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.