Wednesday, August 10, 2016


Thanks to the persistent, concerted efforts of local anglers, the South River Fly Shop, and the Shenandoah Valley Chapter of TroutUnlimited (SVTU), Waynesboro’s urban trout fishery currently awaits the August 18th Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) board meeting, where votes will be taken on two proposed regulation amendments that will alter the river’s fishing opportunities and potentially improve an evolving fishery.

South River Fly Shop guide Reed Cranford with a 25" brown from the South River Delayed Harvest Area.
    One amendment would replace the existing delayed harvest designation on two miles of river from North Park to Wayne Ave., with catch and release regulations.

    The second would adjust the existing 16-inch minimum size limit for trout and artificial lure-only restriction on the 5.5 miles of the South River Special Regulations Area, extending from the North Oak Lane bridge to a point 1.5 miles above Rt. 632 (the Shalom Road bridge), to a 20-inch minimum and a fly-fishing-only designation, more than doubling the amount of fly-fishing-only water in the state.

    Virginia’s delayed harvest system limits anglers fishing waters designated as such to artificial lures only, and requires catch-and-release, except for a window from June 1 through September 30 –when waters are too warm to hold stocked trout—when harvest is allowed and bait is permitted. So the question of delayed harvest versus catch-and-release year-round is dependent upon water temperature and quality.

    The proposed amendments’ position on DGIF’s schedule is a result of several years of advocacy from the local angling community, mobilized by SVTU and the South River Fly Shop. In 2012, the groups approached DGIF with the suggestion of making the proposed regulation adjustments to the South River. In defense of the existing delayed harvest management system, they were met with the argument that the river becomes too warm in the summertime to effectively hold over stocked trout populations.

    In response, SVTU and South River Fly Shop hatched a plan to mobilize their voice.

    “After a while, we decided to show public support by drawing up a proposal and getting signatures from anglers,” said Kevin Little, co-owner of South River Fly Shop. “That got us on [DGIF’s] radar.”

    Right on cue, in September of 2013, Tom Benzing of James Madison University presented at the Mountain Stream Symposium II a five-year (2008-2013)water temperature study of the South River aimed at assessing the river’s potential as a sustainable trout stream.

    In 2011, while the study was ongoing, Rife-Loth Dam, which was installed in 1884 above what is now Wayne Ave. and the upstream boundary of the South River’s delayed harvest stretch, was bulldozed.

    “The old dam was backing up and warming cold spring water coming in from upstream,” said Little. “And because it was a top-release dam, it was overflowing warm water.”

    Benzing’s study shows that the removal of Rife-Loth Dam restored normal daily fluctuations of water temperatures downstream, buffered by the restored influx of cold spring water. Furthermore, it proved that the water temperature from springs in and above downtown Waynesboro were suitable as thermal refuges for trout.

    In the spring of 2016, DGIF took notice.

    “There is a strong proposal in downtown for changing the delayed harvest designation to catch-and-release,” said DGIF Region 4 Fisheries Manager, Paul Bugas. “And we’re noticing increasing demand for more fly-fishing-only water.”

    After several years of static, this nudge from the public is getting DGIF on board.

    “We’ve sampled at the end of May and before stocking begins in October and found a good number of holdovers in downtown, which leads us to believe that some better holdovers under new regulations,” said Bugas. “We’re trying it.”

    Bugas also recognizes the potential benefits of the minimum length increase on the upper South River above North Oak Lane, which he says has few fish over 20 inches long, currently: “It will [essentially] make it illegal to take fish from an area that is still under development.”

An angler prospects the banks of the upper South River in the summer. Photo by Matt Reilly

    The debate over the appropriate regulations to spur growth in the trout fishery within the South River could be called unanticipated by those with historical perspective on the river. “If you told me in 1975 that we’d be haggling over trout regulations in downtown Waynesboro, I’d laugh in your face,” said Bugas. “Back in the ‘70s, a doctor from Virginia Tech was investigating fisheries downtown, and he found sunfish, a couple carp, and some suckers, and that was about it.”

    Needless to say, the folks that call the South River dear like the change they’re witnessing.
“This river could be every bit as good as the Elk River in West Virginia,” said Little, a West Virginia native, himself. “God alone did 90-percent of the work. We’ve just gotta’ do the 10-percent to finish it.”

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

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