Brown Trout Gaining on Esopus Creek Rainbows

Daily Gazette article
Thursday, December 26, 2013

By Morgan Lyle

Rainbow trout were first stocked in Esopus Creek in the Catskills in 1883, and pretty much ever since, the creek has been a rainbow stronghold.

Rainbows are common across New York, and a self-sustaining population of rainbows has flourished in the Delaware River for decades. Still, nowhere in New York has the rainbow dominated a stream so completely as the Esopus — until now.

For reasons that aren’t yet clear, the rainbows of the Esopus are losing ground to wild browns. Stream surveys in recent years by the Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Geological Survey showed wild browns outnumbering rainbows.

“From 2009 to 2013 at our study sites, we see a steady decline in the number of rainbow trout,” said Scott George of Delmar, an ecology and evolutionary biology student at the University at Albany, studying trout habitat on the Esopus with the USGS.

Image

A U.S. Geological Survey crew counts fish in Stony Clove Creek, a tributary of the Esopus, in July 2013. Morgan Lyle photo.

At four locations on the Esopus and five more on tributaries, the USGS team has counted fish for the past five years. Consider these preliminary findings, on a stream where historian

Austin McK. Francis once reported wild rainbows outnumbered wild browns 10 to 1:

In 2009, the USGS crew found 410 rainbows and 814 browns at the nine survey sites. In 2010, rainbows were back on top, though not by much — 428 ’bows, 331 browns. In 2011, there were 175 rainbows and 120 browns.

In 2012, the electrofishing crew found 147 rainbows, 962 browns. This summer, browns outnumbered rainbows, 441 to 59.

It’s an amazing turnaround — from 10-to-1 rainbows to 10-to-1 browns.

The USGS study is being finalized and will be formally released next year. The DEC, meanwhile, has been counting fish in the creek and in Ashokan Reservoir downstream, and it, too, has found a decline in rainbows.

Electrofishing two sites twice a year for the past four years, “in general, we saw fewer rainbow trout and more brown trout,” said Region 3 fisheries manager Michael Flaherty. “We also finished a three-year period of ‘season-long creel surveys in 2012.’ Over those three years, we saw what appears to be a greater proportion of the catch reported as ‘brown trout.’ This is different than what we saw in the early 1990s, when small rainbow trout were more commonly caught than brown trout.” Gill-netting in Ashokan Reservoir produced fewer rainbows than in the past, he said.

The DEC’s findings are also preliminary, with final results expected in the spring. The trend seems clear, but neither agency is ready to declare that browns have permanently overtaken rainbows on the Esopus.

“This is one little snapshot that says there may be a trend there, but we need to look at it from a lot of angles,” Flaherty said.

There’s nothing mysterious about the dominance of browns the past two seasons. We can thank Tropical Storm Irene for that.

The monster storm in late Aug­ust 2011 left behind vast expanses of clean gravel that brown trout used for spawning a few weeks later. By the time the 2012 class of rainbows hatched out the following spring, the creek was full of young-of-the-year browns that out-competed them for food and habitat and probably ended up eating more than a few of them.

The trend, however, was in place before Irene. Then again, Irene was hardly the first big storm to impact the Esopus in recent times. Going back to 1996, the creek and the region have experienced numerous big storms, and the timing of such events can impact the success of year-classes, as in the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012.

Is climate change causing an increase in big-water events which have eroded the rainbow’s trad­itional dominance? Neither agency is prepared to make that claim, though both said it’s conceivable. The current decline of rainbows and rise of browns may also simply be a blip with no long-term significance.

There’s nothing wrong with catching wild brown trout, of course, but somehow it would be a little sad if the Esopus ceased to be a haven for beautiful, feisty, wild rainbows after 130 years.

Shorter Tenkara Rods, by Popular Demand

Daily Gazette article
Thursday, December 19, 2013

Morgan Lyle

Fly-Fishing: Tenkara rods don’t have to be long to be effective

When it comes to nymphing, the longer the rod, the better the fishing.

A longer rod makes it easier to hold your line and leader off the water and stay in direct contact with your fly or flies. You can reach over currents, rather than laying your line across them and risking your fly being dragged off course.

High-stick, tight-line nymphing is probably the single most effective way to catch trout in most circumstances. That’s why the European (and now American) competition anglers do it — and they do it using 10- and 11-foot rods.

new tenkara rod 1

Tenkara USA’s Rhodo, one of two adjustable-length models introduced in December. The Rhodo can be fished as short as 8 feet 10 inches.

Rod length has always been one of the keys to the success of tenkara fishing, too — along with the ultra-soft action that makes it possible to cast a line as light as a 15-foot piece of 12-pound fluorocarbon.

But there’s a paradox. Tenkara fishing is rightly billed as ideal for small streams with lots of pocket water, but those same streams are often covered with low canopies of trees and brushy banks, leaving little room to cast a 12-foot rod.

Now, the best-known seller of tenkara rods outside Japan, Tenkara USA, has rolled out two new rod models, each one adjustable to three lengths. One, the Rhodo, can fish as short as eight feet, 10 inches and as long as 10 feet, six. The other, the Sato, can be fished at 10 feet, eight inches, 11 feet, 10 inches or 12 feet, nine inches.

It’s part of the evolution of tenkara fishing in the U.S. When Tenkara USA introduced the long, telescoping rods with no reels in April 2009, the orthodox view was that all tenkara rods were long — 11 feet was considered a shorty.

But it turns out there are all kinds of telescoping “pole fishing” rods in Japan, including some that are eight feet long or even shorter. They’re technically not tenkara rods, but can be used the same way and are great fun for small wild trout on headwaters streams.

Out west, the tenkara anglers have it easy — many of their streams are wide open, with no trees or brush to interfere with casting or playing fish. Back east, where the mountains are forested all the way to their summits and the wetter climate makes for lusher streamside flora, a shorter rod comes in handy.

I was lucky enough to get my hands on a Daiwa Soyokaze nine-footer from Tenkarabum before the company discontinued the model. It makes it possible to fish in tight spots, and it handles average and even bigger trout surprisingly well.

This 1.6-ounce rod still has the central tenkara characteristics: a tip so flexible it can be loaded by nothing more than a leader and a fly, and an overall action so soft it can protect very fine tippets, even when playing nice trout.

Then again, I’ve never had all that much trouble with my 12-footer in small, backwoods streams. In fact, the challenge of casting in a tunnel of snaggy vegetation is part of the game. These are very often the spots where good trout are found, precisely because the surroundings offer protection from herons, kingfishers, fly-fishers, etc.

Still, it’s a positive development that five years on, the orthodoxy is less rigid and fixed-line fishing is evolving in response to American anglers’ requirements.

The new Tenkara USA rods have gotten glowing reviews from bloggers, such as Jason Klass at TenkaraTalk.com, who were provided them in advance of their release for field testing. They sell for $215, and complete information can be found at tenkarausa.com.

They’re not Tenkara USA’s first adjustable-length rods, by the way. The company’s Ito, which fishes at 13 feet or 14 feet, seven inches, has been available for some time.

Nor are Tenkara USA’s new models the first three-position rods available in the U.S. Tenkarabum.com has offered the Japanese-made Suntech Field Master, a very similar rod except it has non-skid finish on the blank rather than a cork grip, for about a year now, at a roughly comparable price.

All of these rods are excellent trout fishing tools and very much worthy of your attention, if you’re at all interested in fixed-line fly-fishing.

Taking Striper Conservation Into Our Own Hands

2013-06-16 09.15.45When Massachusetts asks for tighter restrictions on harvesting striped bass, you know something’s going on.

The Bay State is a center of commercial and recreational striper fishing. Despite growing concern over the health of the striped bass population, calls to end commercial harvest and curtail the recreational catch have for years been ignored in Boston.

But now, given recent data showing poor spawning success and dwindling recreational catches, even Massachusetts thinks we should ease the pressure on stripers. Paul Diodati, the state’s fisheries director, proposed cutting the recreational daily bag limit along the entire East Coast in half, from two fish to one, and reducing the commercial catch by 38 percent.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted no, as it always does. But Diodati’s acknowledgement that stripers are in peril seems like a turning point in efforts to protect stripers from a population crash like the one in the early 1980s, which nearly wiped them out.

“The number of sexually mature female striped bass has slumped badly and there has been a steady drop in the number of young stripers born in the Chesapeake Bay, which is the major nursery for Atlantic Coast striped bass,” said Brad Burns, founder of Stripers Forever, which advocates for the end of commercial fishing in the seven Atlantic coast states that still permit it. “For anglers from Maine to South Carolina, this translates to a decline of approximately 90 percent in the coast-wide recreational catch of wild stripers since 2006.” (Disclosure: I’m a member of Stripers Forever’s board.)

Lou Tabory, the widely read author and guru of fly-fishing for stripers, recently wrote that the decline of the fishery is hurting the recreational fishing business on Cape Cod.

“In the late 1990s in May, the ‘bowl’ just south of Chatham Lighthouse on Cape Cod might have had a hundred anglers fishing — now it’s mostly empty,” he wrote this summer in Fly Fishing in Salt Waters magazine. “Guides I know that specialized in light tackle and fly-fishing for stripers have stopped doing trips or fish for other species.”

The ASMFC did agree to consider tighter limits on fishing – in 2015. Stripers Forever says that’s  too little, too late. Monte Burke writes in Forbes magazine that recreational anglers should take the matter into their own hands.

“For the next two years, all recreational anglers should consider limiting their catches to one keeper a day at a minimum (all catch-and-release would be better, in my opinion),” Burke wrote. He specifically called on “party boat” captains to reduce the number of stripers coming over the gunwales.

“The fishing from these boats, filled with 25 to 100 anglers all taking their two-fish-a-day limit, is just not sustainable. These captains have to know somewhere in their hearts that what they are doing is similar to the actions of the commercial fishermen who eventually fished cod out to the point of near extinction. Catching and killing that many striped bass on every trip is just not in their long term self-interest.”

Didymo: Not Our Fault After All?

Daily Gazette article
Thursday, June 27, 2013

When the “rock snot” didymo algae started blooming in beloved trout streams across the region and around the country in the mid-2000s, most of us believed the theory that the nuisance was being carried from river to river in the damp felt soles of anglers’ shoes.

It seemed perfectly plausible, since didymo spores had been shown to live a long time in damp felt, and many of us have been known to fish a stream while our felts were still wet from the last one.

An article in “Fisheries” mag­azine in 2009, titled “On the Boots of Fishermen: The History of Didymo Blooms on Vancouver Island, British Columbia,” seemed to cement the idea in the trout fishing establishment. The next thing you knew, states were banning felt soles, advoc­acy groups were begging anglers not to use them and tackle companies all but stopped selling them.

Image

Wading shoes with so-called sticky rubber soles became the norm.

Now, the author of “On the Boots of Fishermen” has changed his mind.

Further research has led Max Bothwell of Environment Canada to a new conclusion: Didymo is native to all of North America and already present in many streams. What’s new are the blooms, and Bothwell and colleagues have discovered the blooms are caused by a change in the environment — low levels of phosphorous in the water, which causes didymo to grow the long stalks that become streambed-smothering mats in the worst cases.

“I no longer believe the problem with didymo in North Amer­ican streams is the result of it being moved around” by fishermen, Bothwell told me for an article in the July/August issue of “American Angler” magazine.

In fact, Bothwell and other scientists added phosphorous to a badly affected stretch of stream in South Dakota, and the didymo bloom there shrank.

Bothwell said he does not regret his influential “On the Boots of Fishermen” theory. In fact, he said, anglers should still avoid felt, since it has been shown to carry all kinds of invasives, including whirling disease (which, by the way, thrives in streams with didymo blooms.)

Image

Not all anglers were willing to take the blame for the didymo blooms in the Battenkill River, the branches of the Delaware and Kayaderosseras, Esopus and Schoharie creeks. Many pointed out that wildlife and non-angling humans could also spread spores from stream to stream.

They were also annoyed at the idea of being forced to buy a new piece of gear, and one they didn’t trust, at that. After all, previous attempts at non-felt soles were a bust. They just didn’t grip underwater rocks as well as felt.

One of them was Ed Ostapczuk of Shokan in Ulster County. Ostapczuk is no skeptic of environmental science in general; on the contrary, he played an important role in the passage of a state law in 1976 that required releases from New York City reservoirs that would protect the trout fisheries downstream, and helped kill a disastrous idea for a pumped water storage power plant in the Catskills.

I wasn’t surprised that Ostapczuk found the new thinking about didymo fascinating. But in view of his reluctance to abandon felt for safety reasons, I was surprised to hear his view on modern rubber soles.

“I am a CONVERT,” Ostapczuk said in an email. “I love the Simms Vibram sole wading shoes with studs. I personally believe that these grip the stream bottom better than felts.

“So who knows what the true cause [of didymo blooms] is? I don’t … but I’ve shifted from felt wading shoes to Vibram soles cause I think they are better for fishing/wading.”

I do too. I’ve been wearing Vibram-soled shoes for several seasons. They grip well enough in the water, and they’re much nicer for walking to the water.

And while I may not, in fact, have helped halt the “spread” of didymo, it’s nice to know I may have helped keep other nasty invasives out of our trout streams.

The next step is to figure out why rivers across North America and elsewhere are suddenly starved of phosphorous. And correcting that problem is likely to be much more complicated than getting anglers to wear different shoes.

We’re Up All Night to Get Lucky

It was 10 p.m. on Father’s Day at the Nissequogue River, and five-pound striped bass were rising like trout in a Hendrickson hatch for as far as I could see in the dim ambient light.  I landed five,  and I left ‘em biting because I had to work in the morning. The fly was… what to call it? A Woolly Bugger with a tail of olive-dyed grizzly saddle hackle instead of marabou, tied flatwing style.

What they were rising to, I have no idea. There were tiny baitfish around, but the bass were rising, not rushing bait schools. The stripers’ behavior made me wonder if there was a worm hatch, but when I shined my light on the water I didn’t see any. All I know is the wide river was full of fish grabbing stuff that drifted down to them on the outgoing tide.

Image

The bass were big enough to put a hell of a bend in my 8-weight and pull off lots of backing. But once they had made their point, they grudgingly allowed me to drag them over, switch on my headlamp and pluck out the hook.

Image

This wasn’t a blitz. It was individual bass feeding at or near the surface, and the tide made it easy to swing a fly over the rises. Rising or swirling at the the surface isn’t unusual behavior for schoolie bass, but you seldom find so many doing it so consistently. It’s nice to hit it just right once in a while.

Image

Partial to Partridge (Me, and the Trout)

Daily Gazette article
Thursday, October 25, 2012

By Morgan Lyle

Partridge-hackled flies are best choices

Fly-fishing

Photo of

I think just about any fly will catch fish at one time or another.

But I’m starting to think that flies made with partridge hackle would catch trout in the Crossgates Mall parking lot during a snowstorm. On Black Friday.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But this is not: Unless there was a compelling reason to use another kind of fly, my first choice on any trout stream in the world would be a simple, yarn-bodied Killer Bug with a brownish hackle of vividly mottled Hungarian partridge.

This is an ancient kind of fly, usually referred to as a soft-hackle, sometimes called spiders in the U.K. The simplicity of it appeals to me — it has the parts a fly needs and nothing else. But the main reason I like these flies is that they work so well.

Back in 1924, John Waller Hills wrote in “A Summer on the Test” that “one of the softest, most compressible patterns is partridge hackle, and, whether this be the reason or not, I consider it the best sunk fly on the Test.”

In recent years, I’ve been fishing soft-hackles much of the time, and I’ve experimented with a few different kinds of hackle feather. There are several good choices for this kind of tying.

Starling, for example, has an iridescent, greenish sheen that (I’m guessing) appeals to trout much the way peacock herl seems to. Flies with peacock herl bodies have serious mojo — the micro-movement of the herl’s fibers and its ever-shifting green, brown and purple colors.

They give an impression of life, at least to human eyes, and apparently to fish eyes, too. Starling is similar. Its very soft hackle fibers wiggle and wave around easily in the water like the flailing legs of a struggling insect. It also has the advantage of being available in small sizes for size 16-20 softies.

Hen is cheap, widely available in many dyed colors and easy to work with. You can make flies that range from tiny to jumbo, and the hackle fibers are nice and uniform, which may or may not impress the fish, but looks nice to the fly-tyer.

Hen pheasant, another popular choice, has an appealing brownish tan color and nicely tapered barbules, and it, too, is very soft, with lots of movement. It’s not quite as easy to find as starling or hen, however, and isn’t much good for flies smaller than size 12.

Red grouse also is less commonly stocked in fly shops, and it too tends to be for larger flies. Its best feature is its beautiful mottling.

But partridge is by far the most popular choice for soft-hackle flies. On a natural skin — and if you want to use this stuff, you must buy a skin, rather than the little packs of individual feathers, most of which are too big or otherwise unfit for use — you’ll find good hackles for sizes from 14 or 16 up.

The pale gray breast feathers with the sharp, fine mottling tend to be the best to tie with, but there are brown feathers on the back, in the middle of the skin, that look great with any generally brown fly, if you can find them in the right size.

The mottling is key. The hackle on these things looks like the banded legs of the kind of spiders that make your kids scream. In the water, drifting and tumbling and darting around, it’s utterly insect-like.

It may look to the fish like a caddis fly pupa, or an emerging mayfly, or a drowned adult mayfly or cranefly or spider. It probably looks like all of them, and trout love to eat them all. Partridge-hackled flies did right by me again just this past weekend. I hooked seven or eight fish on the East Branch of the Croton River in the lower Hudson Valley, and almost all of the ones I landed were at least 12 inches or better.

It was midday under a bright sun, the water was a bit shallow and there wasn’t an aquatic insect to be seen except an occasional midge or tiny olive mayfly. But the trout grabbed that fly with no hesitation, and that’s been my exper­ience much of the time.

So I’m with Hills. Soft-hackle wets tied with partridge hackle are the best sunk flies on the rivers I get to fish, here in New York.

Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at morganlyle@gmail.com.

Remembering John Merwin

Daily Gazette article
Thursday, February 28, 2013

http://www.dailygazette.com/

See HTML Version of article
By Morgan Lyle

John Merwin

John Merwin, founder of Fly Rod & Reel magazine and author of “The Battenkill,” was remembered as a consummate writer and editor. He died Feb. 20 at age 66. (Photo courtesy the Merwin family)

 

John Merwin was a private guy. You didn’t see him on TV, or hosting seminars at fly-fishing shows, or liking and commenting on Facebook.

But he had friends and fans, and in the week since his death, they have remembered him as an expert angler, a curmudgeon with a heart of gold and one of the most important fishing writers and editors of his time.

Merwin — founder of Fly Rod and Reel magazine, longtime fishing editor at Field & Stream and author of 15 books, including the definitive history of the Battenkill River — died Feb. 20 at age 66 after a brief illness.

“Gruff, erudite, opinionated, tireless, and constitutionally candid, he was a force on the angling scene, pulling the levers of the industry from a lawn chair in rural Vermont,” wrote Merwin’s friend Dave Hurteau of Saratoga Springs, dep­uty editor and columnist at Field & Stream, who wrote an obituary on behalf of Merwin’s family.

Merwin’s “The New American Trout Fishing,” published in 1994, is a superb book — “the best modern book on trout fishing, period,” in the words of Merwin’s Field & Stream colleague, Kirk Deeter.

You could read nothing else on the subject and live a happy life as a trout fisherman.

It’s an ambitious, literary how-to book that treats readers to history, science and commentary along with instruction.

But for Capital Region anglers, Merwin’s most important book was “The Battenkill: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Trout River — Its History, People and Fishing Possibilities.”

There’s never been anything remotely like it written about the Battenkill, or most trout rivers, for that matter. It’s a richly detailed history of the river, and to an extent of trout fishing itself in the 19th and 20th centuries.

As one might expect, Merwin writes about the Battenkill’s most famous fisherman, the legendary Lee Wulff. But “The Battenkill” also covers Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses and “the half-mythical (Ethan) Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, who were in fact a handful of arrogant tavern drunks, bullying New York settlers along the border both before and shortly after the American Revolution.”

It’s not a how-to book, but anyone who reads it will learn how to fish the Battenkill. Merwin will warn them he sometimes takes an hour to wade 100 feet, which drives some of his friends nuts but avoids frightening the big trout. And you can almost see him wag his finger when you read, “use a three- to four-foot-long tippet of 6X [or lighter with ultra-small flies] for everything except streamers, even if the book you’ve read says to use 4X with your size-14 Hendrickson dries.”

Hurteau, who fished with Merwin often, heard lots of stuff like that.

“I met John in 1995,” he recalled in an interview. “I was a young, new punk editor from the wilderness at Field and Stream. John was already a legend. I had no idea who he was. The first words John ever spoke to me in person were, ‘You talk too much.’ ”

But under the grumpy New England veneer, Merwin was a softie. “He showed you in no uncertain way that he cared about you,” Hurteau said. “He went way out of his way to take a lot of us young editors under his wing and take care of us. It’s something that has been lost a little bit in editing circles these days — people are just too busy.”

And Merwin, a Connecticut nat­ive who began his career as a newspaperman after attending the University of Michigan, “was the standard bearer for integrity in fishing writing,” Hurteau said. “We really looked to John for the right way to do things, and he was just adamant about that. He insisted that things be done the right way.”

Hence the great books, and the many great articles and blog posts, and the overall quality of the mag­azines he led.

Merwin wasn’t afraid to show his sentimental side in his writing, at least when he was writing about the Battenkill.

“After about 40 years of chasing trout from Maine to California and beyond, I know that the Battenkill is my favorite place,” he wrote. “The Battenkill is more like Bach; with green hills, covered bridges and white-clapboard villages forming the gently repeating steps of a sweetly insistent fugue in which rising trout play an occasional part. Perhaps you’ll develop a taste for it. As I have.”

Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at morganlyle@gmail.com.