Friday, January 29, 2016

Late Season Hunting in Oswego County

By Spider Rybaak

Happy Valley Wildlife Management Area provides habitat for a number of species, including snowshoe hares. (photos by Janet Clerkin)
Oswego County crosses the line. It’s one of only six counties in New York that boasts territory—in almost equal measure—in the state’s northern and southern zones. While that may seem inconsequential, it plays a big role in game populations.

For instance, we’re one of the few counties in the state that boast cottontail rabbits and varying hares, commonly called snowshoes. While both belong to the family Lagomorph and look the same, the resemblance stops there. Hares are almost twice as big as cottontails, don’t burrow, bear young dressed in full coats of fur, and hit the ground running almost as soon as they’re born. What’s more, cottontails stay brown year-round and cotton to fields; whereas snowshoes turn white in winter and thrive in woods.

Cottontails are the state’s most common rabbit. One of the main reasons is because they’re burrowing critters, and run for the safety of their holes at the first sign of danger. Their favored habitat is fields, particularly in farm country.

Snowshoes, on the other hand, are forest creatures. Their preferred range is early successional habitat, particularly stands of young pines offering low branches for cover.

Their preference for hiding under bushy trees rather than jump into a hole makes them extremely vulnerable to predation, especially by coyotes. So a small wood patch won’t do. They need large forests--like the ones found in northern Oswego County--to keep a safe distance from predators.
Snowshoes had their heyday in the middle of the last century, after massive numbers of hardscrabble farmers gave up trying to eke a living out of the poor soil in the county’s northeastern corner and abandoned their homesteads. Nature took over, spreading new growth over the barren fields.

Snowshoes from “Up North” came down, found the browse to their liking-- and settled in. The rich food supply and ample cover lead to an explosion in their numbers.

The forests are older now, their branches too high to offer snowshoes much food or cover. Still, there’s enough low browse around to support hares. Indeed, Oswego County is famed for being one of the varying hares’ southernmost ranges in the state.

There ain’t many of ‘em--compared to cottontails--so you’ll have to work to get them. Bear in mind, however, they’re twice as big as bushytails so you don’t need as many.

The best spot to hunt them around here is 8,645-acre Happy Valley Wildlife Management Area. Roughly three miles of NY 104 runs along the north end, about four miles east of I-81.

A few other good spots to try include the 538-acre Salmon River Reforestation Area (split in half by CR 2, about 10 miles east of Pulaski) and 8,020-acre Little John Wildlife Management Area (off CR 17, in the northeastern corner of the county).

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Oswego’s Happy Hunting Grounds

By Spider Rybaak

Observation deck provides a nice view of the marsh.
Oswego County boasts a reputation as one of the world’s premier fishing destinations. Its claims to fame include Oneida Lake, the walleye capital of the Northeast, and the Salmon River, the best salmonid stream in the Northeast, and source of the world record coho salmon; a species native to the Pacific Ocean, no less.

However, the county’s wealth of fish-rich waters isn't the only thing that spurs outdoor enthusiasts to salivate when hearing our name. Indeed, Oswego is rich in forests and fields, too, places that draw legions of hunters, photographers, snowshoers, you name it.

One of the most popular outdoor destinations is Deer Creek Marsh Wildlife Management Area. Located off NY Rte. 3, a couple miles north of Port Ontario, this 1,195-acre public area offers a couple miles of scenic, easy paddling from the canoe launch off the highway to the mouth on Lake Ontario, hiking trails through lowland forest, and one of the finest examples of a wetland in the 17-mile long Eastern Lake Ontario Dune and Barrier System.

Formed over the millennium by sand piled up along the shore by the lake’s incessant wave action, our sand dunes tower above Lake Ontario like the sides of a bowl, offering the finest example of Great Lakes dunes this side of Lake Michigan.

Although most popular with warm weather travelers, the dunes near the mouth of Deer Creek have their winter fans, too: hunters, snowshoers, and photographers.

Hunters are drawn by the plentiful game: deer and turkey in autum; squirrels, partridge, pheasants and cottontails right now. Snowshoers and photographers are lured here by lake-washed fresh air and striking winter scenery.

Then there’s snowmobiling, Oswego County’s greatest winter activity. Rest assured, whatever part of the county you may find yourself in, there’s a snowmobile trail nearby.

Oswego County has more than its fair share of magical natural wonders to explore year-round. Still, winter is the most magical season around these parts. Our snow is plentiful, our winter fisheries are legendary, and our hospitality is something to write home about.

Paddlers enjoy a leisurely trip. 
The beach is part of a 17-mile freshwater dune system. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Lake Neahtawanta: Best Kept Fishing Secret in Oswego County

By Spider Rybaak

The Pier at Lake Neatahwantha is a great place to teach kids to fish.
Covering roughly 750 acres on Fulton’s west side, skirted along its north bank by NY 3, Lake Neahtawanta affords easy access to the city’s 11,800-something residents.  Yet this huge pond on the edge of town doesn’t see many people at all.

You can blame its lack of fame on the Oswego River, the state’s second largest stream. Running through the heart of the city, boasting two sets of fish-rich rapids and a long stretch of canal, all lined with hundreds of yards of easy access, the river draws a lot of fishing pressure.

Natives don’t mind, however. Not because they’re altruistic and want to share their bounty; but because they have a plan B: Lake Neahtawanta.

Iroquois for “little lake near the big lake,” Lake Neahtawanta averages 6 feet deep and drops to a maximum depth of 12 feet. Roughly 75 percent of its shoreline is wooded, but its northeastern corner is wide open and public, offering loads of access on manicured lawns.

Savvy natives fish the place from the bank and boats. If you ask them how the fish are hitting, most remain calm, just shrug, and confess to catching some white perch, maybe a bullhead or carp. Not exactly something worth writing home to mom about.

That’s about all the attention most anglers give the place. And that’s a terrible shame.

Hailing from the south shore of Oneida Lake, I have all the dynamite fishing I want close to home and never found a good reason to fish this lake until 2010. That’s when Mike McGrath, my partner in a kids fishing program, suggested we do a couple sessions at Lake Neahtawanta. He took me up there and introduced me to the place.

The fishing was good. We added the spot to our list and have been staging a couple kids fishing classes there every year since.

Warm weather angling for white perch, bullhead and sunnies is popular from Bullhead Point Park. A pier stretches out for nearly 100 feet, and is favored by anglers who wish to fish in relatively deep water. The rough shoreline along the parking lot, and the manicured lawn that wraps around the northeastern corner for several hundred yards, are popular with folks who just want to kick back and relax while watching their rod tips for communications from the deep.

A few northerns and largemouth bass are also present, keeping things interesting. In fact, a local I know claims everything you find in the Oswego River, including unusual species like bowfin and gar, thrive in these waters.

Perhaps Neahtawanta’s greatest claim to fame is ice fishing.  In fact, its hard-water bite for crappies and panfish is legendary, drawing more anglers onto the ice than spring through fall.

While it’s possible to launch car-top craft from Bullhead Point, a more suitable spot is North Bay Campground. Located a couple hundred yards west of the point, at the end of Phillips Street, it offers a hard surface ramp. In addition, it has 36 seasonal sites and 42 day sites--each with easy access to the water--a camp store, a hard surface launch, a beach, bathhouse with showers, and a playground.

White perch are the lake's most cooperative fish.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Central NY’s Best Surf Fishing

By Spider Rybaak

Surf Fishing

Most folks think surf fishing is only productive off the beaches of big waters like the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. However, big lakes will do when oceans are few; and Oneida Lake ranks right up there with the best of 'em.

But there's a catch: beach fishing on New York's biggest lake is only productive in spring and fall when in-shore water temperatures range from the upper 50s to the lower 70s, drawing massive schools of minnows, with walleyes hot on their tails.

If you're like most guys, carrying a thermometer to check water temperatures isn't up your alley; you go by intuition instead. Die-hards wade for pike as early as late August and continue through November. Your average Oneida Lake surfer, on the other hand, hits the waves during their most productive time: mid-October through mid-November.

Don't confuse bank fishing with surf fishing. When you fish from shore, you're firmly on solid ground; whereas surf fishing leaves you standing in water up to your thighs or even higher with nothing but determination supporting you in the wind and waves.

But the rewards are great. Walleyes love the surf. That's because minnows in water that's only 2 to 5 feet deep have less room to escape than those in deeper water.

Best of all, fishing for walleyes in the shallows is very sensual. They often break the surface while chasing their prey, and while fighting to get off the hook.

The best way to fish the surf is with minnow-imitating crankbaits like Rapalas and Storm Thundersticks. While many believe rattling baits generally draw more strikes when the fish are aggressive, others say silent bait works all the time, even on moon-lit nights when the walleyes are skittish.

Toad Harbor Wildlife Management Area's Phillips Point (from NY49 in West Monroe, take Toad Harbor Road to McCloud Road) is the most popular spot to wade because it's remote and easily accessible from a public road.

There are other good spots, too; the shelf along the metal breakwater on the northeastern corner of the I-81 Bridge, for instance; and the rocky point reaching south from the Cleveland Docks Public Fishing Access Site off NY 49 in Cleveland.

Sunset: Best Time for Walleyes

Mixed Bag of Anglers in the Surf

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Salmon at the Gate

By Spider Rybaak

Stairway to Salmon Heaven.

Early birds have been complaining the kings and cohos are running late this year. But as anyone with a little knowledge about the species can tell ya, they gotta run sometime; and that sometime is soon.

Last Saturday sparked a few into moving. Not massive numbers, mind you, just enough to keep things interesting. In Altmar, visitors attending the hatchery’s annual open house were treated to a steady stream of cohoes and a smattering of kings climbing the fish ladder all day long.

Downstream, cohoes were porpoising all along the river, challenging anglers to come and get ‘em. Those who were savvy in bait presentation, and knew how to handle a rod connected to an angry salmon, caught their limits.

Rob, over at Fat Nancy’s, says guides are reporting the mouth of the Salmon River is loaded with fish.
Rick Miick, owner of Dream Catcher Charters and Guide Service (315-387-5920) agrees. “I was out last Sunday night and the place was loaded with fish. The mother lode of kings is 50 feet deep, about a mile straight out in front of the mouth,” he adds.

“The cold temperatures and rain the weatherman predicts for this week are bound to drive them upstream,” predicts Miick.”

Once the ball gets rolling, salmon will continue running heavy all of October, slowly petering out by mid- November, just in time to make room for the steelhead that’ll be lured upstream in search of salmon eggs swept from the spawning beds by the current.

Presently, Beaverdam Brook in Altmar is swollen with salmon making their way to the hatchery.

Visitors to the facility, located on CR 22, can expect to see cohoes averaging 8 pounds and kings weighing up to 40-something pounds climbing the fish ladder all day long.

While loads of salmon are already milling around the gate waiting to be admitted into the hatchery, the vast majority is still too green to be stripped of spawn. Hatchery personnel are expected to start collecting and mixing the ingredients around Columbus Day.

The public is invited to watch. Call the hatchery (315-298-5051) for details.

At the last rung.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Kings are Back in Town

By Spider Rybaak

At the west Dam in Oswego.

Boasting one of the most popular campuses in the State University of New York system, Oswego sees its share of out-of-towners. But the return of students in late summer isn’t this port city’s only surge of visitors. A river slices through the heart of town and when the salmon run its rapids this time each year, the license plates in the parking lots on both banks hail from all over the country.

The first fish trickle into the inviting current as early as late August. They don’t all come at once, but stagger their return: one here, a couple there, a dozen up the middle. A few today, more tomorrow, none the third day, and so many on the fourth day the river seems to push upstream.

Typically, late September sees the migration accelerate. Conditions are never exactly the same from year to year so there’s no sure-fire formula for when great quantities of fish will be there. The only thing that’s certain is that the fish will come…and anglers will follow hot on their tails.

One magical morning--sometimes as early as the second week of the month, other years not until the beginning of October--so many fish ascend the fast water, colorful locals swear the river rises a foot or more. Guys who wade the river encounter so many fish they have to dodge ‘em or risk being knocked over.
Last week saw groups of fish ranging from a dozen to a couple hundred running the rapids each day.
By Sept. 17, word got out and anglers punctuated the rapids like waving, multi-colored ribbons. Saturday saw massive numbers of anglers weaving through the fast water, many tugging straining stringers attached to salmon averaging 20 pounds.

The action petered out by Sunday, but enough fish kept climbing upstream to keep patient anglers plugging away at them all day long.

Ritch, an employee over at the west bank’s Larry’s Salmon Shop, claims “salmon are stacked up in the pools below the dam.”
“As a matter of fact, we get a good morning-bite right behind the bait shop,” he adds.

Salmon numbers will increase in the river steadily until the end of the month, when they’ll stabilize, offering  action bordering on fantasy through the month of October.
Football-sized browns will join them next month, offering world class trophy fishing for this popular species until December. They’ll be followed in mid-October by large quantities of bragging-sized steelhead which will continuously run upstream until early spring.

From the looks of the run so far, the bubbly in the city of Oswego will host another bumper crop of salmonid this season.

Come on up and cast some flies or egg sacs at this big water’s monster trout and salmon. The only thing that’s certain is your arms will get tired. You'll have a better than even chance of hooking the fish of your dreams; a thrill that’ll turn your aches into bragging rights.

Off the wall. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Lighthouse Hill Reservoir

By Spider Rybaak

Sign at the parking site on CR 22.
Cool September nights are starting to spur salmon into spawning mode. As of Monday, 9/14/2015 a few fish are trickling into the Salmon River, but “nothing too exciting yet!” according to an angler throwing streamers last weekend in the rapids upstream of the US 11 bridge in Pulaski.

From the looks of it, the run will follow the usual pattern: A few fish here and there up through this week, followed by major runs from next week through October, and then slowly petering out, all but disappearing from the stream by mid-November.

If you decide to head up this week and good numbers of fish aren’t in yet, a good alternative is to hit the Lower Reservoir for rainbows and browns. Also known as Lighthouse Hill Reservoir, this 164 acre impoundment is stocked annually with 4,000 yearling rainbows running 8 to 9 inches, and offers naturally spawned browns up to 5 pounds, and holdover rainbows averaging 2 pounds.

Summer sees the fish move to the 50-foot depths out in the middle where they’re pretty much ignored by anglers because the impoundment’s small size makes trolling for them hard work…and relatively boring. Still, the water filling the reservoir is drawn from the cool depths of the upper reservoir. Carried down the hill by a huge pipe, it’s protected from the sun and remains cool all the way to the powerhouse at Bennett Bridge.

September’s longer nights conspire with the flow released by the powerhouse to lower water temperatures enough to draw trout into shallow water. By the middle of the month, the fish move in close enough, especially at dawn and dusk, to be within range of guys casting spoons and spinners from shore.

The hottest action is at the reservoir’s tailrace where the cool, highly oxygenated rapids run at the perfect temperature and pace for trout. A good way to target them is by casting streamers across the current and letting them swing downstream. The fish usually strike when the fly hits the edge of the fast water and straightens out. Hold on tight because the strike is always violent, leading to the phrase: “the drug is in the tug.

Spinners and spoons cast upstream and across the current produce, too; and worms fished on bottom along the currents edge work after a rain.

Getting to the fish is easy, too. A fishing access site, complete with parking for about 10 cars, sits right off CR 22, between the bridges--one goes over the tailrace, the other over what’s left of the original Salmon River. Another access site is off Hog Back Road, on the east bank. The state’s regular trout regulations govern the water above the reservoir’s dam.

Tailrace Point powerhouse discharge on the left