Shocking developments at Avon Hall pond

Fifteen years ago, before the annual Fourth of July fireworks, the dock leading into the middle of Avon Hall pond in Washington was lined with children dangling fingers into the water in hopes of snagging one of the thousands of sunfish just beneath the surface. The occasional youngster would pull out a slimy bullhead catfish, and shriek with excitement.

VDGIF biologists Mike Isel (back) and John Odenkirk surge low levels of electricty into the Avon Hall pond, netting the stunned fish that float to the surface.
VDGIF biologists Mike Isel (back) and John Odenkirk surge low levels of electricty into the Avon Hall pond, netting the stunned fish that float to the surface. Alex Sharp VIII | Rappahannock News

Now, only the dock pilings remain; the water is murky and uninviting, the shore is brown and bare, and former Avon Hall owner William Carrigan has long since been laid to rest. The town now owns the property, and until last year, only geese came to visit.

But now, the town and select local environmental organizations are working to revive the pond, although its long-term future is still uncertain. As part of those efforts, on Monday afternoon (April 21), interested passersby would have observed thousands of tiny, motionless panfish floating to the surface of the Avon Hall pond.

They weren’t dead, but shocked.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) biologists John Odenkirk and Mike Isel skirted the perimeter of the pond, by boat, for about 30 minutes, pulsing six amps of electricity into the water through two fingerlike anodes suspended from metal arms on the front of the boat.

Any fish above six feet of depth in range of the electricity experienced involuntary muscle contraction, floated to the surface, and were netted and thrown into a livewell, to be measured, noted and released unharmed.

Of note, the electro-fishing team discovered tens of thousands of green sunfish, considered “undesirables” due to their rapid breeding and tendency to become stunted and overtake entire fish communities. Though some reached lengths of six inches or so, most ranged between one and three inches.

The biologists also witnessed — but did not successfully net — three American eels estimated at over three feet in length, and caught one of the largest brown bullhead catfish the two had ever seen. They also determined that an informal effort to reduce the green sunfish population — by stocking 10, 8- to 12-inch largemouth bass last summer — is having a positive impact.

Odenkirk and Isel were summoned by Rappahannock Friends and Lovers of Our Watershed (RappFLOW) to evaluate the nature of fish life in the town-owned pond, in accordance with their Avon Hall Pond Project to create a native plant buffer zone around the pond, promote biodiversity and reduce pollution levels.

“This’ll be all wild flowers and grasses here, all the way up there behind the willow over there,” said RappFLOW member Marc Malik, gesturing toward the 50-foot-wide strip of brown earth surrounding the pond. “We’ll be seeding it in probably a week or two, and then we’ve got to keep the geese out.”

Malik is also a member of the Old Rag Master Naturalists, the organization spearheading the butterfly and nature trail project on the same property. RappFLOW president Bev Hunter, too, is a member of ORMN.

“First of all, we’re trying to improve the water quality; it’s not good to have such a polluted pond right in the middle of town,” Hunter said, noting that a RappFLOW water study performed in 2008 revealed alarming E. coli rates, which were attributed to goose presence and storm runoff.

The day’s catch

“What we have, basically, is an extreme over-abundance of green sunfish, which are undesirable,” Odenkirk said. “But the good news is, I think it’s going to be relatively easy, based on what we’ve seen, to turn this thing around and have a bunch of fat, happy bass. The combination of, number one, we’ll get a good riparian buffer started; number two, we’ll stock some sterile grass carp to eat a lot of the filamentous algae, and that’ll help aesthetics somewhat and they don’t interfere with the function of the ecology; number three, we’ll stock bass, bluegill [a more desirable and less harmful panfish] and channel catfish to create a healthier balance of fish.

An “undesirable” green sunfish.
An “undesirable” green sunfish. Alex Sharp VIII | Rappahannock News

“So hopefully she’ll spawn this spring,” Odenkirk said, as he pulled a pot-bellied largemouth bass out of the livewell and measured her. “These things gobble up sunfish. This one is over 13 inches, and for its length, that’s a heavy, heavy bass. She is absolutely on top of her game and loving life out here.”

The fundamental problem with the fish community in the Avon Hall pond, according to biologist Mike Isel, is the imbalance of predator to prey. Green sunfish, a small panfish native to streams and rivers in the area, need predators such as largemouth bass and channel catfish to limit their numbers.

The only predator fish species caught Monday was the brown bullhead — also native to local streams and rivers, also classified as an undesirable, due to its potential to overpopulate and increase turbidity in the water. As bottom feeders, bullheads are known to root up sediment and muddy the waters. Brown bullheads typically range in size from eight to 14 inches. However, the bullhead catfish Odenkirk pulled out of Avon Hall pond stretched 17 inches.

Most impressive to Odenkirk was his observation of three to four American eels of over three feet in length. Though he wasn’t able to get any of them into the boat — since eels typically respond to electricity by writhing violently and sinking instead of floating — Odenkirk guessed that the eels he saw were upwards of 20 years old.

“The ones that were up here were females, and they were huge for American eels,” Odenkirk said, noting that eels are native to this region and are capable of moving over land. “They migrated up, all the way from the south Atlantic, and they’re maturing and they spend their whole lives up here — and at some point the cue’s going to go off in that fish’s head, and on a wet night it’s going to get over that dam and into that drainage and it’s going to work it’s way back into the Rush River and on out to sea.”

What’s next?

After sharing results from the electro-fishing survey with members of RappFLOW, Odenkirk explained that the VDGIF is motivated to take over responsibility and management of the pond, for free. This includes signage, fish stocking and surveying, and enforcement from gaming officials, among other services, under the auspices of the VDGIF Community Lakes Improvement Program. But there is one condition: The town must allow some level of public fishing.

Surveying the results of the day’s work at the Avon Hall pond are (from right) RappFLOW board member Forrest Marquisee, town clerk Laura Dodd, RappFLOW board member Marc Malik and VDGIF biologist John Odenkirk.
Surveying the results of the day’s work at the Avon Hall pond are (from right) RappFLOW board member Forrest Marquisee, town clerk Laura Dodd, RappFLOW board member Marc Malik and VDGIF biologist John Odenkirk. Alex Sharp VIII | Rappahannock News

Washington Mayor John Sullivan said this is an idea worth entertaining.

“We want the pond to be revitalized, and if that means tossing some bass and catfish or whatever into the pond, then one way or another that’ll get done,” Sullivan said. “As to having these guys manage it, and take on responsibility and whatever cost, that sounds very attractive. And if that entails allowing people to fish there, we might want to do that.

“But if it comes to defining how long of a period, we can’t guarantee anything, because we don’t know what we’re doing with the property yet,” Sullivan continued, adding that the town council’s top priority this year is finding a use for Avon’s 12 acres.

“If they wanted a five-year commitment or something, we wouldn’t take it, because we’re trying to figure out what to do with Avon Hall. But if they take on responsibility, they manage it, they do the fish and it opens it up to the public to come in and fish there, it sounds pretty good to me.”

As for the volunteer efforts made over the last year, and the multi-year plan project ahead for both ORMN and RappFLOW, Hunter said there is some concern that the town could sell the property at any time. However, the groups will continue ahead as scheduled, and use their ongoing efforts and improvements as a demonstration for land management for residents.

“It’s scientific, it’s environmental, it’s educational — it’s a work in progress,” Hunter said, of the pond project. “We’ve got a long way to go. And people have to understand that this takes a lot of time and persistence, once you’ve done the damage. The damage was done by mowing the turf down to the ground all these years, and encouraging the geese, reducing the biodiversity. And now we’re trying to undo that damage, and you can’t undo it in a year.”