Ramblings of a Catskill fly fisher

The Neversink Reservoir landlocked salmon fisheries management program

By TONY BONAVIST
Posted 11/17/21

In 1971, the DEC’s regional fisheries unit in New Paltz held a series of meetings to discuss the possibility of beginning a landlocked salmon management program for the Neversink …

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Ramblings of a Catskill fly fisher

The Neversink Reservoir landlocked salmon fisheries management program

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In 1971, the DEC’s regional fisheries unit in New Paltz held a series of meetings to discuss the possibility of beginning a landlocked salmon management program for the Neversink Reservoir.

As background, fisheries biologists knew that the reservoir was a deep, pure lake, with very good spawning tributaries, potentially an excellent environment for salmon. An issue of concern was that the Neversink Reservoir lacked the forage base necessary to support a viable salmon population. We did know that smelts were the preferred food of landlocked salmon. So William Kelly, the regional fisheries manager, and I agreed that the introduction of smelts would be the key to establishing a salmon fishery in the Neversink.

So I turned to the “Transactions of the American Fisheries Society” for information about smelt spawning. A review of the literature indicated that smelt eggs could be collected on burlap trays during spawning, then transported to new tributaries to hatch.

Our fisheries technicians fabricated several spawning trays. In the Adirondacks, on a tributary of Blue Mountain Lake, they placed the trays during smelt spawning and left them overnight.

The next morning, the trays were collected and the burlap removed from the frames, rolled up, placed in a cooler, kept wet and returned to the Neversink. The trays were placed in Aden Brook, a tributary of the reservoir.

The next spring found smelts spawning in Aden Brook.

Once it was documented that smelts had been established, Kelly arranged for the purchase of Atlantic salmon smolts, from Canada. Those fish came from Gran Cascapedia River, Atlantic salmon stocks.

Kelly used a truck from the Catskill Fish Hatchery and drove to Canada to pick up the salmon. The smolts were planted in Neversink Reservoir sometime in 1973.

A gill net survey the next year found no salmon.

In hindsight, biologists believe that the salmon stocked in 1973 migrated from the Neversink Reservoir to the Atlantic Ocean, because those fish came from sea-run parents. As a result, all future stockings were made from New York-strain landlocks, taken from Little Clear Pond eggs in the Adirondacks.

According to Len Wright’s book, “Neversink,” 20,000 juvenile landlocked salmon were stocked in the West Branch of the Neversink River in 1977. Those fish matured and a large run of 15- to 20-inch adults entered the Neversink River during June a few years later. There was good fishing for salmon for those anglers with access to the river during that period. (Almost all of the Neversink River, except for a section near the mouth and a short reach near Claryville, is in private hands.) The two salmon shown in the photo were believed to be taken during that period.

Over the years, DEC biologists changed their policy and stopped stocking juvenile landlocked salmon in Neversink tributaries. Instead, according to DEC archives, 3,000 yearling landlocked salmon were stocked in Neversink Reservoir every year except 1981 and ‘82. Recent DEC correspondence stated that stocking policy is still in effect. However, a review of Sullivan County stocking records revealed that no landlocks were planted in Neversink Reservoir during 2021.

So what’s the status of the Neversink landlocked salmon population and fishery these days? A survey taken in 2016 by DEC biologists found no landlocked salmon during the sampling period. Another survey conducted in 2019 found 63 landlocked salmon, one rainbow smelt, some brown trout and one rainbow trout. That survey report went on to explain that the salmon collected were from a supplemental stocking of two-year-old fish, fin-clipped, and stocked during the spring of 2019, the same year as the survey.

The fact that no salmon from previous stockings and only one smelt were collected is troubling. To complicate matters, alewife herring (alewives) were found in the Neversink Reservoir. While alewives are excellent forage for brown trout, they are not preferred by salmon.

In addition, the DEC began stocking 3,000 brown trout yearlings in Neversink Reservoir, as well as salmon.

To obtain more information about landlocked salmon management, I spoke with two fisheries biologists from Maine. Maine has the most landlocked salmon fisheries in the U.S., and therefore the most experience managing the species. I learned that smelts are the key to successful salmon management. They are so important that when smelt populations decline, salmon growth rates suffer. During our discussions, the biologists said that when alewives are present in the same lakes as salmon and smelts, there is direct competition between alewives and smelts. Consequently, when alewife populations rise, smelt populations decline and salmon growth rates suffer accordingly.

Taken collectively, it appears that the landlocked salmon fishery in the Neversink system has declined for the following reasons: stocking smolts in the tributaries seems to have worked better than stocking yearlings in the reservoir; the introduction of alewives may have impacted the smelt population, which, per the 2019 survey, seems to have declined dramatically; and stocking brown trout on top of salmon is not sound fisheries management. Browns thrive on alewives; landlocks do not.

According to a Maine biologist, managing landlocked salmon is a very tricky business under the best of circumstances. Sadly, as described in the DEC’s survey data, the Neversink landlocked salmon fishery is in severe decline, if not non-existent. Whether steps will be taken to try and resurrect the fishery seems in question. In my view that is unfortunate, for these beautiful salmonids provided a rare and unique fishery in the eastern Catskills.

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