Appalachia and Back Again: A Labor Day Weekend Adventure
Ohio & Central Appalachia – September 1-5, 2017
The forecast for Lake Superior Provincial Park did not excite me: highs around 55 degrees and lots of rain. So, instead of driving 250 miles north into Ontario for a long weekend of solitary camping and hiking in dreary wet weather I started my trip by traveling 400 miles south to central Ohio…where I encountered highs around 55 degrees and lots of rain. Despite the unseasonably cool weather in Ohio – a consequence of traveling smack dab into the heart of Hurricane Harvey’s shambling remains – I caught some new species, fished with a lifelist-angling celebrity, and went on to finally enjoy some pleasant weather and beautiful scenery in far western Virginia before making the long haul home to Gaylord, MI.
Friday, September 1, 2017
I set off in my still new-to-me Chrysler 200 (equipped with XM radio!) shortly before 5am and drove through to Marion, Ohio. I stopped at a grocery store for some produce and nightcrawlers and then pulled out an atlas (yes, a paper one…still using a flip-phone, folks) to find a nearby fishing spot. I was in the Ohio River Watershed now, home to some different fish species not available to me in Michigan.
My first stop was the Scioto River, just a few miles down the road in the small town of Green Camp, where I found a riverside park. It was chilly and breezy enough to pull on a sweatshirt, but the rain had stopped for the moment. I grabbed a basic rod and a micro rig and got my shoes muddy clambering down to the water’s edge. I knew there were some potential micro species here, but my main target was the Smallmouth Redhorse, which very closely resembles the more familiar Shorthead Redhorse.
I cast a worm rig into a hole beneath a little rock dam and fished around with a micro rig while I waited for a bite. The water was turbid and I did not get many hits on the tiny hook baited with a fleck of worm, but my first fish was a silvery Cyprinella that I would later identify (based on anal fin ray count and feedback from NANFA friends) as a Steelcolor Shiner – Cyprinella whipplei (species #388). That would be my lone lifer and only micro fish from the Scioto River, but I did catch a couple larger fish on the worm rig:
After less than an hour I hopped back in the car and traveled further south to the headwaters of Big Darby Creek, which, along with Little Darby Creek, is one of the higher-quality and more diverse streams in Ohio. The first spot I stopped at, in the town of Milford Center, looked pretty decent. I parked at a city park along the creek and waded in with micro gear – a size #24 hook baited with a tiny morsel of worm.
There were fish in the first riffle I tried, and I quickly caught several Striped Shiner and a Creek Chub. The cobbles looked great for darters, but on a cloudy day and with the swift current I had trouble seeing any. When I finally caught a darter, a Blackside Darter, I was actually fishing blindly in a sluggish side channel. It was not a lifer (I’ve caught them in Michigan) but it was a nice looking specimen.
I also tried casting a Panther Martin spinner through some of the creek’s deeper holes and caught a few big Striped Shiner, several Largemouth Bass, a Smallmouth Bass, a Rock Bass, and a Longear Sunfish. I’d never caught a Spotted Bass, and knew they were in the river system, but I failed to find one.
By late afternoon I decided to return to the car and scope out some other spots. As I drove south it began raining heavily, so I checked into my hotel in Columbus before venturing out to fish the last couple hours before dark. I checked the crossings over Big Darby Creek, working my way from I-70 north, and most of the water was deep and sluggish. Possibly home to some Spotted Bass or Smallmouth Redhorse, but I didn’t think it held much micro-fishing potential. I ended up going most of the way back to Milford Center before I found suitable riffles. I actually found and caught darters, too, but they were all Rainbow Darter – a beautiful but ubiquitous species that can be so locally abundant as to carpet the streambed and make it very frustrating to find and catch other darter species.
At dusk I enjoyed the peacefulness of standing in the cool mist, shin-deep in a babbling creek, focused only on the little darters flitting out from under a cobble to nibble my tiny bait. I was still for so long that a doe and two fawns clambered down the bank and waded into the stream, maybe twenty yards away. I watched undetected for half a minute before I tried to pull my camera out to get a picture, which scared them away. On that note, I collected my gear and headed back to the hotel.
Saturday, September 2, 2017
It was still cool and drizzly in the morning so I slept in until 10am. I had coordinated to rendezvous with legendary lifelist angler Steve Wozniak at the Highway 42 crossing of Little Darby Creek at around noon. I got there about an hour before that to scope out the place, and it was a wadeable spot with good riffles, runs and pools to fish. I poked around for an hour with a micro rig and caught a few Rainbow Darter and some mixed shiners before walking back up to my car to grab my polarized sunglasses, which I’d forgotten. Steve happened to pull in just then.
If you keep a fishing lifelist you’ve most likely heard of Steve Wozniak (not the Apple co-founder), who was the first angler to reach 1,000 species of fish on hook-and-line (back in 2010). He has fished in nearly 90 countries, and with well over 1,700 species now I’m fairly certain he remains the world leader in species caught by a significant margin. His quest has been featured in a variety of articles (ESPN, Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Sport Fishing Magazine, GrindTV, Daily Mail) and is chronicled in his blog, which I’ve been following for years. It’s as witty and well-written as it is fishy and worth checking out, even if your not all that into fishing. As thoroughly impressed as you may now be about Steve’s angling accomplishments, it’s worth noting that during our time fishing together I would catch two new lifers, including one species Steve has not caught, whereas Steve would fail to add a new species that day.
I imagined if I ever fished with Steve it would be in some exotic location…on a tropical sea or a remote jungle river. But nope, we shook hands in the rain on the shoulder of a highway in central Ohio and proceeded to wade around in a creek fishing for minnows and darters.
Little Darby Creek is home to a moderate list of species that neither Steve nor I had caught, including some attainable targets such as Variegate Darter, Silverjaw Minnow, Scarlet Shiner, and Smallmouth Redhorse. We started targeting darters, but just caught Rainbow Darter and even a few crayfish. The pools were full of Striped Shiner, Sand Shiner, Creek Chub, and Rosyface Shiner. The Rosyface Shiner, which I had suspected were Emerald Shiner until I looked into it further after the trip, turned out to be a new species (#389) for me but Steve had caught them before.
Steve wanted to put some effort into fishing redhorse, and while he rigged up a heavier line I dipped my baited micro hook along the bridge pylon and pulled up a small silvery minnow that had red coloration in its fins! It was a Scarlet Shiner (Lythrurus fasciolaris) – species #390 for me. Steve spent a few minutes trying to catch his own, but either there weren’t many of them around or they had vacated the area.
We waded downstream to a deeper pool and Steve tossed out a worm. I continued micro-fishing and caught a few Logperch. Steve caught a Golden Redhorse (a nice fish but not the Smallmouth Redhorse we were both hoping to see). We stood knee-deep in Little Darby Creek chatting about our jobs, travel, fishing and fishermen until Steve, who was traveling from Indianapolis to Columbus to visit friends, had to hit the road again. I decided to take a break from fishing, and the rain, and walked back to the cars with him and we parted ways. I was thinking about fishing again after grabbing a bite to eat but it kept raining and I ended up just going back to the hotel to stay cozy and tune into some college football.
Sunday, September 3, 2017
While central Ohio offered a few new species, I viewed it more as an opportunity to fish with Steve Wozniak and to break up the drive to my next destination: the Clinch River Watershed, which is the most fish species-rich river system in the United States and home to quite a few endemic fish species. Central Appalachia is also a very scenic region to visit and even the long drive through West Virginia and Virginia was quite enjoyable. The weather – warm and sunny – was much more pleasant there as well.
My first stop of the day was King University in Bristol, TN, to cheer a friend and her Ferris State University Bulldogs women’s soccer team on to a 3-0 victory against the King University Tornadoes. During the game, Steve Wozniak texted me a picture of himself holding a Smallmouth Redhorse – species #1,733 for him, from the same spot on Little Darby Creek that we’d fished the day before.
The soccer game wrapped up around 3pm and after a quick hi and bye with #15 I hopped up to St Paul, VA to set up my tent at Ridge Runner Campground. When I got to the campground I followed the owner up an extremely steep gravel road to the top of a hill, where he showed me to my site and casually mentioned that I should lock up my food because two large bears had torn into the trash can at my site earlier that very day. After setting up my tent I went into downtown St Paul to check out a spot along the Clinch River (thanks Pat K and Ben Cantrell for the fishing location suggestions).
I saw schools of shiners and some redhorse in the clear water near the parking area. Then I jogged the wooded riverside trail about three miles to scout out the downstream stretch of river, mindful to keep eyes on the ground for snakes…I was in copperhead and cottonmouth territory and I didn’t want any painful surprises. The Clinch River really is scenic, and the water looked clear and very fishable. I picked up dinner and beer on my way back to camp, set an early alarm, and went to sleep shortly after nightfall. I planned to fish 12+ hours the following day.
Monday, September 4, 2017
The first fish I caught in Virginia, on the Clinch River in St. Paul, happened to be not only a new species but also my number-one fish target in the region: a beautiful Tangerine Darter (Percina aurantiaca) – species #391. I also caught some Tennessee Shiner, Streamlined Chub and Whitetail Shiner from that first location.
The next spot on the Clinch River was at the mouth of Copper Creek near Clinchport, VA, about an hour drive downstream, which allowed adequate time for the morning fog to clear and for me to absorb 20 ounces of coffee. I pulled in under a couple of old trestles and pitched a worm rig out into a promising eddy with hope for a Smallmouth Redhorse, Black Redhorse or Spotted Bass, all of which would have been new species. I poked around with a micro-rig while I waited for a bite on the main rig, and found success. I caught numerous shiners, silvery little minnows that are hard to distinguish in the field, so I took the time to photograph each catch. Most of them were Sawfin Shiner (Notropis sp., #392), but I also got at least one Highland Shiner (Notropis micropteryx, #393) and also several Tennessee Shiner and Streamlined Chub (species I’d caught on a previous trip in the Paint Rock River of northern Alabama).
Unfortunately, I didn’t catch any fish on the standard worm rig. That’s not to say I didn’t catch anything…twice I reeled in to find small painted turtles on the line. I also witnessed a scrawny raccoon swimming across the river, and it casually climbed up the bank near me and scampered into the bushes (click here to see it on video).
I also spent some time fishing Copper Creek, and while it looked like excellent darter water I struggled to see many darters in the swift current and shaded riffles. I did find a Redline Darter, a potential lifer, but after ten minutes of fishing for that individual fish without it showing interest I gave up and took this video.
I spent the middle of the day fishing Stony Creek, a gorgeous little creek I had passed on my way to Clinchport, about halfway back to St. Paul. I could see Northern Hog Sucker, Smallmouth Bass, River Chub, Whitetail Shiner and Sawfin Shiner in the ultra-clear pools of this stream, and among the cobbles away from the current were abundant darters. And none of them looked like Rainbow Darter! I focused on darter fishing and had some success.
I got a Greenside Darter, a Tennessee Darter, and a Fantail Darter – all species I’d caught on previous trips – before landing a little brown darter with an orange band in the dorsal fin and some turquoise coloration on the operculum. It was a female darter, which are more drab than their exquisitely colored male counterparts (especially during spawning season), but it was definitely a new species. After further research, it turns out to be a Bluespar Darter (Etheostoma meadiae, #394), a close relative of the Speckled Darter. While I caught lots of micro fish at Stony Creek, this would be my last lifer of the trip.
I spent some time catching fiesty River Chub before moving on to try another place. Before I started fishing Stony Creek, I had set up my GoPro underwater with the goal of capturing some great fish video. Unfortunately, when I collected it before I was about to leave I found it only recorded about 5 minutes before shutting off, despite the battery indicator still reading full. I did capture some shiners, a Tennessee Darter, a River Chub and a Smallmouth Bass on film but would have liked to have gotten more footage.
I closed out the day fishing the mainstem Clinch River back in St. Paul. I hiked several miles downstream, fishing numerous spots along the way, putting all of my effort into trying for a Black Redhorse or Smallmouth Redhorse. I caught a few sunfish and bass, and found plenty of suckers, but the redhorse would not take a bait. I enjoyed the sunset, happy for the pleasant weather, and then made the long march back to the car. I slept well back at camp, with no run-ins with bears, until my alarm buzzed to announce the last morning of my trip.
Tuesday, September 5, 2017
With a twelve-hour drive ahead, I didn’t plan in any fishing time for my return trip to Michigan, but did work in a stop at the scenic New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia and Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio. The bridge – once the world’s longest single-span arch bridge and currently the world’s fourth longest – was neat but I arrived before the National Park Service visitor center opened and I found the boardwalk down to the more scenic viewing areas closed for construction.
I pulled over to take a few scenic photos along my drive through West Virginia and back into Ohio. My route also took me past the National Football League Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, but I didn’t have time to stop. I pulled into Cuyahoga Valley National Park at around 1pm and spent a couple hours there, where I ran the woodland trails to and from Brandywine Falls, an impressive waterfall. I jogged in under a blue sky, but on the way back a thunderstorm rolled in and the sky opened up. I ran like a frightened deer through the woods, not with any ill-placed hope of preserving any sort of dryness, for I quickly became fully soaked, but because I found it fun and exhilarating.
Fortunately, I had dry clothes in my car and was able to change for the final six hours of driving. I went the rest of the way through until I reached Gaylord, and was treated with a brilliant double-rainbow and then an epic sunset during the last stretch of the drive.
Some sights along the way:
The trip was a fishing success and an overall great adventure. I returned home knowing I’d captured at least four new species, and after further research and opinions from fellow fish enthusiasts determined that I’d finished the trip adding seven new fish: Steelcolor Shiner, Rosyface Shiner, Scarlet Shiner, Tangerine Darter, Sawfin Shiner, Highland Shiner, and Bluespar Darter. Lake Superior Provincial Park is still on my bucket list, but I think I made the right call in heading south for Labor Day Weekend 2017.