The non-native fish ‘crappie’ have been discovered in Raquette Lake, and will most likely establish itself throughout the surrounding watershed.
Recent reports indicate Essex County recently received significant funding from a combination of state and federal sources to pay for the removal of debris, and the restoration of a many local river and stream corridors.
Fortunately, the Department of Transportation was quick to promptly repair the local highways following recent floods, however it is the waterways that attract a major portion of the region’s visitors. The tourism industry relies on an abundance of easily accessible, clean, fresh, free-flowing waters to attract anglers, paddlers, birders and other users.
The NYSDEC has already committed over $9 million towards the effort, and further funding is expected. Restoration efforts will focus on the removal of debris, which includes far more than just sticks and stones, as well as installation of weirs, dredging of rivers channels, riverbank plantings and the repair or replacement of several bridges.
It is astounding to realize the extent of the damage, and to discover the amount of material that must be removed from both the riverbeds, and the adjacent riverbanks. While much of the debris consists of logs, rocks, roots and such, there is also a significant degree of manmade material ranging from washing machines to vinyl siding, tin roofs to tarmac. There are over 10,000 cubic yards of debris awaiting removal at just nine locations, for which funding has already been received.
When the river ice breaks up in the spring, I expect there will be more damage discovered, including large logjams, and significant sections of channels and riverbanks that will require restoration. Our abundance of clean, free flowing, freshwater is as important to Essex County’s tourism industry as the very mountains the waters flow out of.
Although the opening day of trout season remains over a month away, visiting anglers are already in the process of planning trips for the upcoming season. I have already fielded numerous inquiries regarding the condition of our local fisheries. Paddlers and anglers want to know what to expect, as well as what they can do. My advice is always, “Come see it for yourself.”
While the floods were certainly devastating, nature is restorative by nature. The land and the waters will gradually repair whatever damage has been done to the habitat. Fish and furbearers such as beaver, otter and muskrat, will continue to exist, as birds including eagles, herons, and kingfishers return to their familiar haunts.
Despite the fact that two, 500 year floods ravaged the region in less than six months time, the waterways will quickly recover. Some swimming holes may have filled in, and certain river channels have been scoured, filled or rerouted. But in the end, the majority of our rivers and streams will continue to flow, and only those who knew them well, will be able to recognize any difference.
Toubles far worse than a flood
Unfortunately, trouble far greater than a 500 year flood now loom over regional waters. Although the threat is natural, it was obviously made by man and it has the potential to drastically tip the balance and integrity of historic trout fisheries all across the Adirondacks.
Recently, NYSDEC fisheries biologists have discovered the presence of ‘crappie’ in Raquette Lake. Crappies, a non- native species, are now in the lake, and will eventually spread to the surrounding watershed. However, it is likely the damage will not be confined to a single lake, as the non-native species will be able to migrate upstream and downstream throughout the entire Raquette watershed. It’s only a matter of time before they become established in the Fulton Chain, Forked Lake, Long Lake, Tupper Lake and beyond.
DEC personnel believe the crappie were likely introduced by what has often been described as an amateur, ‘bait bucket biologist’. I prefer a more descriptive term, but it can’t be printed in a family newspaper. Whoever’s responsible for introducing crappie into Raquette Lake should recognize that they may have unleashed the Adirondack’s most troublesome fish into the entire Raquette River watershed. It will be impossible to eradicate them.
Smallmouth bass were dumped into the same lake, back in the 1872. However, at the time, the person responsible for their introduction into Raquette Lake was Seth Greene, a fish culturist working for the NYS Fish Commission. A decade earlier, Gov. Horatio Seymour had instructed the Commission to begin stocking bass throughout the state, as trout fisheries were showing signs of depletion.
Greene was just doing as he was told. He harvested bass for stocking from the locks of the old Erie Canal, and then transported the fish throughout the state, via a refrigerated railroad boxcar of his own invention.
On a cold, January morning in 1876, NYS Fish Commission workers cut a hole in the ice and released 60 black bass and 5,000 whitefish into the waters of Raquette Lake. In an effort to ensure the stocked bass would be able to establish a viable population in the big lake, Greene admonished anglers to practice a primitive catch and release, pleading, “If anyone should catch these fish, please put them back.”
Greene need not have worried. Bass quickly adjusted to the lake, and within a just a few years, specimens were being caught as far downstream as Colton. Greene believed bass had a unique adaptability to trout waters, since the two species spawn during opposite seasons of the year.
However, bass are very aggressive feeders and they rarely coexist with brook trout. However, they have proven to do so in Raquette Lake, which produced a NY State Record brook trout as recently as June 7, 2009 when Tom Yacovella of Utica landed a 5 lb., 4½ oz. specimen from Raquette Lake. Lake trout still thrive in the same waters. In fact, the DEC continues to harvest lake trout eggs from the lake to supplement the state hatchery system.
Crappie may change all matter of things. They are voracious feeders, and prolific breeders, which also spawn in shallow waters during the spring. A typical female Crappie may produce upwards of 150,000 eggs, but 20,000 to 60,000 eggs are more the rule. They will prey heavily on the lake’s established forage base of minnows and crayfish, and feast on the trout fry.
Lake Trout grow very slowly, and often don't mature until they are 8-10 years of age. The female lays an average of 400-1,200 eggs which take nearly four months to hatch. Brook trout females produce between 100 – 400 eggs in late autumn, which they deposit in shallow water beds.
These figures should provide an indication of the unfair competition poised by mixing trout and crappie in the same waters. Although crappies are highly regarded as table fare, there are few species which can compare with trout in the culinary sense. There are no other fish species as iconic of Adirondack waters as the brookie.
Whoever was responsible for dumping crappie into the Raquette, I sure wish they would step forward and fess up. I know a lot of devoted trout anglers who’d enjoy an opportunity to shake hands with their windpipe, and I’d like to be the first in line.
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.