Habitat and Conservation

Trash, trout and leadership on the South River in Waynesboro

5 Mins read

“Be sure to check behind the church, because sometimes that area’s overlooked,” said Tommy Lawhorn, co-owner of South River Fly Shop in Waynesboro, into his cell phone while his eager customers waited in line to make their purchases. “Call me back,” he continued, “if you can think of anywhere else.”

An eavesdropper would be forgiven for assuming that Lawhorn was talking to an angling buddy about a secret honey hole on the South River, which is home to a healthy trout population and runs right through downtown Waynesboro within view of the South River Fly Shop. After all, few know the South River as well as Lawhorn, who has the guide bookings to prove it. Instead, however, he was coordinating with local fly angler Eric Harvey, and they were after a very different quarry altogether: This fine April morning, the anglers had swapped trout for trash.

For more than five years, Eric Harvey has headed a team of dedicated volunteers who gather each spring to clean up the South River. Harvey started the project on his own with a simple Facebook announcement. “It can look pretty bad at times,” he says, “but we can make a big difference if folks just show up and make a reasonable effort. It has a very positive effect.”

At the time of the first cleanup, Harvey wasn’t a member of Trout Unlimited or any other conservation group; he simply saw a need and knew what had to be done to address that need. But what began as Eric Harvey’s good deed for the day and leadership has resulted, years later, in the removal of thousands of pounds of trash.

“I’m a truck driver for the Coca-Cola Company,” comments Harvey, “and it really irks me when I find a Coke can lying along the streambank or anywhere else. My company is great about asking people to recycle and respecting the environment, but once the product leaves our hands, we can’t make people do the right thing. That’s something that has to come from the inside.”

Heather Pote, Mike Pote and Doug Stegura are happy to be a part of the South River cleanup each spring. Photo by Beau Beasley.

Each spring Harvey and his eager band of volunteers gather in Waynesboro at Constitution Park and hand out orange trash bags donated by the city. Volunteers break into small groups and walk the banks of the river looking for trash and filling their bags as they go. The bags of trash are eventually placed on a trailer provided by the City of Waynesboro, and on Monday they will be taken to the dump.

Longtime volunteer Doug Stegura, an active member of the Shenandoah Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited who lives in nearby Staunton and fishes the river often, explains why he comes out: “This is a great little river.” In previous years Stegura has brought some of his foster children to help the cleanup effort, saying, “It’s a great family activity, because giving back to your community is important.”

On this particular spring morning Stegura isn’t the only fly angler foregoing a morning of fishing to help: Heather Pote and her husband, Mike, are also diligently picking up trash. The Potes live in Richmond but drove to Constitution Park and arrived early Saturday morning to participate in the river cleanup.

The South River was once seen as little more than an eyesore, but the river is now an economic lifeline. Photo by Beau Beasley.

“This is the closest trout stream to us,” says Mike, “and we fish it as often as we can. So we feel we should be doing our part to help out.” Heather adds, “You get a great sense of accomplishment when you work on a project like this. Being here and doing your part just makes you feel good.”

The volunteers represent a significant shift in the mindset of those who live, work, and play on the South River. For years locals viewed the river as little more than a nuisance: In addition to periodic floods, it was routinely used as a dumping ground by nearby commercial interests. Old-timers say they could determine what local factories were producing by observing the changing color of the river water.

With stakeholder involvement and legislative action (like the Clean Water Act), all that has changed now. Sure, some residents and visitors thoughtlessly leave their trash alongside the river. And of course trash left in the town can find its way from a local street into a storm drain and eventually into the water. But the South River is not the polluted eyesore it once was. Today the South River is perceived as a net asset for Waynesboro.

Despite the river’s rich (and “colorful”) history, few residents know that Waynesboro’s very own South River was not only the birthplace of Trout Unlimited in Virginia but was also the state’s first urban trout fishery. Local residents Len Poulin and Dana Quillen, along with members of the Waynesboro Downtown Development Incorporated, launched the Virginia Fly Fishing & Wine Festival in 2000, which annually drew dozens of vendors and thousands of tourists to the area, bringing brisk business to local hotels and restaurants. The festival eventually became so popular that it outgrew its location and had to be moved to the State Fairgrounds in Doswell—but not before greatly raising awareness of the South River and of Waynesboro as an ecotourism destination.

Darren Wu and his wife Tracy with Caleb (11), Karis (9), Titus (6), and Daniel (3) recently came to Waynesboro just to enjoy the recreational options. Photo by Beau Beasley.

While volunteers clear the riverbanks of debris this morning, young families enjoy the river and nearby park. Dozens of people are walking, jogging, and biking along the recently constructed greenway. Others play soccer in the adjacent field. Darren Wu, associate director for the Center for Research & Scholarship at Liberty University, has driven in from Lynchburg this morning with his family to enjoy the river together; while his wife Tracy sneaks in a jog and their older children enjoy a bike ride, Darren is walking along the riverbank with 6-year-old Titus and 3-year-old Daniel. When I come upon them, the boys are mesmerized by a dead fall fish that has washed up on the shoreline. I explain that the fish is native to the river; perhaps it died when an angler haphazardly released it. I point out the peck marks on the fish’s side—most likely a wound from a hungry heron. Titus and Daniel kneel down and take turns poking the fish with a stick. It’s just sitting here: should they take it home and eat it? I smile and explain that the fish will indeed be eaten, but most likely by a raccoon or fox rather than by a person.

Not far from where Titus and Daniel are conducting their investigations, a fly angler makes a few hopeful casts near some fallen trees on the opposite edge of the river. Meanwhile Harvey and some of his team may be decked out in waders, too—but again, they’re in hot pursuit of an entirely different prey. “In the past,” comments Harvey, “we’ve pulled out of the river everything from the tailgate of an old pickup truck to shopping carts to old mattresses to a fair amount of tires. We also see a lot of soccer balls, baseballs and other plastic toys, especially near Rockfish Run that feeds into the South River.”

Today, however, “we really didn’t find as much trash as we have in the past,” says Harvey with a satisfied smile. “Who knows? Perhaps attitudes are beginning to change.” He’d love to install trash traps, he says: a sort of netting system that collects debris as soon as it exits a culvert, preventing it from heading downstream. Unfortunately, these systems are pricey. “I’d like to protect this river if I can,” says Harvey, “and I’d be glad to partner with anyone who’d like to help out our Shenandoah Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited to do it. This is a great trout river, and I want to keep it that way.”

First published in the Augusta Free Press www.augustafreepress.com April 20, 2022

Beau Beasley is an investigative conservation writer and the author of Fly Fishing Virginia & Fly Fishing the Mid-Atlantic. His latest book on veterans and fly fishing is scheduled to be released later this year.

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