Quiet disaster
Fish kill devastates South Fork

By Joel Baird/staff

John Palmer Gregg/The News Leader

This smallmouth bass, netted on the North River as part of a survey of fish health, suffers from an infected lesion. Smallmouth populations have plummeted recently in the Shenandoah River.



WEYERS CAVE ? Most of the corpses have washed downstream into the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, but the troubling water quality
conditions that led to a massive fish kill in the North River persist.
The few surviving adult smallmouth bass in almost 100 miles of the
Shenandoah River and its tributaries are spotted with lesions. These
fish, and many others in the sunfish family, are either dead or dying
of bacterial and fungal infections.

While the exact cause and source of the fish kill has not been
determined, experts predict the fish populations won?t rebound for

Brian Trow, a Harrisonburg-based fishing guide, vividly recalled the
fish kill?s early stages.

?I was in the water, floating near Grove Hill,? he said. ?There were
hundreds of dead fish in the water, and the ospreys were feeding like
crazy. It was an annihilation.?

Conditions became progressively worse, Trow said.
?When you go from catching 80 smallmouth in a half-day to one or two in
10 hours of fishing, you know the river?s done for. There?ll be no more
real fishing on (the main stem of the Shenandoah River) for three or
four years.?

Bugas, a wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and
Inland Fisheries, predicted a longer wait for the North River.
?We may have to wait until 2010 before we get 12-inch smallies in here
again,? he said.

Bugas said that several experts have linked the deaths to the rapid
runoff of sediment and fertilizers during the last week of April.
?It?s not a classic fish kill that you can trace to a pipe,? said
Bugas, after surveying a stretch of the North River near Weyers Cave
that normally teems with fish at this time of year.

?It?s almost certainly a land-use issue. It brings everybody in the
watershed under the gun.?

Gary Collins, a McGaheysville-based fishing guide, is among those at
the receiving end of the fish kill.

Wading into a familiar part of the river where he said he used to catch
?easily? more than 20 smallmouth bass in an hour of flyfishing, Collins
cast repeatedly, but without so much as a nibble.

?It looks dead,? he said. ?It looks devoid of life.?

As if in response, the small DGIF boat returned from a short trip
upstream. It was laden with a generator, shocking gear set to stun fish
within an 8-foot radius and a large white cooler. The cooler contained
very few fish. Of the adults, only the carp, suckers and catfish were
consistently healthy.

One of the two adult smallmouth had a swollen abscess, a lesion, on its
side. It was about the diameter of a nickel, and was described by
fisheries technician Jason Hallacher as ?looking like someone had put a
cigar out on it.?

The low fish count Monday suggested to Bugas that the worst of the
infection had passed. But the damage is done.

Trow and his brother plan to shift their guided trips to the James
River. Collins and his partner have made similar plans. Both guides
predicted that a broad segment of river-related tourism in the
Shenandoah Valley will take a hit.

?It?s one thing to talk about numbers of fish in the water,? Collins
said. ?It?s another thing when you start seeing dead fish. People are
going to see that we have a bigger problem than we thought.?

Collins shook his head.

?This has got to be about the quietest disaster in the history of
Virginia,? he said. ?The first reaction has been like a patient
learning he?s got cancer. He?s in denial: ?It?s not me.??

Originally published June 22, 2005

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[url=http://prsc.org/SFfishKill.htm:0f20e]http://prsc.org/SFfishKill.htm[/url:0f20e] **You can't dump tons of chicken litter on the fields and not have problems in the spring with the rainoffs. Some think more than 90% of the smallmouth have been killed in the 100 miles of river. It's hard to believe, with Du and other sources working for years up here to clean up the rivers so the Cheaspeak Bay will get cleaner, that this has been allowed to happen!

Fishing the Ozarks