Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Before His Time

Scottie VanDerWater with a "reel" armful.

It’s said that 5% of anglers catch 95% of the fish.

Scottie VanDerWater is living proof of that. He catches more fish in a day than most guys catch in a month. And he really stands out when he’s doing it. You see, he’s only seven years old.

Almost 47 inches tall, he’s kind’a small; in fact, he’s the only guy I know who’s caught carp as long as he is, and some that outweighed him to boot. And even though he struggles a lot harder than most seasoned anglers while pulling the brutes in, he doesn’t give up and almost always gets his fish.

While it’s clear he’s a natural born fisherman, having a father who used to make a living as a licensed charter specializing in the Oswego River drainage, doesn’t hurt. Indeed, with Scott senior at his side, the pair has yet to see the river throw anything at ‘em that they couldn’t handle.

Last week, the elder Scott invited me to go fishing with him and the boy. I accepted quicker than a carp sucking down a dough ball.

Considering the higher than average heat and humidity slamming our area, Scott Sr. decided the best, most convenient setting for our fish story would be Fulton. “We’re going for panfish, catfish and carp,” he reasoned, “species that love hot weather.”

We made it to downtown Fulton by 11 a.m. The temperature was already in the high 80s. Severe thunderstorms in the Finger Lakes a couple days earlier raised the Oswego River a couple notches.

Our first stop was the upper pool; more specifically, the water gurgling out of the powerhouse turbines on the west side of Lock 2. The place was loaded with huge carp, gars (a primitive fish that swam with the dinosaurs), panfish and smallmouth bass. And everything was biting…except the gars. Worms kept the two Scotts busy catching panfish and bass, and I nailed my share of the critters on Berkley Power Bait Atomic Teasers.

After a couple hours of exciting action the fish turned off completely. Figuring we still hadn’t caught a carp or catfish, Scott decided to try the river downstream of Lock 3.

Good call!

We parked in the Canal Landing lot at the southeastern corner of the Oneida Street bridge, crossed the canal, and headed downstream to the spillway, I fished in the rapids on the west side of the wall, the Scotts tried their luck in the canal on the east side.

We caught everything Scott Sr. promised that morning, and then some, including a keeper crappie, so many smallmouths that we stopped counting after 15 minutes, a 14-inch bucketmouth, a green sunfish (the elder Scott says “they used to be uncommon around here but I’m getting more and more every year,”) and the biggest bowfin (another primitive species that’s been around since the dinosaurs) that’s ever slipped through my fingers (it was just too feisty and slimy to hold). Sheepshead ranging from five to 15 pounds, swam so close you could count their scales.

But the highlights of the day were Scottie Jr. catching the two biggest fish: a four-pound catfish and a 15-pound carp. It’s fascinating watching a 38-pound kid fighting a fish almost half his size, in fast water, no less. He did what was needed and landed both.

Afterwards, he never bragged…Just smiled all the way home.

Scottie as a kid.

One sunfish catchin' young man!

Down to business: showing Scott Sr. where to cast.

Haulin' in an uncooperative carp.

Hero shot

Releasing his trophy.

The proper way to hold a cat.

Releasing a cat

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Tip-toeing Through the Sand Dunes

Trail through the dunes.

Stretching for 17 miles, the Eastern Lake Ontario Dune and Wetland Area offers one of the most scenic shorelines along the big pond. Boasting the tallest sand dunes--some up to 70 feet high--between Cape Cod and Lake Michigan, this barrier system’s ponds, creeks, and bottomland forests comprise the most productive fish and game habitat on the tiniest Great Lake. And Oswego County is the gateway to this enchanted collection of landscapes and seascapes.

The mouth of the Salmon River marks this giant sand box’s southern border. Indeed the soft sandy beach created by the river is Brennan Beach RV Park’s greatest attraction. Billed as the largest RV park in the Northeast, it ends at the south shore of the mouth of Deer Creek.

On the other side, barely a jump across during high water, and a dry step in summer (by July the creek goes underground a few feet before the beach), lies Deer Creek Wildlife Management Area, a visitor-friendly classroom into the workings of a barrier system.

What makes it so is the path running through it. You see, WMAs are managed for fish and game and, as a rule, don’t have roads or clearly defined footpaths running through them. Deer Creek WMA has both; its dune area starts with an abandoned asphalt road that ends in a footpath running right down the middle of the system, skirting the edge of the back dunes on one side, the pond that swallows Deer Creek on the other.

Along the way, you’ll be surrounded by the flora attracted to a natural, freshwater barrier system: American beachgrass, cotton woods, dune grapes and POISON IVY.

Signs all around the place remind folks the dunes are fragile and people should stay off. But cousin Staash claims “poison ivy works much better in discouraging foot traffic in the sensitive areas than any ol’ signs.”

And he’s probably right. Unfortunately, a lot of visitors don’t know their poison ivy from saw grass, and in the two weeks it takes for the itching to stop, they resolve to never set foot in the place again.

And that’s sad because the place is so beautiful it’s worth revisiting over and over, particularly as the seasons change. Avoid contact with the poison ivy by wearing clothes that cover the entire body, not touching anything you can’t identify and staying on the trail.

Believe me, the path will take you close to everything there is to see, from the beachgrass clinging precariously to the steep dunes and the old cottonwoods crowning the crests to the scrubby dune willows, wormwood and cottonwood saplings making a toehold in lower areas. The pond is only a few feet away, close enough to see the huge carp and pike residing within, far enough away to fill your eyes with a beautiful panorama.

Get here by heading north on NY 3 for 1.9 miles from its intersection with NY 13. Turn left on Rainbow Shores Road, follow it to the end, and turn left onto the unpaved, hard surface road. Bear left at the fork 0.6 mile later and continue for 0.2 mile to the parking lot.

If you’d rather see the place from the water, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation offers a canoe launch on Deer Creek, on the west side of NY 3, about 1.5 miles north of its intersection with NY 13.

Dune walkover

Grass swirl on the beach

Inside the dune

Admiring an iris on the beach

In deep summer, Deer Creek ends right at the beach, never crossing over

Deer Creek Pond at dusk

Beach dunes

Footpath to the beach

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Nature Park at Camp Zerbe Is a Wilderness Gem

Photo courtesy of Camp Zerbe

With Oneida Lake shimmering just outside my bedroom window, the Oswego and Salmon Rivers and Lake Ontario about 30 miles north, I’m blessed to live within a half-hour’s drive of the best trophy fishing in the country. What’s more, it’s all in Oswego County, the most fisherman friendly spot in NY, where some of the best fishing is right at the side of the road.

Not surprisingly, then, sometimes I want less; like solitary moments on a pond surrounded by wilderness.

Well, the Creator made Oswego County an angler’s paradise. And the proof is in the water. You see, guys coming up here can fish the world-famous spots mentioned above in the morning, and spend the afternoon on lesser natural wonders like tiny glen brooks, ponds normally found only in mountain meadows, or the rarest fishing habitats of all, kettlehole lakes.

Kettlehole lakes were created at the end of the last ice-age. As the glacier retreated north, it left huge chunks of ice that were spawned underneath it by springs, or torn off the main ice sheet by gouges scoured out of the land. Their weight sunk holes into the ground and when they melted their water remained in the depressions, forming lakes.

Oswego has more than its fair share of these natural wonders. A couple, located on private property near Caughdenoy, are off limits to the public. But three of these gems sit in Camp Zerbe, a 540-acre nature park just north of Williamstown, on the eastern edge of the county.

Run by Oswego City-County Youth Bureau, Division of Parks and Recreation, Camp Zerbe traces it roots back to the early 1930s. It was founded by Fred Zerbe, superintendent of the Syracuse Boys Club, a man with great vision and sensitivity. It used to be a place for urban kids to get out of the city during the height of the Great Depression and find peace and natural beauty among the three kettlehole lakes set into the forest like tears of a grateful wilderness spared the saw and ax that leveled the surrounding woods.

“Fred Zerbe found this wooded hollow peaceful in a time of economic turbulence,” says John Hiller, keeper of the grounds. “Today, we try to stay true to his vision, providing a restful spot for anyone who needs a break from everyday anxiety. That’s especially important now as we face similar economic straits,” Hiller continues.

The easiest of three to reach, Lake Lorraine, is less than ¼ mile from the parking lot. You’ll have to walk down a groomed trail, through a spectacular forest to get there, but the sight is worth the trip. Cradled in a meadow, ringed by a thin bog crowned in water lilies and other indigenous marsh flora, the lake looks like a wilderness pond high in the Adirondacks. Ospreys, bald eagles, blue herons, you name it fly its friendly skies.

It has fish, too. I tried my luck and caught a five-inch pumpkinseed and a couple bullheads the same size on my favorite go-to bait, a Berkley Power Wiggler. Hiller informs me that others have told him the lake also has largemouth bass, but I didn’t fish long enough to catch one.

Not that I didn’t want to. You see, the trail down to the lake takes a sharp left. I almost kept following it but decided to go fishing instead.

After catching the last bullhead, my curiosity got the best of me and I hit the trail again. It skirts the water for a little ways before climbing back up the hill, to an opening shaded by some of the biggest pines I’ve ever seen. Indeed, upon closer inspection, I realized I wasn’t in a clearing at all, but in the open area cleared out of the forest floor by the deep shade created by the towering trees. It was an awesome feeling standing under such majesty. The last I felt that insignificant in the grand scheme of things was when I stood in a patch of old growth sequoias in northern California some 15 years ago.

A family-friendly place, Camp Zerbe has picnic areas, a play ground and an interpretive nature center. It’s open from dawn to dusk and there is no admission charged to drop in and visit. For more information, call (315) 349-3451 or 1-800-596-3200, ext. 3451, or go to http://www.oswegocounty.com/youth/CZerbe/Zerbe.html

Camp Zerbe is on NY 104, about eight miles East of I-81 exit 34.

Camp Zerbe's interpretive center is loaded with informative displays.

Gateway to Camp Zerbe's nature walk to Lake Lorraine

Lake Lorraine

Bench with a view of Lake Lorraine

Photo courtesty of Camp Zerbe

Photo courtesy of Camp Zerbe

Photo courtesty of Camp Zerbe

Photo courtesy of Camp Zerbe