2015 will be remembered as a decent year for fly fishing, by many accounts. But start looking at specific fly fishing niches, and the story gets a bit more complex. The weather, was arguably a major factor in much of the story, good and bad. So let’s look back on the year and recount it:
Unlike 2014, 2015 was not always a case of water, water, everywhere. 2014 was a very good year for the fishes, especially the coldwater types, and no doubt over the next few years, anglers will benefit from those good, consistent water flows. But 2015 was very much a year of ups and downs, naturally and partly man-made. USGS water gauge trends tell a similar story; high water during early spring as a result of snow-melt followed by a relatively dry late spring / early summer, resulting in very low water. The low water, warm weather, and dry conditions then continued into fall and winter.
Finger Lakes trib runs in spring were very good. Catherines Creek, in particular, had a very strong run of rainbow trout as reported by some anglers.
Salmon River spring fishing for dropbacks was fair, according to some who have experienced tremendous spring fishing in the past. Low water levels and a warm spring may have caused the migration back to the lake to be quick, reducing access to steelhead on the move. For those who missed the steelhead, the pre-spawn smallmouth bite on the Salmon River was very good. The Douglaston Salmon Run once again expanded its offering of stocked brown trout in the run. The stockies ran from 8″ to over 22″ and their introduction coincided with an experimental summer fishing season.
Pond fishing was good, but only on ponds that were unaffected by a bad winter kill. The winter kill was largely the result of the extremely long and bitterly cold winter. Winter kill occurs when pond surfaces are ice covered for lengthy periods, reducing the pond’s water exposure to oxygenation. The issue is exacerbated by snow on top of the ice, which cuts light and causes bottom aquatic plants to die and decay, consuming even more oxygen. Thanks to the warm spring and warm fall/winter, however, largemouth bass and sunfish could be caught from as early as April and as late as December.
West Branch Delaware River and the other Catskill rivers had decent fishing. Hatches were pretty good as was the fishing, but the see-sawing of releases on the West Branch did not help the fishing and by some accounts, hurt the fish. Several of the fly shops on the West Branch were highly critical of the release schedule – it no doubt had an impact on business. Late spring / early summer had ridiculously low flows – in some cases as low as a little over 200 CFS – and in combination with warm temps, causing some guides to cancel trips out of fears of stressing the fish. Part of the variable flows were a result of poor release management – the other part, the result of a dam repair accident that required the Cannonsville Reservoir to be dropped significantly and river flows soaring.
Warmwater rivers were off for some species and better for others. Flows were initially a little too high to get in on the pre-spawn bite, unless one fished some of the river tribs. These high flows lasted well into July. However, late summer and fall weather was relatively dry allowing river levels to drop very low for great wading and excellent access. The Tioughnioga was the first river available for good wading and fly fishing. Once the Tioughnioga dropped, the Chenango followed suit and then the Susquehanna settled down as well. The Chemung was probably the best river in terms of low flows and easy wading and did not experience quite the variation that the eastern warmwaters did.
Smallmouth bass fishing was less than spectacular according to many experienced anglers. As mentioned above, there wasn’t much pre-spawn access due to water levels and the early summer fishing seemed pretty hit and miss. Fishing seemed to get better into late summer and fall, but the numbers weren’t there where they were in past years. Could the extremely harsh winter be to blame?
Oddly enough, while bass fishing seemed down, a host of other species seemed to be more active than normal. Channel cats bit with gusto, it seemed. Lance Dunham, a great smallmouth guide out of New Albany, PA, reported catching far more cats than normal, and that was my experience as well. Labor Day weekend, with its low and warm water, was especially good and in a place that would normally teem with smallmouth bass. Was it the warm low water that possibly amped up the cats?
It also seemed like fallfish, walleye, and pike were in abundance. I caught what was most likely my biggest fallfish on the Tioughnioga, along quite a few other nice ones, and had a couple goes with pike as well. Musky reports were also solid for late summer and fall. And while carp were around, this angler didn’t tangle with any while bass fishing on the Susquehanna, which is a rarity. Are carp numbers possibly dwindling? At least the Twin Tiers Five Rivers chapter of IFFF seems concerned and they are blaming the rise in popularity of bowfishing, which is obviously not catch and release, as the culprit.
Finger Lakes tribs were once again, by some accounts, a disappointment in the fall. As with 2014, there were scattered reports of fish caught but there was never any significant fall run. Blame a very dry fall with no good pushes of water to bring fish up in concert with cold weather. A review of the Fall Creek USGS chart illustrates just how bad conditions were. And the November and December temp charts make things even worse.
The fall salmon run was also a repeat of 2014 and was lackluster, to put it mildly. Some considered it better than 2014’s very poor run, however. Anglers reported very low numbers of salmon caught and it seemed like it was a repeat of the spring dropback for steelhead where fish entered the river and just shot straight up due to the low water and warmth. The run was also late, and more spread out, with some fresh fish coming up as late as November.
Like the salmon fishing, fall steelheading proved to be off and spotty. The DSR had poor reports for most of the fall and early winter, while the upper and lower fly zone reports were significantly better. Mid-river fishing was also less than remarkable. Reports seemed to indicate that the quantities of fish were down and there was a real concern that many steelhead were suffering again from a lack of thiamine. One guide who has fished the river for 30 years pointed out places throughout the river that would normally teem with steelhead and now held just a few isolated fish.
What will 2016 bring to the Southern Tier? So far, it’s been a mild winter with not much snow. Let’s hope that trend reverses so creeks, streams, and rivers can recharge and keep the fly fishing good.