Anglers from surrounding states fish it, even visitors from out of the country have dipped a line in it. It’s a famous trout stream and it’s here in our own backyard.
The Little Lehigh Creek, all 25.4 mainstem stream miles of it, is a year-round trout fishery that beckons avid fly fishers and during the trout season, bait fishermen of all ages. In fact a portion of it is even designated as Class A Wild Trout waters.
The Little Lehigh gets it beginnings in Longswamp Township, Berks County where it starts as a freestone creek but eventually transforms into a limestone stream. It is initially fed by Toad Creek, which has its origins in Maxatawny Township, Berks County, but only meets the Little Lehigh just across the border in Lehigh County.
A few years back I met an elderly gentleman at the Lehigh Valley Hunting and Fishing Extravaganza in Kempton who said the Little Lehigh begins from a spring(s) on his Mertztown property. He offered to show me his spring and I was going to do a column on him and the site but for the life of me, I could not find the piece of paper where I jotted his name and phone number. (I’ve recently whittled it down to either the Rohrback or Savage farms in Mertztown). It would have been an interesting historical piece.
From its tiny trickle, shallow, pasture-like formation in Longswamp, the Little Lehigh meanders downstream through Upper and Lower Macungie, Weisenberg and Salisbury townships and through the city of Allentown where it ends its journey after merging with the Jordan Creek in Allentown near Basin Street. From there it’s a short flow to where it empties into the big Lehigh River below the Hamilton Street Dam.
Along the way, the Little Lehigh has six tributaries that feed it. There’s the Cedar, Jordan, Leibert, Spring and Swabia (also called Swope Creek) creeks. During hot, dry summer days, the Jordan in places dry’s up and that flow ceases until we get some appreciable rain.
But this famed trout stream has had some degradation over the years. Lee Fetzer, an avid outdoorsman from Emmaus and longtime friend, has seen the creek change over the years since he started fishing it as a kid. According to Fetzer, the creek has widened from flooding and wear and its water level is lower. The latter is attributed, he thought, to the many home sites that have been built along its path and where wells are drilled, it lowers the water table. That, and siltation has taken its toll as well, according to Fred Mussel, retired Lehigh County WCO of 28 years.
And unbeknown to a lot of casual anglers, the Little Lehigh held a variety of fish aside from its native trout population that’s scattered along its long journey to the Lehigh. During a July 23, 1996 study by the Pennsylvania Fish Commission, as it was known at the time, biologists found rock bass, pumpkinseeds, bluegills, blacknose dace, longnose Dace, cutlips minnows, creek chubs, tessellated darter and suckers. Then on August 27, 2004, they collected largemouth bass, green sunfish, pumpkinseeds, bluegill, spottail shiner, comely shiner, blacknose dace, cutlips minnows, creek chubs, tessellated darter and white suckers. In contrast, on July 31, 2003, only brook, brown and rainbow trout were found during their shocking operation.
If you enter Lehigh Parkway off Lehigh Street, you may notice a UHF band antenna and solar panel located at the first bridge over the Little Lehigh. It’s a gauging telemetry unit operated by the Bureau of Water Standards of DEP. It measures water flow and water height daily and transmits the data back to a DEP computer. On March 19, 2013, water height was at 2.50 feet and discharge or flow rate was about 130 fps. If these records were kept back in the 30s, it’s highly probable that both numbers would be higher.
The Wildlands Conservancy has done a wonderful job of attempting to restore and maintain the Little Lehigh before it degrades even further. Interestingly, the Bureau of Water Standards reports that the current land use in this watershed consists of mostly single family residential (40 percent), forested areas (25 percent) while the rest is a mix of cropland (15 percent), pasture (10 percent), industrial (5 percent) and commercial (5 percent).
In light of this, what the creek doesn’t need is more residential development but that is difficult to curb as townships are forced to grant permits or face costly civil suits by developers.
Today, the Little Lehigh remains one of Lehigh County’s natural resource jewels despite the fact that the City of Allentown draws a portion of its drinking water from it. It is and hopefully will always be, a treasured trout fishery that started from a pristine spring, 25 miles away.
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