Secret Waters Hide Wildlife Wonders
Pulling into Scottsville Village Park, it’s hard to see the creek through the bank and scrub. Gently closing the car door and walking steadily to the water, its gentle babbling fills the air as water ripples and bubbles among and over smooth stones.
This sometimes slender, sometimes sprawling, always rocky ribbon of water is named Oatka Creek, and it is home to the region’s largest populations of brown trout.
These shy, deceptively colorful, high-water-quality fish are becoming harder and harder to find in the wild. As slightly hardier cousins to the native brook trout, browns have become a core cold-water predator in healthy forested watersheds.
Oatka is as close to ideal trout habitat as one can expect to find anymore. The water is too shallow for many big bully fish like bass and northern pike to eliminate young trout before they can grow to adulthood. The rocks, bare downed trees, and living roots thrusting way out into the water provide plenty of crevices and hiding spots for thousands of tiny trout to hide.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) keeps a close watch on the creek and its gentle footpaths, setting unique rules and regulations to protect the exceptional water quality.
This is with good reason. Every spring, usually March or April, the DEC annually fills the creek with about 11,200 brown trout. Most release sites are along Oatka Trail Road in Genesee County and the Scottsville Village Park in Monroe County. The fish are raised just down the road at the Caledonia Fish Hatchery, which was the first in the United States or anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.
With the creek bursting with healthy, otherwise hard-to-find trout, anglers in the know flock to Oatka to try their hand at outwitting the famously wily and tasty fish.
Anyone considering fishing this unsung treasure should check the unique DEC regulations online before heading out.
To the south, hidden at the very southern end of Conesus Lake, the westernmost finger lake, a vast wetland stretches far out of sight. This is Conesus Inlet.
Here, Conesus Creek assembles from the valley walls and fans out through millions of lush roots and grasses, eventually pouring northward through some creative flow control devices to finally crawl through the length of the lake and exit at the northern end, headed to Lake Ontario.
The swamp teems with life in all seasons. Microscopic algae and plankton thrive in unthinkable masses. Wild grasses sprout underwater and on water-rich land. Thousands of species of insects graze on the growing tangles and each other. Untold species of fish gorge themselves on the insects. Hundreds of species of birds hunt the insects and fish day and night. Huge mixed rafts of ducks, geese, and swans dabble, dip, and dive. Though only glimpsed by the lucky, muskrats, mink, beavers, raccoons, skunks, foxes, hawks, coyotes, eagles, and owls patrol and carefully hide in the surrounding woods and swamp.
Clear, mowed trails lead through it all.
The sun sets on the western rim of the valley, casting a golden glow over the entire swamp and forest every clear evening.
Visitors who crack into this seldom-explored wilderness should keep an eye on trail signage. The bald eagles have set up an enormous nest in the area. Approaching it too closely is against federal law.
To the south even further, in Letchworth State Park, an artificially-dug pond became a haven for precious wild creatures.
Trout Pond is overlooked by most park visitors on their way to the middle and upper falls area. It hides almost within sight of Park Road on the way to the Glen Iris Inn, one right turn away.
Look into the water from the fishing platform by the parking area and you might see the bright faces of bluegill panfish. It’s an excellent place for children to get started catching bluegills, and is catch-and-release only.
Beneath them, stalking the murky bottom and waiting on the stems of lilies and wild grasses are superpredator insects.
Over 40 species of dragonfly and damselfly breed here. Their young, drab, flightless, water-breathing creatures, hide underwater, sometimes for months. Only once they have harvested many thousands of baby mosquitoes do they finally climb out onto a safe spot, shed their skin, unfold their wings, and take flight as adults.
Some could nearly cover a person’s palm with their wings. Some look so fragile they should be blown away by the slightest breeze, then rocket off their perch to snag an unlucky gnat. Some have spots on their wings that look like racing stripes as they zip by after a mosquito or each other. Some have black wings and bounce through the air like little toys on strings.
All dance and tumble through the daylight hours, as one super army eating many thousands of blood-sucking insects every day.
Each of these secret wildlife hotspots is connected by veins of fresh water flowing from the valley walls ultimately to the Genesee. Since they are so closely protected, quick Google searches are handy for picking out special seasonal regulations, especially for fishing.
Visit each of these spots for chances to watch wildlife that most hardly ever see in person.