During the past several years, a world-class trout fishery has been built up in the lower Savage River by controlling water releases from a Corps of Engineers dam north of Luke. Now, there is concern among trout fishermen in Western Maryland that Mother Nature may take it back.
The Lower Savage, by all accounts, is an extraordinary fishery for brook and brown trout, with natural reproduction allowing the fish population to expand and special fishing regulations to limit harvest.
But, this year, the unexpected has happened.
A severe drought has water levels behind the Savage River Dam as low as or lower than fishermen and biologists ever had seen them.
As a result, releases from the dam have been budgeted to serve the needs of many masters -- municipalities that require water supply and water quality, white-water enthusiasts and fishermen.
The question, from a fishing standpoint, is whether there will be enough water to go around. The bottom line is that, without rainfall, adequate water flows from the dam will last at current levels through the end of the year.
After that, the continued expansion of the fishery could become something of a game of chance -- not that some gambles haven't been taken already.
Earlier this year, faced with minimal rainfall, the DNR chose to have the dam release regulated at 50 cubic feet per second through the summer rather than 35 cubic feet per second, which would have allowed a greater flow release this fall. The current release rate is roughly half the summer flow.
Dr. Robert Bachman, chief of Freshwater Fisheries, said that decision was made to protect the numbers of adult trout already in the river.
"If we were to cut back flows in the summertime," Bachman said, "that is sort of like cutting back on the number of raceways that you have in a hatchery or the number of flowerpots you have to raise seedlings."
Lower water flow in the summer, Bachman said, would reduce the areas of the river available for the fish to feed in, as well as the production of food in the river.
Given adequate recruitment, Bachman said, the most limiting factor for a trout population is lack of space in the summer when the fish are feeding aggressively.
Recruitment on the lower Savage, Bachman said, has been extraordinary during the past few years. But it remains to be seen what will happen this fall, because the spawn is upon us and there is no immediate relief in sight for the river.
"There is a bridge down they covered in the reservoir that hasn't been seen for 27 years," said C.E. Brookley of Frostburg, who, with members of the Nemacolin Trout Unlimited chapter, has been monitoring the low flow and lobbying for improved conditions on the river. "But you can clearly see it now. Fishing the river has been like fishing a trickle."
Part of the problem of low flows in the river, Brookley said, was water releases for recent white-water trials. If Brookley and other trout fishermen in the area had their way, the trials would have been called off to preserve the water supply in the reservoir.
In fact, Brookley said, there was a movement among area white-water enthusiasts to ask that their trials be postponed.
But the show went on, and Brookley now fears for the future of the fishery.
The Freshwater Fisheries Division of the DNR does not decide when or whether white-water competitions are allowed on the river, Bachman said.
"Sure, I would have liked to have more water," Bachman said. "And, as far as the fishery is concerned, I would prefer not to have to share the water with the white-water races. . . .
"But, if it has to be, I'd prefer the drought during the spawning season rather than the summer, and that is what is nice about having a tailwater fishery -- you have that water and you can decide when you are going to take the hit if there is going to be a hit. Leave it to other people to decide whether white-water races should have equal billing with the trout fishery."
Bachman said that the low flows should not impede the spawn, '' because there still should be enough gravel and spawning territory available and the fish should adapt. But even a poor spawn probably would not have an adverse impact, Bachman said.
"I am reasonably sure that we have, in the last two years, had so-called excess recruitment, gotten more young of the year being produced than we have pots to put them in," Bachman said.
"Often you have a bad year and you lose a lot of your adults to low flows or crowding or something like that. The next year, the ones remaining will go out and spawn like crazy."
Brookley said his concerns are not limited to the spawning season but include the winter as well.
Brookley cited the Delores River in Colorado, where reduced tailwater flows allowed the river to freeze and 50 percent of the trout in the first six miles below the dam were killed. In the next six miles, Brookley said, 90 percent of the trout were killed.
"At 27 cubic feet per second," Brookley said, "the Savage will freeze and the ice will slice up the fish here, too."
The solution to it all is regular rainfall, which would allow water flow to accommodate all those entitled to use the lower Savage.
Until the first of the year, at least, Bachman said he expects the fishery to make do with the circumstances that control it.
"I cannot say right at the moment that we are going to have a catastrophe or lack of reproduction or anything else," Bachman said. "We are not going to lose the population, I am quite confident of that."