While we were growing up in west-central Pennsylvania, the Kiskiminetas River was the orange-stained, shallow river we crossed in Apollo on the way to Pittsburgh. Even at an early age I pondered what a great smallmouth bass river this could be, given its extensive riffles and pools, if not for the dreadful effects of extensive pollution. Thanks to the efforts of several watershed and conservation groups, during the past two decades that question has been answered. The Kiski has experienced a remarkable comeback, so much so that it’s now a destination for anglers, kayakers and canoeists.
The Kiski River watershed accounts for 16 percent of the Allegheny River drainage. It’s formed in Saltsburg, where the Conemaugh River and Loyalhana Creek converge. From there if flows for 27 miles, bordered by mill towns, including Vandergrift, Avonmore. Leechburg and Apollo.
For decades the Kiski River was dramatically degraded by industrial pollutants, wastewater and abandoned mine drainage. The steel industry has largely vanished from the region. AMD, the long-reaching ill from the days of unregulated coal mining, has, in many cases, been addressed by active and passive treatment facilities. In addition to reduction of pollutants entering the Kiski River proper, much of its recovery has been due to work done within the Conemaugh River drainage, such as AMD treatment facilities on tributaries including Neal Run, Reeds Run and Gray Run. Though Loyalhanna Creek has some issues in its lower end, including mine seeps, in general the majority of the Kiski’s negative influences have been from the Conemaugh River.
Stream assessment efforts by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, as well as the Conemaugh Valley Conservancy and California University of Pennsylvania, document the recovery of the watershed during the past two-plus decades.
According to a report authored by Melissa Reckner, former Kiski-Conemaugh Stream Team Director, the state Department of Environmental Resources (now DEP) surveyed the Kiski River near its mouth in 1980 and found no fish, only one frog.
“When the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission repeated that survey in 2015, 286 individuals of 28 species were collected,” Reckner said. “This included pollution intolerant species such as Mooneye and Brook Silverside.”
Reckner also noted that the Kiski (as well as the Conemaugh) is at a crossroads, one where the rivers could potentially backslide.
“We remain at a tipping point in that our waterways could revert to their former, nearly lifeless states if existing AMD treatments are not maintained, or if laws and regulations are relaxed to the point that industrial discharges degrade our waterways, or if new forms of resource extraction are not closely monitored and held to high standards,” she said. “On the other hand, more improvements could be seen with a few more nudges in the right direction.”
My own experiences on the Kiski verify that if fishes well, similar to other free-flowing warm-water Pennsylvania rivers. However, it is subject to widely varying flows, since federal flood control reservoirs exist on both the Conemaugh River and Loyalhanna Creek. Rainwater is held back during periods of wet weather; subsequent releases following these high water events often elevate the Kiski to an unfishable level. I’ve found the best fishing conditions to be when the river is running in the 4ﾽ- to 6ﾽ-foot level at the USGS gage at Vandergrift.
The lower mile or so of the Kiski, from its merger with the Allegheny, is within the backwaters created by Allegheny River Lock and Dam 4. Above this point it’s a free-flowing river. There are no special boating regulations in place. When adequate flow is present I’ve run the lower stretch up to West Leechburg in a jet boat. However, for the most part the Kiski is a paddler’s river. A level of at least 3ﾽ feet at Vandergrift is recommended for a float.
River access is available at Saltsburg (lower end of the Conemaugh River), Roaring River Access (downriver of Avonmore) and North Vandergrift. Just below the Kiski’s merger with the Allegheny, there is a take-out in Freeport, as well as the PFBC access in Freeport a short distance up Buffalo Creek. Additional paddling information can be gleaned from the Kiski-Conemaugh Water Trail, which is linked to the PFBC website (www.fishandboat.com).
In addition to the dramatic improvements in water quality during the past 20 years, the Kiski also benefits from its direct connectivity with the Allegheny. In the lower end of the Kiski we’ve taken smallmouth bass up to 19 inches; most of the walleyes we’ve caught have been legal-sized fish up to 20 inches.