What's Happening on the Hudson River in July
The sultry days of summer are the stuff of legend in the Hudson River Valley, and many folks look to the river as a source of relief during July heat waves. Wading, water skiing, swimming or sailing, or hiking the surrounding high, windy peaks, are all attractive pastimes. However, stay aware of July's predilection for sudden and severe weather changes. Warm updrafts on hot, humid summer days may build immense thunderheads that can turn tranquil late afternoons into a violent maelstrom of high winds, torrential rain, lightning, and even hail. But these are all part of what gives the Hudson Valley a sense of wildness on the fringes of urban centers.
July is the month when our tidewater Hudson Valley bald eagles fledge their young. (To "fledge," if you are a bird, means to fly from the nest for the first time.) The tidewater Hudson has some two dozen active bald eagle nests, each with 1 to 3 young. Males usually leave the nest before females and both are every bit the size of their mom and dad. Newly fledged, they have "extra" flight feathers, kind of like training wheels on a bicycle. These big babies must summon the courage to furiously flap their wings, feel the lift, trust that they will not fall, and within seconds glide from their launch point, a nest that may be 75-100 feet in the air, to a nearby limb and safety. These youngsters stay in the company of their parents through summer and fall, as they are taught the finer points of flying, hunting, and eagle etiquette in general. (This teaching period can also be observed among ravens, crows, and many songbirds.) In winter migration they may choose to strike out on their own or fall in with others their age. For the next three years these "teenagers," sporting chocolate brown feathers with a dash of white, will course through the valley. When they are four years old they will earn the trademark coloration of a mature bald eagle, seek a mate, and hopefully, begin to raise their own families.
While adult Atlantic tomcod, American shad and herring are now gone, their progeny are starting to show up in our seine catches - thin, silver-shine fish only a couple of inches long. The Hudson is a great nursery for these youngsters; there's plenty of food, and the muddy water and thick beds of submerged plants hide them from predators. Even so, many little fish will be devoured by kingfishers and herons, bluefish and needlefish, as they slowly migrate towards their oceanic home for the next four years. River viewers without a net can see this migration when dozens of bright, dime-sized reflections catch their eye, created by small fish just below the surface.
Stand on the shoreline of Westchester or Rockland County on a steamy July afternoon. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and listen. The cry of gulls and the tang of salt in the air will have you believing you are 40 miles seaward on an ocean beach. In a dry July you can taste salt in the Hudson as far upriver as New Hamburg (HRM 68). Downriver salinity will rise from a third to a half that of sea water as freshwater runoff slackens. This allows marine fishes such as weakfish, summer flounder, tautog, spot, croaker, hickory shad, Spanish mackerel, small "snapper" bluefish, and the small drum known as the northern kingfish to swim up into the lower Hudson.
However, the real summertime draw for many anglers are adult bluefish. These "alligator blues," named for their strong jaws lined with sharp teeth, can weigh as much as 19 pounds. A robust population of menhaden in the estuary serves as a magnet for these predators.
The Atlantic menhaden is a saltwater member of the herring family. Also called mossbunker, peanut bunker, or just "bunker," schools of this fish in the ocean are sometimes measured in acres. Even if they are not seen, a pandemonium of gulls and terns overhead is often a giveaway to a school's location. They sometimes swarm into the surf when chased by bluefish, bonito, and bass. In the Hudson we think of menhaden as a summertime visitor to the lower brackish river. These bait fish can be 17-18" - a hearty meal for an alligator blue. Recently, young-of-the-year menhaden have been extending their range, possibly as a result of a burgeoning coastal population, to areas where they had never been seen before to anyone's recollection. From Tivoli Bays to Troy, 2-3 inch baby bunker have become a rather common occurrence.
In July blue crabs start to make their appearance in both recreational and commercial crab traps. At one year old they measure about 5" across their shells and are considered market size. If the previous winter was mild with a modest amount of river ice, then many of last summer's hatch of blue crabs will have survived, and it will be a good season for crabbers. Although blue crabs will be found throughout the entire estuary, from Staten Island to Troy, the closer to the sea you go the larger they will be. Blue crabs in the Tappan Zee and Haverstraw Bay can grow to 9" across their carapace.
This is a wonderful time to be up on the ridgelines of the Hudson Highlands or in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, where breezes will temper the heat. So go for a sail, go for a hike, go for a swim, just get out along the river in July. You may spot a bald eagle, see an osprey dive for its meal, marvel as a giant ten-foot sea sturgeon breaches out of the water, hear a harbor seal bark, smell the salt, or watch a thunderstorm cross the Highlands. Be a part of summer on the Hudson.