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Where Hominy Stands

A resilient trout stream that has been battered by coal waste, toxins, and fish kills.

Where Hominy Stands

The author’s family has been fighting for three generations to protect Hominy Creek and its wild trout from the abuses of mining and other extractive industries in West Virginia. (Jonathan Hardman photo)

This is a story of a trophy wild trout fishery edged to the brink of extinction, but resilient enough to revive itself. It is a story of people’s connection to a watershed, the peaks and valleys of environmental impacts, and one of hope. It is a follow-up to a sad story written almost 20 years ago in this same magazine, describing the potential demise of a fishery known as Hominy Creek. This is where Hominy stands.

In 2005, Tim Zink wrote an article, “Where Hominy Falls,” that would help define a career and passion and take a young hill child through a master’s degree in fisheries biology, a decade in stream restoration, and finally, give me an opportunity to return home to begin something of great importance to our people. Zink’s article pointed out the devastating effects of mountaintop removal coal-mining operations in West Virginia, where they have buried miles of trout water by covering streams with the tops of mountains and coal waste. Zink’s article opened with the line, “The locals have long been compelled to call West Virginia’s Hominy Creek the “Run of Amnesia” because it fishes so well, and although they wanted to keep it a secret, they began talking about it to anyone who will listen, for fear that the stream would be erased not only from memories, but from maps.”

His story highlighted the plight of Hominy Creek, which was marred in multi-year lawsuits between coal companies, state regulatory agencies, residents, and conservation groups fighting for the protection of the water quality, land, and ultimately, human health. What was occurring were blatant violations of the law by the coal operations and failure to uphold environmental protections by the state regulatory agency governing them. The state turned a blind eye toward industry, resulting in polluted waters, and a suite of other environmental issues.

Sadly, not many years after Zink’s article, advocacy interest in this river died out. Fish kills occurred. Long-term stewards for the resource passed on. Fishing access was restricted, and the constituency for protection almost dissolved. Hominy was all but forgotten, and this is the story of a new beginning.

A drone photo of a parking area and mine among trees.
Mining roads and piles of coal refuse along Hominy Creek or on top of it have impacted the watershed for many decades, and still the spring-fed West Virginia stream manages to produce wild brown trout and brook trout.

Wild Trout Heaven

If southern West Virginia—with over 350 miles of catch-and-release wild trout water—is heaven to fly fishers, then Hominy Creek is the pearly gates. It is a major tributary to the Gauley River, tracing its way westward from the Alleghenies to the Appalachian Plateau. The entirety of the creek is within private lands, largely owned by out-of-state corporations like the Weyerhaeuser timber company, and mining companies like Quinwood Coal. With limited public access, maintaining a support base for advocacy has been challenging.

Hominy is unique, within the watershed known locally as “Top Gauley.” Whereas other streams in coal regions are severely impacted by acid deposition and require amendments to buffer water quality to a point where they can hold fish, Hominy is graced with geology that provides a steady flow of cold, clean water. Left undisturbed, it maintains over 30 miles of wild and native trout water, from its headsprings to its confluence.

It has long been known as a trophy wild and native trout fishery, boasting 24-inch+ brown trout and 15-inch brook trout, with the angling accounts to prove it. If you live in Maine, you may not think a 15-inch brookie means much, but in the Central Appalachians, it’s the fish of a lifetime. Seasoned anglers reading this article are probably asking, “Why hot-spot somewhere so special!?”

As an angler it makes me wince, but as a biologist and conservationist, I realize it’s the only way to save these waters. The last thing I intend to do is send droves of anglers to a fishery that has not yet recovered to a point where it can withstand angling pressure, nor to an area that has limited public access. Support from private landowners will be essential to future conservation efforts.

The intent here is to share the resource’s value to rebuild the constituency that once existed. This is how Hominy will stand.

Decades of Abuse

Hominy has seen chronic and severe impacts over the years from an array of assaults. Intensive clear-cutting operations and checkerboards of logging roads on the mountainsides impact the way that water moves across the landscape, increasing velocity, reducing natural infiltration rates, and making floods and droughts more intense. Removal of the riparian forest buffers along the streams warms the waters and contributes to erosion. Two hundred acres piled with coal refuse and hundreds of acres of unrestored mine lands in the headwaters contribute to runoff laden with heavy metals, sedimentation, and degraded hydrologic conditions. Active deep mines and contour mines further contribute to these issues.

An aerial photo of coal refuse among trees in fall foliage.
An area of more than 200 acres on the headwaters of Hominy Creek in Green Valley, West Virginia is piled with coal refuse that contributes to the pollution of the entire watershed.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline is cutting its way through the watershed, after an act of Congress ramrodded it through, and bypassed proper permitting procedures. It was installed during the trout spawn in November 2023. What Hominy has experienced should have been death by a thousand cuts. Yet, she clings to rebounding wild brown and native brook trout populations. This article is not intended to throw stones at industry, but to inspire them to better protect our waters and support a vision of transitioning from an economy based solely on extractive industry to one focused on conserving our valuable resources. Fishing alone is a $500 million industry in West Virginia.

Deep Roots

Much of the first settlement in this area was focused on logging and mining, both of which are ingrained within the community. However, this relationship has not been a healthy one for our rivers, the landscape, or the families who live here. My family has been in Hominy for six generations, and in West Virginia for nine generations. I will give you the hand-me-down version of my family’s story, but the relationship between many of our ancestors and the streams has been lost to time.


My Grandpa was a fair representation of the autonomous folks you encounter here. He was an Air Force veteran with a knowledge base that spanned from engineering to mechanical work. When you grow up over an hour from a real town, you find a way to make things work. He was a commanding presence at 6'4" and 275 pounds, with hands like a grizzly. He always made it a point to care for his neighbors. More than 20 years after his passing, his reputation in the community still affords good graces.

In mid-1970s, he was recruited back to a coal company house in West Virginia to run what was at the time the largest dragline in the United States. He used the large crane machinery, with a house-size bucket, to scoop away blasted mountaintops to get to the coal below. The excess material was dumped in the adjacent valleys, burying the land and rivers in the process. Back then, this practice was considered a safer way for humans to extract coal, though more environmentally destructive than deep mining.

During this time, our family lived beside Brushy Meadow Creek, a small spring-fed tributary of Hominy, that justifies its namesake with undercut banks lined in dense thickets of alders and willows. As a child my mother fished this stream daily. When she was nine years old, she landed a 16-inch brook trout, which resulted in her picture in the local newspaper. Mom might have been the first to unintentionally hot-spot the stream, as anglers showed up in droves afterward. Still, the children were often scolded when they attempted to play in the creek because Grandpa knew something they did not. The trout in Brushy Meadow Creek sometimes went belly up due to pollution. To this day, we aren’t sure if fish exist there, as it drains coal refuse and abandoned production facilities.

Like the fishing, life along Brushy Meadow Creek also went sour after a few years. Unsafe work conditions, including a day when Grandpa walked off the job just prior to the dragline tumbling to the ground, led the miners to strike. These strikes were serious, as a line of armed coal miners are a formidable force to reckon with. Grandpa was blacklisted by the mining company, and never went back to the mines again.

A squatting man holding a brown trout in the water with both hands.
Author Dustin Wichterman with a recent 20-inch brown trout from Hominy Creek. It’s the first one he’s seen in more than a decade. (Margareet Cadmus photo)

In the late 1970s, my grandparents purchased 62 acres on a mountain above the ever-present roar of Hominy Creek. It was nestled down a mile-long dirt road on a farm against 20,000 acres of forest. It was here that our family’s relationship with the water and land truly changed. Between days that Grandpa wasn’t working at a long-haul trucking company, they would load up in a Chevy Blazer, with nothing but milk crates for seats in the back, and drive down the mountain to enjoy the emerald swimming hole below. Here, my mother fondly recalls swimming where there were hellbenders and wild brown trout galore. In this section, Hominy becomes a larger stream, averaging over 30 to 40 feet in width, and squeezing between mature hemlock trees, rhododendrons, and house-size boulders. Even today, it feels like somewhere far away from civilization. Just this year I watched a young coyote pup calmly sip the cool mountain stream water with the sun peeking over the mountains behind.

However, not all memories of this area are pleasant. On multiple occasions Grandpa’s family saw these waters running black with coal waste, with trout floating belly up in the foul water. You see, it was fairly common practice to flush out coal waste in the headwaters during rain events, as operators were following the mantra, “The solution to pollution is dilution.”

It was devastating for Grandpa’s family to see their home waters so depleted. It was then that a person who once assisted in the destruction of these waters made a change of perspective. Maybe it was due to personal issues with the mining operations, maybe due to his brook-trout-loving wife, or maybe due to foresight for a better world for the next generation. I wish he were here to ask. Grandpa and his family members began to contact regulatory agencies and politicians to bring light to the constant poisoning of our waters. No response was forthcoming.

It wasn’t just our family who attempted to protect these waters. Later in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Hominy Creek Preservation Association, Appalachian Mountain Advocates, and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition litigated multiple times over Clean Water Act violations and sketchy permitting actions, with small wins here and there, but the actions of industry and regulatory agencies remained the same.

A fly angler rolling a cast in a pool below a small waterfall.
Hominy Falls is a geologic feature on Hominy Creek and it’s also the name of the surrounding unincorporated town. (Dustin Wichterman photo)

After Grandpa’s passing, the matriarchs of my family were wonderful orators and carried on testifying to the value of the water around us. My warm, dark-haired, raspy-voiced Grandma was built from Adirondack fishing and hunting guides up to four generations back and had spent much of her youth fishing for native brook trout. Cold water courses through our bloodline, and the constant draw to it never ends, hence, my uncontrollable urge to be close to and protect our water. Especially mountain trout waters, which hold the highest regard in my heart.

I suppose one could say that I picked up where others left off and have experienced the difficulties of being passionate for a watershed so imperiled. My conservation efforts began by chasing education, a career, and delving into the history of what folks had done to both protect and destroy these waters. My angling efforts began on Hominy at age 3, but embarrassingly I didn’t catch my first Hominy trout until the early 2000s. Based on what the seasoned fly fishers and locals say, I missed the best fishing years of the ’90s and early 2000s, when a good angler could catch multiple 20-inch brown trout daily. In the early 2000s up to about 2010, I caught 15-to-18-inch fish on most trips, at least, when I had the water for it. Wild brown trout waters are fickle, and even in the best of conditions can humble us all.

Hominy gave me my first 20-inch+ wild brown trout, on a solo trip after awaking at daylight, trudging 3 miles through the mountains, and working my way through the deep runs as the fog lifted away. This fish left a lasting impact. Some 18 years later, I can still recall my feelings after catching that trout.

Due the disappointments and exhaustion of a long-term advocacy battle, and consistently watching fish die, I left my home water for some time. It’s a cut to your soul to see your home stream and landscape changed to a point that you can’t recognize it, or when you must fight for the basic right of usable water.

In 2010, a deep mining operation was actively cutting coal from under our property when a crack in the earth drained the aquifer to our well. Due to this being a regular issue, coal companies are legally bound to inventory water supplies and replace them if necessary. For two years, the mining company trucked bottled water on a flatbed truck to my family, rather than providing an adequate source. Once the well was replaced, it was laden with E. coli and polluted to the point that it turned the entire bathroom tub black. It remains that way. In addition, we have repeatedly continued to report Clean Water Act and legal violations from this mining activity to no avail.

Future Vision

However, our interest in protecting and restoring this place has returned, and folks have started to develop the framework to provide Hominy a lifeline. We are assessing and documenting the health of the watershed daily, developing long-term plans for restoration, actively advocating at every level for its protection, and engaging countless partners to assist.

A stream with fast pocket water under fall foliage.
The Confluence Hole is a boulder-filled pool where you could catch large wild brown or native brook trout. (Dustin Wichterman photo)

Regardless of the setbacks that our community and Hominy Creek have seen so far, there is a groundswell of interest to make it a better place for the future. The resilience of this watershed and the fact that it incredibly still produces wild trout populations is inspiration enough, but it’s not just about fish. It is our right to have clean water, and a healthy place to raise our families. We drink from the aquifers. We live directly on the headwaters and tributaries. We regularly gather on the water for church, picnics, and family events.

It’s a rite of passage to bound off the 12-foot cliff at Hominy Falls for which the community is aptly named. We share the beauty of places like “The Paradise Hole,” where a 25-foot bedrock cascade tumbles into a spring-fed pool, lined with rhododendron and hemlock branches. Generations will continue to share the love of this stream, and my intent is to pass along better water to my daughter.

Rather than taking from our resources, we can put our people to work restoring, enjoying, and protecting them. Using a restoration economy focused on improving the degraded lands to promote a recreation economy that uses those lands in a sustainable way. Our vision is real, and as someone who has spent a career restoring trout waters in West Virginia, I will tell you that it is attainable.

Folks here may not yet know the term “environmental justice,” but they soon will. I am writing this story for many reasons: to show that we as a people love this resource and our eyes are on each one of those who impact it; to bring additional voices to the table, people who want to be part of protecting something so valuable; to inspire a vision for change where we invest in our resources and people rather than take from them; and to tell you that this is where Hominy Stands.  

Dustin Wichterman is associate director of Trout Unlimited’s Mid Atlantic Cold Water Habitat Program. You can contact him at

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