Heat and a city’s thirst

Cannonsville Reservoir September 2019

They have named her Fay, now a tropical storm, and she appears poised to bring our Catskills some much needed relief. We can only hope that her rains linger and moderate in their intensity, so her gift of rainfall has the most beneficial effect. The effects of heat stress and drought upon our rivers have been very real this summer. The rain is vital, as is a change from this extended run of hot sunny weather. Was it just last month we laughed at a morning high of 34 degrees?

The lull in fishing has me contemplating the mysteries of wild trout and reservoir releases.

Just yesterday I spent an afternoon stalking a quiet pool on one of our tailwaters. I have worked my way upstream as the summer has progressed, and this day I was searching the upper portion of the pool, where deeper, cooler water prevailed. There was little activity, on a perfect breezy afternoon there was very little sign of activity from the trout, despite what should have been excellent conditions: a warm wind, plenty of shade, depth and cover, perfect for terrestrials.

At first I wondered if the late start to the season had retarded the typical explosion of insect life. Our last snowfall came on May 9th, and there were a handful of very cold nights in June. I pondered these things as I fished. Near the end of my hunting area, I laid a beetle gently along the bank, placed perfectly in a tight band of shade. My reaction was nearly a second sight experience.

I almost saw the slightest ripple in the surface, at least I think I did. No ring, and no sign of the fly itself, but some sixth sense encouraged me to tighten. I felt weight, tightened a bit more and felt more resistance, then more. It took a moment for me to be sure that I was indeed hooked to a trout, and a good one at that. As I urged him away from the bank he finally reacted to my pressure, though his fight remained sluggish and uninspired.

I landed him rather quickly, the tip of the old Granger easily protecting the 6X tippet against his gentle struggles. The trout was a brown, a fine specimen pushing 21 inches, with wonderful color and the characteristic heft of a well-fed wild fish. He had taken the fly deep in his mouth so, to prevent any further stress, I quickly cut the tippet and released him. He disappeared promptly.

I was shocked by the experience, and curious. I immediately dropped my thermometer into the river where I landed the fish, recording a pleasant 64 degrees, in full sunlight in knee deep water. Fishermen have been schooled that 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit is the ideal temperature range for trout feeding and activity, so why I pondered was this large fish so reluctant to feed and so meek and sluggish when hooked? Could it be that our tailwater trout have so fully adapted to the artificially cold environment of the tailwater rivers that the traditionally accepted upper range of “ideal” water temperatures is too warm for them?

I was within perhaps 50 yards of the small riffle that dumps into the pool I angled, and even at low flow it was certainly enough to oxygenate the top of the pool I believed. I waded a bit further upstream and my surprise increased markedly when I saw trout crowded all over the bottom before me. They were lying in water nearly thigh deep, in full sunlight, and there were trout of all sizes, far too close to one another. This was a clear sign of stress, stress in what I believe was reasonably well oxygenated 64 degree water. I stopped fishing and walked out.

This experience has given me a whole new perspective on the health of our Delaware River fishery. For decades New York City held back releases out of Cannonsville and all of their Catskill reservoirs, maintaining that was the City’s vital drinking water. That their archaic transmission network is a marvel of disrepair, wasting millions of gallons of that precious water daily, is immaterial to them.

Once they decided to build a power generation station at Cannonsville however, they changed their tune, saying the City didn’t need that water. Still they are stingy with thermal bank volume and releases when temperatures in the mainstem Delaware River push high into the seventies. Stingy with the water they “don’t need”: hmmm? Meanwhile the East Branch, Neversink and the rest of the tailwater rivers are starved for water on a regular basis.

The wild trout fisheries in the Upper Delaware River watersheds are the best in the East, even when subjected to such mistreatment. Progress has been made towards conserving this resource, but it has taken decades to get where we are now; still far short of where we would like to be. American Rivers has named the Delaware their River of the Year for 2020, trumpeting the conservation success from the mountains to the sea. Imagine what this river, this fishery might become if we ever receive adequate flows of cold, pure water.

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