Can You Imagine? – Wildfires in Pennsylvania Burned With Intensity

It shocks the sensibilities of the modern reader who is used to a twenty-four hour news cycle and video coverage of even minor events, that fires of the magnitude described in The Carbon Advocate on May 15, 1880 was not described in more detail.

Twenty thousand acres have been burned over by forest fires in Pike and Monroe counties.

The acreage burned over was in all probability not a single fire, but probably multiple fires. According to DCNR, Bureau of Forestry records total fire acreage for the entire state has not exceeded 20,000 acres since 1964.

That May destructive forest fires were raging in Indiana County, near the county seat of the same name. During the same month not only forests burned but the boroughs of Milton in Lycoming County, and Coudersport in Potter County, suffered serious fires which destroyed most of the towns. The fires, however, were not a result of wildfires. However the hot dry conditions that caused the flammability of the forests contributed to the desiccation of the wooden structures, allowing them to easily catch fire and burn.

Interconnectedness – Brook Trout in Pennsylvania and Stripers in The Bay

A day after fishing for trophy size stripers I was fishing for these Pennsylvania natives.

I cast the fly into a small pocket of still water against the bank, and almost immediately a small brook trout came up and hit the size 14 Adams. It wasn’t much of a battle. As soon as I raised the nine foot fly rod the fish came immediately to me. I wet my had, picked the fish up and removed the fly. It returned to the water in in less than a minute, none the worse for the battle. It was just one of many I landed last Thursday afternoon.  I was fishing on a small stream that tumbles out of Pennsylvania’s mountains. The weather was warm and sunny. The morning fog had burned off. The water was clear and 46oF.

Twenty-four hours earlier the tackle in my hand had been more substantial and the fight was a bit more intense. Three colleagues and I were guests of the Calvert County Department of Economic Development, represented that morning by Heather Skrym. We were aboard the Patience, owned, operated, and built from the keel up by Captain Tom Ireland.

The bright lures were in sharp contrast to the water and sky.

It was overcast on the Chesapeake Bay, but the weather was not as bad as the day before when we were forced to cancel our trip on The Bay. Tuesday had seen four foot waves and strong winds that would have made fishing with planer boards next to impossible. On Wednesday the waves were in the two foot range and the wind had calmed. The water was the color of new steel and the sky had the color of weathered aluminum.  The sky and water were in sharp contrast to the fluorescent chartreuse and bright white nine inch lures that were being trolled behind the boat.

Captain Tom Ireland of the Patience

At 5:30 that morning, Captain Tom piloted the boat away from its moorings at the charter docks in Back Creek at Solomons. As we rounded Drum Point and headed into The Bay, Tom pushed the throttle forward and the twin Cummins diesels’ growl increased, pushing the 42 foot, 33,000 pound Chesapeake Bay Deadrise toward our fishing destination. We asked Captain Tom about the boat, and his pride in the Patience was obvious. He had built the boat working only from a stem and rib pattern. It has white oak beams and juniper cedar planking overlaid with glass. It is capable of carrying fourteen passengers. He had become a licensed captain in 1973 and the boat was completed in 1975. It was a labor of love for him to build, and now captain the boat.

As we headed up The Bay we talked of fish and fishing. Reports of large fish last fall in the Atlantic had not materialized in The Bay this spring. Captain Tom blamed it on over-fishing by commercial fishermen. On April 25, 2017 a press release from Stripers Forever, a conservation group that has a focus on Striped Bass (Morone saxatilis), warned that commercial interests are demanding higher kill limits on the fish. According the press release, “They want to roll back the modest conservations measures put in place during 2013 and return to the harvest levels that contributed to coast-wide recreational catch declines of up to 90%.” The Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission is scheduled to meet on May 9, 2017 to consider the issue.

This was not my first trip on the Chesapeake. That occurred almost ten years ago when I fished out of Kent Island farther north on The Bay. I have since made several trips to fish the storied waters, but for the past forty years I have been intimately involved with The Bay. Working for Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Resources that morphed into the Department of Environmental Protection, most of the work I did was in the Susquehanna River basin, whether it was dealing with acid mine drainage or dirt and gravel roads. As we dealt with water quality problems in Pennsylvania we were consistently reminded that we were upstream of one of the greatest estuaries in the world and there were problems in The Bay. We worked hard to keep clean water clean, and remediate past problems.  In 2007 I decided to see for myself what The Bay was all about. When that first bluefish hit my fly I was captivated. Trips followed for bluefish, stripers, shad, and the occasional goose hunt.

An umbrella rig with a 9 inch plastic shad tail
23 rods were in various holders around the boat.

Now I had a chance to fish for the top prize fish of the Chesapeake Bay. We heard rumors of a 54 inch fish landed a few days earlier. As we passed the Gas Docks, Mate Bobby Thomas began to arrange the gear onboard the Patience and get ready to fish. Planer boards were put out on each side of the boat and fishing lines were attached to the cables. The lures, certainly larger than anything I was used to fishing, were set out at various lengths and depths. Then the boat rods were set. By the time the last rod was set there were 23 rigs in the water. We trolled the east side of the shipping channel at 2.5 MPH waiting for a hungry striper to grab the 5/0 hooked lure.

Tom and Bobby have been on the water for more than 40 years each. They talked of how the fishing used to be. One particular sore point is the unmitigated harvest of menhaden by large commercial interests. Removal of the base of the food chain, coupled with greater commercial harvest of stripers can only result in the destruction of the fishery. They talk of over-harvest of spot to be used as bait out in the ocean. They both agree that The Bay is not what it used to be.

During the second week in March I had attended the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers annual conference at Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. We had toured a laboratory and an oyster farm. Their news had been encouraging. Crab numbers were up and oysters were again returning in profitable numbers. On April 27, 2017, the day after our trip, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued a press release touting the increase in submerged aquatic vegetation.  “The Chesapeake Bay Program today released the results of the 2016 Bay grasses survey, which found a new record number of acres of habitat essential for many of the Bay’s living creatures,” said the press release. There are some successes but there is still a long way to go.

Heather Skrym with her first rockfish.
Tom Tatum shows his expertise in fighting a heavy rockfish.
Tom Tatum with his fish.

Before we left the dock, we had agreed that the oldest member of the party would battle the first fish . With the arrival of Heather, we agreed that since she had never fished for, or caught a rockfish – as stripers are called in The Bay – she would get first chance at the fish. At quarter to ten a rod dipped and Thomas said, “Fish on!” The rod was removed from its holder and handed to Heather. She battled the fish with encouragement from the four of us as well as Thomas and the captain. Five minutes later the fish was brought to net. It was 38 inches long, well above the 35 inch minimum needed to be legal. It was another 45 minutes before the next fish hit. Tom Tatum was handed the rod and he reeled in the fish, showing his years of expertise in fighting saltwater fish. This fish passed the 40 inch mark.

Harry Guyer leans into a fish.
Harry was exhausted after the fight. But he found Patience pays off.

A few minutes later another fish struck the lure farthest from the boat. Harry Guyer was handed the rod. Reeling in 300 yards of line can be tiring without a 37 inch striper battling for its life at the end of the line. Mate Bobby Thomas performed a sort of ballet with the other rods to keep them out of the way as Harry fought the fish. Finally it was brought to net. After landing the fish Harry admitted his arms felt like rubber.

My largest striper.

We troll on. At 11 a.m. a rod dips and it is my turn to take the rod. I crank on the Daiwa level wind reel mounted on the 4.5 foot rod. I lean back into the rod and slowly gain the 80 lb. test line back on the reel. Soon the fish is in the landing net, and I agree with Harry about my arms feeling like rubber. It is clearly the largest striper I have ever landed, just short of the 40 inch mark.

My fly fishing brethren may scoff and snort in disdain at this type of fishing, but this is the way it is done. I asked Captain Tom if he ever takes clients fly fishing. He says he can, but he never has. To fly fish for stripers one would have to search for breaking fish, an opportunity that may not be found in a day.

Dana Troutman had his hands full as he fought this rockfish.

It is almost two more hours before the last angler in our group is rewarded with a fish. Dana Troutman takes the rod and begins the intense battle. This fish was stubborn but Dana was rewarded with a 40 inch fish.

One day later I am in a hemlock lined valley flipping a fly into small pools, and I found myself laughing as the brightly colored brook trout came to the surface and nipped at the fly. My arms certainly don’t feel like rubber after landing them.

The day’s catch. (l-r) Troutman, Klimkos, Guyer, Tatum, and Skrym
Ron Dietch, Captain and owner of the Omerlea.
A lead slip sinker above a 3 way swivel, a shad dart and a flutter spoon.

At six o’clock Saturday morning I find myself again at Solomons. This time I am aboard the Omerlea, a 22 foot Grady White. I am with my friends Ron and Roy and we head toward the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant.  Fishing offshore of the power plant we begin to hook up with stripers; not the legal size spawned out “cows” we had found on Wednesday but smaller “schoolie” stripers that were mostly below the 20 inch mark. We also pick up an occasional American Shad (Alosa sapidissima). Regulations prevent harvest of either species. We fish with 6’6” medium action spinning tackle, using shad darts and flutter spoons, or ¾ ounce jigs tipped with white twister tails.

Roy Richardson hooks up with a striper.
Roy with a schoolie striper

 

 

 

 

 

It is great fun to hook these fish in the swirling currents of the power plant discharge – The Bubble as it is known.

A schoolie striper, not near as big as the previous Wednesday’s but more of them.

Until we decide to leave at mid-afternoon we have boated 54 fish.  As I watched the water of The Bay break off the bow of the boat as we head back to the launch ramp, I couldn’t help but wonder if the water I had cast my fly into two days before was now flowing away from the boat. Three days fishing had resulted in the largest, the smallest and a bunch of fish in between, as well as reinforcing the sense of interconnectedness between the headwaters and The Bay.


If you go to Solomons there is a lot to do. The Flag Ponds Nature Center at Lusby is worth a visit. One of the primary attractions is searching for fossilized shark teeth at the park. Other attractions include the Drum Point Lighthouse and the Calvert Marine Museum. History abounds in the area. For more information about the area visit the Calvert County Economic Development website at http://www.ecalvert.com/ , or the Calvert County Tourism office at http://www.choosecalvert.com/ .

And of course no trip to Solomons can be complete without sampling the cuisine – seafood. Stoney’s Kingfishers Seafood Bar and Grill, the Ruddy Duck restaurant, the Charles Street Brasserie and my favorite, the Anglers Seafood Bar and Grill are all worth visiting. Anglers was so good I took Ron and Roy back there Saturday after our fishing adventure.

Hotels abound in the area, but become quite busy during the summer, so advanced reservations are advised. We stayed at the Holiday Inn and the accommodations were excellent.

The Gas Docks. When they say stay out they mean it!
The Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Station. You cannot get much closer than this.

A note about fishing: Fishing inside the clearly marked restricted area around the Gas Docks or the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Station is really frowned upon by the people who operate those facilities. You will be severely chastised and may end up in the hoosegow, being towed there by people with no sense of humor and automatic weapons.

Keeping shad in the Chesapeake is not allowed.

There is no open season on shad in The Bay. Regulations on Striped Bass vary from place to place and time to time in The Bay. Make sure you, or your charter are properly licensed and know the rules for the place and time you are fishing.  Go to http://www.eregulations.com/maryland/fishing/striped-bass-4/ for the current regulations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

May the Fourth Be With You – And Not Wildfires in Pennsylvania

May Fourth – a day when wildfires burned across Pennsylvania with reckless abandon.

The Clearfield’s Raftsman’s Journal, on May 4, 1870 noted:

Within the past week extensive fires have been raging in the forest in various parts of this county, no doubt, destroying much valuable timber. No other damage has been done so far as we know.

The Pittsburg Dispatch, May 4, 1891 reported fires near Erie, as well as in McKean, Elk, and Forest counties. During the first week of May fires burned through the woods and fields of Somerset County, east of Somerset. Thousands of acres were reported to have burned along with houses, barns and fences. At the same time a fire near Scalp Level on the Somerset – Cambria line was burning unchecked because of the dry conditions.

On May 4, 1922 a 2,500 acre fire began on the watershed of the Tipton Water Company in Blair County.

Trains starting fires were a problem that week for the Moshannon District fire crews. More than 500 acres were burned in four separate fires started by trains during the week of May 4, 1951. A fire between Medix Run and Benezette burned over 200 acres and a fire in Covington Township, Clearfield County burned over 100 acres. Smaller fires were also reported along railroad lines in Clearfield and Elk counties.

In the Poconos a fire broke out on May 4, 1951 near Hypsy Gap destroying 300, acres and a fire near Bushkill in Pike County burned over another 200. The fire near Bushkill appeared to be extinguished, but five days later it broke out again.

On South Mountain fire again reared its ugly head on May 4, 1963. Three fires burned an estimated 850 acres. The largest fire was a 600 acre conflagration that burned near Big Flat. The fire jumped the Arendtsville – Shippensburg Road at one point and burned down the mountain. Another fire near Mainsville burned 250 acres of South Mountain and the third fire at the intersection of Ridge Road and the Huntsdale – Pine Grove Road (PA Route 233) burned less than an acre.

And the infamous Two Rock Fire was declared extinguished on May 4, 1990.

May the fourth be with you.