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August 22, 2014
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‘Crown Jewel’ of the Delaware: Rainbow trout

Contributed photo


Rainbow trout are sometimes regarded as the aquatic Johnny-come-latelies of the fish-rich Upper Delaware River. But they’ve got a century’s worth of residency there.

It may be a fish story, but by one often-repeated account, the rainbows descended from fish that were released as a result of a railroad train breakdown in the late 1800s. Canisters of fingerling trout—McCloud River rainbows from California, they say—were aboard a train that chugged to an unexpected stop near Callicoon, NY. Dan Cahill, a brakeman, happened to be an avid fisherman. Fearing the fish would go belly-up before reaching their destination, Cahill grabbed a few canisters and released the fingerlings into the Delaware. This happenstance stocking is believed to be the first introduction of the rainbow into the Delaware River.

The official version of the rainbow’s introduction to the river is not quite as romantic. Ed Van Put, a NYS Department of Environmental Conservation staffer, says the state’s Fish Commission was experimenting with stocking rainbows roughly 140 years ago.

Those trout came from the San Francisco Bay area and were called mountain or California trout. Records show that on March 31, 1875, a man named Seth Green received at the NYS Fish Hatchery at Caledonia 1,800 mountain trout eggs, sent by the Acclimation Society of the Golden State. Of these, approximately 300 fry were hatched.

Three years later, when the fish reached spawning age, Green collected some 40,000 eggs and later released nearly 25,000 fry in the Delaware system. The trout adapted well to their new eco-system, and the river’s many cold -water tributaries became their spawning grounds and hidden nurseries.

Rainbows of the McCloud strain arrived in 1878 at the Caledonia hatchery. Over time, these two strains became one in Green’s records. He called them all California mountain trout. As a West Coast species, the first rainbows had the instincts of steelhead ancestry. The July 4, 1885 issue of American Angler wrote the following:

“I am told that there was a batch put into the Beaverkill, one of the branches of the Delaware River, and that there have never been any caught near the locality where they were put in, but about 75 or 80 miles below, where they found very deep water and large eddies, that they were quite plentiful.”

Early 20th-century anglers were impressed with this new strain of California trout that, not surprisingly, fought harder than anything they have ever seen. Generations of natural selection and local environmental factors have hardened these fish into a distinct breed of trout, making them into one of the best wild stock of streamlined rainbows in our country. It is now considered by anglers as the “crown jewel” of the Delaware.

Among the Delaware tributaries where they now spawn are Sands and Cadosia creeks in the town of Hancock, NY. The two creeks do not have the regal reputation of famous trout runs in the region, but they are—to this day—a vital part of the aquatic system with the clean flowing cold water and proper cover for survival. The juvenile fish will live in the nursing waters for two years before entering the river to become the spirited, fierce-fighting trout that the Delaware is known for.

A transmitter study conducted by Trout Unlimited in the late 1990s revealed the movements of the adult rainbow trout. The “wild” Delaware fish normally resides in the Delaware and returns to the place of birth each spring, spawning twice in its four and sometimes five-year life span. A few of the cold-water critters were tracked at distances of 60 miles within a one-year period in their struggles to reproduce and find suitable spawning grounds.

In 2006, a 500-year flood devastated Sands and Cadosia creeks, sweeping away precious trout-holding pools, eroding banks and eliminating structure. Some of the remedial channelization intended to prevent future flooding also strips trout cover and increases stream bank erosion.

During the past two years, Friends of the Upper Delaware River (FUDR), based in New York and Pennsylvania, embarked on an ambitious project to restore the creeks. FUDR has partnered with the National Fish & Wildlife Service, the Town of Hancock and the Delaware County Department of Public Works, to restore Sands and Cadosia creeks for the purpose of mitigating flooding and restore fish spawning habitat.

Landowner participation is vital and to date we have a group of very engaged property owners that have partnered with FUDR. The initial $100,000 stream assessment study done by Landstudies, Inc. has been completed. A conceptual plan for their restoration is currently being finalized on Sands Creek and groundbreaking work is the next step.

For further information on the stream restoration project, visit www.fudr.org.