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

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Early November Veterans Days

By Spider Rybaak
Disabled Warriors Fly Fishing

Oswego is one of the most patriotic counties in New York. Last weekend’s tribute to our Nation’s disabled warriors proves it.

The main event was a fly fishing outing on the Salmon River sponsored by Project Healing Waters Inc. ( Started 10 years ago at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, the group’s mission is “dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings.”

As in the past, the outing was held in the restricted section of the Salmon River behind the hatchery in Altmar. Eighteen veterans and active duty personnel registered in sanctioned rehabilitation programs participated.

Fran Verdoliva, the state’s special assistant for the Salmon River, and coordinator of the event said:  “We had a lot of guys with prosthetic devices, including artificial legs, and most of them still waded out into the river. Three drift boats were available for those with mobility problems.”

And the fish were there. Every participant caught at least one, and many caught multiples.
John Patterson, a disabled Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, caught 8.

“While some veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan participated, this year is the first in which Vietnam War veterans made up the majority,” claimed Verdoliva. “They came from as far away as Binghamton and Rochester.”

Marine Corp veteran and motel owner Stan Oulette conducted a private veterans hunting event at his Deer Creek Motel and Pheasant Shooting Preserve (315-298-3730) on NY 3, a couple miles north of Port Ontario.

Stan has been inviting disabled veterans for free hunts on his property for years. He’s been able to accommodate amputees with an Action Trackchair generously donated to him by Paragon Medical’s Tobias Buck for use in his program.

Stan offers free hunts, complete with free lodging, to any veteran with a 30% or higher disability.
Besides pheasant hunts over trained dogs, Stan offers wild goose and deer hunting as well.

Fish On!
Daniel Morgan, a Project Healing Waters volunteer, holds a steelie caught by
First Sergeant Ira Strouse (not pictured) while Jim Kelso, a Vietnam Veteran, looks on.
Autumn Scene on the Salmon River

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

More to Come

By Spider Rybaak

Ryan of Mayfield with a chromer he took at Ellis Cove.

Sour grapes have been grumbling--loud enough to be heard above the rapids, in fact--that the king and coho runs on the Salmon River ain’t what they used to be. Truth of the matter is the runs are as good-- some say even better--than ever. Problem is, the salmon seem to be evolving, getting smarter.
Fran Verdoliva, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Special Assistant for the Salmon River claims: “By last week, the hatchery has taken 3.9 million chinook eggs. Typically we only get 3 million per season.”

That suggests roughly 25 percent more fish are making it to the hatchery than usual.
“A lot of fish are moving at night,” claims Verdoliva, adding “each morning, the hatchery is loaded with ‘em, and has been all season long, so far.”

They’ve been running in daylight, as well.

“There was a pretty substantial run last month,” says Verdoliva. “We had a major run the second week of October and last week, too,” he continues, “and right now [October 20] the hatchery is overflowing with cohoes.”

And there’s more good news. “Everything was running progressively slower than people are used to,” says Fran, indicating there’s more to come.
As a rule, the major runs are over by now. Still, fresh fish will charge the river in spurts into mid-November, and late-maturing individuals will continue heading for the hatchery for the rest of the month, even into December.

The browns and steelhead are on schedule, too.

“There’s more steelhead here than salmon,” claimed an angler at Ellis Cove last Sunday, just as two kings porpoised at the end of the pool he was fishing. He had two nice chromers on a stringer to back up his words, rising kings notwithstanding.

And that’s the way it was throughout the river. Some kings were on stringers above Pineville, but the vast majority was catching steelies and browns.

Currently, your chances of catching eitherspecies are pretty equal. Football browns are common right now but will peter out by the New Year; Steelies will start dominating soon.

Like life, the only thing certain about this fishery is change.  And while some target a specific species and actually feel disappointed when they catch something else, most guys are more appreciative, feeling king, coho, brown or steelie, doesn’t matter: they’re all worthy opponents.

The egg sucking black stonefly Ryan used to nail his steelie.

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