Commission hopes to open more fishing area by removing barriers in some waters
Getting steelhead to where anglers are, or where anglers can be, remains a goal of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
It might be close to doing something about it.
Biologists with the agency waded most of their stocked steelhead streams over the past two summers. The idea was to see what in-water obstructions might be keeping fish from moving as far upstream as possible, said Freeman Johns, a biologist in the commission's Area 1 office in Linesville.
That's important to know, the thinking goes, because if they were eliminated and fish could move further inland, anglers could spread out, too. That would ease congestion.
This summer, biologists finished their surveying, walking the entire length of three stocked streams on Erie's west side: Crooked Creek, Trout Run and Cascade Creek.
The only stream left unsurveyed is Elk Creek, and it might not need to be.
“We know steelhead can get 20 miles upstream, all the way up to I-79 at the McKean hole,” said Tim Wilson, another biologist based in Linesville. “So even if there are any blockages, they can't be significant. As far as big waterfalls like on Walnut, we don't think they exist on Elk.”
Surveying was at times arduous.
One biologist would wade two to three miles upstream, where another would be waiting in a truck. Then they would switch, with one walking another two to three miles while the other drove ahead.
“You were usually pretty stinky by the time you got there,” Johns said with a laugh. “You run into lots of rose bushes. There are lots of logs. You're constantly climbing over stuff, all in chest waders.”
It paid dividends, though.
“Now we can at least talk about them with — I don't want to say expertise — but nonignorance of what these tributaries look like,” Johns said.
What they look like is creeks with lots of obstacles.
In total, on 67 miles of water, the commission identified 67 large barriers, meaning those 3 feet high or taller, and 186 smaller ones.
There are barriers throughout the drainage, Johns said. But the most and worst are on the east side, typically in the form of waterfalls.
It's not just how tall they are that's the issue, though.
“Steelhead are very proficient jumpers. So it's not just the vertical height, but it's the depth of the water below, the depth of the water above, the velocity of flow,” Wilson said. “Multiple factors make a barrier a barrier.”
The biggest issue is volume of water.
“Every barrier in the drainage is dependent upon flow,” Wilson said.
Some barriers, for example, are problems only when water levels are low. When they come up, the fish can move upstream.
Others, though, are substantial enough that fish can't past them except in the most extreme of high water events. There might be only one or two times a year fish can bypass them — if that.
“Based on that criteria alone, it's obvious where you want to concentrate your work is on these barriers that function as a barrier almost the entire fishing season,” Wilson said.
The commission has identified four projects it would like to start with. The first is located on Fourmile Creek. The commission wants to remove a waterfall 300 yards or so downstream of a fish passage device near Lawrence Park Golf Club.
That device was put in to help fish move upstream. It works when fish can reach it, Wilson said.
The trouble is, the downstream waterfall keeps them from ever getting to it most of the year.
The plan is to go in with jackhammers and create a channel through the rock of the falls, mimicking the ones erosion has created naturally elsewhere. Wilson thinks the work could be done in a day for about $1,000.
For that little bit, fish could move perhaps three miles further upstream, into a portion of the creek with good habitat and open to public fishing, he said.
Commissioner Ed Mascharka is all for it.
“Some of these projects are so limited in cost, we'll be able to try this, see if there's any significant impact, then, if need be, re-assess that style (of bypass) and see if we have to modify it,” Mascharka said.
The holdup right now is paperwork.
The commission, like anyone else, has to get permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection before it can work on the streams, Wilson said. It's pursuing those now.
When that project gets done, the commission wants to tackle another small one on Twentymile Creek and two larger ones, on Walnut and Sixteenmile creeks.
The Walnut project could open 11 miles of stream to fish passage, Wilson said.
The commission then will move on from there, Wilson said. There's plenty to do, after all, with those 250-plus barriers.
“That's a lot of potential work,” Wilson said.