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By Skip Johnson - 4/99
From the tiny trickle of its headwaters in the wild heart of West Virginia to its confluence with the Kanawha River at Charleston, the Elk River meanders 180 miles through forests, farmland and small towns. It is the longest river located entirely within the borders of the Mountain State. The upper Elk above Sutton Lake gushes forth as a clear, cold, spring-fed trout stream in the rugged mountains of Pocahontas County near Snowshoe Ski Resort. It sinks underground just a few miles from its source and re-emerges near Elk Springs a larger, rowdier flow that gathers momentum with every mile it drops until it reaches Sutton Lake. From Sutton downstream, the Elk is a different river: warmer, slower, deeper–an emerald green stream which serves as habitat for a wonderfully diverse population of aquatic creatures, including some of our most prized warmwater gamefish. My family began its lifelong love affair with the Elk River when I was a small child. Our father, an enthusiastic outdoorsman, was always taking us fishing and as part of the fishing trips we stopped along the way to seine for bait fish. It was, long before we ever heard the word, a child's introduction to ecology. We discovered all sorts of creepy creatures like crayfish, salamanders, ugly sculpins, minnows, daces and brightly-colored darters, animals never seen in our home aquarium. These early Elk River biology lessons instilled in us a sense of adventure and a fascination with nature that forever changed the course of our lives. Decades later, I finally understand what a biological treasure this river really is. The Elk River is the best all-in-one river in West Virginia, in the opinion of biologist Dan Cincotta of the state's Natural Heritage Program. Cincotta, a scientist who has studied our state's stream ecosystems over many years, believes that the Elk has been one of North America's best kept secrets in terms of its fish population. Elk River is now recognized among state biologists for the exceptional diversity of its fishes as well as for being home to some rare invertebrates, including a crayfish found nowhere else in the world. Sutton Lake is the dividing line between the trout and bass fisheries of Elk, but the upper and lower sections of the river are about equally outstanding in terms of aquatic life. The upper Elk is home to three species of salmonids: brook trout, West Virginia's only native species; brown trout, and rainbow trout. The brook trout, which is not a true trout but a closely related char, has been in the Appalachians since the Ice Age pushed them southward. Brown and rainbow trout were introduced by man. What makes Elk River a very special trout stream is that all three species are able to reproduce there, a rare occurrence in West Virginia. The habitat of these colorful, coldwater fish is the rocky riffles and runs of the Elk's higher gradient headwaters. A short list of fish from downstream of Sutton Lake would include such warmwater species as channel and flathead catfish; bullheads and mountain madtoms; smallmouth, spotted, largemouth, hybrid striped bass and rock bass; bluegills; long-eared and green sunfish; walleyes and sauger; muskellunge; yellow and log perch; drum and buffalo; longnose gar; gizzard shad; northern hogsucker, white and redhorse suckers; black crappies; minnows; darters and dace. One survey even turned up an Ohio lamprey. Paddlefish have been found in the Elk near Charleston and as far upstream as Sutton Dam. These ancient, highly migratory fish have smooth, nearly scaleless bodies and long paddle-shaped snouts, making them perhaps our strangest looking fish. Another oddity is that they do not have a bony skeleton like most other freshwater fish. Instead, their internal structure is made up mainly of cartilage, like that of a shark. The Elk River has long been renowned for its walleyes, smallmouth bass and large muskies. The longest musky ever caught from a river in West Virginia was taken from the Elk, and citation-sized game fish are regularly caught in its waters. Another state record from the Elk was the state's longest American eel. What most people probably do not know is that this river is very highly regarded among biologists for its rare and endangered species. For example, at just one location between Clendenin and Charleston a sample turned up a remarkable 42 species of fish, including 18 kinds of minnows and 12 species of darters, tiny fish which most anglers would never notice. Among those is the crystal darter, which occurs only in the Elk River and nowhere else in West Virginia. It hasn't been found in neighboring states since before 1940. These little darters are fascinating creatures, burying themselves in the sand during daylight hours and coming out to feed at night.The Elk holds the state record for having 15 distinct species of darters in just one riffle, another example of the river's amazing biological diversity. Other notable species found in the Elk include three federally endangered mussel species discovered in the river north of Clendenin and an endemic crayfish, cambarus elkensis, discovered upstream of Sutton Lake by Raymond Jezerinac of Ohio State University. This crayfish appears to be an entirely new species never found anywhere else in the world. Elk River will always be high on our family's list of most memorable places because of all the creatures we saw there first as children. In shallow water off a rocky bank, I once spied a mud puppy, a huge, brown (10") salamander with red gills. Then, there was the fierce-looking gar in the eddy behind the Ivydale church, which looked for all the world like a freshwater barracuda. I once accidentally caught a water snake on hook and line, definitely a family first. And, it was on the Elk that I saw my first kingfisher, great blue heron, wood ducks, osprey, muskrat, mink and painted turtle. The many wonders of this unique and beautiful river can make a lasting impression on all who experience it. To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, the Elk is a great, big two-hearted river. It challenges the both coldwater angler and warmwater fisherman, offers both the thrill-seeker and leisurely boater a good day's recreation, and for the nature lover it is one of West Virginia's true natural treasures. West Virginia native Diana Green works in Charleston and is actively involved in environmental conservation. In her spare time, she enjoys horseback riding, canoeing, fly fishing and the study of natural science.
Copyright 2000 by Wonderful West Virginia magazine and the WV Division of Natural Resources. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Photos are the property of the individual photographer(s) and may not be reprinted or reposted to the web without their permission.
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