W.Va.’s Trout Outlook Has Changed, Retired Biologist Says

Charleston Gazette Mail
14 November 2015

ELKINS — Every fish and wildlife agency has its unsung heroes. One of those, Tom Oldham, retired on October 28th.

Oldham, a fisheries biologist, spent more than 39 years’ working in the Division of Natural Resources’ trout program. A lot of his work took place along tiny blue lines on the map, well away from towns, roads and the public’s eye.

When a remote headwater stream needed to have its water quality tested, chances are Oldham made the measurements and recorded the results. When all of the Monongahela National Forest’s streams had their fish populations surveyed, Oldham spent countless hours with an electrofishing pack strapped to his back.

When other DNR biologists needed help with a fisheries project, Oldham was happy to lend a hand, even if the project didn’t involve trout.

Thorough. Meticulous. Professional. A biologist’s biologist.

Those are some of the descriptions Oldham’s colleagues used to describe him. It should come as no surprise, then, that Oldham noted a few significant changes take place in the state’s trout program during his four decades’ of service.

“When I started with the agency, there were a lot of water-quality issues. We had a lot of issues with acid rain, mine drainage and other forms of water pollution,” Oldham said. “Over the years a lot of those problems have been resolved. Now that the water is in better shape, we can now concentrate on improving the habitat in our trout streams.”

He credited former DNR biologist Pete Zurbuch for handling some of the water-quality problems. It was Zurbuch who pioneered the use of finely ground limestone to counteract the effects of acid pollution. Today, literally hundreds of miles of streams benefit from annual applications of limestone sand.

“Through Mr. Zurbuch’s and others’ efforts, there’s been a lot of improvement. A lot of [barren] fisheries have been restored. There are a lot of places we can put fish now that we couldn’t before,” Oldham added.

He pointed out that almost the entire Cheat River system, which once suffered from acid pollution, has benefited from the DNR’s introduction of limestone sand to the river’s headwater tributaries. Sweetening the tributaries has had the unexpected benefit of sweetening the main river all the way downstream to Cheat Lake. Fishing is better today than it has been since the 1960s.

The changes Oldham has seen haven’t all been for the better. When he went to work for the DNR in the 1970s, most of the agency’s trout hatcheries were in good shape. That, he said, is simply not the case today.

“We neglected our hatcheries for too long, and now we’re having problems,” he said. “One hatchery that was new in the early years of my career, the Tate Lohr Hatchery, has a spring box that leaks. They’re having trouble keeping enough water [in the facility] to raise trout.”

Several other hatcheries are plagued with plumbing leaks, some severe enough to have generated sizable underground voids. Aging vehicles and antiquated equipment can be found just about everywhere in the seven-hatchery system.

“We probably maxed out our [fish-producing] capacity 15 to 20 years ago,” Oldham said. “We can’t produce more trout, and at the same time we still have fishermen wanting lots of fish.”

A complicating factor, he added, is that West Virginia’s complex state-government purchasing practices make it difficult to make repairs in a timely manner.

“There are a lot of impediments to getting things done,” he said. “The idea of making things transparent has actually muddied the issue. The system is overzealous about making sure everyone can bid and making sure everyone can see what’s going on. As a result, things aren’t working as well as they could or should.”

But those aren’t Oldham’s problems now. In retirement, he’ll concern himself mainly with spending more time with his wife and kids, and trying to decide where he next wants to go fishing.

Looking back, he says he gets “a great deal of satisfaction” knowing that the work he did for the DNR, however unsung, helped to make West Virginia a better place to catch fish.