BLOOMINGTON -- At the base of the massive dam that backs the North Branch of the Potomac River into 1,000-acre Jennings-Randolph Reservoir, an outdoor laboratory a half acre in size may lead to the accelerated rebirth of 35 miles of waterway that had been virtually dead for 100 years.
That a waterway may be cleansed and reborn is not unusual -- but the manner in which the North Branch above this Garrett County town is being repopulated with brown trout is. In fact, the men who run the project say that it is unique in the United States and perhaps the world.
This business of rebirth began a decade ago with the completion the Bloomington Dam, an Army Corps of Engineers project authorized for purposes of flood control, flow augmentation, water quality improvement and recreation.
Yet until a few years ago, the North Branch from Bloomington west remained largely an aquatic wasteland.
Now, biologists expect the 27-plus miles of river above the reservoir can be reclaimed and predict the eight miles of the North Branch below the dam will become a wild trout fishery that could pump $1 million a year into the local economy and draw fishermen from around the world.
It is a possibility that would have been against all odds in the days while coal was king in the watershed of the upper North Branch for the better part of a century, when no one much cared that coal exposed to oxygen and rainwater would produce sulfuric acid that, in sufficient quantity, could destroy almost anything -- including the rivers and all that lived in them.
Since the 1970s, federal laws have required that mining land be reclaimed and left as close to its natural state as possible. But the damage to the North Branch had been immense.
In a roundabout way, this foraging of the land and fouling of the waters is what led Michael Dean, then a young biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, to the spillway at the foot of Bloomington Dam and what now is leading the upper North Branch back among the living.
"This river has been dead for 100 years or so," said Dean, who since 1984 has been part of the DNR team working on the river. "But since they built this dam, we have been able to closely study and learn to control water quality and, to an extent, control water temperature and water flow through the river below the dam."
In effect, Dean said, with the cooperation of the Corps of Engineers, the DNR has been able to create a new river from the old water above the dam.
In the stilling basin at the head of this new river, Dean and the DNR have created a research-and-development facility to rear brown trout in net pens year-round.
Three years ago, Dean started out with two net pens and raised 22,000 brown trout to catchable size. Now there are 18 net pens that hold 110,000 trout -- browns, rainbows and a small population of cutthroats, which never have been raised in Maryland.
Traditionally, Maryland has raised rainbow trout in other state hatcheries, where concrete pens and pumps and filters have enabled fisheries staff to produce hundreds of thousands of fish for the state's annual stocking program. But traditionally, the rainbows stocked in the state were not expected to hold over through the summer or to provide sport for much more than 90 days starting at the end of each March.
"The reason we wanted brown trout is that they are a hardier fish [than brook trout or rainbows], will hold over through extreme weather better and are harder for anglers to catch," said Dean. "They aren't likely to grab at cheese and the things that your normal rainbow will hit in a put-and-take situation."
But brown trout, Dean said, also are temperamental and skittish -- qualities that make them a challenge for fishermen -- and harder to rear because of more frequent problems with disease.
But in and around the net pens, the browns seem to thrive for several reasons, Dean said.
* A system of solar-powered feeders spins food out to the trout hourly and allows the fish to feed more often on smaller amounts and achieve a better growth rate.
* The depth of the stilling basin is unusual, ranging from 40 feet at the raceway wall to 26 feet under the pens.
* Each of the pens covers 300 square feet, and the nets are 10 feet deep.
* At low flow, the dam passes 200 cubic feet of water per second, and the water temperature is basically constant between 11 and 15 degrees Celsius.
* The water below the dam never freezes.
* And a multi-access port system in the dam allows the mixing of waters from the reservoir so that Dean's browns receive the best water quality possible.
The system of five ports, located in a tower facility separated from the restraining wall of the dam, allows the engineers to provide the proper balance of acidity and alkalinity (pH level) and the most beneficial temperature for the rearing station.
A pH level of 6 is acceptable for this project and for the benefit of the river below the dam, said Ken Pavol, DNR fisheries director for Region I, which extends from Sideling Hill to Maryland's western border. A pH level of 7 is neutral.
While the port system can keep the spillway and much of the eight miles of river below the dam at proper levels, the reclamation of the upper river and Randolph Lake itself will depend largely on the success of projects in Maryland and West Virginia that will use doses of limestone to reduce the acidity of streams and rivers in the watershed.
"Once those dosers go on line," said Pavol, who has worked on the river since the mid 1970s, "then we can look for improvement in water quality up above.
"So that adds 27 miles of river that we can begin to manage for recreational fishing, then the recreational fishery in the reservoir will benefit, and, of course, down here it will benefit as well as downstream."
At present, the stretch of the North Branch from the Bloomington Dam downriver toward the town of Bloomington, is a wondrous affair, a wide, quick moving section of river to rival the fabled trout waters of the American West, which are an international attraction for fishermen.
For Dean, who looks beyond his net pens to the wild-land areas of Garrett County and marvels openly, this section of river is a treasure.
"Nothing has the potential in the East for recreational fishing like this river does," Dean said, gesturing downriver toward where the North Branch beats against a stone mountainside and breaks away northeast. "This is some kind of big water."
For the time being, the best part of this stretch of big water is closed to the public, while the stretch from Barnum, W.Va., is managed as a put-and-take fishery on stocked trout that may be taken on any tackle at a rate of five fish per day.
In Dean's mile of water downriver from the dam, however, the new river is taking shape.
Outside the net pens, a spinoff population of brown trout has developed. Close to the surface, dozens of browns from 16 to 18 inches cruise in the cold water. Farther down in the stilling basin, brown trout 22 inches and longer prowl.
"Throughout the stilling basin and on down the river there are many, many trout like this, although it thins out toward Barnum," Pavol said, pointing out a fat, 24-inch brown.
In the 10 years since the dam was built, aquatic insect populations have increased, as have numbers of wild brook trout in the river. But, Pavol said, in the three years the rearing station has been in operation, grasses and other underwater growth have begun to regain a foothold.
"This is due to the reintroduction of nutrients to the water," Pavol said as we sat on the bank at Blue Hole below Barnum and nTC watched young brown and rainbow trout cruise and rise to feed in the clear water. "Much of those nutrients have been introduced because of the rearing station -- bits of feed that fall through the pens and wash down, excrement and so on. The chain of life is being re-established."
Atop that chain stands man, and already the DNR is making plans to regulate what it expects to become an incredible fishery below the dam.
"What we have proposed to do is establish a special fishing area from below the dam [where the river hits the mountainside and turns away northeast] down to Barnum, which is about a mile," said Pavol. "It would have to be catch and release because if you allow fishermen access to a population of fish like these and allow them to cut off their heads, you shortly won't have a population of fish.
"We want to protect the fish up here because what we have found is really exciting."
Last fall, above the first riffle below Bloomington Dam, Pavol said, the brown trout were spawning intensely.
"This year for the first time, these fish have naturally reproduced and we have in the river wild young of the year, the offspring of hatchery trout," Pavol said. "What we should get next is generations of fish produced in the river, which for all practical purposes will be wild fish.
"And if you get a big head of fish here successfully reproducing, the surplus offspring could populate the river downstream. We don't want to sacrifice these fish just for fishing opportunity when they could, year after year, provide many, many thousands of wild trout downstream."
Access to this section of the river is limited for fishermen, with no public entry along the Maryland shore from the town of Bloomington to beyond the Bloomington Dam. On the West Virginia shore, there are only a couple of access points near Barnum.
This remoteness may prove to be the single greatest aid in allowing the lower river to develop. The Corps of Engineers wants to restrict access to a line across the river at Barnum. The state is making little progress in acquiring parcels from the private landowner on the Maryland side of the river.
"Access is something we have been working on with varied success for some time," said Pavol, who has worked on the river since the mid 1970s. "Part of the problem is that because of the remoteness of the river and the poor water quality, for decades few people wanted access."
But, Pavol and Dean agreed, interest in the river is growing exponentially, and as fishing interest grows, there will be more and more public pressure to create access.
"The land values on a premium, blue-ribbon trout river unequaled in the East," Pavol said, "obviously are going to attract a lot of people pretty quickly.
"This is, after all, what people travel all the way out west for -- hell, what they go to Argentina for -- the opportunity to catch big fish."