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Academia, trout anglers have decades of collaboration

Collegiate researchers including biology students at Lycoming College and Susquehanna University continue to monitor the health of trout and cold water fisheries in tributaries of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.

“We really rely on Susquehanna University and Lycoming College staff and students to provide data on the health of streams and value the inventory colleges provide,” said Walt Nicholson, vice president of Susquehanna Trout Unlimited chapter and a retired executive in the water and sanitary field.

Ahead of the April 17 statewide opening day of trout fishing season, the organization held its annual watershed summit in a virtual format.

Anglers eager to get out to high-value trout streams listened as professors at Lycoming College Clean Water Institute and Susquehanna University Fresh Water Institute presented their findings on stream bank restoration, fish population measured before and after floods in 2011 and 2016 and efforts to preserve and protect the Eastern Hellbender, the state official amphibian.

Under the guidance of Mel Zimmerman and Bob Smith the results of studies by the Clean Water Institute work on Wolf Run, a tributary of Muncy Creek, which flows into the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, offered hope for anglers in eastern Lycoming County.

The watershed is 11 square miles in a historically agricultural and residential area, impaired by agriculture such as tractors crossing it and manure from cows.

Nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment harmful to the ecology can be reduced by natural barriers to water eroding the stream bank.

Monitored since 2016, four farms with small livestock, crops and tractors impact Wolf Run, Smith said. In one location a riparian buffer was built but has since been taken out by beavers, he said.

Other studies done by Smith’s class include looking at the use of forest canopies and riparian forests by adult stream insects, measuring the effect of water on adult stream insect activity and examining statewide data to compare and contrast results found locally.

Peter Petokas, of the college’s Clean Water Institute, has studied the Eastern Hellbender, a salamander that is the state’s official amphibian.

His class looked at the animal’s habitat on the Sinnemahoning Creek and upper West Branch of the Susquehanna River.

A hellbender that was “tagged” when it was believed to be about 5 years old recently was found making it about 30 years old, Petokas said.

His students lugged hundreds of pounds of natural slab rock in the creek to provide safe habitat and study locations for the hellbenders.

The arduous task was done in the summer and sometimes took several to pick up the heavy slate and put it into the creek.

Hellbenders forage on crayfish and other invertebrates and small fishes, he said.

Hellbenders that were reared at the Bronx Zoo are among those in the state study.

Jonathan Niles, a professor at Susquehanna University Fresh Water Research Institute, discussed students looking at stream bank tabilization at 30-plus sites and sampling fish.

“We sampled 88 sites looking for wild trout for the state Fish and Boat commission,” Niles said. The sample sites were on the South Branch Towanda Creek, Shemans Creek, Cocolamus Creek, Lititz Run, Conewago Creek and a few other locations.

“We found wild trout at only 15 of the 88 sample sites,” Niles said.

Additionally, the students worked on a Plunketts Creek berm removal study about 20 miles north of Montoursville.

The job was done with the Fish and Boat and Game commissions, Loyalsock Creek Watershed Association and Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds. In their research, students looked at long-term brook trout population at Loyalsock Creek between 2011 and 2020.

Many of the sites are on state forest land, much of it hit hard by floods and brook trout numbers were on the rise prior to these storms in 2011 and 2016, Niles said.

A year after Tropical Storm Lee in 2011, half of the adult trout population was gone, he said.

Again, when high water ripped through the valley in October 2016, a massive depopulation of the species occurred.

Geography also may play a part in the degradation of the fish population with some streams located in steep valleys easily washing fish downstream during heavy rains.

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