Thursday, September 16, 2004
Bill Cochran's Outdoors: Can a trout fishery replace a furniture factory?
Bill Cochran's Outdoors
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- A good trade: Virginia trout for Kentucky elk
- Forget the odds-makers; Salem’s John Crews believes he can win the Bassmaster Classic.
- The good and bad of the 2012 saltwater fishing season
- Column archive
Bill's Field Reports
- Virginia General Assembly goes soft on outdoor issues
- Quail Unlimited calls it quits
- Field reports archive
As long as the furniture factories and textile mills were humming in the Henry County/Martinsville area, leaders there paid little attention to the economic value of the Smith River, a blue ribbon, brown-trout steam flowing through their community.
For sure, the steam was a novelty in the 1970s, when for a period it appeared that about every-other week someone pulled a state-record brown trout from it, with the scales finally settling on an amazing 18-pounds, 11-ounces. That got the attention of Sports Illustrated. Trout Unlimited called the Smith one of the top trout streams in the country. Virginia Wildlife said it might be the best brown trout stream in the world.
Nice, but you seldom heard the hype above the roar of the factories, until downsizing and outsourcing and other terms that mean lost jobs begin to crop up on factory row.
The Smith River now is being viewed in a new role, as an economic stimulus. During a Department of Game and Inland Fisheries/Virginia Tech/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers meeting last week in Henry County, 80 people gathered to talk about the fishery.
The discussion often was as much about the economic potential of the stream as it was the joys of angling. It was about tourist anglers from North Carolina pumping gas before they head home; about D.C. anglers spending the night in a motel or B&B; about the fellows from Roanoke stopping off for a Big Mac. It was about tackle shops and guides. It was about money being left in the area by visiting anglers.
A major problem, however, is that the trout fishery has become a broken-down factory itself. The jumbo browns are gone. Not many fish grow beyond a foot long. A 16-incher is rare. Gone, too, is spawning habitat, along with the baitfish to keep the trout fat and saucy. About the time the locals fixed their eyes on this economic life raft it was full of holes.
In 1999 the DGIF and Virginia Tech began a five-year, $500,000 study of the Smith to sort out its problems and needs. The meeting last week was an early report as this research winds down.
Dr. Don Orth, the project leader from Virginia Tech, cited a number of concerns: Loss of spawning habitat, frigid water, loss of forage fish, siltation, slow growth of trout, lack of cover, flows that are too high or too low, stream banks that have been gouged out and are steep and failing.
Most of these ills can be placed at the feet of antiquated hydroelectric turbines that are designed to meet peak power needs by flushing a huge wall of water downstream from Philpott Dam. The result is a scoured-out upper stream and a silted-in lower steam, neither of which are friendly to trout or trout anglers.
Orth offered a four-point recovery plan:
1. Temperature management. Water released from Philpott Reservoir needs to be mixed to obtain the best temperature for trout and the food they depend on. Right now, the browns pretty well are surviving on insects. There is little meat in the form of baitfish or crawfish.
2. Flow management. Fifty-plus years of daily power peaking has taken a terrible toll on the steam and the creatures that live in it.
3. Fishing law changes. Regulations need to be adjusted to reflect the fact that trout aren’t doing much growing and only .03-percent are 16 inches or better. Might as well take out some of the foot-long fish if that’s as big as they are going to get.
4. Habit improvement: Spawning gravel is all but gone in the upper steam, and the lower reaches are full of sediment that has rendered the stream wide, shallow and warm which isn’t good for trout or flood control.
Orth said some of the improvement would cost big bucks, others could be accomplished economically.
The crowd said, “Go for it!”
But it isn’t that easy. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wants to do its own study. It is the owner of Philpott Dam and the lake behind it. It owns the downstream water. It is king.
The federal study is called a 216 Study, as in Section 216 of the Flood Control Act of 1970. The purpose, according to the Corps, is “to identify the needs and opportunities for improvements.” The completion date is Oct. 2008. The cost is estimated at $2 million.
The 216 study is big and important, but hasn’t the DGIF/Tech study already pinpointed problems and solutions?
Yes and no, the Crops says. Fish would be just one consideration in the Crops study. Another would be power production. That is worth about one-million annually.
But fishing has an equal value. The power is sold outside the region and provides few local jobs. Fishing money is spent in the community.
Participants in the meeting were disheartened by the thought of another lengthy study.
Why not take the money that would be used to do the Corps study and spend it on things that the DGIF/Tech study says needs to be changed? Asked one man.
This thing can be studied to death, said another.
Something needs to be done now, not 5 to 10 years from now, said still another.
A fishing guide left the meeting saying, “I don’t think we will live long enough to see the change.”