Ecology, Trout and Tired Limbs
The day was winding to a close, my legs were exhausted, and I hadn’t seen a single trout.
It was a Saturday. I was in Kentucky in the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, which straddles the state’s border with Virginia and Tennessee. I and my friend and co-author David O’Hara, a former Middlebury College student, were working on a new book on Appalachian ecology. We were exploring the headwaters of the Cumberland River looking for evidence of wild brook trout and studying the health of the stream ecosystems. We had hiked three miles into the woods on unmarked trails, first wandering around circular and S-shaped ATV trails outside the park before eventually finding our way into the park, over a long steep ridge, and down into a deep narrow valley to a tiny historic creek known as Martin’s Fork of the Cumberland River. Given the various dead-ends and loop backs, we had probably walked closer to four miles on the way in—though the way out was a more direct three mile trip. And that doesn’t count our time walking up and down the stream itself.
It was beautiful hike, and we reminded ourselves on multiple occasions that the hike itself, and our observations about the land and water, were the primary purpose for our being there. The mountain laurels were already in bloom, and the wild rhododendrons—which grow to heights unheard of in Vermont—were on the verge of blooming. At the bottom of the ridge, the woods and understory were thick, making it difficult to navigate even on some of the overgrown trails. But once atop the ridge, it began to look more like whitetail country. There were several species of southern oak, including both white and red varieties, plenty of browse such as wild raspberry and rhododendron, and some dense stands of fir for cover.
In the background, many elusive deep-woods songbirds could be heard at times: thrushes and perhaps warblers, though I don’t know my birdsongs as well as I should. But they could only be heard when the cicadas fell silent. In this part of Kentucky, this was the 17th year in the cicada cycle: the year when they all emerge from the ground and mate. I had never experienced this before, though I’d read about it. At times, walking through the woods along the ridge trail sounded like walking past a fire station when the sirens were blaring; the whine of the cicadas was that loud. The sandy trail was covered with holes where they had emerged from the ground, as if somebody had taken a shot gun and aimed it at the ground from fifty feet in the air – over and over again all up the trail.
It was clear that many of the Gap’s wild population had been feasting on the abundance of cicadas. We found fresh bear scat, loaded with cicada wings. In another spot, the clear scratch marks of a turkey could be seen amongst a litter of cicada holes—and shortly after spotting the scratchings, we heard a turkey crashing through the brush just off the trail.
The one thing we didn’t find, however, were any wild brook trout, neither in Martin’s fork, nor later in Shilalah Creek, another Cumberland tributary that we also hiked in the late afternoon despite the fatigue in our legs. We had been sent to Martin’s fork by both a state fisheries biologist, and by a professional forester named Hagan Wonn—who also works two days a week as a professional fishing guide on the Cumberland River. The stream was tiny, even smaller than we imagined. Even smaller than Baldwin Creek as it flows through Jerusalem, Vermont. Still, down at the bottom of a deep and steep cut, with a thick canopy, we figured this headwater of the Cumberland could stay cold enough for trout. It had plenty of shaded pools up to three feet deep, mixed with some cascades and riffs. We tested the PH at about 5.4, which is slightly acidic, but by no means outside the tolerable range for brook trout. And the stream was rich in life. The first stone we overturned in the river revealed a half dozen tiny crayfish, some small salamanders, and a caddis fly casing with a live caddis nymph. Three different mayfly species were spotted flying over the stream. Further upstream—we bushwhacked and waded our way about a half a mile up the creek past where we first hit it—we found even more crayfish, including some whoppers. These were crayfish big enough that we could imagine them eating small trout, rather than feeding them: crayfish that made us step quickly out of the water.
But when we arrived back at the car at the end of the afternoon, we had no evidence that any brook trout were left in Martin’s Fork, or anywhere in the Cumberland headwaters. In fact, some state biologists suggest that there is no evidence native brook trout ever existed in Kentucky, in any water. If they did, it would have been hard for them to have survived in Cumberland. The ridge was completely cleared of trees in the 19th century to offer a better view for the artillery placed on top of the ridge to guard the famed Wilderness Road that runs along its southern side. Coal mining, including mountaintop removal, may have wiped out other populations. We pondered this all on our drive downriver that evening.
The Cumberland River below the dam on Cumberland Lake, however, is something else altogether. Before my flight home from Lexington on Sunday evening, Hagan took us fishing from his Montana-style drift boat. He picked us up at 5:30am, and we were on the river below the dam by 6:30am. Before we pulled off the river around 3pm, so I could catch my flight, Dave and I had caught and landed at least 50 brown and rainbow trout. Not native, of course. They had been, and continue to be, stocked. But they were big and healthy. Our day on the Cumberland with Hagan was the best trout fishing I had ever had east of the Mississippi River, and comparable to the best I’d had even out in Montana and Wyoming.
After Dave landed a particularly fat 19” rainbow on light 6x tippet—a trout that gave him a fight for a good 10 minutes—I saw him dangling his sore and tired arms at his side. Having caught three 18” to 19” fish myself in just one particularly productive 20 yard stretch of river, I could sympathize.
The day was winding to a close, my arms were exhausted, and I hadn’t seen a single trout… under 12”.