Photography By Jim Graham

Feature

In Chester County, a Flying Fishing Community Focuses on Conservation

Valley Forge Trout Unlimited works to maintain the region’s creeks and tributaries.

By J.F. Pirro |

Owen Owens lives near a small Brandywine River tributary called Bennett’s Run that’s known for its vibrant population of stoneflies, mayflies and caddisflies. Avondale’s Stroud Water Research Center classifies the stream a 15 out of 20, one of the highest such rankings in southeastern Pennsylvania. Few people know this other than Owens, who’s a board member, founder and past president of Valley Forge Trout Unlimited. 

The creek runs through Kennett Square’s Kendal-Crosslands Communities, where Owens lives. Last summer, the continuing-care facility used portions of a donation from a deceased former resident to remove invasive plants from its 600-plus feet. Then, this past fall, VFTU members joined residents and staff to plant 300 native trees and shrubs. 

It’s the sort of thing VFTU has been quietly doing to protect the region’s cold-water resources since 1976, all in the name of conservation—and fly fishing. All of its work is accomplished with an annual budget of less than $50,000. “We’re conservationists who love to fish—we’re not fishermen who like to do conservation on the side,” says VFTU president Pete Hughes, who lives in Chester Springs. 

After 12 years, the local chapter’s aggressive involvement has led to a crucial settlement agreement between the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. The latter will now have to alter its storm-water management plans for the road-widening project from Route 29 to the Valley Forge turnpike interchange. “We were accused of holding up plans for six years,” says Pete Goodman, VFTU’s environmental chair, who also heads the Environmental Advisory Council for Charlestown Township near Phoenixville. “There were some long, ugly talks. If they’d done it right, they wouldn’t have had us telling them about everything they did wrong.” 

For Trout Unlimited members nationwide, clean water is always the top priority. “If I had to make a Top 10 list, it would be all 10,” says Goodman, who lives in Malvern. “Like one of our founders once said, ‘If you take care of the water, the fish will take care of themselves.’” 

Chester County is the chapter’s primary scope, though it also dips into sections of Montgomery and Delaware counties. It has 800 members, with a focus on protecting 10 wild and stocked trout watersheds. Storm-water runoff is a problem that becomes exponential in rapidly developing counties—especially with the more frequent and severe storms of late. The runoff introduces thermal loads to streams, eroding their banks and heating their waters to unsafe levels for trout survival. Goodman makes it sound simple: The land is a sponge, but if 40 percent of a township’s land is impervious surface, 60 percent of it has to do 100 percent of the absorption. 

 

Owen Owens, a member of Valley Forge Trout Unlimited, fishing at Bennett’s Run in Kennett Square.
Owen Owens, a member of Valley Forge Trout Unlimited, fishing at Bennett’s Run in Kennett Square.

 

There’s also been a notable increase in salinity, a direct result of winter road salt runoff. As yet, that’s a battle VFTU isn’t sure how to wage. “Rain is good,” Hughes says. “We like to have rain, but we don’t like to have water run off impervious surfaces. There are too many townships and developers who don’t do their work, and that criticism extends to governmental agencies like the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.” 

Hughes is a former business consultant and Goodman is a retired operations specialist at a family-owned elevator corporation. The worst part of their work may well be attending mind-numbing township meetings. “Some townships change their stripes; some recognize the need to come to us,” says Goodman. 

Developers typically aren’t big fans of VFTU. Brian O’Neill paid the price for his Worthington Steel property in East Whiteland Township, where a VFTU-prompted stream investigation resulted in a $9 million reconstruction job. “Developers don’t like us,” Hughes says. “We cost them money.” 

VFTU is also there when human error erodes the natural world. Between 2009 and 2018, enough chlorinated water spilled from fire-suppressant lines to cause significant local fish kills in Chester County’s Little Valley and Valley creeks. “When chlorinated water hits streams and the chlorination hits fishes’ gills, they die,” Hughes says. “They can’t breathe.” 

VFTU has numerous educational and service partnerships and hosts of annual events like spring cleanups, a fly fishing school, a trout show and a group fishing trip to the Little Juniata River. At the Church Farm School in Exton, students clean and repair streams, and there are plans to bring trout into the classrooms. Administered nationwide through the Veterans Administration, Project Healing Waters introduces fly-fishing to vets and active-duty military personnel recovering from PTSD. VFTU sponsors Healing Waters programs in Coatesville, West Bradford Township and Royersford. “We get as much out of the programs as we give,” Hughes says. 

Valley Creek is a shining example of why VFTU’s work is so essential. “It’s remarkable that a stream is this productive so close to a major metropolitan area and in such a rapidly developing county,” Goodman says. 

A limestone bed makes Valley Creek unique, its natural habitat fed by springs that keep it cool. “Valley Creek is a miracle of sorts, but only because VFTU’s eyes and ears are always open,” says Hughes. “Without us, we’d all be fishing carp in warm weather. You’d have to travel a long way to find a good stream.” 

Valley Forge Trout Unlimited meetings are held September-May (except for March) the second Thursday of each month at the Chester Valley Grange in Malvern. They are open to the public.

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