A perfect storm is hitting southern West Virginia’s Coal River.
Just as the river and its two main tributaries are recovering from decades’ worth of environmental abuse, anglers are discovering the benefits of fishing from kayaks. Those factors are triggering a recreational whirlwind.
Bill Currey has been watching it build, and he couldn’t be happier.
“We’ve had a huge influx of new people,” said Currey, a spokesman for the Coal River Group, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting, preserving and promoting the watershed.
“Last Sunday, at the boat launch and takeout spot above the Upper Falls, there were 88 cars jammed into that little bitty lot. In the lot just downstream of the falls, there were 58 cars. All those people were going somewhere or coming from somewhere, so they had vehicles at the other end [of their float trips], too. The parking lot at the Lower Falls, a few miles downstream from Upper Falls, was packed. You couldn’t get another car in there.”
Many of the kayakers were recreational paddlers interested only in taking a peaceful float down a picturesque river. Many of them also were anglers eager to tie into the river’s burgeoning schools of game fish.
“Experts look at the river now and say we have an amazing diversity of fish,” Currey said. “People are fishing the river for largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleye, muskie and catfish. The rivers’ mussel populations are coming back. People are even seeing hellbenders.”
The increase in biological diversity signals a major improvement to water quality throughout the watershed. Fewer than three decades ago, aquatic life in the Little Coal, Big Coal and lower Coal suffered from the effects of coal-mine pollution, road-construction sedimentation, raw-sewage contamination and indiscriminate trash dumping. Not much could survive such a quadruple whammy, and not much did.
That began to change in the early 1990s. Environmental regulations required coal companies, highway construction crews and real-estate developers to keep silt and sediment from escaping into the river. Community sewage systems replaced septic tanks and “straight pipes” that led directly from people’s bathrooms to the riverbanks. State and local authorities cracked down on illegal trash dumping.
At the same time, a grass-roots movement began to clean up the river and try to reverse some of the damage done by decades of environmental abuse.
“We got the trash out of the rivers,” Currey said. “We put together cleanup teams. We got people who live in three or four counties to pitch in and clean up the rivers over the course of 15 years. That alone changed a lot of attitudes. Today, if you got caught putting an old tire into the river, the miners who did those cleanups would hang you.”
The trash gradually disappeared, but the sand and silt did not. Enter the state Department of Environmental Protection, which in 2007 launched a $9 million watershed restoration project designed to flush away the accumulated sediment.
Using stone, wood and other natural materials, crews built 213 structures up and down the river. The structures aimed and sped up and focused the water so it would wash away the sand and silt and expose the underlying rocks.
The project was an unqualified success. Aquatic insects and other invertebrates reestablished themselves, dramatically expanding the base of the river’s food chain. The insects fed bait fish, which in turn fed growing burgeoning populations of game fish.
“What the DEP has done here on the Coal is, to me, one of the most successful river restorations in the United States, or at least the eastern United States,” Currey said. “Fishermen love it.”
The easiest and most efficient way to fish the river is to float it. Most of the watershed is too shallow and rocky for motorboats, but anglers in canoes and kayaks can navigate it easily.
“Most fishermen, when they get into the water, only want to fish 2 to 3 miles at a time and then get out,” Currey said. “The more access points you have, the more attractive you are to fishermen.”
To make life easier for anglers, Currey’s Coal River Group worked with state and local authorities to establish 20 boat-launch areas along 88 miles of river.
“Now, the people who float-fish the river have plenty of places to put boats in and take them out,” Currey said. “We think we’re the best water trail in the state for kayak fishermen. Each segment is a different style of water. Some are fast water, some are slower. Most of the ones upstream [from Tornado] have really good habitat.”
The Coal has become so popular among anglers that it’s now attracting kayak bass-fishing tournaments.
“We’ll be hosting a tournament on July 27,” Currey said. “It will be held on three or four different rivers, but it will be headquartered here.”
The main problem now, Currey added, is that the river’s launch sites sometimes can’t accommodate enough vehicles.
“It’s a good problem to have, though,” he said. “Everybody is feeling the impact of additional tourism. I know of three new riverfront boating, camping and recreation centers being built right now. People are selling bait, offering guide services — we’ve even got an Uber driver who has two vans equipped with boat racks so he can run shuttles for kayakers.”
Currey even thinks the Coal’s growing reputation as a recreational and fishing destination might ultimately encourage out-of-state businesses to locate nearby.
“If you want to do something to attract potential new residents, show them a good time on a river somewhere,” he said. “Once people from outside the state see the recreational opportunities we have here, they’ll want to bring their employees here. We’re building the infrastructure for that to happen.”