Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tale of Three Valleys, Part I-Shenandoah

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An Unnamed Trout Unlimited biologist hauls in (then released) a healthy brown trout in a trophy management-designated tributary of the Shenandoah River. I got a few trout to rise with a borrowed fly rod and a grasshopper fly, but got no bites that morning.

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Being a coastal boy, I called this our "mountain trip" while it was underway. But the more I thought about it, we spent a lot more time in the valleys of the southern Appalachians - Shenandoah, Swannanoa, and Catawba. While I enjoy spending time in the streams and forests of the mountains and valleys, I do not love the mountains the way that famous writers, explorers, and even everyday modern people seem to love the mountains. I tolerated 5 years at 2300' above sea level, and I enjoyed spending 1.5 years at 3600' above sea level. But I always knew I'd return to the coastal plain.....I am sometimes disappointed that we live 120 miles from the ocean and 175' above sea level. That's high ground - keep in mind that prior to my 18th birthday, I never lived more than 20' above sea level. But, for a variety of reasons, we keep returning to the hills.

Our first stop was in the area around Harrisonburg, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley. The Shenandoah Valley is a limestone valley full of clear springs, sinkholes, and cold streams that continue to be threatened by human development (past and present) and 20th century farming practices. I am currently working with Trout Unlimited and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) WHIP Program to restore a 2,000 linear foot section of spring-fed stream. What's wrong with the stream?

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This stream still has a hatchery-supported trout population - many Shenandoah tributaries do not. Livestock wade into the stream, mixing old pond sediment into the water.

The French first "discovered" the Shenandoah Valley in the 1630s. They also discovered the native American north-south route through the valley, which is now (roughly) Interstate 81. Throughout the 1700s and 1800s, significant white settlement came from the north (Pennsylvania Germans) and the east (coastal Virginia). Typical of the Mid-Atlantic region, clean water was readily available throughout the winter and spring, but not dependable during summer months. To ensure a steady supply, settlers built hundreds of dams across the Valley's prehistoric streams. These dams powered mills and provided drinking water for livestock and people. They also forever changed the paths, floodplains, and soils of the native streams. Now mostly abandoned, those mill ponds have left behind a "legacy" of sediments all through the valley. The result is a landscape of fast-moving streams with constantly-eroding banks.....not great habitat for native brook trout....or even smallmouth bass.

Enter groups like Trout Unlimited, the FishAmerica Foundation, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, the Nature Conservancy, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. All of these groups have been working in and around coldwater streams to revegetate the banks, stabilize the stream channel, and exclude livestock from the areas around the streams. This work has been moving at high speed for the last 10 years, and in another 10 years, we might even be able to call it a success!

After visiting our restoration site, the TU biologist and I tossed a few lines in a local trophy management stream. He caught 5 trout, most of them small browns, and I caught nothing. Our fishing was slightly thwarted by runoff from rainstorms, a healthy otter population, and the heat (90 degrees by 10am). My flycasting was horribly rusty but it reminded me of why I used to enjoy it. We eventually packed it in, went back to the hotel, and I continued on to my next valley - the Swannanoa Valley of southwestern North Carolina.

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