You see a stream that’s normally hip-deep thundering through its valley at 15 feet above flood stage, popping bridges off their abutments and houses off their foundations, and you wonder how in the world a creature as delicate as a trout could survive it.
But we’ve seen this before, in the Catskills and elsewhere. And we’ve witnessed the amazing resiliency of ecosystems when the fish and the flies return the following season. Trout have survived floods for as long as they have existed.
Most of the damage from Tropical Storm Irene came from charming trout streams turned into violent torrents by as much as a foot of rain.
The worst of the damage in New York seemed to be concentrated in the northern and eastern Catskills, especially the valleys of the Schoharie and Esopus creeks.
The Esopus jumped from a comfortable level for wading and fishing of about 500 cubic feet per second on Saturday, Aug. 27, to an astonishing 75,000 cfs by noon the next day. The flow easily bypassed the old record of 62,300 cfs set in 1980.
Irene wrecked a frightful number of roads and bridges that residents of Greene and Ulster counties used daily, but the twin washouts that struck me most as an angler were of bridges that had long ago been abandoned: the old steel bridge that once connected Cold Brook Road and Route 28 in Boiceville, and the railroad trestle downstream, just above the famed Chimney Hole. The eastern half of the trestle ended up lying on the west bank of the creek.
These were literally landmarks — you would describe your location as “upstream of the Cold Brook bridge” or “the pool just below the trestle,” and generations of trout fishermen knew exactly what was meant.
“I always was amazed when people told me that the water went over the deck of the Cold Brook Bridge in 1980,” said Michael Flaherty, the Department of Environmental Conservation Region 3 fisheries manager. “This one topped that one, and took out the bridge. It was always hard to believe, when standing on the bridge or underneath it, that the water could get that high.”
More than 50 U.S. Geological Survey stream flow gauges, some of them in place for more than 100 years, measured record flows during Irene. Ample rain this summer had soaked the ground, so the rain — four inches at Albany, 12 on the slopes of Slide Mountain — poured straight into the streams.
As destructive and memorable as it was, a foot of rain is not unprecedented in New York.
In September 2004, the remains of Tropical Storm Frances saturated the ground and the remnants of Hurricane Ivan arrived a week later, damaging 100 homes and displacing more than 1,000 people.
In April 2005, back-to-back rain storms and melting snow caused floods that exceeded Ivan’s. And just 14 months later, in June 2006, as much as 15 inches of rain fell on the Delaware watershed, swelling the Beaverkill River to 62,400 cfs. The West Branch of the Delaware got up to 40,000 cfs and the East Branch 22,000.
That’s three catastrophic floods in less than two years. And yet, people have been successfully fishing the Delaware and its tributaries, including the Beaverkill, ever since. At least one observer I know said the region hadn’t been quite the same since the 2004-2006 floods — Irene arrived just when full recovery seemed near — but the rivers have still provided great hatches and thousands of trout, stocked and wild.
Still, it may be some time before the Esopus again fishes the way we want it to. The creek had been turbid all year, and since Irene, it’s looked like a river of mud.
“Stream ecosystems have evolved along with flooding through the eons,” Flaherty said. “I imagine that most stream fish were hunkered down wherever they could find some slower-velocity water. Those fish that could find this refuge would hopefully not move and expend any more energy than necessary fighting the storm. At this point, the high turbidity and losses of other habitat and food is probably going to be the biggest factor impacting the trout going forward.”
Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at [email protected].