Hook, Line and Sinker: June 20, 2012

Recently Catskill Mountain News Publisher Dick Sanford drove along the Esopus Creek and reported to me that it still looked terribly scoured from last summer’s flood. He also said that that there was almost no vegetation growing along major stretches of the stream, making it look like a dead river. He wondered if any trout had survived the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, and asked if I knew of anyone who fished the Esopus regularly and might be able to report on his findings.

I contacted Ed Ostapczuk, veteran Catskill fly fisherman and long-time fishing friend from Shokan, who fishes the Esopus as much as anyone I know. In fact, Ed is just coming out with a book on the history of Esopus floods, an excerpt of which states:

“What has taken its toll on the river, its inhabitants, and the people along the Esopus Creek river valley are the floods.  They wreak havoc on everyone and everything in their path.  It seems in recent years the number and intensity of these events has increased, sometimes pushing the human spirit to its breaking point. There have been several floods that destroyed bridges, closed roads, and even swept buildings from their foundations.”

Flood reminders
He reminded me of the devastation and destruction, which closed the Oliverea Valley road for several months; the newspaper photos of children and horses being walked out of the Claryville area after the road along the West Branch of the Neversink was destroyed.

“Finally on the eve of August 27th of 2011 hell was unleashed on the eastern Catskills when Hurricane Irene made its presence known.  Flows at the Coldbrook gauging station were a historic high of 75,850 cfs!  The antiquated Coldbrook Bridge was washed away, the Trestle below Five Arches Bridge destroyed, the earthen dam at Winnisook compromised as human misery beset the eastern Catskills that will take years to recover from, if ever for some of the worst affected. However, the Esopus remains resilient.”

Unlike the aftermath of the flooding of 2005, which caused the Esopus to run muddy from late March/April through the fall and pretty much precluded any trout fishing that whole season, Ed feels that the outlook for Esopus fishing this year, is, surprisingly, better than expected.

“This spring the fishing for little wild rainbows was really good starting in late April,” as he and other fishing friends were able to take a number of small rainbows in the six- to nine-inch size range. And, comparing this year’s success with last year, with all the high and cold water early in the 2011 fishing season, the same group didn’t catch these small wild rainbows until mid-June. And although there were not many large rainbows caught, (and a DEC Census agent confirmed few rainbows caught on the 14-to-16-inch size range) nonetheless the presence of so many small wild rainbows was a good sign.

Another positive sign of the Esopus rebounding is the presence of mayflies. While the spring Isonychia hatch, that usually occurs around Memorial Day, was short-lived, the early hatches were good, and fly-fishermen did see some Hendricksons and Green Drakes – “nothing like on the Beaverkill and Delaware, but it was amazing to see a couple around here – not a lot but it’s an indicator that the fly life wasn’t totally destroyed.”

Water conditions, however, proved to be not as positive. The tributaries ‘took a beating and dumped a lot of mud into the stream, which was more turbid than in the past.’ Although the tributaries cleared up, “Unfortunately the portal is more turbid.”

Totally new shape
And, like Dick Sanford had witnessed, Ed concurred that in places the Esopus streambed is now “so wide, in places there is no cover….one hundred feet of rock with no trees around. In low water this could heat up more than in the past.”

Fortunately the cooler tributaries seem to be less affected by bulldozing and stream destruction, with the worst problems being exposed clay banks that caused turbid and muddy conditions. However, Ed and his fishing friends fished these Esopus tributaries until October 15 and were able to catch wild browns and wild rainbows in spite of what happened.

Looking ahead, Ed remains optimistic, recalling that historically, the Esopus has been resilient. And while Hurricane Irene did cause tremendous destruction, the stream is slowly rebounding from the turbidity. What remains to be seen, however, is if the river can recover from the destruction caused not by nature, but by man – causing the wider stream beds, and shallow unprotected stretches of stream that will surely heat up to critically warm temperatures.

“Yet from the very narrow angling point-of-view,” says Ed, “my hopes remain high for the future of the Esopus given its track record of prior recoveries.”