Voices from the river

Voices from the River: TU internship fuels public lands appreciation

The author shows off a bright steelhead pulled from a Great Lakes tributary.

By Chad Tokowicz

Fly fishing is more than a hobby. The sport has allowed me to develop a closer relationship with the various places I have called home. Fly fishing helps me align with the rhythm of the natural world, providing a break from the bustle of daily life that so often consumes my waking hours.

Whether drifting dries to rising trout on the Frying Pan River in Colorado, searching for striped bass on the Massachusetts Coast, or stalking Lake Ontario tributaries for fresh steelhead and salmon, my approach is always the same — I’ve always strived to respect, understand, and connect with the fisheries and places fly fishing takes me.

When I moved to Arlington, Va., to work as a Government Affairs intern in the Trout Unlimited national office, a new area opened up before me to explore through fly fishing. It’s no coincidence that most places I’ve fished in and around D.C. area have been public lands and access points.

As a new D.C. resident, the first place I decided to fish was the C&O canal.

Wikimedia Commons photo.

the trail running alongside it is most frequented by dog walkers and bicyclists, the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal offers a variety of species for the opportunistic angler. Designated as a National Historic Park in 1971, the C&O canal was a vital transportation corridor from Cumberland, Maryland to Washington, D.C. Throughout the 1800s the C&O canal was used to transport coal, lumber, wheat, and other bulk goods from the Alleghany mountains. Today, the canal —a nd its surrounding forests and trails — is a public space, maintained as a National Park by the National Park Service.

Once packed with mule-drawn barges, the C&O canal is now a carp fishing hotspot. Carp are selective, and ever-wary of their surroundings; they’ve recently gained a reputation among the fly fishing community as a worthy and exciting adversary. Carp are often referred to as the “golden bonefish,” or “pond shark,” and sight-fishing for them is common practice. A nymph or ant pattern, dropped gingerly in front of a feeding carp can induce a strike.

As I scanned the water of the canal, I spotted two carp resting under a semi-submerged log. I was surprised to locate the fish so quickly and started false-casting in their direction.

In my excitement, I forgot to check my surroundings, and immediately got snagged on an overhanging branch. I struggled to free my line. By the time I was untangled, the only remaining sign of the carp was the swirl of canal mud lingering in the water.

But I remained positive and continued down the dusty path along the canal. Minutes later, I spotted the wake of another carp cruising down the bank, headed my way: my chance.

This time, I looked around for snaggy branches. There was only a little room for a back cast, so I made a timid false cast and placed a green stonefly nymph gently in front of the fish, leading him by about 6 inches. By any account, it was a perfect presentation. I stood amid the bicyclists, dogwalkers and strollers poised to set the hook. But the carp swam past my fly without so much as a glance, setting the tone for the rest of the outing. Skunked.

But because it was my first fishing trip in the area, I wasn’t too upset. I left the C&O canal with a newfound respect for the common carp, and thankful to have spent time on public land with such rich history. I’ll be back, I thought.

To shake the skunk, I decided to chase a fish I, as a longtime resident of upstate New York,know a little better than the common carp: the eastern brook trout. I planned a trip for the next weekend to the Shenandoah National Park. The goal was to target native brook trout (below) in a cold and pristine high-mountain stream.

Designated in 1936 by President Franklin Roosevelt, Shenandoah National Park protects just under 200,000 acres, much of which provides suitable wild brook trout habitat. National and State Parks represent one of the last strongholds for brook trout in Virginia: Only 29% of historically occupied habitat in the state still supports intact, healthy brook trout populations.

The great thing about this National Park is that there are 90 known streams holding brook trout, making “blue lining” (picking out an unnamed blue line on the map and exploring the stream in search of brookies) a popular activity.

Only 90 minutes outside of Washington D.C., Shenandoah National Park is an easy day trip or weekend getaway for anglers in the DC metro area.

TU Volunteer Operations Coordinator, Nick Halle and I decided to focus our efforts on the Rose River, near the Graves Mountain Lodge in Syria, Va. As we wet-waded upstream, cool mountain water provided welcome relief from the hot summer air. I worked pools and current seams methodically with a size 14 Royal Wulff.

The water was high that day, and fishing was tough, but I still managed to trick two hungry brook trout. As I carefully handled these fish, I was struck by the beauty and resiliency of native brook trout. The lush, unspoiled forest around me — open to any American, and critical for healthy trout habitat — took on even more importance.

My most recent ‘local’ fishing excursion took place on the Gunpowder River, which flows through Baltimore County, Md.

The Gunpowder was a favorite of the late fly-fishing legend Lefty Kreh, and its success is largely due to the efforts of Maryland Trout Unlimited and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. In 1986, MDTU and the DNR came to agreement with the City of Baltimore for a minimum flow release from the Prettyboy Reservoir. This flow release agreement transformed the Gunpowder river from unsuitable habitat to an ideal trout sanctuary that now supports a population of wild browns and rainbows.

Arriving at the river around noon, I was surprised to see a steady hatch of sulphurs and midges coming off the surface. The water was low and crystal clear. I stalked slowly along the bank, and before long, began to spot trout feeding on the surface. Every so often the hungry trout would give up its position and blitz one of the bugs drifting downstream. After a few unsuccessful casts and subsequent fly chances, I discovered crippled Sulphur patterns were the ticket and started catching fish.

Moving to D.C. has provided me with the opportunity to learn the surrounding area through the hobby I love. It’s not lost on me that the ecosystems that have provided me the opportunities to fish are often available only through the American public lands system.

The benefit of public lands, and the conservation efforts that come with those designations, is hard to go unnoticed. And taking time to appreciate the history of these natural places only adds to the delight of fishing them.

I leave my internship at TU this week, but it feels good knowing wherever I end up there will be beautiful and wild places steeped in history where I can pursue my passion. As those our public lands system faces threats, it is our duty to do all we can to ensure they are protected for future generations to enjoy.

Chad Tocowicz is from North Andover, Mass. A graduate of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, he loves exploring new places through fly fishing, especially on public lands.

By Mark Taylor. A native of rural southern Oregon, Mark Taylor has lived in Virginia since serving a stint as a ship-based naval officer in Norfolk. He joined the TU staff in 2014 after a 20-year run as a newspaper journalist, the final 16 as the outdoors editor of the Roanoke Times. A graduate of Northwestern University, he lives in Roanoke with his wife and, when they're home from college, his twin daughters.