Tag Archives: trout unlimited

Walking the River

Some of us merely enjoy nature as a place to visit – others take action to protect it. Gary Lang, a fly fishing guide in Elkins, West Virginia, has done some of both.

In his 40 years on Elkins’ crystal-clear rivers, Lang has not only made a living guiding his customers to some of the best trout fishing in the Northeast, but has also partnered with the Service and others to preserve those rivers for future generations. Having served as the president of his local Trout Unlimited chapter, Lang has worked to restore riverbanks, remove invasive species, and keep the rivers pristine for wildlife and people to enjoy. His efforts have helped improve conditions for native species like brook trout, and have also helped put the rivers of Elkins on the map for fly fishers across the region.

“There is nothing better than spending your day outside in beautiful surroundings, in a country you know and appreciate,” said Lang.

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Gary Lang’s story is featured in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Nature’s Good Neighbors series, which highlights people across the U.S. who depend on the land as much as the land depends on them. These modern-day stewards of the land are working with nature to make a home for people and wildlife. 

Letting Nature Do The Work

Just below the Appalachian Mountains, on the East Fork of West Virginia’s Greenbrier River, a remarkable change is underway. In a watershed where the land is so green and thickly forested that the water takes its color from the trees, there has been a comprehensive push to restore and open its waterways to a more natural state, allowing fish to move freely and improving conditions for all wildlife.

“It’s really beautiful Appalachian forest land, and with so many species in this one area it’s a really valuable place for us to do conservation work with our partners,” said Callie McMunigal, Regional Fish Habitat Partnership Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


For the last five years, Trout Unlimited, the U. S. Forest Service, and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been working together to restore the many branches of the Greenbrier watershed, which have long been constricted by aging infrastructure. The effort has improved habitat for native species like brook trout in some 50 miles of river, transforming the area into a hotspot for local anglers and making it one of the largest conservation endeavors in West Virginia’s history.

“We’re opening a great deal of diverse ecosystem for West Virginia,” said Gary Berti, Director of Eastern Home River Initiatives for Trout Unlimited. “It’s a commitment to doing what needs to be done in the long term.”

The watershed was one of the Forest Service’s highest-priority areas targeted for restoration, as it has long been riddled with decades-old pipe culverts that were either perched (too tall), pinched (too small), or were deemed hazardous in the event of a flood.  Mike Owen, an aquatic ecologist with the Forest Service, compared the pipe culvert design to the middle of an hourglass, restricting anything trying to pass through.

“It can make things really hard for passing fish, particularly brook trout as they tend to travel quite a bit within the watershed,” said Owen.

Most of the projects included replacing these culverts, installing new bridges, and clearing other obstructions so the river and its tributaries can experience a natural flow. Several of the culverts were replaced with open-arch designs, which allow the river to pass through its full width.


In addition to work on the riverbed itself, Trout Unlimited oversaw extensive tree planting, which will help provide shade and create colder water for brook trout, habitat the species relies on year-round. Crews also wiped out more than 100 miles of unused roads and trails in and around the watershed, recontouring the slopes beside the river to reduce erosion and promote proper water drainage on approximately 85,000 acres of land.The reshaping will also help guard against drought, as well as providing natural flood resistance during future storms.

“If we do these things right, then nature does the work for us,” said Owen. “The system should largely sustain itself and continue to improve as time goes on.”

And nature has not disappointed. Mere weeks after projects were completed, brook trout and other fish were found both above and below the work sites, areas where their populations had previously been sparse or nonexistent. While the Greenbrier has always been a popular area for locals to fish and hunt in the surrounding woods, the projects’ effects have been dramatic enough to bring anglers out in droves.

“Every time we go into the field, we get claps on the back,” said Berti. “People have started bragging about the number of fish they caught. I’ve met folks who told me they caught 80 fish in a weekend.”

But brook trout are more than a great recreational fish, Owen said, adding that biologists often refer to them as an “indicator species,” meaning that the strength of their population often represents the health of the ecosystem as a whole. And where brook trout are abundant, the entire river system and the life it supports – including people – reap the benefits.

“As go these species, so others go,” Owen said. “That makes it particularly important to make sure that they can get the most out of this habitat. It can create a big ripple effect for the entire ecosystem.”


The restoration was the first of what Berti hopes will become a model for future projects. On the Greenbrier, partners planned the entire restoration more than five years in advance, with funding secured for each individual piece of the project by the end of 2012. This allowed partners to look at the Greenbrier on a watershed scale, rather than trying to restore the river piece by piece. And as with anything bought in bulk, funding the projects in a large batch made them much less expensive, saving the Service and partners thousands of dollars.

“If there’s nothing else you take away from this, it’s that these partnerships work. This all would not have been possible without so many of us coming to the table,” said Berti. “We were all just eager to get it done.”

While initial results have been promising, there is still work left to be done. Several more projects are already planned for the watershed, which will open further sections of the Greenbrier so that species may roam freely.

“It’s a huge undertaking, but we believe that it’s worth the effort. It’s kind of the thrill of a career to try something like this,” said Owen.

Since 2009, the Service and partners have removed or replaced more than 507 barriers to fish passage from Maine to West Virginia, reconnecting more than 4,020 miles of rivers and streams and 19,300 acres of wetlands. Partners across the Northeast have matched the Service’s funding contribution nearly 5 to 1, contributing $56.1 million to the Service’s $12.5 million to restore aquatic connectivity for wildlife and protect communities.


Fishing for steelhead in new (old) places

Today’s blog was co-written by Catherine Gatenby and Betsy Trometer, fish biologists at Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. Visit them on Facebook

Chautauqua Creek emerges out of the slate bedrock and gravel of western New York and flows 15 miles north and west, emptying into Lake Erie about 50 miles south of Buffalo, New York. It’s among one of the top steelhead fisheries in the entire state because of the amount of public access, with anglers catching as many as 1 to 2 steelhead per hour. New York presently maintains 8.5 miles of public fishing easements on Chautauqua Creek, including 1.3 miles of catch and release with artificial lures just below the Westfield Water Works Dam. The steelhead fishery is supported extensively by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC)  stocking programs in Lake Erie tributaries.

Steelhead trout from Lake Erie tributary stream. Credit: Jacob Cochran

Steelhead trout from Lake Erie tributary stream. Credit: Jacob Cochran

Historically, Chautauqua Creek had always been perfect habitat for trout. Soldier, lawyer, diplomat, and writer, Mr. Albion W. Tourgee wrote of the Chautauqua in 1887’s Button’s Inn: “From source to mouth there was hardly a hundred yards of quiet water …Heaven grant that the foot of the despoiler may be long delayed, and that the trout which hide in its cool waters may long continue…”

Decades ago, two dams were constructed on the Chautauqua approximately five miles upstream from its mouth at Lake Erie. These dams impeded water flow and limited fish passage and fishing opportunities. Fish and anglers were limited to  5-mile reach between the dams and Lake Erie.

The uppermost dam, the  Westfield Water Works Dam, serves to pool water routed to a reservoir used for the public by the village of Westfield. The lower dam no longer serves a purpose. Chautauqua Creek also had been experiencing erosion downstream of a railroad bridge culvert 2 miles upstream from the mouth, which created a drop and another impassable barrier to both migratory and resident fishes like smallmouth bass and white sucker.

But it’s the steelhead trout that bring the anglers to Chautauqua Creek.

Steelhead trout caught in a tributary stream to Lake Erie. Credit:Jacob Cochran

Steelhead trout caught in a tributary stream to Lake Erie. Credit:Jacob Cochran

Recently, Chautauqua Creek was targeted by state and federal partners, including the Chautauqua Soil and Water Conservation District and Trout Unlimited, for habitat restoration projects that would reduce erosion and boost the recreational fisheries. Funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Great Lakes Fish Habitat Partnership was provided to open more than 10 miles of high quality spawning and nursery habitat for migratory and resident fishes, and increase the amount of angler access to this important recreational fishery. In the summers of 2015 and 2016, rock riffles were repaired at the upper dam, and new rock riffles were constructed at the lower dam and below the railroad bridge to allow fish passage. After 3 years, the rock riffles are still in place, having withstood high river flows, due to judicious pinning of boulders which kept them stable.

James Markham, fisheries biologist for the NYSDEC’s Lake Erie Unit, reported steelhead had made it to prime habitat upstream of the Westfield Water Works Dam in the fall of 2015 and 2016 . “In fact,” Jim says “last year (2017), was a great year with smallmouth and white suckers reaching previously inaccessible prime spawning habitat above the railroad bridge, and anglers catching steelhead above the dams up into the headwaters of the stream. And we are seeing lots of natural reproduction (by steelhead) up in the watershed, along with out migration of the young fish from the upper part of the creek to Lake Erie. We are fully expecting to see natural reproduction of smallmouth and white suckers in the coming years too as a result of opening a mile of good spawning habitat.”

Finally, Markham says, “by leveraging all the support and talents of our partners, we were able to accomplish a lot more than any of us could have on our own”.

We hope that Mr. Tourgee would be pleased to see us working together to restore Chautauqua Creek’s riffles and opening miles of its cool waters so trout may long continue for anglers in New York and the Great Lakes.

Below are some before and after images from the project