Bridges And Dams

by Wayne Heinze

“And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey Love the one you’re with” Stephen Stills

Covered bridge over tree lined riverI suspect that many people walking across a bridge spanning water, stop to look over the side into the depths. Not everyone, not always, but they do. The ones who are anglers as I am, always look. For the masses, the glance could be for any number of reasons, for the angler, usually just one: fish. Hopefully the sight of a fish, or a perusal of the current or eddies formed by the bridge structure, water color, depth, vegetation or forage activity, as it might relate to aforementioned fish. The streambank cover and accessibility as it might relate to presenting a lure to previously mentioned fish, et al. All in one glance. It is one of an angler’s first interactions with bridges, but certainly not our last.

Some people regard the intrusion of any man-made structure along an otherwise pristine flow of water, as a detriment to the natural beauty of the scene. A similar sentiment is offered concerning waterfalls created by some type of dam, on smaller streams often one associated with a mill race. Although I like every other angler, deeply appreciates wilderness rivers and creeks where such man made forms were never created, truth be told, most of of fish on waters where they do exist. And I for one, have made the choice to embrace the particular beauty both bridges and man made waterfalls manifest, and their presence has become a visual enhancement to my days astream.

An example would seem appropriate here, and as a resident of the Delaware Valley, the region is home to many beautiful bridges, including several picture postcard covered bridges. One of my favorite is one you encounter along French Creek, a wooden structure that reveals itself to me as I work my way upstream, usually casting a size twelve cone head Woolly Bugger, the most effective pattern I’ve found for the trout, smallmouth and redbreasts along this stretch. I fish the creek year round, and each season rewards me with hours astream and more often than not fish, but a changing vista of the iconic bridge.

Obviously the reddish brown aspect of the wooden span doesn’t actually change, but ah, the surrounding foliage and ground cover certainly do. From the verdant greens of spring, and the more dense and rich greens of summer, and the adjacent wildflowers of those seasons, to the explosion of reds, yellows, tans and browns of the autumn, to the stark snow and icicle glazed bridge I behold with frozen feet in my insulated waders in January. And under the span of the bridge is a hole gouged out over decades of current deflection by the bridge, which is the only holding area for rock bass along this stretch of creek, and I always manage to pluck one or two from under the covered span, sometimes my only fish of the day.

Another good local example of the esteem, beauty and utility (read in terms of fishing) in which I embrace bridges is in Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Creek. Once immortalized by Edgar Allen Poe in his short story “The Elk, or a Morning on the Wissahickon,” the creek flows from Fort Washington to it’s confluence with the Schuylkill River, passing through a portion of Philadelphia’s impressive Fairmount Park System, including the beautiful Wissahickon Gorge. This urban gem is also a four season fishery for me, species from trout and bass to myriad panfish being abundant quarry.

The beauty of this creek, characterized by alternating rapids and deeper pools, is enhanced by a number of incredible stone arch bridges. Some are visible high above while in the deeper portions of the Gorge, some are more intimate encounters, with twin arches offering architectural perusal as well as aesthetic appreciation. I fish the Wissahickon more than any other stream, and have approached these bridges from upstream and down in all seasons, maximizing my sensory perception of the scene. In fact each bridge fishes differently. and the deeper runs beneath a couple are more suited to a small jig than my flies, so that is how they are fished. My catch, my day astream, my serenity, are always enhanced as I encounter one or more of these bridges on an outing, not compromised.

These two examples illustrate the combination of architectural beauty and fishing utility to the highest degree in my mind. I’ve fished similar areas around the country that duplicate the covered bridge, or the stone arch scenario, and had success. You can find such places across the nation, and I urge you not just to appreciate them when you encounter them, but seek them out and make those bridged portions of the rivers and streams a destination.

I have found that all types of bridges will, for a myriad of reasons, hold fish in some way. Rarely do I pass beneath a span, especially while wading on a stream, that does not have a hole, channel, logjam, piling, or rip rap that attracts The same is true on larger rivers, where I may be fishing from a canoe, kayak, rowboat or skiff, and have found fish holding structure and cover around a bridge that also has a visual appeal to me on some level. This is true not only on freshwater flows, but in marine environments as well. In saltwater scenarios, these bridge structures can represent massive feats of engineering, and introduce another fishy benefit into the mix. Many large bridges over salt rivers, bays sounds and bayous serve as fishing platforms as well. So in addition to accessing the fish holding areas of the bridge from the water, it can be accomplished from above as well.

A couple of my favorites are the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Virginia, the spans along the the Ocean Highway in South Jersey, and the bayou bridges in Okaloosa County Florida on the Panhandle. And if you ever find yourself fishing one morning on the Fort Baker pier, enveloped in the thick morning fog rolling off San Francisco Bay, a visage unlike any other will appear, to your right from that platform, and if you are lucky, maybe you’ll have a nice cabezon in your hand that you just caught. Then something will tell you to gaze up at that moment, and just as the fog slowly begins to lift, the Golden Gate begins to reveal itself. And in that singular moment, not just for an angler like me, but for the masses mentioned in the opening of this narrative, staring into the the water from a bridge or not, the reason to embrace bridges becomes an epiphany. So too can waterfalls, even those created by dams.

Within the scope of the water I fish, those associated with waterfalls are unique in their appeal to me. Whether it is the roaring sound of a Niagara, the poetic drop of the Multnomah, or just the invigorating presence of the negative ions in the oxygen infused waters falling water is special. The misty spray, the foaming pools, and the often protein rich smell that hangs in the air, waterfalls are an enrichment to a fishy environment, as well as attractors and concentrators of species. But what precisely constitutes a waterfall?

Dictionary definitions inevitably vary somewhat on land/water forms in general, and waterfalls are no exception. I like Merriam-Webster’s wording, calling a waterfall “an area in a stream or river where running water falls down from a high place.” If we can agree on some of those words to be relative terms, and extrapolate the implications a little, I think we have a starting point for our discussion of dam waterfalls and fishing. Specifically let’s define high as any gravity induced drop in water that causes a significant cascade.similar in form to any named waterfall. This as opposed to the mini cascades in a stream, more correctly termed rapids. And let’s not limit the source of the water drop to a stream or river discharge, although it often is. But a lake is often just an impounded stretch of running water, making the discharge technically stream borne, thus fulfilling the original M-W definition. And so let’s proceed with our consideration of waterfalls and how they impact, our fishing.

The first waterfall I remember, and one of the first places I ever fished, was at the falls exiting Longwood Lake in Morris County, New Jersey. it is the headwaters of the Rockaway River. The area is now part of a state Wildlife Management Area and I fish there yet. Back in the early fifties the property was owned by a family who lived on site. They charged a day fee for small picnic groups, and the occasional anglers. There were a couple of outhouses, a small clearing, water pump, and a few scattered rough hewn picnic tables under some massive elms. No more than a dozen or so folks could be accommodated, and that number was usually only a single family or two. Often, our family were the sole visitors, grilling hot dogs and burgers and catching the bluegills, bass and trout in the stream. The picnic area sat a couple of hundred yards downstream from the falls, and a rickety old snake infested bridge spanned the creek, allowing access to the streamside trail that led to the “sweet spot” at the base of the falls. The bridge also afforded the first view of the sheet of water flowing into the stream, carving out and oxygenating the best trout hole we knew. To a four year old, the Victoria Falls could not have been more inspiring.

But to the five year old standing in the same place a year later, the inspiration was not so much the falls but the fish. Now in possession of a brand new Sears Roebuck baitcasting outfit his uncle had sent him from his base at Fort Richardson in Alaska for his birthday, his trek to the falls was for one of the rainbow trout lying amongst the granite bedrock of the streambed, hollowed out by the relentless crashing of the falls. Bait had been procured earlier from the local bait & tackle, red worms and garden worms. A round pegged cork float that suspended the wigglers was easily flipped into the frothy waters below the falls. In those early years, my primary catch were big bluegills, beautifully colored and feisty in the moving water. Other more experienced anglers would catch other species, sometimes large rainbow or brown trout, stocked by the state miles downstream, but halted in their upstream wanderings by the falls, lingering there in the cool, oxygenated waters.

I live along the Delaware River estuary in South Jersey, and the numerous streams snaking their way into the big river have falls upstream, courtesy of various mill dams from the area’s Colonial industrial and agricultural past, and more recent recreation damming. There would be few bodies of standing water in the southern half of the state without the dams. The dams historically have restricted the range of certain species such as striped bass, perch and herring from natural upstream spawning runs, but have created habitats often favorable to a solid spillway fishery. In recent years, fish ladders have been installed allowing more historical migration patterns to take place through the waters above the falls, In some cases this has caused a population shift in the lakes or ponds above the falls, as historic species are reintroduced via the fish ladders. For example the lake system in Woodbury, NJ supported a large fishery for crappie, which has been reduced by the return of the yellow perch. And invasive species, most recently northern snakeheads, have used the fish ladder to expand their range beyond the biologist’s hope of eradication. Like the flathead catfish, snakeheads are here to stay!

Besides fish ladders, various state fisheries departments have allowed dams to deteriorate over time, or worked with the EPA or Corps of Engineers to have them demolished. In such cases the waterfalls disappear, and the river ecological system in theory re-establishes itself to some prior historical model. This has worked in various areas of the country to extend the range and spawning areas of species like shad and salmon. Locally, the historic Plymouth Dam on the Schuylkill River was allowed to collapse on it’s own for the most part, the waterfall diminishing over the years, gone with the final cursory deconstruction. This is a natural process on natural waterfalls as well over time in many cases. Scudders Falls on the Delaware River at Trenton, was washed away over the years, leaving merely an area of rapids. The waterfall on the Nolichucky River in Tennessee, which sat in front of Davy Crockett’s birthplace, is now just a boulder strewn rapids as well. And the falls of the Cooper River in Haddonfield, NJ that marked the high tide mark of the river, have long ago fell to a series of rapids. Interestingly, the creation of the dam at Wallworth Pond near the site of the old falls, has kept the waterfall a landmark here still.

There will always be a pro and con battle between the benefits of damming rivers and streams for hydro-electric, recreational, flood control or irrigational and navigational reasons, vs the negative environmental impacts, particularly on migratory fishes. On the other hand, cold-water tailwater fisheries have developed below the falls on many large dams, and spectacular trout fishing below many of the South’s TVA dams, and desert reservoirs in the Southwest have become a recreational treasure and boon to the local economy. I have personally experienced this in availing myself of the spectacular rainbow trout fishing on the White River in Arkansas, a direct result of the cooling aspect of the waterfall associated with the massive hydroelectric dams.

I prefer and revel in fishing along a free flowing river. I also acknowledge my appreciation of all moving water, particularly associated with waterfalls. And quite frankly, the massive flows I’ve witnessed over dams across our nation from Conowingo to Bonneville, to Buggs Island to Pinopolis, reveal great beauty to me. But then again, you can read my remarks in the Congressional Record, noting my part in the successful fight to prevent the Tocks Island Dam from being constructed on the upper Delaware River, back in the day.

Waterfalls associated with dams, massive or modest, are a part of our riverine environment in America just as the bridges are. While additions to the roster should be thoroughly vetted and fought against in some cases, stop to appreciate those that do exist, both for their beauty and the fishing opportunity these can afford. To expand the meaning of the lyric quoted in the epigraph, we can’t always be on the waters we love, so loving the waters we’re most often on, is not a terrible idea.

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