July 27, 2008

The Roanoke Times, Va., Mark Taylor Column: Grundy River Has Plenty to Offer

By Mark Taylor, The Roanoke Times, Va.

Jul. 27--GRUNDY -- Diehard angler Patrick Baker is always on the lookout for new water.

So when he visited the Appalachian School of Law here a few years ago, he became intrigued by the looks of the Levisa Fork, a placid little trickle running through town just a couple of blocks from the school.

"I'd fished enough smallmouth water to know, 'man, that might be good,'" said Baker, a native of Lexington, Ky., whose gentle Southern drawl is inflected with constant enthusiasm.

It was better than he expected.

During his time at the school from 2004 to 2007, Baker spent as much time as he could fishing the river.

"Sometimes I'd have my wife drop me off below town and I'd fish my way home," said Baker, who now lives and practices law in Abingdon.

Baker was astounded by the quantity and quality of smallmouths he caught and saw.

"When I would tell my friends, they wouldn't believe me," he said. "Then they'd come fish with me.

"And then they'd believe."

Baker delivered this message to me with the vigor of an evangelist one night on the phone.

And I believed.

At least enough so that a few days later, I was on the road to this small Appalachian hamlet, where the Levisa Fork -- or the Levisa River, depending on the map you're looking at -- would become the fourth stop on my two-month-long Summer Smallmouth Tour of some of Virginia's more intriguing smallmouth bass waters.

Baker and I met in the parking lot of the Comfort Inn at 9:30 a.m. The plan was to wade about a mile of the river that runs right though the heart of Grundy. So after parking my car about a half-mile back up the river we piled into Baker's jeep for the drive downstream.

Baker wanted to get in the river right across from downtown, or at least what used to be downtown.

You see, what little flat ground exists in Buchanan County is typically at the bottom of ravines such as the one through which the Levisa Fork runs.

That's not a good thing when heavy rains come and turn little creeks into raging torrents.

Huge floods devastated Grundy in 1937, 1957 and 1977, and smaller floods happen much more frequently.

If Grundy were to survive, the only solution was to literally move the town.

The $100 million-plus project, which includes improving the snaking U.S. Route 460, started early this decade. It includes removing sides of mountains to create flat areas out of the flood plain.

Those chopped mountains, their carved sides having the appearance of giant pyramids, loomed high overhead as we stepped into the cool river.

Baker said he's tried a bunch of different tactics on the river's smallmouths, but he always come back to tube lures.

"I could come down and fly fish and catch maybe 10," he said. "But when you can come down and catch 50 on tube lures, it's hard to give that up."

This trip wasn't just about numbers, though. The primary allure was the big fish that Baker assured me swim in this trickle that's about half the size of the Roanoke River.

It took Baker all of 10 minutes to prove that he wasn't blowing smoke.

"There's one," he said, setting the hook.

The bass launched at least two feet into the air. It wasn't a monster, but it was a solid 16-incher, a quality fish by almost anyone's standards.

Twenty minutes later Baker thought he was hung up on the bottom -- and hang-ups are common because the water is so shallow and just about every square foot is covered with boulders. Then the hang-up moved. I saw the flash of a large bass.

How large?

We'll never know because the hook pulled in a few seconds.

"That could have been a 20," Baker said, smiling and shaking his head.

And I couldn't argue.

So what's going on here?

Pollution, is what.

The Levisa is so heavily contaminated with PCBs that the Virginia Department of Health has issued a "Do Not Eat" advisory for the river from where Slate Creek enters at Grundy 14 miles downstream to the Kentucky state line.

Unlike some similarly imperiled streams such as the North Fork of the Holston, no special regulations exist on the river. Yet bass survival is high because anglers clearly aren't keeping many of these fish.

We worked our way upstream, pitching tubes to shaded pockets and along weedbeds. There were fish in most of the prime spots -- including my best so far of the project, a fat 16-incher.

But plenty of bass where were they shouldn't have been, such as holding in sunny spots barely a foot deep. The fishing was challenging because long casts were required to keep from spooking bass in the clear water.

But challenging is fun, and the action was fast -- our six hours of fishing in the first spot and another 1-mile section downstream went fast.

There were frequent reminders of the challenges facing the stream. Mud in spots along the shore was the color rust in some spots, with the water in the areas covered by the sheen of oil.

Litter wasn't very abundant, likely because most trash gets swept downstream by the frequent gully-washers.

In one area a building that houses apartments is on the banks, and below it the bank was littered with trash, from Subway cups to furnace filters. Baker said he was in the water nearby when a resident walked out and dumped his trash off the balcony.

"I went up and raised hell," he said. "I probably could have gotten shot."

Baker admitted he has conflicting emotions about sharing his secret spot.

He still gets to Grundy on business from time to time and tries to fish the river when he can.

Ultimately, he said he wants the word to get out about the spot because he hopes if it attracts more attention, those anglers will become advocates for the river and its fish.

"The selfish part of me wants to be able to bring my friends here and catch a half-dozen 16-inch smallmouths," he said. "But the more people who have an interest in the fishery, the better.

"The Levisa is a treasure."


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