What's Happening on the Hudson River in May
May might be the true "month of spring" in the Hudson valley, for it is in this month, regardless of the year, that new life bursts forth in triumph. Deciduous trees leaf out, wildflowers color the fields, and everything seems to be coated with pollen. It is a month for sneezing but also one in which our senses awaken to the sights, sounds, and fragrances of spring. On the uplands along the river, dogwood and wild cherry pick up where shadbush left off to keep the riverside covered in a blanket of white. Along tributaries, the fragrance of lilac, multiflora rose and dame's rocket delight hikers. In the river's freshwater shallows, the first green rosettes of water chestnut leaves will reach the surface by month's end.
Some of our most beautiful and melodious songbirds arrive early in the month: rose-breasted grosbeaks, wood thrushes, northern orioles, and scarlet tanagers among them. Mockingbirds have been here all winter, but their singing now has an almost symphonic impact and occasionally loses coherence as the birds' exuberance overtakes their sense of order. By month's end, the first baby birds will fill the air with less melodious, more demanding, and seemingly incessant calls for food.
May is also the month when newly-hatched, white-fluffed eagle nestlings first feel the warmth of the sun, dine on river fishes, and thrive in the security of their tree-top nests. Wildlife biologists will count the weeks - about eight - until the nestlings trade fluff for feathers, and are able to fly from their nest. The new eaglets will delight us all summer long as they learn to soar and fish, reminding us of the value and vitality of our Hudson River estuary.
The migrations of birds and fish that began in March and surged in April will peak in May. Shad, herring, striped bass, and Atlantic sturgeon will course up the river, each seeking its preferred spawning habitat. Ospreys headed north over the Hudson make fast food meal selections from the menu of fish below.
The river herring of May is the blueback herring. Unlike alewives, bluebacks tend to bypass the lower Hudson tributaries. Instead, they swim directly to the head of tide at the Federal Dam at Troy, where the navigational lock provides access to the upper Hudson. A few miles upriver at Waterford the fish enter the Erie Canal through more locks. Lifted up into the Mohawk River, huge schools of blueback herring travel west, nearly to Rochester, to spawn.
May also is the time for sturgeon. Our smaller sturgeon, the shortnose, is a year-round resident of the estuary. In spring, shortnose move north to the Albany-Troy stretch of the Hudson to spawn. Meanwhile, their giant cousins, the Atlantic sturgeon, will be coming in from the sea. These are the largest fish found in the Hudson, attaining lengths of ten feet or more and weights exceeding 400 pounds. They will be intent on reaching their spawning grounds in the deep water above the Hudson Highlands. Both sturgeon are listed as endangered species, so fishing for sturgeon is prohibited here and everywhere on the Atlantic Coast. However, if you watch the river closely from May through June, you just may see one. For reasons unknown, these strange fish will leap clear of the water and then reenter with a monumental splash. It can be an awesome sight.
Warming temperatures call forth the fisherman's dreams of catching "the big one" as they increase activity on the river. For true adventure, few things can surpass striped bass fishing in May on the tidewater Hudson. Many anglers will tell stories of catching 30-40 pound bass - most of them will be true. A 56 pound bass was captured in the Hudson by DEC biologists in May 2004. Anglers take note - that fish was tagged, released, and is most likely still out there.
While May is a premier month for striped bass angling on the Hudson there are other fish to catch. Trophy-sized walleye are taken in Rondout and Esopus Creeks. Northern pike and occasionally tiger muskellunge can be found throughout the freshwater reach of the lower Hudson. Brown trout are common in the mouths of most tributaries, where there is some current.
The commercial shad fishery once peaked and concluded in May, but with numbers very low, all fishing for American shad (including catch and release angling) is now prohibited along the Hudson. The shad's 150-mile "run" from New York Harbor to above Albany usually peaks around mid-May, with their numbers fading at month's end along with the lilac blossoms. Their eggs are hatching on the river spawning grounds north of Kingston as the adults return to the sea.
With all of the sights, sounds, fragrances, and colors to choose from, my favorite May moments are when Baltimore orioles arrive early in the month. The bright orange, white, and black of the males and the lemony yellow, white, and black of the females are an exquisite sight among the newly-greened foliage. Their distinctive song will serenade anglers, artists, and dreamers on many a warm May morning.