By Susanna Musick
VIMS Marine Recreation Specialist and VA Game Fish Tagging Program co-coordinator
Watching Dave Conklin cast is poetry in motion. In one smooth movement, his arm circles up and out to the side, zipping the line through the air. The line stretches out over several feet of water before floating down only inches from the surface. Then, it seems like a mysterious invisible hand pulls the fly at the end of the line an extra yard at the last second, bringing the it onto the foamy water, where the trout are waiting. Dave’s graceful casting is an achievement, one that he enjoys sharing with other veterans in Project Healing Waters.
Project Healing Waters is a cooperative volunteer program that engages disabled veterans in physical and emotional rehabilitation through fly-fishing.
This winter, the Fly Fishers of Virginia and Dominion Power have teamed up to bring some of the U.S.’s wounded warriors to the Chesapeake Energy Center’s Hot Ditch for three Project Healing Waters events. And the Virginia Game Fish Tagging Program was happy to support the events by helping veterans tag and release their catch.
Despite the winter temperatures, more than 80 fish were tagged and released during the three excursions. Catches like this are possible this time of year because water in the Hot Ditch stays warm through the winter, encouraging some fish to linger in the winter instead of migrating out of the Chesapeake Bay to chase warmer waters.
Having access to fish year-round has been beneficial to the Tagging Program as well. (Special permission is required to access the Hot Ditch, to protect the habitat and the safety of anglers.) Through partnership with Dominion Power, the program’s volunteer anglers can fish, tag, and release all year long, helping us to collect data about habitat use and migration patterns of speckled trout, red drum, and other species that overwinter in the Hot Ditch.
From 1995 to June 2011, 354 speckled trout were tagged in the Elizabeth River, and most were tagged in the Hot Ditch. Through reports from anglers recapturing these fish, we’ve learned that more than 93 percent of speckled trout recaptured in the Elizabeth River were originally tagged there, showing strong habitat preferences for the area.
In addition to providing a fishing hole for year-round data collection, the Hot Ditch’s catch-and-release policy could have positive implications for recreationally important fishes. Tagging data and citation reports from the Virginia Salt Water Fishing Tournament have shown red drum and speckled trout in the Hot Ditch to be the right size to suggest maturity. This makes the Hot Ditch an important overwintering haven for adult fish that can spawn future generations.
And, thanks to Dominion and the guides and veterans from Project Healing Waters, more than 80 additional fish were tagged that will help us to continue to learn about and properly manage some of our state’s favorite game fish.
Check out these photos from the January 17 excursion.