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8 Splendid Streams for Mountain State Trout

In a state with no closed season, trout enthusiasts are gearing up for some of the year's best angling for rainbows, brookies, browns and more. Read on for a top stream near you!

By John McCoy

If West Virginia's trout stocking season goes as well as expected this year, anglers should give the credit to good old Mother Nature. Wetter than normal conditions during the summer and fall of 2003 have allowed the state's seven hatcheries to produce more and bigger trout than usual. By May 31, almost all of those trout will be stocked in 199 waters, providing Mountain State fishermen with countless hours of entertainment.

Biologist Mike Shingleton, who heads up the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) coldwater fisheries section, calls the wet conditions "a welcome change from what we usually have to contend with. In an ordinary year, we usually have low-water problems in one or more of our hatcheries."

Hatchery managers can easily deal with too much water; too little water, however, causes major problems. Trout thrive best in cold, oxygen-rich water. The more water each fish has to live in, the better. Low-water conditions force hatchery personnel to crowd too many trout into too few rearing ponds and raceways. The more crowded the fish become, the less oxygen they have to breathe. Their wastes aren't as easily flushed away. Diseases are more easily spread.

None of those problems cropped up last year. As a result, Shingleton says, hatchery managers were able to distribute trout to smaller, drought-prone hatcheries much earlier than normal.

"After the fall stockings, we usually transfer fish from our main hatcheries to some of the smaller ones," he explains. "When it's dry, we have to delay those transfers until December or January. That really inhibits the fishes' growth. Last fall, we were able to transfer the fish earlier. That should allow them to grow a little larger by the time they're stocked this spring."

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

West Virginia's trout-stocking program is an ambitious one. Between Jan. 1 and May 31 of an average year, hatchery crews place approximately 621,000 fish, weighing approximately 745,000 pounds, in 132 streams and 67 lakes.


In the state's best streams, trout stocked in spring sometimes manage to evade several months' worth of lures and baited hooks and are present when the following year's stockings take place. Thanks to last year's wet weather, those "holdover trout" will be especially abundant this spring.

"The number of holdovers is higher than it's been in a long, long time," Shingleton says. "Most of our streams stayed very high throughout the summer. Fishing was tough. Instead of picking a weekend when they had time to go fishing, people were forced to look for weekends when the water was low enough to fish. As a result, a lot of trout survived the season and will be around for this spring."

A bumper crop of holdover trout, coupled with the aforementioned ideal hatchery conditions, should yield plenty of nice-sized trout this season. Last year's fish, which averaged about 11 inches in length, will have added another year's worth of growth. This year's hatchery fish should be closer to the 12-inch ideal size that DNR managers try to attain.

Not all trout streams are created equal, however, so anglers who hope to take advantage of the holdover-and-hatchery harmonic convergence should concentrate on some of the state's so-called "high-quality" waters.

For the most part, those are streams that would harbor wild or reproducing trout populations even if they didn't receive regular plantings of hatchery fish. Most of them are stocked once in January, again in February, and once a week between the first of March and the end of May. Many of these waters receive fall stockings as well.

Of all the stocked waters, the Cranberry River arguably has the largest and most loyal band of followers. Born in the highlands of Pocahontas County, the Cranberry tumbles 27 miles through parts of Greenbrier, Webster and Nicholas counties. From its headwaters to its mouth, it is trout water all the way.

Sixteen miles of the river flow through the Cranberry Backcountry and are closed to vehicle traffic. Access is anything but limited, however. Forest Service Route 76 parallels the stream from its headwaters to the Woodbine Recreation Area, just six miles upstream from the mouth. Anglers usually walk or ride bicycles into the 16-mile gated section.

Two segments of the river have been set aside for catch-and-release fishing. The 4.3-mile stretch between the North Fork of the Cranberry and the Dogway Fork Bridge lies behind the gates, but the 1.2-mile stretch between Woodbine and Camp Splinter is vehicle-accessible.

Two large acid-neutralization stations ensure the river's status as a year-round fishery, but early-season fishing conditions can be harsh. Spring comes late to the high Alleghenies, and it isn't uncommon for anglers to leave Charleston on a balmy spring day and wade through snow to reach the Cranberry.

Hatchery crews begin making weekly stockings as soon as the river road is passable. In addition, the Cranberry receives supplemental stockings of fingerling brown trout. Most fishermen would be startled to learn just how many fish - wild and stocked - the river holds from year to year.

If the Cranberry has a rival sister river, the Williams River is it. The two streams are within a few miles of one another, follow nearly parallel northwesterly paths, and empty into the Gauley River within a few miles of one another.

The Williams is a little less wild than its sister, and a great deal more angler-friendly. County Route (CR) 46/2 parallels the stream from its mouth to Dyer, and Forest Service Route 86 continues from there to the Tea Creek Campground near the Highland Scenic Highway. The river seldom wanders more than a few hundred yards from either road.

Limestone in the Williams' headwaters has kept the river free of the acid problems that used to plague the Cranberry. Not surprisingly, the Williams traditionally harbors a small but stable population of holdover trout.

Most of the river receives weekly stockings between March 1 and May 31. The only exceptions are the river's headwaters above Day Run, the slow-flowing "dead water" stretch between Handley and Tea Creek, and the two-mile catch-and-release section that extends downstream from Tea Creek.


ker County's Blackwater River is a study in contrast with the Cranberry and the Williams - not because it holds any fewer trout, but because of its unique nature.

The Cranberry and Williams are classic mountain freestone streams, tumbling from riffle to pool over stones worn smooth by their currents. Most of the Blackwater's stocked section flows quietly through Canaan Valley, a boggy wetland complex perched more than 3,000 feet above sea level.

In its upper reaches, the Blackwater is a small stream, sand- and gravel-bottomed, with deeply undercut banks. It meanders aimlessly through wet meadows, occasionally breaking over the odd beaver dam. Farther downstream, as it picks up gradient, it begins to look more like the trout streams most West Virginians are used to.

The most productive stretch lies almost within the town limits of Davis, downstream of an acid-treatment station built to counteract the effects of acid mine drainage.

From the treatment station downstream to the Blackwater's confluence with its North Fork, it is prime trout habitat. The 3.5-mile section from Blackwater Falls State Park downstream to the North Fork is managed under catch-and-release regulations, but the rest receives heavy weekly stockings.

The Blackwater's headwaters and the segments near Davis can be reached from state Route 32. The middle section of the river runs through private land and the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, and is accessible by secondary roads.

Another reliable stocked-trout fishery is the South Branch of the Potomac River in Pendleton County. For sheer mileage and volume, it's hard to beat this river system.

The South Branch is big water, perfectly capable of holding trout over from one year to the next. Some of the holdovers grow to be whoppers. The state-record brown trout, a 32-inch, 16-pound monster, came out of the South Branch in 1968. Every year, the river yields several rainbows and browns in the 5- to 10-pound class.

Hatchery crews stock the river from the point where it flows across the Virginia line to the lower end of the legendary Smoke Hole canyon. U.S. Route 220 parallels the stream from the Virginia line to Ruddle, and CR 2 provides access from Upper Tract to the Smoke Hole's Big Bend Recreation Area.

One section of the river has been set aside for catch-and-release angling. The segment begins two miles below Eagle Rock along U.S. Route 220 and extends another two miles downstream from there.

The South Branch's main tributary, the North Fork of the South Branch, also ranks among the state's blue-chip fisheries. It, too, flows through Pendleton County, just a ridge or two away from its larger sister.

The North Fork is shallower and not quite as rugged as the South Branch. Two major floods within the last decade have triggered aggressive post-flood dredging by private landowners and government agencies. Most of the river's big boulders have been pushed out of the main channel and onto the banks.

Even so, DNR crews have continued to stock the stream weekly. It has remained an angler favorite because two roads provide constant access to it for its entire length.

From the Virginia line downstream to Cherry Grove, CR 19 follows the river closely. State Route 28 parallels it the rest of the way to Petersburg.

A 3/4-mile segment of the North Fork near Seneca Rocks is reserved for catch-and-release fishing.

One of West Virginia's most scenic streams has to be Randolph County's Gandy Creek. It rises on the west flank of Spruce Knob, the state's highest mountain, and flows through a wild little valley deep in the Monongahela National Forest.

Gandy is an average-sized trout stream with above-average water quality. Its headwaters flow through the Sinks of Gandy, a mile-long limestone cavern that cools the fledgling creek's waters and enriches them with calcium and other mineral nutrients.

From the Sinks downstream to the town of Whitmer, Gandy is prime trout water, with excellent populations of wild brook and brown trout, as well as stocked rainbows and browns.

County Route 29 parallels the stream for almost its entire length. County road crews keep the mostly-dirt thoroughfare open in all but the most severe late-winter conditions, and stocking crews ordinarily have little trouble keeping their weekly schedule.

Anglers who would like to experience first-hand the value of habitat improvement should visit the stretch of stream just downstream of Swallow Rocks. In the early 1990s, DNR crews did an artful job of placing boulders in the stream to restore habitat lost to flood scouring. It's difficult to tell which boulders were placed and which ones have been there for eons. The trout seem to like both.

Of all Mountain State trout streams, the Elk River most closely rivals the Cranberry for the title of the state's No. 1 trout fishery.

The Elk combines limestone-rich water quality with world-class freestone structure. That fortuitous convergence gives birth to more than 30 miles of outstanding trout water.

The heaviest stockings take place in the "big-water" section of the stream from Whittaker Falls downstream to Webster Springs. Farther upstream, DNR officials manage the stream for wild trout.

From the Elk's birthplace in Slatyfork downstream to Whittaker Falls, the trout population is composed of native brookies, stream-spawned rainbows and fingerling-stocked browns.

Catch-and-release, artificials-only regulations are in place throughout most of the upper section. The first segment, between Slatyfork and a sinkhole that swallows the river, measures 3.6 miles. The second segment, between Elk Springs and Whittaker Falls, is two miles long.

Stocked-trout fishing dominates the river below Whittaker Falls, although anglers sometimes catch holdover browns and rainbows as well.

County routes 26 and 26/1 parallel the Elk from Curtin upstream to Whittaker Falls. State Route 20 provides access between Cherry Falls and Webster Springs.

Another popular limestone-rich fishery is Greenbrier County's Anthony Creek. Its rich waters rise from springs on the Greenbrier-Pocahontas line and loop northward into Pocahontas County before curling back toward the southwest.

Along most of its length, Anthony picks up small, cold tributaries that tumble down from the flanks of Middle Mountain and Meadow Creek Mountain.

State Route 92 parallels the stream

along most of its journey down its broad, pastoral valley. Near Alvon, the North Fork of Anthony Creek joins the main stream, and the combined waters pick up gradient as they tumble toward their meeting with the Greenbrier River. County routes 15/2 and 21/2 follow the stream, and lead to the Blue Bend Recreation Area.

Blue Bend is, hands down, the most popular fishing spot on the entire stream. A giant spring hole gives the pool its name and its reputation for harboring lots and lots of trout.

The final - but by no means the least notable - stop on this year's roundup of best-bet trout streams is Dry Fork in Randolph and Tucker counties.

Though it goes by a different name, Dry Fork essentially is a continuation of Gandy Creek. The stream derives its name from a mostly dry tributary that intersects with Gandy just downstream from Whitmer. It seems odd that cartographers would name a large stream after an inconsequential tributary that contributes almost zero flow, but what's done is done.

Trout fishermen are more concerned with the number of fish they can catch, and Dry Fork is an excellent fishery despite its rather inappropriate name.

Holdover brown trout up to 10 pounds have been caught in the section between Job and Harman. Anglers routinely catch native brookies up to 10 inches in length, and rainbows up to 18 inches.

From Harman downstream to the town of Dry Fork, the stream becomes fairly sizable. Its holdover trout tend to be sizable, too.

County Route 29 parallels the stream from Whitmer to Harman, and SR 32 provides access the rest of the way downstream.

From March through May, when the stocking trucks are rolling, any number of West Virginia trout streams can provide day after day of relaxing entertainment. This season, thanks to the soggy hand of Mother Nature, should be better than most.

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