Trees for Trout: Ashokan-Pepacton Trout Unlimited Improves Habitat for Delaware River Fish

Trees for Trout: Ashokan-Pepacton Trout Unlimited Improves Habitat for Delaware River Fish

By Peter J. Marx, Member of Ashokan-Pepacton Watershed Chapter of Trout Unlimited

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This story is about planting trees along the East Branch Delaware River on October 20. First, I want to tell the tale of how a few dedicated tree planters got out on a cold, rainy October day.

It started three years ago with a Letter to the Editor in the Catskill Mountain News by local fishing guide Lenny Millen. He reasoned that the poor trout fishery in the East Branch above the Pepacton Reservoir, was due to an old silted-in millpond (Wawaka Lake) that caused thermal impairments downstream on a 13 mile stretch of the river – especially during the warm summer months. It made a lot of sense and I contacted Lenny and a friendship and a partnership has developed since.

 The dam on the east branch of the Delaware River in Halcottsville, NY.

The dam on the east branch of the Delaware River in Halcottsville, NY.

Lenny and I got the attention of Tracy Brown with Trout Unlimited. She is an expert on stream restoration in the area and also the impacts of dams on trout fisheries. Tracy liked Lenny’s hypothesis, but her sobering words of “this means nothing without supporting data”, was deflating. Tracy, as usual, had a solution – get the data. And she was there to help us to do just that.

We developed a plan to install temperature “loggers” (mini underwater thermometers that take readings every 30 minutes) at sites in the river both above and below the dam, over a 12 mile stretch of river. An old friend and fishing buddy of mine, George Markos, who works at IBM, and has forgotten more than I ever knew about computers and high tech gadgets, like temperature loggers, joined us as our own IT consultant and workhorse. The three of us were now all members of the same Ashokan-Pepacton Watershed Chapter of Trout Unlimited, and also the directors and staff of the Chapter’s East Branch Restoration Committee.

The first year’s data in 2016 made it clear that Lenny’s hypothesis had a lot of merit. Tracy, our fearless leader, recommended that while we still need to build a solid record of data over a few years, it was clear that the East Branch Delaware from Halcottsville, NY downstream 13 miles to the Pepacton Reservoir at Dunraven, NY, was much warmer then it should be during the summer. She recommended we continue the temperature study and consider doing riparian tree plantings along that stretch to provide cooling shade for the future.

Tracy put us in touch with Catherine Skalda, the Catskill Streams Buffer Initiative Coordinator for Delaware County Soil and Water Conservation District. Catherine helped to organize a number of tree planting for us (two a year) under the banner – “Trees for Trout”, also supported by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Arbor Day Foundation.

 The Eastern Branch of the Delaware River in New York State is located in Delaware County and contains brown trout, rainbow trout, and brook trout. Source: NYSDEC

The Eastern Branch of the Delaware River in New York State is located in Delaware County and contains brown trout, rainbow trout, and brook trout.
Source: NYSDEC

The cold, wet weather on October 20, kept many people away, but ten hearty souls showed up for a half-day of planting trees, and cutting and planting 41 “live stake”  “trees” along the riverbank. We got 81 trees and shrubs into the ground during our October planting, which adds to the two year total of 783 trees and shrubs along the East Branch. George, Lenny and I followed the planting by spending several hours retrieving our temperature loggers from the 12 mile stretch of river. We don’t have the data downloaded yet – that is George’s job. And then Tracy will help us interpret the data. We’ll be looking to pick more “trees for trout” sites in 2019.

In the meantime, a lot of work is going on regarding trout in the upper reaches of the East Branch, and our little troika, led by Tracy, has partnered with NY Department of Environmental Conservation to do a trout migration study in the upper East Branch. The dam that impacts the downstream temperatures, also impedes the fall spawning runs and migratory paths of trout in the river. The migratory study is coordinating with our temperature study.

Planting trees along streams cools the water, stabilizes the streambank to prevent erosion and filters out pollution before it reaches the water. These riparian tree buffers protect the streams, the trout and other fish that live there and provide protective habitat for critters on land, too.  

We are far from solving the many problems impacting the health of the trout fishery on the upper East Branch Delaware River. But we are well down the path of identifying the problems and where they originate. In the meantime, planting more trees along the river can only help, especially over the long run – so our restoration efforts have begun.