Comeback of 'an average river' Patapsco: Though millions drive across this 52-mile-long tributary of the Chesapeake, a relative few experience the waterway's quiet resurgence.

On the Bay

July 12, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

A SCARLET FLOURISH signs the brown, rain-gorged river from green bank to green bank.

Tropical tanagers, here to nest in the long, temperate-zone light, love this gritty stretch of river, where residents got cable television before they got flush toilets, Phillip Krista says.

Mulberries and great old cherry trees planted here to augment the diets of 19th-century mill hands still bear bumper crops, attracting creatures from groundhogs to songbirds.

From our guide Krista's renovated millworker's home in Oella, we've set out on a fine June day to sample the Patapsco.

It's a river noticed casually by millions, riving densely settled Central Maryland, bridged by Interstates 95, 70 and 695, also U.S. 40 and U.S. 1; but wading its rocky channel for hours, we'll see no one.

"An average river" -- so the Patapsco is introduced in the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay's excellent series of fact sheets on Chesapeake tributaries.

I think "average" suits it; even overstates the case. The whole river runs a modest 52 miles and drains less than 1 percent of the bay's 64,000-square-mile watershed.

Liberty Dam, in its headwaters, was no liberator of the river -- to slake Baltimore's thirst for more drinking water, it dried up more than half the Patapsco's natural flow.

The little river's charm was also its fate -- 800 feet it plunges, from where it seeps out of Parr's Ridge near Mount Airy to its turning tidal around the VFW lodge in the Pumphrey section of Brooklyn -- it was born to be dammed, for mill power and reservoirs.

It was also sludged with the silt from centuries of intemperate deforestation and plowing and bulldozing of its hilly drainage.

The old seaport of Elkridge, where Lafayette crossed a 300-foot river of 14-foot depth, long ago shallowed to a couple feet deep and 80 across.

"Average" it may be; but the average bay river is potentially a vital and interesting affair. Between headwaters and tidewater, tributaries like the Patapsco display multiple natures, and combine the best of inland and ocean.

Cool, trouty pools and riffles of little spring-fed creeks gather force and turn to rushing, rocky waters beloved of smallmouth bass; in turn slowing, looping, broadening, embracing marshes and yellow perch and largemouth bass in their bends as sea level approaches; finally, in their estuarine lower portions becoming little Chesapeakes, complete with blue crabs and rockfish, and the enchantments of tide.

And spring shoals of alosids -- herring and shad, alewives and bluebacks, hickories and whites -- moving in from the oceans to spawn, can inject your "average" bay tributary with a rare energy for most of its length, from tidal nearly to trout; and in the fall, silver eels erupt from the bottoms of the river's every feeder stream to slither toward the Sargasso Sea and their mating grounds near the Bermuda Triangle. Today, with easy, poetic flicks of his fly rod, Krista is trying to tempt smallmouths from the impossibly muddy waters between Oella and U.S. 40.

He guides fishing parties for a living, but if this had been a paying trip, he says, he'd have advised canceling, and indeed, nothing will take the hand-tied crow feather flies.

But on better days this stretch has yielded him up to 80 smallmouths, says Bob Lunsford, director of freshwater fisheries for the Department of Natural Resources, who has come along on the expedition.

The smallmouths here seem a reflection of the Patapsco. The Potomac and Susquehanna, with less stress from development and bigger and better habitats, grow longer, fatter bass.

But there are compensations: "At 5 years old, a smallmouth here may be only 11 inches," Krista says. "But it takes a mean, rotten, aggressive fish to get 5 years old here, and they are something to catch."

Neither is the Patapsco River enough to support a full-time guide such as exist on bigger tributaries. Krista does it all -- from bluegills on Eastern Shore ponds to winter wading for big striped bass in, of all places, Baltimore Harbor.

He also uses the Patapsco to teach fly fishing, including classes for women and disabled anglers; also does archery, muzzleloading, canoe trips and you name it.

The flies he and Lunsford fish have barbless hooks -- legally one can keep several smallmouths, but Krista encourages catch and release, and most of his clients do.

Hooks without barbs are a small sop to the dream of a sustainable planet, to humankind reconciled with the rest of nature. Still, such voluntary defanging, thrilling to the outdoors without consuming it, needs to spread way beyond Patapsco smallmouths, and is an especially nice symbol on this urban-industrial waterway where human schemes have taken a toll.

And though the smallmouths here, and the river, will never be the most ecologically gaudy of bay tributaries, the place is reviving. Water quality has improved in recent decades, translating into more brown trout.

And soon, passage over and around dams for spawning shad and herring will be secured the length of the river, for the first time in centuries.

Limits to the comeback there will certainly be; but don't be too quick to draw them.

Lunsford was saying that although the hickory shad once ran all the way to Sykesville, and maybe can again, his experts did not think the Patapsco would ever support the larger American shad.

Krista interjected: This spring, his clients caught 27 of them just above U.S. 1.

Pub Date: 7/12/96

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