Monday, May 29, 2017

Exploring the Catskills Backcountry

Rob and I decided to take advantage of the rare good-weather window and a couple of above-80-degree days to hike into the backcountry, along the headwaters of a popular trout stream.

There are many such trout streams in the Catskills, most of which are almost entirely privately owned, stocked, mis-managed and generally off limits to the average angler relying on public access and public land. Its hard not to let these realities color the otherwise emotional and beautiful experience of driving or walking these rivers. Luckily the very upper headwaters of most of these rivers are on public land, and we are able to hike and explore them, even if we can't catch those legendary 18" brookies that used to swim these waters before we decimated the habitat with our "magic human touch."

Hiking in to an overnight in just such a place comes with certain unsettling moments, like when you discover relatively fresh bear scat sitting in the middle of the trail not 15 minutes into the journey. However, thanks to a nice tributary just down the trail, it was somewhat easy to forget about the bear scat for a little while. 

There are some hidden ponds and we crossed the outflow from them as well. There were very small brookies in all the tribs we crossed.

In fact all the water looked good. But it only held a few small fish that we were able to catch. I don't know what to blame on the low numbers I have found here often, given this beautiful area, but it surely has something to do with stocking patterns on private land downstream, and lack of protection for the native fish in their headwaters. How it could remain legal to keep even a single brookie in a struggling headwaters area like this is just mind-boggling. Especially after spending so much time in the Savage River state forest in Maryland. New York seriously needs to take a look at how that area is managed and think about what we could have here if we did things differently...

Regardless of these feelings and thoughts of concern running through my head, this area is extremely remote and hauntingly beautiful, and it made an impact on me as it always does.

There was plenty of Trillium, a flower I've come to associate with healthy trout forest areas, and spring time.

We got back pretty far into the area, looking for an old primitive campsite marked on the map... however, it was not so easy to find. Just as we finally located the farthest campsite - the one we had been looking so intently for - we came across this second, much fresher pile of bear scat. Clearly the bear was in this area, moving in the same direction we were moving. Time for a change of plans.

Turning around, we went back in the opposite direction of the bear's "scat-jectory," and camped at an earlier site, which was also not so easy to find. I was happy to set up my hammock away from what appeared to be the travel path of a decent sized bear. We opened some beers that we packed in and settled in for the evening.

The next morning marked what was the first actually rain-free day we'd had in the woods in weeks. What a relief and a joy. If only there was a little more of that going on...

The situation was pretty ideal, with perfectly acceptable air and water temps. But that didn't seem to bring us much in the ways of actively feeding fish... something both surprising and disappointing in this kind of water at this time of year.

That didn't stop me from having a fantastic day, but it sure made me think hard about what New York could be doing to improve this situation. And I thought of a lot of things that could be done. It is somewhat defeating to feel relatively certain that there will never be more protection for these areas and fish here, though I couldn't help but to hope anyway.

As we got higher up we finally got into some more fish, but they were all tiny, and I felt bad catching them at all, so I stopped fishing and walked behind Rob for a while.

This river could and should hold a large population of wild native brookies. Instead what we found (and what I've also found before,) appeared to be a ridiculously over-fished, possibly poached and unbalanced stream with only tiny fish and lots of evidence of abuse; including illegal campsites with fire rings, trash, worm containers, and a couple of old frying pans and rusty grill grates. That's right, not one, but TWO frying pans left behind. Well I say screw you, whoever you are.  I am by no means against killing fish once in a while in healthy watersheds, especially stocked fish. But eating wild, native fish this small in areas this important to a native fishery is just absolutely insane tom-foolery at best, and complete and inherent disregard for the environment and the ecosystem at worst. Needless to say I scattered a lot of rocks and we packed those pans out to the garbage - where they belong!

Given the situation with the fishing, as well as the growing population of black flies, we left the area a night early and hiked out to the car. I hiked these miles in and out of the area in my Simms Rip Rap wet wading shoes. Its a bummer they redesigned them with thicker soles this year, these older ones are probably the best wading shoe for what I do that I've ever found. 

I inadvertently caught a nice photo of all the black flies near the car, and was soon after eaten alive.

The drive out reminded me of what life was like here a century ago, and I'm happy that there has been little development in the area...  I hope it always remains this way.

Soon my outrage and disbelief related to the trout population faded and I was able to soak in the surroundings calmly once again. It was sad to leave the area on this note, but we had more places to be, and not enough time to be in them all. Such is life...

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