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 email@example.com.