Lake of a Lifetime by S. James Miller

photos-courtesy of the author

My lifelong relationship with Laurel Hill State Park began in 1959 during the US Steel strike when my Dad decided we should go camping. On that trip, when I was nine years old, my Dad taught me to fish.

Kids fishing
The author (foreground) at age 9, fishing at Laurel Hill State Park in 1959.

The mist rises around us in the dim, gray early morning light as our canoe glides across the mirror-green lake. The bubbling of the trilling motor is the only sound as we near our favorite spot at the mouth of Laurel Creek. It is late May, and although the days are sunny and warm, the mornings are still cold. We can see our breath, but we barely notice because we anticipate catching trout.

This is only the second year my wife, Debbie, and I have fished together, although we have been married for 18 years and she has turned out to be a pretty good, enthusiastic angler. I am only too happy to share Laurel Hill Lake with her, a lake that has been a part of my life since I cast my first worm in the water.

Laurel Hill State Park is located in Somerset County. It contains a relatively small, 65-acre lake that was built by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in the 1930s. The federal government gave the park to the state of Pennsylvania in 1945. My lifelong relationship with the park began in 1959 during the US Steel strike when my Dad decided we should go camping. He borrowed an umbrella tent and bought some basic equipment, including a stove and lantern, and the adventure began. On that trip, when I was nine years old, my Dad taught me to fish.

He started me off with an old rod and baitcasting reel, with what must have been 50-pound line and a plastic bucket for my catch. I remember distinctly his standing beside me and telling me to be patient.

"Wait until the bobber goes all the way under," he said.

I also remember how hard it was to cast the bobber out more than 15 feet with that old rod and reel, and how I just knew the bigger ones were just a little farther out.

It wasn't long before I was reeling in sunfish and bluegills along with the occasional crappie. I'd toss them into my bucket and run back up to the campsite to show off my catch before running back down to the creek to release the monsters. Even my two younger sisters were impressed. I spent hours along the creek concentrating on those fish, and I tried a little of everything for bait, including corn, doughballs and grasshoppers. My Dad would occasionally walk down to give me encouragement. It turns out he wasn't much of a fisherman himself, but from his limited experience fishing the river, he always said nightcrawlers were the best bait.

"When in doubt, use a nightcrawler," he said. "A nightcrawler can catch anything."

We swam in Laurel Hill Lake, we picnicked along the lake, we hiked around the lake, and I fished the lake. For many summers the lake was the center of our family's activities. We met lots of nice people and bought our very own tent the next year. We never had a boat, though, and I still remember watching the few boats on the lake with great envy. My fishing was always limited to the shore or below the spillway. Even at an early age, I believed the boat fishermen were somehow a notch above us lowly shore fishermen. After all, out there was where the big ones were.

College interrupted my fishing obsession. The excitement of living away from home for the first time and the demands of trying to learn something during the Age of Aquarius, the late 1960s and early 1970s, left little time for fishing. During the summers, I worked to earn money for tuition, so for four years fishing took a back seat.

When I graduated I had a new fishing experience. My brother, Dave, is 11 years younger than I am, and suddenly the little guy I'd harassed and knocked around had become a fishing buddy. If anything, he was crazier for fishing than I was. After fishing together for trout and bass in streams and creeks for a few years, we went together and bought an old canoe, complete with trolling motor, paddles, life jackets and homemade anchors. The entire outfit cost us $350. We headed straight for Laurel Hill. After years of wishing, I was finally out on the water in a boat and with my brother to boot.

We were amazed at the variety of fish we caught at Laurel: Bluegills, crappies, perch, smallmouths, catfish, and of course, our favorite, trout. We learned every inch of Laurel Hill Lake, from the weed bed along the beach to the channel leading to the spillway. Every fallen tree became a familiar friend, and we even had names for some of our favorite spots, like "Bass Alley" and "Perch Point." On one of our early trips, I was fishing a small spoon when my ultralight was almost ripped out of my hands. After a long fight I landed a 25-inch northern pike!

Yes, there are pike at Laurel, too, and now when we get bored during the heat of the day, we troll for pike. The biggest we ever landed was almost 36 inches, although most are much smaller. It doesn't matter because nothing attacks a lure like a northern. We've lost enough lures to prove it.

We've caught some good-sized carp, too, fishing with live bait and bobbers. That's another fish that's no small challenge to land with an ultralight and 4-pound test.

As time went on, we brought others to Laurel on our combination camping and fishing trips. The park has a beautiful, modern campground for trailers and tents, and we've taken nephews, nieces, cousins and friends out on Laurel Hill Lake in our trusty canoe. Knowing the lake as we do, we have always been able to find the right spot for every 9- to 10-year-old in the family to catch a fish. Somehow watching them lets me recapture the anticipation and excitement I felt nearly 40 years ago as I sat on the bank with my plastic bucket.

In recent years, we started going fishing for a weekend in June with Mike and Doug, our brothers-in-law. We also take an annual fall camping trip in early October. Fishing all day and sitting around a crackling campfire at night is a great way to become a tighter family.

Like any other fishing spot, Laurel can run hot and cold. Dave and I have fished all day without a bite, and we've also had some legendary trips in spring when everyone has limited out.

Today the fishing is kind of slow for Debbie and me. We've tried lures and mealworms without success and the sun's getting hotter.

"What should we try now?" Debbie asks.

"When in doubt, use a nightcrawler", I advise. "A nightcrawler can catch anything."

Author and friends
The author (left) with his brother, Dave (2nd from left), and brothers-in-law Mike (2nd from right) and Doug during their annual June weekend fishing trip to Laurel Hill State Park.

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January/February 1999 PA Angler & Boater

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