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Drought fishing intensifies one's impression that a drought area is one where nothing is happening. Instead of balancing on his waders in the rapids and casting again and again, the drought fisherman stands motionless on the bank and looks for fish. And often where the fishing is best you cannot see the fishermen at all. "There is a lot of fishing going on," said the ranger at World's End State Park in Pennsylvania, "and they are catching a lot of fish." He pointed to a broad, shallow pool, perhaps 100 yards long, on one small trout stream. Beside the pool is a well-traveled bank marked with many footprints. "It's mostly night fishing," he said.
Below a bridge, near the outlet of Neversink Reservoir, it was possible to count half a hundred fish feeding in the early evening. There were suckers and shiners, but there were trout in there, too. On the great, sloping, grass-covered wall of the reservoir two deer came down to drink. On the edge of the Forest Preserve at Stratford, at the margins of dry thickets, there were quail turning bewilderedly among the rocks of a dry creek that formerly flowed into West Canada Creek. A quarter of a mile away a weasel eased itself slowly out of a tangle of sticks beside a culvert, as much at home as it would be in a farmyard, and apparently as well fed.
"Drought has not hurt most game." said Albert Bromley, the New York Conservation Department's director of education. "Small game has even been helped by the dry. warm spring and summer." All through the drought country the dry nest-and-brood season has increased the ruffed-grouse population. Because of the drought, farmers delayed their cutting season, with the result that the young birds were more capable of flying when cutting removed their protection. New York's ruffed-grouse season has been increased a full month—hopefully—but unless there are rains there will be no hunting at all.
After three years of limited hunting and relatively mild winters, the outlook for deer hunters is excellent, again provided there is going to be a deer season. Showers may dampen the woods enough to keep the fire hazard down, even if the drought remains. Fire-prevention officials say the drought tends to make fires worse, because of the underlying dryness. They burn deeply. Last fall, after a fire in the black dirt section of Orange County it was found the earth was burned several feet below the surface. Experts said it would be 50 years before anything could grow there.
New York's drought problems have always had far-reaching effects. The immense Forest Preserve was set aside because of fears of a drought 80 years ago, and this action launched the conservation movement. In 1881 the Summit Level of the Erie Canal began to go dry. The canal is higher in its 62-mile middle stretch than it is at either end. and the lock-free Long Level is fed only by mountain streams like Canada Creek from the Adirondacks. Public alarm grew because streamflow declined as the woods were cut down, mass meetings were held in New York City and the legislature was driven to pass the first forest administration act in the U.S. Rains eased the crisis in any event, but meanwhile Maine. New Hampshire, Minnesota and Wisconsin passed almost identical acts. Then in 1893 the Federal Government set aside the national forests modeled on the New York state preserve. In a sense, the magnificent chain of national forests and wilderness areas, 186 million acres, dates back to the drought that dried up Canada Creek and the Mohawk River. The Forest Preserve never became the unified woods ii was expected to be; private owners held title to almost half the land it enclosed; but as an incidental benefit, it created a broad, green belt across the mountains of the state—the biggest park in the U.S.. 2,551,000 acres, one-eighth of the total area of New York.
No such remedy for the current drought is likely to be attempted now. However closely trees and streamflow are related, no one believes any longer that woods alone will insure rainfall. Rain does not necessarily fall because trees grow; the trees are there because rain falls. "Water is like a living thing." wrote Charles Lee McGuinness in his classic U.S. Geological Survey Circular No. 114. The vast circulatory system known as the hydrologic cycle operates like the human bloodstream. Water evaporates wherever exposed to air, rises into the atmosphere, travels as part of air mass, is condensed when the air mass rises and falls as rain or snow. The impression that nothing is happening over a drought area is an illusion. On a hot summer afternoon water is rising into the atmosphere at an unbelievable rate, equal to 10 great Mississippi Rivers at the maximum flow recorded for the Mississippi. The water drawn aloft by evaporation falls again as rain in quantities that stagger imagination—4.8 trillion gallons a day over the U.S. as a whole. Seventy per cent of this returns to the atmosphere through evaporation. Some 1.2 trillion gallons flow into the oceans. An estimated 28% sinks into the earth and flows slowly seaward. Nobody knows how much is stored underground—probably as much as is stored above ground in lakes and rivers. And if no rain fell for three years the Great Lakes alone could theoretically provide all the water needs of the nation even at its present wasteful rate of use.
So the country is in no danger of drying up. And New York state is singularly fortunate even in this potential aquatic paradise. "Vast water resources and large use," runs the Geological Survey's appraisal. "Less than live per cent of watershed area developed so far." Two years ago, another inventory of U.S. water noted that New York shortages were still caused by delays in developing the water resources, rather than by lack of water on the land.
Driving along the empty roads through the drought country makes one want to add a little more to the equation. Whatever else the drought may prove, it has revealed how lifeless the country is when the Beaverkill and the Rondout and the Neversink and their tributaries are not flowing musically in the woods. Nobody has yet shown how streams can be developed for water supply and still flow as freely as ever, but the fate of the drought country makes it imperative that some way be discovered. Thaddeus Norris, the first American fly-fishing authority, wrote in Fishing in the Adirondacks back in 1864 that experience in the woods, from time to time, was necessary for human brains. "It is not sentiment," he said. "It is reality." Our physical frames benefit from the fresh air and good exercise, but the greater benefit is from "the new life, new thought, new spring which it gives to the intellectual organs." Perhaps we should follow old Thaddeus' advice, and stay in the woods in the hope that our brains will improve to the point where we can solve our problems—even the problem of conserving the wilderness.