Work to improve Blacklegs Creek earns trout nursery manager Man of Year nod
When Art Grguric drives along Route 286 on the first day of trout season, the sight of the many anglers crowding the banks of nearby Blacklegs Creek fills him with a sense of gratification.
The Saltsburg man recently was recognized for the role he played in not only raising trout to stock the creek east of his hometown, but also in helping to revive the stream after decades of damage from acid mine drainage.
Grguric, director of the Blackleggs Creek Watershed Association and manager of its Cooperative Trout Nursery, was named the 2014 Man of the Year by Pennsylvania Outdoor News. He was recognized with a plaque and a spread in the April 11 edition of the magazine.
“It makes me feel good that I was nominated,” Grguric said, but he acknowledged the work of others that paved his way.
“It wasn't a ‘Man of the Year' who made it all happen — it was the people who helped me to make it happen,” Grguric said. “I might have been the primer, but without the people who helped me, I wouldn't be Man of the Year.”
The Blackleggs Cooperative Trout Nursery, Indiana County's only cooperative trout nursery and one of the first in southwestern Pennsylvania, was founded in 1985 by Grguric and a small group of like-minded fishermen in the area who wanted to try to make Blacklegs Creek viable once again for fishing.
Working with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the nursery was built in 1986 on donated property in Conemaugh Township, just outside of Clarksburg, using materials and labor that was largely donated as well. Blacklegs Creek became an approved trout stream that same year, according to Grguric, and the nursery raised its first trout the following year.
It was the first time the state ever stocked the creek, Grguric noted. Now, the hatchery each year raises about 15,000 trout — a mix of brown and brook — that are released in Blacklegs Creek.
In 2007, the nursery organization was granted nonprofit status. According to its website, the organization chose the name Blackleggs, with an extra “g,” without knowing that the actual name of the creek was Blacklegs. The group decided to keep the extra letter.
Though the organization started out strong, Grguric said involvement dwindled three years ago to the point where he was taking on too many tasks on his own, and he feared that the watershed and nursery would have to fold without more help.
To attract more volunteers, he did radio and newspaper interviews and placed fliers on the cars lining Blacklegs Creek on the first day of trout season
“We needed help,” he said. “We reached out and touched a lot of people.”
As a result, he said, he had people calling him from as far away as Carlisle, giving ideas and donations and wanting to help the organization.
He was surprised when about 25-30 people who expressing interest all followed up by attending a watershed meeting a few months later.
“Now we have a good caretaker's list, people taking good care of our trout, helping maintain the whole organization,” he said.
With membership numbers up and volunteers on hand, Grguric called radio station 1480 AM, on which he made his original plea, wanting to thank everyone for stepping up to help Blackleggs Creek Watershed Association and the trout nursery.
Outdoors show hosts Jack Brown and Tay Waltenbaugh asked him to do a follow-up interview on their show to let the public know how things were faring.
Grguric later was informed by Brown and Waltenbaugh that they had nominated him for Man of the Year through Pennsylvania Outdoor News.
“Next thing I know, I get a call from Pennsylvania Outdoor News, telling me I won this award,” Grguric said.
“I don't do what I do for awards. It's not about me. But it means a lot to me.”
Through thousands of hours of volunteer work and $3 million in grants, the Blackleggs Creek Watershed Association is now within inches of cleaning up an entire watershed of damage from 52 acid mine drainages, covering 45 square miles.
“It changed the color of our stream,” making the waters virtually uninhabitable for any kind of fish, Grguric said of the mine drainage.
Grguric makes no true profit from the small salary he receives through his work with the watershed and nursery. He said he takes only enough of a salary to pay his bills.
“It keeps me alive,” Grguric said of his work, noting, “Bad stress is bad, but good stress is good. I'm doing jobs at cost. I'm paying my bills and that's it — there's no profit. But I'm not in it to make a profit, I'm in it to accomplish my goals.”
That goal is to clean up the six major acid mine discharges that were in the watershed. Five are now completed, and the last one is halfway there. He expects to have the final discharge cleaned up by the end of June.
It would have been sooner, he noted, but the weather hadn't been cooperating.
“As soon as the weather breaks, I'm going to put everything I have into finishing that system,” he said.
The association has just two other paid employees, but Grguric said that number will likely increase to five this summer with seasonal help.
Grguric, who left his job as a coal miner in 1994, considers himself semi-retired. Aside from the work he does with the watershed and nursery, he also owns the Full Draw Archery shop in Saltsburg, but he said his business has been put on hold as he and his crew work to finally finish the watershed clean-up.
All six of the acid mine drainage sites are in Indiana County, according to Grguric — four in Conemaugh Township and two in Young Township. Most of the mines feeding into these drainage sites were shut down in the 1920s, he said.
The association began work on the first watershed treatment system in 1996, completing it in 1998.
“Without the people who help me, I wouldn't be here,” Grguric said. “There are so many people who have helped me in the past 30 years.”
A great number of those people have been recognized for their aid with their names engraved on the pavilion at Blackleggs Memorial Park, located at the intersection of Cribbs and Shrokman roads in Young Township.
Grguric named his brother, Michael “Mickey” Grguric, who passed away last June after his ultralight plane crashed in McIntyre, as one of his biggest influences and supporters. It was his brother who urged him to act on his dreams and start the trout cooperative.
“It wasn't me who made it happen,” Grguric said of the nursery's success. “My family supported me, my friends supported me, and there are volunteers who are still supporting me.
Through it all, Grguric said they wanted to get other people involved, and one of the ways they did so was by organizing a Trout in the Classroom program through the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the Kiski-Conemaugh Stream Team. Grguric noted that the Stream Team does all of the water sampling for the Blackleggs watershed.
In the program, classrooms are given trout eggs to nurture, hatch and care for until they are released into Blacklegs Creek.
Saltsburg Elementary School, the first school to participate in the program in the area, released its first hatch last year. Kiski Area Elementary School joined Saltsburg in the program this school year, and the classrooms will begin releasing the trout they hatched in mid-May.
Grguric and his wife live in Saltsburg. They have four children and 14 grandchildren.
He recalled taking his youngest son, age 5 at the time, along with him when the trout nursery was being built.
“Now I'm fishing with his kids,” he said.
Grguric has worked diligently since the 1980s to clean up Blacklegs Creek to make it more angler-friendly, but he has yet to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
He bought a pontoon boat, on which he'll occasionally find time to do some bass fishing, but aside from helping out on the watershed's Kids' Days or giving his grandchildren a hand, he rarely drops his own line into Blacklegs Creek.
“I have not had time to trout fish,” he said. “I haven't seriously fished this creek in probably 10 or more years.”
Maybe with the end of the watershed clean-up drawing near, Grguric will find the time to wet his line in the waters of Blacklegs Creek. For now, he's happy knowing he played a part in making the creek a retreat for local and visiting anglers, a place where families can create their own memories, much like the ones he created with his own children and grandchildren on the shores of the creek.
“We're doing it for every person who steps foot in this watershed or steps foot in this creek to enjoy the outside environment the way it's supposed to be enjoyed,” Grguric said.
More information can be found on the Blackleggs Creek Watershed Association and Cooperative Trout Nursery at http://blackleggscwa.tripod.com/trout_club_to_watershed_association.htm. Anyone wanting to get involved in the nursery or the watershed association can contact Grguric at 724-972-8675.
Gina DelFavero is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2915 or email@example.com.