Recently my friend, John Neely, who is also a board member of the Chesapeake Conservancy, took me fly fishing on Savage River.
Savage River is a headwater tributary of the Potomac River, on the western edge of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Its watershed occupies more than 74,000 acres of mostly forested land in Garrett County, MD. It is a special place that will make you feel like you were born to fish. It is also one of the Chesapeake Bay’s many headwater streams that contribute freshwater to the estuary and profoundly influence both water quantity and quality.
The Savage River watershed is beautiful and particularly important, because it contains the largest remaining native brook trout habitat in the mid-Atlantic. Brook trout are gorgeous fish that require good water quality; scientists call them an “indicator species” because their presence and population size indicate healthy waters. They have a long, streamlined body and dark green sides with a distinctive sprinkling of red dots, surrounded by blue halos.
A large portion of the river runs through sparsely populated areas with limited development, which has allowed brook trout to thrive. The water temperature is below 68 degrees and is highly oxygenated, providing 30 miles of flowing water that meets the strict habitat requirements for these native fish.
Cool water and brook trout are not the only natural treasures here. More than half of the bountiful Savage River State Forest is located within the river’s watershed. (Because the forest straddles the Continental Divide, some of its waters flow toward the Mississippi.) At more than 54,000 acres, it’s the largest site in Maryland’s state forest system. The mixed hardwood forest teems with species diversity — black bear, white-tailed deer, beaver and many other mammals, as well as 100 species of birds. More than 11,000 acres of the forest have been designated as State Wildlands, which ensures the preservation of its natural resources.
Even though most of the Savage watershed is protected, the river is still threatened by sediment and rising water temperatures.
One problem is a tiny, destructive insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid. This invasive pest sucks juices from the base of hemlock needles and injects a toxin that weakens the tree. Most infected hemlocks die within four to 10 years. The loss of these trees along streambanks can increase erosion and deprive streams of the deep shade and cool water that trout need to survive. And, despite limited development in the area, there is still human-driven pollution that negatively affects water quality, water temperature and wildlife population.
Protecting the Savage River watershed is important because scientists have found that first-order headwater streams contribute approximately 65 percent of the nitrogen that is found in second-order streams and about 55 percent and 40 percent found in fourth- and higher-order rivers. This means that protecting and restoring the Chesapeake requires us to think far beyond the shoreline of the Bay to places like the Savage River.
There are a number of efforts under way to protect the Savage watershed. The Savage River Watershed Association has a plan to plant forest buffers along streams, repair stream bank erosion, provide educational outreach, promote ecosystem based management and much more. The group has also supported projects to reroute farm ponds and remove trout barriers. This work in the headwaters is vitally important to the Chesapeake Bay.
Even in the northwest corner of Maryland, more than 100 miles from the Bay, tributaries of the Chesapeake’s great rivers provide habitat for the region’s plants, animals, fish and flora, as well as the freshwater needed to sustain the Bay. One great way to remember this is to go fly fishing on Savage River.