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Storm-felled trees create new trout habitat in W.Va’s Mill Creek

Photo courtesy WVDNR
By anchoring logs strategically into the bed of Randolph County’s Mill Creek, workers have created trout-holding pools in formerly featureless stretches of water.
Photo courtesy WVDNR
With just two carefully placed logs, workers have focused the stream’s flow toward the center and created a mini-waterfall that, with time, will scour a deep pool.
Photo courtesy WVDNR
Even a single log, pinned and wedged between boulders, can redirect a stream’s current and create a deep hole underneath.

Even a good trout stream can stand a little improvement.

That’s why a crew of workers has spent most of the summer dragging fallen logs into the crystalline waters of Randolph County’s Mill Creek, creating much-needed habitat for the stream’s native brook trout.

“A lot of Mill Creek in Kumbrabow State Forest is fairly low-gradient,” said Steve Brown, senior planner for the state Division of Natural Resources and a member of the work crew.

“The low-gradient sections don’t have many pools. What we’re doing is creating pools that we hope will allow the trout to grow bigger.”

The project, funded by a $49,000 grant from the non-profit Eastern Brook Trout Venture organization, largely involves moving logs into the river to dam or deflect the current. Brown said the logs were literally lying near the creek’s banks, waiting to be used.

“The [June 2012] derecho and [October 2012’s] Superstorm Sandy broke a lot of trees and dumped a lot of wood into the stream,” he explained. “If you start with an initial goal of creating more pools, and combine that with the fact that Mother Nature has provided you with lots of building material, you get a juxtaposition that shouldn’t be ignored.”

In an ideal trout stream, pools should occur at least every 200 feet. Brown said that in Mill Creek’s low-gradient stretches, pools weren’t nearly that frequent. To fix that problem, he and the others employed a technique he calls “strategic chop-and-drop.”

The term ‘chop and drop’ describes a technique for creating fish habitat,” he said. “In its simplest form, it basically involves felling a streamside tree and letting it drop into the water. In our case, the trees were pre-felled; some of them still had root balls attached. We’ve taken that material and arranged it in a more engineered way so it creates a stream that’s good for fish and one that’s interesting and enjoyable for fishermen too.”

The structures range from single logs placed at angles so they deflect the stream’s current in a more desirable direction, to three- or four-log “cross vanes” that create miniature waterfalls.

The object, Brown said, is to direct and speed up the current so that it scours deep holes into the creek bed’s stones and gravel.

“Some of the structures are recognizable as being man-made, but others — such as root balls placed so they create holes nearby — you’d think were there all along,” Brown said.

One of the problems with chop-and-drop habitat creation is that the logs must be long and massive to prevent being swept away during floods. Many of the trees along Mill Creek weren’t quite that large, so workers “pinned” them to the bottom with steel rods.

“We wanted these structures to be there a while,” Brown said. “So we pinned them in place or arranged them so they interlock with other logs in a way that makes the whole mass stable. If you build the structures properly, they encourage the stream to gouge the channel downstream, creating depth.”

In some places, the work crew has transformed straight, shallow, featureless sections of the streambed into sinuous arrangements of pools.

“From a fisherman’s standpoint, that’s pretty neat,” said Brown, himself an avid angler. “It’s pretty obvious now where in the stream the fish are more likely to be.”

Though the idea for the project originated within the DNR, Brown credited state Department of Forestry officials for their part in helping to carry it out.

“The forester who has this area, Travis Miller, was excited about it because it cleared out a lot of the downed trees and it was a wood-based solution to the stream’s problem,” Brown said.

“[DNR officials] entered into an agreement with Forestry to provide some labor to help us wrangle logs — cut, move, select; all of that. The DNR Parks Section, which manages Kumbrabow, was happy to see the stream being improved, too.”

A rented track hoe allowed the workers to move the logs into the streambed with relative ease, and to position them much more precisely. In stretches of stream the machine couldn’t access, workers built structures the old-fashioned way — with hand tools, muscle and sweat.

The crew created 55 structures along 6 miles of Mill Creek. Most of those, Brown said, were installed in the 1.5-mile section of stream that extends from just below the forest’s campground to the superintendent’s office.

“That’s where the track hoe had the easiest access,” he added.

Work on this summer’s phase of the project should continue through the end of August or thereabouts. DNR officials will then monitor the structures and determine which ones need to be modified.

“The fat lady ain’t sung yet,” Brown said. “Even when we’re ‘done’ with this, we won’t be done with it. Some structures will work better than others, and the ones that don’t work well will have to be tweaked. So the work will continue at Mill Creek, probably over the course of the next year or two.”

The structures, Brown said, “will make it a much more enjoyable place to fish.”

“This will be a fun [stream], particularly for those who are beginning to get on the other side of 60 years old,” he said. “The creek isn’t steep, it’s easy to wade, the currents are manageable, and there’s a nice trail alongside it.”

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