By ZOE YATES
Williamson is known for its beautiful trails and the many recreational activities available for those who love the outdoors. Many folks in the area love nothing more than exploring the hills, hunting or kicking back at their favorite local fishing spot.
For those who love fishing, there are a variety of places to make a great catch: local lakes and streams are popular spots, and recently, the Tug Fork River has become especially popular. The increase in its popularity is in no small part due to one local man: Pete Runyon.
Runyon started fishing on the Tug Fork in the 1990s when he bought a boat so he could take his sons fishing.
"Prior to that time, I had never realized just how good the fishing (at the river) was," Runyon said.
Once he saw how much the river had to offer, it became his favorite spot. Years later, a friend was sharing pictures of the fish he'd caught at other local spots.
Runyon mentioned casually that he caught more than that when fishing on the river.
"He had a good laugh about it as he didn't realize it was true," Runyon said.
After he showed his friend what a day's catch on the Tug Fork River looked like, his friend began joining him. In October 2016, Runyon decided to start the Friends of the Tug River facebook page to show others what they might be missing.
"We had a lot of great times on the river," he said.
Runyon describes the group as "a community-based Facebook page dedicated to the Tug Fork River and the potential it has for tourism in our area." He went on to say that he felt the river is "the best-kept secret in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky."
Since the page was established, membership has grown from a few hundred in 2017 to more than 5,500 in May 2019. Members of the group post regularly, sharing pictures of their catches, asking questions and sharing advice.
The group has had two meetings and plans to have more.
At their second meeting, which took place in Williamson in March 2018, members were visited by the commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and the Director of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR). This was an exciting moment for Runyon and the other members because it showed that they "were on the map with both states."
More than just fishing
The group mostly focuses on fishing, but that's not the only topic of conversation. Members also discuss kayaking and boating on the river, as well as the history of the river and surrounding area.
"I have learned so much about the history of the river and about so many places I never even knew existed," Runyon said.
One popular post on the page details the story of "The Russian Bridge" in Vulcan, West Virginia.
In 1977, the small community of Vulcan was cut off entirely from the rest of Mingo County when the state ignored requests to replace the collapsed bridge that served as the only way in and out of town. Residents contacted the Soviet Union to request foreign aid, and a Russian journalist arrived shortly after to survey the situation.
Within an hour of this visit, the state provided more than one million dollars for the construction of the bridge. "The Russian Bridge" is a favorite piece of local history and just one of the many stories shared by the Friends of the Tug Fork River.
The future is bright
This is only the beginning for the Friends of the Tug Fork River community. Runyon is planning a "clean up day," in which folks from both West Virginia and Kentucky would come together to pick up litter from around the river. He currently has six counties interested in the prospect: Mingo, McDowell and Wayne counties in West Virginia, and Pike, Lawrence and Martin counties in Kentucky.
As of May 2019, the group is advocating for the Tug Fork River to become a designated water trail.
This designation would require publicly accessible entrance to the river every four-to-six miles. Runyon said he believes this would be a great opportunity for the area that would "open up a lot of tourism to the area."
Zoe Yates is a local college student and freelance writer. Follow Williamson Forward on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and online at www.WilliamsonForward.com.