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Weather Turns Fishy, to Dismay of Anglers

by: DEBORAH WEISBERG    3 June 2006

For 50 years, Charles R. Meck, an author of fly-fishing books, has kept a diary of hatches on his favorite streams and the plants that bloom with them.

Gordon flies to the budding forsythia, and the flowering of that bright yellow shrub to Hendricksons coming off the water. But while insects and plants have remained in sync with one another, hatches and blooms are happening so much earlier that Meck has had to revise his hatch chart five times in the past 30 years.

"Oh, it concerns me," said Meck, who lives in Pennsylvania Furnace, Pa. "A lot of hatches are coming off even before trout season begins. For years and years, I'd fish the Beaverkill on New York's opening day, April 1, and it would be an exception to see little blue-winged olives. Now it's really, really common. Anglers are seeing them as early as March."

Although the opening day of trout season in New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut has not changed in more than half a century, spring is coming sooner, according to scientists who study climate change and its impact on the environment.

David W. Wolfe, a plant ecology professor at Cornell University and an expert on phenology — the study of seasonal biological phenomena — said that warming temperatures over the past half-century had caused lilac shrubs at 72 weather stations in the Northeast to bloom a day earlier each decade since they were planted from the same clone in the 1960's.

"Winter warming in the Northeast has been quite dramatic," Wolfe said. "The climate-zone map is definitely changing."

A recent study by the United States Geological Survey indicates that peak flow on rivers and streams across the Northeast has been occurring 5 to 10 days earlier during the past 50 years than in the first half of the last century.

"One big reason is loss of snowpack," said Richard Alley, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University.

"Precipitation that used to come as snow now comes as rain, which runs off or evaporates faster."

The sort of soaking April showers that bring May blooms have become more dramatic and isolated in recent decades, Alley said.

"It's more like summer, where you have these big thunderstorms, but they dry out faster because it's warm, so you have to water your tomato patch frequently, anyway," he said.

Streams in the Northeast not only entered spring with a shortage of snowmelt but also with a dearth of rainfall.

March, the month when Northeastern states stock the bulk of their trout, was among the driest on record from Baltimore to Boston.

In New York, the season opened April 1 with June water levels and May temperatures.

In Connecticut, Bill Hyatt, the director of fisheries for the state Department of Environmental Protection, expressed concern about what he called a 20-year trend toward warmer weather and low water levels that goes beyond their impact on trout.

"If we don't get flooded shorelines and marshes on the Connecticut River," he said in mid-April, "it could have a deleterious effect on perch and northern pike, which need those conditions to spawn."

In Pennsylvania, anglers fished opening day, April 15, during a drought watch that remains in effect. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is considering changing opening day in the southeastern part of the state to two weeks earlier, beginning next year.

"That corner of the state has seen low flow and warmer water for years," said Tom Greene, the agency's chief coldwater biologist. "In years like this one, when there is no snowpack, trout fishing could be over by May."

Though May rainfall was normal in most of Connecticut and New York east of the Hudson Valley — the western part of New York was still dry — experts say that does not mean all streams have the water they need. One contributing factor may be suburban sprawl.

"Groundwater is what keeps streams flowing," said Bryan Swistock, a water resources specialist at Penn State. "I don't think anyone disputes that more pavement means more runoff and less groundwater to recharge streams when they need it.

"What does manage to get into the ground gets used up pretty quickly at this time of year, since plants are at the peak of their growing season and more people are drawing water for their homes."

Longtime anglers like Meck say the changes are obvious. "I walk the same streams I did as a kid, and they're not nearly as high," he said. "I watch rainwater roll off blacktop where there didn't used to be any. That water's way too warm for trout streams."

Meck said that Northeastern states should consider shifting the bulk of their trout stockings, at least on marginal waters, to September, because temperatures are often mild enough to sustain fish through most winters, and fall water flow has been good, at least in recent years.

"Of course, that could change," Meck said. "But springtime is when I have seen the biggest difference — in flow, and in hatches coming early.

"The kind of springs we're having now, fish are more active sooner. But later in the season, you're out of luck."

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