Ramblings of a Catskill fly fisher

Fall fly fishing for lake-run browns

By TONY BONAVIST
Posted 11/3/21

In October of 2017, I wrote a column for the River Reporter titled “A chance at fall spawners.” It was my lament about why the state did not extend the fishing season for trout, which …

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Ramblings of a Catskill fly fisher

Fall fly fishing for lake-run browns

Posted

In October of 2017, I wrote a column for the River Reporter titled “A chance at fall spawners.” It was my lament about why the state did not extend the fishing season for trout, which were migrating from large, New York City reservoirs in the Catskills into their spawning streams. At that time, I recounted that tributaries to the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes were open to year-round trout fishing, providing anglers with the opportunity to hook very large trout and salmon on the fly. My reasoning was based not only on the fact that the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) was allowing year-round fishing in western New York tributaries, but also because our large Catskill reservoirs were extremely lightly fished, annually stocked and had populations of large, wild brown trout. Those reservoirs—Pepacton, Rondout, Cannonsville and Neversink—cover over 13,000 acres, have limited access, and motors cannot be used, so those lakes receive very little fishing pressure.

So my argument to the DEC has been: Who are you managing these large, lightly fished reservoirs for, fish or fishermen? For example, if there were issues with the fish populations in these reservoirs, such as low numbers of trout or other critical factors limiting fall fishing, the state’s reluctance to extend the season would be understandable.

That is not the case. In my view, every one of these systems can easily support a lot more fishing pressure. So why not allow anglers a chance at the large brown trout and perhaps landlocked salmon that migrate each fall into the main tributaries from those reservoirs? Use no-kill regulations. Then the state would provide those of us who live a long way from the western New York tributaries an opportunity to fly fish for some very large trout, right here in the Catskills!

Fast forward to September 2019. It was at that time that the DEC announced a series of public hearings to take comments from interested parties on several important changes it was proposing for New York’s trout streams. Many of the recommended changes were controversial and elicited a great deal of negative commentary from local anglers, including fly fishers. The one that caused the most ire among fishermen was the proposal that would allow year-round trout fishing in all of New York’s rivers and streams. If that proposal was approved, the regular season would run from April 1 to October 14, and be subject to harvest and size limits. Then the extended season would begin on October 15 and end on March 31 the following year. That extended season would be entirely no-kill and require the use of single-hook pointed artificial lures and flies.

While I welcomed the fact that the states were proposing year-round trout fishing, there was a lot of concern, mine included, that the new no-kill regulations would allow fishing in the very small tributaries where trout were spawning. Many anglers sent emails or wrote letters to the state condemning that regulation, recommending that it limit fishing during trout spawning season to the main tributaries only, not the small streams feeding those tributaries. We believed that anglers should not be fishing those little streams when trout were migrating and actually spawning—the time they were most vulnerable. Some of the streams the trout use for spawning are so small that the backs of the fish are actually out of the water.

The DEC rejected our recommendation and approved the new trout stream regulations in March of 2021, pretty much as drafted. The new extended no-kill season began on October 15. It is our hope that fishermen, including fly fishers, will understand the implications associated with fishing for trout while they are spawning in the many small streams, and leave those fish alone. There are enough large tributaries entering Catskill reservoirs to accommodate many anglers while providing ample fishing opportunity.

Changes aside, what do the new regulations mean for anglers?

First and foremost, they give us the opportunity to fish for brown trout up to 10 pounds in weight, in rivers and streams that have been historically closed. The fishing, or rather the catching, will not be easy, especially in fly fishing, because fishing for trout on their spawning runs usually is not easy.

The Esopus Creek, in the eastern Catskills, has been open for fishing until the end of November for many, many years. We have cast our flies at that river in the fall since the 1990s, and so far, none of us have hooked and landed a large trout on its spawning run.

I’m sure some of the anglers that fish the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes spawning runs might argue that point. However, I don’t believe most of those anglers fly-fish.

What fall fishing for migrating trout involves is casting large streamer flies on stout tippets with six- or seven-weight fly rods. Cast after cast after cast. No more rising trout, no more four-weight rods, no more 6x. The weather can and will be cold, the days will be short. There will be a lot of casting, cold fingers, and likely little action. But we’ll finally have a chance to hook a trout of a lifetime on a fly. It won’t be easy, but many of us will be out there trying. I’ll have my streamer flies ready!

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