Rainbows, brookies and browns are kicking their feeding habits into high gear on Elkhorn Creek, Dry Fork and the Williams River. (May 2009)
If you're a born and bred West Virginia trout angler, you probably possess more than a little knowledge about such nationally famous waters as Shavers Fork, the Cranberry and Elk rivers, just to name three of the state's most illustrious streams. But a number of other quality fisheries exist, and May remains a prime time to visit these waters. Here are three trout streams that well deserve your consideration this spring and beyond.
While in an exploring mood, my wife, Elaine, and I traveled to Elkhorn Creek, a southern West Virginia stream, which for much of its length parallels U.S. Route 52 as it flows through the coalfields.
While we drove, walked and fished along the creek, we found a great many things. Lumps of coal are common along the stream bank, courtesy of the trains that take this energy source to the rest of the country and, no doubt, from the many floods that have rocked the region.
Trash often lies along Elkhorn and within the creek itself, and several times, I snagged such items as bed sheets and plastic bags. And, sadly, abandoned homes, many of them crumbling and hollowed-out shells, commonly line the stream banks, testaments to better times or at least different ones when King Coal ruled.
But Elaine and I also dueled with brown and rainbow trout, the former having a tendency to grow fat and sassy, the latter being more lean, mean, muscular silver streaks. Many of these trout will grow exceptionally large. Mike Shingleton, assistant chief of Coldwater Fish Management for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), offers this overview.
"Elkhorn Creek has reproducing browns and rainbows," Shingleton said. "The Elkhorn has never been on the DNR's trout-stocking schedule. It receives cold water from deep mines and supports quite a fishery. It does have problems, such as sewage and trash, although there are efforts to try and correct some of those problems."
Shingleton also suggested that I contact Ernie Nester of Fayette County, who has become a major benefactor of Elkhorn.
"The Kanawha Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited (KVCTU) has participated with the Elkhorn Creek Watershed Association on a trash cleanup for the past 10 years," said Nester.
According to Nester, TU volunteers come from many different regions of the Mountain State and even from Virginia and North Carolina -- proof of the desire of many to improve the fortunes of the stream. One recent highlight was that volunteers cleaned up over a mile of stream in the community of Elkhorn.
Of course, the McDowell County stream is used to suffering indignation. A half century or so ago, coal companies abused the stream by using its waters to wash coal. Elkhorn's trout even arrived accidentally. The first inkling that trout could survive came in August of 1968 when fisheries biologists were conducting a stream survey on the Dry Fork of the Tug Fork, which lies in McDowell County near the Virginia line.
Amazingly, within a stream that was carrying drainage from abandoned coalmines, the biologists found two brown trout, one of which weighed 9 pounds and the other that tipped the scales at 7.6 pounds.
The second circumstance took place in the early 1980s when a DNR hatchery truck broke down along Route 52 near Maybeury. Faced with the options of having the load of rainbow trout die or dumping them into Elkhorn Creek, the driver chose the latter.
Surprising nearly everyone, those trout survived, even thrived and reproduced. Perhaps the reason why the fish were able to do so is that the water emitted from these old coalmines is consistently cold throughout the year and the coal in eastern McDowell County is relatively low in sulfur.
In the early 1990s, the DNR stocked brown trout in Elkhorn Creek, and they, too, did exceedingly well. Elisse Clark, who along with her husband, Dan, operates the Elkhorn Inn, has seen her establishment become a destination for West Virginia trout fishermen. Indeed, the inn lies right on the creek in Landgraff, sandwiched between a steep mountainside and the creek on one side and Route 52 and railroad tracks on the other. Because of that proximity, Elaine and I chose to stay at the Elkhorn Inn during our sojourn in McDowell County.
Elkhorn arises in Coaldale Mountain in Mercer County and flows through that domain and McDowell until it enters the Tug Fork near Welch. As such, the Elkhorn Creek is part of the Ohio and Mississippi drainage.
Many of the tributaries of the creek speak of both its frontier period, as well as coal mining. Consider the names of such tributaries as Turkey Gap Branch, Bearwallow Branch, Buzzard Branch, Coalbank Branch and Meetinghouse Branch. The names of the communities along the stream are rich in local color: Elkhorn, Upland, Powhatan, Kyle, Keystone, Landgraff, Vivian, Bottom Creek, Kimball, Big Four, Superior and Maitland among others.
"Record-breaking trout are caught here," enthused Elisse Clark. "Our Trout Unlimited guys caught 18 trout between our inn and the bridge here on their last stay with us. Elkhorn Creek truly does have good fishing. Dan and I do recommend that anglers wear chest waders and do practice catch-and-release while fishing here, as we do want to preserve the great fishing."
How-To Tips For The Elkhorn
Ernie Nester is not only one of the TU volunteers who labor to restore the creek's appearance, but he is also known to be very good at enticing the stream's trout.
"Some of the flies that I use on Elkhorn Creek include Yellow Caddis dry flies, Mark's Carpet Fly, and gray nymphs and Red Brassies on beadheads," said Nester. "I started tying a generic gray nymph with a beadhead about 10 years ago and it has turned out to be a very productive pattern. I catch more trout on this pattern than on any other fly I use.
"I normally use the Gray Nymph beadhead in a tandem rig with a Yellow Caddis dry as the strike indicator. It works for brook, brown and rainbow trout and I have caught trout on the Gray Nymph beadhead every month of the year."
Nester relates that he uses 3X long streamer hooks, such as a Mustad 9672, for all of the nymphs that he ties. He builds up the thorax with lead wire and gray chenille. The Fayette County resident has tried different colors for the bead, but it seems that gold is the best hue. Folks who do not like to use one can do away with the beadhead.
Nester says that he first began using sizes 14 and 16 Re
d Brassies on Pennsylvania streams about eight years ago and then found that they performed equally well on Elkhorn Creek.
"I normally use the Red Brassie in a tandem rig with a good floating, highly visible strike indicator fly, such as a yellow body caddis," he explained. "Although the Red Brassie works without a gold beadhead, I normally use the beadhead version. Currently, size 14 is the most common size that I use. The Red Brassie works well for wild or reproducing browns and for reproducing rainbows."
Nester believes that one of the reasons the Red Brassie works well is because of the red wire that he uses to tie it, as well as the scud-type hook and gold beadhead, which combined help the fly descend deeper. The small-diameter red wire is not easy to find, he advises. For readers that like to tie their own patterns, the only source that he knows of is Hunter's Angling Supplies, Central Square, Box 300, New Boston, NH 03070, and (800) 331-8558. Nester uses the medium (.010) for size 14-18 hooks and the small (.006) for size 18 and smaller hooks.
"I tie some red yarn just behind the gold bead to prevent the bead from sliding back over the slender body," he instructed. "Tie in the red wire about halfway down the bend of the hook, leaving a tag that will reach up near the bead. Wrap the tying thread around this tag so it will lie under the hook shank. For the collar, twist black thread with two strands of peacock herl to make a more durable collar."
If Elkhorn Creek is a perfect example of a quality trout stream that does not flow through a pristine setting, the Dry Fork is a marvelous example of a stream that doesn't have an appealing name but that nevertheless features some wonderful angling. After all, who would want to fish in a dry stream? Actually, a lot of trout fishermen might.
Part of the Cheat River system, the Dry Fork begins in the Monongahela National Forest, not far from the community of Little Italy in Randolph County. Gathering volume as it flows through Randolph, the stream changes from a wild trout domain to stocked fish partway through Randolph and it continues as such into Tucker County.
In both counties, the Dry Fork receives fish once in February, and once every two weeks from March through May -- so plenty of trout should be finning the stream as this story appears. Fish are stocked from Old Mill below Harman downstream four miles to Tucker County and at the U.S. Route 33 bridge downstream three miles to Gladwin, plus from Route 26 to Red Run, a tributary.
Stanley Beafore, assistant superintendent at Canaan Valley Resort State Park, frequently wade-fishes the Dry Fork. He says that quality trout fishing often continues well into June. Beafore relates that a standard way to work this Cheat tributary is to wade upstream and look for 3- to 5-foot-deep pools and riffles, where trout will concentrate more and more as the season progresses.
The assistant superintendent believes that the best approach to catch stocked rainbows and browns from this stream is to use a night crawler on 4- or 6-pound-test line. Stanley likes to drift a live crawler, sans weight, through these pools and riffles, saying that trout that have seen every manner of fly lure, and live bait for several months will still eagerly engulf a frantically squirming worm.
Beafore adds that the size of the stream's rainbows and browns falls typically between 10 and 13 inches, although fish that have been in the stream since February may be larger. He also believes that a few trout may carry over from year to year, but most of the fish stocked end up in the pan, which is one of the reasons folks, including this writer, like to go to stocked trout streams.
Pocahontas is a county known for its trout fishing, and with such streams as the Elk, Cranberry and Gauley among others, it's easy to see why. It's also understandable that a waterway such as the Williams is often overlooked. Gil Willis, who operates the Elk River Touring Center in Slatyfork, informs that the Williams River has much to offer.
Access is very easy in the form of the Highland Scenic Highway, making the river a good destination for older anglers or parents with children. Indeed, in many areas anglers can park their vehicles and easily be at the stream in a minute or two. And if a spouse and offspring are not interested in fishing, Pocahontas is known as a family destination, as so many other activities exist.
Willis relates that the typical Williams River trout runs 10 to 14 inches, but the outfitter has caught fish in the 16- to 18-inch range. All fish are stocked, and he estimates that some 90 percent are caught annually with obviously not much carryover.
One place where some carryover does exist is the catch-and-release waters. There is a two-mile section beginning two miles below Tea Creek and extending downstream. Access is by Monongahela National Forest Route 86. The stocking schedule for this section varies.
The Williams, as it flows through Pocahontas and Webster counties, receives regular stockings in its put-and-take waters. Fish are released once in January, twice in February, and once each week from March through May. The area stocked is from the coal tipple below Laurel Run, upstream 22 miles to the low-water bridge above the Day Run Campground. So, the Williams, like the Dry Fork, should have quite a few available fish this month.
Gil Willis also emphasizes that the Williams River is one of the most visually appealing streams in the Mountain State. I strongly agree, as the Williams sports a pleasing mix of small plunge pools, midstream boulders, heavily vegetated stream banks, and numerous riffles and runs. The high-altitude setting in the mountains of Pocahontas just adds to the aura.
Of course, Elkhorn Creek, Dry Fork and the Williams River are not the only West Virginia trout streams that deserve more publicity than they typically receive. For example, Anthony Creek in Greenbrier County is a marvelous stocked trout stream that is a good choice for a combination turkey and trout outing this month, as the Monongahela National Forest is nearby.
Gandy Creek in Randolph County receives heavy infusions of trout every spring and is locally popular. At the other end of the state, Wheeling Creek in Marshall and Ohio counties is an important trout fishery for folks who live in the Northern Panhandle. The calendar may read May, but marvelous trout fishing still exists all around the state.
IF YOU GO
Elkhorn Inn & Theatre in Landgraff: www.elkhorninnwv.com, (304) 862-2031 or (800) 708-2040. Elaine and I spent two nights at the inn and found the food and inn itself delightful.
For more information on McDowell County and the region as a whole, contact the Southern West Virginia Convention and Visitors Bureau at www.visitwv.com, (800) VISITWV.
Contact Ernie Nester at (304) 779-2706 or firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to help with the trash cleanup on Elkhorn Creek in 2009. For more information on the Elkhorn Creek Watershed Association
: Becky Barker, email@example.com, or call (304) 862-3255
Besides fishing, other attractions include Pinnacle Rock State Park, Panther State Forest, Berwind and Anawalt lakes, Ashland Company Store, the first (and only remaining and newly restored) World War I Memorial for African-American soldiers in Kimball, the new Hatfield McCoy Indian Ridge ATV trails, and trains passing by seemingly every few minutes. The area is a real draw for many rail fans and photographers. For dining, consider the Ya'sou Deli in Kimball, and a genuine 1950s diner, the Sterling, in Welch. The Elkhorn Inn is also the only B&B on the Coal Heritage Trail.
Elk River Touring Center: www.ertc.com, (866) 572-3771. In addition to fishing, ERTC also offers such activities as lodging, fine dining and mountain biking.
Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors' Bureau: Visit online at www.pocahontascountywv.com, or call (800) 336-7009.