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Long-ago laws protecting trout

Judy Van Put
Posted 9/26/23

As Hurricane Ophelia makes its way up the coast, we are experiencing the residual effects with continuous rainstorms and showers. On Monday morning September 25, 2023, the Beaverkill at Cooks Falls …

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Long-ago laws protecting trout


As Hurricane Ophelia makes its way up the coast, we are experiencing the residual effects with continuous rainstorms and showers. On Monday morning September 25, 2023, the Beaverkill at Cooks Falls registered 1110 cubic feet per second and was rising up the chart. This was well above the median average flow on this date of 117 cfs based on 110 years of record-keeping. Water temperatures this past week ranged from a low of 55 degrees Fahrenheit to a high of 61 degrees F. 

Veteran trout fishers will remember that September 30 was for many years the traditional end of the trout fishing season here in New York State. The reason for the season was due to the time period when brook and brown trout spawn. Spawning fish have traditionally been protected, as they should be. They are vulnerable to predation; and even walking near them can disturb the entire process, much less fishing for them. 

At times spawning fish will attack or “take” a fly or lure that is offered to them - not because they are hungry, but because they are protecting their nests! And if spawning fish are caught, despite being released back to the water, some will never recover, as the process of spawning itself is exhausting to the fish; this can result in a loss of eggs and potentially next year’s fish population.

About a dozen or so years ago, October 15 became the official end of the regular trout fishing season in New York State, not due to scientific reasoning (there is no science involved in extending a fishing season into the spawning season) but because of pressure from the so-called “sportsmen” who lobbied the State of New York for an extension of the fishing season to take into account the long weekend celebrating Columbus Day. 

And then, in the fall of 2021, new laws were enacted statewide allowing for catch-and-release fishing from October 16 - March 31, essentially enabling fishing for trout all year-round, again not due to scientific studies, but rather from a decision to “make fishing easier and more fun,” despite protests by many who care about the fish and fishing in New York State. 

Interestingly, as far back as the 1800s, laws were enacted for the purpose of protecting fish during their spawning season. Here in the Beaverkill watershed, one of the earliest laws with regard to the protection of trout was enacted on April 3, 1849 by the Sullivan County Board of Supervisors, titled “An Act for the preservation of Deer, Birds and Fish, and for the destruction of certain wild beasts.” 

Section No. 10 of the law established a fishing season for trout, to protect them during the spawning season beginning August 1 through November 1. (Here in the Catskills native brook trout generally begin spawning by early September through November, other species continue spawning into the spring.) 

Overfishing was causing a noticeable depletion in the numbers of trout found in Catskill waters, and it was considered harmful to the fish to disturb them as they began their migration and construction of their spawning beds, or redds. 

From the early 1870s until the 1920s, about the time that Theodore Gordon was fishing our waters, the trout season in the Catskills opened on May 1 and closed on August 31 for the purpose of giving the trout more protection during their spawning seasons, and fishing was not allowed on Sundays. The trout fishing season was only 106 days, and may have been responsible for the fishing remaining as good as it was. 

Even the native Americans knew the importance of protecting fish during their spawning season - as related in this tale by Dr E. A. Bates, found in the Sullivan County Democrat, June 14, 1933, p. 8:

“In the olden moons, at such a time, the boys of the village cut a long pole of sinewy willow, and at the end of a tough line made of the inner bark of the elm, they tied the sharp pointed fish hook made of bone. With a juicy piece of bear fat, they fooled the trout.

“Then one trout-fishing moon came when few trout were caught. The next spring, this happened again. Finally, a wise old fisherman opened one of the trout with his sharp stone knife and found it was full of eggs. So the council drew from the wisdom of old fishermen, and a careful watch was made, and then it was found that the trout always swam over their spawning beds just before the wild apple bloomed.

From that moon on, and even today, the redman stays far from the home of the trout until the apple trees are in full bloom, for he dreams of a trout-fishing moon for his grandchildren.”

Perhaps we should take into account the words of the wise old fisherman and “stay far from the home of the trout” until spring, as trout fishers did for so many years.


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