By Rick Miller
The state Department of Environmental Conservation is evaluating comments received last month on plans to restore connectivity to more than 500 miles of Upper Cattaraugus Creek and its tributaries.
The draft Upper Cattaraugus Creek Fisheries Restoration Plan by DEC coincides with the lowering of Scoby Hill Dam on Cattaraugus Creek near Springville by 25 feet.
The draft plan is a roadmap for fisheries management practices following the planned fish passage project at the Springville dam.
The project, slated for 2021, includes building a fish ladder for steelhead trout while maintaining a sea lamprey barrier.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced the Springville Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project in August 2017. The 38-foot dam produced electricity for the village of Springville until 1997. It will be lowered to 13 feet.
The fish ladder, combined with trap and sort capabilities, will keep invasive species like the sea lamprey from reaching the Upper Cattaraugus.
The dam has blocked connectivity with 34 miles of Cattaraugus Creek between Lake Erie and Springville for 100 years.
There is limited access to Cattaraugus Creek below the dam. Much of it is in the Zoar Valley Multiple Use Area and the Seneca Nation of Indians Cattaraugus Territory. Despite limited access, the creek is considered the highest quality steelhead stream in New York state by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
“Lower Cattaraugus Creek is regarded as one of the premier destinations in North America for steelhead anglers, and upper Cattaraugus Creek provides excellent angling opportunities for resident rainbow and brown trout,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a statement. “This plan seeks to enhance Cattaraugus Creek as a premier destination in Western New York for a year-round, high-quality sport fishery.”
The Scoby Hill Dam stretches 300 feet across Cattaraugus Creek between Cattaraugus and Erie counties.
Lowering the dam in the $7 million project and allowing steelhead to migrate into the 557 miles of the Upper Cattaraugus Creek and its tributaries will increase the opportunities for steelhead fishermen, according to DEC. There are already more than 30 miles of DEC fishing access above the dam where anglers will begin seeing steelhead over the next 10 to 15 years.
“I’m in favor of allowing fish to move upstream,” said Vince Tobia, owner of Cattaraugus Outfitters, who probably knows Cattaraugus Creek’s fishery as well as anyone. Providing proper safeguards are in place against the sea lamprey getting past the dam, Tobia said he thinks the trout fisheries above the dam will be fine once the creek is opened up.
It will lead to natural reproduction by the steelhead in tributaries in the Upper Cattaraugus, Tobias said. “There’s more high-quality water upstream,” he said. “Ultimately, the goal is more naturally reproducing fish.”
The DEC stocks more than 90,000 “Washington strain” steelhead yearlings a year in Cattaraugus Creek below the dam. DEC has confirmed about 17 percent of the steelhead in the creek and its tributaries are from natural reproduction. Brown trout are also stocked in the creek. There are some native brown trout in some tributaries as well.
Tobia said he feels the steelhead can coexist with the trout in the Upper Cattaraugus and its tributaries.
“You are going to have natural reproduction (of steelhead) in the Upper Cattaraugus,” he said. “Hopefully it won’t affect native brook trout” that spawn in some of the tributaries.
The Upper Cattaraugus starts at Java Lake Outlet in Wyoming County. Major tributaries in Cattaraugus, Erie and Wyoming counties include: Spring Brook, Hosmer Creek, Clear Creek, Elton Creek, McKinstry Creek, Lime Lake Outlet.
The only concern Tobia said he has heard was that some fishermen thought the steelhead might present too much competition for brown, brook and rainbow trout in the Upper Cattaraugus.
Tobia believes there is enough of insects, baitfish and habitat in the Upper Cattaraugus and its tributaries to go around with the introduction of steelhead after the dam is lowered and the fish ladder installed.
“I think it will be OK,” Tobia said. “The DEC has done the studies. I don’t think the effects will be that much in 10-15 years. There will be a lot more (fishing) access and opportunities” in the Upper Cattaraugus.
The full draft study is available on the DEC’s website.