Friday, July 16, 2010

Wildlife in North Carolina Writes About the Dan River

Below is a story in this months Wildlife in North Carolina. It is part I of II concerning the Dan River. Take a moment to read about this Stokes County treasure. Where it starts, where it goes and the wonderful discoveries along the way.
The Many Faces of the Dan River Part 1
I am kneeling on a boulder after just hitching myself
up the massive rock when I spot what I have been
looking for. There, bubbling up between moss-covered
rocks on the left and rhododendrons on the right, is a head -
water spring of the Dan River. The air smells earthy—a
mixture of pristine water, decaying leaves, lush rhododen -
dron, and verdant sugar maples, ashes and ironwood.
I am on a two-year quest to explore the multiple faces
of the Dan River, from where it trickles up from springs in
Virginia’s Patrick County to where it disappears into the
immensity of 48,900-acre Kerr Lake. North Carolinians
reading that the Dan begins in the Old Dominion may well
wonder what the Virginia section of the river has to do with
whether or not they catch fish from the waterway in Carolina.
And the short answer is, Everything.
For no river that I have ever explored is so intertwined
with two states. How Virginians treat the waters of the Dan
has truly everything to do with how clean and clear the
North Carolina portion is—and the reverse is true as well.
This is so because, although the Dan begins and ends in
Virginia, it flows deep into North Carolina for much of its
length but often meanders between the two states.
Here, then, are the many faces of the Dan, as well as the
virtues and fisheries that give the river such charm, and
the challenges and problems that the waterway must over -
come in the years to come.
Patrick County Headwaters
My journey begins on a summer day as guide Mike Smith,
who operates Greasy Creek Outfitters in Willis, Va., and I
drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway. We pass the famous
Mabry Mill and note that the pond that borders the mill is
part of the Dan River watershed. We also stop briefly to
fish a native brook trout rill that flows into the Dan. North
Carolinians may be surprised to learn that they don’t need
a nonresident license to fish any trout stream within the
Virginia section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, as both states’
licenses are honored on all parkway waters.
July 2010
But our real destination is a few miles past
the mill, Townes Reservoir—more specifi -
cally that part of the Dan River that flows into
the impoundment and courses through what
some folks call the Grand Canyon of Virginia.
Accessing the reservoir requires some
planning, as Townes Reservoir and its sister,
upper impoundment Talbott Reservoir, are
part of the Pinnacles Hydroelectric Project,
which the City of Danville owns. One has to
obtain a free visitor ’s permit from the city,
which includes the daily combination to a
locked gate at the entrance of Townes Reser -
voir, and wait until 8 a.m., when city per son -
nel open another lock on that same gate.
Smith and I drive down a precarious road
to reach Townes Reservoir and then paddle
his canoe some 30 minutes to where the Dan
rushes into the impoundment. Beaching the
boat, we wade a few feet, and almost imme -
diately the lake is left behind and we enter
the canyon. Steep mountainous terrain
envelopes both sides of the Dan, as the river
charges past banks where rhododendron,
beeches, alders, sycamores and the odd red
oak crowd the shoreline. Along the shore -
line and sometimes within the river, boulders
half the size of compact cars pock the area.
Sadly, though, we mark dead hemlock
after dead hemlock, corpselike, wan sentinels
on the river, victims of the woolly adelgid.
Mike says that many hemlocks have crashed
into the stream since his last visit.
On his second cast Smith drifts a size 12
Adams through a riffle, and a 7-inch wild
brown sips in the offering. He catches and
releases the fish and a few minutes later does
the same with a slightly larger rainbow.
“It is serious business when you travel
back into the canyon,” Smith says. “I once
had a guy twist an ankle, and it took us four
hours to evacuate him out of here and back
to the canoe.
“But just look at the majesty of these
mountainsides,” continues Smith as he
gestures to the rugged terrain that has been
chiseled through the ages by a stream that is
no more than 40 feet wide. “The Dan here
has a great trout fishery, with mostly wild
browns between 6 and 15 inches, and a fair
number of rainbows about the same size.
But it would be worth coming in here even if
the fishing were just fair.”
In a four-hour period, we wade a little
more than a mile upstream, periodically
watching ’bows and browns rise to our flies,
and often noticing the sounds of Acadian
flycatchers, Eastern wood-pewees, wood
thrushes and a host of other birds. But the
City of Danville requires that everyone be
out of the canyon and off the property by 5
p.m., and Smith and I want to visit one of
the native brook trout streams that com -
mingle with the reservoir.
So we hike out of the canyon, paddle
down Townes Reservoir and beach the canoe
where a likely stream enters. A jumble of
boulders lies where the stream flows into the
lake, and we have to ascend them, careful
not to break bones or fly rods. Smith has
fished this creek before and has regaled me
all morning with stories of its numerous
native brookies. But in two hours of fishing
the Dan River tributary, not a single trout
rises to our offerings. The water has a cur -
ious stain to it, and I make a mental note to
check into the matter later.
Once we leave the Pinnacles Hydroelec -
tric Project, Smith drives me to the upper
upper Dan, where the river is just the pro -
verbial “hop, skip and a jump across” and is
a put-and-take trout stream. He says that
superlative wild trout fishing also exists above
Talbott Reservoir, but it is the waters of the
Grand Canyon that still have the great est
attraction for his sporting soul.
Below Townes Reservoir to the Pinnacles
Powerhouse, continues Smith, the Dan is
catch-and-release fly-fishing only. Below
there, the Dan for the rest of its voyage
through Patrick County is a standard putand-
take trout stream.
North Carolina and Conservation Issues
The Dan rambles into North Carolina for the
first time in Stokes County and is designated
Hatchery Supported Trout Waters from the
Virginia state line downstream to a point
200 yards beyond the end of State Road 1421.
The first part of the Dan in North Carolina
receives a great deal of fishing pressure (espe -
cially after stockings), and its trout have a
reputation for wariness and selectivity regard -
ing fly and lure offerings.
A few days later, still troubled by the
curious stained water of the native stream,
I make some phone calls and learn that runoff
from agricultural and cattle farms is a serious
concern on the Dan watershed, and that
Virginia law does not require that farmers
keep their cattle out of streams—native brook
trout rills downstream or otherwise. I then
contact Roger Holnback of the Western Vir -
ginia Land Trust and ask if his organization
is having much success in recording con ser -
vation easements in Patrick County.
Conservation easements are voluntary,
permanent agreements wherein a land owner
agrees to give up certain development rights.
The more development rights a landowner
relinquishes, the more tax and other finan -
cial benefits the individual or family receives.
I, for example, have placed 392 acres I own
under conservation easements. I have seen
my taxes on the parcels dramatically decrease
and received other tax benefits totaling many
thousands of dollars. I also have gained the
satisfaction of knowing that I have per ma -
nently protected wildlife habitat. For fisher -
men, a major plus of easements is that they
often serve to protect riparian zones.
Holnback says that six easements totaling
917 acres have been placed in Patrick County.
Although none of that acreage is on the Dan
River itself, much of it does include land
within the watershed.
“What we are seeing in Patrick County
is typical of what is going on in the western
Piedmont of North Carolina and Virginia,”
says Holnback. “Folks are moving up from
urban areas in North Carolina and buying
former 100-acre farms that have been split
up into 10- to 20-acre parcels, each with its
own hilltop. Then the buyers build a home
or vacation getaway on that hilltop—a place
with a view.
“Conservation easements really have not
caught on here yet, but the interest I am
seeing is coming from two groups. The first
is from the ‘come-heres,’ people from outside
the area who have built their homes here but
don’t want to see the county further devel -
oped. And the second is from the ‘from-heres,’
multi-generational farmers who are worried
about the development and don’t want to
see their land broken up when they die.”
Holnback suggests that I call the
Piedmont Land Conservancy (PLC) in
Greensboro, and I contact Kenneth A. Bridle,
its stewardship director. Bridle has actively
worked on the Dan River watershed for the
past 25 years and has done Natural Heritage
Inventories in Stokes and surrounding coun -
ties, riparian corridor studies, water shed
plans and sediment studies. He has built
canoe access sites, done stream restor a tions
and surveyed for rare plants and animals, plusBasin Association (DRBA) and is in the early
stages of a 12-month water sampling survey.
“We have conducted Natural Heritage
Inventories in all of the counties that are in
the Dan River Basin, and we have done N.C.
Clean Water Management Trust Fund-spon -
sored riparian corridor studies of the entire
channel,” Bridle says. “We also received
several grants to study the suspended sedi -
ment in the river and to prepare a Dan River
Watershed Protection Plan, which was pub -
lished in December of 2006.
“This watershed plan is the most com -
pre hensive collection of data and recom -
men da tions on the upper Dan River Basin,
includ ing the Virginia portion. We have also
received grants for the purchase of pro per ties
and easements in Stokes and Rockingham
counties and have recently spent significant
effort on the establishment of and land pur -
chase for the new Mayo River State Park in
the middle of the watershed. This park is
being matched by an effort on the Virginia
side to put the upper reaches of the Mayo
into a Virginia state park.”
As is true in Patrick County, few pro per -
ties are under conservation easement on the
North Carolina part of the Dan watershed,
says Bridle, as a long-standing resistance to
land use planning exists.
“Residents, the from-heres and comeheres
in both states, don’t see the threats to
water quality and loss of scenic and eco -
logical values,” continues Bridle. “In this
area, development does not occur in big
easy-to-see blocks, such as malls and multihundred-
home housing developments, like
in the urban counties to the south, but in
subtler, harder-to-notice scatterings of new
homes, new roads, loss of smaller chunks of
forests and farms and ultimately a harderto-
perceive-and-regulate land conversion.
The citizens and politicians just don’t see
the threat or loss, possibly until it’s too late.
And unless land trusts have willing land -
owners who perceive the threats and want to
do conservation easements that would help
mitigate the threats, then there is really no
market for this kind of conservation activity.
“It might be argued that since the water -
shed threats are not dramatic, they are also
not imminent, which is true. But we know
that now is the time to work, when there are
reasonable land values, big blocks available
and resources still worth conserving. By the
time threats are obvious, all the resources
are impacted, the costs are much more and
conservation potential is limited.”
The most effective areas of impact have
been where the PLC has been able to meet a
wider range of conservation-minded land -
owner needs and also put a lot of easements
in a focus area. The PLC has placed much
emphasis on inventory, survey, sampling and
coalition building, and only recently has a
new swell of interest started that will lead to
more productive conservation partnerships.
Bridle says the Dan River watershed is
facing the same pressures that all of North
Carolina’s Piedmont is dealing with. He sees
as some of the factors “the need to improve
agricultural best management practices, espe -
cially on farms in transition to new crops or
new land use; increasing residential develop -
ment and resultant stormwater runoff; ripar -
ian buffer impacts; lawn and agricultural
chemical impacts; non-point-source sedi -
ment pollution; plastic trash and litter; and
ATVs being ridden in creeks and the river.”
But Bridle also lists a number of positives,
including the following.
•New communication across the state
line between agencies
•Increased recreational use of the river
because of the Dan River Basin
Association’s outings and programs
•The potential impact on the area of the
Mountains to Sea Trail coming through
•New rare aquatic species discovered
in the Dan
•The new state parks and potential to
designate a Dan River Trail State Park
•A push to make some of the Stokes
County canoe access sites permanent
•New county tourism boards
The Carolina Dan Becomes a
Smallmouth River
I ask Kevin Hining, District 7 fisheries biol -
ogist for the N.C.Wildlife Resources Com -
mission, to give an overview of the Dan as a
smallmouth river.
“To be honest, I don’t think many anglers
outside Stokes County know about the Dan,”
he says. “I’ve heard few people talk about it,
but from what I’ve seen, the section in Stokes
County downstream of N.C. 704 is a really
fun smallmouth river. We haven’t seen any
monster fish, but lots of smallmouth in the
12- to 16-inch size range. Also, we’ve talked
to a few anglers who routinely catch larger
fish than our samples indicate.”
As the Dan continues its path through
Stokes County, it passes under the Flippin
Road Bridge and through the communities
of Joyce Mill and Jessups Mill. Once again,
the Dan flows through a gorgelike area, and
two Class III rapids mark the waterway. But
the swift water comes to an end in the back -
waters of Jessups Mill Dam.
Downstream from the dam to the High way
704 bridge, a distance of about 6 miles, the
Dan is known for its remoteness and white
water. Paddlers may also encounter the James
River spiny mussel, an endan gered species.
The next section is the 12.4-mile float
from the Route 704 bridge (known as the
Hart Access) to the Hanging Rock State Park
access. Lexington’s Anthony Hipps and I
conduct a summertime float of part of this
section (that is, 4.5 miles from Moores
Springs Campground to the park) and catch
smallmouth bass and redbreast sunfish.
What impresses me most is that both
banks are heavily wooded, almost through -
out the entire excursion, and cliffs up to 60
feet tall often appear. Songbirds are numerous,
highlighted by appearances from scarlet tan -
agers, red-eyed vireos, orchard orioles and
hooded warblers. When the rhododendron
is in bloom, the white flowers add ambience
to our junket.
For Part II of this exploration of the Dan,
I’ll cover the river from Hanging Rock State
Park to Kerr Lake from fishing and conserva -
tion viewpoints, as well as look at how somelandowners are proving to be good stewards
of the watershed.
Bruce Ingram is the author of several books
on rivers and fishing, including, “Fly and Spin
Fishing for River Smallmouths” ($19.25).
To purchase one, contact Ingram at

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