Md. rivers run through the life of 1 lucky man

April 03, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

NO DISRESPECT to those fishing for them this spring, but hatchery trout are inferior to wild trout. It's not that wild trout taste better or look prettier (both true) or that wild trout are bigger than hatchery trout (usually not true). For me, it's what the wild trout represents that makes it superior. It represents something precious in this overdeveloped, polluted and trash-strewn world, a bit of paradise regained.

Wild trout represent victory, hatchery trout defeat.

And, when it comes to preserving or restoring natural resources, we should be more about achieving victory than conceding defeat.

Ken Pavol, who retired last week after 31 years as a fisheries biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, had a career marked with victory. He's one of the lucky ones; his job included a cause, and he can look back on years of hard and sometimes politically contentious work and see that he left something - specifically, the North Branch of the Potomac River - far better than he found it.

To really appreciate what Pavol achieved in Western Maryland, you have to consider the term "wild trout." My use of it needs to be qualified.

What some today call "wild" should really be called "stream-bred" trout - that is, trout whose parents were stocked in restored rivers (like Baltimore County's Gunpowder Falls) and protected from harvest so that they could reproduce. I've heard anglers call "wild" any trout that manages to survive and grow in a stream.

Certainly there are genuine wild trout swimming and spawning in the same North American brooks that their ancestors once inhabited. But true natives are simply not as abundant as they once were, especially here in the East. Pristine trout waters were ravaged by farming and mining, then development and industry. All of that hurt the native trout populations. It's an old, sad truth.

To make up for this loss, we have for decades bred and raised trout in hatcheries - doing nature's work in plastic tanks and concrete pens - and delivered them in buckets to "marginal" rivers considered too warm or muddy, or lacking in oxygen or forage, to sustain a trout population through the four seasons of the year.

That's why we're again in the midst of the so-called "trout season," the relatively brief time when bait-dunkers head out to Maryland streams that have been stocked with rainbows raised at great effort and expense. This is what's called "put-and-take" fishing: The state puts and people take - up to five trout per day.

A lot of these "put-and-take" rivers run through lightly forested areas, and they are pleasant places to visit. But they have never recovered from the damage done decades ago by farmers, mining companies, developers and industry. So, come June, most of the hatchery trout will be gone from these rivers.

Rather than fix these rivers, we just stock them with trout each spring.

It's a ritual of defeat. It says: "This river will never hold healthy, thriving, reproducing trout again, so let's just call in the hatchery truck."

The state is a party to this annual rite, serving a customer base that wants to use these streams for recreation for only a month or so each year. It's really a lazy, short-sighted policy, a concession to the hunter-gatherers who haven't a lick of interest in restoring rivers to their historic best.

Fortunately, there are men like Ken Pavol.

He and other DNR officials, such as his colleague Gary Yoder and his former boss, Bob Bachman, fought the good fight for many years to restore certain rivers of Western Maryland so that they might again sustain new populations of trout. They did this in the Savage River, the Youghiogheny and even the North Branch, a river so polluted for so long it was left for dead. With some creative tinkering - treating with lime the mine-acid-laced creeks that fed the North Branch, fighting for special "catch-and-release" regulations to allow trout to grow and reproduce - the fisheries managers have been able to re-establish healthy trout populations in once-lifeless waters.

Pavol and his colleagues fought some hard battles against the "put-and-take" culture, especially resolute in Western Maryland. There are still plenty of places where anglers can catch their daily creel limits and go home to a fish fry each spring. But we have now in Western Maryland miles of some of the best waters for "wild" trout in the East, protected as "catch-and-release" or "delayed harvest" areas, and that's the legacy Pavol takes into his early retirement from DNR, some nice victories, little bits of paradise regained.

"Ken was the heart and soul of North Branch Potomac restoration," says his boss, Steve Early. "Of course, many other [DNR] units were active, and Ken was constantly motivating them to greater action. Garrett County tourism is in some measure built on fishing, and Ken was behind most of it, including walleye in Deep Creek Lake and the great Savage River trophy trout waters."

Pavol's retirement is a loss for the state. But he isn't going anywhere. Being an avid fly fisherman and now a river guide, he'll continue to live in Garrett County and be a presence along the waters of Western Maryland. He gets to live with his legacy, lucky man, and lucky for us.

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