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Streamside

When water’s too high, anglers reminisce

Judy Van Put
Posted 7/20/21

Saturday evening’s torrential downpours and thunderstorms took center stage, wreaking havoc in many places across the county. As we drove along the Willowemoc on Sunday morning, the water was …

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Streamside

When water’s too high, anglers reminisce

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Saturday evening’s torrential downpours and thunderstorms took center stage, wreaking havoc in many places across the county. As we drove along the Willowemoc on Sunday morning, the water was bank-high and the color of café au lait.

In addition, the Delaware River at Callicoon had crested at just about 19,000 cubic feet per second, making the river for all intents and purposes unfishable. The outlook for this week includes more showers and thunderstorms which will maintain high water levels and discourage all but the hardiest of anglers; so what do anglers do when it’s too high to fish? They reminisce!

My reminiscences of high water led me to think about conditions on the Delaware, remembering a quote by the late Lee Wulff - that rivers in full flow, from bank to bank, provided perfect conditions for salmon to make their way out of the ocean back into their natal waters to spawn and reproduce - and the fact that back in the 1870s, Atlantic salmon had once inhabited the Delaware River.

Until the late 1700s, with the introduction of dams constructed on rivers to harness power for manufacturing, making them impassable for migrating fish, many of the rivers in New England contained Atlantic salmon.

And although Atlantic salmon were not native to the Delaware River, for more than 30 years Atlantic salmon were present; their smolts (young) swam out of the Delaware to the ocean, returning as mature salmon and entering the river to spawn in the headwater tributaries of northeastern Pennsylvania and New York State, including even the waters of the Beaverkill.

In the 1870s, Atlantic salmon were stocked in the Delaware watershed, first by a “determined group of Pennsylania anglers” including “Thaddeus Norris, a Philadelphia merchant, expert fly-fisherman and rod maker, who achieved great notoriety as the author of The American Angler’s Book (1864)”, followed by the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, beginning in 1873 until the last stocking in the 1890s.

Can you imagine being able to travel just a short distance from home to the Delaware, or even the Beaverkill, and have the ability to catch one of these superb fish, known for their beauty, strength and amazing athleticism when caught on a fly!

Having been a trout fisher for most of my life, I was fortunate to have had a wonderful experience with salmon fishing to daydream about. It was way back in 1980 and I was a relatively new fly-fisher, having grown up fishing with lures, worms, and other bait. Lee and Joan Wulff had moved to Lew Beach a couple years before; I met them through my (now) husband Ed, who knew the Wulffs from various fishing circles, and we helped them unpack when they moved from Keene, New Hampshire, to their home in Lew Beach.

Lee had been commissioned by the Nova Scotia Tourism department to make a film about the great Autumn salmon fishing to be had on the Stewiacke River. Lee and Joan invited Ed and me to join them and travel up to Nova Scotia and serve as camera people in filming and try our hand at salmon fishing as well.

We drove up to Nova Scotia together, and spent two weeks with the Wulffs, learning about salmon fishing and concentrating on filming whenever salmon were caught. Our job was to focus on the “jumps” – as salmon are known for their spectacular leaps out of the water once hooked – my time was concentrated on Joan, while Ed focused on Lee. Their professional photographer, Douglas Sinclair, filled in with the underwater shots and other footage.

After our filming was completed, I was lucky to have caught a salmon, which did not provide the magnificent leaps salmon are known for, but when reeled in, was the largest fish this trout fisher had ever caught.

It was very special to have spent two weeks with Lee and Joan Wulff in Nova Scotia, to be involved in the film-making process, and to have the opportunity to learn so much about salmon fishing. The film was titled “Autumn Silver;” the narrative Lee provides includes many valuable tips and suggestions on fishing for salmon.

It gives one pause, a “reality check,” to look back and observe how Lee and Joan caught their salmon – Lee using a six-foot rod which carried probably a 6-weight, full floating line, on a small reel (unlike the large arbour reels often used today.) Lee, as described in his New York Times obituary, written by Nelson Bryant in 1991, was “one of the world's best known and most respected sports fishermen, as well as an author, lecturer, artist and film maker;” and was the most knowledgeable and recognizable fly-fisher for Atlantic Salmon.

At the time we visited in 1980, and on a return trip in 1981, the Stewiacke had been one of the three top salmon-producing rivers in the province, but today, it is sad to learn that the Stewiacke River no longer offers an Atlantic Salmon fishery; the stocks of salmon have decreased substantially to the point where they are now listed as endangered.

On days when our rivers are high and daunting to wade, and the prospect of catching fish is limited, it is pleasurable to recall fishing trips and experiences that happened in the past, to relive those memories, and use those lessons learned going forward when the waters return to a fishable state and we can look forward to spending time Streamside.

Judy Van Put is a long-time member of the NYS Outdoor Writers Association, and is the recipient of the New York State Council of Trout Unlimited’s Professional Communications Award.

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