BUCKHANNON — “I like to say I have a dream that is two-feet long. One day I would like to see what we used to have — Brook trout over 20 inches on a pretty frequent basis.”
Dustin Wichterman, project leader for Potomac Headwaters Home River Initiative, shared what Trout Unlimited and its many partners are working to accomplish at the Buckhannon River Watershed Association meeting Wednesday.
“We have Brook trout now that are into the 14-inch to 16-inch range, so we are not too far away from obtaining our goal,” he said.
This is good news for trout fishermen, but Wichterman said it is a work in progress.
“I came to Trout Unlimited because my personal mission aligns very well with Trout Unlimited’s mission,” he said. “I grew up trout fishing in the mountains with my grandpa and I just wanted to do something for our state’s water.”
So Wichterman earned a master’s degree in fisheries at WVU and pursued a career with Trout Unlimited.
Potomac Headwaters Home River Initiative is TU’s flagship conservation program.
“Basically, it’s where you place someone in the community to make conservation happen for the native trout species that are there,” Wichterman said.
TU has 15 full-time staff in West Virginia and typically employs over 30 seasonal staff.
There are administrative support staff, fisheries biologists like Wichterman, and various other positions.
“We also have stream design specialists who actually get in and do the engineering work,” he said. “We also have our folks who put this work in the ground, so we have a fence crew of four folks who run all year fencing out habitat.”
TU will have six heavy equipment operators this year, which is the most it has ever had, according to Wichterman.
“We are funded by the conservation that we deliver,” he said. “Our funding doesn’t come through any membership dues. We say we are going to put the work in the ground, we garner the funding to do that and we deliver those results. We have been successful for 10 years in West Virginia doing that.
“We try to make it easy for folks to fix up our trout resources, so they come to us and say, ‘Hey, we really want to do what is right for the stream and we don’t know necessarily what we need to do.’”
That is where Wichterman and TU can help facilitate the process and work with various partners to help landowners realize conservation efforts.
“We step through every piece of that process from outreach to the other landowners in the watershed to funding to permitting and limitations,” he said.
“Our work spans both private and public lands,” Wichterman added. “A lot of the programs that are available for conservation are available to private landowners, and we utilize those.”
“Trout need good, clean, cold water to survive,” he said. “They like a temperature range somewhere between 50 and 70 degrees.”
Brook trout actually can survive pretty low pH levels because they have evolved in some of these mountain systems that are naturally acidic, but they are influenced by sediment and the availability of habitat, Wichterman explained.
Brook trout prefer a body of water without a lot of sediment where they can see the bottom.
Wichterman said TU works so much in the Potomac headwaters because there is a lot of funding in the Chesapeake Bay area to clean up those waters.
“Our program reflects the availability of the funding that is available,” he said. “If I had it my way, we would work in every single trout stream in the state, but we are not quite there yet. Our ultimate goal is to recreate this wild, interconnected fishery.”
Wichterman said that it is important to have genetically interconnected populations of Brook trout to allow for variance and increase their chance of survival.
“The reason that some of them are so fragmented is either because there is poor habitat that stops them from being able to move about, or there are barriers to fish passage there, like perched culverts that are 10 feet high and they can’t get back into,” he said. “That fragmentation is what we have been left as a result of all the disturbances we have put on these fishes.”
Those disturbances come from agriculture development, timber harvest and other man-made issues, as well as from natural disasters.
“Ultimately, if we do our job right, there will be one big continuous patch of Brook trout that we see throughout the upper ranges where they can live, extend those ranges and be able to move about.
“We will have genetically interconnected populations that are less prone to extinction because there is variation there. When we have these little fragmented populations, it’s a lot of individuals that are basically inbred and have a lot of the same characteristics.”
If there were to be a massive flood, a lot of these fish are going to respond the same way because they are so closely related and could get wiped out, according to Wichterman.
“Having that variability out there is very important so we can maintain the health of the population long-term,” he said.
The 1985 flood had a devastating affect on fish habitat in the North Fork River at South Branch.
“It filled that entire channel full of rocks, trees and farm animals,” he said. “It was a terrible scene, so folks came in there with dozers, reamed those channels out. It was a temporary fix, but it is kind of what we were left with. We have this wide channel that is void of habitat, open to the sun and it’s really not great for trout survival.
“We are trying to restore some of those post-flood recovery activities and we also have historic timber activities that also left the headwaters of the Greenbrier and the Gauley.”
“It takes two years worth of work to do two weeks worth of construction,” he said. “That’s an unfortunate reality. It’s there to protect those streams, but it is a lot of legwork up front to justify what we are doing.”
The work starts at the tops of mountains, where TU reclaims old roads.
“If you look across a lot of the hillsides in West Virginia, you will see this patchwork of roads running across there,” Wichterman said. “If you ask a lot of people in West Virginia, how do you think the rivers are compared to how they used to be, the answer is usually that they used to hold more water.”
TU reclaimed about 50 miles of roads in the past two or three years, which helped with runoff and improving those waters.
“We are going to keep moving hard on this,” Wichterman said.