As an angler, I first heard of French Creek because of its reputation for producing huge walleyes, usually in the wintertime.
A friend of mine, the late Bob Romanishin of Waterford, caught a 13-pound 4-ounce walleye there in February of 2002. Only a handful of waters anywhere give up 12- or 13-pound walleyes with any regularity, but the fact that French Creek is not much larger than the Little Juniata River is even more remarkable.
In recent years, however, French Creek showed up on my radar screen more often for its reputation as a remarkable natural resource and, as leading researchers have called it, "one of Pennsylvania's foremost aquatic treasures. And it certainly is just that.
French Creek begins in Chautauqua County, New York, and winds its way south for 117 miles through Erie, Crawford, Mercer and Venango counties in Pennsylvania to its junction with the Allegheny River at the town of Franklin. Geologist believe that French Creek actually flowed north to the St. Lawrence River before the glaciers of the last ice age retreated around 15,000 years ago and changed its course to the present southerly flow.
George Washington named French Creek in 1753 when he used the waterway to travel to a fort in the region maintained by the French. In colonial times, French Creek was an important trade route between the Great Lakes and the Allegheny River.
What makes French Creek such an ecological marvel is the incredible amount of bio-diversity it contains. Eighty-nine species of fish in habit this waterway, including 15 species of darters, which are small bottom-dwelling fish that are generally intolerant of pollution. French creek supports 27 species of freshwater mussels, 17 of which are classified as species of special concern and two are on the endangered species list.
But what brought me to French Creek for the first time last weekend weren't any of the rare or unique life forms it supports, but rather a creature that I am quite familiar with - the smallmouth bass. My friend and fellow outdoor writer, Darl Black lives near French Creek, and he had invited me to come to Crawford County to fish for bass there from my kayak.
I was eagerly looking forward to the trip, especially in the week before, as Darl e-mailed me with glowing reports about the stream conditions. Now, I'm not overly superstitious, but I've been in the fishing game long enough to know things like that can change in a hurry. Sure enough, just a few days before I was supposed to leave, a series of major rainstorms swept through western Pennsylvania turned French Creek into a muddy, torrent.
When I arrived, French Creek was still somewhat higher than normal and quite dirty. Darl offered to steer me to some better looking water, since there is an abundance of great fishing spots around Crawford County.
But I decided to stick to our original plan and kayak French Creek at least one day since I had come all that way to do so. I was glad I did.
The off-color water didn't bother me that much, because my experience closer to home on the Juniata had taught me how to catch summertime smallmouths in dirty water. I was confident the French Creek bass would respond the same way. I started with a tube and some other soft-plastic baits, but after fishing a quarter mile or so without a strike, I was back into the tackle bag.
Eyeing an good-looking bank just downstream, I tied on one of my favorite crankbaits in such a situation - a Cotton Cordell Big O in firetiger. That bait brought a strike on the second cast but I didn't hook the fish. About three casts later, a nice bass hammered the bait, along with two shortly after that.
Landing a few bass was a welcome relief and allowed me to relax and enjoy the surrounding of this special waterway. Blue herons and Canada geese were common sights, of course, but I also spotted a little green heron and an oriole between casts.
Coming around a bend, I surprised a group of softshell turtles basking there, all of which quickly slid of bank and disappeared into the current. Later in the afternoon, I twice saw a bald eagle.
I managed to catch a dozen bass or so by the time I arrived at my designated take-out point. The largest was a little over 17 inches, and I lost one that was even bigger. I also caught one walleye about 15 inches long. I have no doubt I could easily caught three times as many fish had the water been clearer.
Before dinner that evening, I met Andy Walker, the Director of the Northwest Office of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. He is an expert on the French Creek watershed, and I inquired about what is being done to preserve and protect the creek. He explained on the challenges is there are no obvious threats in the French Creek Valley to the casual observer that represent a "call to action."
Walker said, "Our tributaries don't run orange with acid mine drainage, residential or commercial development isn't gobbling up acre after acre of open space, and so forth.
Our threats are of a creeping, yet cumulative, nature - poor agriculture or timbering practices, improper urban storm-water management, improper septic management. These less obvious and less visible impacts make citizen awareness and engagement a particular challenge. Couple that with a lack of awareness or outright taking for granted of the tremendous recreation, fishing, ecosystem service resource we have in French Creek, and we have our work cut out for us."
French Creek truly is an aquatic treasure, and it's satisfying to know there are many concerned organizations and individuals who are looking after it.