Outdoors with Tom Venesky: Two very different groups find common ground on the water

By Tom Venesky - [email protected]
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For years, anglers and whitewater rafters have often been at odds regarding the Lehigh River.

The cause of the long-running disagreement are the water releases from the Francis E. Walter Dam into the river.

Anglers want water releases from the dam spread out into the fall to help trout survive in the river, which has been warming up all summer. Rafters and kayakers like the releases congregated during the summer months — which is the busy season for the whitewater companies on the river.

And anglers aren’t too keen about whitewater releases on the weekends, which makes the river tough to fish. Anglers also cringe whenever a caravan of rafts and kayaks pass through as they’re trying to cast. The disruption isn’t intentional, but it does happen.

The rafting businesses, however, prefer weekend releases because that’s when the most people can come up and pay for a trip in the whitewater.

Whitewater rafters and anglers are divided when it comes to using the river, but that’s not the only difference between the two groups.

During last Tuesday’s float stocking of the river — an event where the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission enlisted the aid of rafters to release trout — I couldn’t help but notice how different both groups are from each other.

The rafters are thrill-seekers, cherishing the rush that comes with barging through class II and III rapids that are created by water releases from the dam. They sport tattoos, ear rings and long hair and adorn themselves in wetsuits and water shoes.

By contrast, anglers are a more conservative lot, choosing ball caps, blue jeans and Orvis vests and prefer the solitude of calm water to the explosiveness of white-capped rapids.

Charlie Boyle, who is an assistant ground crew manager for Whitewater Challengers and also an angler, admitted the two groups have a love-hate relationship at times. But he was also quick to point out there is a common bond, and that was apparent on Tuesday as anglers poured buckets of trout into rafts, and the rafters released them throughout the river.

It was quite a sight to see these two groups from different worlds unite for a common cause. On this day, any bickering over things like water releases was put on the backburner.

As anglers carried heavy buckets loaded with trout to the river, rafters helped them maneuver on slippery rocks with out-stretched hands.

And when the rafters departed to release the fish, the anglers smiled in appreciation.

“They can’t hate us today,” Boyle joked, noting that the water release from the dam was dropped to 500 cubic feet per second to accommodate the stocking.

“Today was a good day for the fishermen.”

It was a good day for both groups, highlighted by a common bond that is perhaps stronger than many realized.

Rafters and anglers use the river for different purposes, but they both appreciate what the resource has to offer. While water releases remain a sticking point, it seems trivial to the fact that anglers and rafters alike recognize the importance of keeping the Lehigh River clean and pristine.

It’s that love of the river that allowed the two groups to form a partnership on Tuesday, and maybe that will set a precedent for both sides to find a common ground on other issues as well.

While Boyle no doubt enjoys the thrill of using a raft on the whitewater, he said it was fun to use it to stock trout also. The rafters, he added, would love to float stock the river again next year.

Anglers would be thankful as well.

Before Tuesday, it had been more than 20 years since trout were float stocked in the Lehigh River.

With anglers and rafters working together, we won’t have to wait another 20 years for it to happen again.

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By Tom Venesky

[email protected]

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky