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Leetown Science Center program makes fishing accessible to all

July 14, 2013|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com
  • James Campbell reels while Curtis Smith nets a fish Friday at the U.S. Geological Survey's Leetown Science Center pond. Campbell is a resident at Heartland of Martinsburg (W.Va.) and Smith is a regular volunteer.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

LEETOWN, W.Va. — Thomas Wayland was having a great time Friday morning pulling in a stubborn rainbow trout that was tugging on his line.

“Come on in, fish. It’s supper time,” urged the World War II veteran as he leaned out of his wheelchair to reel the trout close to shore and the waiting net.

Of the eight fish he landed Friday morning, that 14-inch rainbow wasn’t the biggest, “but it’s still a very good fish,” he said.

The quarter-acre pond is owned and managed by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Leetown Science Center. Every Friday from April through October, groups of special-needs and disabled children and adults, injured and aging veterans, area nursing home patients, school students and similar groups are invited to fish in the pond, enjoy an outdoor experience and a picnic.

The program was started 35 years ago, said J. Frank Roach, administrative specialist at the science center. He’s been coordinating the event for seven years.

“Friday is my day off, so I’m usually here,” he said.

The program could not function without volunteers, Roach said. Those who showed up Friday helped the eight male nursing home patients from Heartland of Martinsburg, W.Va., get settled in for fishing around the edge of the pond and at one of the handicap-accessible decks that overhang the water.

The volunteers provided fishing gear, baited hooks with canned kernel corn and hauled in the catches with nets. Fishing is catch-and-release at the pond.

Every few minutes, a nice rainbow trout was being reeled in.

“They’ll catch 40 to 50 fish today,” Roach said. “There are more than 400 fish in this pond, including some lunker largemouth bass, but the bass usually go for live bait.”

The trout are stocked by the USDA’s National Center for Cool and Cold Water Aquaculture next door.

“We had more than 500 people fishing here last year,” Roach said.

By late morning, James C. Campbell of Winchester, Va., had landed eight rainbows.

“I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I always loved to fish,” he said.

Paul Barney of Martinsburg, also sitting in a wheelchair on the deck, has been living at Heartland for two weeks.

“I caught seven already,” he said.

The volunteers were having as much fun as the older guys they were helping.

Jesse Kismer, 86, of Winchester, has been volunteering at the pond for more than 20 years. A lifelong trout and bass fisherman, he has a lot of experience and advice to share with novice anglers.

“I like to help people,” he said. “When I go, I’ll have the satisfaction and accomplishment of knowing that I gave somebody pleasure. When I see a kid who has nothing or is handicapped and I see the smiles …”

Curtis Smith of Inwood, W.Va., and his son, Jacob, 15, were among Friday’s volunteers.

“I’ve been fishing all my life,” Jacob said. “I like seeing someone who has never fished before get a big smile on their face when they catch one.”

About the center
William Palmisano, executive director of the Leetown Science Center, supervises a staff of nearly 60, including 25 Ph.D. scientists, he said.

“We have the best genetics lab in the Interior Department,” he said.

The center’s research focuses on restoration of fish and aquatic populations, restoration of Appalachian streams, and management of federal lands and trust resources, Palmisano said.

The center’s fish health research labs isolate, detect and identify fish pathogens, and develop prevention and control methods.

The center’s facilities include research ponds, water-holding and distribution systems, raceways and a unique fish passage/engineering building to develop ways for fish to pass through barriers.

The agency works with dam demolition projects on Maine rivers.

Palmisano cited the work at one of the center’s Appalachian field laboratories that’s studying black bear populations in Great Smokey Mountain National Park in Tennessee. Bear movements and activities are normally tracked with tags and radio collars. Now, through genetics, a single strand of hair from a bear caught on a barbed wire obstruction placed near a feeding site can be used to identify and track an animal’s whereabouts.

The government opened its first hatchery and experimental station in Leetown in 1930 by the then-Division of Fish Culture and Scientific Inquiry. From then until 1996, when it came under the umbrella of the U.S. Geological Survey, it went through a series of federal agencies and name changes, according to an agency history.

The USGS and USDA complex in Leetown sits on 500 acres. The government bought 200 adjoining acres, which connect the Leetown property to the 500-acre USDA’s Appalachian Fruit Research Station on Wiltshire Road in Kearneysville, W.Va.

The total contiguous tract covers 1,200 acres, Palmisano said.

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