Try Clarion River for a trout-bass-paddling trip
By Freddie McKnight
With the increased popularity of canoes and kayaks, finding a new place to paddle and fish adds to the adventure. If you are the adventuresome type, and are looking for a new destination to try out, turn toward the northwest section of the state and target the Clarion River.
Stretching about 110 miles, from Johnsonburg in Elk County to its juncture with the Allegheny River a few miles from Foxburg in Clarion County, the river winds southwestward through many sections of public ground where anglers can get out along the shorelines with hassle.
Not all that long ago the river was one of the most polluted waters in the state, a victim of acid mine drainage from old, unreclaimed coal mines. That problem has been resolved, for the most part, and the water now runs clean with healthy populations of trout and bass to test an angler’s abilities.
There is also a growing population of walleyes in the lower stretches of the river.
For the most part the Clarion is a lazy waterway, made up of deeper pools and small sections of shallow rocks. There are Class 2 rapids found on the river during higher water periods in the spring, but during the summer months these same areas may make it necessary for anglers to drag their watercraft through these shallow areas rather than paddle.
Don’t let that be a discouragement though, as the fishing is well worth the effort.
This river may hold the best overall average size for brook trout in the state. This, along with a good population of browns and rainbows, should be a draw to any trout fisherman.
Any standard approach to fishing for trout will work, with fly-fishing and using spinners the two top ways to catch these fish. Working near the bottom is always best, with anglers targeting the top end and tail sections of the pools.
Anglers can also cast to isolated current breaks caused by rocks and trees in the water to find these fish. One other location, which is often overlooked by anglers, are cut-away banks. These pockets up under the shoreline serve as protection from the area’s many eagles while providing great ambush points for the trout.
The browns seem to prefer this type of environment more than the other two species Be prepared to have a hard time convincing the fish to stay out of that location once hooked. There have been many a good fish snapped off because of the line rubbing against exposed root systems.
Smallmouth bass enjoy this cool water river, with most of the fish averaging less than 12 inches during the summer months. On light line, they provide tons of excitement when hooked up and are not that hard to catch if you use something that represents a crayfish.
While some anglers will catch them on spinners while seeking trout, most anglers targeting smallies will be using jigs of some sort or small crayfish-like crankbaits for best results.
When targeting smallmouths, look for some sort of current break associated with deeper water. This will be an especially attractive location if there is a shadow in that spot.
The bass position themselves to ambush prey as it comes by, so it is important to present your bait in a natural way by casting upstream of the target and allowing your bait to sweep by. It may take several casts to the area to get it right, so if you are in a watercraft, have an anchoring system handy to use to hold you in a stable position.
Another key area to fish is where any of the dozens of spring fed tributaries connect with the river. The cold water runoffs can focus fish of any species into a small area where they congregate with the river, especially during the warm water months of summer.
They provide much-needed heat relief and oxygen and are in high demand by the fish in years of drought.
If you don’t have a canoe or kayak, it is no problem because there are many access points where shore-bound anglers can enjoy. A word of caution though, the bottom of this river can be very slippery, so a wading staff is a good piece of equipment to have along.
Also the clear water can be deceiving in that the water may not look as deep as it really is. Taking a wrong step can put you in a dire situation, especially during the higher water periods of spring when the current is the strongest.
There are numerous amenities located in this region that will accommodate anyone traveling to the area for their adventure. Camping is popular, and some adventurous anglers spend an entire weekend on the water, pulling out along the river to spend the night before resuming their fishing the next day.
This may not be for everyone, but it is an adventure waiting to happen for those not wanting to travel far to find it.
Paddling the river
The Clarion River meanders through narrow valleys and hardwood forests for 110 miles, flowing from Johnsonburg through Cook Forest to Clarion and ultimately joining the Allegheny River near Foxburg.
Nearly 52 miles of the river have been designated as scenic and recreational under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
Each section of the Clarion River Water Trail has a unique character.
The East and West branches of the river flow together at Johnsonburg to form the main Clarion River, which then continues on to Ridgway. This section of the river offers fantastic trophy brown trout fishing.
From here, the river begins its stretch of scenic and recreational sections, and as it continues southwest and begins to widen, it borders state game lands and the Allegheny National Forest.
Below Spring Creek, the Clarion River borders River Road, which offers a scenic drive and easy access to the river and some limited campsites in the Allegheny National Forest.
Clear Creek State Park has a riverside campground, cabins, and canoe access, and the section of the river between Johnsonburg and Clear Creek State Park provides anglers with miles of exceptional trout and smallmouth bass fishing.
The river slows as you near Cook Forest State Park, and this section is popular for family recreation.
Downstream from Cooksburg to Mill Creek, the river’s final federally designated stretch returns to a primitive state with limited access and more challenges as it borders Cook Forest and state game lands and flows into the calm deep water of Piney Reservoir.
The Toby Boat Launch and Route 322 bridge launch near the borough of Clarion provide reservoir access to power boaters, paddlers, and anglers alike.
The lower section of the Clarion River below Piney Dam has fewer public access points, but paddlers can put in or take out at Deer Creek as well as the state Route 58 Bridge in Callensburg.
The Clarion then joins the Allegheny River between Foxburg and Parker on the Clarion/Armstrong County line.
LOCATION: The Clarion River stretches 110 miles from Johnsonburg, Elk County, to its juncture with the Allegheny River near Foxburg, Clarion County.
SPECIES: Trout, smallmouth bass, walleyes
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: There are Class 2 rapids found on the river during high water periods in the spring.
Dozens of spring-fed tributaries connect with the river. Those cold-water inputs can focus fish of any species in a small area when the weather is hot and the river runs warm.
There are many access points for shore-bound anglers.
Camping is popular and you can spend an entire weekend on the water, pulling out along the river to spend the night.