By John Hayes
DUNBAR, Pa. - Something fishy is going on up one isolated Fayette County "holler." And whether or not the rumors of massive poaching and threats to angler safety on Dunbar Creek are true, the rural legend has given many anglers reason to fish elsewhere.
A beautiful freestone stream that tumbles off Chestnut Ridge, Dunbar enters the Youghiogheny River south of Connellsville. Bug life is healthy, speckled native brook trout ply tributary waters and the state Fish and Boat Commission has stocked the main stem for generations.
Many trout-stocked streams are poached - authorities say some in Southwest Pennsylvania get hit harder. But in recent years, anglers who have fished Dunbar's rugged 4.1-mile Catch-And-Release Fly-Fishing Only section have come off the mountain with stories of blatant violations - the netting of stocked trout, illegal swimming, fishing out of season, use of live bait - as well as allegations of criminal activity including illegal ATV riding on State Game Land 51, drug and alcohol use, car break-ins and robberies.
Dunbar Creek is scheduled for a state stocking of brook and brown trout Oct. 3, a few days after Fish and Boat commissioners meet Sept. 29-30 just over the mountain at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington.
"Dunbar has a history of problems causing perceptions of a safety issue," said Chestnut Ridge Trout Unlimited president Dale Kotowski, whose chapter won a national TU award in 2006 for its work on mine acid remediation on a Dunbar tributary.
"I'm sure there have been robberies, cars broken into. There's obviously a drug culture there - you have to be very careful because of hypodermic needles on the ground," he said. "ATV use in the state gamelands is a very real problem - they drive them through the stream causing sediment issues."
Small wooden jack dams, some of which were washed out in a recent storm, created a perfect oxygenated habitat for trout and easy pickings for poachers.
"It's an easy place for bait fisherman to come in and take them," Kotowski said. "People go in with nets and seines to take the stocked fish out."
Much of the poaching, he said, is done by the stream's neighbors.
"Sadly, a lot of it comes from the community," he said. "It's gone on for so long there, it's ingrained in the culture."
Tom Crist, captain of the agency's Bureau of Law Enforcement, Southwest Region, said he's aware of social problems in the Dunbar valley.
"We know people fish with bait down there - we find bait containers laying around," he said. Having grown up in the backwoods of Fayette County, Crist said he doesn't doubt some of the allegations are true.
"It's a way of life. People around there think it's their creek, they can do whatever they want," he said.
But Crist said he couldn't confirm the most egregious allegations of on-the-water robberies and recent vehicle break-ins, although there have been drug arrests and ATV violations near Betty Knox Road, a long dirt access paralleling Dunbar's most rustic upper waters. Local and state police could not be reached.
Until recent years, Fish and Boat's southwest region was patrolled by a waterways conservation officer and as many as 14 deputies. Crist said budget constraints have reduced the patrols to WCO Scott Opfer and one deputy.
Opfer said he doesn't often get up into the holler, but he believes many of the Dunbar allegations are overblown.
"I very rarely patrol Dunbar Creek. I have so much going on," he said. "I don't know why Dunbar gets this reputation. I get a heck of a lot more violations at Dunlap Lake, and the Yough River is the worst."
Opfer said frequent angler reports of widespread poaching led him to organize an ambush sting operation on Dunbar.
"We had officers in the woods up in the fly section," he said. "We had guys up there eight hours a day - never got a case on Dunbar Creek."
Opfer said the dearth of trout might have more to do with contact damage that occurs in legal catch-and-release fishing.
"They get caught and caught and caught. They get handled so much they just die," he said. "I'm sure there's some poaching and things going on there, but I wouldn't hesitate to fish there, or worry about people breaking into my car."
Dave Miko, fisheries division chief, said he knows of no Pennsylvania waters that have been completely removed from the trout-stocking program because of poaching or social issues impacting angler safety.
"If there was a safety issue with respect to anglers, that would be a strong [reason\ to reconsider stocking. We don't see that at that level on Dunbar," he said. "With respect to poaching, in general it usually occurs pre-season prior to the harvest season. We'd stock that water on an in-season-only basis ... or recommend it be stocked close to opening day."
Kotowski called the situation "horrible." Many fly anglers, he said, would support an end to stocking on the stream they love in hopes the poachers would go away. As for other criminal behavior, he's not sure how to stop what happens up the holler.
"That's an issue I'll take up with Fish and Boat," he said.