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What's Happening on the Hudson River in January

winter ice brings us bald eaglesOver years of data collection for the Hudson River Almanac, January stands out as a month of dynamic variation in weather. Temperatures can range from the low 60s to far below zero, arctic blasts can take the wind chill readings down to -40 F. However, a sudden thaw can cause near-flood conditions, as snowmelt runs off the frozen ground and rapidly downstream. The tidal Hudson easily absorbs these floods, but upstream tributaries may jump their banks.

An extensive cold spell can freeze tributaries, locking fresh water up in the form of snow and ice. Hence, despite knee-deep drifts of frozen H2O, the river, which at this point looks more like a glacier valley than a living, flowing artery, may display drought-like conditions. The leading edge of ocean salt water may be as far upriver as it is in dry summer months.

By early January, ice usually comes in to stay on Hudson River tributaries, marshes, and upland ponds. Ice cover on the mainstem varies from year to year. A mild winter may see open water to Albany; a cold one might find ferryboats cutting through ice off Manhattan. In most years, ice is common south to the Hudson Highlands.

Eventually, tidal currents break solid ice into large floes which slowly move downstream. These floes provide a free, comfortable ride for eagles and seals. Both creatures are found year-round on the river, but they are easiest to spot when their dark bodies contrast against the ice. The ice itself can be interesting to watch and hear, constantly groaning, creaking, twisting, cracking, and even shrieking against the endless push of the water. It scours the river's edges, crushing and scouring the inshore shallows and everything found there. If you time your visit to the river as the tide turns, you may experience the curious sight of inshore ice flowing in one direction while the mid-river ice flows in the other!

Our winter river birds require open water to forage, waterfowl on aquatic plants and animals, and eagles on waterfowl and fish. They congregate along the Hudson River mainstem and travel down the estuary as its upper reaches also freeze. A January cold spell that ices over the Hudson will often cause bald eagles to concentrate in the area from the Highlands to Croton Point. Scores of birds can be seen in a day when this happens.

Underneath the ice, many fish of the Hudson River do perfectly well in the winter. Do not underestimate this - any person unfortunate enough to find themselves in such cold water can die of hypothermia in minutes. Amazingly, fish can remain active enough to feed, and hence, to be caught.

With sufficient ice, the tidal mouths of some of the Hudson's tributaries will support ice fishing, among them the Catskill Creek in Green County, and Ulster County's Rondout Creek and Esopus Creek. Prime catches include yellow perch, black crappie, bluegills, and pumpkinseed sunfish. Large walleye are caught in many of these creeks as well.

Open water angling opportunities are available in the lower river from Piermont to New York Harbor. From seawalls, jetties and piers, anglers will catch red hake (ling), Atlantic tomcod, white perch, and the occasional striped bass (which must be released as the season is closed). Atlantic tomcod migrate into freshwater portions of the river to spawn during the winter, often under the ice, and are one of the most commonly hooked fish. This species used to support commercial ice fishing, in which long slots would be cut into the ice to allow nets to be lowered into the river.

While most recreational boats are dry-docked, some vessels still pass over, or through, the ice. The US Coast Guard stations ice-breakers on the Hudson to keep a channel open for barge and ship traffic to the Port of Albany. Meanwhile, ice-boating enthusiasts seek out expanses of unbroken ice to ride with the wind. While this sport was most popular in the late 1800s, members of The Hudson River Ice Yacht Club proudly sail historically authentic gaff-rigged, stern-steered speedsters every year.

By late January, the lengthening of winter days will become more apparent. Day hikes in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks will last longer, the snow will be deeper, the air will seem crisper, and those who love winter will be right at home. January offers matchless opportunity. Putting on warm hiking boots, snowshoes, cross-country skis, or ice skates and traveling along the Hudson, binoculars in hand, can be exhilarating.

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