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Workers roll rocks, arrange logs to create trout habitat on WV trout stream

DORCAS — One of West Virginia’s least-known trout fisheries just got a major facelift.

Workers recently completed more than three dozen habitat-improvement structures on the public fly fishing-only section of Spring Run, a tiny stream located in rural Grant County. State fisheries officials believe the work will help the stream harbor more and bigger trout.

“We purchased the property in 2017, and even then it was on our radar as needing some [habitat] work,” said Dave Thorne, the Division of Natural Resources’ trout biologist.

In late June, crews began work on the mile-long segment of the stream managed by the DNR. Thorne said the structures were designed to create places for fish to hide from predators and to enjoy a little respite from the stream’s swift currents.

“In its natural state, Spring Run is a high-gradient stream that runs over a lot of bedrock and doesn’t have a lot of ‘holding water,’” he added. “It’s jammed into a little valley between the road and a steep hillside, and it doesn’t meander much.”

The creek’s lack of habitat has been a problem for decades.

“It was developed as a fly fishing-only stream as far back as the late 1950s and early 1960s by a fellow named Harrison Shobe,” he said. “Mr. Shobe put in small wooden dams to create small pools. As he got older, he sold the stream to a group of people led by a fellow named Jerry Burke. Jerry did a ton of stream improvement, especially after the 1985 flood.

“He enhanced the stream with what we call K-dams and V-dams. He was very successful. The structures held up well, but the most recent ones he built are more than 20 years old now, and they’re starting to show their age. Early in the spring of 2018, there was a big flood that scoured some of them out and really made a mess of the habitat.”

To set things right, DNR officials called on the Natural Resources Analysis Center at West Virginia University to serve as the contractor.

“Paul Kinder is head of that program at WVU,” Thorn said. “Steve Brown, a retired DNR biologist, is the project manager and equipment operator.”

The work was old hat to Brown, who spearheaded similar projects on Mill Creek in Kumbrabow State Forest and Laurel Fork in Holly River State Park. Brown said Spring Run’s unique bedrock geology required a slightly different approach.

“On those streams, we shaped the structures to scour out deep spots,” he said. “On Spring Run, we’re mostly trying to deflect the current from side to side and create undercut banks where the trout can hide.”

Using large logs and rocks as building material, Brown designs the structures to look as natural as possible.

“Most of them are single-wing vanes and j-hooks,” he said. “We’re also putting in a few ‘lunker bunkers,’ which are undercut areas with overhead logs anchored in place by rocks and steel rebar.”

Brown and his colleagues also brought in more than 70 tons of rounded river cobble to create riffle areas where aquatic insects can thrive. The work sounds simple, but it wasn’t.

“First, we found a segment on the stream that had a nice natural riffle,” he explained. “We made that our ‘reference riffle,’ and we did a ‘pebble count’ to determine how big the stones we brought in needed to be.”

As it turned out, the stream’s cobbles ranged in size from 6 inches down to half an inch. Brown had four loads brought in — one of 6-inch stone, one of 3-inch, one of 1-inch and one of half-inch.

With those stones, Brown was able to construct two riffles separated by a medium-sized pool. To keep the rounded rocks from moving about in during high-water episodes, he threw in some angular-faced cobbles to hold them in place.

Thorne believes the new structures will last substantially longer than the old ones did.

“One advantage we had is the use of a mid-sized excavator, which allowed us to move some pretty substantial logs and rocks,” he said. “The structures [Burke] put in were done with materials that could be moved by hand. By using bigger logs and rocks, we’re putting in structures that better suit the dynamic nature of this stream.”

Even during severe droughts, Spring Run maintains a heavy flow. An artesian spring, one of the Mountain State’s largest, spews roughly 3,000 gallons of limestone-rich water into the stream each minute. Sudden cloudbursts can turn the already-full stream into a millrace. Thorne said the new structures, heavily anchored with rock and pinned with rebar, should stay in place even during high-water events.

“We’ve designed the stream for high-intensity use,” he added.

The streamside lane created by the excavator and loader during construction has been seeded with grass, and Thorne said it would be mowed every week or so by an employee of the nearby Spring Run Trout Hatchery.

The stream originally held native brook trout, but Thorn said those had pretty much disappeared by the mid-1930s. Rainbow trout were then introduced, and they thrived in the limestone-rich water.

“Since then, it’s had a good population of naturally reproducing rainbows,” Thorn explained. “Over the course of the past few years, [Burke] would catch brook trout from other streams and bring them here. They’re doing extremely well, too. Some are getting up to a foot long, and their numbers are increasing.”

The brookies’ success notwithstanding, Thorne said the stream will retain plenty of rainbows.

“With the hatchery, some rainbows are going to be straying in here anyway,” he continued. “It doesn’t matter if one species takes over. If it reverts to a pure brook-trout stream, that wouldn’t hurt my feelings, but that’s not the most ideal situation for this stream. It’s got enough productivity to hold high numbers of rainbows and brooks.”

Researchers from WVU will monitor any changes the habitat-restoration project makes in the stream’s trout, crustacean and aquatic-insect populations. DNR officials will use the data to guide future stream-improvement efforts.

In the meantime, Thorne has a simple message for anglers: Enjoy the stream.

“It’s a beautiful little system,” he said. “It’s not the most natural-looking stream you’ll fish, and it’s not a get-away fishing experience, but the fishing is pretty fantastic here.”

Reach John McCoy at, 304-348-1231

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