An Endangered Scenic River
This particular state has 29,113 miles of river, however only 213 miles are listed as National Scenic river miles (that is less than 1%). Of those 213 miles, 86 are now listed as endangered (that is 40% of those 213 national scenic miles). This river is not in some remote bastion of Alaska, nor anywhere out West. It is in America's heartland: central Ohio.
Central Ohio is home to a rare gem for the Midwest, the Big and Little Darby Creeks. Combined, they contain roughly 86 miles of the 213 National Scenic river miles in Ohio (designated by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System). In a state, and especially a region, where public lands and untouched landscapes are so few and far between, places like the Darby are very difficult to come by. And one of this state's most precious resources is under threat.
Located within a thirty-minute drive from downtown Columbus, which contains a metro population of over two million people, the Darby has somehow managed to squeak by through history largely untouched by human development. Ohio is painted in waterways and it is hard to drive anywhere without crossing a bridge or weaving on roads that pass around streams and creeks. Yet, it is also near impossible to travel on one of these rivers or streams and not see it heavily altered by some human impact. Drive past the Darby in any direction and you will find all other rivers channelized, dammed, or enveloped by urban sprawl. Only one low-head dam is on the Darby, but other than that you can float its entire twisting course freely.
In 2019, American Rivers named the Darby as one of America's most endangered rivers. The threat?...urban sprawl from Columbus. The city has a large urban footprint of over 225 mi² and there are very few geographic restraints to contain its urban sprawl. Rather than building up, the city likes building out. As development pushes westward towards the Darby, its sensitive habitats and watershed are in the crosshairs of developers that have little incentive to ensure the health of the river is looked after. From the American Rivers site:
"Some developers are attempting to bypass an agreement forged in 2006 (the Darby Accord) meant to protect sensitive natural areas and clean water from poorly planned development. Research shows that the health of streams starts to decline from impervious surface (such as roads, buildings and parking lots) at around five percent impervious cover. The level of building proposed near Big Darby Creek would put that region of the watershed well above that threshold."
It is incredible to find a national scenic river within a thirty-minute drive of a major U.S. city. Without going into the multitude of other outdoor recreational activities the river is used for (canoeing, hunting, kayaking, hiking, swimming, etc.) I will just focus on the fishing opportunities, since that is my bread and butter.
With a vast and vibrant aquatic biodiversity (containing more species of freshwater mussels than all of Europe - Columbus Underground) there is an abundance of fish species to target: smallmouth and largemouth bass, panfish, carp, longnose gar, redhorse, spotted bass, sauger, channel catfish, and so on. If you are in to checking off species lists then head to the Darby.
Often, I will head to the Darby with plans to target carp or smallmouth bass but will stumble upon longnose gar hovering in the flats waiting to ambush their prey. They will rise up, sip some air, and then sit still and unmoving beneath the surface. I will have to watch my back cast so as to not snag the surrounding sycamore trees and then play the fly like a dying baitfish. Most times, the fly just pricks the boney mouth of the pursuing gar which prevents the hook from digging in. Sometimes, I get lucky.
After I have tried my hand with the gar, and they lazily glide back into the murky waters, I will find channels of water for smallmouth bass. In late summer and early fall the river runs like a trickle so you have to find anywhere the current is constricted. If there is also a drop-off or undercut bank then chances are pretty good that a smallmouth or spotted bass is poised ready to attack.
Public access to fish the river is also easy to come by. North and south of I-70, there are numerous parks, including two large Metro Parks (here and here), to park your car and go hiking for miles into the river's wilderness. Walk or wade a little ways beyond the main park access and you can have the fishing to yourself.
These parks also provide put-ins for canoes/kayaks so floating and fishing the river (without views of farmland in sight) is an enjoyable escape. I have floated the river with canoes and paddle boards and will typically bring at least two or three rods in order to target the variety of species.
The fishing is not always red-hot, but it is wild and untamed. I love urban fly fishing, especially for carp in downtown Columbus, but like many anglers I just feel the pull to explore these wild spaces and to wade through our Midwest "backcountry."
With so many rivers in Ohio, and the Midwest in general, that have been constrained and ceded to human development it would be a terrible loss to see this unique river play out the same way. There are not many places in the Midwest that you can easily drive to and be in untouched wilderness, especially on a river. Out of Ohio's 29,113 miles of river these 86 miles of the Darby are not worth casting aside and neglecting.
If you live in Ohio and have never been to the Darby, or if you visiting Columbus, then I highly recommend driving the thirty-minutes to hike, fish, and explore the river. It is a different experience than most other ones you will have in the Midwest. Yes, Columbus has amazing sport arenas, breweries, and urban parks but the Darby is a connection to nearby nature and the past. So many of us living in Columbus travel thousands of miles to see the unaltered landscapes of the West, yet one of the last refuges in the Midwest is just thirty minutes away.
Finally, if you also are looking for ways to support the river and wish to see it saved then please consider signing this petition (by American Rivers) to stop uncontrolled development. I would also recommend checking out these organizations, sighing up for their news letters, donating, volunteering, or providing anything else you can: