Casselman River's Trophy Trouting

This Free State trout stream in Garrett County has all of the main ingredients to produce its share of hefty trout each spring. Here's where to look for them. (March 2009)

The first hints of spring -- those seemingly balmy conditions where air temperatures stay above freezing throughout the nighttime hours -- usher in thoughts of fishing.

Trout fishing, that is! Hard-tugging, beautifully colored trout can quickly help any anglers forget that too-long winter season.

Are you looking for places to spend those initial trout forays of spring?

Both western and central Maryland offer up several excellent options. But some of the most outstanding springtime sport is provided by the special regulations stretch of the Casselman River. Located in Garrett County, the Casselman provides over four miles of easily accessible trout water.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) stocks it heavily with adult trout -- including some fish in excess of 5 pounds, making the Casselman an excellent place to find trout willing to bite and stretch your fishing line.

Over the years, this river has experienced its share of environmental woes. The coal industry began setting up shop here in the 1880s, and left the river empty of fish life for decades afterward. The river's rebirth can be attributed to mine reclamation efforts.

Its recovery has been such that the DNR began managing the Casselman for trout in 1989.

These days, all of the Casselman's trout-managed portions are under Delayed Harvest regulations, which provide for catch-and-release fishing with artificial lures and flies throughout much of the year.

But from June 16 until Sept. 30, there is no tackle restriction, and two trout may be creeled daily.

Delayed Harvest Areas have proven an effective way to manage trout in waterways that become a bit too warm during the summer months to support trout populations consistently. From fall through the following spring, trout are managed on a catch-and-release basis.

During summer, when water temperatures often rise above a trout's preferred range, a modest number of fish may be taken home.

This is a wise use of the resource, inasmuch as many trout will succumb anyway to warm water temperatures.

Summers that are unseasonably cool and wet will often let lots of trout survive, increasing the potential for sport during that time of year.

Come summer, most trout waters see light fishing pressure -- something for the savvy angler to keep in mind for a couple of months down the road.

The Casselman is a fairly large water. Within the confines of the special regulations water, anglers will find a wide trout stream, characterized by lots of deeper pools, long runs and fast riffles.

There's plenty of aquatic insect life over the course of the spring, so flyfishermen will have the chance to show trout plenty of presentations.

Good early-season fly choices include streamers and Woolly Buggers, which always seem to produce when the water is running cold and a bit high. Due to the rich food base on the Casselman, plus the fact that some trout survive the summer and winter conditions, it's possible to catch fish in the 5-pound range.

The Casselman River is stocked with adult-sized brown and rainbow trout, which are widely distributed throughout the project's waters.

The Nemacolin Chapter of Trout Unlimited has been very active in managing the Casselman Delayed Harvest Area, assisting in stocking efforts by providing float-stocking, which helps spread the fish throughout the river, making trout available for anglers who wish to hike away from the easy-access areas.

The Nemacolin Chapter has also helps by conducting annual riverside clean-ups. Since most of the Casselman flows through private property, such clean-up activities go a long way toward keeping such places open to the public.

Good angler behavior is critical, or such special stretches of river will become off-limits. Public water and access are found within the confines of Casselman River State Park.

To obtain an accurate picture of the Casselman's trout fishing, I recently spoke at length with fishing guide and fly tier Harold Harsh. Contact him at (301) 387-6587 about the Casselman and other trout waters in the area, or visit www.springcreekoutfitter.com.

"The Casselman is heavily stocked with trout by the DNR," noted Harsh. "And many of the fish are large ones over 3 pounds. Trout over 6 pounds have been taken there, too.

"The DNR stocks both brown and rainbow trout. And there's a pretty good swim-up of brook trout from Pennsylvania's portion of the river."

The Casselman flows from Maryland into Pennsylvania. In the Quaker State, it is managed as a trout water from the state line down to the Moser Road Bridge.

"In the spring," said Harsh, "it's a very good fishery. As long as there's enough water to keep the trout alive, the fishing will continue into the summer. Then once again in the fall, around the beginning of October -- provided there is enough water flowing to sustain the fish -- it will be stocked again.

"Stockings then continue in January, February, March and sometimes as late as April. So it gets a pretty significant infusion of trout. Something like 15,000 trout end up in that four-mile stretch."

Harsh says that like many anglers, he starts his focus on the Casselman during the late winter or early spring.

"I'm out there early, as soon as conditions allow," said Harsh.

"Once the snow melts and the river conditions become decent, the Casselman comes up fairly quickly. But it also falls quickly."

Harsh's early-season outings are tailored to the coldwater conditions that prevail at this time. Your best early tactic is to fish slowly.

"Fly-fishing is my thing," he noted, "so during the early season, I'm going with big stonefly nymphs and Woolly Buggers -- something you can get down and get in their face with.

"The water is cold, so trout are going to be more lethargic. This is pretty much the deal from Jan

uary through early March, until water temperatures start to rise."

Fly-fishing tactics begin to change around mid-April, when the coming of spring begins to accelerate the food chain.

"The caddis hatch will start once the water temperature reaches the 50- degree range," said Harsh.

"This is usually in early to mid-April. Shortly thereafter, when the water gets up to 52 degrees or so, various mayfly hatches occur."

Harsh said that the Casselman features several good mayfly hatches, though their frequency and strength varies from year to year.

"There's a really good dry-fly fishery once the water warms up," he said. "It starts with the caddis hatch. After that, there are midges, Quill Gordons, March Browns and a pretty good sulphur hatch. There can also be a good green drake hatch in the middle of May, if the water doesn't warm up too quickly."

The nearby Savage River and Youghiogheny River trout projects have cold-water influences from tailraces (in the case of the Youghiogheny, discharge from Deep Creek Lake).

But unlike them, the Casselman is a natural free-flowing river. Once typical summer weather arrives, it's subject to low flows and warm water temperatures.

"That's why Delayed Harvest regulations make sense on the Casselman," said Harsh. "The fishing is good during the springtime. But by the time summer rolls around, often it dries up to a trickle. People can keep fish after June 15 because during a normal year, they won't survive."

Gentle to moderate spring rains typically won't wash things out. But the watershed does flow through farmland, so heavier rains will muddy up the river.

Harsh said that under most circumstances, it clears rather quickly.

"A lot has to do with whether or not the fields are plowed," he added. "If the fields aren't plowed, some rain will add just a bit of color, which can help the fishing. But once they start plowing, a heavy rain will cloud things up. But since the river drops quickly, it usually doesn't last long,"

Though Harsh focuses on fly-fishing personally, he said that anglers also fare well with spinners and spoons, especially in the early spring.

"I think that when the water is still cold, hardware brings out more predatory reaction strikes," he said. "When fish see something gold or silver flashing through the water, it often triggers this kind of response.

"When the water warms up into the 50s, most of my friends and clients who spin-fish switch over to fly-fishing. And since the Casselman isn't a very deep river, spin-fishermen will start to experience lots of snags as water levels drop.

"So the middle-spring changeover to fly tackle makes sense in that regard, too."

Along with the Casselman's good trout habitat and excellent stream life, it also boasts good access, which begins with a handicapped-access area near the upper end of the project's waters.

"The handicapped access was built by one of the local Trout Unlimited chapters and is located just downriver of the Interstate 68 overpass," noted Harsh. "It allows wheelchairs to get close enough to the water for people to fish.

"As far as the river itself, there hasn't been the need for in-stream improvements. It's all natural riverbed. It is what it is."

Along most all of the Casselman project, roadside access is excellent. According to Harsh, River Road runs along the entire length of this portion of the river.

"There are pull-offs all along River Road," he said. "Usually where there's a place wide enough to pull a car off, there's a place to fish there."

Anglers can expect to find a nice mix of riffles, runs and pools on the Casselman -- habitat that furnishes trout with the right stuff throughout the spring period.

"The project waters start with a couple of really deep pools at the top, near the I-68 Bridge," said Harsh. "It then runs underneath the arched Casselman Bridge, which has a really nice pool underneath it.

"Then it's runs and riffles, runs and riffles, down to the next couple of pools. It basically runs like that for the entire four miles."

In terms of in-stream navigation, the Casselman is an easier river to deal with than nearby waters.

"The gentler gradient makes it much easier to wade than the other three major trout rivers in western Maryland," said Harsh. "The bottom is kind of a cobble to gravel substrate. It's not a very big river. You don't have to wade out very far to fish it."

Fishing pressure can be pretty heavy on the Casselman at this time of year, particularly during weekends and during periods of good weather.

"It can get hammered pretty well, especially before Pennsylvania's trout season opens," said Harsh.

The traditional trout opener in Pennsylvania is mid-April.

"We also get a lot of traffic from the Morgantown, W.Va. area," he added. "There's really nothing close to Morgantown that's a real fishery. So we see a lot of West Virginia and Pennsylvania tags early on."

Morgantown's proximity to Interstate 68 makes the drive to the Casselman an easy commute.

Flow conditions in spring significantly impact the Casselman's trout fishing. According to the DNR, the best fishing occurs when flow rates are less than 150 cubic feet per second.

To view current flow data on this and other regional waters, log on to http://waterdata.usgs.gov/md/nwis/ current.

According to the Maryland DNR, to reach the Casselman River Delayed Harvest Area, take exit 19 off Interstate 68, which is the Grantsville exit.

Go into Grantsville and turn right on U.S. Route 40.

You can access the river at either Casselman River State Park, or you can continue on Route 40 across the steel bridge and turn left off River Road, which parallels the river to the Pennsylvania state line -- a distance of about four miles.

OTHER TROUT WATERS TO CONSIDER
In addition to the Casselman River, western Maryland boasts three other excellent river-based trout fisheries that are worth thinking about if you happen to be on a multi-day fishing expedition -- or if spring rains muddy up the Casselman.

The special regulations project waters of the Youghiogheny River is one. This section not only contains some of the best mixture of trout water

on the Youghiogheny, but it also boasts some of the highest quality water, particularly from the standpoint of temperature.

Water from Deep Creek Lake enters the Youghiogheny near the upriver portion of the project.

Coldwater releases from the lake, which drive a hydroelectric generating station, provide a good influx of cold water into the Youghiogheny. Such water releases rapidly raise the water levels, though, so anglers must stay on alert.

You can obtain information on scheduled releases by calling (814) 533-8911.

The North Branch of the Potomac River is another outstanding trout destination. The upper portion of the North Branch entails a total of 21 miles of river managed as trout water.

Some 14 miles are stocked with adult trout and are managed as a put-and-take fishery.

There's also a seven-mile stretch of water -- the Lostland Run Area -- that is classified as a Delayed Harvest Area. This section is found within the Potomac State Forest.

If you're looking for adventurous trout fishing, the headwaters section of the North Branch may be for you.

The surroundings are rugged, scenic and wild, and access to the river is limited. There will be plenty of trout, since the DNR has worked out an agreement with the CSX, the local railroad, to have a rail car transport trout into the backcountry.

This ensures that there will be plenty of trout in areas far removed from roads and bridges.

The Savage River tailrace fishery rounds things out. This moderate to steep-gradient section of river has a wild trout population that thrives on the coldwater discharge from Savage River Lake. This four-mile portion of river supports large numbers of naturally reproducing brown and brook trout. Rainbows are also present -- either stocked fish that came downriver from the lake, or trout that migrated up from the North Branch of the Potomac.

Oakland, the county seat of Garrett County, can serve as the headquarters for anglers visiting the Casselman River and other trout waters in western Maryland.

The town boasts several small motels and restaurants. Visit the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce's Web site, www.garrettchamber.com for more information.

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