Gunpowder trout lure fly anglers

River close to metro area sustains reproducing fish

October 29, 2006|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,Special to The Sun

Jim Kennedy stood knee-deep in Big Gunpowder Falls, his waders protecting him from the water that was rushing by faster than usual on a cool September day.

With a flick of his wrist, he cast his fly-fishing line into the water and watched as the tug of the current carried it downstream -- before pulling it back and repeating the motion.

Three hours after starting his day on the river, the 72-year-old retiree had already caught one good-sized wild brown trout and a few small ones and was about to pull in another one.

With his Reisterstown home just 25 minutes away, Kennedy said he makes the trek to the river as many as four times a week to catch -- and release -- the trout that are plentiful here.

"If it weren't for this ... I'd either have to drive 100 miles or I'd have to wait until they stock fish in marginal streams," he said.

It is that proximity -- to the Baltimore metropolitan area and the conveniences of city living -- as well as its abundance of naturally reproducing wild trout that make the Gunpowder Falls waters a unique resource, say the fly-fishermen who frequent its banks.

"When I go, I always think, when I get in my car, `In 20 minutes I'll be on the river,'" said Arnold F. "Pat" Keller, Baltimore County's director of planning and an avid fly-fisherman. "It's kind of like winning the lottery."

But the river wasn't always a haven for fly-fishermen. It took a convergence of happenings to turn the Gunpowder Falls into the blue-ribbon trout stream it is today, said Col. Rick Barton, the superintendent of the Maryland Park Service.

For years, the river, which runs through the largest state park in Maryland, was not a "healthy waterway," Barton said. With a dam restricting water flow, it was difficult to sustain a fish population, and the area had become a sort of open-air tavern -- a "wild, frolicking beer party," he said.

Beginning in the late 1970s, park rangers worked to "tame the town," running off undesirable visitors and cleaning up Gunpowder Falls State Park for those who wanted to put the park to good use, said Barton, who served as park manager during the 1980s.

Then in 1986, Trout Unlimited's Maryland chapter negotiated with the state and Baltimore City to ensure a continuous release of cold water from the Prettyboy Dam into Big Gunpowder Falls, ensuring a cool enough temperature year-round to maintain a self-sustaining trout population, said Charlie Gougeon, central region fisheries manager for the state Department of Natural Resources. The city relies on Prettyboy and other reservoirs to supply drinking water to the metro area.

State fisheries biologists stocked the river with trout throughout the late 1980s, and within a few years, the scientists found evidence that the Gunpowder trout were reproducing on their own, Gougeon said.

Everyone's efforts "paid out in big dividends," Gougeon said.

Along part of the river, fishermen may use only artificial flies and lures to catch trout -- and then release them back into the river. Other parts allow for live bait and set limits on the number of fish a person can take home.

"We get people who come from all over," Gougeon said. "And they're there fishing because they heard about Gunpowder and want to try it. It's a big draw and a tremendous fishery."

Fisherman can reach easily accessed and less-obvious fishing spots by hopping off Interstate 83 in northern Baltimore County and driving just a mile or two. At the local fly shop, Backwater Angler in Monkton, those who want to cast a line can find out what sites might be most crowded and which "hatches" of flies are most likely to nab a trout.

The Gunpowder "gives you a real secluded feeling. You've got wild fish in a very unique setting," said Wally Vait, a fly-fisherman who leads fishing tours on Gunpowder Falls.

Fly-fishing is an art, and the wild brown trout that live in Gunpowder Falls can outsmart anyone who uses an out-of-season lure -- one that looks nothing like what the fish are eating on a given day, say experienced fishermen.

"They've lived on that river and they've learned how to survive in that river," said Brenda Foster, a past president of Trout Unlimited's Maryland chapter and an avid fly-fisherman. "Now fishing on the Gunpowder Falls is almost like the World Series of fly-fishing. You have to be really good or really lucky to catch more than 10 fish a day."

And the fish in the river -- mostly wild brown trout with some rainbow trout thrown in -- are often a foot long or smaller, she said.

But the Gunpowder is where Kevin Raines, a professor at the College of Notre Dame who lives in nearby White Hall, can indulge his love of all things nature -- from kayaking to painting to running trails and, of course, fly-fishing. Many times, he said, he paints and fishes in the same visit:

"It's too tempting. You sit there all day watching guys having fun. At the end of the day, the payoff is to do a little fly-fishing."

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