By CHRIS LAWRENCE
MATEWAN, W.Va. - When you have a conversation with Pete Runyon, it will almost immediately turn toward fishing on the Tug Fork River. Runyon, a resident of Belfry, Kentucky, has fished the waterway for years and watched the quality of fishing improve.
"I'm 60 years old and the river is now cleaner than it has been in my lifetime," he explained. "The best smallmouth I've seen this year is 23 and a half inches. We've got catfish and even a few musky in the river now."
Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Kevin Frey would agree.
"In the early 1980's our electro fishing sampling on the Tug Fork when we were looking for smallmouth bass we'd get about seven to ten fish an hour," Frey explained. "Today, in 2016 and 2017, a lot of times in different areas of the Tug Fork we're looking at 35 to 45 and maybe 50 fish an hour."
Despite the improvements, there is still plenty of work to do. Runyon decided he wanted to help move that process along. He started knocking on doors and making phone calls.
He became a familiar figure among the Kentucky and West Virginia fish and wildlife officials as he relentlessly pursued a reciprocal license agreement which would allow those with a fishing license from either state to fish the border water.
Once that was done, Runyon pushed harder in Frankfort and Charleston.
"My main objective is to get the Kentucky and West Virginia folks to work together," Runyon said.
He created a Facebook page called Friends of the Tug Fork River. The social media site shares the passion of many who love the river and want to see it developed. Earlier this month, the next step was taken with an organizational meeting in Matewan.
More than 100 turned out for the meeting led by Christy Bailey, Executive Director of the National Coal Heritage Area. Bailey has worked on similar projects with the Guyandotte River and knows there's a lot of work ahead, but also a lot of support to get it done.
"We need a lot more access sites," she said. "On the West Virginia side there aren't' that many. There are more on the Kentucky side, but we need them on both sides."
Access and cleanup of the waterway are the eventual goals. Priority one as the group starts to move forward will be earning a "water trail" designation. The process is already moving in Kentucky and will now start in West Virginia.
"In West Virginia you have to be designated as a water trail by the Division of Highways," said Bailey. "Until that's done, you're not eligible for recreational trail grants to help develop the access."
Bailey and Runyon are confident they will be able to secure the water trail designation and hope to draw down funding for the work with improving access points, cleaning up trash along the river, and improving water quality. A representative of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection was on hand at the meeting to explain the REAP program and the assistance offered if volunteers want to get involved in cleaning up a waterway. Once the ball is rolling, the idea would be to attract visitorsand private investment.
"That's the whole thing," Bailey said. "We know the Hatfield-McCoy Trails have been successful here and this would be something else to do. The whole thing is to put heads in beds and people in campgrounds, restaurants, and shops so we can benefit economically."
Stretching from the upper part of McDowell County all the way to Fort Gay, the Tug snakes through some of West Virginia's most remote locations. It's a scenic area, but the river suffers from an image problem, some of which is deserved after years of abuse and rampant pollution. But things are changing and the task ahead will be to not only improve the water but also to repair attitudes about it.
Runyon and his group seem to have the passion to be up to the task.
"This is the start of something good," Runyon said.