Friday, October 17, 2014

Early Surfin’ on Oneida Lake

By Spider Rybaak

South Shore native John with a 26-incher he took last week

At certain times, Oneida Lake spits out walleyes like a conveyer belt at a fish factory. The tough part is figuring out when and where these sweet spots are from season to season. Right now is one of those times, and the sweet spot is the evening surf.

Walleye go on a feeding binge at the first sign of cooler temperatures.  Not a slight variation of a couple degrees, but a serious change, say 10 degrees or so. Most anglers don’t have the imagination to figure out when this happens and simply follow the old formula: surf for walleye from mid-October through November.

And while that schedule is a good one that’s been putting pike on the table for ages, it leaves a lot of prime time unexplored. What’s more, it has everyone fishing at the same time, leading to crowded, combat fishing conditions.

This year the bite has been pushed forward by a month. Indeed, early birds who have tested the water with their fingers have been taking walleye from the surf since early September. Indeed, I’ve caught my limit twice, and nailed at least one walleye, six nights in a row, before the second week of the month.

So why write about it now that it’s over, you ask?

Well, it ain’t over; in fact, it’s just begun.  There are a lot of walleyes where those came from--out in the deep, that is. September’s nights were colder than normal, and so are this month’s. As the trend continues, it’ll stir cooler temperatures deeper into the drink earlier than usual, keeping the bait and walleye close to shore.

In the past, you could expect a walleye or two every other night or so in the first half of October, and every night after that until mid-November, when the trend starts going the other way again.

This year they’re so early we’re getting limits before seeing our breath or having our fingers freeze. In the words of one guy, “It’s like getting eight weeks of vacation when you’re only entitled to six.”

What’s more, this year’s fish are bigger. I’ve seen several in the 22- to 24-inch range landed already, and personally nailed a 26-incher on the 1st of October.

If you’ve been dying to cast a minnowbait into the dark silence blanketing the lake but have waited for the traditional window, get your waders wet tonight.  The fish’ll be waiting for ya.

Good places to try are Phillips Point, at the end of McCloud Road in the Big Bay/Three Mile Bay Wildlife Management Areas (take Toad Harbor Road from NY 49 in West Monroe, then the next left), both of the NYSDEC’s fishing access sites at I-81, and the Cleveland Docks, NY 49, in Cleveland.

A good bait to use in weedy shallows is a Bass Pro Shop XPS Extreme Minnow; in slightly deeper water and over sandy or pebble floors, XPS minnows work, too, but so will  Jr. Thundersticks and Challenger Minnows.

Tom's good friend Kathy with a couple pike of her own.

Tom, an Oneida Lake resident, with a limit of walleyes he took from his dock last week.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Great White North

By:Spider Rybaak

Oneida Lake has a huge impact over Central New York. It’s so big, it creates its own weather; cooling temperatures along its shoreline a skosh during summer, warming them slightly in spring and fall, even creating early lake effect snows up until winter seals it in ice. Its influence is so pronounced, locals consider anything above it as “up north.”

That’s where you’ll find the Great White North Trading Post (315-964-2669), one of the most unique shops in Oswego County.

While it’s billed as a trading post, don’t go expecting to find items like rock candy, bags of salt or jars of pickled pork on its sagging shelves. Those days are gone.

What you’ll find is guns and ammo, fishing and trapping supplies, all set amidst museum-quality mounts of North American game animals.

Located in Williamstown, in the old Masonic Lodge, the shop looks like something straight out of a Civil War-era photograph.  In fact, owner Les Huntley boasts “The place hasn’t seen a phone in over 100 years; until I bought it.”

When you think about this corner of Oswego County, you usually have fishing and hunting in mind, ancient pursuits dating to the dawn of time. You could even say hunters and anglers are natural reenactors; the clothes have changed but the game is the same. As such, many are drawn to all things old.

This unusual shop fits that bill. What’s more, its location on the edge of the Tug Hill Plateau exudes history, from the woods and fields surrounding Williamstown, to its priceless collection of old architecture.

A conservationist at heart, Huntley’s deep respect for history spurred him to preserve the building as a window into the area’s proud past. Indeed, as you walk through the entrance’s narrow double doors, you’re greeted with aging wallpaper and antique woodwork leading into a showroom whose very windows have wizened with time, growing capable of softening the brightest sunlight on a clear blue day.

Oh sure, the place has modern frills like electric lights, a computer, even a red, neon OPEN sign hanging in the window. Nothing flashy, just the practical kind of stuff you’d expect to find in a retail shop.

But that’s where the similarities to the franchise stores endlessly springing up out of the commercial landscape ends.  You see, the Great White North Trading Post prides itself in traditional values and common sense, American ideals you just don’t find too much anymore.

Run by Les and his wife Kim, the place doesn’t carry all the latest fads, only outdoor necessities at a fair price. Advice on local conditions is available free on request.

That might sound strange and quaint to some; but that’s just the way things are up north.

Kim Huntley issuing me a new fishing license.
Great White North's resident bear and racoon.
Hunting rifles and walking canes.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Minnows on Streamers

By Spider Rybaak

Average Fall Fish
Swinging streamers through the current is an easy and exciting way to fish for salmonids. In fact, it’s so productive, a significant number of anglers working the fly fishing, catch and release section on the Salmon River Spey cast for kings and cohos right now, and for steelhead from next month through spring.

Developed in the Spey River region of Scotland, the technique involves casting flies for long distances with just two moves of the wrist. Done properly, the line slices through the air so precisely, casual spectators walk away thinking the angler is highly skilled in a mysterious form of fly casting.
Nothing could be further from the truth. While some practitioners think they’re the greatest thing since dyed wool, more realistic types know better; even describing their specialty as nothing more than glorified roll casting.

Indeed, you don’t even have to whip your rod back and forth to get the line out. Just drop the fly into the fast water and strip line out in time with the current, stopping when you feel there’s enough out to reacg the other side. As the streamer hits the end of the run, pinch the line against the rod with your index finger and whip it into the air with a powerful backhand motion. As the streamer flies past you, try to predict when it’s just upstream of your knee (the anchor point), flick your wrist so it faces the opposite shore and whip the line toward the other bank. When it lands, let the fast water straighten it out and swing the fly through the current while you hold the line in your fingers and follow it across the run with your rod tip.

When the fly reaches the end of the run and starts straightening out, brace yourself: the hesitation and change of direction spur a the majority of strikes—as much as 90% of ‘em. Always violent, the hit has spawned Spey’s most popular cliché: “The drug is in the tug.”

With a little practice, you’ll be able to cast your streamer 30 feet and more, with a couple flicks of the wrist. And that’s good if you’d rather fish than cast, your joints are wearing out, or you got arthritis.

While a 14-foot Spey rod and special line will enable you to reach distances approaching 100 feet, in most cases you don’t need to cast that far. Hell, often times you couldn’t even if you wanted to: from spring through fall, every yard on the Salmon River is precious and finding a productive, unoccupied 100-foot stretch all to yourself is wishful thinking. So, a regular 8-weight fly rod with a butt section (using both hands helps to reach the greatest distances) and a high capacity reel loaded with an 8-weight line or better, will do until you decide you like it and want to invest in the real equipment.

Perfecting your Spey casting skills in Oswego County is about as easy and exciting as it gets. While the lower Salmon and Oswego Rivers are getting too crowded right now, the Salmon’s upper branches (including the mouth of the discharge at Bennetts Bridge), the Mad River, and skinny streams like Scriba, Black and West Branch Fish Creek offer a lot of wide open rapids.

Equally important, all but the Oswego are loaded with fallfish (the Oswego has smallmouths), the most cooperative critters in fast water.

Decked out in large scales that shine like proof silver, the fallfish is America’s largest native minnow east of the Rocky Mountains. Averaging about 6 inches, specimens reaching over 20 inches have been reported. As eager to take a nymph as a streamer, a worm as a minnow, they’ve disappointed countless anglers who thought they were fighting a nice trout.

However, sensitive fly fishermen don’t hold it against them too long, and usually walk away from the encounters respecting the little guys for their violent strikes and spirited fighting abilities.

Some call ‘em chubs, others say they’re shiners. Most don’t know what they are…and don’t care.
But one thing’s for sure, they’re an integral part of America’s Northeastern streams. Most everyone who swings streamers through the waters pouring out of the Tug Hill Plateau has caught ‘em, and many are delighted they’re around because they can save the day when the trout have lock jaw.

While they’re a little strong for the delicate human palate, they’re the preferred item on a big trout’s menu.  And that’s good for trout lovers.

Large fallfish like this 15 incher are common; 20-something inchers are possible.
Fallfish hit streamers almost half their size.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Bug Time

By Spider Rybaak

Bass bugs and poppers
Summer’s end shifts life into overdrive. It’s now or never for seasonal plants and animals, including insects. And while big, creepy, crawling things are enough to keep average folks away from unsprayed waterfront, bass, and the guys who chase ‘em, head for the bank.

You see, September’s nights are longer and cooler than July’s and August’s, stirring comfortable temperatures into the shallows, luring the game fish that split for the deep to escape summer’s heat. Back in their old turf, it doesn’t take long for them to resume feeding on the menu of delights that falls into the drink from the grass, bushes, and branches lining shore.

The commotion that a crawling or flying terrestrial insect makes in its struggle to stay afloat is like a dinner bell. The louder and sloppier it is, the more it excites the emotions of the pillars of the aquatic community living below. Indeed, a splash that would have spooked a hawg bass a couple weeks ago now draws him in to investigate. And if the source of the racket is winged, or hairy with legs hanging all over the place, the game fish will suck it in like an hors d’oeuvre.

While some of the terrestrial animals which large game fish find tasty are pretty big (snakes, young waterfowl, baby muskrats come to mind), the vast majority are much smaller, ranging in size from a yellow jacket to a mouse. Over the years, a class of lures has been developed to imitate hapless terrestrials trapped in the drink: poppers.

They come in two styles: deer-hair- and cork-bodied.

The former is generally made of bucktail shaped to resemble anything from crayfish and sunfish to mice. Cork-bodied varieties are about the size and shape of the bottom of a Hi-liter in the front, with the body tapering towards the back, ending in a tail of feathers. Both have flat faces so they gurgle and spit when retrieved; cork models have rubber legs protruding enticingly from the sides.

Poppers range from over an ounce to 1/32 oz.--even smaller.  Those running from 1/16 oz and less are too light to be cast with conventional fishing equipment. They’re designed to be worked with fly-fishing tackle.
Poppers are worked by retrieving the line in short (six inches to a foot), sharp jerks, stopping for a second or two every now and then to set their little legs in motion, giving reluctant followers a chance to change their minds.

Fishing with poppers is a very visual experience. Imagine jerking a spitting object over the surface. Suddenly, a swell appears behind the bug, followed by a mouth the size of a toy steam shovel sucking in the offering. Some fish are so enthusiastic, they jump clear out of the water when they hit, practically pulling the rod out of your hands.

Fly-fishing with large bass bugs requires a heavy line (at least 9 wt.) to carry the wind-resistant lure through the air. A classy Hardy fly- rod in excess of 8-feet long, with a matching Hardy fly-reel loaded with a Profile floating fly  line makes long distance casting possible.

Good spots to wade and fly-fish with bugs include Oneida Lake’s Phillips Point (Three Mile Bay/Big Bay Wildlife Management Area), Fulton’s Lake Neahtahwanta, and the pool at the mouth of Deer Creek (Deer Creek Wildlife Management Area). If you have a boat, Sandy Pond, the Salmon River estuary and any shallow, weedy area on Oneida Lake will lead to your fishing satisfaction.

Bass bugs and poppers are available at all bait shops, mail order houses like Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, and major dot.coms like Amazon.

Fat rock bass taken at Hoad Harbor; note the popper's legs protruding from its gill plate
Hawg bucketmouth taken at Phillips Point, Oneida Lake
Pickerel taken at Cleveland Docks, Cleveland

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Kings are Comin’ Back to Town

By Spider Rybaak

Kings at Sunrise
Dick Stanton is one of the best charter boat captains on Lake Ontario. So when he looked me straight in the eye--as serious as death, I may add--and said: “Spider, the big kings are comin’ to the end of their cycle; they gotta come in,” I knew I had to go fishing with him to his sweet spot out in front of Oswego Harbor…And fast.

We arranged to go last Wednesday (August 20). Sue Bookhout, a writer I know from Cazenovia, came along; Mike Gagliostro, a real estate agent from Auburn, served as first mate. We launched Dick’s 10 meter Trojan (a sweet craft 33 feet long with a 13-foot beam) from Wrights Landing, 6 a.m. sharp.

“The bite’s been tough, lately,” Stanton admits as we’re heading out, blaming it on the weather. “We’ve had four or five days of pretty good wind, and it drove the temperature deep, 130 to 160 feet down.”

“So what’s the plan for today?” I ask.

“We’ll go see,” he replies. “We were 10 for 16 yesterday, including a 30-pounder, so we’ll probably fish the same way.”

Once past the lighthouse we head due north for a couple miles.

“There’s a lot of bait and fish out here,” Dick announces. “They’re from 80 to 137 feet deep.”

Mike goes to work setting out spoons and flasher/ fly combos on downriggers, and sets a couple on copper lines on planer boards.

About half an hour later, one of the rods goes off. Before anyone knows what’s happening, Sue’s on it like a bobcat on a cottontail.

The battle lasts a respectable 10 minutes or so and ends with an 8-pound king flopping around on deck. He hit a UV Gator Michigan Stinger, 110 feet down over 137 feet of water.

Dick continues heading north. About a mile later, something grabs the flasher/fly combo on the wire to the right. 
Five extremely exciting seconds later, the fish spits the hook.

After another mile or so we’re in over 500 feet of water. I’m thinking ain’t nothing out this deep. Boy was I wrong.

A fish hits so hard the boat shudders. Just like the first one, Sue’s on it like lightning. The beast is a big, stubborn cuss.

While I’m enjoying the spectacle, the rod right next to her goes off. I grab it and the fight is on. Well, sort’a. The fish tries hard, pumping this way and that, but never strips any line off the reel. I could’a swore it was a bullhead, but I know they don’t hit flies trolled 100 feet down over 525 feet of water. It ends up being a pee-wee king, the runt of his year-class.

I put the fish in our cooler while Mike sets the line back out. Sue’s still deep in battle. A few minutes later, the salmon comes in, a decent 19-pounder.

Before the slapping sound of our high-fives can fade into silence, the familiar sound of a drag starts screaming at us from one of the rods on the left. It’s another king; this one about 25 pounds.

And so it goes, over and over. 

Three hours later we decide to pack it in. Our score: seven for nine; six kings and a nice chromer.

Dick says that from now until the end of September, the salmon bite off the mouth of the Oswego River is “gonna be awesome.”

It’s already starting. Some of the lake’s largest kings and cohos are staging in the area in preparation for their spawning run up the river. Their pre-spawn feeding binge is legendary and they can put on more weight in the last month of their lives than they have all year.

Unfortunately, the feed won’t last long. Indeed, the majority of mature salmon will stop eating entirely by the end of next month, and become zombies, rotting on the swim. 

But that’s cool, too. You see, monster trout, and young salmon will still be around…And hungry.

For the fishing trip of a lifetime, contact Dick Stanton at (315) 685-0651 (h), or 246-4767 (c);

Sue with her biggest of the day
Spider holding the day's biggest king
The days only Steelhead

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Algae Blooms of Summer

By Spider Rybaak

Algae blooms don't stop fish from biting

Two of the state’s most productive lakes, Oneida and Neahtahwanta, are nestled in Oswego County. Their above average fisheries are attributable, in large part, to their shallowness, which allows the sun to warm them quicker, and reach bottom over a larger area than in neighboring bodies of water.

But all those wonderful factors breed a funky side, too: algae blooms.

Found in all stagnant and slow moving waters, algae are an essential part of the environment. Comprising one of the bottom links of the food chain, they’re the main dish of zooplankton, minnows, and tiny insects, which feed bigger fish, which ultimately feed man.

Come summer, however, high temperatures and intense light conspire with the carpet of nutrients on the lake’s floor to create ideal conditions for algae growth. What’s more, insecticides entering the water on run-off contribute to the devil’s brew by killing off vast numbers of the tiny animals that graze on the rootless vegetation. Next thing you know, there’s an algae explosion.

Like everything else that goes up, their numbers must come down; and always do in a spectacular die-off. Fortunately for Oneida Lake, it has a river running through it. When the bloom crashes, it’s quickly dispersed and swept downstream.

Lake Neatahwanta isn’t so lucky. Although it’s fed by a small stream and some underwater springs, evaporation draws off much of what flows in and there isn’t enough power left in the water to break up, let alone disperse, the thick film undulating on the surface like old split-pea soup with rancid pork. At this point, there are only two routes the dead algae can follow: decompose in place and sink to the bottom, or pile up on shore in jagged, blue-green cakes resembling dried river mud in a psychedelic nightmare.

According to Washington State’s Department of Ecology, pets and wild animals have reportedly died after intense exposure to algae blooms. And while people have been known to suffer bouts of stomach pain, diarrhea, and vomiting after swimming or water skiing in the stuff; and folks with a history of intense exposure--like drinking the water--have even come down with nerve and liver damage, there has never been a confirmed death of a human from algae bloom exposure.

So, while the lake smells and looks dead, it’s anything but. Terrestrial beasts and water fowl tend to avoid the liquid miasma because it can make them sick. But the fish don’t seem to mind a bit. In fact, the coating seems to provide shade from the sun, beckoning the fish close to shore.

Just about every lake angler with a few years of experience under his belt has come into contact with blue green algae. Many have even waded in it without any adverse effects.

However, public health officials worry blue-green algae can make you sick and suggest avoiding contact with it.  If some gets on you, they suggest you wash the area thoroughly with soap and water.

Use common sense - don’t drink water with scum floating on it, or any untreated surface water, for that matter. Be especially wary of water that looks like it has a blue-green paint slick on it, or looks like and has the consistency of split pea soup, and smells really nasty.

Close up of blue-green algae

Monday, July 14, 2014

Off the Wall Panfish

By Spider Rybaak

Josh, a resident of Hannibal, NY, with a rock bass he took off the Outer West  Breakwater

Oswego, the first port city on the Great Lakes, has three breakwaters protecting its harbor. Replaced and updated over the years, most recently in the 1930s, these concrete structures have been pounded for four generations by the elements. The outer west breakwater, the longest of the barriers, bears the brunt of the abuse.  Its decaying concrete, punctuated by huge holes punched through it by waves and ice, stands in silent testimony to how violent Lake Ontario can get when the wind hits her the wrong way. The only one of the breakwaters accessible to foot traffic, it stretches for roughly 2,000 yards, from the steam station (the two massive smokestacks on the city’s west side) all the way to the lighthouse, a fabulous structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The city of Oswego owns the lighthouse and the Coast Guard operates it. And while the authorities would rather folks stayed off the structure leading out to it, a motley crew of individuals ranging from sightseers and lighthouse buffs to extreme joggers and anglers use the wall as an adventurous route to recreational satisfaction.

There’s really nothing preventing folks from venturing out on the breakwater. Signs posted on the path at the corner of the parking lot at the end of 6th Avenue warn of the hazards slippery and windy conditions pose. But you’re allowed to decide whether you want to risk going out there or not.

From autumn through spring, that’s a no brainer: conditions are generally so extreme, frigid whitecaps slam into the wall. If you’re walking on top of it you’ll probably get hypothermia in less than 100 yards, or, even worse, washed into the drink. And if you think you can beat the wind by walking the apron skirting the bottom of the barrier’s south edge, think again; even on mildly windy days Lake “O’s” waves grow high enough to wash over the top, soaking anyone down below.

Come summer, however, warm temperatures and a wealth of panfish translate into a fishing adventure gung-ho anglers can‘t resist. Most are creatures of comfort and never venture more than a couple hundred feet beyond the breakwater’s source.

They don’t have to.  “Lake perch entering the harbor from the west follow the wall,” says Oswego’s Rob Copeland. And this invariably brings them, likeminded lake smallmouths, even an occasional salmon, brown or steelhead right into the corner where the steam plant and breakwater meet.

“Schools of lake perch are unpredictable,” advises Copeland, suggesting when you hit them just right, you can catch fish till the cows come home. “But when they ain’t around, there just ain’t any around.”

Rock bass can always be counted on to come to the rescue, however. Spring sees massive quantities of the critters averaging about a pound swarm into the Oswego River. Indeed, the fishing is so magical in May, it’s become the stuff of legend.

 After spawning, most head back out for open water. Enough find the habitats in the relatively shallow shipping channel stretching from Wrights Landing to the powerhouse to their liking and take up permanent residence. “There’s so many,” claims Copeland, if you find them, you’ll catch one with every cast.”

One of the most productive spots is the small section of wall jutting due north from the western edge of the powerhouse, just before it banks to the right. Worms, minnows, crayfish and small lures all produce a lot of the feisty googleyes.

But even this close to shore, there’s always the chance a rogue wave can roar over the wall and sweep you into the drink. It’s a good idea to wear a flotation device whenever you’re recreating anywhere near the breakwaters…especially if you venture out a ways. Be safe, fish longer!

If you don’t mind struggling with brush, the shipping channel’s south bank, directly below Breitbeck Park is immune to unexpected wave action and offers the best northern pike and largemouth bass fishing in the city of Oswego. The channel hasn’t been dredged since tankers stopped delivering fuel oil to the steam station some 50 years ago, and a massive weed bed develops each summer. These alpha predators grow big on the cornucopia thriving in the thick vegetation.

The bass take spinnerbaits, YUM Dingers, wide-bodied crankbaits and swimbaits. The northerns respond to all the above except the stickworms, and also like buzzbaits and bucktail jigs. Dark colors like green pumpkin work best when the water’s murky; bright colors work best when it’s clear.

Josh's spot on the breakwater
Lake Ontario's waves easily pouring over the top of the Outer West Breakwater.
Rob and Melaina Copeland heading out to the Outer West Breakwater