The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

November 6, 2012

Quemahoning outflow could soon support trout fishing

Joe Gorden

JOHNSTOWN — Although the Cambria Somerset Authority (CSA) and its various partners have added an amazing variety of outdoor recreational opportunities to the Quemahoning Reservoir, there are still some areas lacking.

For one thing, the area around the dam does not offer a top-notch trout fishery. But, that may soon change.

A serendipitous combination of changing circumstances downstream of the big reservoir and a new goal for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission have created a chance to add a wild-trout resource to the re-emerging fisheries of the Quemahoning outflow and the middle Stonycreek River.

For most of recorded history, warm water and later, pollution, combined to keep those waterways from supporting trout. But grassroots efforts to clean up the Stonycreek have proven successful enough over the past 20 years to allow the river to support fish life now. And two years ago, when the CSA agreed to provide a continuous conservation release from the Quemahoning Reservoir, the foundation of a trout fishery had been lain.

“That’s when we first started looking at it seriously as a coldwater fishery,” said Len Lichvar, a member of the state Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC)  and manager of the Somerset Conservation District. “That was the missing component.”

And during the past year, the PFBC came to the conclusion that fisheries built on coldwater releases from the state’s big impoundments could not only provide year-round trout fishing, but could serve as tourism magnets for anglers enjoying the other amenities offered by such lakes. From the start, the Quemahoning was on the agency’s wish list, but there was still some groundwork to be done before a convincing argument could be made.

Fortunately, the conservation district had placed data loggers in the Stonycreek to record water temperatures, and after two years established that they were within the tolerance levels of trout all year long. That was all the PFBC needed to commit to stocking fingerlings.

“All we were waiting for was the release to be in place and some temperature data, and then a survey to move forward,” said fisheries biologist Rick Lorson.

The survey of Quemahoning Creek, which carries the dam outflow 1.3 miles before spilling into the Stonycreek, was needed to determine if there were trout or other coldwater species present, and if there was sufficient food and cover to allow trout to hide from predators while they grew to adult size. Two surveys were done – one by the conservation district a year ago and another during the past summer under Lorson’s direction – and results were not encouraging.

No coldwater fish of any kind were found.

“It was determined from these surveys that a total lack of habitat is the reason,” Lichvar said. “Without a doubt, that stretch was dredged at some time after the creation of the reservoir, back when it was still legal to do that. Predators could have a field day on fish in there because there’s nowhere for a trout to hide. Avian predators are prevalent, everything from the occasional eagle to herons, and it’s easy pickings. Without habitat, there’s never going to be a coldwater fishery.”

There is good habitat in the Stonycreek River, and Lichvar said the data loggers indicate it will support trout as far downstream as Foustwell. But, the focus of the project is the colder waters of Quemahoning Creek, and although the PFBC plans to begins a 5-year stocking program with brown and rainbow trout fingerlings there next spring, it is expected to meet little success without extensive habitat work on the stream.

The conservation district has taken on the project, bringing in professional habitat designers to work out a plan. Then, it went searching for funding.

“We applied to the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds for a grant to do habitat work in there, a fairly significant grant,” Lichvar said. “We also received monetary commitments from the Mountain Laurel Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Boswell American Legion, the Somerset County Sportsmen’s League and others. That’s local support from people going beyond just lending their names to the idea. They are putting up real dollars because they understand what could be developed there.”

Lichvar said he expects to hear soon whether the grant has been approved.

“If it’s ‘Yeah,’ the project will start next summer,” he said. “If not, it will be sort of back to the funding drawing board because we are talking about thousands of dollars. This is not a small project.”

Conservation district watershed specialist Greg Shustrick said the design includes several different kinds of rock-and-log structures designed to deflect stream flows.

“They would be a combination of rocks and logs that would be keyed into the bank,” he said. “They are called vanes. There are several different types that can be constructed: Cross vanes, rock-and-log vanes and J-hook vanes. They all do a good job to redirect the flow to the center of the stream to create a low-flow channel. In high flows, they help keep the velocity and energy toward the center of the stream and off the banks.”

In addition, Shustrick said, the plan includes some more natural types of structures.

“We’re also planning on doing some root wads and some random boulder placement,” he said. “Root wads provide overhead cover. We’re trying to add diversity to the outflow. We want it to appear like the last mile of the stream before it enters the dam. That’s what we’re shooting for.”

As for the fishery, Lorson said he also is hoping to pattern the Quemahoning-Stonycreek project after a successful Somerset County waterway.

“We’re targeting toward a fishery comparable to the upper Stonycreek, the gorge from Glessner Bridge down through Kimmelton,” he said. “That’s what the potential is. The habitat is no comparison at this point, but with habitat improvement it could get to that point.”

The Stonycreek Gorge is steep, wild and boasts a well-established fishery maintained by annual stockings of fingerlings, which grow up in the stream and provide a near-wild trout experience to anglers willing and able to walk in. It is a stretch especially popular with fly fishermen, and has been mentioned both in national fly-fishing publications and books.

Unlike that area, however, the Quemahoning outflow and nearby Stonycreek would be easily accessible because roads closely parallel both.

“I’d like to see the public use this one more,” said Shustrick. “Access is decent, and there is enough room that they won’t have to fish on top of each other.”