Matthew Dickerson: A new national park and two trout-fishing firsts

AMERICA’S NEWEST NATIONAL park, New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia, proved to be an excellent spot for our columnist to explore nature and catch trout. Photo by Deborah Dickerson

The morning began with a rainy drive of a little less than an hour along the western edge of New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia. Beginning at our cabin at Adventures on the Gorge on the canyon rim near the northern end of the park, my wife Deborah and I crossed the famous New River Gorge Bridge (the third highest steel span bridge in the country and the longest in the western hemisphere, and also a magnificent work of engineering and architecture), passed through the town of Fayetteville, navigated some back roads and small state highways, and eventually made our way back into the park and down to the bottom of the gorge, where we followed a gravel road along the New River to the little campground at the mouth of Glade Creek. The drive was beautiful and quiet. Fog clung to the slopes giving an even more feathery and ephemeral feel to the buds and freshly emerging greens of early spring advancing daily up the 900-foot-high canyon walls and steep slopes.

THE NEW RIVER Gorge National Park in West Virginia was carpeted with spring wildflowers, including these blue-eyed Marys, when our columnist stopped off there this past week.
Photo by Matthew Dickerson

I had spent the previous three days at the board meeting for Outdoor Writers Association of America, which this year was hosted by Adventures on the Gorge. And since neither Deborah nor I had ever even been to West Virginia, she decided to join me for the trip. Along with 10 other OWAA officers and board members — outdoor writers, photographers and communicators of one sort or another — I’d spent one full day in meetings followed by two days exploring a little of what the region had to offer (which, not surprisingly, is quite a lot). After the rest of the board dispersed, Deborah and I had one final morning to spend in the park. 

Designated as a national river in the late 1970s, New River Gorge was only redesignated as a National Park in 2020, making it the newest national park in the country. At 53 miles long, the park has well over 100 miles of canyon rim and another 100 and more miles of canyon bottom to explore (counting both sides of the river). We’d seen only a small fraction of that. We decided on our final morning to prioritize wildflowers and a chance for me to catch my first-ever West Virginia trout. And, as it turned out, the bottom mile of Glade Creek was a good place for both. The very helpful rangers and hosts at the park visitor center told us where we could find some of the region’s famous blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia verna) along with Virginia bluebells (Mergensia virginica) down a social trail across the foot bridge from the Glade Creek campground. 

We found them just where we were told, along with blossoming eastern redbud trees leaning out over the river, white trillium, Dutchman’s breeches, and a several other wildflowers both familiar and unfamiliar. We took time to enjoy the sights and scents of the blossoms and landscape. And then I rigged my fly rod and we started up the trail along Glade Creek. 

With the bottom three miles of river flowing through a steep, undeveloped, wooded ravine, and designated as catch-and-release with a restriction of single barbless hooks only, I had high hopes of finding trout.  The first several likely spots yielded no fish nor even any signs of fish. But a mile up the creek we came to a small waterfall just below the site of an old historic mill. Below the falls lay a long, deep pool of water as green and fresh as the buds emerging on the trees that blanketed the slopes above us. Foam below the falls gave way to a smooth surface and a tail-out where (after moving my wallet from pants pocket to vest pocket) I was able to wet wade out in sandals and shorts to cast.

THIS TIGER TROUT, a cross between brook and brown varieties of the fish, is the first trout our columnist has ever caught in West Virginia.
Photo by Matthew Dickerson

Thinking that such a deep pool must hold a larger fish, but that I had a lot of water to cover, I snipped off the little nymph imitations I’d been using and tied on a streamer fly imitating a small trout in hopes it would attract a bigger trout. I was not wrong, though I was still taken by surprise when a 16-inch fish surged up from below and slammed my fly. It gave me a few good leaps and couple minutes of rod-bending battle before I brought to my net … something I hadn’t ever seen before in person. 

Seeing the fish leap several feet away, the color had led me to believe I had a rainbow trout on. But what I landed was a tiger trout: a cross between a brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) and a brown trout (Salmo trutta) — the former of which are native to Appalachia, but the latter of which were introduced from Europe. Rather than the bright red and yellow spots on dark green background of a brook trout, or the chocolate-pudding spots on lighter background of a brown trout, the tiger trout has swirling stripes that remind me of camouflage. 

Since brown trout and brook trout don’t naturally occur in the same waters, the hybrid generally is the result of hatchery cross-breeding of a male brook trout with a female brown. However, since the two species both spawn around the same time and are genetically similar (both members of the Salmonidae family of cold-water fishes), the hybridization can occur naturally in waters where both fish are found: for example, in native brook trout waters where brown trout have been introduced. The resulting hybrid has the famous salmonid shape of a trout, and generally trout-like coloration, but (as noted above) nothing of the patterns of either parent species.

In any case, it was my first-ever West Virginia trout and my first-ever tiger trout. Though I don’t know whether it was the result of stocking or a natural interaction in the river, I do know that I’d like to return to Glade Creek and New River Gorge National Park and explore further. It was one of the prettiest trout streams I’ve ever fished in an area with much more to explore.

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