Drought, fishing don't mix

Hope: Anglers, shop owners and environmental officials say trout in the Gunpowder Falls had a close call this summer - and see more of the same to come.

October 19, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Sunshine dappled the banks of the Gunpowder Falls yesterday, and the first golden leaves of autumn dropped into the rushing water as Lloyd Lachow ditched work to step into the water and match wits with brown trout.

"This is unbelievable," said Lachow, 50, of Reisterstown, as he worked happily to untangle his line and tie on a fly. "It is as beautiful as any place in the world. ... It would be incredibly awful if the trout were to expire."

As untroubled as the Gunpowder Valley looked yesterday, anglers, tackle shop owners and natural resources officials say the trout had a narrow escape from this summer's drought.

Low water levels and water temperatures in excess of 72 degrees threatened to make the falls too warm for the temperature-sensitive fish.

Cooler temperatures and renewed rainfall have ended the threat for now. But next summer could be even worse, they say, if customers of Baltimore's water system don't continue to conserve, and if winter rain and snow don't refill Prettyboy Reservoir.

Theaux LeGardeur, owner of the Backwater Angler tackle shop in Monkton, worries that "we might not learn to conserve water until we can't flush the toilets at Ravens Stadium."

Prettyboy Reservoir, the source of all the cold water that keeps the Gunpowder's trout fishery viable, fell from 37 percent of capacity in June to just 17 percent last month as Baltimore's water managers worked to meet the demands of the city and its suburbs.

As the reservoir fell, the frigid bottom layers were depleted, and the temperature of the water exiting Prettyboy dam and entering the Gunpowder climbed into the 60s.

Downstream, the falls warmed into the 70s and began to take a toll on the fish.

"We've been gritting our teeth," said LeGardeur. "The mantra has been, `Fish while you can.' We're really lucky we haven't had a major event, like a fish kill."

Some fish did die. Mark W. Staley, a state fisheries biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, said surveys in the Gunpowder this month found fish populations down by about a third.

"I'd say we just squeaked through, right under the wire, as far as the water-temperature issue," he said.

There is still worry that low water in the falls and tributaries will imperil the autumn spawn, or that predatory birds or high silt levels in the Gunpowder will kill too many fish or their eggs.

But the biggest concern along the falls this autumn is that Prettyboy Reservoir won't recharge this winter, and that temperatures in the reservoir might rise too high, too soon next summer, threatening the trout fishery below.

"It's a legitimate concern," Staley said. "We're concerned."

Years of cooperation

The trout fishery in the Gunpowder is the product of years of cooperation by city water managers, anglers and the state of Maryland.

The wild brown trout that now thrive there attract fishermen from throughout the mid-Atlantic region and beyond.

Legardeur said nearly 40 percent of the fishing licenses he sold at his store this year have gone to residents of states as distant as California, Montana, Colorado and Arkansas.

Many local anglers conscious of the region's drought have avoided the Gunpowder this year, he said.

"The perception is that they'll have no water to fish in," LeGardeur said. "The people who have kept us busy have been from other geographical areas."

Sport fishermen from eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey or Delaware - whose local streams dried up in the drought - drove to the Gunpowder because they knew it would still be running to provide water to Baltimore and its suburbs.

So despite the drought, fishing has been good, and so has business at LeGardeur's store.

In the Gunpowder, water levels actually rose when low water in the Susquehanna River forced the city to release more water into the Gunpowder from Prettyboy to supply Loch Raven Reservoir.

Anglers had to use poles to brace themselves in the current.

Water clarity suffered a bit. The low water in Prettyboy caused more silt and algae to be scoured from the reservoir bottom and discharged into the falls.

But fishermen don't seem to mind the murkier water.

"It actually allows the fishermen to get closer to the fish. They don't spook as easily," LeGardeur said.

Difficult access

At Prettyboy, where the water level has fallen more than 40 feet, the big problem has been access.

The water there yesterday was hundreds of yards from the public boat ramp off Spooks Hill Road, across acres of hip-high weeds and mud flats.

Carrying or dragging a boat to the water is arduous at best.

"It's so muddy up there, you'll sink up to your shins before you get to water," LeGardeur said.

On the other hand, the bass and bluegills have become easier to catch as their habitat has shrunk.

"They're right on top of each other," he said.

It's a resilient system, Staley said. And he is "cautiously optimistic about next year's fishery.

"If water temperatures got to 75 or 80 degrees, and ran that way through the summer, we'd definitely see high mortality in the fish," he said.

"But ... the fishery was built up from no trout to a great trout stream within the space of five or six years," Staley said.

"So I can't see any reason why that couldn't happen again once we had a good, cold water reserve again in there," he said.

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