Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Ethics of Tailwater Streams: Fly Fishing the Upper Delaware River

This past July, I traveled to New York's Catskills region, home to many of the East's most highly-regarded trout streams. You've probably heard of places like the Beaverkill, the Neversink, and the Willowemoc; in fact, many important moments in North America's fly fishing history occurred on these streams. Nevertheless, one Catskill river has captured the attention of the global fly fishing community above all others: the Upper Delaware River.

Many Americans know the Delaware. Some drive over it near Philadelphia and Wilmington, where it begins to transition into the brackish Delaware Bay. There, the river reaches over a half a mile in length, sluggishly churning toward the Atlantic Ocean. Others may be familiar with the Delaware Water Gap, a special geographical formation hundreds of millions of years old. Native Americans hunted and fished near the Gap hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans, and countless New Yorkers and New Jerseyeans have driven through it en route to their Pocono tourist destinations. Other people may have seen the Delaware at Easton, Phillipsburg, Trenton, Milford, Camden, or Dingman's Ferry. And almost everyone is familiar with George Washington's crossing of the river on December 25th, 1776, an iconic American moment immortalized by the artwork of German-American painter Emanuel Leutze (this image graces the back of the New Jersey state quarter, among other things).

But fly fishermen know the Delaware because of its spectacular upper waters. Divided into two branches, the Upper Delaware River receives cold-water releases from the Cannonsville and Pepacton Reservoirs. These releases foster ideal living conditions for populations of wild brown and rainbow trout. The reservoirs, however, weren't constructed in order to bring salmonids to the Delaware's upper branches. Instead, Cannonsville and Pepacton provide drinking water to America's most populated metropolis: New York City.

This strange dichotomy has generated tension between sports groups and government officials. On one hand, Upper Delaware River fly fishing is a multi-million dollar industry, and many guides, fly-shop owners, and local businesspeople feel hand-cuffed, even held hostage, by the government and its cold-water release plans. If water temperatures rise too high and the reservoirs don't release enough cold water, the Upper Delaware's trout populations - and its fly fishing industry - will perish. Imagine having your livelihood threatened every time a heat wave rolls through town. It can't be easy. On the other hand, government officials have a responsibility to the people of New York City. They need to ensure that New Yorkers have enough water, and they must keep the reservoirs at certain levels in case of emergencies. Imagine being faced with a potential New York City water shortage. That can't be easy either.

Both sides agree that there is middle-ground between their respective positions, and the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) has recently modified its release plan. For now, the Upper Delaware fly fishing community and the DRBC have an uneasy but functional relationship. Which begs the question: how should fly fishers approach this problem? Should we support the Friends of the Upper Delaware River (FUDR)? Should we attend meetings of the DRBC, offering the commission our support? What should we do? I, of course, cannot speak for you. What I can do, however, is offer my opinion.

I hate tailwater streams. There, I said it. I don't like how a tailwater will support trout when the river would otherwise be absent of salmonids. I don't like how the air can be blisteringly hot while the river registers a temperature of 52 degrees Fahrenheit. I don't like how reservoirs alter the basic ecology of their tailwaters. You may respond to these statements by suggesting I'm shooting myself in the proverbial foot. And you'd probably be right: essentially, I'm advocating for LESS trout streams and fewer wild trout populations. I see how many readers of this blog may find that problematic. Hell, I find it problematic. But during my time on the Upper Delaware, I couldn't help shake the notion that the trout shouldn't be there; that we've created an unsustainable situation that pits local environmental imperatives against the humanist concerns of our nation's greatest city; that I, too, was contributing to the problem by being there. But then I landed a number of wild brown trout, and that familiar feeling of excitement, love, and joy filled me. And I realized that the ethics of fly fishing the Upper Delaware River disappear when a strong, beautiful wild trout strikes your fly.

Image #1 - Emanuel Leutze's 1851 rendering of Washington's Crossing. It's in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC), if you're interested in seeing it. It's much bigger than you'd expect.
Image #2 - The beautiful West Branch of the Delaware River.
Image #3 - An Upper Delaware brown trout. It was all about the BWOs that night.