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.


1 comment:

Cutthroat Stalker said...


Wow--that was some effort from the Bucket Brigade! Great things from good people. Keep it up.

I have a couple of questions for you (excuse my ignorance):

1) You mention that the river was having problems "due to acid impairments." What caused the problem--human or naturally occurring process? Is the source of the problem gone?

2) Limestone fines--what exactly is that? Where does it come from/how is it produced, etc.?

3) How much limestone fines is anticipated to produce results?

4) How long is the limestone treatment good for--is it a permanent solution, or is there going to need to be continual treatment ad infinitum?

Ross is about like my son when I used to take him with me on fishing trips, except I could never really get him to want to fish with me. But he loved to release the fish!

-scott c