Protecting the Upper Delaware’s cold-water fishery
Having spent the last 25 years living on, fishing, guiding, researching and advocating for the protection of the trout fishery on the Upper Delaware River, it is time to reflect a bit on where we are and what remains to be accomplished. I hope my observations and questions will provoke additional thinking and perhaps some future actions.
What makes the Delaware so special and so needful of protection is the fact that its trout are wild—born and raised in the river, in other words, not stocked. Although rainbow and brown trout are not native to our river, these Upper Delaware residents are unique strains that have been living and flourishing here since their original stockings over 100 years ago. They are beautifully adapted to our environment and are a joy to fish for.
Trout need cold, clear water, so river flow and temperature issues on the Upper Delaware are critical. The fishing communities’ struggle for improved river flows through the years has been well documented and will undoubtedly continue moving forward. The Flexible Flow Management Plan, the current protocol governing New York City reservoir releases, has been amply discussed elsewhere, and I will not deal with it here. Instead, let’s look at four other issues related to the protection of the wild trout of our rivers: physical habitat restoration, catch and release/no kill, fishing pressure and regulation enforcement.
Habitat Restoration. Physical habitat for trout is not just a flow and temperature issue. Are there proper holding areas for juvenile and adult trout? Is there suitable spawning gravel and are spawning areas covered with water after the eggs are laid? After all, for a self-sustaining wild fishery, you need to be able to make more little trout. The floods of 2004, 2005 and 2006 dramatically changed some of the Delaware’s tributaries. Huge amounts of gravel and rocks were transported downstream and were piled wherever the currents dropped them. In some cases, entire streams became impassable to spawning trout as well as young of the year. Both the Friends of the Upper Delaware and Theodore Gordon Flyfishers deserve thanks for their restoration efforts, but much more could be done.
Catch and Release/No Kill. There are a limited number of wild trout in the Delaware, and once killed by predators, including man, they will not be replaced by the next hatchery stocking truck. So we must conserve, and these days, most fishermen practice “catch and release.” Many in the fishing community advocate for more mandatory catch and release or “no-kill” sections. There is one such section now on the West Branch of the Delaware. Intuitively, additional mandatory no-kill sections should yield more trout, bigger trout and better fishing experiences.
Currently we have little hard data to support this proposition. Among the beauties and conundrums of biological systems is the variability and multiplicity of causal factors. From personal experience, I have always found lots of fish and bigger fish in the West Branch’s no-kill section. But how do we know that there really are more fish there, and that they are there because of the no-kill policy? Could it be that this section just has better habitat (colder water, more food) or some other factor? What is needed is a carefully designed experiment in which no-kill regulations are extended to another section of the river accompanied by thorough data-gathering that could unequivocally measure its benefits,
Fishing Pressure. When I moved to this area in 1990, the guides, all four or five of them, were complaining about the crowded conditions on the rivers. They had an unwritten code not to anchor within sight of another fisherman. If you tried to follow that rule in 2017 during a May Hendrickson hatch, you might not be able to anchor anywhere between Deposit and Callicoon. With more fishermen now taking advantage of this superb fishery, even if all fisherman practiced catch and release, there will still be significant fish mortality. Does increased fishing pressure negatively affect fish populations? Probably! Does increased fishing pressure negatively affect the “fishing experience”? Certainly!
Regulation Enforcement. To protect the fishery, New York State and Pennsylvania have regulations that limit the number and size of fish that may be kept. The ability of the governing bodies to enforce those rules is critical. Both the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PAF&B) are understaffed to the point of near non-existence. In 25 years of fishing the rivers, sometimes more than 100 days per year, I was stopped and asked for my license and had my catch examined by DEC or PAF&B exactly zero times. No enforcement at all.
My colleagues and I have all observed fishermen on the river seriously violating the catch regulations, with never an enforcement agent insight. The real problem, I believe, is not the law-abiding fishermen who may keep a fish or two within the existing rules, but rather the lawbreakers who surreptitiously catch and kill as many fish as possible. The lawbreakers realize there is effectively no enforcement on our river, so their risk is minimal.
How do we fix these problems and concerns? In some cases it comes down to money. In other states, like Montana, that value their fishery as an economic engine, it’s almost impossible to be out on the river even in remote areas without being under surveillance by fishery monitors. We badly need such here. Perhaps a “Delaware River Trout Stamp” requirement added to our fishing licenses could generate funds for the research projects and enforcement efforts the Delaware so badly needs.
But whatever the best ultimate solutions, the first step in their direction is to start the conversation and keep it moving.
[James Serio, proprietor of James Serio Real Estate in Hancock, NY, has fished and guided on the Delaware for decades. Jim was a central contributor to the design and improvements to the Flexible Flow Management Plan that currently governs the water releases from the three New York City dams on the Delaware’s headwaters.]