In Good Hands
left to right; Jerry Staggs & Gerald Lewis
The South Branch of the Potomac has taken a negative turn in recent months. On or
around the first week of June, 2002 a substantial fish kill was witnessed. Everyone in
this part of the State is buzzing as to what might have happened. No one actually
knows. One thing is for sure - the smallmouth aren't there; at least in the numbers
and sizes preceding the kill. Let me assure those that are concerned that our State and
Federal fisheries personnel are diligently working to solve the puzzel. These people
have my deepest respect and I submit to you that we should let them work and wait for
the results. I've known DNR District II Fisheries biologist Gerald Lewis for over thirty
years and no one loves the South Branch more that Gerald. I recently had the
opportunity to spend some time on the "Branch" with Gerald and his assistant Jerry
Staggs. Also a team of scientists from our Federal Fish Health Labratory, Vicky Blazer
and Frank Pank along with WV DNR Research Fisheries biologist Chris Obara visited
Romney to assist in gathering fish for diagnosis.
It was an extremely hot morning when we launched the "shocking boat" into the
South Branch six miles north of Romney. The water temperature was 82 degrees. The
boat was prepared by Jerry Staggs. Vicky, a Federal Fish Pathologist,  Frank, a
Federal Fisheries Biologist, Gerald Lewis, Jerry Staggs and myself hopped on board.
The goal was to obtain fish that appeared unhealthy so that they could be further
inspected as to their health.
left to right: Vicky Blazer, Gerald Lewis and Frank Pank
The boat is equipped with outriggers on which are attached tentacles that hang down
into the water. These tentacles can be charged with electricity which stuns the fish to a
depth of six feet. The fish come to the surface and netted by individules in the front of
the boat. Within an hours time approximately 50 fish were netted and only those that
appeared in poor health or having sores or lesions were put into a live well to be
brought to shore.
left to right: Frank Pank and Jerry Staggs
Many fish came to the surface. Two of the largest were a carp and crappie. The large
majority were suckers and red breast sunfish with a few largemouth bass and very few
smallmouth. Gerald commented that during normal times, more smallmouth would
have been seen.
10 lb.Carp
15 in. crappie
A shocking team has been
on the river throughout
the summer. Their
purpose has been far
different than the outing
that I participated in.
Throughout the summer
structured samplings from
Petersburg to the Potomac
near Green Springs have
smallmouth which were
tagged so that migration
patterns could be better
understood. Population
density and other statistical
values were also sought.
The fish kill however, has
biased this information.
Getting back to my day with
the team. Once enough fish
were gathered that showed
signs of poor health, the boat returned to shore. Once on shore, the Pathologists broke
out their surgical kits, put on rubber gloves and went to work. The procedure was to
first document the general appearance of the fish. Sores and lesions and where they
occurred on the fish were noted.  Vicky Blazer took the lead in this part of the
Once the general appearance
was documented, Vicky took
blood from the fish with a
syringe. She worked much
like a surgeon. I was most
impressed with her
thoroughness and
professionalism. While
working, Vicky dictated her
procedure to Frank who was
writing everything down. The
blood was placed in a sterile
vial and labled. Once back in
the Laboratory, it would be
tested for many things.
Once all needed blood was
taken, Vicky picked up the
scalpel. She carefully
disected the fish. Stomach
content was noted, Samples
of the liver and spleen were
removed and placed into
sterile containers. Again
this tissue will be fully
studied in the lab. Note the
discolored head of this
largemouth bass. Many of
the fish had sores in the
same place on their belly.
Vicky pointed out to me
the white spots on the
spleen of
this fish. I commented, "Is that normal ?" and Vicky replied, "Oh no." This same
procedure was performed on a dozen fish. It will take awhile before the results are
known, but I'm confident that this team of scientists will get to the bottom of the
South Branch trouble. Jerry and I talked in private and he expressed that rumors are
flying as to the reduction of smallmouth in the South Branch. He said that at present
there is no answer. He smiled though and said " With these people helping out and
everyone involved from Water Quality personel to the landowners and sportsman, we
will find answers based on fact not guesses." You know that is the way it should be and
from what I witnessed there is no doubt in my mind that the South Branch of old will
II would like to express my thanks to these people for letting me tag along on a very
interesting day and granting me permission to write this article. From left to right:
Chris Obara, Vicky Blazer and Frank Pank. I would also like to thank Gerald Lewis
and Jerry Staggs for all the effort that they put into caring for the rivers and lakes in
the beautiful Eastern Panhandle mountains of West Virginia.
Photographs by: Carl D. DeFazio
The results of the above study showed that the fish died from bacteria which is caused
by "pollution". The type pollution is still unknown, but the best guess is a
combination of many factors within the South Branch watershed. An aggressive
program is in place to monitor the South Branch particularly during high flow. Update
2014..The river has definitely improved since the kill of 2002, but I personally don't
think it will ever restore itself to pre-2002 conditions.