Monday, October 21, 2013

Game Warden Files--Great Sacandaga Lake

Having spent many days and nights patrolling Jamaica Bay, Raritan Bay, and the rest of the New York City area waterways, I was really happy that my new patrol sector had a pretty big body of water and a boat. The majority of the Great Sacandaga Lake was in Fulton County, with another large part of it in Saratoga County and a the river that supplied it was in Hamilton County.  With good neighboring officers in both the other counties, there was generally another officer to work with and that made the day go by much more quickly.  The Great Sacandaga is a man-made lake (The Sacandaga River was dammed up in the 1920's to form it), built to control flooding to the small communities along the Hudson River between Lake Luzerne and Albany.  A good snow pack in the southern Adirondacks, coupled with some warm weather and a bit of spring rain would cause the Sacandaga River to overload the Hudson and that would devastate the downstream communities.  In the spring, the lake would be at high levels and by summer's end it would be getting very low.  Sometimes a lot of old communities would seemingly rise from the bottom as the water receded in the fall.

Though in the early years of the lake's existence, it had produced record fish--the North American record northern pike came from it--the fishing had declined throughout the middle of the 20th century.  Walleye, though often caught, were under the size limit; pike were the same.  There was considerable success in stocking trout, mostly browns but also rainbows, and we did see some nice fish come out of the water thanks to the effort of the clubs that put the effort into stocking programs.

The largest abuse of the resource was the walleye runs.  Each spring, as the ice went out and the waters warmed, those golden eyed torpedoes would assemble at the mouths of the creeks and wait until conditions were right, then come up the river to spawn.  Some times the runs would be spotty: a few fish in this creek and few in another.  Other times they would be everywhere all at once.  It was hard to keep tabs on all those creeks all the time.

There were any number of nights spent hiding in the bushes waiting for folks to come with spears or snag hooks, and we caught a fair number of folks trying to catch the fish that way, but the biggest problem we had were folks who were "just trout fishing" in the creeks when the walleye were spawning.

We finally got a regulation put into place that prohibited any fishing in the tributaries to the lake during the time when the walleye season was closed.  That allowed us to keep people out of the areas where the fish were most vulnerable. We posted signs declaring the closures and yet we had people fishing in the the creeks and the river that fed the lake.

One year when the water was exceptionally high, neighboring officer Bob Gosson and I had the boat in the water the night before the season opened.  We went up the Sacandaga river just after dark, figuring that we'd encounter a few boaters and maybe some shore fishermen starting to fish before the midnight opening. We didn't get far up the river when we spotted a small boat and believed by the activity that the occupants were fishing.  The fishermen saw us and had no idea who we were.  Rather than run away, they began to light up their fish poles, lines and bobbers so that we wouldn't run over the fishing operation.  That made our job even easier, they also had no personal flotation devices, no lights on the boat and some other problems so we wrote them a bunch of tickets and escorted them to shore.

The water was so high that we were able to get to areas we had never been able to effectively work.  We pulled the boat into shore near the outlet of the West Stoney Creek where we saw a fisherman using a flashlight to locate fish and then attempt to catch them.  We walked along the creek bank and ultimately ran right into the fisherman who didn't recognize us and thought he'd stumbled into a couple other early fisherman.  "Did you get any, boys?" he asked with a conspiratorial tone of voice.  Bob replied "Just you!" and waved a flashlight across the shoulder patch to identify us.  The fisherman, a well know local guy, chuckled and figure he'd been had, fair and square.  For many years later he would relate the story of how he'd come sneaking up on the game wardens. We shared many laughs over cups of coffee in the following years.  

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