With the Patapsco millrace long gone, smallmouth help river make comeback


July 05, 1992|By PETER BAKER

Hunched over a small table in the sitting room of a 200-year-old stone town house in Ellicott City, on a bluff above the Patapsco River, Gene Barth was looking through a large magnifying glass and carefully wrapping black chenille toward the eye of a hook.

"Worms," he was saying. "Why don't we just go out and buy some big, fat worms, put them on some hooks, throw them in the river and catch fish?"

Barth, of course, was protesting too much.

He and Philip Krista, a fly fishing guide and casting instructor, were only starting to have fun -- no matter the temporary tedium of creating a helgrammite from hackle, chenille and thread.

A few minutes after daubing the wrapping with glue, Barth and Krista had slid into their hip waders and wandered down along Rock Run to the river, a short walk accompanied by Krista's rambling, narrative history of this stretch of the Patapsco.

"Years ago," Krista says as we cross a ditch once blasted out of the hillside and long since overgrown, "this was the longest millrace in the country, ran down to power the mill on the river.

"The mill had 26 looms, with each one weighing a ton. This race powered them all, and you have to imagine the weavers and the looms and the river all locked into one industry.

"Without the river, there was no mill. Without the mill, there were no jobs. Without the jobs, there was no sense in anyone being here."

The river and the mill had, in fact, caused the old stone house in which Krista lives to be built -- but the river and the mills and the dams and factories that came after it through a couple of centuries also began to kill the river.

"I can remember being a kid on this river in the 1950s," Barth says as we stand along the river at the base of a deer track that leads down from the path along the millrace. "There weren't many fish in here. A few bluegills or sunfish was all you could


These days, however, the river is coming back. The dams that have blocked the spring spawning runs of herring are being cleared or bypassed with fish ladders, the waste that once entered the river is being diverted or pre-treated. The people who live and fish here are contributing to keeping the river clean.

"Good smallmouth bass fishing on the Patapsco?" Barth says as he wades into the river and scatters a dozen or more fry. "Couldn't have happened when I was a kid in the '50s."

As it is now, though, there is good smallmouth fishing here. It is not as good as the Upper Potomac, but it is respectable and within easy reach of Baltimore fishermen.

Krista likes to take his parties to different areas of a 2.5-mile stretch below the community of Oella, which sits on a bluff overlooking the millrace and the river.

fTC "You're not going to find many 13- or 14-inch smallmouths here," Krista says as he points out a favorite spot on the river, where the channel runs deep and close to the shore beneath a large sycamore. "But if you cast in close, between the log crosswise in the current and the overhang, and let your fly drift down along the edge, you'll catch at least one nice fish."

The hole turned up two 10-inch smallmouths, a rock bass and a couple of sunfish -- and an hour later turned up two more sunfish and a rock bass.

There were similar holes in the half-mile of river we waded during three or four hours one afternoon and early evening early last week. The fishing was good and well-suited to fly rods.

Barth, fishing the weighted helgrammite he had tied earlier, caught a dozen or more fish, including a couple of smallmouths that would have made the 12-inch minimum, and released them all.

"Buckets," Barth says as he releases a smallmouth taken from a rocky eddy swirling on the edge of the shadows cast by the trees on the west riverbank.

"Too many fishermen worry too much about filling those five-gallon buckets. Forget the buckets and practice catch and release.

"Leave the fish and there will be smallmouths in this river for generations to come."


Krista runs half-day instructional and fishing trips on the river. He can be reached at (410) 461-3007.

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