Many hands give Gunpowder trout lift

October 06, 2005|By CANDY THOMSON

It's no secret that the Gunpowder River is a blue-ribbon trout stream known by anglers all around the Mid-Atlantic states.

What made it great was a partnership among fishermen and state and local government.

Part of what keeps it great happens almost every fall, when volunteers and biologists conduct a trout count at a handful of spots, called sampling stations, along the upper river. From their careful monitoring, state fisheries managers do their best to keep conditions at their peak.

To immerse myself in the process, to let the years of history flow over me, to become saturated in Gunpowder knowledge, I stood one recent morning on the rocks above the wader-wearing counters ... and fell in.

Not exactly a fall, an observer told me later. More like a 1 1/2 - gainer off a boulder, over a half-fallen tree and into a deep pool mid-river. The judges gave me a 5.9, with deductions for inhaling a gallon of water.

With the gates on the Prettyboy Reservoir dam open to help fill Loch Raven Reservoir downstream, the water ripped past me at a good clip. Not whitewater fast, but swift enough to knock several of the fish counters off their feet, too. My notebook, pen and cap were gone in a flash. My glasses stayed with me, probably too scared to go swimming alone.

The notebook and pen were no great loss. The office has a ton of pens and I can always make up new quotes (Just kidding. There's a pile of notebooks next to the ton of pens). But the cap? It was a favorite, a souvenir from a fishing tournament and a fabulous vacation.

After wringing the river from my socks, shirt and pants, I dashed along the bank to catch up with the counters working their way upstream. They hadn't noticed my embarrassing spill and I wasn't about to announce it.

Two of the Department of Natural Resources biologists wore battery backpacks attached to poles that looked like huge bubble-blowing wands. The wands charged the water with electrical current, stunning the trout in the immediate vicinity.

Others in the crew moved in to net the browns and rainbows and placed them in water-filled boxes.

Easier said - and read - than done. The high, rushing water made cat-like movements out of the question. Pools normally 1 or 2 feet deep were 3 and 4 feet deep. Rocks under boots were as treacherous as black ice on a back road.

A call to the reservoir gatekeepers got the dam's spigot turned down to a trickle. Within a half hour, the river level dropped almost 2 feet, improving conditions for the counters, but deeply disappointing two kayakers who had hiked to river's edge after hearing about the high water.

That ability to control the flow and the willingness of Baltimore City officials to use it in 1986 created the foundation for the fishery. Scheduled repairs at the Prettyboy Reservoir dam will make the foundation even stronger.

The Prettyboy dam was built in 1936, a time when its only mission was to bottle up the Gunpowder's waters to create part of Baltimore's drinking water supply. Unfortunately, that singular task made a mess of the trout fishing. The released water was either too little or too warm for trout by any name to set up permanent residency.

Trout Unlimited worked with DNR and city officials on a plan to stabilize conditions on the Gunpowder with releases from the reservoir and put hatchery-raised trout in a stretch of the river for a catch-and-release fishery.

The state stocked both brown and rainbow trout, not knowing which would take hold, said Charlie Gougeon, the DNR fisheries manager for the region. In 1992, the browns became self-sustaining. And now, "you can catch rainbows from Prettyboy to Loch Raven, a 17.5-mile stretch," he says.

But all the stocking in the world wouldn't have meant much without the city agreeing to keep the water running. With the exception of extreme drought years, when the city has been forced to release a large volume of water from Prettyboy to resupply Loch Raven, the partnership has been a success.

Since the beginning of the cold-water releases, the number of brown trout at the sampling station closest to Prettyboy has risen from 6 pounds per acre to 88 pounds. The other stations have shown a similar rise.

"We never would have gotten here without the efforts of Trout Unlimited to petition politicians and the Baltimore City staff who accommodated our needs," said Gougeon.

But the trout team wants more, and the city is stepping up to the plate with a repair job that will allow dam workers to mix warm water from the 10-foot level of the reservoir with colder water from the depths.

Controlling the water temperature will accomplish two things, said Gougeon.

"Being able to release from the 10-foot level in early spring, and being able to mix it with water from the 55-foot level later in the year when it gets much warmer will increase the growing season. We can get the temperature exactly as we want it into the summer and maybe the entire year," Gougeon explained.

He continued: "We hope to see bigger trout because the water won't be so bitterly cold that it's difficult for small fish to exist. Warmer water will also help the insect population. Under current conditions, the competition for food - small fish and insects - is stiff."

Fatter fish and bigger bugs are the stuff of a trout fisherman's dreams.

But even without the fix at Prettyboy, the trout count remains impressive.

At my watering hole last week, the crew counted 41 brown trout adults up to 9 inches long, 91 browns between 9 and 12 inches long and 21 browns that exceeded 12 inches.

So hat's off to Gougeon, Trout Unlimited and the city's public works crew.

Hat's on, too. Just one day after my fishing cap and I parted company, Gougeon found it on the river bottom while trout counting just above the Falls Road bridge.

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