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Exploring the Hickory Creek Wilderness

Ralph fly fishing Hickory Creek

In 1984, the United States Congress designated 8,663 acres in northwestern Pennsylvania as the Hickory Creek Wilderness. The purpose of this designation is to preserve and protect lands that have not been altered by human encroachment. Here there are no modern conveniences or facilities, only forest, and through it all runs a network of pristine streams ripe for exploration.

Hickory Creek Wilderness is bound by Forest Road 119 to the south and State Route 2002 and State Route 3005 to the north. Within the wilderness, you’ll find the headwaters of one of my favorite little trout streams, East Hickory Creek. Downstream of the bridge on Forest Road 119, East Hickory Creek is stocked with trout by the PA Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC). No stocking is done upstream from that bridge. A few stocked fish inevitably work their way up into the wilderness, but the primary quarry above the bridge is wild trout.

Numerous named and unnamed feeder creeks enter East Hickory Creek throughout the wilderness. The main ones are Camp Run and Jacks Run. Also, a little over 2 miles upstream from Forest Road 119, Middle Hickory Creek joins East Hickory from the east. If you continue exploring up Middle Hickory Creek, you’ll find more small feeder creeks, such as Coon Run.

None of these streams receive a Class A designation from the PFBC, but that doesn’t mean wild trout aren’t present. Many of these streams have never been surveyed by biologists.

Hickory Creek Wilderness Trails Register, Maps, and Signs

In my experience fishing here, it seems wild trout populations fluctuate quite a bit depending on water levels and other factors. For instance, during drought years (such as the summer of 2020), some of these already-small feeder creeks all but dry up, so most of the trout move down into the main stem. But as water levels come up again in the fall and throughout winter, you can find wild trout almost anywhere throughout Hickory Creek Wilderness.

The main key to success when fishing the Hickory Creek Wilderness is stealth. Fishing pressure here is very slight, and the trout are sensitive to any intrusion. When approaching potential holding water, keep low and creep within casting distance. I’ve always found it helpful to get into position and then wait a few seconds before making a cast just to observe what’s going on in the pool in front of me.

East Hickory Creek and Middle Hickory Creek have plenty of quality trout habitat. You’ll find lots of undercut banks and deep pools with woody debris and structure. If you’re patient, and lucky, sometimes you can catch a nice trout feeding in a part of the pool that’s accessible. Even still, I’ve had numerous occasions when I was able to get up on a pool and land a cast close enough to a structure and a good-sized trout shot out from under it to take my fly. Of course, a good-sized trout in these streams might be only 7 inches long…if you’re lucky.

Hickory Creek Wilderness can also be accessed via one trailhead located along State Route 2002 near the Heart’s Content Recreation Area. There a designated parking area with a well-marked map of the wilderness as well as a display board with various notices and items of interest. One poster that I’m particularly fond of includes a quote from the Wilderness Act of 1984 and reads: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The hiking trail throughout the wilderness is a 12-mile loop with minimal signage and is only moderately maintained. If exploring the trail, be sure to have a paper copy of the trail map or a GPS on hand. Do not rely on your cell phone. Reception in this area is poor if you can get any reception at all. Also, be sure to carry a few survival items, such as matches and an extra set of clothing, just in case the unexpected happens, and always let someone know where you’re going beforehand.

Hickory Creek Trail Sign

A great overnight trip to Hickory Creek Wilderness is to pack some light camping gear and hike in from the trailhead. The trail loop intersects several creeks that you can camp near and fish. No permit is required to enjoy Hickory Creek Wilderness. Just be sure to leave no trace behind when you leave.

You can also find a small camping area near the trail head, at the Heart’s Content Recreation Area. There are also picnic tables and shelters available.

The Hickory Creek Wilderness has always piqued my sense of adventure, and each time I’ve fished there, or even just hiked the trails, I’ve found enough to make me want to return. In this time of technology and fast-paced living, it’s important to “unplug” and return to the forest where life moves at its own pace.

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