A woman fly fishing in a river

Fishing Pittsburgh’s Little Juniata River

Cast for wild brown trout in central PA.

The Little Juniata River is arguably the best wild trout stream in Pennsylvania, with some 3,000 catchable-size trout per mile. So pack up your fly rod and reel and head east from Pittsburgh for the catch. Before you do, purchase a fishing license as a way to thank a previous generation of anglers for the opportunity.

Like so many rivers in the East, the history of the Little J is that of environmental destruction and then recovery. The first people to fish it were the Onojutta-Haga, which is where the name Juniata comes from. When European settlers and industry arrived, the Little J was turned into a literal sewer. With the addition of tanneries and a paper mill, the river became heavily polluted. But with the 1972 Clean Water Act and then with local advocacy by the Little Juniata River Association, the river’s health has come back and so have the brown trout.

The river is fed in part by limestone springs, creating the cool temperatures and pH that are perfect for a thriving insect and trout population. Most come here to fish for the stream-born browns. You can fly fish the Little J year-round, but avoid November so you don’t negatively impact the spawn. There is usually something hatching in every season, though spring (mid-April in particular) brings the caddis fly hatch followed by sulphur mayflies in May and June. Brown trout are wild but not native to the Little J (or North America, for that matter) but large tributaries of the Little J have populations of native brook trout. If you aren’t an experienced angler, there are local outfitters who will guide you.

Recommended Section: Ironville to Frankstown Branch

The best fishing section of the 32-mile Little J is the 14-mile, catch-and-release stretch between the village of Ironville to the confluence of the Frankstown Branch (before you reach Petersburg). You can wade the entire river; access it from any number of pullouts along state Route 453 east of Tyrone. If you plan to fish from a boat, ask permission to put in at the Spruce Creek United Method Church parking lot at the confluence of Spruce Creek and the Little J. The section of river downstream from Spruce Creek is a roadless area in Rothrock State Forest. It’s the most scenic section, with limestone cliffs and deep green pools, but also the most heavily fished stretch. Note that just downstream of Spruce Creek is private property, so be sure to access it by boat or wade it; do not take out or fish from the bank here.

While you’re in the area, you can also hike a section of the 324-mile Mid-State Trail, which goes right through Rothrock State Forest and crosses the Little Juniata in Barree. Stay alert for other wildlife encounters outside the river: This stretch often lives up to its billing as a place where you’ll see more bears than people.

More Info 


Getting There 

From Pittsburgh, take U.S. 22 east to Interstate 99 north to Tyrone, which is just upstream of the catch-and-release section of the Little Juniata River. It’s a two-hour drive.


Spruce Creek Tavern is a stone’s throw from the river access at Spruce Creek United Methodist Church. Be sure to try the wings and fries combo. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.