The fight for the coldwater fisheries: the early years
Reminiscences from the trenches
It was Sunday, July 24, 1972, hot and sunny at my home in the foothills of the Catskills. I was attending to chores when the phone rang. Ed Van Put was on the line. For those who don’t already know it, Ed is one of the finest fly fishermen in the Catskills, and in more recent times the author of two excellent volumes: “The Beaver Kill” and “Trout Fishing in the Catskills.”
Anyway, on that day almost 46 years ago, Ed was calling as a technician assigned to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Fisheries office in New Paltz, NY. Ed had moved to the Catskills some years before, and had adopted the main stem of the Delaware River and its wild rainbows as his home water. At the time of Ed’s call, I was a fisheries biologist working out of the same unit. When I asked Ed why he was calling, he explained in somewhat heated terms: “There are hundreds of brown and rainbow trout gathered off the mouth of Bouchoux Brook; the water temperature in the Delaware River is 86°F.” Anyone that knows about trout biology understands that browns and rainbows are coldwater fishes, and cannot survive temperatures at that level. In fact trout, depending on the species, become uncomfortable when water temperatures approach 70°F. For species like brook trout, the threshold is much lower.
When Ed asked if I would come over and document the conditions, I was on my way in minutes, grabbing my 35mm camera on the way. We met at the little clearing next to Bouchoux Brook, and he led me to where stream joined the Delaware.
What a spectacle! In all my years as a fisherman and a biologist, I had never observed anything like what I saw finning quietly in the cool waters off the brook mouth, seeking refuge from the Delaware. We could not tell the exact number, but guessed from 200 to 300 brown and rainbow trout, ranging in size from nine to 24 inches, held against the current at the brook’s mouth. The temperature of Bouchoux was 68° F.
Using a polarized filter with my camera, I photographed the trout; Ed’s reflection is seen in the background. From Bouchoux, we checked the mouths of Basket Brook and Hankins Creek on the New York side and the Little Equinunk Creek on the Pennsylvania side. We found large concentrations of trout at all locations. The releases to the Main Stem on the 24th were 20 cubic feet/second (cfs) from Pepacton and 29 cfs from Cannonsville—pitiful.
The next morning, I prepared an assessment of our findings and forwarded them to the Region 3 director and regional fisheries manger, Russ Fieldhouse, at the Stamford office. Then, I called the City of New York, explained the issue and asked if it would increase releases from Pepacton and Cannonsville to lower water temperatures down river. That request was denied.
After that, I met with the regional director. His comments were not encouraging. He advised that it would be extremely difficult to get New York City to change the way it operated Delaware system reservoirs. He told us that the situation we had seen on July 24 was not uncommon. It had happened periodically during warm spells ever since the reservoirs were completed.
After more calls were made to the city, it finally relented and increased releases from Cannonsville. That lowered temperatures in the Delaware into the mid 60s, as recorded on Ed’s thermometer on July 28 at Bouchoux Brook.
Not one to give up easily, I had the film taken on the 24th made into slides and set up a series showing the trout off the brook mouths. Then I contacted the local Chapters of Trout Unlimited (TU), Theodore Gordon Fly Fishers (TGF), and the Sportsmen’s Federations of Sullivan and Ulster counties, and asked if they would allow me to make a slide presentation about the high Delaware water temperatures at their meetings. All agreed.
The seeds had been planted, interest was growing, and it wasn’t long before Phil Chase, the outdoor columnist for The Times Herald-Record, called. I filled him in, and after that, Phil wrote a column each week about our progress until the issues were finally resolved in 1976.
In 1973, I received a call from Frank Mele, a Woodstock resident and ardent fly fisher. Frank asked if I would show the slide series to a group in Woodstock, which I did. After the presentation, Frank became extremely angry. He threatened to write a letter to The New York Times with the intent to “smoke out the city and the DEC” for their inability to resolve the issue.
Somehow, Bob Boyle got wind of the letter and called Frank. At the time, Bob was a senior editor at Sports Illustrated. Frank agreed not to send the letter, provided he was contacted by the DEC commissioner. He got what he wanted; the DEC became more involved, and Frank formed Catskill Waters, an ad hoc group of interested anglers intent on resolving the low flow/high water temperature issues associated with the abysmal releases from Delaware reservoirs. Catskill Waters met monthly at Antrim Lodge in Roscoe.
In the meantime, the city dug in its heels and would not agree to change its release patterns, citing the 1954 Supreme Court decision and the conservation releases that had been negotiated with the Conservation Department (which preceded the DEC) prior to the construction of Pepacton (1955) and Cannonsville (1965) reservoirs. The Supreme Court decree resulted from a lawsuit filed by the states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware against the city. Those states believed that unless there were safeguards, the new reservoirs would prevent enough downstream flow to meet their needs. The court agreed, advising the reservoirs could be built, provided the city released enough water to maintain a flow of 175 cfs at Montague, NJ, during periods of low natural runoff.
As the process moved forward, more and more important, highly-ranked individuals became involved, including Matt McHugh, U.S. Congressman; Maurice Hinchey, then a New York State assemblyman; and Albany Mayor Erastus Corning. Pressure was building, and sometime in 1975, Assemblyman Hinchey introduced legislation which, if approved, would require New York City to release more water from its Delaware reservoirs. A companion bill was sponsored in the New York State Senate.
The bills passed both houses, and in June 1976, Gov. Hugh Carey signed the legislation. It resulted in New York Code Rules And Regulations (NYCRR) part 671, Reservoir Release Regulations. Those regulations mandated that New York City increase summer flows from Pepacton to 70 from 19 cfs; from Cannonsville to 160 from 23 cfs; and from Neversink to 53 from 15 cfs.
So because of a few dedicated fisheries professionals, Phil Chase, Frank Mele (Catskill Waters), TU, TGF, the Federated Sportsmen’s Clubs, several political leaders and way too many individuals to name here, the water releases legislation was implemented after a five-year struggle. Since then, the flows have been modified and increased further through the Flexible Flow Management Program (FFMP; see story page 7). Over time, the fisheries responded dramatically, and now offer some of the finest tailwater angling in the East. And with the approval of a new FFMP in late 2017, which includes a dedicated “bank” of water for thermal-stress releases, it’s looking like flow and temperature conditions may soon become better yet.