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

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. (www.projecthealingwaters.org). 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.