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.