When New York City’s population exploded at the turn of the 20th century, increasing from 200,000 people in 1840 to 3.5 million in 1900, the city began to run out of water in its Croton Reservoir System.
Officials looked at the Berkshires and Long Island, which they found unsuitable for a number of reasons. Then they began to look north to the Catskills.
Legislators passed the Water Supply Act of 1905, which gave New York City the authority to build the reservoirs it needed to supply the city.
In order to create the Schoharie Reservoir, which is part of the Catskill system, the city built a dam at Gilboa. Construction started on July 19, 1919, and was completed in 1926. Thousands of workers, many of them immigrants, lived in labor camps as they did the work of clearing the valley of buildings, graves and vegetation.
During the process, the Schoharie Creek was rerouted to flow south. Laborers burrowed and blasted through solid rock in harsh working conditions to build an 18-mile tunnel at Shandaken that would carry water to the Esopus Creek and Ashokan Reservoir. At the time, the tunnel was the longest in the world. The building of the Gilboa Dam and flooding of the reservoir displaced 500 people in Gilboa and in farms and properties along the Schoharie Creek.
Among the provisions of the Water Supply Act was that New York City had to allow access to the reservoirs forever. One reason was for cutting ice before the advent of refrigerators. The other was for fishing. This is why people have access to the reservoir today.
Fishing is allowed from the shore or from approved rowboats; no motorized craft are allowed on the reservoir.
“Fishing is very, very popular,” said Adam Bosch, director of Public affairs for the NYC Environmental Protection. However, in order to keep the 17.6 billion gallons of water in the reservoir as clean as possible, boats must be steam-cleaned to remove any impurities from them.
“It’s the largest unfiltered water supply in the United States and we have to take extra precautions to protect the quality of the water in our reservoirs,” Bosch said.
The Department of Environmental Conservation requires that people obtain an access permit, which is available for free at nyc.gov/dep/access permit. People can print out a temporary pass at home and the DEC will mail a permanent one.
The reservoir has both cold- and warm-water species of fish, and is stocked annually with 1,500 to 2,000 brown trout and 20,000 walleye. Other species in the reservoir are rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, crappies, bluegills and perch.
“There are a a lot of interesting coves that you can go in and out of,” said Bill Federice, supervisor for the town of Conesville and chairman of the Schoharie County Board of Supervisors. Federice fishes in the reservoir.
Fishermen can catch trout from the shore using a minnow and bobber, said Ingles, or they can troll with Lake Clear Wabblers (lures) with worms and other spinners.
For bass, Ingles suggests using minnows spinner baits, or in the evening, surface poppers might catch a bass. Panfish can be caught with worms and a bobber, jigs with minnows, or leeches in the shallow bays.
Fishing was the only recreation allowed until recently. In 2012, the NYC Environmental Protection agency started a recreational boating program, allowing for people to enter the water with kayaks, canoes, sailboats and sculls. Like rowboats, they must be steam-cleaned by a certified vendor before each time they are put in the water, unless they are stored at the reservoir for the season.
If that seems cumbersome, there are several vendors that will rent kayaks and canoes for the day. “It’s relatively inexpensive, and it allows you to head out on the reservoir on a whim,” Bosch said.
At the Devasego boat launch, where the Schoharie Creek runs into the reservoir on the Greene County side, there is a park with picnic tables where people can enjoy being near the water.
Over the years, New York City purchased the watershed lands around the reservoir to protect the quality of the water, and the vast majority of these are open for hiking, hunting and fishing in the streams, Bosch said. For a recreational map, visit nyc.gov/dep/recmap.
The reservoir is a great place to spot bald eagles, as NYC’s reservoir system has the largest nesting density of bald eagles anywhere in New York state. The water, high trees and undisturbed land creates a particularly good habitat for the eagles, Bosch explained.
“You’ve got an excellent chance, better than anywhere else, of seeing an eagle,” Federice said. “Every once in a while, they dive to catch a fish.”
He also points out that the reservoir does not get very crowded with people. “As NYC DEP reservoirs go, it doesn’t get a big crowd — it’s a peaceful, relaxing thing,” he said. “The nicest thing about this is that it’s somewhat serene and secluded. It’s fun to fish, but it’s also fun just being in that environment. It’s relaxing.”
ORIGIN OF NAME: “Schoharie” came from the Mohawk word “to-wos-scho-hor,” meaning “driftwood.”
LOCATION: Schoharie and Greene Counties in the Catskills
SIZE: Four miles long, with a maximum depth of 120 feet
CLAIM TO FAME: Bald eagles galore. New York City’s reservoir systems have the largest nesting density of bald eagles anywhere in the state.
WHERE TO SWIM: No swimming is allowed to protect this public water supply.
WHERE TO LAUNCH: Devasego Park in Prattsville, Greene County, on the east bank, and Snyder’s Cove off of Road Seven, accessible from state Route 30 in Gilboa.
LAKESIDE DINING SPOT: No dining lakeside, but nearby in Conesville is the Conesville Country Store featuring an eclectic menu of American, Mexican, Italian and Greek food with a variety of rotating specials.