpoint. This is a small stream that is designated as Class A Wild brook trout water and a Wilderness Trout Stream, with the entire stream length located in the Hammersley Wild Area. Two and a half miles below the mouth of Trout Run is the Beaverdam Run sub-watershed, which is comprised of a Left Fork, Right Fork, and the main stream. All three of these are Class A Wild streams with populations of brook trout. Elk are a common sight in this section of the watershed. The Right Fork is 3.48 miles long and is easily accessed by Beaver Dam Road. The Left Fork joins about two thirds of the way down from the headwaters and is a small stream of only 1.68 miles. Access is by hiking upstream from the mouth. Beaverdam Run is only 1.78 miles long but is a good-sized mountain stream that averages 10 to 12 feet in width, and the majority of it is within Sproul State Forest.
The last Class A stream in the Kettle Creek watershed is Twomile Run, which interestingly is almost 4½ miles long. The upper 2.58 miles above the Middle Branch is designated as Class A Wild brook trout water and is within Sproul State Forest. Acid mine drainage flows into Twomile Run in its upper reaches, and parts of the stream in years past were a sickening orange flow of water. Those problems are rapidly improving, thanks to the efforts of the Kettle Creek Watershed Association and Trout Unlimited.
If your travels take you to north-central Pennsylvania and the Kettle Creek watershed, there are many places to stay, from cabin rentals, to state park campsites, and remote camping on state forest lands with a permit. The little village of Cross Fork offers a few places to get a beer and a burger and fuel up your car or truck. Cellular service here is limited, so bring good maps and know how to use them. A compass is important for finding your way around.
There is always the chance of encountering a timber rattlesnake here in the warmer months, so a little caution can go a long way. If you choose to camp, be sure to follow precautions to avoid inviting bears and other animals to your camp. If you enjoy exploring small mountain streams and wild trout, this is an incredible place to take a short fly rod and a simple box of flies for a long walk.
Tackle & Hatches for the Kettle Creek Drainage
The Class A tributaries and the upper reaches of Kettle Creek are small streams that are mostly located in wooded areas. For my own fishing I prefer to use shorter fly rods of 6½ to 7 feet, which are more practical than longer rods due to the often cramped casting quarters. A shorter rod is easier to manage walking through the woods, and provides more opportunities to present flies with a conventional overhead or sidearm cast. My favorite rods for these waters are mostly bamboo or fiberglass.
Since you may be casting only a leader and a short length of fly line most of the time, a short 7½-foot leader tapered to a 4X tippet is the perfect choice. I tie my own with a long, stiff butt section to drive a fly into tight quarters, a short transition section, and just enough tippet to get a good drag-free drift. If you prefer to purchase tapered leaders, a 6-foot Scientific Anglers Absolute Creek Trout Leader with 18 inches of 4X tippet works fine.
In this watershed, you can expect to see many of the popular insect hatches that you see on larger waters, but they will show up two or three weeks later than on lower-elevation waters that warm earlier in the season. The Quill Gordon hatch usually kicks off near the end of April, followed by Hendricksons and Early Blue Quills one to two weeks later. March Browns, Cahills, Sulphurs, and Slate Drakes are common, and one of the key hatches is the Little Yellow Sally stoneflies.
While I always enjoy the game of cracking the code during an emergence, these tributary waters usually do not require specific imitations for successful fishing. My own fly boxes for these waters contain mostly hairwing dry flies like the Ausable Wulff, my own Little Yellow Stone, and some X-Caddis. I often fish dry/dropper combinations with a small tungsten beadhead nymph such as a Hares-ear or Pheasant Tail suspended below a high-floating dry fly. When a downstream presentation makes better sense, I rely on a few traditional wet fly and North Country Spider patterns. There are also times when a small, size 10 or 12 hairwing streamer is very effective.
Twomile Run Recovery
Gurgling its way through Sproul State Forest, Twomile Run sure looks the part of a trout-choked Appalachian brookie stream. But until not too long ago, parts of it ran a putrid orange color—poisoned by acidic mine drainage from abandoned coal mines. Its waters were among the roughly 13,000 stream miles rendered lifeless throughout Appalachian coal country.
But thanks to the impact of multiple passive systems engineered to treat the runoff, Twomile Run has made a dramatic comeback. In 2014, after the final passive treatment system had been given some time to work, a team of Trout Unlimited (TU) stream restoration specialists showed up at Twomile Run with electrofishing gear and cautious optimism.
“Forty brook trout were observed that day,” recalled Amy Wolfe, who oversees TU’s Northeast Coldwater Habitat Program. “That included many young-of-the-year trout, as well as some adults up to 8 inches. It was really exciting.”
With approximately $4 million in grants, TU, in partnership with the Kettle Creek Watershed Association and others, constructed nine passive treatment systems to mitigate mine drainage in the Twomile Run watershed. TU installed a total of nine passive treatment systems: one on Middle Branch, one near the headwaters of Twomile Run, and seven in Robbins Hollow. Brook trout have returned to Twomile Run, as well as Middle Branch and Robbins Hollow. The polluted mine runoff works its way through a series of small ponds, where interaction between limestone and organic material helps neutralize the acidity of the water. Over time, the water turned clear, and brook trout moved from headwaters and into the restored stream section.
Addressing abandoned mine drainage is a long game. It can be difficult and costly to locate the sources of the drainage, and then it can take years to plan and implement projects.
“We continue to monitor and maintain the passive treatment systems, and we continue to find thriving brook trout in Twomile Run,” Wolfe said.
Twomile Run is one of a number of success stories, including the remarkable recovery of dozens of miles of the upper reaches of the West Branch of the Susquehanna, which was once nearly completely devoid of life but now holds a fishable population of wild brown trout.
And there is room for more victories. It is estimated that 4,000 of Pennsylvania’s 5,500 miles of acid-polluted stream miles have potential to be restored as trout streams. Work to address that effort got a boost with passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021, which allocates nearly $245 million annually to Pennsylvania for abandoned mine cleanup, more than triple the average federal investment the state has been receiving.
“We have been making progress,” Wolfe said. “We are thrilled that we’re going to be able to make even bigger steps toward helping more of these dead streams in Pennsylvania once again become healthy trout streams.”
Henry Ramsay is a photographer, custom fly tier, and a fly-fishing and fly-tying instructor. He is the author of Matching Major Eastern Hatches: New Patterns for Selective Trout (Stackpole/Headwater Books, 2011) and coauthor of Keystone Fly Fishing (Headwater Books, 2017).