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Mahoning River in good shape, but needs work

The river flows past fields of tall corn under shady canopies of hardwood trees that sprouted a hundred or more years ago and past the shadows of the valley’s industrial infrastructure that helped build the backbone of America.

Its waters sustain life for a myriad of species, from the eagles that soar the treetops to the deer that tiptoe to sip from its banks to the great game fish that thrive on its abundant populations of minnows, crustaceans and invertebrates.

The river is our Mahoning, an increasingly popular destination for anglers, kayakers and other outdoors enthusiasts, even as it continues to serve the industries that powered our nation’s growth and defended its people’s freedoms.

Today, perhaps more than at any time in history, the Mahoning is a waterway around which people are rallying. Anglers fish, kayakers paddle and activists work to rejuvenate.

Zachary Felger and Stuart Smith are two of the growing number of people who have become engaged in working to ensure it never again is taken for granted.

Felger is an avid angler who is working on a bachelor’s degree in environmental science at Youngstown State University. He is a board member of Friends of the Mahoning River and co-chair of its Public Use and Recreation Committee. He’s a diehard advocate for the fishing opportunities.

“The Mahoning River provides ample opportunity for anglers to catch a diverse range of species, with respectable size, I might add,” Felger said. “The Mahoning River watershed is home to more than 60 species including walleye, muskellunge and smallmouth bass.”

Pollution-intolerant species are returning to the watershed.

“It’s exciting to see the changes that have occurred in the almost 20 years I’ve been fishing it,” Felger said.

“It’s just unbelievable the transformation that has occurred. Plus, you can eat them now, which is a huge bonus. Nothing like a beer-battered Mahoning River walleye.”

Smith, of Poland, is a hydrogeologist in private practice. He leads the water quality efforts of the Friends of the Mahoning River and is optimistic about its future.

“The Mahoning, chemically, is in pretty good shape,” Smith, who credits that to the fact the stream channel has self-healed physically and biologically, said. “That is remarkable and a good indication of better things to come. Like the population of the Valley, it’s taken its hits and renewed itself.”

Smith said the most important steps to continue the revitalization of the river include taking out some of the low-head dams to restore a reasonably natural stream flow, reduce bacterial loading, and allow natural fish and invertebrate migration upstream.

“That’s the big one that gets the headlines, however a river is the product of its tributaries, and there is work to do upstream, where our county Soil and Water District offices are at work every day. It takes all of us controlling erosion and eliminating trash. We need to work on the vegetation. Just in general, quit neglecting what is quite a nice big river.”

What about the river makes Smith smile?

“Being out on my favorite parts of it, seeing herons and diverse aquatic birds, seeing great oxygen levels in the water, and enjoying the water itself. The old industrial landscape has a river running through it,” Smith said.

The river’s industrial heritage appealed to Felger when he first started exploring the Mahoning.

“The stigma about the river growing up is what drew me to want to see what could actually survive in it, and I did that by fishing,” he said.

“Despite what we were told about the river growing up, we never did catch any mutant fish. But we did fall in love with the species that inhabited the river.

“On the Mahoning River, every catch was a surprise and that was always what drew my cousin and me there to fish growing up.”

Jack Wollitz’s new book, The Common Angler: A Celebration of Fishing, includes a chapter about the joys of fishing hometown waters like the Mahoning River. He enjoys emails from readers. Send a note to jackbbaass@gmail.com.

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