By the first week of October, I’ve usually packed away my rods and reels until spring. But last year, in September, a letter from my friend Nick Lyons arrived in my post office box. “Do a bit of fall fishing on the Esopus if you get a chance,” he wrote. This tip from an angling legend with over six decades of experience in the Catskills was like catnip to me. His words conjured images of fall fishing at its finest — when ruby spotted browns run up the Esopus Creek from the Ashokan Reservoir searching for gravely spawning beds with carnivorous rainbow trout in hot pursuit.
Lurking all year in the reservoir’s cool depths, Ashokan brown trout grow to legendary size. It is not unusual to see fading photos of five and ten pounders on the shop walls of mechanics, butchers, and hardware merchants in the towns surrounding the reservoir. But, hoisting a trophy trout from the Ashokan Reservoir which supplies New York City with drinking water is not easy.
First comes the legal paperwork. Anglers with a New York State fishing license must also possess a special access permit from New York City to fish the Ashokan waters from shore. Anglers in boats also must obtain a New York City reservoir boat tag and use an approved aluminum johnboat. Since there are no boats for rent, you must purchase one or have a friend with a boat. To obtain a boat tag, the boat must be steam-cleaned at an authorized center (free of charge) to kill any invasive species. Plus, when not in use, the boat and its oars must remain in designated areas along the 44-mile reservoir shoreline. The oars are as necessary as the boat because the city prohibits power motors of any type on the 8,315-acre reservoir that plunges to 180 feet in depth. The easiest path is to buy the state fishing license and city access permit and wait for the big browns at the mouth of the Esopus Creek when they run upstream to spawn each fall.
During spawning, the female browns first clear out algae, vegetation, and loose stones on the bottom of the Esopus. After creating nesting areas called redds, they deposit their eggs. Then the male brown trout pass over the redds to fertilize the eggs which incubate for several months before hatching. Eggs that that are dislodged from the redds by the stream’s current are gobbled up by predatory rainbow trout. Thanks to the clear waters of the Esopus, the immodest brown trout and hungry rainbows are on full display — that is, if you happen to be on the Esopus Creek when the trout run.
I wanted to witness this lynchpin of the life cycle run for myself, and hopefully catch and release a brown trout in the process. So, I hit the stream, but by mid-November I was still having trouble finding the fish. The Esopus was clear and swift but not particularly high — not ideal conditions for a spawning run. For an unbroken string of fall days, the afternoon sun kept temperatures hovering in the 50’s. The trout should definitely start moving upstream from the reservoir to spawn I thought. Still, I hadn’t seen or caught a thing. I was starting to get concerned.
New York City water engineers created the Ashokan Reservoir over one hundred years ago by damming the Esopus basin and its tributaries. This planned inundation of the Esopus Valley not only destroyed six miles of prime trout stream and woodlands but also forced whole towns to move. To this day, hard feelings understandably remain between city officials and the ancestors of displaced farmers who still live on the roads surrounding the reservoir. This wasn’t the first time whole communities had been displaced from the banks of the Esopus. Munsee people were the earliest residents of the valley until Dutch settlers burned their crops, killed entire families, and finally forced them out. The Munsee left behind fertile fields and abundant streams of brook trout cruising up and down the Esopus Valley. What a paradise lost, twice.
A small consolation for locals was the stocking of trout in the newly created reservoir, a practice that continues today. Stories occasionally circulate about anglers who have glimpsed the deserted watery village with its church steeple and mill clearly visible when the afternoon sun’s rays touch the water’s surface obliquely. Recently, local author John Langan published a dark fictional account chronicling the razing the valley. In The Fisherman, Langan also describes a leviathan entombed in a subterranean ocean beneath the reservoir bottom. Langan’s writing prompted macabre speculation among anglers about what the fish might be eating to grow so large. Undaunted and unhaunted, I kept searching for the Ashokan brown trout on their spawning run.
The Esopus Creek runs broad and deep with languorous bends and shifting channels. Perhaps it was once a creek, as the name implies, when its spring-fed waters provided Munsee families with brook trout and its fertile banks were lined with corn rows. Now, the Esopus is a controlled waterway whose headwaters on Slide Mountain are supplemented by water piped through the 18-mile long Shandaken Tunnel and calibrated by the century old hands of public works engineers. The Esopus Creek is part of a fabricated waterway serving ten million New York City area residents with drinking water. The once thriving native brook trout no longer inhabit this creek. The brookies that weren’t “fished out” by the European colonists have retreated to higher elevation tributaries and given way to stocked brown and rainbow trout. Centuries later, the browns and rainbows are no longer considered interlopers, but like the brook trout before them, their health in the Esopus has at times been an afterthought to the hydrologists, engineers, and planners whose offices sit below one of the Ashokan Reservoir‘s dikes.
I share my concern about the lack of trout with my neighbor, the visual artist Mary Frank. Her understanding of memory and loss runs deep. She listens patiently. I want her to tell me not to worry. I want to hear that trout are peculiar creatures, and it was all part of the theater of life. Instead, Mary handed me a copy of A Burning Testament, her collaboration with Terry Tempest Williams, the environmental activist and author. Mary pointed out that I am deluding myself if I believe trout are immune to the effects of climate change. I winced. Of course, I know that the Esopus and all its inhabitants are affected. But I don’t want to believe that we are past the point of saving the trout (and ourselves) from the floods, fires, and demise.
The maroon and saffron cover of A Burning Testament resembles a Tibetan monk’s robe and gives the slender volume the aura of a prayer book. On its pages, Frank’s artwork illustrates Williams’s text. Images crackle with orange and red. Blackened creatures and dead-gray people scramble across smoldering landscapes. The texts and words are a supplication to stop the burning of our planet, to grieve for our loss, to begin a renewal from fire. “We are not the only species that lives and loves and breathes on this miraculous planet called Earth,” Williams writes. Reflexively, I think of the brown trout.
Perhaps, the trout are gone. It is a monstrous thought. What if yesterday was their last day, and I no longer need to study the cautious feeding habits of brown trout in cold freestone streams? Or discern the way a fish will pass up dozens of spent mayflies flowing with the current then track a single spinner and rise at an exact tangent to breach the water’s surface with its nose, open its weapon-like jaw, and funnel the fly into its waiting maw. What if this knowledge of the habits of trout will become my coda? A more likely scenario is that I, and my species, will be gone before all the fish are. I feel a strange comfort in this thought.
For three weeks, I plied the shallows and riffles on different stretches of the Esopus below the train trestle at Boiceville. I floated countless varieties of hackled flies, furry mice, and bushy attractors near Five Arches Bridge. I even tried the upper waters in Phoenicia while my daughter took guitar lessons from a local rock star whose Victorian house sits beside the creek. Not a sight, not a bite.
I encountered other anglers and spoke to each one. Their stories were the same as mine. Nothing seen. Nothing felt. Only a few days remained in November. Each evening, the sun shaved off several minutes of its day, and the moon collected them for its night. As dusk drew its dark curtain, it became increasingly difficult to see the eddies and watch my fly’s drift. Not that it made a difference. The trout were gone.
On the last Friday in November 2020, my partner, Jacqueline ran low on some critical item to that evening’s dinner. She turned the burners to simmer, and I hustled to Sunflower in Woodstock to purchase the key ingredient. I planned to beeline in and out of the market, but when I saw my neighbor listening intently to an animated fellow still wearing his waders and vest, every good intention I had slipped the hook.
He had been at the mouth of the Esopus where it empties into the Ashokan. On the next to last bend and upstream to the first series of large boulders in the middle of the creek, the waters were teeming with trout. You could see them. In fact, you couldn’t get your waders wet without bumping into them. Most of them were rainbow trout gorging themselves on the loose eggs of spawning browns. It was the run. The brown trout run was on!
Early, next morning, I was out the door. I expected to encounter a crowd at the mouth of the Esopus. Instead, I found only two other anglers. One was releasing a ten-inch rainbow back into the water. He was using a chartreuse puff ball instead of a fly. It looked like a trout’s egg.
“Nice fish,” I exclaimed.
He turned to me and smiled.
“You should have been here yesterday.”