Saturday, September 16, 2017

Cat Ponds: A Brook Trout Story

Fall fingerling growth rateIn July 1950, I had my first fishing experience on a cold, spring-fed brook that meandered down from the hills near Great Barrington, Massachusetts. My parents and I had planned a break from the heat and crowding of our small Brooklyn apartment and would be staying for a week with their friends.

My eighth birthday was coming up in September, but I was presented with an early present before we left, a child’s fishing outfit that contained a stiff little metal rod and miniature reel, a selection of snelled hooks and split-shot sinkers, a pencil bobber, and some “flies,” which should have been used to adorn some lucky woman’s hat. All of it came packed in a metal tube with carrying handle, clearly stamped “Made in Occupied Japan.” I was delighted and couldn’t wait to use my new tackle!

Orville Barnes, a lifelong lumberjack and sportsman, gave me some sound advice about trout fishing, stressing that placement of the bait over distance when casting, telling me how to pick the spots where the trout might be lying in wait for a meal and to forget about the flies for now. That first evening he showed me how to catch night crawlers and place them on the hook and lent me a worm box  for my belt. My mom accompanied me on my first fishing excursion to the nearby brook after lunch the next day.

Wynn Pond in Autumn, wc,7x9,1995(72)It took a while before I was able to avoid losing the bait, and more than once the hook as well, snagging it underwater or on the bushes and overhanging tree limbs that enclosed the little stream. The times I did manage to get my worm into a decent spot, I’d often feel the rapid tapping of small trout bites, but my poor timing and over-excitement made me strike too soon or too late, always with the same result — an empty hook. So it went for each afternoon, and I became discouraged. But by our fourth trip, at a fairly deep hole with a back eddy formed by a group of large mossy rocks, I dropped the worm nicely into the flow just above the eddy. As the water carried it down into the far side of the hole, I saw a purplish-pink flash and felt a surprisingly strong and solid tug that almost pulled the rod from my hands. This time a fish was solidly on the line, diving and dashing wildly while I just hung on. My inability to play the fish was forgiven by a heavy line.  Once I remembered I had a reel, I began taking in line while backing slowly from the bank. Finally there it was, flopping amid the ferns, safely from the water. My mom and I were speechless, awestruck by the color and primordial features of this twelve-inch native Brook Trout, caught from an unnamed brook half the size of the average Brooklyn driveway.

Two years later, during another week-long escape from Brooklyn with my parents, I was introduced to the Adirondacks and fly fishing. We stayed at Wilson’s Camps on Indian Lake, which was primitive compared to Elmwood Tourists. Here guests stayed in small rustic cabins in a rough woodsy setting, with meals served in a dining hall. The environment was a bit scary at first, not comfortable like the Berkshires, but the wildness was intoxicating. We had our own rowboat, right at the doorstep, and my dad and I fished in Indian Lake for pike and smallmouth bass. Millie and Gunther Hoyer, friends of my parents from Brooklyn, were also there on vacation, and Gunther was a serious fly fisherman, pursuing the plentiful wild Brook Trout found in the area. He kindly took me along sometimes, giving me lessons in what was an exotic new method of fishing for me. I did manage to entice a fish now and then, but my timing needed work and I never did catch a trout worth mentioning on the fly.

Upper Cat PondAnother friend of my parents, Stanley Walecki, who lived in our apartment building, was an amateur artist and bird lover. Sometimes when we visited he would be engaged in painting a portrait of a bird that its owner had brought him, such as a prize rooster or chicken, or perhaps a parrot. He would only work from the bird in person, or from his own studies, never trusting photographs to supply him with the information he required to capture an individual subject. I had been given a book version of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, from which I did pencil copies. When we visited Mr. Walecki shortly before our Adirondack vacation, my parents brought some of these drawings to show him, and he was very impressed. He said it was time I began painting and put together some oil-painting supplies and small canvas boards for me. I took it all with me to Indian Lake. So in addition to being introduced to fly fishing and the Adirondacks, I began painting that week, in the early autumn of 1952. I didn’t know then that these new loves would last me a lifetime.

Much change to the environment occurred over the next thirteen years. By 1965, when my wife Michele and I honeymooned in the Berkshires, the signs of over-development were already evident. We fished in some of the streams of my childhood, but in all but one small brook, the native Brook Trout were gone, replaced by anemic hatchery versions of Brook, Rainbow, or Brown Trout.

Horn Lake Strain, pastel,16x24,1973(72)In 1973, my wife and I were living in Blue Mountain Lake when I learned about an effort DEC was engaged in: identifying and attempting to preserve or restore Adirondack “Heritage Strain” Brook Trout. This news came from a friend, a fish biologist with DEC who was involved in that program. That September, he invited me along to a secluded pond in Franklin County where a restoration project was in progress. He explained that there were distinct strains of Brook Trout present in Adirondack waters, descendants of the original trout that had evolved locally since the last ice age, making them ideally suited to their environment. He asked if I would draw one of those fish from life. I jumped at the chance and got my pastel box ready.

On the day we trekked in, a fish count and condition analysis was well underway by the time we arrived at the pond. I was introduced to my model for that afternoon, who was waiting in a makeshift holding corral at the edge of the pond. This spectacular large male Brook Trout was in full spawning dress for the Fall. He was a fish of the “Horn Lake Strain,” native to some of the waters in the northern Adirondacks. I was in awe at the beauty, at the majesty of this spectacular fish. I did my best to capture his unique aspects, thinking that the emotions I was feeling as I drew might be somewhat similar to Audubon’s when he did his field studies for The Birds of America. I could not imagine then that my wife and I would be involved in our own private heritage strain restoration project, over twenty years later.

By 1993, after years of renting, we were ready to buy our own property in the Adirondacks. I had seen For Sale signs posted on the treeline along the road adjacent to two wild-looking ponds north of Long Lake. But wasn’t this part of “Whitney Park”? The Whitney family had vast holdings in that area. I called the realtor. This was the “Cat Ponds Parcel,” ninety-two acres in all, including the entirety of two natural ponds of about eight acres each, said to be spring-fed. It had once been Whitney land but had been sold and resold a few times, first to a paper company, then to an individual, and finally to a real estate developer from New Jersey who had been buying up a lot of Adirondack property but was now bailing out. I found out he’d gotten the Cat Ponds Parcel as settlement for a personal debt; and I knew what the value of the barter was. Invaluable information.

Aerial view Cat PondsI went down for a look at the property on a gray day in early spring, with snow patches still in the woods and some ice still on the ponds. I had a map from the real estate office and a copy of the deed, and the small fixed-focus camera I carried on excursions. The property was triangular in shape with only three real boundaries, two of which were roads, so I only had to find the blazed line through the woods marking the northern line. I took some photos and looked at the ponds for quite a while, enjoying the stillness and the smell of the water vapor rising from the melting snow. The woods around the ponds appeared to be virgin forest, a real rarity. Satisfied with my investigation, I headed back home.

I knew many of the Whitney waters contained Brook Trout, and the crown jewel of their water holdings was Little Tupper Lake. There was a heritage strain of Brook Trout called the Little Tupper Lake Strain, unique to the waters of Whitney Park. The Whitneys had once maintained their own private hatchery to assist in breeding these fish, but that hatchery had been out of use for some time. Some recalled trout being caught out of Cat Ponds, maybe not too long ago. But it was unlikely there could have been very many because the ponds were so close to the roads, and the Whitneys never really bothered with those ponds. The land north of the parcel, owned by International Paper, was leased to a sporting club, whose members undoubtedly fished the ponds.

By all accounts, there was no doubt those two Cat Ponds had been too heavily fished. Still, this was intriguing, and I wondered if there might be some fish remaining in either or both of the ponds. If there were, they would provide a base group to aid in restoring the population. In any event, the heritage fish surely had been there at one time, so maybe they could be reintroduced if that was required. A private hatchery near Saranac Lake, Brandon Enterprises, raised the Little Tupper Strain fish from stock they had originally gotten from the Whitneys years back. They would sell them to me for stocking if there were enough available.

Cat Ponds

First trout, 1995We bought the Cat Ponds property in the spring of 1994, and long story short, we did all the stuff you do when you’re going to build a house in a remote place seven miles off the electric grid. In late March 1995, we moved into our newly built 1,600-square- foot dream-house- with-ponds, situated on the slope of a hill above Upper Cat Pond, with a fine view of the mountain landmarks to the south.

As soon as I could, I turned my attention to the ponds. I had been studying a copy of a very complete survey, commissioned by the Whitneys in the 1950s, of all waters on their property. The study was done under the supervision of a fish biologist, and I’d managed to get it through a friend who worked for Whitney Park. It was lengthy and at times quite technical but included some valuable information, much of it concentrated on the Brook Trout population. The first thing I looked for was the pH level back then. How did the current pH compare? I was very pleased to see there had been almost no change, and my measurements were taken in spring, when acid levels would be at their highest.

The runoff from snow and ice in the spring contains all the acid precipitated onto the Adirondacks from coal-burning power plants to the west. It accumulates over the winter and is released when the snow and ice melt, causing a spike in pH. This “acid rain” is a well-recognized source of pollution in Adirondack waters, with many ponds and lakes, especially those at higher elevations, gradually becoming devoid of aquatic life as the pH falls. The very tolerable pH level of Cat Ponds seemed to confirm that they must be primarily fed by springs, as that source is usually less impacted by the acid precipitation. I started our pond journal by entering all the items from the Whitney study that might be useful.

By this time the ice was out. I couldn’t fly fish, because the shorelines of both ponds were full of bushy growth, dead and living spruce trees, swampy areas and bogs, making any casting and even wading nearly impossible. So I rigged a spinning outfit with a number six hook, adding a drop line with a one-eighth-ounce bell sinker, in order to get some distance. I put some night crawlers in a worm box and headed down to Middle Cat Pond after lunch to try my luck. It was time to find out if there were any fish in there.

Flies for Cat Ponds, wc,7x9,1996(72)This was late April, frigid and overcast. My plan was to try to find some spots along the shore open enough to flip out the bait an acceptable distance, especially at the deeper areas where I suspected there were underwater springs. Brook Trout usually feed heavily in ponds just after ice-out, and I’d caught many fine native fish in remote ponds this time of year. My first dozen casts yielded nothing bite-wise, not a great sign. Then, as I had just started to take in line slowly after letting the bait sink almost to the bottom, there came a series of hard taps followed by a strong surge, then a running-out against the drag. Not knowing what underwater obstructions and snags lay out there, I tightened the drag as much as I dared with four-pound test, turned the fish a number of times, and began gaining line. In a few minutes I saw the first purplish-rose flash in the tea-colored water as I eased the trout closer to shore. I had to wade in to be able to slip the net under the fish, and the water rushing in over my boot tops was very cold. Luckily, my small trout net had a deep, soft basket — because this fish was large. Safely back on shore and shivering not just from the cold, I headed back up to our house.

Once warmed up, I made the first of the many catch-related entries to come in our pond journal and took some photos of the trout. This fish was a native, a fertile female Brook Trout, surely a Little Tupper Strain fish, probably four years old, possibly five, basing the age estimate on growth rates taken from the Whitney study. The fish was in excellent condition, with a well-filled stomach that revealed many types of insects, including many Cased Caddis larvae. There were also five quite small minnow-like fish I couldn’t identify, except to say they were not dace or chubs. Later in the year I often saw these minnows flashing in debris along the shoreline, a golden color with a red blush low behind the gills. They may be Golden Shiners, but I find it odd we never saw, in the water or in a trout’s stomach, any of them any larger than this very small size. (A number 12 yellow marabou streamer with a red chin tuft and a few ostrich tips on top imitates them very well, and the trout took this fly readily.) There was also a crayfish, and a fairly large Spotted Salamander.

There was no reason to fish any more until we brought in rowboats, when it would be fly fishing only, flies limited to number 10 or smaller with barbless hooks. It was important everything be consistent for the results of my fish population research to be meaningful. We would use the same tackle, for an hour or so each day, fishing each pond every other day. If we missed days, which we did for one reason or another, the cycle would be restarted. I always used my older 7-1/2 foot 5-weight Fenwick graphite medium-slow action rod, with an early Hardy RLH multiplier reel. People had told me that there were Black Bullheads in Cat Ponds. We did fish for them, but only at night, with worms on barbless hooks, in case a trout took the bait, which they never did.

Flies for Cat Ponds, acrylic16x19,1997(72)During May, I contacted DEC’s Fisheries Division and had Cat Ponds put on the “Classified Waters” list, as they contained breeding trout and were entitled to the environmental protection that being on the classified list brings. We followed the catch-and-release regimen throughout May and June, fishing from the rowboats. We did catch some trout, but the population was clearly pretty low. Watching morning and evening rises, in addition to observing any small fish that were active in and around the inlets, outlets, and shoreline cover, all confirmed this, indicating that we ought to add some fish. I asked DEC for the required stocking permits, then reserved 100 fall fingerlings of the Little Tupper Lake Strain for each pond, which would be stocked in September.

The truck carrying the fingerlings arrived on a spectacular day, with the tamaracks already starting to turn golden against a crisp blue sky. As I supervised, fish were released in small groups at a number of locations along the shorelines, near the underwater springs, inlets, and outlets. By evening, we could see them feeding sub-surface, in good numbers throughout both ponds.

During that first summer, we had found and cleared off any fish-impeding debris, setting up areas in the inlets and outlets that contained good gravel, sufficient water depth, and flow volume, so that the fish would find acceptable spawning grounds. In addition, we cleared some fishways in the large old beaver dam at the outflow end of Middle Cat Pond. We also posted the entire property and began planting types of bushes that would discourage people from being able to get to the ponds from the road. We spread the word that we would be watching the ponds closely. It was imperative that we protect the fledgling fish population from human predation.

But there wasn’t much we could do, or would want to do, about natural predators. The ponds were home to blue herons, mergansers, and kingfishers, and the larger trout would always cannibalize smaller trout. Occasionally we even saw an otter or two. There was no evidence the bullheads had any effect on trout survival, as the exams of stomach contents from quite a few we caught never revealed small trout or trout eggs. Some recent research has noted that herons catch as many frogs as fish. I saw repeatedly that the other birds mostly caught bullheads, as did the otters. Which wasn’t that surprising, since a bullhead is a far slower fish than a brook trout. During the late winter, often enough we would see an otter out on the ice of Cat Ponds, dining on a bullhead.

We followed the catch-and-release regimen from 1995 to 2000, once in a while keeping a trout for close examination and then having a good dinner. During this time we kept twenty-five fish, ranging in size from twelve to eighteen inches. We stocked 100 fall fingerlings in each pond every year from 1995 to 1998. By 1998, the results from catch-and-release fishing, along with observations of fish activity and sizes present in and around the inlets and outlets, led us to conclude that the population had returned to an acceptable and self-sustaining level, with natural breeding in evidence. We had all the year classes now well represented, and with very good survival rates; we were seeing and catching fish that could not have been from the previous year’s fall fingerlings. We had been noticing this since spring of 1997. In 1995, we caught and released 15 fish and kept 1; in 1996, we caught and released 42 fish, and kept 3; in 1997, we caught and released 106 fish, and kept 6; in 1998, we caught and released 123 fish, and kept 6; in 1999, we caught and released 127 fish, and kept 6.

In 2000, we only fished into mid-June, but results were comparable with those from the previous two years; we kept 3 fish. Some of the fish caught in the years after 1995 were no doubt repeats, but even so, we were convinced that now we had brought Cat Ponds back to the point of having a naturally sustainable population. By the final year of our restoration project, the fish caught and released ranged in size from six to twenty-five inches. We were also seeing good numbers of fry and fingerlings in all the inlets and outlets and adjacent areas in the ponds.

Unfortunately, we had to sell the Cat Ponds property in late summer of 2000, but here’s the end of the Cat Ponds story. The dentist and his wife who bought the property from us had intended to live there year-round as we had and wanted to continue our good stewardship and protection of the ponds and their wonderful Brook Trout. We gave them all our pond-related records and discussed everything we knew about the ponds with them. But unexpectedly, only a year later, the man died and his wife quickly sold the property to people who would be using it only as a vacation home. When I heard about this, I knew it would probably lead to the return of human predation, as word spread that there was once again no one living there to keep watch over the ponds.

I was fortunate enough to have a few years of native Brook Trout fishing that compare with the stories told by visitors returning from the Adirondacks over a century ago. My experiences at Cat Ponds convinced me that when conditions are suitable and certain guidelines are adhered to, successful restoration of a native trout strain can be realized within a relatively short time. In our case, it took only five years. I learned that there are two important principles behind successful trout population restoration efforts: (1) The matching of a native strain to its original habitat, whether a private or public effort, is critical to achieving healthy, naturally breeding, sustainable populations of trout, and (2) as human predation will always be a major factor in whether such a project can succeed, fishing methods and catch limits must be appropriate and enforceable, regardless of whether they are popular with the general public.

Illustrations, from above: a fall fingerling; Pond in Autumn (watercolor, 1995); Upper Cat Pond; Horn Lake Strain (pastel, 1973); Aerial View of Cat Ponds, courtesy Peter Lemon; First Trout, 1995; Flies for Cat Ponds (watercolor, 1996); Flies for Cat Ponds (acrylic, 1997); and a naturally propagated trout 1999. Photos and artwork are by the author.

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6 Responses

  1. Craig Catalano says:

    Very nice article. I surveyed that property back in the late 80’s. I had always wondered if they had trout in them. I hope someone else is caring for the ponds now

  2. Maria DiLorenzo says:

    Greetings Don,
    This is a wonderful article. I had no idea your parents ever ventured into the Adirondacks! Hope all is well.

  3. Rich Wickman says:

    great article. Several people can make a difference!!!

  4. A beautifully told story of a great artist and sportsman making a positive impact on a fragile native species. Hopefully there are educators and mentors for our young people who can instill the respect for our natural world exemplified by Don’s important work. The world needs more people like Don Wynn.

  5. Dale Corey says:

    Don’s story should be an inspiration and a call to action to everyone who cares about the earth, its creatures, and in particular the once-pristine environment of the Adirondacks. I have lived here for 34 years, and in that time have witnessed so much development and so many changes in the flora and fauna. I do hope that Don and Michele’s efforts are being carried on.

    By the way, the accompanying painting are so very beautiful. Thanks for the story and the artwork.

  6. Zach says:

    Just came across this. Thank you so much for sharing this inspirational story.

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