Sunday, July 26, 2009

Almost Heaven, West Virginia

This will not be one of my typical blueline exploration reports. However, it is an exploration of sorts - simply no brookies involved.

I have a young coworker from Salt Lake City, Utah that has been asking me to take him to the mountains to do a little hiking. He is a ChemE and a 2008 graduate of the University of Utah and I was honored to "show off" the beauty of my home state.

What better place to do a day hike than the Dolly Sods Wilderness area and the Seneca Backcountry. The plan was to explore some new trails in the Sods on Saturday, camp on Spruce Knob (highest point in the state), then into the headwaters of Seneca Creek and the Seneca Backcountry.

Our adventure would begin at the Red Creek trailhead.

This particular piece of information caught my young friend's attention.

The plan was to take Red Creek trail to Big Stonecoal trail (1.5 miles), Big Stonecoal trail to Rocky Point trail (1.2 miles), Lion's Head Spike trail (0.5 miles), Rocky Point trail back to Red Creek trail (1.8 miles), then Red Creek trail back to the trailhead (3.2 miles). With a little bushwhacking thrown in, the round trip would be a little over 8 miles.

The first flat 1.5 miles went fairly uneventful, until we had to cross Red Creek to get to Big Stonecoal trail. At this point my friend informed me he had already developed blisters on his heels. I had loaned him a pair of hiking shoes but I did not notice he had put on "footies" - not a good choice for these rugged, rocky trails.

In his own words, he would "man up" and keep going. The next 1.2 miles were uphill the entire length. Once we hit the first switchback I looked for the cairns that would signal the beginning of the first bushwhacking adventure. At this point on Big Stonecoal trail there are supposedly some very nice falls below the trail in Big Stonecoal run.

The bushwhacking would be quite the adventure! The rhododendron thickets were very difficult to maneuver through, but I would take the lead and make a trail. I got to a certain point where I could see through the rhododendron that the solid ground seemed to disappear. So it was back up the mountain, around the ridge and try to pick my way down again. This would lead to the same result, so I repeated this and the third time was a charm as I finally able to make it to the stream.

I would not be disappointed and the rain the previous day added some water to the stream, adding needed flow to the waterfalls and cascades.

These next few shots ran consecutively on Big Stonecoal:

As we worked our way downstream through this very rugged section of stream, I learned why the ground seemed to disappear in the rhododendron thicket - there was no ground! It's a good thing I decided not to push through the thicket, had I done so it would have been a real bad day.

After working our way past this obstacle we found a route we could work our way back up to the trail. It was nearly straight up but at least we weren't fighting the rhododendron.

Once back on Big Stonecoal trail, our next destination was Rocky Point trail and the Lion's Head spike trail. I was concerned I would not find this spike trail but again rock cairns marked the trail.

It was another quick uphill climb and the trail leveled out in this pine grove. The pines were obviously planted in nearly perfect rows, possibly by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp).

Once at the end of the pine grove we were looking for a small trail out to the rock outcroppings that would contain Lion's Head. The trail was easy enough to find and the view was simply amazing.

Can you make out the Lion's Head?

After taking a nice break while enjoying the scenery and a quick lunch, it was backtracking to Rocky Point trail. Once we returned to Rocky Point it was back around the point below the Lion's Head formation and the junction with Red Creek trail. By the way, Rocky Point trail is aptly named as about a mile of this trail is composed of softball-sized limestone cobble - real ankle breakers.

The junction with Red Creek trail is well above Red Creek and the trail downhill to the creek is much steeper than the trail up Big Stonecoal. I think we chose our route wisely.

Once down and back across Red Creek, my next goal on the way out was to locate Thea's Falls. I had the coordinates but traveling from the north Thea's is easily spotted from the trail. Another beautiful set of falls in Dolly Sods.

We stopped one last time for another snack at the junction of Big Stonecoal, completing the loop section of our journey. The remaining 1.5 miles back to the vehicle went without event and we completed our journey in about 7.5 hours.

After popping a couple of Aleve (those rough trails were rough on my old knees & ankles), we took a quick photo at the entrance of the Sods before we headed up the road to the top of the Sods.

I had one more spot I wanted to visit before we headed toward Seneca Rocks and Spruce Knob. There is an overlook with a great view of North Fork Mountain and the Chimney Rocks formation.

From the top of Dolly Sods it was down to the Potomac watershed and one of the most scenic drives in the state - Route 28.

Our next destination was Seneca Rocks, but on the way we pass Champe Rock formation. Champe Rocks are named for Sergeant Major John Champe, a Revolutionary War soldier who became a double agent in attempt to capture the American traitor General Benedict Arnold. Commanded by Major Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee and handpicked by George Washington for the mission, Champe "defected" to the British side and came very close to succeeding, but at the last minute, Arnold changed plans and the whole endeavor had to be called off. Champe settled near the rocks after the war.

Following a quick stop at the Seneca Rocks Visitors Center, it was on to Spruce Knob where we would set up camp for the night and meet another friend for Sunday's journey.

This is another view of North Fork Mountain and the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River valley (that's a mouthful).

From the overlook we made it to the campground, pitched the tents, and had dinner. These would be firsts for my young friend: first night in a tent and first freeze-dried meal.

Following dinner we made a quick trip to the top of Spruce Knob, hoping to catch a sunset over the Seneca valley but we were too late. By the time we returned to camp our third member of the Sunday adventure had arrived. It was a couple of quick introductions, a little conversation, then off to catch a few winks.

The plan for Sunday was up before sunrise and back to the Spruce Knob summit with hopes to catch a sunrise over North Fork Mountain. As with the attempt to catch sunset, we missed sunrise due to heavy fog. However, we did find temperatures down to 41 degrees (in July) and a wind chill that most likely pushed it into the upper 30's.

Having missed the sunrise, we returned to camp, packed up and hit the trailhead.

I was anxious to hit this trail, as it would be the personal completion of Seneca Creek. I had traveled Seneca from the mouth to just below Judy Springs and this section would complete the "puzzle" which is the entire Seneca Creek watershed.

It would also be the first time I had laid my eyes on Judy Springs - one of the major sources of upper Seneca Creek. Three miles down the trail....Judy Springs.

Judy Springs is also a major junction for several trails in the Seneca Backcountry.

The next stop on our journey was the upper falls of Seneca just above the junction with Horton Trail. As an indication of how low the water was, this set of falls normally has two major streams over the falls.

Once at the deepest point in our adventure, we stopped for some photos and a quick bite to eat. The next task was to put my young friend on the first fish of his life - he had never been fishing before. With the low water I had my work cut out for us. It was difficult to put a first-time fisherman on fish with the low water and trying to do it with a fly rod compounded the difficulty.

The fish were plenty but fly line in the air spooked them, shadows spooked them, and a not-so-gentle presentation also spooked them. He was able to move a couple of fish, fishing downstream in plunge pools and using the large in stream rocks as cover. He simply couldn't get the hookset down.

I picked up three of these little guys as I demonstrated technique or if we hit one of the many long, slow pools above the falls.

We continued to make our way back upstream toward Judy Springs, hoping to put him on a fish but with the low water it just didn't happen. At least he can't say he has "never been fishing" now.

Even though Seneca changes gradient significantly above the falls, it is still a beautiful stream!

The hike out was uphill the entire way but the uphill grade was not noticeable and the trail was in much better shape than the day prior - or at least not as rugged. The total distance for this day when we returned to the trailhead? A little over ten miles.

I think Almost Heaven West Virginia showed itself very well for our visitor!


Saturday, July 4, 2009

I Have an Addiction

After the WV weekend outing I was really burnt on driving, so I had planned to take a few weeks off.

That didn't last long; a coworker sent me some brookie photos on a new stream (for him) I sent him to, I helped a friend plan a trip to Colorado (I 'm not going this year), and a day at Columbus Children's Hospital reading The River Why & Flyfishing the High Country was more than I could take. I had a four-day weekend coming up so I thought I would take a quick overnighter to soothe my anxieties.

When I told my boss I was also taking Thursday off to go fishing again, his response was: "I think you have an addiction". I think he may be right!

I had planned on soloing but when I told my friend (nameless this time to protect the innocent) of my plans, he agreed to join me. He was planning on doing a day trip to a stream I had never fished, so that's where we started.

This stream has been on my list for a long time and I was finally committed to exploring it. We left Parkesburg at 4:30 AM and rolled into the trailhead parking lot about 7:30 AM and we were in the stream before 8:00. We had planned to hike in before we started fishing but the water looked too good, so less than a quarter-mile up the trail we jumped in.

It didn't take long and the little elk hair caddis produced the first fish of the day - a little guy but a brookie nonetheless.
Shortly after, I caught a second. A little bigger - things were looking good:

That second brookie is a typical average fish in almost every brookie stream I have fished in West Virginia, but at the risk of getting ahead of myself this would not be the case today. The next flat pool produced this guy:

So it started, nearly every little pocket produced a fish and even the long slow pools produced brookies on a slow drift. I don't know if it was the overcast skies or the low 50-degree air temps, but the day was definitely one of my best (if not THE best) brookie fishing days in West Virginia.

These guys kept turning up and turning up:
By this time I had easily hit double digits but my friend was still picking up a few here and there until he switched flies. I typically fish small flies for the brookies, and they produce, but when I saw what m friend had switched to I was amazed. He had switched to a very large (size 10?) grasshopper with a caddis wing and he was absolutely hammering them now.

It didn't take me long to put something larger on. I switched to a big grasshopper - no luck, then a Hornberg - no luck, and then I dug deep into my fly boxes and pulled out a very large (size 10?) green stimulator - GAME ON!

I don't remember the last time I fished with one of these large stimulators; they are actually what I learned to fly fish on. But, big flies were what they wanted.

The fishing was so good; when I stopped to have a bite to eat I did a little streamside dance. Apparently my little dance turned out to be a rain dance because the overcast skies had turned to rain and I had to put my DSLR in the dry bag and put it away. I still had my underwater video camera and it takes decent stills but it doesn't have the filters to reduce glare. It would service fine, notice the size of the fly:

The little palm-sized camera does take good macros:

It also takes nice underwater shots too:

And so it would continue, for over six hours we caught fish at an amazing rate. I would guess between the two of us we had to be pushing triple digits. The amazing thing was the average size. Most brookie streams I have fished have an average size of four to six inches; this stream average fish was six to eight inches with several fish over the ten-inch mark!

At one point, near the end of the day on this stream, we walked up to another long flat pool and bet a dollar on who would catch the first fish - second drift and I was a dollar richer.

A couple of things about this stream were the fish, not the size, but the color. We caught a few that were almost gold (excuse the glare - no filter):

The last fish of the day for my friend had a strong gold tint to it. It's hard to tell in this photo, but you can almost see the monstrosity of the fly he was fishing.

The other amazing feature of this stream was the resemblance (we both agreed) to Roaring River in Rocky Mountain National Park. Both streams have been absolutely scoured by floods. Minus the hardwoods you can see resemblance of the streams

West Virginia stream:

Roaring River in RMNP:

Before we started our mile and a half hike back to the vehicle, I hit a hole where one of the feeders dumps in - for the second time. I had already caught three out of this junction pool but one more drift had a brookie come about two feet out of the water as he missed the big fly and another drift resulted in yet another eight to ten inch brookie - time to call it a day.

On the hike out we reflected on the rating of this stream. I have fished a few brookie streams in West Virginia but none I have fished have yielded this type of numbers and this type of size. Was it the stream or was it the on and off rains and low fifty degree July temperatures? Who knows, but this day was one of the most memorable in West Virginia.

From this stream, it was back to my original plans. I had some unfinished business in the watershed I had fished two weeks earlier. For one, one of the streams I thought I was fishing wasn't the stream I thought I was on - I had to explore the correct stream. Secondly, I had been given information on a stream that was said to contain wild populations of brooks, browns, and rainbows - a rarity in West Virginia.

We stopped at a roadside stream on the way to our next destination. Through on and off rains, we had no luck in the short period of time we were on the water.

At our final destination we set up camp and we hit the main stream. I had not fished the main branch in about five years, but it didn't take long as I picked up four fingerling-stocked browns and a small rainbow in the hour or so before dark. I'm not sure how many my partner caught, actually I do know but I'm not saying.

As darkness fell we headed back to camp for a nice campfire and some brats for dinner. Unfortunately, as we got back to camp the rain that had plagued us on and off all day started again. I couldn't get the fire started in the rain and my friend chose not to boil the brats in beer and onions before they hit the grill. So, we stood under the raised tailgate and had dinner and watched the fire fizzle out before we hit the tents.

It rained for most of the night, so we didn't know what to expect when we woke. One thing I didn't expect was how sore I would be. I hadn't spent that much time on a stream in a long time and eight hours of rock hopping and hiking had paid a toll.

I had coffee going on my backpack stove by 6:30 AM and by 7:30 we were on the stream that I missed two weeks prior.

When we finally found the correct stream, the bed was dry (?). As we hiked up the dry bed, we jumped out of the streambed to avoid a set of dry falls, when we jumped back in the streambed we had moving water (?).

The unique geology of this area has streams that disappear and reappear above ground - this stream just happened to be one of those.

As my friend rigged up, I pulled a little brookie out of a small run - a good sign. The next little pocket produced another brookie; only this time there was a problem. It is never a good sign when you catch a brookie with the head of a 6" fish and the body of a snake - not a good sign.

With the rain continuing, I chose to leave the DSLR in the car. It's a shame because this little stream had some beautiful moss-covered rocky runs of many little brookie streams I have fished.

As we moved upstream, picking the favorable looking pockets to hit, I found that that second fish was an anomaly. This little stream produced some nice little fish:

We fished for a little while, just long enough to validate a healthy brook trout population - as I do with most of the streams I explore.

On the way out I took some video of the stream as it goes underground, comes back out, gathers momentum, and sinks back underground for good.

The stream goes underground in an almost toilet bowl fashion:

A couple hundred yards away, the stream seeps back out and starts to gain momentum.

Shortly after it gains momentum it goes back underground for good. You can't tell from the video, but I am standing about twenty feet above this large sinkhole. I am also just about level with the top of the cascade.

By the time we returned to the car the rain had stopped, so it was on downstream to the stream that is rumored to contain reproducing populations of brookies, browns, and rainbows.

When I last saw this stream it was running chocolate milk. What would the recent rains do to the stream this day? Apparently this stream has had recent logging done in the extreme reaches of it and again the stream was running off-color. It was not complete chocolate milk but off-color enough that it was still fishable.

I started out with the small, 18 elk hair caddis but the heavy canopy and the colored water made it very difficult to spot - even on drifts of only ten feet. I soon changed to a high floating, size 18, yellow stimulator.

It took a while but I finally moved a fish. I stung him pretty good but could not tell what type of fish it was. A little while longer, I stung another fish and again I could not tell what it was. Shortly after this my friend's skirt flew up in his face and he made the decision to switch to a small wollybugger and fish his way back down and out. I can understand as scrambling over large rocks and downed timber was difficult enough in shorts - but in a skirt it must have been nearly impossible.

It didn't seem very long after he turned that I finally made a solid hook up and I was only slightly surprised that it turned out to be a nice stream-born brown. What was surprising was the size of the fish for the size of the water I was in. This was a good twelve-inch wild brown in a very small pocket of water.

I ended up stinging a couple more and picking up a total of four wild browns. These wild browns had some amazing features. The adipose fin on this one was blood red and the main rays of the caudal fin were also a brilliant red. The heavy canopy made photos with natural lights nearly impossible, so I used the built-in flash which, flooded out the colors.

I thought I was going to strike out on the other two species, but I was able to pick up this little guy before I finished.

I had climbed a considerable distance when I decided the scramble out would not be worth any further climbing. I did not catch the third species, the brook trout, but then again I've never had much success fishing for brookies in seriously stained water. I'll keep this stream on my list and hit it again when I can find it running clear.

The scramble out was a tough one, nearly 45 minutes of scrambling on rocks in the stream and fighting stinging nettle any time I chose to bushwack it.

After the soreness I woke with and another tough scramble in, I was done. My friend wanted another shot at the main branch, so we went to an old railroad trestle where I stood up above and heckled as he fished for very educated fish. He was able to pick up one nice rainbow on some type of streamer pattern before he had enough - again.

He was not done fishing so I took him to another stream I fished two weeks prior. In the short period of time I fished this stream it produced both a brookie and a small stream-born brown. Today would be different, no brookies to hand but I did spook a few. We fished a short distance upstream without luck, but to avoid another scramble out we turned for the vehicle in short order.

Before we hit the main branch on the way out, I hit a small pool just above the mouth and picked up a nice little stream-born brown.

Even though we fought off rain for two days, it was a great time to be in the mountains of West Virginia. The state flower, the rhododendron was blooming everywhere.

The blooming rhododendron was just a bonus on top of the memorable day we had on the first stream.
I caught brookies in two more new streams and caught wild fish in another - which I will return to in search of brookies.
Do I have an addiction? I think maybe I do.