Catskill Trout

The Esopus Creek watershed upstream of New York City's Ashokan Reservoir is home to three species of wild trout: rainbows, browns, and brook trout. The spring runs of rainbow trout up out of the Ashokan, and also fall runs of browns — both species on their annual spawning migrations — are what the Esopus is best noted for. In fact, on May 31st, 1913 Theodore Gordon, the father of American dry-fly fishing wrote the following about the Ashokan Reservoir and Esopus Creek connection,

"By the way, the new Shokan dam, in the Catskills, will afford the finest trout fishing in America, if properly treated, and not spoiled by the introduction of other predatory fish. It will be stocked naturally from the Esopus with the rainbow and European trout of good size and quality."

Spawning Migrations

"Spawning run or migration" is a term used to describe the migration of wild trout during the act of natural reproduction. Normally wild trout move upstream, returning to the general locale where they originally were born, that is, hatched as alevins. Typically on the Esopus Creek watershed, its many tributaries serve as major spawning areas. These smaller waters provide protection and cooler flows as trout grow in size. Once wild rainbows and browns reach six to nine inches in length, many relocate downstream in search of better food supplies. On the Esopus Creek watershed, the Ashokan Reservoir offers an almost perfect habitat for growing large trout with its ample supply of food. Rainbow trout are spring-time spawners while browns and brook trout spawn in late autumn.

Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis)

brook trout

Prior to the introduction of rainbow and brown trout, in the days before tanning was a major Catskill industry, this native NYS fish was the prominent species found in the top sections of the watershed, although brook trout are actually char and not trout at all. For the most part nowadays brook trout have been remanded to the upper reaches of the Esopus Creek and all its tributaries as they require the coldest and purest wild quality of the three species. A wild six-inch "brookie" would be a good fish, a nine-incher trophy-like. Brook trout are opportunistic feeders, but like all wild fish require "angling stealth" if the flyfisher is to be successful. In their autumn spawning attire, with plump melon-color bellies and fins edged chalk-white, wild brook trout are truly a sight to behold.


During the 1800's tanning was a major Catskill industry that depended upon hemlock trees and an abundant water supply. Hemlock bark is a main component in the process of producing leather from the hides of animals; and, the Catskills offered ample sources of both hemlock and water. According to Ed Van Put, in his fine book Trout Fishing in the Catskills, there were "approximately sixteen (tanneries) along the Esopus Creek and its tributaries." (p. 57) Among the costs of this industry were: polluted waterways, barren forests, and the destruction of brook trout habitat throughout the region.


In the overall scientific classification of trout and salmon (Salmoninae), char are a separate genus among this family, different from all other trout and salmon. The word char is believed to be of Celtic origin, and includes brook trout and other fish such as the arctic char. Thus the Catskills only native trout, Salvelinus fontinalis, is not a true trout at all, but rather a char.

Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss)

brook trout

Without a doubt, among flyfishers the Esopus is best known, and loved, for its wild rainbow trout and with good reason. In the days of Preston Jennings through the 1950's and '60's, outdoor columnists regularly reported on spring-run rainbow trout with some in the twenty-eight to twenty-nine inch lengths. Sadly with the demise of emerald shiners in the Ashokan Reservoir, these large bows disappeared also. However, wild rainbows are still the "main attraction" for the Esopus. They were first introduced into the Esopus Creek watershed in the 1883 as a private stocking, but since 1952 the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has only stocked brown trout; all of today's rainbow trout are wild fish and originally were of west coast descent.

Preston Jennings

Preston J. Jennings (1893-1962) was the author of A Book of Trout Flies initially published in 1935 by The Derrydale Press. The book is recognized as one of the first important American works on trout-stream entomology. Jennings collected and studied mayflies, stoneflies, and caddis from many Catskill streams, including the Esopus Creek which he often fished. Jennings Pool, upstream of the NY 28 Mount Tremper Bridge is named after this noted fly fisher, who frequented this location.

Emerald Shiners

The emerald shiner (Notropis atherinoides) is a small bait fish belonging to the shiner family that feeds on zooplankton. It can grow to 3.5 inches in length, has a blunt nose, and greenish luster. At one time this was the primary forage fish in the Ashokan Reservoir, and a source of food for rainbow trout. Sometime during the late 1960's — early 1970's — alewives (Alosa pseudoharengu), also commonly known as sawbellies, were introduced into the Ashokan Reservoir by anglers. Either through competition, and/or predation on young emerald shiners, it is believed that the introduction of alewives into the Ashokan lead to the demise of the emerald shiner population.

These days rainbows in the six-to-twelve inch range are typical with a few spawning bows pushing twenty inches or more. They are often referred to as "silver bullets" for their chrome sides with a broad crimson side. They are spirited fish, robust jumpers with larger bows that will readily rip line from the angler's reel causing it to sing. Flyfishers offering these bows the correct nymph, wet, or dry fly under appropriate conditions will often be rewarded with an experience the Esopus Creek is known for. Rainbow trout are found throughout almost the entire watershed, the exceptions being the headwaters of the Esopus and upper reaches of tributaries.

Brown Trout (Salmo trutta)

brook trout

Esopus Creek watershed Brown Trout emanate from two sources: the hatchery and wild fish. Every spring NYS DEC stocks several thousand browns into the Esopus and Ashokan. This trout species was initially introduced into the watershed sometime after the first stocking of rainbows, and have since established themselves as wild fish also. There is an excellent population of wild browns throughout the entire watershed; in fact many of the browns caught in tribs are wild fish with colorful dappled dark and red spots. All brown trout found in the U.S. have a European heritage.

Perhaps the two most renowned trout ever caught in the watershed were both brown trout. In 1923 T.E. Spencer caught a 19 pound, 14 ounce brown trout in Chimney Hole that remained the NYS record for thirty-one years. And, in 1955 Larry Decker caught Old Bess, a 9½ pound brown that made Mother's Pool its home. Anglers these days catch a good number of eight-twelve inch brown trout, yet once again larger fish will reach the twenty-inch mark and a few thirty inches, or better. For the most part these big browns are typically part of an autumn spawning run. Brown trout, that are feeding, will readily take all types of flies—nymphs, wets, dries, and streamers—when properly presented.

Fish watercolors courtesy of The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The paintings were part of a biological survey done in the 1930s. More can be seen on the DEC's website.