“The rivers in the Mid-Atlantic are, in my opinion, the best rivers in the world for smallmouth bass fishing,” Kelble said, as he rowed down the Shenandoah River on a recent afternoon, about an hour and a half west of Washington DC.
Kelble put down his oars to cast into the scenic river, which flows through Virginia and West Virginia into the Potomac River, and then the Chesapeake Bay. The water was green and smooth. The banks are lined with the white trunks of sycamores. And the sun was like a silvery quarter burning a halo in the overcast winter sky.
As he fished, he explained that he left the computer business to become a full-time fishing guide in 1998. He’s 41 years old now. But he said he’s been obsessed with fish since he was five years old.
“I remember the first girl that I was supposed to kiss, who I don’t ever think I did kiss,” Kelble said. “She agreed to go fishing with me. And once she agreed to go fishing with me, I kept her around for a while, and she kept me around. We’d fish together. I think I made everybody in my life fish with me. My wife. All my friends.”
In 2003, he and his wife, Erika, moved from suburban Washington out here to the tiny town of Boyce, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley to open up a bed and breakfast. The plan was to rent rooms to clients in his fishing guide business.
But after back-breaking work renovating an 1880's house (at left) to create the B & B, at just the time his wife was pregnant –- many of the smallmouth bass in the river suddenly died.
“In some parts of the river, I estimate we lost 90 percent of the fish,” Kelble said. “That was the end of fishing in the Shenandoah Valley for years.”
The cause of the fish kill is unclear. But scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey suspect the die-offs may have been triggered by bacteria infecting fish whose immune systems may have been weakened by pollution.
Kelble thought about selling their new home, and moving away. But instead, he switched careers again and became a crusader for the river, creating a nonprofit called Shenandoah Riverkeeper.
For years, two chicken slaughter houses in the Shenandoah Valley released tons of waste into the river. Kelble filed a notice of intent to sue the owner of the plant that handled the waste. That legal action prompted Virginia to force the plant to cut its nitrogen and phosphorus pollution by 95 percent, according the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
The result has been almost 100,000 pounds less of these pollutants every year contaminating an important Chesapeake Bay tributary, according to state figures.
The smallmouth bass populations in the river rebounded, with the increase caused mostly by favorable rain conditions in the spring that helped the survival of young fish, according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
“The populations of adult smallmouth bass in the Shenandoah River right now, coming through 2012, is as good as it’s been in the last 15 years,” said Stephen J. Reeser is a biologist with the state fisheries agency.
As Kelble talked about the health of the river, his fishing partner felt something wiggling on his line.
“It seems big, whatever it is,” Kelble said.
The fight was on.
“Open your bail, hold on! Hold on!” he said, laughing. “That’s a great fish!”
It was a smallmouth bass –- a shimmering greenish gold, with red eyes, and a beautiful sun burst pattern on the side of its head.
“I’ll measure him -– 18 and a half inches long,” Kelble said, before releasing the fish. “That’s considered a trophy in many people’s books.”
Despite the comeback of the fish, the river is still, in many ways, in trouble. Nuisance algal blooms are fed by fertilizers, and many male small mouth bass have sexual abnormalities of mysterious origins.
“The things that are causing our male fish to grow eggs in their testicles?” Kelble asked. “Think about it. This is the water we’re drinking.”
Reeser, the Virginia fisheries biologist, said that the fact that smallmouth bass are once again relatively numerous in the Shenandoah River does not mean that the fish are in good condition.
"Fish populations in the North Fork Shenandoah River are quite robust at the present time. However, the fish are not as healthy as they should be, and some of this poor health can be attributed to excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus pollution)," Reeser said. "When water quality declines fish can become stressed, negatively affecting their growth or making them more susceptible to disease."
A lot more work needs to be done before the Shenandoah River is restored to health. But the fact that Kelble is still fishing is a testament to the resilience of smallmouth bass -- and to his own.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation