Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Snow Time

Ice fishing for walleye

Songs riding the airwaves this time of year are full of references to the Holidays. But finding natural sights and sounds of the season are pretty tough. Unless you’re in Oswego County, that is.

For instance, anglers from all over the country come here to climb the rapids of the Salmon and Oswego Rivers, and Lake Ontario’s numerous smaller tributaries (called skinny creeks in fishing parlance), in search of steelhead, a species of rainbow trout that can go 20-something pounds. Although trophies this size can be elusive, area waters offer a reasonable chance at one. But even if you only get a relatively small specimen—they average six pounds—its bright green back, pink and silver sides, all speckled in dark spots, make it a living sign of the season.

Our friendly skies are loaded with seasonal fare, too. Snow and Canada Geese are plentiful, and, since the county is split into two migratory game bird hunting zones (northeastern and western), you can target snow geese in the Northeastern zone up until the New Year.

Winter Wonderland

After the Holidays, cold weather settles in and the county’s outdoor recreational opportunities really heat up.

Steelhead run Lake Ontario tributaries all season long to take advantage of their slightly warmer temperatures, and the cornucopia of salmon and trout eggs shifting currents constantly sweep out from autumn’s spawning beds.

If you’re into walking on water, Oneida Lake offers some of the best ice fishing for yellow perch and walleyes in the Northeast. If you prefer drilling for crappies and panfish, Lake Neahtahwantha, on the west side of Fulton, has been filling local’s freezers with the beasties for as long as anyone can remember. Finally, Sandy Pond is notorious for large perch and northern pike.

Small game hunting season for critters like ruffed grouse, squirrels and cottontail rabbits remains open until the end of February, while varying hare and cottontails can be taken in the northern zone until March 21.

Skirting the southeastern corner of the tiniest Great Lake, our entire county is blessed with a meteorological phenomenon known as lake effect. But even we have an area known for extreme snow: the Tug Hill Plateau, famed for the deepest snows this side of the Rockies. A 340-mile web of state-designated trails offers mechanized sledders access to the “The Hill” and neighboring Adirondack Mountains. This is Oswego County Snowmobile Association territory, an organization of 10 clubs whose members maintain the trail system and publish maps for snowmobile enthusiast that come from far and wide to enjoy the splendor of snow covered fields and forests.

Traditionalists who prefer to dash through the snow on skis or snowshoes will find these hard packed trails ideal for their recreational pleasure, too. What’s more, folks on foot have miles of Lake Ontario beaches to explore. Buffeted incessantly by northwesterlies, the shoreline is lined in a towering crust of pack ice carved by wind and waves from Mother Nature’s wildest imagination into snowy peaks and pot each erupting in slush with every passing wave to form crystalline castles with icicle chandeliers.

Another icy pursuit sure to boil your blood is ice climbing in the Salmon River Falls Unique Area. Home to endangered plants, this sensitive area’s cliffs are off limits, but the ice straddling the falls is open. While the trail to the bottom is closed in winter, climbers can use it provided they register daily by filling out a downloadable form and depositing it into the box at the on-site information kiosk. (FYI: Safe ice doesn’t generally form until around mid-February.)

There’s even stuff to do around here with man’s best friend. Dogs love running, and if they can do it in a pack, it’s even better. Dog sledding fills both these desires. “The Hill’s” heavy snows and the 9,233 acres of remote woods in the Winona State Forest that are crisscrossed with numerous trails, make northern Oswego County the perfect venue for this howling activity. In fact, the area is so perfect the Pennsylvania Sled Dog Club comes up each winter to stage competitive events.

If you prefer a more personal experience with Rover, try skijoring, an activity in which you don cross-country ski equipment, attach yourself to the dog with a line, and take off.

An optimist once proclaimed: When you get lemons, make lemonade. Oswego County treats winter the same way: When you get snow, make snowballs.

For more information on any of these exciting winter activities, go to

Another way to get the skinny on playing in Oswego County’s big back yard this winter is to visit Oswego County Tourism’s booth at the Northeastern Sport Show, Americraft Center of Progress Building, New York State Fairgrounds, Syracuse, NY. January 22-24, 2010.

NY’s longest-running event of its kind, the Northeastern Sport Show has been providing generations of Americans with mid-winter respites from cabin fever with a litany of displays devoted to the great outdoors.

Numerous North American hunting and fishing outfitters will be present. Their booths, lined with trophy mounts and photos--some even feature videos--will launch you on vicarious adventures of a lifetime. And if you decide you want to experience the real thing, the folks manning the tables will be happy to sign you up for the trip in your dreams.

Great sport shows don’t get that way by chance. The Northeastern Sport Show owes its success to balance. After booking an outdoor adventure, you’ll find other booths to fill your every need, from clothing and supplies to boats and ATVs.

Educational and Competitive Attractions:

  • Seminars by the Benoit Brothers: Learn how they drop more trophy bucks in a given season than the entire membership of a typical rod and gun club.

  • Animal displays like Talons! Live Birds of Prey, and Bwana Jim’s Wildlife show.

  • Trout pond

  • Go Mining

  • Kids casting contest

  • Big Buck Club Display

  • Archery Range

  • NWTF-Sanctioned Turkey Calling Contest

  • Goose Calling Contest

And there’s more…too much to list here. So mark your calendars now, and prepare for a day of wild excitement, regardless of what the weather dishes out.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Autumn’s for the Birds

A happy hunter and his ducks

Autumn finds Oswego County hosting a wide variety of migratory species. Indeed, the place is famed worldwide for its salmonid fishery, the best in the continental US, in fact. But its waters ain’t the only element that carries visitors; the friendly skies do too. In fact, the air over our most popular fishing holes is loaded with birds of every feather.

Stan Oulette, owner of Deer Creek Motel and Pheasant Hunting Preserve (315-298-3730) called last week wondering if I wanted to go shoot some.

“You bet’cha!” I responded, a little too enthusiastically for an outdoor professional, I may add. (You see, this guy is known throughout the county for his hunting abilities, and just about every time he’s invited me into the field, he’s scored…and occasionally I did, too. So, whenever he invites me to go bird hunting, visions of the turkeys, pheasants, geese, you name it that have dropped before his sights fly into my mind and I find it hard to maintain my cool.)

The next afternoon I’m at the motel getting my gear ready in the parking lot when a truck bearing New Jersey plates pulls in. Parking down by Stan’s fish cleaning station, the young men start clearing fowl out of the back. First to get flopped on the stone dust were Canada geese, followed by ducks.

I ran over to get some photos and ask questions.

The pair had been hunting Deer Creek Marsh. Around dawn they shot their limit of Canadas. By 10 a.m., they changed decoys and shot limits of mallards, with a couple blacks mixed in.

“You won’t find this many birds anywhere else,” claimed one of the hunters. “I’ve been all over the Atlantic coast and never seen the amount of birds I see along the Eastern Lake Ontario Dune and Wetlands Area.”

While that morning was spent at Deer Creek marsh, the guys informed me that on numerous occasions they’ve taken their fill of fowl on Sandy Pond, too.

I asked if they had ever tried the Three Mile Bay and Big Bay Wildlife Management Area near Constantia, on Oneida Lake, and the youngster replied: “That’s where my dad taught me how to hunt waterfowl. I dropped my first duck there back in 1998.”

Wing shooting is probably the most challenging and exciting hunting there is. Whether you’re out for pheasants, ruffed grouse, ducks or geese, Oswego County offers some of the best bird shooting on the East Coast.

A bunch of ducks shot out of the friendly skies of Oswego County

Same hunter, different birds: Canada Geese

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Steelheading After the Gates Close

A 10 pound steelie caught on a red streamer in the rapids below the bride in Altmar, NY

While some salmon with one fin in the grave remain in Oswego County’s streams, and small pods of fresh-run kings--and a smattering of browns--will run periodically through mid-November, the main focus of most anglers is steelhead. And they haven’t been disappointed; last weekend, chromers stormed into the Salmon River in massive quantities, and most bee-lined for the upper river.

Water temperatures are perfect for the species and the fish are in top physical shape. Combined, these two factors make for the hottest angling of the year.

As I write this on Wednesday, October 28, 2009, the rain is coming down in torrents of Biblical proportions. This’ll cool the water even more and raise its level enough to entice additional steelhead into the caressing currents. What’s more, they’ll be joined by large numbers of laggard kings who, for reasons ranging from being late bloomers to instinctually challenged, wait until now to make their run.

In addition, skinny creeks should be at optimum levels for the next couple of days.

Back to the Salmon River

The Salmon River hatchery has already filled its egg quota and closed its gates. Now the salmon are forced to spawn naturally anywhere they can. As a result, the stream’s floor is littered with caviar.

Bear in mind that the nearer a king comes to spawning, the more territorial and aggressive it gets, lashing out at anything in its way. The next week or two should prove to be the best time of the year for nailing a trophy on a properly presented streamer, egg cluster, or lure.

On the other hand, steelhead are in the river for one reason only: to feast on the salmon eggs. Winter’s just around the corner and the fish are pigging out to put on as much weight as they can before the cold makes food scarce.

So don’t go looking for them in the pools. Instead, concentrate on the rapids, pockets, fast channels, and the heads and tails of holes. You see, that’s where the eggs that are swept out of the redds by constantly shifting currents come to the fish. All a steelie has to do is sit in the backwash created by cross currents, a boulder or other structure and wait for the food to come to it.

Egg sacs, available at all local bait shops, are traditional favorites. Single plastic eggs and scented worms like Berkley Trout Worms, work well, too.

However, right now is one of the best times to get trophy steel on a fly. Last weekend I watched a fellow run streamers through the rapids and score big time. The fish in the pocket he was casting to were hitting everything he threw at them, including a red fly he designed on a whim and never had any luck with before.

Luck like his doesn’t last, and his ran out an hour later when the pod of fish seemed to cross the river. On the other side, they were still hitting but the anglers were using egg patterns.

Justin, over at Fat Nancy’s Tackle Shop (315-298-6357), says the most productive egg patterns are tiny glow bugs and estaz flies.

While purists rely on feel to know when a steelie hits, the action in the fast water can happen so quickly, that if you’re not highly experienced, the fish will hit and drop the fly before you can react. A good way to get the edge is to attach an indicator four to eight feet above the fly, watching it for sudden stops…and setting the hook.

This seven pounder was taken just upstream of the schoolhouse Pool on an egg sac.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Skinny Creeks Fat with Salmon

Salmon fishing amidst fall foliage... life is good!

Dragging Salmon up Trout Brook

Hard-won tropy

Nothing stirs a salmon’s passions like heavy autumn rains. Indeed, they raise streams a couple notches giving the critters all kinds of places to run. All that water can make wading rivers difficult. However, cousin Staash, a guy who likes his fishing close and personal, has the perfect answer: “When stormy weather makes rivers tough to fish, the tough go fishing in skinny creeks.”

Last week’s torrential rains brought his words to mind. Since I haven’t fished with the dude in years, and missed the good times, I got on the phone and asked him if he still believed in the old saying.


“Prove it,” I dared.

He accepted.

So the next day found us at the stop sign on I-81 exit 36 in Pulaski, arguing about where we wanted to go. A string of cars began growing behind us. Before long they laid on their horns and Stash ordered “Take a right…take a right!” We headed south on NY 13 for Pineville. At the crossroad we turned left onto Cty. Rte. 48. Below the old steel bridge, the Salmon River wasn’t exactly raging and frothing, but it was close. About a mile later we pulled into the Trout Brook public fishing access site.

The lot was almost full. One guy was heaving a limit of kings onto the bed of his pick-up. The fish averaged a solid 20 pounds.

We no sooner reached the trail down to the stream and another guy’s walking up with a huge king. He allowed me to photograph him. While posing, he talked: “My two sons are about a quarter-mile behind me, loaded down with a bunch of salmon. Hauling fish this size is like dragging deer,” he laughed.

Swollen by run-off to roughly twice its normal size, the brook had enough water for the kings to run without exposing their back--in most spots, anyway. Still, it was wadeable and bustling with activity.

Guys were fishing everywhere. And they were catching fish. Indeed, in one spot where we crossed, a hooked salmon came barreling down the riffs and prit-near slammed into me. When it saw the hard object in its path, the beast slammed its tail into reverse, splashing water all over me. Some guy, dripping from head to foot, bent rod in hand, came slipping and sliding after him screaming “Don’t touch the line…don’t touch the line…”

I didn’t.

He landed it a couple pools later. When he went to get the hook out of its mouth, it struck back, sinking its canines into the flesh between his thumb and index finger. I guess the guy got the better part of that deal but you wouldn’t know it from the water pouring off him and the blood dripping from his free hand.

Right now the salmon run is going strong. In fact, the opportunities for catching one are better than ever. Autumn rains lure the fish into spots self-respecting salmon would never be caught in during low water.

The best baits to use are raw salmon eggs or egg sacs. While it’s uncertain why they’ll hit eggs, some think it’s an attempt to destroy they’re offspring’s competition.

A smattering of browns and steelies are mixed in with them. Trout enthusiasts catch quite a few salmon on egg pattern flies and, surprisingly, on plastic worms like Berkley’s Trout Worms and Gulp Mini Earthworms.

Good creeks to try, especially early in the morning or anytime after a hard rain, include Salmon River tributaries Trout and Orwell Brooks, Lindsey and Little Sandy Creeks which drain into Sandy Pond, and Grindstone Creek which feeds Lake Ontario at Selkirk Shores State Park.

The Oswego County Hunting and Fishing Guide contains a map showing their locations.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

They’re Everywhere, Man…They’re Everywhere

A king caught off the riverwalk wall in Oswego

Autumn rains are early and hard this year, filling Oswego County streams to levels that are perfect for salmonids. And the fish are running…in massive quantities.

I went up to the city a few days ago to see what was happening in the Oswego River. The water was high and full of fish. It was raining and there weren’t too many anglers out, but those that were hardy enough to brave the conditions were taking kings ranging from 12 to 25 pounds in the fast water stretching from below Larry’s Oswego Salmon Shop all the way to the dam, mostly on egg sacs.

The heaviest action was at the dam. Fish were on stringers everywhere. Everyone I talked to had a positive story.

One group even fished directly below the powerhouse from a drift boat. I watched the guide bait the hook with a tangerine-sized gob of fresh salmon eggs, toss it out and within two minutes hook a king of about 20 pounds.

There were several groups of kids fishing or watching. One pair of local boys knew the ropes and had two fish on in the 15 minutes or so that I watched them. Aged around 12 to 14, these guys were holding their own with both salmon but fish were more experienced, made some fancy moves and got off. They didn’t break off, they spit the hook.

I asked the boys what they liked most about salmon fishing.

“Salmon fishing is awesome,” said one. “They’re everywhere, man…They’re everywhere! These monsters fight like freight trains and when you finally catch one you got something to take home and show the neighbors.”

“I just like the fight, too,” said his buddy. “The fish rip upstream and downstream, jump, stop so you think you’re snagged, pull all kinds of crazy stuff. Nothing comes close to this anywhere else.”

Three other boys from “downstate” were up with their parents who happened to be fishing. I asked them why they weren’t trying their luck. One admitted “a fish snapped my pole” earlier. Another dropped his pole in the river. The third said he was more comfortable on dry land and had just as much fun hanging out with the other two and watching “all the other goofs” fish.

This is the best time to take a kid fishing. I planned on going with my buddy Guido and his two youngsters on Sunday but he went Saturday, caught a couple, and the experience convinced him his kids (9 and10) were still too young to handle trophy salmon and trout in fast water. Truth be told, I agreed with him.

It’s possible a pre-teen could land a salmon but the fish are brutal and require experience to land. Indeed, one guy from Vermont said that his 15-year-old son had broken his pole (he didn’t say how) and the dad was doing everything he could to catch a fish so he could hand it off to the kid and let him feel the thrill of tackling with a king.

Just making the trip is one a kid will never forget. Seeing 20-pound fish porpoising all around, less than a stone’s throw away is a memorable experience for anyone, let alone an impressionable child.

There are plenty of lessons in values to be gained, too. Watching adults hooking and mostly losing the fish teaches humility and a healthy respect for the natural world. And when a salmon or brown is finally landed, especially if taken legally, in the mouth (the fish are so big and there’s so many, often they’ll run into a hook and get impaled in the side or belly), teaches the importance of patience.

I called Larry of Larry’s Oswego Salmon Shop (315-342-2778) a few minutes ago (10/7, 6 p.m.) for an update. “Salmon and browns are all over the river. Steelhead are coming in” said the message.

Likewise, the Salmon River is loaded with fish. Al Maxwell of Woody’s Tackle in Port Ontario (315-298-2378) says: “They’re in the river from end to end. We don’t have the fish in the flats that we had last week because most have run upstream. This is only the beginning of October and you can count on a lot more running all month long.”

“There’s a lot of brown trout in the river. Many of our customers have come in with 12 to 14-pounders. They’re hitting egg sacs and orange comet flies,” added Maxwell.

“Some steelies are in, too. Most of the steelhead action is in the Sandys (Little Sandy, Sandy and South Sandy Creeks). They’re taking them on egg sacs and estaz flies, a locally tied pattern named after the material it’s made from,” continued Maxwell.

So if you’re planning on trying your luck at this game, now’s the time to do it. While you’re at it, bring a kid along for the ride.

Kids watching others fishing for kings - "beats TV" said one.

A couple of local boys trying to land a king - it got away.

Dam kings. Taken at the dam.

Salmon taken below the powerhouse

Friday, October 2, 2009

Kids Get In On Excitement Of Salmon Run

A boy holds up a salmon he caught on the riverwalk in downtown Oswego. Photo by Harrison Wilde.

Last Sunday I went up to Oswego to check out the salmon bite. Numerous fish porpoised in the power company tailrace, but there weren’t many anglers around, indicating there really weren’t many fish. In fact, the half dozen guys I talked to on the West bank’s river walk had only seen a couple kings taken all day long.

So I went up to Larry’s Oswego Salmon Shop to get his take on the bite.

“Ain’t many fish in the river,” Larry offered. “But there will be in a couple of days…the time it takes for the rain from all the storms we had this weekend in the Finger Lakes to work its way down here.”

Yeah, that’s what I figure,” I agreed, and left.

I called back Tuesday night.

He picked up the phone and announced “They’re in. Massive quantities of ‘em. I’ve seen loads of them being dragged up the hill all day long.”

I called Guido, an old friend, to give him the heads up and ask if he’d be interested in going on Sunday.

“Yup,” he replied.

His nine-year-old son was near enough to the phone to hear our conversation.

“Dad, can I go?” he pleaded.

“No,” Guido responded. “You’re still too little.”

I had a revelation.

“Guido, why not?”

“The fish are bigger than him, and it’s dangerous to boot.”

“Hey man,” I retorted, “he ain’t gonna be using a clothes line or a cable. The fish’ll snap the 12-pound-test before it can pull him in. And the metal fences on the river walks in Oswego have spindles that’ll keep him on the right side of the water. Let him go.”

“That’s right, there is a fence,”

“Daddy, can I go too,” chimed his 10-year-old daughter.

Fortunately, Guido likes northern pike and has enough stout equipment to go around. We agreed to meet at his house after church and drive up together.

Life doesn’t provide children with too many wholesome, cheap thrills. And salmon fishing during the runs is about as good as it gets. Imagine your child’s excitement when a salmon hits. And even if the fish don’t bite, the kids will have more than enough fun just watching all those crazed adults whooping and hollering and carrying on like…well, over-sized, aging children.

So c’mon, bring the kids up to Oswego this weekend to fish for salmon and brown trout. Even if they don’t get one, they’ll still walk away with the experience, and those who took part, deeply etched into their fondest memories. They’ll see, up close and personal-like, a salmon’s last days, a time when nature takes the noblest beast in fresh water and transforms it into a violent, grotesque critter bent on charging into shallow, turbulent, foaming water to spawn and die.

It’s one of life’s most enduring mysteries. They’ll thank you for it…and remember the trip… Let’s face it, life doesn’t give us too many tickets to immortality. Taking a kid salmon fishing during the peak of the run is the cheapest, most painless way to get there.

For up-to-date information on the Oswego River’s runs, call Larry’s Oswego Salmon Shop, 315-342-2778. If you want to drop in and meet one of Oswego’s most colorful characters, he’s located on 357 W. First St. on the west bank. Larry’s fishing reports are also contained in the Oswego County Tourism Office fishing hotline at 1-800248-4FUN,

An ornimental fence keeps kids in place while fishing in the city of Oswego.

Adults and older kids can fish in or out of the water.

There are plenty of dangerous spots for those who like to play on the edge.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Salmon on the Sticks

*Please note: Night fishing during the salmon runs is only allowed in the short stretch from the last buoy, located between the breakwalls at Selkirk, to the mouth. (See page 30 in the NY Freshwater Fishing Guide for 2008-09, or page 38 in the 2009-10 guide).

Showing off a large king. Photo courtesty of Catch 22 Fishing Charters.

The most exciting time to catch salmon is at night. Problem is they don’t usually hit more than a half-hour or so after the sun goes down. In fact, Al Maxwell of Woody’s Tackle in Port Ontario says “September is about the only time of year when they hit after dark.”

You see, a king’s last September isn’t typical by any stretch. Indeed, in the autumn of its life the urge to spawn is foremost on its mind, driving it to act anything but normally.

I wanted to see for myself and called Captain Rick Miick, (315) 387-5920 late last week to learn what he knew about it. “We’re getting some fish by sitting (still-fishing) off the sticks,” he confirmed. I’m going out tonight with a couple friends. Wanna come?”

“You betcha’” I replied.

We launched at the Salmon River Lighthouse Marina; 315-298-6688) a little after sundown. Rick rowed out about 100 yards off the “long stick” (jetty with the red light) and dropped anchor. Our tackle consisted of some weight to get us to bottom and a floating egg sac to keep the offering waving a few inches above the sand.

“They usually come in a couple hours after sundown,” the captain explained. “The river’s colder than the lake and it draws them. The few fish that are ripe make their way to the hatchery. The majority are fresh and only get about as far as the Black Hole, then turn back for the lake in the morning.”

The still night was magical. The lake was asleep. Not a wave stirred. Above, a silent explosion of stars sparkled like fireworks. North along the shoreline, Brennan Beach RV Resort was lit up with what appeared to be Christmas decorations. Out on the lake, a few charter boats scurried about in the darkness. All around us sat numerous drift boats. The light sticks they attached to their rod tips as strike indicators glowed, making them look like menorahs.

About an hour into the night, a cacophony of spooky splashes surrounded us. For about ten minutes they were breaking the surface everywhere. Excited almost beyond control, we glued our eyes to the strike indicators and prepared for a fight in the night.

But nothing happened. The school must have swam under us and gone up river.

Some of the boats were luckier. While we couldn’t see anything, and no one whooped and hollered, the sound of a net handle scraping the bottom of a boat and a long spell of violent splashing at its side indicated a fish was being landed.

Soon afterwards, some boats started flatlining (row-trolling) with glo J Plugs. Photographic flashes, used to fire-up the lures, popped through the night.

Check the Great Lakes and Tributary Regulations section of the “NYS Freshwater Fishing Regulations Guide” for specific regulations.

This exciting bite starts winding down the last week of the month and all but stops by the beginning of October.

Late September’s nights are extremely black, and can get cold. But this sensory deprivation is what makes this the most intimate form of salmon fishing. Indeed, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen a king rising through glimmering moonlight, an arm’s reach away.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Comin’ Home

Fishermen at the black hole in Pulaski

Depending on how you look at it, salmon are the aquatic world’s luckiest or unluckiest fish. To a hedonist, their 3 ½-year feast, climaxing in a breeding orgy followed almost immediately by death, is perfect. On the other hand, from a traditional Western point of view, their lives are gluttonous, violent and licentious, not exactly the kind you’d want your children to lead. But they are what they are and there’s nothing else they can be. This month launches their final hurrah, a tortuous ascent up natal streams to spawn and die.

Like all wild beasts, salmon aren’t good at sticking to a schedule. Some run upriver as early as August, others wait until winter. This isn’t weirdness on their part, or anything like that; it’s nature’s way of protecting the species. You see, something can happen during the main runs, an earthquake, for instance, or even a volcanic eruption, and the early risers and late comers insure the survival of the species.

Keeping this in mind, I went up to the state salmon hatchery in Altmar the last weekend of August. Some salmon were in the river and a few were in Beaverdam Brook. A couple were even at the ladder, waiting for the gate to open and let them into the facility.

I went up again this past weekend and the fish were in the river heavier than I can ever remember for this time of year. They weren’t everywhere yet, mostly in the lower reaches; the staircase, for instance and the rapids between the Black Hole and Little Black Hole. Arriving around 3 p.m. and only staying until 5 p.m., I watched three fish, averaging roughly 20 pounds, landed—not bad for that late in the day.

It appears this summer’s cool, rainy weather kept the water in the lake from warming too much, allowing the ripe fish to come into shore earlier than normal. With the power company releasing a base flow sufficiently high to offer them easy access to the entire river, the fish stormed in.

Currently, they claim the whole stream. My contacts report seeing fish taken from Douglaston all the way to the Upper Fly Fishing Only Section.

Justin Schwalm, an employee at Fat Nancy’s Tackle Shop reports “I got on the river just before noon today (Tuesday) and saw hundreds of fish by the time I left at around 2 p.m. I saw about 50 guys fighting salmon, and losing the majority of the time. Most were getting them on egg sacks or blue sponge.”

And the fishing is bound to get better. Several guides report the kings are staged inshore near the river’s mouth in massive quantities each morning, just waiting for the biological signal to go off, propelling them into the river. Those that aren’t quite ripe enough yet are turned back into the lake by charter boats and the day’s warming temperatures, only to return that evening and try again.

This is the best time to get a fresh fish. In a couple more weeks they’ll start getting really dark, even black, showing signs that they’re close to the end of their life cycle.

The weather forecast calls for relatively mild nights and warm days, the perfect combination for drawing salmon into the river. It’s a good time to fish in the comfort of short sleeves, while dodging 20 +-pounders tearing upstream on their way home to spawn.

Bringing home a Salmon

Kayakers and fishermen sharing the staircase

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Salmon River’s Wild Side

Switchback along the trail to the gorge.

Like most streams in the North Country, the Salmon River has been tamed, its formerly boisterous rapids harnessed by two dams to create electricity. Oh sure, water still surges playfully out of the powerhouses’ tailraces, and in a few spots along its path to Lake Ontario, you could even call it whitewater. But its ancient character has changed utterly, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the prehistoric riverbed which forms a spellbinding gorge between the dams.

While the law requires the power company to release sufficient water to keep the last 13 miles flowing fast and deep enough for recreational purposes, the dam valves feeding this part of the river are barely open, releasing enough to allow the three-something-mile section of the upper river to flow creek-size. Mother Nature made this stretch the wildest, freest, most beautiful slice of the Salmon River.

It’s also the most difficult to access because there’s no trail system. Indeed, there are only three places where it’s relatively safe to get to the bank (see Getting There below). Once you’re down there, the going is slow--and you’ll want to wear hip boots with traction devices.

But the breathtaking scenery makes it all worthwhile. Sheer walls of stratified limestone rise 70 to 100 feet above the water. Polished over the millennium by scouring rapids, the riverbed’s long stretches of bumpy sheets of fractured bedrock are littered with flat stones, and punctuated at the bends by channels and pools. Native flowers and mixed hardwoods crop its islands and pebble beaches. Here and there, huge boulders, calved from the cliffs, rise out of pools like pagan monoliths to ancient gods.

One of the most common hallmarks of natural beauty is austerity. Indeed, wonders ranging from Niagara Falls to the Grand Canyon aren’t exactly what you’d call ideal wildlife habitat. Some would even say they took the pain nature dished out and made it into a song.

The Upper Salmon River fits this category perfectly. But hidden in its nooks and crannies are delightful surprises: trout and smallmouth bass. They can be elusive however few and far between, and the challenge of catching one is what draws an occasional soul into this wonderland.

Smallies are native to the river and have been here since the beginning of time. The best spot for them is the plunge pool below the Salmon River Falls.

Rainbow trout are stocked into Lighthouse Hill Reservoir every year. Those that survive trout season and winter will run the river in spring to spawn. Fast water critters at heart, some stay until rising temperatures force them out, usually in June.

Browns, descendants of last century’s stocking programs, live in the river year-round. These are truly wild; the savviest of the savviest trout species.

Brookies find their way into the river from tiny brooks that drain into it, or into Lighthouse Hill Reservoir.

Progress may have slowed the Salmon River down. Its water all but squeezed out of it, it still runs, albeit much slower, narrower and shallower. It just goes to show, you can take a river out of the wilderness, but you can’t take the wilderness out of the river.

Getting There

Get there from Pulaski by taking NY 13 south. Turn left onto Co. Rte. 22 in the village of Altmar and continue for about 3.5 miles to Bennett Bridges. A fishing access site with parking is on the west side of the road, between the bridges.

To get to the Salmon River Falls Unique Area, continue on Co. Rte. 22 for another mile from Bennett Bridges. Turn right on Falls Road and continue for 1 ½ miles. The parking area is on the right. The footpath to the bottom of the gorge is open May through Nov. 15. The descent is 100 feet. Some areas of the gorge are restricted due to the sensitive environment of this area and visitors need to read and follow the instructions posted at the Falls.

To get to the old Dam Road Bridge access area, take Co. Rte. 22 to the edge of Bennett Bridges. Just before the first bridge, turn right onto Pipe Line Road. At the fork, bear left, slow down and keep your eyes peeled on the left for an old bridge. (The bridge is closed and declared unsafe for pedestrian or other uses so please avoid the temptation.)

View of the falls from the gorge.

Island flowers.

Paradise with a river running through it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

City Smallmouths

Captain Redsicker with a typical city smallmouth

Whenever serious talk turns to smallmouths, Lake Erie starts jumping off tongues like a bass on steroids. But there’s a lot of omission going on, especially if the conversation takes place in New York State. You see, Lake Ontario, the second deepest Great Lake, might not have the massive stretches of shallow habitats its next of kin on the other side of the Niagara River boasts, but what little it has is loaded with smallies.

I’ve had numerous memorable outings tackling these challenging beasts in Oswego’s territorial waters in the past and got the urge to go in late July, the beginning of the dog days of summer, a time that normally triggers a good smallie bite. I contacted Capt. Dick Redsicker, owner of Upstate Outfitters (315-298-4107), one of the few guides who specializes in bronzebacks.

“Ain’t much happening out there, yet,” he replied.

In the beginning of this month I called again.

“There’s a few around but not many. Call again next week.”

The urge to catch some smallies kept growing fiercer and fiercer as the days dragged on. Finally, on the 12th I called…Eureka!!!!

“I’ve been nailing ‘em all morning,” claimed Redsicker, “tallie’s 37 so far.

I even got a rock bass that would seriously challenge the state record. I released it…and boy, do I regret that now.” I made it to Wright’s Landing in about an hour. By then he had landed and released 51 smallmouths. “Nothing huge, but they were all fun,” he beamed.

Rounding the Lighthouse point, we headed for the western corner of the west wall and fished about 50 yards from shore, under the shadow of the steam plant’s towering twin smokestacks.

Something was blooming and it wasn’t the green shoots you read about in the financial press. It was more real, green/brown algae, I suspect. It streaked the surface like long, green hairs. When you ran through it with the motor, the water turned muddy brown.

Since neither of us is a scientist, we stopped talking about what we thought and went back to what we knew. Dick’s technique is about as simple as it gets. He threads a salty, smoke colored Bass Pro Shops tube on a ½-oz. jighead, tosses it over the side, lets it sink to bottom and just drifts along. When the wind kicked up a little, we used a sock to slow us down.

We got some hits; mostly short strikes. You could feel the fish pick up the tube by the hairs and just nibble. I got a couple solid hits, but when I set the hook…nothing. One of life’s greatest mysteries is how sometimes a fish can hit a lure--even crankbaits packing three treble hooks--and not get hooked. (If I did that, I’d have scars in my lips marking each time.)

After floating around for about an hour we pulled the lines in and headed further out, into water 50 feet deep. We went hitless for about an hour. Then Dick nailed a ¾-pound rock bass.

I nailed one next, about the same size.

A few minutes later, Dick nails a monster that went well over a pound. That in itself was worth the trip as far as I was concerned.

Fish started showing up on the graph but they wouldn’t hit. Dick began wondering out loud why he had such good luck earlier and not now. Just then, a fish nailed his tube and he brought a nice smallie aboard.

A few minutes later, we switched over to Berkley Gulp 3-inch Leeches.

The action picked up a bit and we nailed several smallies apiece, plus a few monstrous rock bass. I mean I’ve caught some big ones before, but seldom anything over a pound. We got several that day.

“Everything’s late this year,” Dick opined as we headed in. I bet ya September is gonna be hot.”

“I’m sure it will be,” I replied. “I’ll call ya the first week of the month…and the second…Oh, and I’ll bring the donuts and coffee.”

Capt. Redsicker and a trophy rock bass

Round Gobies, an exotic that's turninginto an important food source, grow big in Oswego too.

A bloom of some sort streaking the water like flowing hair.

Under the shadow of Oswego's towering smoke stacks

Rounding the lighthouse point

An Oswego still life: sailboat and smoke stacks...

Friday, August 7, 2009

Oneida Lake Mixed Bag

John Stanek with a nice Oneida Lake walleye.

This summer promises to go down as one that never came. Indeed, temperatures have been so mild and it's rained so frequently, it seems spring’s tour has been extended a few months while summer’s off looking for global warming somewhere.

Oneida Lake agrees; her fish are in closer than they normally are this time of year.

Having recently moved to the lake, I go fishing whenever I get the chance. Neighbor and old buddy Tom Gibson, and his friend Rob Douglas, who, incidentally, has a boat, challenged me to teach them some new techniques. We arranged to go last Tuesday. Tom’s buddy and seasoned angler, John Stanek, came along.

Rob’s boat isn’t set up for fishing. Without naval electronics or even a GPS on board, our trip wasn’t going to be a video game played on a fish finder’s monitor; instead it would be ol’ fashioned intuition and intelligence against the fish’s instincts and raw power.

We started out in 15 to 20 feet of water about a half mile north of Lakeport. An hour went by without a hit.

The wind was out of the southwest so we decided to head for Shackleton Point and drift the south shore, concentrating on weed beds in four to eight feet of water.

John was the first to score, nailing a juicy eight-inch perch on a worm.

The bite was slow, however, and Tom decided to tie on a generic spoon, something he got out of a bargain bin at Gander Mountain.

Right off the bat he nails a 14-inch walleye. His first.

(Beginner’s luck, I snickered under my breath).

A couple casts later, he hooks a smallie of about 13 inches. It jumped three feet out of the water, shook its head and spit the lure back at him like it was bad meat.

(The guy didn’t tell me he knew how to fish, I thought.)

A few more casts and Tom hooks a monster smallie. Like any respectable lunker, its first move was to jump, rising steadily, deliberately into the sky like a basketball player with fins.

(Talk about hang-time, I thought, jealousy sweeping over me like a blinding fog.)

That fish took Tom to all the terrifying places: weeds, under the boat, around the motor. Finally, it seemed to wrap its tail around a rock or something and settled into the tug-o-war bronzebacks are famous for.

After a really long time, the strategy imprinted into its genes over the ages paid off and the line went limp.

“That was cool,” was all Tom said, and kept on casting.

John changed over to a small silver spoon while no one was looking and before you know it, he hooks an 18-inch walleye. Like all “eyes” its size, it gave a respectable fight. But it wasn’t enough. John wrapped his hands around it and heaved it into the boat.

Boy, I was starting to look bad. Two guys catch fish and I don’t have squat. Rob being fishless, too, didn’t provide any solace because he wasn’t even fishing.

Right when inadequacy started gnawing at my confidence, the lake relents, giving me a hit. The smallie jumped several times, spitting bait all the while. He must’a ate a whole school because he kept regurgitating minnows, in groups of three, all the way to the boat.

This summer’s weird weather is bringing all kinds of changes to Oneida Lake. One that many will find surprising is that the walleyes are hitting silver spoons, something no one ever talks about.

Just goes to show…don’t get caught in a rut. Experiment.

Tom Gibson with an Oneida Lake walleye, his first.

John holding a chunky bronzeback as the boys look on.

Rob Douglas and best friend, Sidney.

Rob Douglas and a keeper smallie.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Fallfishin’ in Summer

Fallfish watching my every move

Oswego County offers the best man-made, fast water salmonid fishing in the Lower 48 States. But every now and then I get the urge for the wild side. Last Friday I felt the call and headed for Scriba Creek, hoping to tackle with one of the legendary wild browns the stream is said to harbor in the wilds north of Constantia.

A search of the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s website showed me there was a stretch with public fishing rights (see Getting There below). However, there wasn’t any public access off the shoulder. So I went north on Cty. Rte. 17 to Parker Road and walked downstream from the bridge.

The west side was posted but not the east. It was a challenging hike because the banks were high, the creek floor muddy and deep. Biting flies ranging from deer flies to mosquitoes serenaded me along the way.

Partial to rapids and pocket water, the deep, slow moving creek wasn’t exactly my cup o' tea. But I’m a sporting man and my curiosity got hooked deeper and deeper as I struggled along. You see, the creek was covered in a fabulous nave bumped out of a deep, old forest; its banks were lined with a variety of beautiful vegetation, including pockets of the most spectacular ferns I’d ever seen.

At a hair-pin bend, I dropped a wooly bugger over a sunken windfall. A fish, obviously thinking it was a caterpillar, shot out from under the gnarled branches and grabbed the fly in flight. Feeling the hook, it took the fight to the bottom, conducting a respectable tug-of-war, just like a brown trout would.

But it was a fallfish, one of the lowliest beasts in a stream.

Sitting on a stump nestled in a garden of ferns, I looked down at it, through water stained the color of strong tea by tannic acid. I gently raised it to the surface.

In my hands, it trembled; its frightened eyes following my fingers.

This display of emotion caused me to hesitate. Instead of simply pulling it out of the water and unhooking it, I lead it to a weedy shallow spot in a notch in the bank.. Removing the streamer while the fish was still submerged, I slowly backed off.

It watched me without moving for what seemed like a long time. Then it flopped, setting its head into the open flow. One powerful flap of its tiny tail, and it was gone.

Fallfish don’t grow big. I’ve seen them up to 18 inches but those are rare. Normally they go anywhere from 4 to 12 inches. And they fight like you’d expect a beast whose life is hardened through constant struggle against current and subsisting mainly on tiny insects, with an occasional worm thrown in.

Dark-backed, silver-sided and white-bellied, fallfish belong to the same group that carp do, the minnow family. Typically found in our northern rivers and lakes, most anglers simply call 'em chubs. They're thrive in just about every stream north of Oneida Lake; the Salmon River is loaded with 'em.

At another time I might have been angry at catching only a “rough fish”; maybe even blamed it for ruining my trip.

But Scriba Creek is an enchanting place, gracing me with the knowledge that even though I didn’t catch a trout, I still got a wonderful wilderness fishing experience; most importantly, I didn’t get skunked.

And after all, isn’t that what fishing’s all about?

Getting There: The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation website offers a map of public fishing rights sections it owns on Scriba Creek. Go to, click on Outdoor Recreation, then Fishing. Type Scriba Creek in the search box, scroll down to Oswego County, click on Scriba Creek and Spring Brook pdf.

For more information go to or call 800-248-4386 and request an Oswego County Hunting & Fishing guide.

Garden of ferns with a creek flowing through it

Scriba Creek south of Parker Rd. Note beaver dam on channel to the right