We’re all guilty of this move. You’re standing at the trailhead staring at a gear explosion next to your vehicle, contemplating what else you can possibly jam into your overpacked backpack. Your thru-hiking friends are patiently waiting with their svelte packs stripped to the essentials, staring at the sun as it moves slowly toward the horizon. You ask the classic questions: Did I forget my headlamp? Do I need more snacks? Need more snacks. You guys want to carry this cast iron skillet? Oh, that’s right, you chopped your toothbrush in half. How about this bear spray? What, you’re just gonna run faster than me? With this heavy-ass pack, probably…
But wait, you must add the final luxury recreational piece to the pack. When seeking deep connections during your wilderness experience, it’s helpful to bring along items that help your commune with nature. Whatever it is you choose to schlepp in your overstuffed backpack into the backcountry to chase the harmonic resonance of wild spaces, make sure you choose what works for you. For some, it might be a pair of binoculars, perhaps a digital camera, or a field guide to mushrooms and medicinal plants.
For me, when backpacking through the spectacular drainages of the Monongahela National Forest (MNF), carrying a lightweight fly rod with reel and an assortment of flies is a must. Backcountry angling in the Mountain State is a unique experience.
West Virginia has of the some of the most extensive and remote watersheds for brook trout in Appalachia. With hundreds of miles of streams boasting six – 10-inch brook trout, and the occasional foot-long, there are great opportunities for aquatic exploration. Rewards await the angler who is willing to hike for a day or two to reach stretches of streams that resemble and fish like those of yesteryear.
A trip to the federally designated wilderness areas of Otter Creek, Laurel Fork, and Cranberry are the gems of backcountry angling. Each has their own level of commitment, from easier rail-trail style hiking in the main stem of the Cranberry, complete with shelters for extra comfort and larger groups, to the rugged interior of Otter Creek, which since Hurricane Sandy in 2012 still has sections of trail that require log climbing acrobatics. These areas are large, protected drainages with feeder tributaries that play host to reproductive havens for brook trout.
These recovered fisheries attract both anglers and wildlife biologists. The professionals of the natural world are a passionate bunch; their enthusiasm for their work is often infectious and born of science. United States Forest Service Fisheries Biologist Chad Landress is no exception and is quick to point out that these native brook trout fisheries were not always so productive. Chad harks back to a different time, somewhere between 1890-1910, when the brook trout population in Appalachia was being decimated by the industrial practices of widespread clear cutting. In West Virginia alone, eight million acres were cut in that time period. On the MNF, almost all the nearly one million acres were cut—only 200 acres were left untouched.
Small tracts of virgin forest on Gaudineer Knob in the MNF and nearby Cathedral State Park represent fragmented chunks of these original forests. Fast forward a century in forestry science, and implementation of smarter management practices such as riparian buffers has forests in a rebound state. Landress attributes the improved quality of streams in West Virginia to some key factors. “We have an extensive number of high-mountain streams in the MNF and the majority of West Virginia’s brook trout streams,” he said. “This forested land has public ownership and public management, allowing for interconnected fish populations. Wilderness areas are in the process of healing naturally and National Forest lands outside of Wilderness are being aided with restoration techniques mimicking natural processes.”
Landress explained some of the restoration tools the USFS has at its disposal. By mimicking wood fall rates of old growth forests, biologists can increase organic material and food supply in streams. By selectively adding wood to scoured stream channels, flow speed is reduced and habitat is increased, meaning more cover again predators and safer spawning areas. The fruits of the labor put forth by the USFS, bolstered by efforts of fishery advocacy nonprofit Trout Unlimited, are experienced immediately by backcountry anglers via more and bigger fish.
Chasing the blue halos and extensive vermiculation of the native brook trout is best experienced in these wild places, as far away from society as possible. In an area where “the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. I for one, am drawn deeper into these drainages by some force that pushes me to keep clambering to the next hole or bend in the creek. What lies ahead? The excitement of landing that big one in a hole I have yet to find. My tired legs and casting arm keep going till my thru-hiking friends give their we-need-more-miles side-eye. Just one more cast; it’s late in the day; the fish must be getting hungry. I know I am. But wait, I packed those snacks just for this moment.
Owen Mulkeen is an avid backcountry angler and associate director of Friends of the Cheat. You can often find him rippin’ around on his mountain bike or tossin’ casts in a honey hole deep in the wilderness.