The road that winds back through Mineral County, W.Va., past the hamlet of Barnum is at its best in dry weather, and even then the dirt surface is rutted and potholed. But at the end of the rough ride lies the best trout fishing in the North Branch of the Potomac River.
Tommy Morgan and his friend since boyhood, Troy Lynn, have made the trip many times over the past 10 years, whenever they felt the need to get away to Blue Hole.
On June 28, Morgan and Lynn made their way down to the North Branch, flies and rods in hand, after a day of fixing up a house Lynn had bought nearby.
"We have been in that area a good bit over the years, hunting, fishing and camping," said Morgan. "But this was the first time this year. Maybe that had something to do with the luck of it."
When the two anglers reached Blue Hole, a long, deep pool in the North Branch, sided on the Maryland shore by steep rocky walls, and on the West Virginia shore by rocky, bottom land, Morgan had to borrow a leader from his friend. The leader on his fly rod, stored on the reel after an earlier trip downriver to Bond's Landing, had become a small gordian knot and had to be cut away.
"Troy took some 4-pound test leader from his gear and gave it to me and I tied on a muddler minnow I bought down at the Bass'n Box in LaVale," Morgan recalled. "And it hit on the first cast."
It was a brown trout. A 12-pound, 10-ounce, 29.5-inch brown trout that has been certified as the state record for its species taken on hook and line in Maryland waters.
The previous mark, set in August 1977, is an 11-pound, 9-ounce fish taken from Deep Creek Lake by Bill Frankhowser.
"I knew there were big trout in that river," said Morgan, an unemployed 28-year-old truck driver from Midlothian in Allegany County. "But I never dreamed that I would catch anything like that there. Right on the first cast. It was evening, and the trout hit just as the sun went behind the hill."
In his years of fishing Blue Hole and the North Branch, Morgan said, the river has steadily improved to the point where it is "chock full of fish."
"Last August we were fishing Blue Hole with spinners, and there were clouds of fish trailing the lures, and you would catch one every other cast or so," Morgan said. "But I never dreamed of this . . . especially where I caught it, right off where they stock the trout from the trucks. Fifteen thousand people must have fished that spot already this year."
Ken Pavol, biologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the big brown probably is a hatchery fish that was released more than five years ago by either Maryland or West Virginia, both of which stock the North Branch, which is considered Maryland territory to the West Virginia shoreline.
"In the vicinity of Jennings Randolph Dam and downstream, there are lots of big trout," said Pavol, who has been involved with the rebirth of the North Branch since the dam was opened in the early 1980s and verified Morgan's catch.
"That fish could be one of the early residents of the river. But certainly it is a fish put in after the dam opened."
The Jennings Randolph Dam has played a major role in rebuilding the North Branch. By mixing water from behind the dam and releasing it at certain temperatures, Army Corps of Engineers at the dam create a new, vibrant river below the dam.
The new river now supports rainbow and brown trout where once there were largely stunted trash fish. Although brown trout in the North Branch are reproducing naturally now, Pavol said it is unlikely that a naturally spawned fish could have grown to such a size in such a short time.
"Ken told me that this fish was big enough to have eaten the stocked trout, and maybe that is how it grew so big," said Morgan, who was laid off from his truck-driving job late in May and has fished once or twice a week since. "However he got where he was, on the day he got there, I am glad that he did.
"But it is like my dad told me, something led you to being out of work, led you to catching that fish. With that done, it is time to find another job and get back to work.
"But that time I had off now is something I never will forget."