Maybe the good old days were not so good after all?
Every once in a while, the great “net” of the blogosphere lands a “good one.” Such was the case when I received an email from a long lost Southern Tier Fly Fisher by the name of Paul Brown. Somehow he had stumbled upon this blog and began reading my posts and viewing some of the pictures of our local warmwater rivers. What he saw and read impressed him enough to write to me with a question: Had the health of the rivers and the environment really improved that much in the 30 years since he’d left?
That question led to a string of emails and a story unfolded: that mother nature can take care of herself with a little clean-up and care on our part.
Paul began his fishing career as a bait fisher, but gradually shifted to lures and eventually catch and release fly fishing by the age of 13, courtesy of a high school friend. The two primarily fished for smallmouth bass, but occasionally fished the upper reaches of the Tioughnioga and Genegantlet for trout. Brown recounted a 4 day raft trip down the Tioughnioga, where they caught a few rainbow trout and some nice browns up to 17″. The trout in the Genny were comparatively small, but, even then, he remembered it as a beautiful little creek.
Brown’s fly of choice on our local warmwater rivers was a brown and orange Montana pattern, tied by a gentleman in Chenango Forks whose name escapes him. The man tied flies out of his home and Brown recalled riding his bicycle six miles just to buy his wonderful creations. This fly out-fished every other pattern two to one. It seems this pattern, similar to a Bitch Creek nymph with a shorter body, isn’t too commonly used these days.
According to Brown, the rivers of the Southern Tier in the 70’s were suffering from various levels of pollution and he added in one note that most of the fish he caught had a distinct petrochemical smell.
Brown recalled; “I regularly caught 12 to 18 inch smallmouth in the Chenango and Susquehanna. Walleye were spotty, but I caught several from Chenango Bridge upstream. Rock bass were also a favorite and willing quarry. I once caught a 1 pound, 14 ounce fish near Chenango Bridge that I had weighed at the Red and White grocery store in town. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that this would have been a state record at the time!”
Brown’s review of my assessment of the state of our local rivers drew an encouraging response. “It sounds like the region is much healthier than I remember from the late 60’s and 70’s. I’m particularly encouraged to hear of the return of osprey and bald eagles. By the 70’s these birds had been virtually wiped out. Even the more common hawks were scarce.”
The following article in the Ithaca Journal, dated May 1, 2015, backs up Paul’s observations at the time and gives a little perspective to how far we’ve come:
The national icon was nearing extinction 40 years ago, largely due to the presence of the now-banned insecticide DDT ingested by the parents, which weakened the eagles’ eggshells. In 1976, the only bald eagles in New York were a pair of 25-year-old birds nesting at Hemlock Lake south of Rochester. The pair’s eggs were too fragile to bear their parent’s weight.
As most who now fish our local waterways know, bald eagles are a relatively common sight these days. The DEC now claims over 170 nesting pairs in NY state. And ospreys are right up there along with a lot of other birds of prey.
Brown commented further in another email: “…it sounds like the wildlife has really rebounded too. Ducks and geese were uncommon in the 70s, but there were a few great blue heron around. I recall only ever seeing one egret. I had no idea what it was at the time, and had to go to the library for a bird guide to identify it!”
He went on: “I realize now how little I understood the environment in Broome County back then. I remember some vague concerns about mercury and heavy metals, but I don’t recall any State recommendations about limiting consumption of fish. We know so much more today. Fortunately I ate very few fish back then, but I do remember enjoying a couple of very nice walleye. Fishing regulations were much simpler then too. I remember my first New York State fishing license had all the fishing regulations for the entire state printed on the back! I think our fisheries are much more wisely managed these days.”
Paul left Chenango Bridge at the age of eighteen when his family moved to California. He went on to earn a degree in park management and worked as a park ranger in California and Oregon for a number of years before becoming a technical illustrator. He now lives in Oregon, where he doesn’t fish as much as he’d like.
“After moving from Chenango Bridge I lived in California for several years. Some of my first jobs as a ranger put me in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I worked as a park ranger in Sierra National Forest for two years and got pretty spoiled by the fishing there in my back yard. A high mountain lake I used to fish almost every weekend (Courtright Reservoir) contained a brown trout that was easily 25 pounds and three feet long. Over the course of one summer I cast everything I had at that fish. The water was gin clear and it soon became pretty obvious that that trout had seen every lure ever made. One day it bumped a large carpenter ant pattern behind an indicator (and I thought I was going to have heart failure) but it never took. Just as well, that fish deserved to remain unhooked!”
Brown was diagnosed with a serious hereditary medical condition as a child and unfortunately now struggles with pancreatic and liver issues and a lot of pain. He left the Forest Service and shifted his career to illustration work as his health deteriorated. He tries to keep active with daily hikes in the woods in the Grants Pass area. He is, in his own words, “a tree geek” and is credited for finding a couple of trees that turned out to be the largest of the species for the state. It’s discoveries like this that keep him moving despite the health issues he faces.
Brown has not returned to NY in many years but was very glad to hear the old stomping grounds are doing so well. And for me, his recollections of the state of the environment back in the “good old days” made me feel good about where we are, environmentally. Yet as I write this, there are still real and potential threats to our rivers. Fracking loomed but was banned by New York state. How long that ban remains in effect is anyone’s guess. And even though fracking is banned, a local business, i3 (formerly EIT and before that, IBM) is currently treating landfill leachate from a landfill in New York state that somehow accepts fracking waste from Pennsylvania. This waste is being treated by i3 under a DEC permit and is being dumped into the Susquehanna River at a rate as high as 80,000 gallons a day. While the NY DEC is required to monitor this waste treatment, many in the community have expressed concern that the river and local drinking water is not being protected adequately.
The lesson here is that Mother Nature does her best to persist even in the face of all the bad we humans can throw at her. But give her just a bit of help and she rewards with life resplendent. And as a bit of added motivation to always look out for her, we must not forget how things were back in “the good old days”…