Thursday, March 26, 2009

Blizzard of Seven-Pound Flakes

Incoming: Snow Geese

A couple days ago I found myself in a snowstorm dropping seven-pound flakes.

Well, not exactly, but it sure felt like it.

Stan Oulette, owner of Deer Creek Motel and Pheasant Shooting Preserve on NY Rte. 3, a little north of Port Ontario (315-298-3730) invited me up to shoot some "snow geese."

"The DEC extended their season," he said over the phone. "Normally, it ends just before the greatest numbers of birds are heading back north. This year they're letting us hunt them until April 15--during the heaviest flights. The hunting's fantastic. You gotta see it to believe it."

I got to the motel at 6:30 a.m. sharp. Fifteen minutes later we're in a corn field just south of his place, in the middle of a patch of decoys numbering 500, and costing about $2,500. Besides stationary silhouettes, it included a dozen "socks" (wind sock-like decoys that move with the breeze), 1½ dozen flappers (held up by steel poles, their wings flap in the wind), and two vortexes (aka tornadoes, these decoys are on poles attached to a motor which spins them in a circle, making them look like birds landing).

In addition, a small flock of Canada goose decoys was about 200 yards away.

"They're my confidence spread," explained Stan. "They attract Canada geese, and live Canadas working the field nearby give flying snows the confidence to land."

We lay down in coffin blinds camouflaged by stalks of corn. "Under no circumstances are you to shoot wildly at a flock" he ordered, while turning on an electronic call.

About a half-hour later a huge flock circled overhead and started down. Stan instructed me to lie still until he gave the word, and then to sit up, target a specific bird and keep shooting until it drops.

Suddenly, they rolled in like a honking blizzard. After what seemed like a real long time, but was probably only a few seconds, they were within 20 yards or so, and Stan shouted: “Now, Spider, shoot now.”

These creaky old bones ain't as quick as they used to be and by the time I sat up and shouldered my gun, the birds spun around and were on their way out of range. I fired but to no avail; such is life, I suppose.

The reason for extending the season is to manage snow geese populations. Recently, their numbers have grown to the point where they're harming their fragile Arctic breeding grounds, and crops of hay, winter wheat, barley and rye growing along their migration routes.

There are a couple of minor changes to the rules. The DEC press release states:

“All migratory game bird hunting regulations and requirements apply to the taking of snow geese during this spring harvest period, except that use of recorded or electronically amplified calls or sounds is allowed as is the use of shotguns capable of holding more than three shells.”

For the DEC press release, go to, click on press release in the right column, scroll down to February and the press release of 02/03/09 "DEC Announces Special Snow Goose Season."

To view the Arctic Goose Habitat Working Group report on greater snow geese, go to:

Setting Flappers

Checking the spread; note the vortexes in the background

Stan Oulette in his coffin

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Raptor Row

Lake Ontario is a wonderful thing for migrating waterfowl. But ducks and geese ain't the only birds who head south from Canada for the winter. Vultures, hawks and other landlubbers do it too, and they don't cotton to crossing a pond that size-not beyond the sight of land, anyway.

So what's a talon-footed bird to do when confronted with a body of water 50 miles wide?

Well, they can wait for a stiff south wind, I suppose, climb as high as they can, flap their wings for all it's worth and hope to reach Canada before the wind changes direction or gives out.

But most birds are a little more practical than that. Instead, they do the smart thing; skirt one of the ends. And on this side of the lake the flight path takes the vast majority over Derby Hill in the Town of Mexico.

Situated on the southeastern corner of the lake, just before the shoreline curves sharply north, this bump in the landscape is the tallest point in the neighborhood. Indeed, some locals claim that a stiff northwesterly (the prevailing wind) can slam into the side of the hill with such force, it curls like a wave and the birds use the catapult effect to gain altitude and speed.

However, this would have them flying with the wind in their faces, and birds who act that bird-brained aren't long for this world.

In fact, wind direction is the greatest force the birds have to contend with and determines their course.

As a result, Derby Hill has two main viewing areas: the south lookout--in a field a half mile south of the lake--and the north lookout--on the hill towering over the lake.

According to Judy Thurber, an amateur ornithologist, "the south lookout is best when the wind is out of a northerly direction, and the north lookout is best when it's out of the south; and when there's no wind at all."

Kyle Wright, a staff ornithologist for Onondaga Audubon, the outfit that runs Derby Hill Bird Observatory, says an average of 40,000 raptors fly over the spot each spring. And he should know because from March 1 through May 31 he serves as a hawk watcher and gets paid to count the birds.

Sunday, March 14, was a typical day. The wind was out of the northwest so most observers were at the south lookout. By 2 p.m., Kyle had recorded a wide variety of hawks, numerous turkey vultures, two bald eagles and one golden eagle

The rest of this month will be good for watching raptors, weather permitting.

However, April is even better. Next month will see hawk flights daily, including ospreys, under just about any conditions.short of blizzards, tornadoes or hurricane force winds.

For more information, visit

DHBO is on Sage Creek Drive, off NY 104B, about a mile east of the hamlet of Texas.

Bird watchers at the South Lookout. Judy Thurber is in the tan jacket, seated on the left.

Close up of monument dedicating the site to the memory of Don Barnes.

Sign in the parking lot. Note bird feeders in the background.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Skinny Creek Steelies

Steelies add color to a stream's late winter austerity.

Late winter's thaws pour snowmelt into Lake Ontario's tributaries, swelling them to two to three times normal size. All this extra water hooks the hormones of ripe steelies out in the lake, sending them flooding upstream. The big rivers are the first beneficiaries of high water, with skinny creeks getting it soon afterwards.

For instance, last week high water dislodged and removed the ice from the Salmon River, and fresh steelies, and a smattering of browns stormed in. However, skinny creeks like the Little Sandy and Grindstone were still half crowned in ice. Even if you wanted to fish them, you would have had a tough time getting to the bank. And if you hooked a trout, it would have gone under one of the fragments of ice cap punctuating the water's surface, preventing you from following in hot pursuit if the fish headed downstream -- And they always do.

By yesterday (March 12) run-off had swept the remnants of ice cap and jams into the lake, opening clear channels in creeks and brooks for the steelies to climb -- And they came. And even though the banks were still lined in anywhere from two to five feet of snow, the water was accessible and the few anglers who ventured out there caught fish.

This is one of fishing's most magical times of the year. Suddenly, streams so skinny you can reach across them with a 9-foot fly rod come to life with rainbow trout ranging from three to 20 pounds. They can run so thick during the night that in the morning anglers find the floors of pools carpeted with the beasts.

Green-backed, silver-sided and spotted, they blend in almost seamlessly with the stream's rocky floor. When you hook one, and it takes off, it'll spook the rest of the fish and you'll see the floor move. It's as close to a piscatorial miracle as you'll see on this earth.

The action is comparable to autumn's salmon runs. The fish are vibrant, brilliantly-colored and full of life.

Currently, the water is so high it discourages all but the most skilled anglers. But it drops steadily as the days to spring peel off the calendar. Soon, the flow will reach a peak and start petering out. By April, the skinny creeks will be down to levels self-respecting steelies avoid. So you have to go soon or the window will close on you.

Morning is the best time because fresh fish haven't been harassed yet and are far more willing to strike than survivors who have already been jumped and stuck.

They'll hit all the usual suspects: egg sacs, worms, spinners, small, and Northland's Scud-Bug Buggy Tails and Slurpy Small Fry Tails, fished on bottom or below floats.

Little Sandy has an official access site on Norton Road (Take NY 3 north out of Port Ontario, turn right on County Rte. 15 at the second flashing light about five miles later, travel about a half-mile, hook a left onto County Rte. 62, then left again a couple hundred yards later onto Norton Rd.). In addition, the hamlet of Sandy Creek offers limited access at its bridges.

Grindstone Creek boasts several access sites on County Rte. 28, and at its mouth in Selkirk Shores State Park, NYS Route 3.

Friday, March 6, 2009

First Thaw Steelies

Besides hitting plugs, spinners and jigs, first thaw steelies will also take yarn flies

The way this winter's been going, I can't blame my buddy Fred for using pages from Al Gore's "Earth in the Balance" to fire up his pot-bellied stove.

"At least I'm getting some use out of it," he complained.

Then came last Thursday's thaw, sweeping in like a South Sea breeze. A true believer of the Weather Channel, he knew what was coming the night before and called to brief me. "You know weather like that's gonna ignite an explosive bite."

I told him I was sorry he had to work the next day, but promised I'd think about him while I fished.

Thursday found me casing-out the Pulaski area, particularly my favorite skinny creeks. Unfortunately, Little Sandy wore an ice cap only slightly punctuated with moving water. Grindstone moved a little more freely, but ran under ice so often, I figured landing a steelie would have been too much like work. Trout and Orwell Brooks were loosening up but not enough.

The Salmon River was perfect. Its tannic-stained waters were gin-clear, 34-something degrees, and relatively free of icebergs; a combination sure to draw chrome upstream.

The fish were hanging out in deep runs. The Sportsman's Hole surrendered a couple to anglers above and below me, but not to me. The fish averaged a solid 26 inches.

As the sun began sinking in the sky I decided to move to my most favorite first-thaw spot: the School House Pool.

Several dudes got there before me but there was still plenty of elbow room. Catching sight of a fish tail swirl near the head of the pool, I eased myself down the six-foot bank. Setting my float about four feet above a Northland Scudbug (, and clipping on a couple BB-sized split shots 18 and 24 inches respectively above the offering, I cast across the current and let the flow do its magic.

Several casts later, the float came to a dead stop, cocked upstream and started heading under the surface like the tower on a submarine. I set the hook and the fight was on.

I saw five other steelies caught within the course of a couple of hours. The guys doin' most of the catchin' were float-fishing with black marabou streamers.

I watched another guy land an ingot of heavy metal just downstream of the Altmar Bridge, in the pool at the bend. He was float-fishing with a trout egg fashioned from hot glue.

Spawn-minded steelies should enter the river in full force during this thaw, and they'll be easily accessible to wading anglers until the Tug Hill's snow melt swells the River to three times its normal size in about a week.

When the water gets that high, floating the river in a McKenzie Boat, and casting egg sacs or back-trolling plugs like Hot Shots, Rapalas and Lazy Ikes will be most productive. (A list of guides is available on the Oswego County Tourism Web site,
Still, wading anglers casting small Mepps and Rooster Tail spinners into deep pools like the Black Hole should nail some heavy metal.

Action will start getting fast and furious in the skinny creeks in a few days.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Gathering at the River

Fred Kuepper with Ceamus McDermott during last year's PHW fly fishing outing on the Salmon River.

Streams have been associated with human transition throughout history. The ancient Greeks believed the dead had to cross the River Styx to enter the underworld. In Western Civilization, water from the River Jordan was the first to cleanse souls of original sin. Currently, streams are put to use rehabilitating the broken bodies and spirits of combat soldiers and veterans.

Baptism by enemy fire isn't anything new. Indeed, it's been utterly changing the lives of men--lately women, too--since the beginning of time. Fortunately, 21st century American warriors have retired Navy Captain Ed Nicholson in their corner.

You see, he's the guy credited with spawning Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing Inc., an organization "dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active duty military personal and veterans through fly fishing and fly tying education and outings."

Nicholson's original plans called for simply teaching the guys how to fly cast and fly fish. But he knew about the remarkable results Bill Blades, a prominent fly-tier, had with disabled veterans at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital during World War II and added lessons on tying flies to his program.

The rest is history. Since 2004, PHWFF has grown to 45 programs in 35 states.

One of the program's major events in 2008, was held in Central New York from October 5-7. Fred Kuepper, Coordinator for the Oswego County Chapter of PHWFF, and Fran Verdoliva, Salmon River Program Coordinator for the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, along with numerous professional fishing guides and local businessmen introduced more than a dozen wounded soldiers and veterans to the Salmon River's trophy salmon and trout fishing.

What's more, Verdoliva arranged access for the group on the closed waters of the Salmon River near the state hatchery, a sanctuary for fish lucky enough to make it through the 11-something-mile gauntlet of anglers standing shoulder to shoulder downstream.

The event was a huge success, with the majority catching a salmon. Some steelies were taken, too.

Incidentally, PHWFF doesn't target trout exclusively. In fact, in other parts of the country, the organization stages outings for ocean species like red fish and flat-water critters like bass. It's only a matter of time before fly-fishing for warmwater fish (black bass, northern pike and panfish) in places like Sandy Pond, Lake Neahtahwanta and Oneida Lake makes it into the Central New York program.

Kuepper says "four to six fishing trips in Oswego and Onondaga Counties are being planned for this year."

For more information or to donate your time or money to the local effort, contact Kuepper at 315-963-4095;