Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Oswego River: Down... for Now

A friend helps Richard Hyde Jr. land his steelie as another friend looks on.

The Oswego River is finally down to size. Two factors – the sky clamming up and the Artic temperatures sweeping over the Northeast around Christmas – slowed the run-off pouring over the 5,000-something square miles of countryside that the stream drains.

Come Christmas, I was itching to wet a line in the rapids running through the Port City. I called a couple buddies and asked what they thought about the possibilities. They were enthusiastic and we agreed to meet on the water in the morning.

At 4:45 a.m., the temperature gage outside my window read 14 degrees. I was ready to cancel but figured I’d check the water level first. USGS.com measured it at 8636 cfs; very manageable for a guy with strong legs, average balance, a wading staff and Korkers. Figuring the fish would be cooperative because high water kept anglers at bay recently, I decided to give it a shot, come sub-zero weather or ice water

Two cups of coffee later, I bundled up in layers of Gore-Tex, polyester, silk and Morino wool and hit the road heading north. I got to the river at 7:30 a.m. Buddy-one, Frank Squadrito, a native of Pennelville, was already in the public lot at Lock 7, raring to go. By the time I worked into my Simms waders and Korkers, Buddy-two, Scott VanDerWater of Baldwinsville, pulled into the lot.

Everyone rigged up centerpins (I was dying to try out my new JW Young rod and reel combo) and we set out. Frank mentioned “temperature’s up a couple degrees, to a balmy 18.”

When we got to the river where the canal’s retaining wall ended, several guys were already stretched out in the spots we wanted to fish. One was even battling a steelie. Frank and Scott went upstream about 100 feet; I stayed to watch the guy land the fish.

It got off.

“Too, bad; that was a nice fish,” I remarked.

That’s the fourth one I’ve lost this morning,” he claimed.

The sun ain’t been up an hour and he’s already lost four; it promises to be a good day, I thought.

Before I could join my friends, another guy in the group, Richard Hyde, hooks a chromer. Before he can land it, his buddy Joseph Tullo nails one. Hailing from Oswego County, both these guys knew something I didn’t because they caught the last two fish I saw that day.

The Oswego River is huge and the fish move around. They swam in and out of our range before me and my buddies had a chance to get serious.

None of us was really disappointed because we knew the severe cold limited our chances of scoring. What drew us there on such a cold morning was the knowledge that if we were lucky and the sun came out, it could raise temperatures enough to trigger some furious action.

Never happened.

This weekend the bite promises to be a good one. The water will remain at fishable levels, and the weather forecast calls for temperatures reaching into the mid-40s. And if construction on the power plant’s intake channel is completed, and the stream is diverted to generate power, the water flowing over the entire ancient riverbed – from the dam to the canal wall – will be down a notch, creating an ideal steelie habitat, possibly igniting one of the most frenzied feeding binges of 2011.

Joseph Tullo gently unhooking a steelie he released.

Scott VanDerWater fishing against the Oswego River's icy backdrop.

Comparison: My JW Young centerpin combo, an example of human craftsmanship at its finest, surrounded by an icy waterscape, an example of nature at her finest.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas on Ice and Holiday Rainbows

Each winter, Oneida Lake is the first in Central NY to be crowned in ice, usually in the last week of December. Still, anglers generally don’t walk out there until after the first week of January. This year, the cold came early and stayed, giving the global warming crowd a bite of humble pie; and anglers their first chance in years to spend part of Christmas ice fishing.

Indeed, guys were already drilling the ice last weekend, before winter officially started. Not massive populations, mind you, but a few brave souls, spread out, a couple here, one over there, mostly on shallow bays. If the weather holds, you’re gonna see quite a few guys ice fishing before 2010 fades into history.

When it comes to ice fishing, the rule of thumb is the best bite is first ice. As of this writing, the weatherman promises the cold will hold for the next few days, meaning ice fishing on Oneida Lake will be great during the Holidays. And I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the season than to have some golden perch or silver walleyes brightening up my day.

Most experts agree ice only has to be two inches thick to be safe for one guy--walking, sitting, doesn’t matter. However, the thickness of early ice is seldom consistent, and it’s wise to wait until it’s three inches thick. Considering ice fishing is something you want to do with a partner for safety, three inches is the minimum.

Christmas Rainbows

With all the rain we’ve had lately, the Oswego River has been too high and roily these past few weeks to fish leisurely. Oh, the fish are there all right, in massive quantities, even. But the water has been so high and cloudy, you practically had to hit ‘em over the head with the bait to get ‘em to bite. As a result, most of the action has moved to the Salmon River.

Running at about 500 cfs at press time, it’s the perfect level for man and beast.

Good buddy Scott VanDerWater claims to have landed 40 this month averaging six pounds each, by wading. He loves centerpinning for them with a JW Young Y2080 reel loaded onto a JW Young, 13-foot Specimen Float rod. A simple, single action reel with nothing but a clicker for a drag, it’s a marvel of contemporary engineering, pitting man’s intelligence and dexterity against the fish’s brute strength and instincts.

On the other hand, you have Kevin Davis, one of the best big water guides on the Great Lakes. Specializing on big water like the Oswego River, Captain Davis moved operations temporarily to the Salmon River because of the difficulty of fishing his favorite stream. Lake Ontario’s second largest tributary, its flow is swollen with the massive quantities of run-off streaming in from as far away as the Finger Lakes and Oneida Lake.

The photos illustrating this posting show the size of the fish Davis regularly finds for his clients.

By the way, a few weeks ago, Davis led a client to a 44-pound king, probably the largest to be taken in Lake Ontario in 2010.

The man can be reached at 315-342-4861. Check out his website: http://www.catchthedrift.com/.

At last word, the water conditions in the Oswego River are rapidly returning to levels steelheaders consider nirvana. I am planning my last blog of the year--sometime next week--to cover the chromer bite in the Port City.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Ups and Downs

A fine, first-snow chromer taken in the special, fly-fishing, catch-and-release section in Altmar.

Heavy rains and snows throughout Central New York have swollen the Oswego River to roughly 20,000 cfs (give or take), way beyond what your average steelheader can handle. What’s more, the water’s murky, and you practically have to hit ‘em on the head for them to hit. And that’s sad, because when its running like it is now, chromers storm into downtown Oswego like college kids hitting Florida’s beaches on spring break.

However, like the wise man once said: “Patience, grasshopper.”

The water’s gonna go down…promise. And when it does, there’s gonna be so many steelies in the bubbly, anglers’ll rename the city of Oswego Steeltown. Indeed, the river’s last stretch of rapids might even get overrun so heavy and thick with chrome, it might spur the EPA into investigating the “source of all that heavy metal …”

Oswego County didn’t earn its reputation as the fishiest spot in America because of one hot spot, though. Indeed, when the river is too fat to fish, all eyes turn to its only real competitor in the contest for title as the Lower 48’s premier fishing destination: the Salmon River.

Last week the stream was so high everyone stayed home; except the steelhead. You see, the river’s slightly warmer plume cut into Lake “O” like heat coming from a register in a cabin just opened for the winter. Its caressing currents drew every chromer within miles into its gentle, confining embrace.

With the stream running at 750 cfs, that’s just about what it is, too. In fact, this level is ideal for man and beast alike: high enough to make them feel comfortable and secure; low enough for us to wade and reach most of the good spots.

Don’t worry about all the snow socking the country either. Located on the western edge of the Tug Hill Plateau, one of the snowiest parts of the country, the folks around here take their plowing seriously and the roads are kept clear. What’s more, there’s only about a foot of powder lining the Salmon River and that’ll be packed down into a snowy trail before this posting even makes it out of my computer.

First snow on the Salmon River is squeaky clean and beautiful. The leaves have laid down for the winter, allowing you to see for great distances through the woods.

Regardless of where you go on the river you’ll be richly rewarded. On the Douglaston Salmon Run you can count on catching loads of steelies, often with deer peeking over your shoulders. The upper river’s fly-fishing only section promises loads of metal, some within sight of bald eagles foraging on salmon carcasses. And everywhere in between, you’ll breathe fresh air washed in wilderness; steeped in silence broken only occasionally by a steelhead exploding through the surface, tail-walking in its bid to get away from the hook of a dreamy-eyed angler.

Clients of Douglaston Salmon Run (a private, pay-to-fish, catch-and-release, preserve) choosing streamers.

Jason. Douglaston Salmon Run's River Keeper, releasing a fine steelhead.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Fish the Skinnies for Chromers

Skinny Creek Chromers are as big and beautiful as their big water counterparts.

This fall has seen rainfall just short of biblical proportions. So much, in fact, the Oswego River has been all but unwadeable for days on end. And right when the stream went down enough last week for guys to be able to walk across its upper rapids, we get another burst of rain, raising it to levels normally only seen in spring.

Rains that make river anglers go to bed crying, however, send creek anglers to sleep smiling. You see, when skinny creeks are swollen to the point of pouring over their banks, chromers rush into the expanding whitewater to pig out on all the trout and salmon eggs the heavy current sweeps out of the pebbles and carries downstream like a conveyor belt loading corn into a silo.

Doug at Fat Nancy’s Tackle Shop (877-801-FISH) says “the ¾-inch of rain we’ve had the last couple of days has the creeks so high, yesterday one guy complained they were unfishable. But they’re going down today, and should be at perfect levels by Friday.

Equally important is that the weather forecast calls for intermittent rain over the next couple of days, keeping the creeks at optimal levels, and steelies swarming in, all weekend long.

“What’s more,” Doug adds “this is the first week without a whole lot of people around. There’s a lot of room on the Salmon River now and that’ll keep the locals fishing there, leaving the skinny creeks short of anglers and full of fish.”

The best skinny creeks, primarily because they offer public access, are Little Sandy and Grindstone which feed “Lake O” directly, and Trout and Orwell Brooks, tributaries of the Salmon River.

Little Sandy Creek can be accessed from the DEC’s Norton Road fishing access site (off CR 15) and at the bridges in the village of Sandy Creek. Grindstone Creek can be accessed from Selkirk Beach State Park, the NY 3 bridge, and DEC access sites on CR 28. Trout brook has a fishing access site on CR 48, and Orwell Brook has a little access around its mouth.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Boundary Deer

Pulaski native, Stan Oulette, with a 10-pointer he took with a bow on the northern side of the Northern-Southern Zone line near his home.

Most deer hunters agree your best bet for bringing home the venison is on opening day.

But which opening day? The northern or southern zone’s; bowhunting’s, or the regular season’s. And if you really want to split hairs, maybe it’s Suffolk County on Long Island which has its own opening day.

After a moment’s thought, a reasonable guy would conclude that most deer are taken on opening day of the southern zone’s regular season. Mainly because it covers the biggest part of the state, and almost all of NY’s primo agricultural land, the most productive deer range.

Still, there’s one small part of the southern zone that’s far more productive on opening day: the edge where the two zones meet. You see, the first shots fired on the northern edge of the boundary send surviving deer over the border. And they stay there, in massive numbers, for as long as they’re not being shot at. Come November 20th, the boys and girls who hunt the southern edge of the boundary will have more than their fair share of deer to chose from--for a day, anyway.

Oswego County is one of the few in the state that boasts both zones, and the line splits us almost in half. What’s more, our portion of the southern zone includes the Lake Ontario plains, an area known for massive quantities of above average size deer.

And this year’s crop promises to be one of the best in recent memory. Stan Oullette, a Pulaski native known for his excellent hunting skills claims “this year’s rut is one of the best I’ve ever seen, and we have some huge bucks running around.”

To prove his point, Stan showed me a 10-point buck he took the second week of November with his bow just north of the Salmon River, on land he manages strictly for trophy deer.

After taking my fill of photos, I complimented him on his prize. He looked me in the eye and said, without flinching, “Spider, I’ve seen two deer this year that would make this one look like a spike horn.”

Taken aback by his comment, the seriousness of his tone, I blurted out “You mean you got atypicals running around your preserve that have single horns poking out of their heads like Medusa’s snakes?”

“No, you…” (I can’t finish the sentence in a family oriented blog),” he replied. “This year we got bucks with horns as big around as my wrist!”

That’s saying something. Stan, a former Marine who spent half his life running heavy construction equipment, is built like a bear. A deer with horns that big is definitely a wall-hanger. Two in the same neighborhood prove how marvelously deer-friendly our range is.

All of Oswego County’s southern zone is in private hands. You have two options. Knock on a farmer’s door and ask if you can hunt his property--the most he can say is no, but he might say yes. Or you can hunt on private property for a fee; two that come to mind are K&G Resort Inc., and Deer Creek Motel and Pheasant Shooting Preserve (315-298-3730).

Friday, November 5, 2010

Rainbows among the Browns--and Golds--of Autumn

Mike with his biggest brown ever!

Runs of coho and kings have petered out on the Salmon River. Still, some can be found in the whitewater…And they’re huge. I saw a king landed on October 30 that went forty pounds if it went an ounce. Indeed, it was almost as big as the guy trying to carry it--and drag it--to his car.

The scale of this year’s run is still obvious. Cadavers are everywhere; stuck between the rocks and wrapped around submerged branches, they wave in the current like muddy banners left by a defeated cavalry charge. Late spawners, now reduced to living dead, mill around in the ripples and pools. It’s a sad end to the noble beasts, but it’s the price they pay for their 3 ½-year sensual feast as the biggest, baddest kids in the drink.

Their loss is the trout’s gain. The river is loaded, from Douglaston Salmon Run to the fly-fishing only section, with huge browns and steelhead. Unlike the salmon, these guys ain’t there to spawn and die. On the contrary, the browns are there to spawn and the chromers are there to thrive by feasting on the caviar deposited in the gravel by the salmon.

Living classroom

With all the fish sure to be around, I called my cousin a few weeks ago and invited him to bring up his three oldest sons for the fishing trip of their dreams.

“Sure!” he responded.

He came last weekend.

We hit Altmar on Saturday, and saw quite a few steelies landed, and the huge king mentioned above. But we couldn’t buy a solid hook-up if we waved a fist-full of flies, egg sacs, whatever in the current.

Sunday was a different story. We started at Deer Creek at first light. The water was low and the fish weren’t in.

An hour later we headed for Pulaski, hit the staircase and worked up to the base of the village pool. Along the way, I got nine hits and landed one fish--what can I say, they were faster than I was.

Mike, Iggy’s oldest, got two hits and landed an eight-pound steelie and a 10-pound brown--ah, the speed and stamina of youth--all granted by the forces of nature to a guy who had only caught stockies until then.

Andy, Iggy’s 16-year-old, lost a couple fish, but the “excitement was well worth it!” he claimed.

And John, a 13-year-old with a smile that could make the sun blush, nailed a nice 18-inch steelie, too small to keep…except in his fondest memories.

We used single, plastic eggs fished in pockets and the edge of the current.

The kids had a ball and assured me they’d be up again soon, and often. Now, that’s a thought for a bachelor bracing for retirement.

The browns are in heavy now and should remain for the rest of the month, their numbers declining as November wears on. The steelies will be there till spring.

The fish are cooperative. It’s a great time to go out and tangle with one of these beauties. And while you’re at it, bring along a youngster and show him the ropes. It’ll be a lesson the kid will carry in his memories for the rest of his life.

You don’t really need any highly specialized tackle, either. The young men above used my Shakespeare spinning combos, pretty standard stuff you can get at any outdoors store that carries fishing gear. There are plenty to choose from throughout Oswego County and Central New York.

Being a professional, I like to look like one and use an 8 weight Pflueger Trion Fly-fishing combo.

By the way, these fish didn’t get big by being careless. While they’re not exactly leader shy, what they don’t see won’t distract them. Use a fluorocarbon leader like Berkley’s Professional Grade Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon. It costs a little more but it’s well worth it.

The Salmon River is super slippery. Use traction devises like Korkers.

Andy showing off brother Mike's steelie.

John holding his first steelie.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Withdrawing Walleyes from the Bank

Oneida Lake is on the edge.

Fishing the surf.

To the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, it’s the biggest geographic feature splitting the state into northern and southern tiers. For meteorologists, it marks the southernmost spot of the lake effect snow region. And come fall, walleye anglers see it as the best spot around for taking massive quantities of delicious walleyes from its edges: the surf and bank.

Late September’s cooling water temperature starts the fish moving inshore. But the major forays to the shallows don’t start until mid-October.

And they’re in right now…Boy, are they ever.

Normally, reasonably competent anglers expect to catch at least one walleye ranging from 15 to 18 inches every night they go out, doubles sometimes, and a limit at least once.

This year it’s different. The fish are larger. I’ve seen more 22-inchers already than I’ve seen any other autumn so far this century. In addition, I’ve seen a couple two-footers, and one that went 25 inches.

The hottest spot is Oswego County’s southeastern edge, particularly the area around Cleveland. On any given night, a line of anglers forms on the sagging concrete wall of the Cleveland Dock Fishing Access Site, working stickbaits in the shallow water parallel to the north shore.

Others walk out on the decaying breakwall on the southern end of the FAS and take walleyes from the surf by casting due west.

The “eyes” are there pigging out on massive schools of buckeyes and shad, in water so shallow, the whites of their bellies look like whitecaps as they take the minnows on the surface.

If you think that’s exciting…it gets better. In fact, the autumn bite provides the greatest sensual feast fishing has to offer. For example, on windless nights you stand a good chance of seeing a school of bait moving right for you. Appearing like a choppy spot on the glassy surface, the patch of ripples slides silently past ya, often erupting into a jumping rain as walleyes charge into the group for dinner.

Equally thrilling is when a walleye--or sheepshead, bass, whatever--takes the lure at your belly right when you’re getting ready to pull it out of the water. Sometimes the hit is so violent, it’ll send a small tsunami into your waders.

This fabulous bite will continue until mid-November, slowly petering out until ice seals the lake for winter.

Osceola's Wayne Carew with a typical walleye taken at the Cleveland docks.

A good night's catch.

The night fishing scene at the Cleveland docks.

This 22-incher shows 2010's crop of walleyes are larger than normal.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Minetto Cats

Eatin'-size cat

Salmon and trout ain’t the only fish spurred into action by early autumn’s meteorological changes. The higher water levels and lower temperatures of October jump-start bottom feeders, too; particularly channel catfish, Oswego County’s favorite, fast lane lowlife.

Bearing a face only a mother could love, able to eat just about anything organic--dead or alive--it ain’t exactly the classiest critter in the drink. But its inclination for heavy current, Herculean hardiness and stamina, make it a perennial winner in any fishy popularity contest.

Channel cats are named for their bias for moving water; the faster, the better. And, mile for mile, the Oswego River offers more public bank-fishing access for this marvelous beast than Lake Ontario tributaries 10 times its length. And the village that offers the largest stretch--relatively speaking--is Minetto.

Less than five miles upstream of the city of Oswego, the river runs right down the middle of this sleepy hamlet. And the catfish are there, in massive quantities. Mostly small guys ranging from 12 to 18 inches, the kind that’ll eagerly take a worm, piece of shrimp, minnow or Berkley Gulp’s Catfish Dough or Catfish Chunks fished on bottom.

The size pictured above is the most popular among most anglers because it tastes best. Once a cat reaches 20-something inches, it tends to taste too gamy for your average palate.

What the big guys lack in flavor, they make up for as competitors, though. And the place has a good population of larger than average cats, some up to 20 pounds. These fish like a large meal and one of the best right now is a strip of salmon, a gob of raw skein or even a strip of milt (you can generally get some at the fish cleaning stations in Oswego). Don’t wait too long, however -- The catfish bite starts seriously slowing down when water temp gets below 50.

Minetto is about as fisherman-friendly a place as you’ll find anywhere. The River View Park on the west bank above the dam is one of the best fishing spots. It boasts a hard surface boat launch, riverside picnic tables, rest rooms, ample shoulder parking, even a convenience store/gas station right across the street.

Minetto at Dusk

Autumn decorations along the canal at Minetto.

Fighting a big one that got away.

Friday, October 8, 2010

After the Storm

Fishing in the public access parking lot, Altmar, October 1.

Last week’s hurricane generated rains swelled Lake Ontario’s tributaries to the bursting point. By Friday afternoon, the Salmon River peaked, but not until it ran over the north end of the CR 52 Bridge in Altmar.

“That don’t happen often,” said a village resident. “When it did this time,” he continued, “a few guys fished on the bridge, in the ripples running over the pavement. One nailed a 20-pound king and another took a nice 10-pound male.”

I’ve heard of pounding the pavement, painting the pavement, laying pavement…but fishing the pavement???

By the time I arrived on the scene at 5:30 p.m., the water was on its way down. But it was still way up there, higher than during your average spring thaw. A side channel with a good current plowed through the fishing access site on the northwestern corner of the bridge. I watched two kings get hooked in the parking lot. They were huge, at least 35 pounds each, and when they decided to head back to the main river, the anglers couldn’t stop them and they broke off.

An eddy developed at the drift boat launch on the other end of the bridge. I saw a guy holding a bowed rod high over his head. It danced in time with the thrusts made by the mighty king on the other end of the line.

Now, a sight like that normally doesn’t warrant a second glance. But this time, the guy was Ron Haney, an Altmar resident who only has one arm. You gotta see this guy fighting a fish to believe it. He holds his rod high while the fish has the upper hand, letting the drag, current and bent rod do all the work. When the fish tires and starts giving a little, Ron hangs the reel over his thigh and reels in the line.

He actually got the fish to shore, but it was a stubborn critter full of hope. Right when everyone watching thought the game was over, the fish waved its tail good-bye and snapped the line.

“That was a nice fish. But the conditions are tough,” Haney stoically remarked, staring out over the raging river.

Ron Haney holding on while an angler tries tailing his king. It got away at the last minute.

High water is good for salmon and they were everywhere. Unfortunately for “sports,” the water was too much to chase after the beasts and few were landed. Sunday saw the water down enough for anglers to have a fighting chance. I saw fish get taken in every pool I visited on the Salmon River. Kings mostly, with a few browns and steelies mixed in.

Water in the River Park's walkway, downtown Oswego, October 3.

South of the plant, more than two feet of water surged along the concrete wall lining the riverbank, forcing folks to fish from the sidewalk. Some brave anglers entered the water at the trail’s end but heavy current wouldn’t let them get more than 15 to 20 feet from the staircase.

Anglers fishing on the walkway upstream of the power plant, an area they usually fish from a dry bank.

Above the power plant, the stairway ended in water on Sunday.

Under normal conditions, salmon mill around in the lake waiting for high water before storming in. Usually, it comes after autumn showers that only raise the river a few inches to a foot per storm. As a result, the runs are staggered.

This year three months of rain fell in one day and the water rose to Global Warming proportions. It’s a good bet that a lot of salmon will take advantage, and come in groups to spawn, offering super fishing over the next several weeks.

So, there’ll still be plenty of salmon to catch, with late-running fish all month long.

In addition to kings with record-breaking potential, steelhead and brown trout runs should be off the charts. The high water will draw massive quantities of both species into the Salmon and Oswego Rivers; browns until the end of the month, chromers from now through spring.

The fish are huge, so’s the water. Put the two together and we stand to have the best fishing Oswego County--aka water of champions--has seen in 25 years.

When the water came down on Sunday, anglers began landing fish again.
A happy Sunday morning angler on the Salmon River

Friday, October 1, 2010

Salmon are In…and They’re Huge!

Notice: Given the recent weather conditions, the Salmon River and the Oswego River have become extremely dangerous. We urge anglers to consider fishing techniques other than standing directly in the water, such as fishing from streams, piers or driftboat, until the high water levels subside.

Normally, the last week of September sees waves of kings and cohos climbing the rapids of the Salmon River to spawn. This year the runs are on time but there’s one noticeable difference: the fish are the biggest they’ve been this century.

And that was expected. Fish that were taken from the tiniest Great Lake over the summer were huge compared to recent years. A lot of 35-something pounders were landed, including a 39 lb. 8 oz. fish that took America’s Fall LOC Derby. Better still, the Great Ontario Salmon Derby, a Canadian tournament sponsored by the Toronto Sun, was taken by a 40 lb. 2 oz. fish caught in July. The fish were so big, rumor had it charter boat captains were whistling “Happy Days are Here Again.”

I called some bait shops the last weekend of the month and they all reported the river was loaded with fish. One, under condition of anonymity, claimed so many fish were taken right in the heart of Pulaski, Main Street’s sidewalks were coated in a layer of fish slime.

I had to see that. But I couldn’t break away from other commitments until Monday night.

I got to Pulaski around 5 p.m. Parking on the shoulder on the side street heading to the ball park, right where US 11 banks west before crossing the Salmon River, I strapped my corkers to my sneakers (in case the sidewalks were slimy, you see) and headed for the bridge.

Salmon are everywhere in the river.

There was only about a dozen guys fishing on both sides of the crossing, but what the river lacked in anglers, it more than made up for in salmon. They were everywhere. I saw anglers fighting salmon, salmon frolicking on the surface in the Village Pool, and salmon climbing the rapids just upstream of the bridge.

I went to the Ball Park and the story was the same. Anglers were stretched out in comfortable distances from one another along the stream. Everywhere I went, someone was fighting a fish.

Kings ranging from 15 to 30 pounds made up the vast majority of fish I saw on stringers. But cohos ranging from 10 to 18 pounds were strung up with em in many cases…and that’s big for the species.

Again, that shouldn’t really surprise anyone, considering the world record coho, a fish indigenous to the Pacific Ocean, came out of the Salmon River several years ago.

All the salmon activity has spurred steelies into action. Several anglers I talked to, including PA resident Kurt Kmetz (see photo), have been catching steelhead ranging from 5 to 10 pounds on streamers like egg sucking leeches.

Thankfully, the unethical behavior spawned by snagging practices that were encouraged in the 1970s and early 1980s is a distant nightmare. There are fewer guys running up and down the river swinging hooks at everything with fins, and ethical anglers are reprimanding those who still try, so the fish have calmed down and are remarkably eager to hit a fly.

This world class salmon fishing is playing now through the middle of October. Get there early to claim the good seats.

PA resident, Kurt Kmetz, holding a 25-lb. king and a 15-lb. coho.

Village Hole

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fishing at the Cleveland Dock

Set into the north shore of Oneida Lake, Cleveland, NY traces its roots back to the days of our country’s founding. By the first quarter of the 19th century, it had enough residents to support a general store and hotel. As the century rolled on, glass manufacturing, spurred by the discovery that the area’s sand was the finest around, caused a mini population boom. Its deep water port, dug out of Oneida Lake by the mouth of Black Creek, facilitated huge barges that carried finished glass products to the Erie and Oswego Canals and on to world markets.

Glass manufacturing is a distant memory now, but the docks are a local hot spot for everything the lake has to offer.

The fishing's easy at Cleveland Dock.

Dropping to about six feet deep right at the dock, fed by the cool waters of the creek on the north side, lined by weeds to the south, and straddled by concrete and rocks, the harbor is an ideal bass habitat. However, stuck all summer long by everyone from dock-side, leisure-time anglers in anti-gravity chairs to professional bass pros, these fish are savvy veterans.

Still, they gotta eat sometime, and you can nail ‘em on a free-swimming minnow, fat crayfish, or by presenting lures in new and unusual ways. For instance, I watched one guy nail a 15-inch smallie by twitching a floating stickbait on the surface. What was unusual about him using this popular low light technique is that he was doing it at high noon, out in open water.

Most who fish the dock are trying for panfish or bottom feeders. Yellow perch hang out in the open water, rock bass like the walls and rocks, and sunfish are plentiful along the weed edges. They hit the worms the majority is using, but I do just as good on a Berkley Atomic Teaser (a 1-inch tube jig/trailer combo) tipped with a Berkley Power Wiggler. In addition, my rig draws an occasional crappie and pickerel.

Walleyes move into the dock just about any time of the year, but especially in spring, when they run Black Creek to spawn, and fall, when cooling water temperatures draw them close to shore. They find the security of the deep water to their liking and stay all day long.

What’s more, this time of year the walleyes are drawn to the lake shallows on the south end of the fishing access site, within easy reach of surf anglers casting stickbaits.

Cleveland Dock offers some surprises, too. When I was there last week, I saw a sturgeon, my first in the wild. I was fishing in the shallow water on the north end and the thing come out of the deep. It moved sluggishly in two feet of water, staying in plain sight for a good two minutes. Unfortunately, all I had was my point-and-shoot camera and it doesn’t have a polarized lens so the fish didn’t appear in the photograph.

Get there by taking I-81 exit 32, and driving east on NY 49 for a little over 12 miles.

Panfish are plentiful.

My Abu Garcia fishing tackle resting on decaying structures from Cleveland's days as a thriving port.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Good Old Days are Back

Water levels ain’t the only thing that swelled following the heavy storms that swept through Central New York a couple weeks ago. Rumors of Lake Ontario coughing up 40-pound salmon sprouted like mushrooms after an autumn rain.

With a name like Spider, all ya got’s your reputation, so I figured before I started claiming the good old days are back, I better do some verifying. The results were…oh, so pleasantly ambiguous.

Fulton's Pedro Moreno holding his King, taken in downtown Oswego on September 5

Figuring guys who mount fish for a living would be the first to know if such beauties were being caught, I called Pulaski’s Fish Wish Taxidermy (all numbers are 315 area code: 298-4588). Owner Maggie Rathje said a fellow brought in a 41-pound king the other day. Unfortunately, she didn’t weigh it on a certified scale. Instead she used a ruler: multiplied its length (45 inches) by its girth (27 inches) and divided by 800. She’s been dealing with fish for a long time and feels confident her figure is accurate.

As an aside, she mentioned taking in a half dozen kings weighing over 35 pounds each already this season.

A responsible writer draws on several sources so I decided to call Fran Moshier, over at Animal Art Taxidermy Studio (963-3817). The biggest he’s seen so far this year is a 33-pounder.

Moshier suggests exuberance can cloud a good man’s judgment: “They might look that big when they first come out of the water, but on a good scale they’re usually a little lighter.”

Still, he’s quick to add: “Captains keep saying there’s a 40-pounder out there. They’re marking big fish.”

I went up to Oswego to pound the pavement for the truth. Mike, at Fat Nancy’s Tackle Shop (125 E. First St., 216-4595), hadn’t seen any 40-pounders, but he heard a lot of stories.

“One local charter captain’s taxidermist told him 40- and 42-pound kings were brought into the shop on August 2,” said Mike. “They were taken by the same boat. They weren’t entered in the LOC derby.”

Drew over at Screwy Louie’s Sport Shop (9 East Cayuga Street , 342-3138) confirmed that he heard the report of the 40- and 42-pounders over the radio, and that a lot of anglers are talking about it.

However, Shantell, another employee of Screwy Louie’s, claims the biggest king she’s heard of so far is the LOC Fall Derby winner, Richard Priset’s 39 lb. 0.8 oz. bruiser.

And that’s so close it almost hurts.

On the bright side: “A lot of people tell me this year could see the state’s king record broken,” says Fat Nancy’s Mike.

Considering that kings put on a lot of weight in their last binge before spawning, and that there’s still a week or two before some stop eating, we just might see a new record setter.

My money says it’ll come out of Oswego County waters.

I’ve included some photos of fish that were taken in Oswego on Sunday, September 5th. This is the earliest I’ve ever seen so many nice fish taken out this early in the month. If this holds, we’re in for a memorable season.
Pedro holding a brown he also took below the Varick dam on the same day, using an orange sponge.
Pedro waits at Larry's Oswego Salmon Shop to have his fish cleaned.
Fulton native Brian Stephens with a 24-inch walleye he took downstream of the Bridge Street bridge in Oswego.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Stormin' Salmon

Most years, precocious salmon start trickling into Lake Ontario’s large tributaries in late August. But only a few lucky anglers, usually the earliest risers, ever get one until this month. You see, in August, water temperatures are generally way too hot by day to hold them, and the few fish that make reconnaissance runs at night seldom get too far before deciding the tight water isn’t for them and beat fins back for the lake.

And then there’s this year. August will probably go down as one of the most unusual in terms of numbers of early salmon running Oswego County’s large Lake Ontario tributaries. The heavy rains on the 21st and 22nd cooled the water and raised the streams enough to draw good numbers of kings from Aug. 25 through the 28th.

The Oswego River was still raging the last weekend of August. The Oswego Salmon Shop’s (315-342-2778) Larry Muroski claimed guys had been hooking up with fish off the high wall behind his shop for a few days, including several that morning.

I went down to take a look at the river and watched a couple guys fishing for about 15 minutes. No one hooked anything but I saw a fish porpoise.

Denise, a.k.a. "Mayor of the Salmon River," working her Spey casting magic;
a highly stylized form of fly-fishing developed in the Spey River region of Scotland.

A fly-fisherman starting his line up on the Salmon River in Altmar.

Next I headed for the Salmon River. I stopped at Woody’s Tackle and Gifts at the corner of NY 13/ NY 3 (315-298-2378). Karen was manning the register as usual and claimed that many customers reported catching fish over the past few days.

Outside, I watched a pick-up turn into the lot and park next to me. In the back, it had a large cooler splashed in red – and a huge spotted fish tail hanging out one end.

“Catch anything?” I asked the driver.

“Yeah, we landed three and lost one,” he replied. “Wanna see the biggest?”

“Sure do.”

“He weighs 35 pounds,” he gushed while lifting the dripping beast from the box.

As luck would have it, I ran out of film taking shots of the raging waters of the Oswego River. And after buying a new roll in Pulaski, I couldn’t find an angler with a fish.

So I returned the next day. It was hot and pleasant, not exactly a good day for salmon fishing in August. I didn’t get any hits but I saw a couple fish in the Staircase.

After giving my arm a good workout practicing Spey casting, I drove around and took photos of others fishing. No one had a salmon, but one guy said he saw one get landed that morning in the village’s ballpark area.

The title to the feature on page 34 of the current “New York Fresh Water Fishing Guide” proclaims “Fishing New York’s Great Lakes: The Good ‘Ol Days are Now.” From what I saw in the bed of the truck at Woody’s and from what I’ve been hearing, this year promises to see the biggest salmon in over a decade run the Salmon River.

Forty-pounder, anyone?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Cats in the Channel

There’s more swimming beneath Oswego County's enchanted waves than just salmon, trout, walleyes, pike, bass and delicious panfish. We offer trophy bottom feeders, too, particularly channel catfish.

Depending on whom you talk to, the lowly catfish ranks anywhere from numero uno to number three on the list of America’s most popular species. That’s because it’s found in every one of the Lower 48 States. And while blues and flatheads are household names because they easily reach 50 pounds, our channel cats ain’t no slouches.

Able to reach 40 inches and weigh over 25 pounds, these slimy, slippery beauties can rip 50 yards of line off your screaming reel as easily as waving goodbye. Their great strength, prodigious appetite, and looks only a mother can love, earn them a dedicated following of anglers from all walks of life.

Cousin Staash respects them so much he calls them the thinking man’s fish: “Just think, to catch a cat, all you gotta do is cast out some bait, put your rod down, kick back, relax and think about anything you want.”

Typical Oswego River Cat.

The South Rises Again
Up until recently, northern catfish were generally considered the game of a highly specialized group called bank-fishermen. And they knew how to keep their mouths shut. Rumor has it their secret was propelled into the mainstream by Southern boys assigned to the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum.

According to legend, most of these guys came up here and were immediately tempted by walleyes, kings, steelhead and the other glamorous names plastering the covers of popular fishing magazines. But glitter only blinds for a little while. Before long, the good old boys longed for a return to the simpler things in life. Some tried their luck on Oswego River catfish; and it was good.

Two-Tiered Fishery
This remarkable fishery consists of two stories.

The first level runs from the mouth of the Oswego River up to Varick Dam. Influenced by fish migrations from Lake Ontario, the river carries a wide menu of treats year-round – from tiny morsels like alewives to mouthfuls like salmon – and catfish grow fat on the cornucopia.

Cats in the lower river are the biggest in the system. Fish up to 20 pounds are available, and “catheads” (die-hards who eat and sleep catfish) have 30-something-pounders swimming through their imaginations.

The rest of the stream offers unusual catfish opportunities as well. Tied into the state canal system ever since Clinton’s Ditch was open for business in 1825, the Oswego River has been corrupted with a host of exotic critters ever since. Massive schools of everything from white perch and alewives to gizzard shad call its hospitable habitats home.

All this biomass dies eventually, creating ideal growing conditions for scavengers like catfish. They typically go from one to four pounds, but a lot of them tip the scale between five and 10.

The best bait is a night-crawler, shrimp or a commercial preparation like Berkley’s GULP Catfish Dough. You’ll get a lot of small ones but even they fight well for their age. Larger specimens respond best to whole, large minnows or cut-bait – the best right now is a chunk of salmon.

Like their name says, channel cats like to hang out in deep, slow-moving channels. In addition, they like fast currents.

This means the length and breadth of the Oswego River. Still, some spots are better than others and you can better your chances of scoring by fishing below locks, at the points of lock islands, and in the tailraces of power plants, especially along the edges of the current.

Father and son double.

Boys and their catfish.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Flyway of the Monarchs

Oswego County is full of natural wonders. Spectacular geological features like the Salmon River Falls Unique Area and the fabulous sand dunes at Deer Creek Marsh Wildlife Management Area etch the landscape. World class salmon, steelhead and walleye swim in our waters. And each spring and fall our friendly skies load up with migrating fowl of every feather.

But not all miracles are big and obvious. Indeed, Oswego County is full of marvels of a smaller nature, and one of the most colorful is the fall migration of monarchs.

The majestic monarch travels thousands of miles in its life journey. (Photo by NYS DEC Web site).

This majestic butterfly’s range reaches way into Canada. As summer days grow shorter, signaling the butterflies to start moving to warmer climates, those born north of the border leisurely head south. Reaching Lake Ontario, they’re reluctant to fly over the huge pond. Although they can flutter for long distances, they have to stop sometime, to get out of heavy winds, to rest, roost, stuff like that. So they try to fly over land as much as possible and skirt the shoreline looking for some they can follow to the U.S. of A. At Cape Vincent they bank a sharp right.

Just about any refuge will do in an emergency. However, given a choice, monarchs prefer certain spots. In fact, they have an uncanny knack for resting in places their ancestors also frequented, often in the same tree their great grandparents used (four generations are produced each year) when they made the trip last fall.

Two of their most popular Oswego County haunts are Deer Creek Marsh Wildlife Management Area and Sandy Pond. The back sides of the dunes offer great protection from the weather, and lots of trees and bushes for perches.

They start migrating in good numbers in mid-August and continue coming until about mid-September. When they finally settle down for the night, they can fill a bush so thick, its branches seem to sprout quivering blotches of orange and gold.

I went up to both spots last week to see what I could see. I wasn’t disappointed. As I walked the beach, I looked north and my eyes settled on the graceful dance of several individuals.

When you first catch sight of one, it’s a fleck in the distance, so small and insignificant you think it’s a floater (one of the tiny spots some of us have in our vision). As it gets closer, you notice its telltale swaying flight and before you know it, a full blown monarch is effortlessly floating past you. It’s humbling to see how such a delicate, weightless critter can remain on its flight path pitted against such a vast expanse of open air and water.

I didn’t see flocks, but I did see several, including a small cluster resting on a tree trunk.

They should start appearing in massive quantities in late afternoon from now until the middle of next month. The best way to locate a batch is to walk the beach and keep an eye out for specks on the horizon that are flying in a determined direction, but in a very roundabout way. If your timing is right, they’ll lead you to their roost.

If luck is with you, you’ll find a tree pasted with tiny, colorful sails gently flapping in the breeze, and others circling the branches looking for perches. You’ll walk away with the knowledge you witnessed one of life’s smallest, most colorful miracles unfold before your eyes.

(The following photos were taken by Janet Clerkin)

A DEC interpretive sign at the parking area at Deer Creek Marsh explains how the dunes were formed. To reach this parking area, turn left at the end of Rainbow Shores Road in the Town of Sandy Creek.

Monarchs cross over miles of open water before landing on the beach.

The shoreline at Deer Creek Marsh, looking north. The area is owned by the NYS DEC and is part of the unique Eastern Lake Ontario freshwater dune system.

Driftwood on the beach.

Shrubs, small trees and dune grass line the edge of the beach at Deer Creek Marsh and provide a place for the monarchs to rest.

The back sides of the dunes offer shelter from the weather.

A viewing platform is situated between the marsh and the shoreline, offering an expansive view of two distinct habitats.

Milkweed and Queen Anne's Lace are common in the upland areas of the dune system.

Goldenrod is a bright symbol of late summer.

Fields of Queen Anne's Lace thrive along the back side of the dunes at Deer Creek Marsh. The dainty flower originated in Europe and is a member of the wild carrot family.

The milkweed plant plays an important role in the life cycle of the monarch. The butterfly lays its eggs on the leaves, the caterpillar feeds on the leaves, and the butterfly feeds on the milky white liquid during the late summer.

Matilda enjoys the late afternoon breeze off Lake Ontario.