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August 22, 2014
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Not your great-great-grandfather’s river; How times have changed

Surrounded by piles of Hemlock tanbark, workers fill a railcar with the valuable commodity, harvested for its tannin, which was used in tanning leather. (Photo taken in Leetonia, Tioga County, PA, circa 1900)
Photo courtesy PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources


However, the area’s fishing had been discovered before industry had seriously degraded brook trout habitat, and photos show enormous catches of trout. Stories abound about anglers who came from the cities and killed hundreds of trout in aweek (or even just a day) of fishing. As fishing declined, as a result of both decreased habitat and over-fishing, many private fishing clubs were formed in an effort to preserve the quality of fishing for those who had the means to join them. Nevertheless, redu-cing angling pressure could not counteract the losses of brook trout habitat.

Two other events began the transformation of the area from a pure brook trout fishery to what it is today. These were the advent of trout hatcheries and the introduction of rainbow trout (native to the American west) and brown trout (native to Europe) in the late 19th century. These fish not only out competed brook trout in the waters that were suitable to both, but prospered in waters that were too warm for brook trout. The brown trout, especially, were also less susceptible to angling pressure, so, despite initial prejudice in favor of the native fish, they kept alive trout fishing in waters that were no longer suitable for brook trout.

Finally, dam building further extended habitat for the introduced rainbow and brown trout. On the New York side of the watershed, New York City constructed reservoirs on the upper East and West Branches of the Delaware and on the Neversink River in the mid-20th century. Each of the three reservoirs have cold-water bottom releases that extends trout habitat far downstream from the dams. From the angler’s point of view, the reservoirs are a mixed blessing, because while the dams create and extend trout habitat, managing them for the city’s water supply trumps maintaining them for ecological reasons, and many external factors influence the city’s operation of the dams. There are continual negotiations between the city and various organizations over the management of flows from the reservoirs.

The Delaware and its tributaries have been transformed from pristine rivers dominated by native brook trout, where anglers could count on catching hundreds of trout in a week’s fishing, to heavily managed streams providing an opportunity to catch a few large, challenging non-native trout. Depending on whether you’re primarily a preservationist or an angler, that’s either a shame or a blessing, but whatever your view, the fishing is completely different from what it was in early times.