Monday, June 22, 2009

A West Virginia Weekend

West Virginia celebrates statehood on June 20.

I celebrated this weekend with the 4th Annual WVAngler Campout and the Elk River Clean-up. I would meet three fellow WVAnglers at Kumbrabow State Forest, where we would make base camp for the three-day weekend. The original plan was to include my son again, but the previous weekend took a toll on him and he chose to stay at home to recover this weekend.

Without Ross along it would allow me to do more exploring, so my itinerary changed significantly.

The weekend started at 6:00 AM on Friday, with a 3.5-hour drive to camp. I watched radar on the phone for the first three hours (until I lost signal for the remainder of the weekend), as there was a storm headed our way. The rain appeared to be moving to the north of camp, so I quickly set up camp and headed for a quick few minutes on the stream before my fellow WVAnglers were to arrive.
This is where the story gets entertaining!

I arrived at the new, small stream I had on the list to explore with the hopes of finding brook trout. I parked near the mouth, put on my wading boots, grabbed a rod tube, then reached for the large blue tub I keep all of my fishing gear in (pack, flies, reels, hydration bladder, etc.). When I opened the tub I just about lost my breakfast - the identical tub contained my kid's jigsaw puzzles! So, here I was: 3.5 hours from home with two rods and wading shoes but nothing else!

What do you do when life gives you chicken poop? You make chicken salad, of course.

Undeterred, I grabbed my camera and headed up the stream to see if I could at least capture a few brookies with the camera.

The first stream produced two brook trout in the 100 yards I explored, but no photos. I then drove on up the road to the next stream I had planned to explore. Again, I would explore this stream with the camera.

The first thing I found was another gift from the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, in the form of limestone fines.

It didn't take long to verify a decent brookie population in this stream, both above and below the limestone fines dump, but again no photographic proof. With visual verification of the first two streams on my list, I headed back to camp to wait on my company.

While I waited the rain arrived, so I took temporary shelter under the rear hatch of my vehicle. Shortly after the rain started, my friends arrived and we discussed our plans with the current weather conditions. But first I had to explain my gear situation, take a few laughs, and ask for some gear to loan. After everyone was done laughing at me, we all loaded into my vehicle and headed off the mountain to another stream.

While we were in route the rain stopped and by the time we had reached our destination the skies had actually turned to blue. Once at our destination, we cobbled together an outfit for me and what an outfit it was - a 4ft, one-piece bamboo with an old Pflueger Medalist reel!

The stream was a familiar one to me, so I headed up a small trib near the parking area in search of brookies. This small trib typically dries up each year but I had been told that it contained brook trout. I fished a quarter-mile or so with no luck. I was pitching an 18 stimulator into pockets the size of a coffee table, but no luck - I didn't even spook a fish. I am not arrogant enough to believe that because I didn't catch a brookie they weren't in there, but my log will show ZERO.

With another new stream crossed off my list (unsuccessfully), I headed back down the main branch to catch up with my partners. I have fished upstream from the parking area with great success but the lower end where we were fishing has always fished tough.

I did catch a couple of small brookies (no photos) and I also found another eft stage of the red-spotted newt. They always look so good in photographs.
With the fishing slow and nearing dinnertime, we headed back to camp to grab a bite to eat before hitting another stream.

The next stream is where I learned to fish for brookies, it is also where both of my kids caught their first brookie, and where my son caught/landed a brookie on video just a week before.

We hiked down the remnants of an old narrow-gauge railroad bed, left from the logging industry of the early 20th century. When the trail disappeared, we decided it was a good location to start fishing. I picked up three fish quickly in the first two pockets - a good start.

I also recently learned that my underwater video camera also takes super macros. This would be a good place to try the newly discovered mode; I think they turned out decent.

The fishing continued to be good for the remainder of the afternoon, for two of the three of us. My friend with the most experience on this stream (no names to protect the guilty) went back to camp with the smell of skunk.

After a good days fishing and armed with a story of forgotten gear, we decided to head off the mountain again. We would head for the Elk to meet additional WVAngler members and watch the evening hatch. The hatch did not last long, but when the Isonychia spinners appeared they were very heavy.

We watched until well after dark before heading to the Elk River cabin where the remainder of our group was staying. It was an excellent evening of stories and laughter!

The next day started early when the rain beating on my tent woke me shortly after 6:00 AM. Saturday was West Virginia day and the scheduled date of the Elk River clean up, but before the clean-up started I had time to explore another stream.

The stream enters the Elk at this landmark:

The water was low and the pockets small, you can see in the above photo there wasn't much water. I continued up the trickle and the sound of moving water grew louder as I continued upstream. After less than a quarter-mile I ran into the source of the moving water and at this point the gradient of the stream changed SIGNIFICANTLY.

This is what I found:

What I also found was a good bit of this water was tumbling down and straight underground - the reason for the lack of water near the mouth.

I climbed up and over this obstacle, but soon found that this was simply the beginning of the extreme gradient stream. I fished up and over boulder after boulder and did not catch or see any signs of a brook trout. Again, doesn't equate to the lack of brookies, I just could not visually verify their presence.

Even though I told my partners where I was headed, as rugged as it was I didn't think it was too safe to get too far in there. So, after about ninety minutes of scrambling I made the decision to stumble back down. After all, discretion is the better part of valor.

With time to hit one more stream before the clean up started, I headed back down stream. I had gained a recommendation to fish another wild trout tributary, but as I approached the stream the "No Trespassing" signs caught my attention so I moved on. I had a fall back plan, another stream I had fished without success probably 7-8 years earlier. I had been told the fish population had rebounded and I needed to verify.

As I pulled into the parking area the skies opened up again. The fish were already wet and I was there, so I put the DSLR away and grabbed the waterproof camera. I am typically not a jumpy person but when you have your hood up it's like walking in a tunnel. When a deer jumped into my "tunnel" of vision, I nearly came out of my wading shoes!

By the time I got to the water I had about fifteen minutes to fish before I had to head to the clean-up. I had to make the time count, and I did. The first small fish I picked up was a little brown and just above the brown was a brookie with an unusually high concentration of yellow spots.

After I released the brookie, I noticed a trail above me, which seemed a fitting opportunity to head out. I'm not sure one brook trout constitutes a population, but with the reports I have received I have to believe the population is in good shape.

Next on the agenda was the clean up. There were probably 20-30 people in attendance and we were able to clean a couple of miles of stream and road. The stream happened to be in good shape and we finished earlier than planned. The agenda also included lunch, which would consist of BBQ ribs and chicken. I had not been to the clean up in a couple of years but I do remember how good those ribs were. They did not disappoint this year either, they were probably the best ribs I have had anywhere!

Following lunch, I planned to hike into the upper reaches of the Elk where the only access for over four miles is by foot. My destination would be a little over two miles in via the remnants of a railroad track and another new stream for me. Again, I would be solo and when I go solo my mind tends to wander. As I traveled along the tracks and sometimes through a "tunnel" of underbrush, my mind thought of bears and rattlesnakes. I don't know why, I am not the least bit afraid of snakes, but when I caught a glance of movement I jumped back. When I gathered and verified the movement, I was embarrassed to have been scared by a common garter snake!

I calmed down and continued up the tracks, about fifty minutes of total hike time. Another thought that crossed my mind on multiple occasions is how nice the fishing pack hydration bladder (back home in the garage) would be.

Using the GPS I found my destination but first I had to cross the main stream - I hope the rain doesn't swell the river while I'm over there.

I started fishing immediately after I got under the canopy and quickly picked up a couple of brookies.

I continued upstream until I ran into this wonderful site. The stream was low gradient to this point so this came as a surprise (although I was told to look for it).

After climbing up and around the falls the gradient changed, not as significantly as the stream from the early morning, but it definitely changed. What also changed was the fish population. Typically a set of falls of that magnitude would act as a fish barrier for invasives and protect the native population. You can understand my amazement when the first fish I picked up was this guy.

As I climbed upstream, I continued to pick up little rainbow after little rainbow - in nearly every pocket. The only other place I have fished with a population of little, wild rainbows like this was back in 2005 on the Middle Prong of the Little River in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The recent droughts had obviously not affected these little guys!
I continued to climb up this beautiful little stream, with moss-covered boulders and beautiful little plunge pools, all the while picking up little rainbows in nearly every pocket. Had it not been another solo adventure and a limited amount of water I could have fished this stream for an entire day. But again, caution got the better of me and I decided to head back out giving me plenty of time to get back to the vehicle before dark.
I felt very blessed to have been able to fish a stream like this!

On the way back to the vehicle I must have my awareness level must have changed, as I didn't notice these on the way in. I may be wrong, but I believe they are leopard lilies.
I made it back to the vehicle without issue, a total hike time of 75 minutes. I made it back in time to hit the lower Elk and watch the fellow WVAngler fish the evening hatch. I was early for the evening hatch but I did witness a couple of very nice fish being caught. When I got the opportunity to go back up on the mountain to see an old friend and mentor, I jumped at the opportunity. I would miss the evening hatch (I heard it was fantastic) but I hadn't seen my friend since the State Council meeting in September. I got some excellent advice and guidance on my new (to me) position of State Council chair.

The time seemed to fly by and before long it was dark and I still had friends on the river I wanted to visit with. It would be another excellent evening of laughter and stories with great people!

I didn't realize it until I was checking out my pictures early Sunday morning, but I had quite an accomplishment on West Virginia Day - a West Virginia trifecta. After viewing the underwater video of the little brown I caught in the rain, I noticed the par marks. I had caught all three species of trout, and all were stream born!
Brook Trout Par Marks

Brown Trout Par Marks

Rainbow Trout Par Marks

The next morning would not be as early and it would not include rain. It was early enough to get in a little fishing before making the long journey home.

First on my list was one of the new streams I had been on Friday morning armed only with a camera. This time I would have a rod and I would get video proof of the brook trout population.

I fished for about fifteen minutes and nearly hit double-digits. I would say the population in this stream is doing just fine.

I had time for one more new stream on the way home. I had never fished it, but my fishing partner had grown up in this watershed.

Once we found the stream (apparently it had been quite a while since he fished there) it didn't take long to find the brookies.

Again, in just a short few minutes on the stream we were able to verify a healthy population of brook trout. With this final new stream under my belt, it was time to call it a weekend and head for home.

The final weekend tally:

  • Five new streams fished
  • Brook trout caught in 4 new streams
  • Wild browns and rainbows in 2 new streams
  • All three species of stream-born trout caught

I also spent time with some great old friends and made a few new ones. It was a wonderful West Virginia weekend!

I have traveled five of the last six weekends and I am burnt out on driving, so I think I'll take a couple of weeks off.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Breathing Life Into a "Dead" Stream - Middle Fork of the Williams Limestone Bucket Brigade

I was asked mid-2008 to coordinate a bucket brigade for the Middle Fork of the Williams in the Cranberry Wilderness area. The Middle Fork was once a thriving native brookie stream, which is now on the brink of death due to acid impairments.

For a nice grounding, check out this short video composed by Phil Smith of the Kanawha Valley TU chapter.

The bucket brigade would take place on Saturday, but the plan was to make a weekend out of it with my son and a close fishing partner, Chad.

The weekend would start on a very nice note, following the 3.5-hour drive to the campground we had chosen for the weekend base camp. For starters it only took us thirty minutes to set up the same tent it took us nearly two hours to set up when we visited the Smokies.

Following the set up of camp we were stringing up the rods preparing to hit the stream when a crew of US Forest Service employees came through to clean out our fire ring. Chad told them how nice the campground looked (and it did) and if there was any place nearby to buy firewood. They informed us there was not any place nearby to purchase firewood but we could pick up and burn anything we could find laying around. Before we could make it to the water, they had returned with a load of large, downed limbs for our fire ring. That was well above and beyond the call of duty!
Now we had two chores complete: camp was set up and we had a load of firewood - time to hit the water.

This particular stream is quite popular but I have yet to fish it. It is another brookie stream that has limestone fines dumps in both headwater forks. This brookie stream once received stockings of fingerling brown trout. The stockings have stopped but the brown trout remain with a fairly healthy reproducing population.

We hadn't hiked long before the beautiful water was too much to take. We jumped off the trail and hit a very nice looking run. After a few drifts through the first run, my friend jumped back on the trail while Ross and I continued to work the run.

With no success in the first run, Ross and I also hit the trail in search of our friend. We returned to the stream at another nice looking run, we didn't see our fishing partner but we did find this nice little guy - a beautiful wild brown.

I missed one more strike before we were again on the trail in search of our partner. Again, we found another nice looking run but no fishing partner. By this point I was done looking for anyone, Ross and I were ready to concentrate on fishing. We fished through several nice looking runs and all I could produce was one small brook trout.

It is very difficult to hold Ross' attention when the fishing is slow. However, there are other ways to keep him interested. There are mysterious growths such as these to keep his attention.

I have been told the common name is Hemlock Varnish Shelf and the photos do not do the actual colors justice.

When the fishing is this slow, even fungus won't hold his attention so after a few more misses Ross was ready to head back to camp. On the way back to camp we ran into Chad, somehow we had gotten ahead of him on the stream.

By this time it was nearing dinnertime so we all turned and headed for camp, but not before Ross and I watched him dredge this nice brookie out of a deep hole with some type of streamer.

As we neared the trailhead Chad decided to do a little more fishing while Ross and I headed back to camp. When we returned to camp, we found another pleasant surprise. The Forest Service employees had gone and cut us enough firewood to supply us for a week's worth of fires!

When Chad returned to camp he had another surprise, he had run into a coworker - did I mention we were 3.5 hours from home.

As I talked with our coworker, Chad prepared dinner, but before dinner another pleasant surprise. Apparently on his way back to camp Chad had asked the family in the neighboring campsite to borrow a can opener. Not only did he offer the use of a can opener, he also offered use of his axe or some split firewood. He also welcomed Ross to visit their camp to play with his two children of similar age - good people everywhere.

Following dinner, we headed a few miles upstream to another new native stream. It didn't take long for this stream to produce native brookies; unfortunately I was unable to photograph any of these little beauties. Again, it didn't take Ross long to become bored with this small stream fishing and fighting through the stinging nettle only compounded his frustration.

We made the decision to head downstream on the main branch. The main branch was also once stocked with fingerling brown trout, but the stocking were stopped when surveys revealed several generations of reproducing fish. I had never fished this section and I would not fish it this evening either. Ross wasn't up to fishing so while Chad fished, Ross and I stayed at the vehicle and chased yellow and lime sallies.

We also caught the eft stage of the red-spotted newt.

When Chad returned to the car he reported good numbers of the wild browns while I reported good numbers of yellow and lime sallies.

On the way back to camp we passed a beaver pond on the edge of the road. Ross had never seen a beaver so we told him if he called for him he would come out of his hut. I laughed until I nearly cried as Ross rolled down the window and continuously yelled, "Here beaver, beaver, beaver!" No luck, he wasn't about to come out.

Chad decided to try his luck one last time before dark. He would fish the low-water bridge at the campground entrance. This pool would produce a couple of items, a stocked golden trout on a dry fly and a dunked camera.

Once back in camp, it was a nice fire and an early bedtime for Ross. As Chad and I sat around the fire, our neighbors returned with a glow stick gift for Ross...genuinely good people!

The next morning was an early one with the limestone bucket brigade scheduled for 9:00 AM. Not only was the morning early the night was short as the air mattress Ross and I slept on went flat and spent most of the night sleeping without an air pad.

As usual Ross was the last to wake. A quick cup of camp coffee and we were off across the Scenic Highway. Ross would sleep the entire length, as well as through the volunteer gathering and the trip halfway back across the Scenic Highway. I would have to wake him when we arrived at the dumpsite, after about twelve hours of sleep.

This would be the second bucket brigade effort and my first - first as a coordinator also. I was amazed at the number of volunteers that showed for THE most physically challenging TU effort I have ever been involved with. Ross would assist by delivering drinks and snacks up and down the line.

Here's the process:

Limestone fines show up on a flatbed trailer.

Limestone fines are transferred to buckets.

Full, ~ 25 pound buckets were passed down the line (Phil Smith photo).

The full buckets were dumped into an extreme headwater stream - actually just a trickle.

Empty buckets were passed back the line to the trailer.

Then the entire process starts back again. This process worked very well and the final numbers were:

  • 50 volunteers
  • 570 full buckets
  • Over 14,000 pounds of limestone fines (4 flatbed trailer loads)
  • 7 of 8 active WV TU chapters were represented
Again, I was amazed at the number of volunteers for this very physical work!

I am already looking forward to the 2010 bucket brigade! I am also looking forward to increasing the pH to the point where the native brookies return to this watershed.

The end of the bucket brigade did not signify the end of the weekend. I also had plans to take Ross to the Cranberry Glades, a misplaced arctic tundra/bog high in the Allegheny Mountain.

I had not been to the Glades since Spring Break of my junior year of college (1989). What I remembered was Venus flytraps, sundew plants, and pitcher plants.

Apparently when I was last there it was before spring kicked in and everything "greened" up. The ferns and other foliage had grown to the point I could not locate the flytraps or the sundew, but I was able to spot a few pitcher plants.

The pitcher plants were also apparently in mid-bloom.

It was a quick walk around the boardwalk as I found out there is something that bores Ross more than slow fishing...plants. Plants are boring!

The next plan, before hitting the water again, was to get a couple of shots of the wild azaleas as the bloom on the Scenic Highway was past peak.

It was a crazy jaunt across a bog in sandals to capture this photo.

When I returned to the vehicle I was told I could have taken a much easier photo of the azaleas across the road on the edge of the wood line. Thanks for pointing that out ahead of time.

In addition to the wild azaleas, the mountain laurel is starting to pop and the rhododendron is still a few weeks away from peak.

Following the quick photos of MORE plants, we took a quick detour to the Cranberry Backcountry overlook trail. This view was definitely not worth the climb.

It was now time to wet a line and although Ross was anxious to get back on the water he was very patient with us. We headed back to the headwaters, as I wanted to get into some of those wild browns that Chad experienced the previous evening.

Finally on the water, I picked up a little brown rising under a fallen snag. As with the little brookie stream the evening before, I did not take a photo of the little brown, as his colors were not that impressive.

I picked up another little brown while Chad picked up a little brookie.

This would be the second stream of the weekend to support both native brookies and wild, reproducing brown trout.

Ross and I also had quite a time trying to get a photo of this giant stonefly; he was a viciuos little guy.

We decided to try our luck on downstream, but we would not have the same luck as Chad had the evening before. We each moved a few fish and I missed a decent little brown, probably in the 12" - 14" class. While we were moving upstream, we had to continue to wake Ross as he was trying to take a nap on the streamside rocks.

We would try one last spot before returning to camp for the evening. This time I would put the rod in Ross' hands to keep his eyes open. Ross and I did not see a fish but Chad caught this brown with a brilliantly colored adipose fin.

As usual when fishing with Ross, he wants to be the one to release anything caught.

After this fish we called it a day....a long, rewarding day.

On the way back to the campground we passed the beaver pond again. Again, Ross leaned out the window and yelled for the beaver to come out of his hut. This time the beaver was actually out but before I could change to the telephoto lens he was gone. This was the first beaver Ross had ever experienced. It's just a shame that beaver didn't decide to slap his tail, I would like for Ross to have experienced the sound that has caused me to mess my shorts on several occasions.

While I built a campfire and Ross played at the neighboring campsite, Chad again spent the final minutes of daylight fishing. This evening would produce all brook trout but no pictures.

A nice campfire and a visit from a friend would be a great end to a great day. Fortunately our friend had a spare air pad, which would be a nice buffer between the self-deflating air mattress and the ground.

I slept much better that night and I awoke early. While Chad and Ross slept, I made a nice cup of coffee and went fishing for about an hour. I caught a couple of brookies including a nice one on top. Upon further inspection, this is one lucky brook trout. If you look closely you can see some type of claw/talon marks between the pelvic and anal fins.

When I returned to camp Chad had already started packing. We quickly broke camp, packed the vehicle and headed across the Scenic Highway. The Scenic Highway is always a beautiful drive and you never know what to expect, for instance: views that could be confused with the Great Smokey Mountains.

Chad and I decided we would hit one more stream on the way home, it is an "old reliable" stream for me but Chad had never fished it. Ross wasn't too thrilled but I would put the rod back in his hands to keep him interested.

It wouldn't take long for Ross to catch his first brookie. Just as it happened a few weeks back, Ross' first brookie went sailing over his shoulder and I had to duck to keep from eating it.

The next fish was caught on video, for proof to Ross that I wasn't helping him.

After Ross landed a couple of brookies he became the expert, offering advice to Chad and me. It was the most Ross had talked all weekend and he even let me catch one.

I know this is my typical entry. Five brookies and I only caught two of them, but I'm trying to get Ross to experience as much of West Virginia as possible t keep his interest peaked.

I did however add two more brookie streams to my list, which makes nine new West Virginia streams for 2009.