Thursday, April 2, 2015

April Ice

Scriba Creek on opening day of trout season, 2015
By Spider Rybaak

If you like ice and snow, this past winter (It’s spring, right?) fulfilled your wildest fantasies. In fact, it’s still giving us a chill.

April 1st, opening day of trout season, saw anglers struggling through knee-deep snow just to get to the water. Once they made it to the edge, their trouble was worth it.

“The mild thaw has Scriba Creek running perfectly, almost at summer levels” said one angler while putting his gear away at the side of the road. “Normally I have to bounce worms on bottom with lots of weight this time of year because the water’s too high and cold to use anything else,” he added.

“Not today. I landed two 12-inchers, and had a nice brown of about 15 inches break free. They all hit a gold ribbed hare’s ear nymph,” added the Cleveland resident who declined to give his name.

“What a thrill. I was actually fly-fishing--this time of year, no less-- a sinking line, no additional weight at all. The big one came out from under the bank, and hit right in front of me. It was like slow motion in the clear water, man. After jumping a couple of times, he spit the fly back at me like it was old gum,” he chuckled.

Oneida Lake is still solidly in winter’s grip, handing icers some dynamite late season opportunities.

What’s good for the anglers isn’t ideal for the birds. Canada geese and other migratory waterfowl are having trouble finding liquid water. Most are concentrated in the Oneida River on the east side of Brewerton.

A few others are treading shallow water at the mouths of small streams trickling down from the Tug Hill Plateau. Works of natural art, these rivulets slowly, deliberately tear into Oneida Lake’s icy crown, reaching further and further into the drink by the hour, giving cabin weary soft water anglers something reassuring to look at while waiting for ice-out.


Oneida Lake resident Susan Douglass
admiring a rivulet busting through the ice.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Last Chance Snowshoeing

By: Spider Rybaak

Reading the Trail Guide.
This winter has been disciplined…so far. The cold and snow came when they were supposed to, and temperatures remained low enough to keep things icy for the past couple months, without benefit of a January or February thaw.  Now March is giving us the cold shoulder with a controlled melt, slowly, teasingly, letting the landscape peek through the snow.

And that’s a welcome sight for Oswego County’s walkers. While living in one of the snowiest regions of the country accustoms us to winter, the long spell of exceptionally frigid conditions we’ve just endured forced a lot of us to spend most of the past few weeks bundled up indoors.

Something we’re not used to. You see, winter’s a fact of life around here. Its patchwork of sparkling, squeaky-clean ice and snow is beautiful to behold. And when it’s so brutally cold that we’re forced to stay inside for most of the season, we miss it.

Fortunately, the way March is going we’re getting us another chance: it’s frigid enough to keep winter fresh; mild enough to let us comfortably play in the snow.

Now, I’m too old to romp around in it. But I love to admire frozen water’s handiwork. Fortunately, Oswego County is my kind’a place: loaded with natural beauty, and expert at clearing the roads leading there.

Take the Salmon River falls for instance. Towering about 100 feet high, it’s almost totally frozen, clinging to the cliff like a clump of massive, icy columns held together by welds of frozen foam.

Upstream and down below, its course is a work of art.  Shelves of ice reach out toward the middle for its entire length. In slow moving stretches, like in the village of Pulaski, a cap of ice envelops the stream, a few narrow strips of dark brown water punching through the center like monster, porpoising salmon.

All the while, life goes on: anglers climbing its snowy banks and wading its icy flow; deer drinking from its banks; steelhead breaking water while climbing the rapids.

The weatherman predicts the next few days will be unseasonably cold, promising the river’s frosty setting a short respite from its looming fate.

Better hurry, though spring is only a couple weeks away. And like all youth, it’s enthusiastic and energetic, eager for the ice and snow to go away.

Get there from I-81 exit 36 (Pulaski) by heading south on NY 13 for about 8 miles to Altmar, turn left on CR 22, travel a little over 4 miles, turn right on Falls Road and continue for 1.5 miles.

The falls, like many natural wonders, can be dangerous if you're careless. Exercise caution and common sense when admiring its beauty; and always go with a friend.

You're gonna need snowshoes; there's still 2 feet of snow at the Salmon River Falls.
Salmon River Falls from the overlook at Falls Road.
Want more information on snowshoeing in Oswego County? Visit http://visitoswegocounty.com/the-great-outdoors/cross-country-skiing-snowshoeing/

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Salmon River in the wake of a Record February.

By Spider Rybaak

Lawn Chair for the Weary
Folks will be talking about last February for years. The daily temperature only averaged 9 degrees Fahrenheit and the month never saw the mercury rise above freezing. Add 50-something inches of snow to the equation and you come up with the wintriest February on record.

So far, March doesn’t seem to be much better. In fact, the way it’s roaring outside the window today (March 2), you’d think it’s trying to imitate last month. But the weather forecast is calling for a couple days above freezing late this week, maybe warmer next week, making it a good bet that the month will spend some of its time luxuriating under balmy March conditions-- days in the 40s and 50s.

With all that snow piled up out there, the mild weather will unleash torrents of run-off. Fortunately, the weatherman predicts moderate warming for the near future, which will raise water levels slowly, just enough to draw steady runs of fresh steel into Lake “O’s” tributaries.

The feeder most favored by the majority of chromers is the Salmon River. The fish have been coming up all winter. But the anglers haven’t. As a result, the stream’s full of ‘em—more than usual. And their numbers are growing daily.

It ain’t all rosy, however. Shelves of ice cling to the river’s banks below Pineville, and a little further down, the ice actually crosses the river.

But it’s still a great time to go for them in Altmar. The water is at perfect levels and the river is at a constant 34 degrees; cold by our standards, heavenly to chromers. Snowpack makes getting down to the river a little challenging, but well-beaten paths lead to all the popular spots.

Better hurry, though. All the snow that’s been clobbering us is gonna melt eventually. Hopefully, it’ll do so gradually, taking  the river all month to reach spring levels. And while the fishing is sure to be great then, why wait? The slow snowmelt we’re enjoying now offers loads of opportunities, and elbow room to boot.

Egg sacs and glo bugs are the bait of choice for most anglers. Fly-fishing purists are doing well on patterns like copper Johns and black stonefly nymphs. Spey casters are getting their fair share swinging brown or chartreuse wooly buggers through the current. Spinning enthusiasts working inline spinners like Roostertails slowly through pools and deep pockets are getting fresh trout, too. Float-fishermen are catching a lot on beads and 3-inch Berkley Trout Worms.

The main thaw is still a ways off. In the meantime, the Salmon River is fat with steelies just begging for your attention. Hit the stream at your earliest convenience; you’ll be glad you did.

Salmon River set in a Crown of Ice, Pulaski, NY
Steelheading last Monday in Snowy Altmar


Friday, January 30, 2015

Sandy Pond on Ice

By Spider Rybaak

Ice shanties on Sandy Pond.
You seldom hear Lake Ontario and ice-fishing in the same breath. That’s because you can’t trust the wind out there. Even during the most severe winters, when the lake is entombed in white for as far as the eye can see, the ice is brittle at best and all it would take is a Canadian sneeze to fragment it, blowing it south to pack sunny Oswego's beaches in an icy, pizza-like crust.

That’s why nature gave us the Eastern Lake Ontario Dune and Wetland Area, 17-miles of sandy beach stretching from the mouth of the Salmon River to just north of the Black Pond Wildlife Management Area. And while the dunes and magnificent shoreline draw countless sun worshipers from around the world in summer; and the viewing platforms spotting the wetlands see hordes of birdwatchers spring and fall; winter gets into the act, too, beckoning legions of anglers to the ponds tucked-in behind the dunes, to walk on water and drill for fish dinners.

Eight large ponds grace the place. The northernmost, Black Pond, is unpredictable; a couple years ago high water broke through the sand barrier at the beach and drained the thing, leaving nothing but a skinny creek. And South Sandy, the southernmost pond, doesn't offer any public access. The six in-between boast fish year-round and some, like South Colewell Pond, even have public launch sites with parking, but they’re not always plowed.

That leaves the biggest in the system, North Sandy Pond. Measuring about 3 miles long and over a mile wide, fed by numerous creeks, loaded with habitat warm water species thrive in and boasting some of the first safe ice in the county, it’s the premier ice-fishing destination on this corner of the big lake.

The pond is best known for its northern pike and perch fisheries. Northerns ranging from 22 to 28 inches, and perch running from 7 to 10 inches are plentiful, and quite a few larger specimens are available. Lake walleyes are becoming more and more common under the ice around here. Their hormones hooked out in the lake by the pond’s fragrant plume, big females start trickling in around late February, and spawned-out males hang around for a couple weeks after the season opens. Look for them over rocky bottoms on the south end, near the mouth of Little Sandy Creek.

This is also the best spot to catch steelhead on their way to spawn in Little Sandy Creek. Crappies and sunfish are also popular, and mostly targeted on the north end.

Limited street parking, a large pay lot, and free pond access (the slot on the east side of the restaurant) are available at the end of Wigwam Drive, off CR 15. Free parking and winter access (though not always plowed) are available at Sandy Pond Beach, at the end of CR 15. Woody’s Tackle, a full service bait shop located on NY 3, about three miles south of the pond, can provide up-to-the-minute fishing information. Call 315-298-2378. Sandy Pond is ringed in private property. Don’t venture on anyone’s land without permission.
Iced jack perch. 
Walleye on ice.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Crown Jewel at First Ice: Big Bay

By Spider Rybaak

Hardwater village on Big Bay
One thing you can count on to grace the face of New York’s inland lakes this time of year is safe ice. And while all the ponds in the northern tier can make that claim, none comes close to hooking the imaginations of as many Northeastern anglers as Oneida Lake. The ice bite is so superior, the world’s most popular freshwater fishing magazine, “In-Fisherman,” lists it regularly in its winter edition’s “Adventure” section as the place to go for hardwater fish dinners.

All the warmwater species popular with ice-fishermen thrive here: schools of keeper-sized walleyes, dream-sized yellow perch, black crappie and sunfish, great quantities of pickerel, and a smattering of northern pike, tiger muskies and burbot (freshwater cod).

The shallow water that makes this lake so productive (it averages 22 feet deep) makes fishing relatively easy, too. And although just about any spot produces at one time or other, the crown jewel at first ice is Big Bay.
Its massive weed bed, shallow water and the slightly warmer temperatures pumped in by tributaries like Big Bay and Little Big Bay Creeks make it the lake’s most heavenly spot for panfish at ice time.

The northwestern corner offers the hottest action. On a good weekend, up to 100 shanties spot the ice within a stone’s throw of Woodworth Road in West Monroe.

Bluegills wider than a giant man’s hand fill most of the space in the buckets being hauled back to shore. Most are taken on ice dots tipped with mousies or spikes.

Perch, predominately in the 6- to 8-inch class, are also available and strike the same baits the sunnies do.
Crappies running from 9 to 13 inches are plentiful, too.  They prefer larger baits like waxworms tipped on Swedish Pimples, and buckeyes and fathead minnows fished plain or tipping rattling hardware.

Panfish move around a lot throughout the water column, so fish at various depths until you find ‘em. Pickerel thrive in the bay, and the lake’s dwindling population of northern pike, as well as an occasional tiger that comes up the Oneida River, hang out in the weeds clinging to the drop-off at the bay’s mouth.

Burbot, a native species requiring cold water, normally occupy spring holes in the deepest parts of the lake. The state’s only indigenous fish that spawns in winter, they come into relatively shallow water where they’re likely to hit minnows targeting pike and perch. Since most anglers have never seen one, they mistake it for a snakehead or other alien and toss it on the ice to die.

And that’s a terrible waste because, like all cod, burbots are delicious. In fact, Minnesota has been holding an annual eelpout  (the Midwestern name for the species) festival for 30 years (www.eelpoutfestival.com).

Jack and Jake Hackett of Fulton and one of their bluegills

Burbot may look ugly but they sure taste good


Friday, January 2, 2015

Winter Swans and Soft Water Fishing

By Spider Rybaak
A couple hardy anglers trying for the last pike of 2014 at Cleveland Docks

The calendar says it’s winter; but all the mud outside says spring. Sometimes you have to laugh at the tricks nature plays on us; and go with it.

Last year folks were drilling through safe ice on Oneida Lake before Christmas, and the hard water stuck around well into March.

This year it’s an entirely different story. What little ice managed a toehold around the edge of the lake earlier in the month is gone, throwing die-hard icers into the depths of despair with worry they won’t have a season this year.

“Just look at the lake,” cried a grizzled old timer in a North Shore bar last weekend. “You’d be hard pressed to find an ice cube out there right now… In the end of December!…It just ain’t right!.”

As he sat hunched over, watering down his drink with tears, a guy comes in to show off a limit of walleyes he caught at Sylvan Beach by slowly walking the north wall, dragging a Rapping Jig, tipped with buckeyes, a few inches off bottom.

He claimed a couple guys were still “dredging for pike with jigs and worms on spinner harnesses, but a stiff wind just started blowing out of the north and staying put in the frigid air is very uncomfortable.”

The low hill on Cleveland’s north side carries prevailing northwesterlies over the village, dropping them a few hundred feet off shore. A couple guys took advantage of the cover.

Natives of North Bay, they stood at the lake end of the harbor wall, casting minnow baits anywhere there was water. Knowing their stuff, they and worked their baits in a variety of ways; steady retrieves, jerking, twitching on the surface, stop-and-go, you name it.

Their efforts netted 3 pickerel, including a 28-inch monster, all 3 to 5 feet down, over deep water.

A little further west on NY 49, just outside of Constantia, a flurry of white cruised gracefully on Sunset Bay: 40 or so tundra swans in route to winter range were taking a break, feeding on the vegetation in the shallow water.

Unlike mute swans, the orange-faced European imports you see at duck ponds, tundra swans have black faces with a yellow spot just before their eyes, and a faint strip of pink lining the back half of their lower jaw. Native to western and central North America, they spend the summer in arctic ponds and winter down south. In recent years, they’ve expanded their range further east, creating a new fly-way which carries them over Oneida Lake.

They’ll stay on Sunset Bay until ice or human harassment run them off.

The state’s largest body of water, Oneida Lake invites a wide variety of migratory waterfowl this time of year. NY 49 skirts long stretches of their favorite feeding sites. Better hurry, though, all it’ll take is a couple cold, quiet nights for ice to crown the lake, closing it to migratory waterfowl until spring.
Flock of Tundra Swams feeding at Sunset Bay


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Last Chance Big Game

By Spider Rybaak

Ray Swope, 2012, New Haven (Third Largest Buck in NYS since 1939)

Deer are easiest to get on opening day, especially in the morning. Returning to the woods after feeding all night in the fields, they’re suddenly ambushed by legions of hunters who weren’t there the night before—or all year, for that matter.

The second best time to bag a buck is Thanksgiving. While the deer aren’t as careless--relatively speaking, of course--as they were on the opener, most guys get the holiday off and the massive presence of men in the woods keeps the critters moving, often right into someone’s sights.

After Turkey Day the pickin’s get pretty slim. You see, a lot of hunters indulge in the sport because tradition drives them to; and an equal number hunt for social purposes. For these guys, it only takes one time out to give them bragging rights for the year. Once that’s out of the way, they spend their leisure time in the living room, channel surfing the road to the Final Four.

Still, the crack of guns targeting big game rips through the silence of late autumn’s landscape until mid-December. Its source: lone hunters indulging the extreme challenge of pitting their personal intelligence and skill against the extraordinary senses and instinct nature has endowed wildlife with since the dawn of time.

Oswego County is one of the state’s best spots for solo, late-season big game hunting. Split almost equally into northern and southern zones, it boasts over 40,000 acres of public lands, mostly in the northeastern townships of Albion (Happy Valley Wildlife Management Area off NY 104), Boylston (Little John WMA, off CR 17), Redfield (Little John and Hall Island WMAs, Battle Hill and Salmon River State Forests, all accessible off CR 17), and Orwell (Chateaugay and Salmon River SF off CR 2).

Known for lake effect snowfall reaching in excess of 300 inches annually, this area is hard on deer. Only the strongest fawns survive, resulting in some of the biggest bucks in the state.  In fact, one of the largest bucks ever recorded in New York was taken in Oswego County.

Whitetails aren’t the only big game this area supports; black bear call these woods home, too.
New York has always boasted the largest population of bruins in the Eastern U.S., mostly in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains. Recently, rangers have been monitoring sows with cubs (the state requires breeding pairs to be present in an area before listing it as bear country) in the Tug Hill Plateau Region.

To learn more about Central NY’s bruins, check out the DEC’s on-line publication “Black Bears in NY: Natural History, Range and Interactions with people.” If that plants the seed of bear hunting into your imagination, the DEC’s on-line publication “Hunting Bear in NY,” will show you how to do it.

Big game hunting season is rapidly coming to a close. The regular season closes on Dec. 7. However, special bow and muzzle loader seasons run until Dec. 14 in the Northern Zone’s WMU 6G, and Dec. 16 in the Southern Zone.

Image from DEC