There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
If he were still here, Art Nierenberg would be saying how early autumn is a good time to be at Morgan Run. Water levels are always up after summer doldrums, and the Carroll County stream has typically just gotten a fresh supply of trout, courtesy of the state or local fishing groups. And fish are never so hungry as when they’ve just been dumped off a truck. He’d be there, if he were still here.
Nierenberg died in April at age 75. Serious anglers don’t normally divulge their favorite casting spots. But Nierenberg, as serious a fly fisherman as you’d findhis family made sure several of his prized flies, which he tied himself, were in the coffin with him when he was crematedspent the last several years of his life telling everybody he knew about the little oasis in Maryland’s Patapsco Valley State Park.
And he wanted them to spread the word about Morgan Run, too.
Openness wasn’t the only thing that made Nierenberg an atypical fly fisherman. For all but his earliest days on the planet, Nierenberg was severely handicapped: Polio took the use of his legs, and various other motor skills that most of us take for granted, when he was an infant.
Similarly, Morgan Run isn’t an average fishing hole. A pier there allows disabled sportsmen to be right on the water. No other stream in Maryland was so equipped when the pier opened in 1995.
“That wouldn’t have been built without Art,” says Frank Ryan, a longtime friend of Nierenberg’s who used to patrol Morgan Run while on his beat as a Maryland park ranger. “This was all his idea, and he saw that it got done.”
Nierenberg grew up on Long Island. His father, an avid outdoorsman, decided he’d never let polio or a wheelchair get between his young son and the water. When the Nierenbergs went sailing on the Long Island Sound or fishing upstate, the whole family went.
Like his love of the outdoors, his father’s all-access attitude guided Art from an early age. In 1952, he founded Abilities Inc., which has since grown into a national organization to promote the employment of the disabled. For essentially his entire adult life, he fought to improve the lot of the disabled by serving on federal, state, and local boards, including a stint on the Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities under President Clinton.
His fights weren’t limited to the workplace. Nierenberg also got involved in projects to build wheelchair-accessible piers at fishing sites in his native New York.
After the birth of his youngest son, Matt, in 1985, he moved to Randallstown, Md. When Matt, who has none of his father’s physical impairments, came of suitable age, Art decided he’d teach him to fish, just as his father had done for him. He particularly wanted to pass on his knowledge and love of his favorite type of angling, fly-fishing, which is generally plied on remote portions of streams or rivers and hooks its practitioners as severely as surfing or Scientology. (A River Runs Through It isn’t all hokum.)
But Nierenberg learned that though many of Maryland’s ponds and lakes were accessible to wheelchair-bound fishermen, none of the moving-water sites suitable for fly-fishing in his newand otherwise very fisherman-friendlyhome state were equipped to allow him to serve as teacher.
Nierenberg didn’t take that lapse sitting down.
“He came to us about a decade ago and asked what we could do to get a fly-fishing pier built,” says Tim Feeser of the Patapsco Valley chapter of Trout Unlimited, a
fishing-enthusiasts group. “Something like that requires a whole lot of planning, and there are so many variablesyou need to put a platform on a stream setting on public landsand it isn’t going to get done unless you have somebody ready to take the bull by the horns. [Nierenberg] was that sort of guy, so we started nosing around the state looking for the right spot.”
Nierenberg utilized his experience in working with government agencies and was surprised by the welcome he got when he shared his idea with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. When he brought Trout Unlimited and the civil servants together, the ad hoc cooperative decided Morgan Run, located in a very rural portion of Carroll County known as Gamber, could be made accessible. The parks officials did put one big catch into the Morgan Run agreement, however: The state would not be responsible for designing, funding, or building the pier. No problem.
“Art was very pleased and impressed at the way the state worked with him and the fishing groups throughout this project to get things done,” says his wife, Susan Dean Nierenberg. “Everything was volunteer, and so many people got involved. The whole thing really made him happy.”
He was never happier than the day in October 1995 when he brought Matt with him to the dedication of Morgan Run’s accessible pier. Art was given the honor of taking the first cast.
He made it count.
“I remember being at the dedication ceremony, when the guest of honor went out there with his fly rod and started casting,” says Feeser. “And in no time at all he had an 11-inch trout on his line. That was something.” (He released the trout back to the stream shortly after catching it, as per park rules and the fly-fishing axiom, “A game fish is too valuable to be caught only once.”)
The fish kept biting Art’s flies when he started teaching Matt the ropes of fly-fishing at the new facility. Alas, he couldn’t pass the good luck on to his son.
“My dad could pull fish out of Morgan Run,” says Matt, now 18. “I couldn’t catch junk there. More than once I saw trout swimming away from my flies and right to his.”
One of the few dark days at Morgan Run for Nierenberg came in January 1996, when melting snow from a blizzard conspired with heavy rains to totally wash away the access pier, just months after its grand opening. But rather than write off the project, Nierenberg regrouped all the folks who’d worked so well together to get it built in the first place. And the second time around, the state funded the job. Nierenberg was given the honor of rededicating the pier in August of that year, and he fished there until shortly before his death of cardiac arrest.
Just how good a job the Department of Natural Resources did on the Morgan Run rebuild became evident last week. For all the damage Hurricane Isabel inflicted on her recent local tour, the access pier is still ready to welcome visitors. Even those with severe physical handicaps.
“We weren’t sure it would be rebuilt after the floods swept everything away,” says Feeser. “But the state stepped right up and rebuilt it for us, bigger and better than before. At the time, the state had money to do things like that. They did it right.”
Nierenberg is scheduled to make one more visit to the pier. His wife and son say next April they’ll take his ashes and his fishing hat, the one with an assortment of hooks and flies still stuck in it, to his favorite spot. They plan to ask his fishing buddies to join them there with memories and fly rods on the first anniversary of his death. If he were still here, Art would be saying how early spring’s a good time to be at Morgan Run. Dave McKenna