FISHERY MANAGEMENT ACTIVITIES ON THE NEW RIVER DRAINAGE IN NORTH CAROLINA
Joseph H. Mickey, Jr.
North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Division of Inland Fisheries
Raleigh, North Carolina
Comprising an area of 769 square miles (1999 sq km), the New River drainage in North Carolina (Figure 1) encompases 98% of Alleghany County225 sq mi (585 sq km), 99% of Ashe County423 sq mi (1100 sq km) and 38% of Watauga County121 sq mi (312 sq km) (Richardson and Carnes 1964). Located in the northwestern mountain region of North Carolina, the New River Basin is bounded on the west by the Watauga River Basin and the State of Tennessee; on the east by the Yadkin River Basin; and on the south by the Catawba River Basin. Snake Mountain on the Watauga County-Johnson County, Tennessee line is the highest peak in the drainage, reaching an elevation of 5,518 feet (1681 m) while the lowest point of 2320 feet (707 m) is located in Alleghany County where the New River enters Virginia for the last time. Part of the Southern Blue Ridge Mountain Range of the Appalachian System, the drainage in Alleghany, Ashe and Watauga Counties is characterized by many peaks, ridges, valleys, and mountain ranges. Watauga County has the distinction of containing the headwater springs which are the beginning of the New River system which flows north through North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia before joining the Ohio River.
Predominantly rural in character, the Basin is drained principally by three large tributaries; South Fork New River, North Fork New River, and Little River. There is only one municipality, Boone, within the Basin which has a population greater than 10,000. Approximately 75% of the total land area is in farms, while approximately 45% has a forest cover.
The fishery resource of the New River drainage in Alleghany, Ashe, and Watauga Counties comes under the jurisdiction of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Division of Inland Fisheries. A total of 45 warm, cool and cold water fish species have been identified in the drainage (Bonner 1983, Mickey 1980, Menhinick 1975) (Table 1). Nine fish on the State's rare and/or endangered list, and five fish listed as endangered or threatened by the Endangered Species Act of 1973 are known to exist in the drainage (DNRCD 1973) (Table 1).
Because of the wide diversity of cool and cold water streams and rivers in the drainage area, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has targeted fish management activities in the drainage to trout, smallmouth bass, and muskellunge. Management activities for each individual species are discussed separately.
Three species of trout (brook, rainbow, and brown) are present in the drainage waters today and constitute the major portion of the game fishery of the drainage.
The brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) or speckled trout as it is called locally, is the only trout native to North Carolina. It was once widely distributed throughout the drainage, but because of changing land use patterns which have greatly reduced its habitat and competition with brown and rainbow trout, its range has been greatly reduced. Today, wild brook trout populations are found in fishable numbers only in those streams that are either remote or have heavy rhododendron cover that limits fishing (Bonner 1980). The typical wild brook trout caught today would be 8 inches or less in length, with one 12 inches or longer a rarity.
The rainbow trout (Salmo gairdneri), native to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada range in the western United States was introduced into North Carolina in the early 1880's. Since then it has been stocked in most trout streams in the State and has become well established in several drainage streams. The rainbow trout does best in clear, cool, cascading type streams, but can hold its own in waters too warm or silt-laden for brook trout. The typical wild rainbow trout taken from the New River drainage waters would be 10 inches or less in length, but fish up to 15 inches long are not uncommon.
The brown trout (Salmo trutta), native to northern Europe, was first stocked into North Carolina waters shortly after 1905, and is still expanding its range in the drainage today. The brown trout seems to prefer the larger, slower flowing streams containing an abundance of minnows; however, it does do well in some of the smaller, swifter tributary streams. Typically, wild brown trout taken from the New River drainage waters would be 12 inches or less in length, but fish up to 24 inches long or longer are not uncommon. The brown trout has become the backbone of the wild trout fishery in the drainage because many of the larger streams provide the type of habitat preferred by the species.
Of the more than 500 miles of streams in the New River drainage capable of supporting trout, better than one-half are designated as Public Mountain Trout Waters. These waters are managed by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and are identified by signs posted along the stream bank. Many Public Mountain Trout Waters in the drainage are located on privately owned land where, through informal agreements, public fishing is allowed by landowners in return for having the stream managed by the Wildlife Resources Commission. These privately owned waters are subject to being posted against trespass by individual landowners at any time, usually in anger over the thoughtless act of some angler. A listing of Designated Public Mountain Trout Waters on private lands is made annually and is available from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Division of Inland Fisheries, Archdale Building, Raleigh, North Carolina, 27611.
License requirements for trout fishing in drainage waters include the annual State Fishing and Special Trout Fishing Licenses or a Sportsman License or Comprehensive Short-Term Fishing License. The trout fishing season runs from the first Saturday in April to February 28 or 29 of the following year.
In order to better manage the Designated Public Mountain Trout Waters in the State, the Fish Division's mountain region biologists undertook a systematic trout stream survey from 1978-1982. The objectives of this survey were to determine stream capability to produce wild trout; to develop a classification system based on a streams ability to produce wild trout; to determine trout regulations to protect the resource and enhance the quality of angling; and to recommend management practices such as fish stockings, habitat improvements, and/or stream protection for mitigation purposes (Bonner 1983).
Due to the geology of the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina (mostly granitegensis type) surface waters are low in nutrients which translates into low standing crops of fishes. The highest number of fish found during the trout stream survey in the New River drainage was 6,212 fish/acre in Little Pine Creek in Alleghany County while the highest standing crop was 62.42 pounds/acre in Nathans Creek in Ashe County. The highest number of wild trout found in the drainage was 644 trout/acre in Pine Swamp Creek in Ashe County while the highest standing crop for wild trout was 32.29 pounds/acre in Pell Branch in Alleghany County.
Water chemistry was relatively uniform over the entire drainage. Average summer stream temperature for Alleghany and Ashe Counties was 68.5°F while, because of higher elevations, average summer temperature for streams in Watauga County was 65.6°F. The pH in streams surveyed ranged from 7.0 to 8.0. Hardness and alkalinity were low throughout the drainage. Hardness ranged from 17 ppm to 34 ppm with a mean of 23 ppm. Alkalinity ranged from 9 ppm to 26 ppm with a mean of 20 ppm.
Because of low nutrient levels found in the watershed, the trout streams of the drainage are classified as poor producers of benthic organisms (aquatic insects, etc.). Numbers of benthic organisms ranged from a low of 15 organisms/ft2 to a high of 160 organisms/ft2 with a mean of 54.4 organisms/ft2.
The low numbers of benthic organisms found in the streams of the New River watershed in North Carolina can be attributed to two major items. First, and most important, is the lack of limestone formations in this drainage. Low alkalinities such as found in the drainage streams do not offer favorable conditions to produce large numbers of benthic organisms. Secondly, poor mining and land use practices have created excessive siltation on numerous trout streams thereby reducing the benthic community density and diversity and trout habitat.
The trout streams in the New River drainage are classified into four categories based upon several parameters of which trout standing crops and competing fish species are key factors (Bonner 1983). Classification of trout streams in the New River drainage are as follows:
In the New River drainage, 53 streams totaling 259 miles (414.4 km) are managed by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, and are open to public fishing. Nine streams total 32.5 miles are Class A streams, 15 streams totaling 61.5 miles are Class B streams, 28 streams totaling 160 miles are Class C streams, and 1 stream totaling 5 miles came under the Class D category (Table 2).
With 81% of the trout streams and 85.5% of the total stream miles falling under the B and C classifications, an annual catchable trout stocking program is an important component of the trout management program. Approximately 81,000 brook, rainbow, and brown trout greater than eight inches are stocked annually in the drainage from March through August. In addition to the catchable stocking program, many of the Class B streams receive annual fingerling trout stockings to help maintain trout populations. The catchable and fingerling trout stockings program maintains a trout fishery in the drainage which would otherwise be nonexistent because of the poor habitat which exists in the Class C streams. These streams comprise 62% of the total stream mileage managed by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission in the drainage.
Forty-eight of the trout streams in the drainage are managed under the general trout stream regulations consisting of a daily creel limit of seven trout with no minimum size limit or bait restrictions. General trout streams are stocked with catchable and fingerling trout.
Three streams are managed under the native trout stream regulations for wild stream-bred trout. Native trout streams have a minimum size limit of seven inches, and a daily creel limit of four fish, only one of which may exceed ten inches in length. Native trout streams are limited to artificial lures having one single hook. As a result of the trout stream survey, more streams in the drainage may come under the native trout stream regulation.
The New River drainage was once blessed with many Class A and B trout streams. However, with the continuing influence of man on the region, the trout fishery has declined and may continue to decline. The more significant factors influencing the trout fishery are sedimentation from gravel roads, poor agricultural and forestry practices, new developments, use of streams as local dumps, increased stream water temperatures (thermal pollution) resulting from channelization projects, and the removal of streamside vegetation for agriculture and developments.
From 1977 to 1980 a survey was conducted on the drainage streams to identify smallmouth bass waters (Mickey 1980). Results of the survey showed smallmouth bass preferred the larger, clear, cool streams with gravel and rock bottoms, good current flows with numerous quiet pools over 3.5 feet in depth, and deep riffles.
Smallmouth bass are found in fishable numbers in the North and South Forks of the New River in Ashe and Watauga Counties and in the New River, and Little River in Alleghany County. The smallmouth bass populations in these major rivers make the drainage one of the more popular smallmouth bass fisheries in North Carolina.
Management of the smallmouth bass population in the drainage is limited to fingerling smallmouth bass stockings, and to a restrictive creel and size limit regulation. As a result of the smallmouth bass survey, only one stream was selected for a fingerling smallmouth bass stocking program. Little River in Alleghany County provided good habitat, but contained few smallmouth bass. The low smallmouth bass standing crop was the result of a major fish kill which occured in the early 1970's when Sparta Mill Dam broke and choked the lower Little River with a heavy silt load. To help return the smallmouth bass population to fishable numbers, a 3 year fingerling stocking program was carried out from 1980 to 1982 during which 42,313 1-1/2 to 4 inch fingerlings were stocked into the river. The program appears successful as measured by the number of fishermen reporting catches of small smallmouth bass from the river.
Smallmouth bass populations of other drainage streams maintain their numbers through natural reproduction. However, spring floods and high turbidities during the nesting season can greatly reduce the chances of a successful smallmouth bass spawn (Mickey 1980). It is the policy of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to supplement the natural smallmouth bass population through fingerling stockings only when the rivers have been ravaged by heavy spring floods for two consecutive years.
Fishing regulations are used as a management tool to maintain a high quality smallmouth bass fishery in the drainage. The daily creel limit is 8 fish of which no more than 2 bass less than 12 inches in length may be retained. The typical smallmouth bass of the drainage would be 10 to 14 inches in length, but bass up to 20 inches and 4 pounds are not uncommon. The fishing season for smallmouth bass is open year round.
Smallmouth bass populations in the drainage should remain healthy since land-use practices which control siltation have improved over the past ten years, except in the Boone area of Watauga County. The removal of gravel mining operations from stream channels and stricter erosion control laws for road construction and development enforced by the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, Land Quality Section, have been a major factor in slowing the loss of fishery habitat. However, a constant watch is needed by all concerned to ensure that excessive siltation does not affect the smallmouth bass streams again if this valuable fishery resource is to endure for future generations of fishermen.
The northern muskellunge (Esox masquinongy), a ferocious game fish that reaches weights of 70 pounds, is generally associated with the waters of the northern United States and Canada. However, these fish are also native to North Carolina mountain rivers that flow to the Mississippi. Siltation and water pollution eliminated most Tar Heel musky populations early in the century. Water pollution control laws passed in the 1960's and 1970's helped clean up these rivers and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission began stocking musky in selected waters in 1970. However, it was not until 1978 that the first musky were stocked into the lower South Fork New River and New River in Alleghany and Ashe Counties. From 1978 through 1982 approximately 4,542 three to ten inch musky fingerlings were stocked in the lower South Fork (2,519) and New Rivers (2,023). At this time the musky fishery in the rivers is maintained through a fingerling stocking program.
North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Fisheries Biologists are currently learning more about musky populations in the drainage through two programs an alternate year stocking program and a "Husky Musky Club". An alternate year stocking program for musky in the drainage was established in 1982 with the South Fork and New Rivers scheduled for musky fingerling stockings on even years through the 1980's. This program was established so that in years when no fingerling stockings are made fishery surveys can be conducted to detect natural musky reproduction. If natural reproduction is found in odd years in sufficient numbers to maintain musky populations, then the even year stocking program can be discontinued. Also, by stocking on even years, any adult musky captured can be aged through scale analysis to determine if they came from a year in which no stocking occured.
A Husky Musky Club was formed to recognize outstanding musky catches by anglers and to provide fisheries biologist with information on musky growth and harvest rates. Membership in the Husky Musky Club is open to anyone who catches a legal sized musky (30 inches or longer) and reports his catch to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. There are two categories of membership in the club.
Regular membership is open to anyone who, in one year, catches and reports 4 legal-sized musky or a fish over 36 inches in length or weighing 15 pounds or more. An honorable-mention membership certificate is awarded to anglers who report a legal-sized musky, but did not catch enough fish to qualify for regular membership.
Husky Musky Club applications are available from Wildlife Cooperator agents in the vicinity of musky waters. Anglers need only fill in the required information; date the musky was caught, where caught (body of water), lure or bait, anglers name, address and telephone number, total length and weight of the fish, and a fish scale sample to become a Husky Musky Club member.
Since the formation of the Husky Musky Club in the mid 1970's and the beginning of the musky stocking program in the drainage in 1978 twelve legal size musky have been reported from the drainage by fishermen with the largest musky being 43-1/2 inches and 10 pounds 8 ounces (Personal communication, W. Jones 1984) However, this reported catch does not represent the total catch as many musky are caught and never reported. The musky program has been very popular with area fishermen and interest in the musky fishery increases each year as more "monster" musky are reported through the Husky Musky Club, and through the efforts of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to publicize information on this fishery.
With the diverse fishery habitat and fish management programs which exist in the New River drainage in North Carolina, the area offers the angler a wide variety of fishing opportunities from trout to smallmouth bass to musky. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission trout management programs constitute the major fishery of the drainage, and give the angler a variety of trout to fish for; be it for wild stream-bred trout found in the remote, less accessable Class A native trout streams or for stocked trout in the more accessable Class B and C trout streams.
Smallmouth bass populations maintain themselves through natural reproduction, in most instances, in the major rivers of the drainage. With the lower South Fork New River classified as a National Scenic River, float fishing for smallmouth bass has become very popular not only locally, but region wide.
Until natural reproduction is documented in sufficient numbers, the musky management program will be maintained by an even year stocking program. Musky fishing, though relatively new to the drainage in North Carolina, is continuing to gain in popularity as reports of musky caught from the river spread throughout the angling public.
Fishing in the drainage is a major economic and recreational resource for the drainage as every dollar spent by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission in fish management programs generates $50 back to the local economy (Mickey and Wingate 1980, Jones 1982). Fish management programs carried out by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission strive to keep, and maintain a quality fishery in the drainage. However, as more stream habitat is lost to increased sediment loads, and increased stream water temperatures caused by development, the fishery resource of the drainage may continue to decline despite the efforts of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission unless man realizes that a balance needs to be achieved between "progress" and the valuable fishery resource of the drainage.
Bonner, William R. 1980. Trout Fishing Information for North Carolina. Division of Inland Fisheries, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Raleigh, North Carolina. 13 pp.
______. 1983. Survey and Classification of State-managed Trout Streams, District Seven. Mountain Fisheries Investigations, F. A. Proj. F24S. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Division of Inland Fisheries, Raleigh, North Carolina. 106 pp.
Department of Natural and Economic Resources. 1977. South Fork New River Scenic River Study, Ashe and Alleghany County, North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation Master Planning Unit, Raleigh, North Carolina. 103 pp.
Jones, T. W. 1982. Creel Census and Electrofishing Survey on a Heavily Stocked Put-and-Take Trout Stream, Nantahala River, Macon County. F. A. Proj. F-24-5. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Division of Inland Fisheries, Raleigh, North Carolina. 17 pp.
Memhennick, E. S. 1975. Freshwater Fishes of North Carolina. University of North Carolina Press. Charlotte. 179 pp.
Mickey, J. H., Jr. 1980. Survey and Evaluation of Selected Smallmouth Bass and Marginal Smallmouth Bass Streams Located in District Seven, North Carolina. F. A. Proj. F-24. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Division of Inland Fisheries, Raleigh, North Carolina. 70 pp.
______. 1980. Creel Census and Electrofishing Survey on a Heavily Stocked Put-and-Take Trout Stream, East Prong Roaring River, Wilkes County. F. A. Proj. F-24. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Division of Inland Fisheries. Raleigh, North Carolina. 19 pp.
Richardson, F. and W. C. Carnes. 1964. Survey and Classification of the New River and Tributaries, North Carolina. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Division of Inland Fisheries. Raleigh, North Carolina. 16 pp.
Last Updated: 08-Jul-2009