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Managing the trout fisheries of the Catskills

The Catskill Region has thousands of miles of streams, along with numerous small ponds, lakes and large reservoirs. Although best known for outstanding trout fishing, the region also offers excellent fishing for bass, walleye, chain pickerel and a variety of panfish. The region covers all or parts of Ulster, Sullivan, Delaware, Schoharie and Greene counties, and includes the Catskill Park at its center.

The Catskill Park contains over 705,000 acres of private and public land. More than half of the acreage within the park is open to the public. Its proximity to Albany and New York City make the Catskill Park very popular for recreation. Maintaining quality fishing in this heavily used region is a challenge met through a carefully crafted program that provides angler access, protects habitat and effectively manages the fishery.

Willowemoc Creek Public Fishing Stream sign with creek in background.
Public Fishing Steam parking area sign.

Providing Fishing Access

The Catskill Region's popularity for trout fishing grew rapidly in the late 19th Century as railroads led to increasing tourism. By the early 20th Century, significant portions of the region's best trout waters were privatized and closed to public fishing.

Recognizing this problem, New York's Conservation Department (DEC's predecessor) started the Public Fishing Rights (PFR) program in 1935. Under the PFR program, DEC purchases permanent fishing easements on privately owned streams throughout the state. Since 1935, more than 1,300 miles of easements have been acquired on 340 streams through the PFR program. More information on the PFR program, including how landowners can participate and PDF maps of the Department's PFR holdings are available.

In addition to state-owned land and fishing easements, a significant amount of land along Catskill streams and reservoirs is owned by New York City. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP) operates six drinking-water reservoirs in the Catskills totaling 23,560 acres. Access to city property for fishing is free, but requires an access permit. Information about access permits and recreation on NYCDEP lands can be found at (leaving DEC website) under "Watershed Recreation."

9 person crew conducing an electrofishing survey on Esopus Creek
Electrofishing survey on Esopus Creek.

Surveying the Fishery

Prior to developing a plan for managing a water body, DEC fisheries biologists use fishery and creel surveys to determine the status of the existing fishery. Fishery surveys are usually completed using electrofishing gear.

Electrofishing temporarily shocks a fish, allowing biologists to take length and weight information prior to releasing the fish unharmed. In certain cases, scales may be removed from the captured fish. Scale rings, or annuli, are counted to age the fish, similar to the way tree rings are counted to age a tree. In the Catskill region, fishery surveys have been conducted since the 1920s, providing excellent insight into how stream fisheries have responded to various management strategies.

Creel surveys involve counting and interviewing anglers to estimate catch rates, harvest rates, fishing pressure and the presence of stocked and wild fish. Creel and fishery surveys are often used to evaluate the effectiveness of stocking policies or fishing regulation changes.

A major effort to document the presence of brook trout was recently completed in and around the Catskill Park as part of the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, a collaborative program involving 17 eastern states. Over a four year period, 3,528 stream surveys were conducted by DEC staff. Brook trout were documented in 1,227 of these surveys. Knowing where these brook trout populations exist will allow DEC to protect their habitat and monitor changes in their abundance.


Many of New York's publicly accessible streams receive brook, brown or rainbow trout raised in New York State hatcheries. Most of these trout are stocked as one-year-olds and average about eight inches in length. Fisheries biologists have found that brown trout often outperform brook and rainbow trout in Catskill streams, so the bulk of the trout stocked are browns. The Catskill Fish Hatchery, located near the Beaverkill and Willowemoc Creek in Sullivan County, produces 115,000 pounds of brown trout annually and supplies most of the browns stocked in the Catskills. Many streams are also supplemented with two-year-old brown trout that are 12 to 14 inches in length (and sometimes larger).

Using information collected in fishery and creel surveys concerning the presence of wild trout, trout growth rates, and angler use, stocking policies are developed. Stocking policies are calculated using the Catch Rate Oriented Trout Stocking model (CROTS). The CROTS model uses estimates of fishing pressure, trout harvest, natural mortality and stream carrying capacity to calculate a stocking rate with the objective of providing an average catch rate of 0.5 trout/hour. The DEC, in cooperation with the NY Fish and Wildlife Cooperative Research Unit at Cornell University, recently completed a study to test if the assumptions used in the original model are still valid. The study demonstrated that, while CROTS stocking rates generally continue to support the catch rate objective, several important factors have changed substantially in the two decades that have passed since the model was developed. These changes include: lower rates of harvest by anglers, higher rates of non-angling mortality, generally lower angling pressure and very low overwinter survival of stocked trout. Further study will be required to determine appropriate management adaptations to these changes.

Special Fishing Regulations

For most waters in the Catskills, trout season runs from April 1 through October 15 with a limit of five fish per day of any size. In most instances, this regulation does a good job of protecting the fishery, while giving people who want to keep their catch a chance to do so. However, stricter regulations on the number and size of fish that can be taken have been used in some places to improve the fishing experience for people looking to catch larger fish. Catch and release fishing regulations on sections of the Beaverkill and Willowemoc Creek have allowed many quality size fish to be caught despite heavy fishing pressure.

Wild brown trout from Esopus Creek.
Wild brown trout from Esopus Creek.

Wild Trout Management

Many Catskill streams, especially headwater sections protected within the Catskill Forest Preserve, have populations of naturally reproducing wild trout. These populations maintain themselves and do not require stocking, but they do need to be protected from habitat loss and overfishing. Anglers can find wild populations of brook, brown and rainbow trout throughout the Catskills. Of these three species, only brook trout are native to New York. Brookies have the least tolerance for warmer water and often lose out when competing with brown and rainbow trout in all but the coldest streams. Nonetheless, brook trout still thrive in Catskill streams with the right habitat. In Delaware County alone, DEC fisheries surveys from 2007-2011 found more than 580 streams with brook trout.

Brook trout collected during a pond survey.
Brook trout collected during a pond survey.

Brook trout were once common in small cold ponds and lakes in the Catskills. Unfortunately, once competing fish species found their way into these waters, usually through the use of baitfish and illegal stockings, brook trout populations declined or were eliminated. For this reason, DEC prohibits the use of baitfish on many brook trout ponds in the Catskills and other parts of New York. Once competing fish species become abundant in a brook trout water, the only management option that will restore quality brook trout fishing is the complete renovation of the pond and restocking of brook trout. When possible, a native strain of brook trout that is best adapted to the water it is to be stocked in is used in restocking efforts.

Habitat Protection

A key to what has made trout fishing in the Catskills famous is the high-quality aquatic environment. Catskill streams and reservoirs are blessed with an abundance of clean, cold water. Maintenance of this water supply is essential to the health of these ecosystems. Fortunately, most of the high elevation lands where the sources of these waters are located are in state ownership, ensuring their protection. Trout waters also receive special protection through the Protection of Waters Act. Actions that could degrade water quality or trout habitat are prohibited without a permit granted by DEC for special circumstances, like repairs to a stream after flooding.

A major concern in the Catskill Region is the proper use of heavy equipment in streams when it is necessary to repair flood damage following major storms. This concern was heightened during recovery efforts following Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011. Lessons learned from past mistakes and advances in science and engineering have helped DEC develop best practices for working in streams. This knowledge helps DEC issue stream-work permits that minimize detrimental effects on habitat.

Reservoir Tailwater Fisheries

Regulations require that the operators of some of the largest reservoirs in the Catskills maintain minimum flows below their dams. The old river beds that at one time received natural stream flow before the reservoirs were built, now receive a managed flow of water throughout the year. These river sections are called tailwaters. Water released through these dams is usually from deep in the reservoir and remains cold even during hot summer periods. Depending on the volume released, water temperature in a tailwater stream can remain favorable for trout for miles downstream. DEC works closely with all concerned to ensure that the flows necessary to maintain quality trout populations are provided through as much of the year as possible. As a result, tailwater streams such as the East and West Branch Delaware River and Neversink River provide some of the finest trout fishing in the Catskills.

Thanks to the combined efforts of the DEC's Bureau of Fisheries and various other agencies, angling groups and individual anglers, New York's Catskills remain one of the finest trout fishing destinations in the country.

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