Officials see future of North Branch in rebirths of Gunpowder and Savage


BLOOMINGTON -- Eight miles west of this small Garrett County town, the North Branch of the Potomac River is being reborn through a progressive system of trout management, and the river below Bloomington Dam eventually may become a Mecca for fly fishermen on the East Coast.

But already in Maryland, there are two trout rivers that are the stuff of dreams made from what once were close to being nightmares.

Those rivers are the Lower Savage in Western Maryland and the Gunpowder in Baltimore County.

In the Gunpowder River, brook trout and brown trout have been reproducing naturally for some time -- and now there is evidence of natural rainbow trout reproduction for the first time.

On the Savage, a stream that once was heavily stocked with rainbows and heavily fished by a brigade of anglers who had memorized the routes of the hatchery trucks, there is strictly wild trout management.

That the Gunpowder and Savage thrive and the North Branch may follow is due in no small part to the cooperation of Baltimore City and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Baltimore controls Prettyboy Dam and has for several years agreed to keep the flow of water from the dam into the Gunpowder at levels that will most benefit its trout populations.

The Corps of Engineers has done the same on the Lower Savage and the North Branch.

In all cases, the flow keeps the water temperatures at a low enough level to support the aquatic insect population that is essential on good trout waters, said Dr. Robert Bachman, chief of freshwater fisheries for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.

In the case of sections of the Gunpowder and Savage, special regulations have helped to protect the fish.

"We know that we have brown trout reproducing very well in the Gunpowder," Bachman said. "But these rainbow fingerlings are starting to show up that are big enough to catch on a fly."

Bachman said there are no numbers available on the extent of the rainbow reproduction because the DNR does its stream surveys there in September, but he already is certain that brook, brown and rainbow trout are reproducing naturally there.

"And that's in 8 to 10 miles of river, and all of it on state land with a trail alongside," Bachman said. "There is no question in my mind that catch-and-release regulations are responsible for it.

"You have to keep the fish protected long enough to get big enough to find whether they will spawn successfully."

On the lower Savage, where wild trout management is being conducted and all stocking discontinued, there is a daily catch limit of two trout per day and minimum size limits of 12 inches for brook trout and 18 inches for brown trout. There also are tackle restrictions on the river.

Ken Pavol, fisheries director for Western Maryland, said that brown trout are reproducing there in abundant numbers and there has been a spillover effect in the North Branch of the Potomac where it meets the Savage.

"When we went to strictly wild trout management on the Lower Savage," Pavol said, "we antagonized a lot of local people who were essentially oriented to following a hatchery truck over the river and fishing where the trout were dumped.

"But for a fishery manager, if you don't have to grow the fish and then they will reproduce by themselves and still get the best economic benefit from it -- well, you want to maximize that."

The value of a trout stream to its local economy, Pavol said, is greater in the case of a wild fishery because its attraction will be year-round rather than seasonal, as in stocked streams. A prime trout stream, according to a University of Maryland study, generates $100,000 per year per mile.

A prime trout stream is one that may be fished year-round and will draw people from other areas to fish it. In the process, those people from elsewhere must pay for somewhere to stay, somewhere to eat, etc., all of which goes into the local economy.

"To me, good, sound fisheries management also benefits people who couldn't care less about fishing," Pavol said. "The local businessman who never fished in his life should be excited that ** we are trying to create an opportunity like this."

A portion of the North Branch of the Potomac, from Bloomington Dam to Barnum, W. Va., likely will come under special regulations, and as was the case on the Lower Savage, certainly there will be those who protest the change.

And although there apparently still will be stocking of fish below Barnum and maintenance of a five-fish-per-day limit, the brightest future of the North Branch probably can be seen in the recent past of the Gunpowder and the Lower Savage.

"Everything has been coming up roses at all three of thesplaces -- Savage, Gunpowder and North Branch," said Bachman. "I keep wondering when the sky is going to fall in.

, "It is too good to be true."

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