Saturday, September 26, 2009

Thoughts of Jimmy V

Most of my journeys typically have two goals:
1) Explore blue lines in search of brook trout.
2) Mental cleansing - a requirement for everybody from time to time.

It's amazing how all worries in life tend to disappear when you are in a beautiful environment with the sound of running water.

This particular weekend was no different, as my mind was spinning with thoughts of leaving my home state of West Virginia.

On the way home I reflected on the weekend and all I could think of was Jimmy V's 1993 Espy speech. To begin with, I am a huge fan of motivational speakers and this particular speech was THE best I have ever had the fortune to see (live).

One of the points I always think of from this is his three items to a full life, which is a daily requirement to spend time in laughter, thought, and emotions moved to tears....back to the report.

This weekend was planned around the fall State Council meeting for West Virginia Chapter of Trout Unlimited. The plan was to begin Friday with a hike to Chimney Tops on North Fork Mountain. Saturday would be a backpack stocking followed by State Council and Sunday would be a quick trip to another new brookie stream on the way home.
Chimney Tops is a rock formation I saw from the Dolly Sods Wilderness overlook earlier this summer. If you look to the extreme left of the higher rock formation, that would be Chimney Tops.
This hike would be about 1.5 mile in length (uphill the entire length), it would be with one of my usual fishing partners, and it would include a new friend - a man that has been running around Dolly Sods Wilderness area for over 50 years.

It was a beautiful late-summer day, perfect weather for a hike.

The hike up was uneventful and no matter how much description I put into it, it will never come close to describing what it was actually like up there. I won't try to describe it, I'll let the photos do that and remember: photos are one-dimensional.

There are not many places in West Virginia where you have a full 360-degree view.

While we were on top I took time to relax and think. I couldn't help but think this would be the one and only time I would make this journey. The view itself was enough to move you but the thoughts of it being the last time I would see it put a lump in my throat. This is the point where I started to think of Jimmy V.

I had to put those thoughts behind me, as it was time to make the hike back down to the trailhead. On the way down we stopped again to check out the views of the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac (that's a mouthful) valley. For perspective, check out the riverside cabins, in the background left, as my new friend took a break.

Once back at the vehicle it was time to temporarily part ways. We would all meet back up at the 4H camp at Thornwood and the location of our State Council meeting.

As I got near camp I stopped by a little stream that followed the road near camp. This is a stream I have driven past multiple times but had never taken the time to prospect it for brook trout.

The water was a little low but it was much better than it had been, this time of year, the last couple of years.

The first hole I fished was a culvert hole that failed to produce. I walked through the culvert and started fish the small pocket water and this was the first brook trout of the weekend - small but always a good sign.

I picked up a few more fish as I moved up stream; including this male that was starting his fall transition. He had magnificent colors and was beginning to form a nice kype and hump on his back.

On upstream I ran into a couple of decent pools, the first was protected by a large downfall. This downfall also protected the very large inhabitant of that pool, an easy 12"+ brook trout. I ended up spooking that large specimen as I tried to get a fly to the water. You'll have that from time to time. That's probably how that fish got that large - sometimes it's nice to know those guys are out there.

The next large pool had a large log across the head, which created a very nice pool. I could see something making wakes in the pool so I came in low and limited my back casts. I made several nice presentations in the pool and was about ready to give up when this girl finely cooperated.

Excuse the poor quality of the photo but you can easily see this is a fish in the 8"-10" range, a trophy anywhere.

This was a great way to end a wonderful day, so it was time to pack it in and head for camp.

The rest of the evening was nice as well: great food, a nice campfire with great company and many stories and a lot of laughter. Day one was full: laughter, thought, and emotion.

The next day would be a full one. The day started with a backpack/mule stocking in the Laurel Fork Wilderness area. This is the same stream I fished two weeks earlier with very little success. I don't think the water quality is good enough to support a thriving population of trout so it is supplemented yearly with this effort.

With the stream contained almost entirely within designated wilderness area, this is the only means to get fish stocked. Mules are used to carry fish into the northern Laurel Fork Wilderness Area.

Once the mules were packed, the backpackers (including me) went to the top of Middle Mountain where we would take three different routes off the mountain. Once you find the stream at the bottom, you pick up the Laurel Fork trail, and hoof it back to the campground.

I had to make quick time so I opted for the first trail. Once down to the stream it was time to place these brown trout fingerlings into their new homes. Also, it was nice to see much better water flows than I have seen during this stocking in years past.

I found a nice stretch of water to place my pack full of fish. Several brown trout fingerlings now call this pool home.

I now had 45 minutes to get back to camp for a committee meeting; prior to the State Council meeting and the drive itself was 30+ itself. I through my backpack back on and made the decision the only way to make it on time was RUN.

I found out I'm out of shape but I was still able to run the mile or so of trail back to the campground with only a couple of walking breaks. I'm just glad I have restarted my regular basketball schedule so I can get some routine cardio back in my life.

I was able to make it out and back to camp in time for the meeting, although I sweated so bad I could smell myself - never a good sign. I did, however make one quick stop at the Laurel Fork overlook. What a beautiful day!

I think one of the highlights of Council was the recognition of two DNR law enforcement officers who made an arrest earlier this year that was one for any brookie lover's heart. They arrested three individuals with 61 brook trout over their limit, and some of those fish were very nice. These guys are spread pretty thin and I don't think they get the recognition they are due.
After the meeting it was another nice meal followed by another evening with good friends and good stories. I loved the stories of the former Council chair. He grew up in Montana and his family has gathered every year on the Gallatin for over 60 years. I thought to myself: when I am his age I hope I have stories of tradition like he has.

It was a long day and an early exit to bed.

The next day would consist of breakfast before goodbyes and a quick stop at another new stream.
Phil has been teasing me with this stream for almost a year, and he had fished it the day before, so I bit the bullet and made the 10-mile detour to this stream. It only took one wrong turn to find this stream. When I finally found the stream I also found the best water levels and flows I had seen in a couple of months.
Why is it the first fish of the day is always the smallest?
For the next two hours I caught several fish, nothing with impressive size but plenty of 6" brookies. I probably would have caught more but the light was just in between where it was too bright to be able to see my 18 EHC and not bright enough to wear my polarized sunglasses. A good outing nonetheless.
With a three-hour drive ahead of me I made a quick day of it on the water. I added another blue line to the personal list.

Before heading home I made one more stop, with the thought: "would this be my last visit here as well?"
I stopped at Greenbank National Radio Astronomy Observatory. It was still a bit early to catch the fall colors and the views of Bald Knob were hidden by the early morning fog and overcast skies.

After my final stop of the day it was back over Cheat Mountain. As I crested Cheat Mountain the thoughts haunted me again, as they had done all weekend. Multiple times that weekend, as I rounded many turns, as I crested several mountains, as I passed several incredible vistas, I thought to myself: will this be the last time?
As I swallowed the lumps in my throat on multiple occasions that weekend I thought of Jimmy V. I spent many a moment that weekend deep in thought, I fought back the associated emotions, and as long as I have my friends I will always have was a full weekend!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

It's Not Always Roses

...and such is the life of an explorer.

While most of my brook trout exploration journeys turn up roses, sometimes they turn up very little at all.

This Labor Day adventure was a trip into the extreme headwaters of the Laurel Fork South Wilderness Area. The South Laurel Fork Wilderness is the location of the wreckage I stumbled upon while bushwhacking to the stream during a backpack fingerling stocking.

I would be traveling with my fishing partner from the 2008 Colorado Cuttslam, Phil Smith.

The hike started with a 1.6-mile hike down Camp Five Mile Trail to Laurel Fork, where we would join the Laurel Fork Trail and hike downstream to the first feeder stream. It sure didn't seem like 1.6 miles, I usually check the watch for timing but not this time. We made it to the first feeder in what seemed like thirty minutes but the journey was over two miles.

We quickly rigged up and began prospecting this nice looking meadow stream. I hooked up in the very first pool - a beautiful 2" dace! As we fished upstream I had multiple hook-ups, and all were dace. There may be brookies in the extreme headwaters of this trib, but there was nothing but silt and dace in the lower stretch. We did not even spook a brook trout.

With things not looking too promising, we turned and headed back to Laurel Fork. Once returning to Laurel we made the decision to hike further downstream in search of more promising water.

Another mile or so downstream, the stream structure did not change so we jumped in. Phil headed upstream while I went down. I spooked something in the very first pocket and missed one with a downstream drift to a root ball. I find fishing top water with a downstream drift difficult to produce a hook up. The root ball was the beginning of the remnants of an old beaver pond. The old beaver pond did not produce any more action so I turned to catch Phil.

I caught Phil just in time to see him catch a nice 10" brookie. A beautiful specimen from a very small eddy.
Little did we know that would be the only decent (and nearly only brookie, period) out of the main Laurel.

We fished good run after good run and good pool after good pool, with only several more dace brought to hand. We did find, however, a couple of clues as to the lack of brook trout in the main Laurel:

We found multiple orange seeps:

I do not claim to be any type of expert on the history of mining in West Virginia, but this type of seep is usually associated with mining. I am not aware of any mining in this area but if this is the result of mining there will be no remediation. This is the downfall of Wilderness Area designation.

Another possible (but not likely) cause for the lack of brook trout would be this happy couple:

The first thing that caught my eye was the amount of red on the larger brown. I thought we had just spotted the largest brook trout Phil and had ever seen. We gave it the old college try but he wanted nothing we had to offer. After resting the pool while we had lunch, Phil gave it another shot while I hid above the pool. That's when I noticed it wasn't a brook but a brown trout in the 14"-16" class, obviously a holdover from the annual backpack fingerling stockings.

I don't feel the presence of the browns is the reason for the lack of brookies, as I've caught browns and brookies in the same small stream in eight different streams in West Virginia. They are an invasive species but they cannot wipe out an entire population of brookies - besides they had plenty of dace in that stream to keep them fat and happy.

With hopes dashed, we decided to call it a day on Laurel and head for the trail.

Just before we hit the trail to the vehicle I "dapped" my fly at another root ball and the brook trout skunk was gone.

One brook trout twenty yards from the downstream mouth of another brook trout feeder stream would not cause me to classify this section of Laurel as brookie habitat. This section of the Laurel Fork Wilderness is very beautiful but it obviously has its issues.

I have never been to the Pacific northwest, but I would imagine it would look a lot like this area. This area had beautiful sections of conifers and ferns, with some ferns up to four feet tall.

We had spooked a brookie in the trailside feeder stream on the way in; so on the way out I hit a couple of pockets. It took no time to produce:

Unfortunately, when things go bad even the brook trout photos turn out poorly.

Phil's GPS indicated a travel distance of seven miles, that would 2.33 miles per brook trout. That would also probably be about ten dace per mile.

We tried one more stream before heading for home, the Little River of the West Fork of the Greenbrier. It was another beautiful low gradient stream, but other than the fish I missed at the first hole, I saw only one other trout. Again, a beautiful section of stream but not very productive this day.

It may have been the fishermen, but when you are exploring new water you can't always be successful...c'est la vie.


Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Last Blast of Summer

With three days left in my kids' summer break and my daughter five hours away at a camp for Chron's Disease patients, my son and I decided to travel our way across the state. The plan was to take a couple of days and explore some new territory in the state and end eventually up much closer to where I needed to pick up my daughter.

The first stop would be my son's first visit to Dolly Sods Wilderness Area and the first destination within the sods was the North Fork Mountain overlook. The August haze and overcast skies made for very poor visibility.

After setting up camp in Red Creek campground and having a couple of hot dogs cooked over the Coleman stove, we were off for a quick hike. The hike I planned was to a rock formation I spotted a month earlier when I hiked to the Lion's Head formation. You can see the rock formation in the distance, directly across Red Creek valley from Lion's Head in this photo from my July hike.

It was a late start (6:20 PM) but the hike was ~3 miles total - out the Wildlife trail to Rohrbaugh trail, to the overlook and back. Just in case we didn't make it out before dark, we each loaded up headlamps and I carried a larger Maglite in my pack.

This would be Ross' first hike into the sods and he wanted to be prepared: hydration bladder, fanny pack, walking stick (a souvenir from the Smokies), binoculars, head band, and three lights.

We didn't make very good time on the way in, lots of question to answer! What's this? What's that? Are we almost there?

It took almost 90 minutes to travel the first 1.5 miles to the overlook. Ross broke out the binoculars to check out the Lion's Head.

Again, the haze and overcast skies made the view of Lion's Head pretty poor, but we posed for father/son photo regardless.

With about an hour left before dark, we headed back for the trailhead. In order to make better time, I ended up with the walking stick and the fanny pack. We didn't make it out before it got dark in the dense cover and we put the lights to good use. We made much better time on the way out, covering the 1.5 miles in almost an hour.

Once back at camp, we had a nice (and quick) campfire before hitting the sack.

I woke Ross up well before daylight, in order for him to see his first (?) sunrise. We hiked out on the North Fork Mountain overlook in the pitch dark. Unfortunately, as the sun started to rise, I found we were in the wrong location to get a good view of the sunrise. We changed location and we were able to watch a very nice sunrise.

Following the sunrise and a quick jaunt around Bear Rocks, it was back to pack up camp and head for our next destination. Following an unplanned tour of the back roads of Hardy & Hampshire counties, I finally located the not so welled marked wildlife management area.

After setting up camp again, we went exploring for the road that would take us to the stream I planned to check out for brookies. The topo map showed a road that would take us fairly close to the stream - unfortunately the map did not match reality.

We found a trail that would take us to the stream and made a quick hike down the very steep terrain. I marked the top and bottom points of the trail on the GPS, because there were no trail markers or visible landmarks.

When we made it to the stream, I was disappointed at the low water levels. Apparently that area ha not received the August rain many parts of the state have seen. We immediately noticed many small fish darting about and we spooked a couple of brookies in the first pool. This would be another new stream on my list this year and it is probably the lowest brookie stream I have ever fished at just over 1,400 feet.

We traveled downstream where I hooked but lost a couple of brookies. Once we made it back to our starting point I was able to land the first brookie of the day.

We also discovered what the numerous small fish were. Apparently the brookie YOY are doing very well.

We fished a short distance upstream from the trail, picking up the occasional brookie that we didn't spook.

Following this last and largest fish of the day, we decided to head back out and up the mountain. On the way back to the base of the trail we flushed a woodcock, followed him to where he landed, and flushed him again so Ross could get a quick look at him - his first woodcock.

The hike out was brutally steep, but Ross pushed onward and upward like a trooper. When the GPS displayed the halfway point, Ross decided it was time for a break. This nice, soft patch of moss made a great resting area.

Once the GPS indicated 200 yards remaining, he decided he wanted to race to the top. Ross passed me but when he stopped to catch his breath, I passed him and I reminded him of the tale of the tortoise and the hair. The tortoise won this race to the top but I was more than impressed him his stamina and determination.

Once we got to the trailhead I realized how steep the incline was - we gained 600 feet of elevation in the half-mile.

We returned to camp to recover and grab a bite to eat - Spaghetti O's and peanut butter crackers. I was ready to rest but Ross was ready to fish, although he wasn't interested in hiking back down to the brookie stream. I knew the South Branch of the Potomac was nearby and this meant smallmouth. The only issue was I didn't have anything bigger than a 2wt.

We made the venture over the mountain and drove several miles upstream to find public access. I strung up the two weight and tied on a small hopper pattern - I didn't have a clue what to expect.

I have never been on the South Branch this low and the stream was incredible.

The water was crystal-clear and it was easy to see there were smallmouth everywhere. The question was: would they take a hopper pattern?

The answer was YES!

Ross started out wading in his shirt and sandals but decided the water felt too good to not swim, so he ended up in shorts only.

The little 10"-12" smallmouth, they were plentiful! Landing them on a 2 wt was a lot of fun too!

We finally called it a day on the water and a grand day it was - brookies in the morning and smallmouth in the evening. To top it off we saw Ross' first black bear as we were driving back up the mountain to camp.

We had a nice evening around the campfire and then to bed shortly after dark. We woke the next morning to the sound of a whippoorwill very near the tent. I hadn't heard that sound in over twenty years.

Before we broke camp we decided we had one last hike in us. We planned to hike beyond the locked gates to the fire tower on the top of the mountain. I tried to get Ross to put on shoes for the easy road hike, but he decided he was going to hike in his slippers.

We made the 2+ mile uphill (1,000 feet gain) hike in 90 minutes. We climbed several flights of the tower but hornet's nests and a lack of railing caused dad to stop the climb - Ross was ready to go to the top.

On the way back to the vehicle we spotted one of the largest black bear tracks I have ever seen.

We made it up and back in 2.5 hours and Ross again made the entire hike without a single complaint - just many more questions.

I think he enjoyed his last blast of summer: first trip to Dolly Sods, brook trout, first smallmouth, first woodcock, first black bear, first whippoorwill, and he traveled through 15 different West Virginia counties.