LOOK WITH HOPE along the eager stream that twists through the pastures of the DeFord farm in the clear sunlight of a fall afternoon and you can almost see the brown trout swimming by.
It may take a few years, God and nature willing, for this mile-long winding stretch of Long Green Creek to recover its status as a natural fishery, lost over the years to agricultural runoff and erosion of cattle grazing.
But the process is getting a lot of human help from efforts of Trout Unlimited and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
Those two conservation groups will be training volunteers in replanting stream banks and buffer zones on the Hydes, Md., property this Saturday in what is hoped to become a model demonstration of riparian restoration on private lands.
"It's not just the trout that will come back, but the wildlife and birds, too," said Scott McGill, resource director for Maryland Chapter of Trout Unlimited. "This is a part, a small part, of helping the overall water quality of the Chesapeake Bay watershed."
Through projects such as this in Harford and Baltimore counties, the fisherman's organization has worked to improve the quality of cold-water streams that flow into the Bay.
Little Gunpowder programs
Trout Unlimited has involved several large landowners in replanting buffer zones along the Little Gunpowder Falls, which forms the southwestern boundary of Harford with Baltimore County.
Miles of that important waterway are being fenced and planted to keep out livestock and provide cooling shade needed by fish and wildlife. The Maryland Forest Service is also playing a major role, designing buffers, overseeing the planting and arranging state cost-sharing aid.
Over time, intensive farming cleared the banks of creeks of protective shade trees and vegetation. Cattle broke down the banks, promoting erosion and pollution from fertilizer runoff and animal wastes.
Keeping livestock out and lowering summer water temperatures nurture fish are the main goals of stream buffer programs. Populations of naturally reproducing brown trout, in turn, indicate a healthy stream, notes Mr. McGill.
Johnathan DeFord, who was born on his family's spread, remembers catching some good-sized fish in the free-flowing stream as a boy three decades earlier. And taking a cool drink from the clear creek without concern.
"You can't do that today," Mr. DeFord said, "but I'd like my son to be able to fish out that stream again some day."
Volunteers from Trout Unlimited planted close to 1,000 seedlings and shrubs along the banks last fall, after some 1,200 feet of the stream were fenced off from grazing dairy cattle. This spring, the group was back, with help from Boy Scouts, to plant another 1,500 fast-rooting, fast-growing willow cuttings into the banks. The planting and fencing this fall will cover the rest of the stream on the DeFord property.
"We like the way it's turned out so far," Mr. DeFord said. "My mother's pleased with the idea of attracting more birds to the stream area."
Maryland Chapter of Trout Unlimited began work two years ago, sampling tempera- tures of the open meadow stream and of the forested, shaded waters above it. Mr. McGill, of Bel Air, made a survey of fish in the Long Green branch last summer.
"There was only one small brown trout on the DeFord property," he said, while the cooler, upstream stretch nurtured a healthy but small population of wild trout. "You could tell where their property began."
So the plan was developed to fence, plant and shade the banks of the stream, eventually growing a natural 50-foot buffer zone to block cows from the watercourse.
In time, the wild trout population upstream should migrate to the DeFord section as suitable habitat is restored, Mr. McGill explained. As more land- owners downstream participate in the voluntary program, the trout will eventually swim all the way to the Gunpowder River.
Enhanced public fishing
The Trout Unlimited initiative is not to open private lands to public fishing, but to restore the health of the stream, which will improve the entire watershed. And that will enhance fishing on waters open to the public, such as the Gunpowder Falls State Park, Mr. McGill pointed out.
The group tries to connect landowners with government assistance. The federal Stewardship Improvement Program and the state Buffer Improvement Program can repay nearly 90 percent of costs.
Money is used to pay for installing fences and for materials. But Trout Unlimited members volunteer their service, standing waist-deep in the water and mud to plant thousands of seedlings and willow twigs.
It is taken as an act of faith that their efforts will some day restore to these streams a thriving natural run of wild trout.
K? Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.