Thursday, June 30, 2011

Chains of Oneida Lake

Sunfish, like this bluegill, grow huge in the weeds.

Back in the old days, northern pike were Oneida Lake’s top predator. The Erie Canal changed all that by draining away large portions of the huge swamp that hugged the south shore. Since nature abhors a vacuum, the place now boasts one of the Northeast’s greatest populations of the pike family’s smallest member: chain pickerel.

And the ones you catch are generally huge for the species. While the state’s minimum length for a keeper is 15 inches, anything smaller than 20 inches is scarce, staying hidden in the thickest weeds and densest cover it can find in order to avoid being eaten by its next of kin.

Unfortunately, pickerel suffer from a bad rap showered on them by sour grapes who curse their existence whenever one strikes a bait targeting walleyes, bass, even panfish. You see, a pickerel’s mouth and gill rakers are loaded with teeth so sharp, they’ll slice through the strongest line and swim away with your favorite lure. If you’re lucky enough to get one to the boat and land it, the challenge just begins. Feisty and slimy, it’ll thrash non-stop until exhaustion; and if your fingers are anywhere near its mouth, it’ll cut ya like a razor.

Sportsmen who admire nature’s wisdom in keeping an ecosystem healthy through diversity, admire these primitive, native American creatures for their vicious strikes, spirited fight and delicious taste.

After all, as cousin Staash likes to say, “Challenge is what we thrive on…eh?”

So when my good buddy Bob Twitchell mentioned all the pickerel he catches while fishing for walleyes in deep weeds, I started salivating.

“Hey, man, you gotta take me,” I pleaded.

A few days later we’re on the west end of the lake casting black jigs tipped with pieces of worm into weeds submerged in anywhere from 10 to 20 feet of water. Shortly, Bob gets the first fish, a lively, 20-inch walleye.

Casting out again, he gets a hit immediately. This time it's a pickerel. Netting it to prevent it from cutting off while struggling at the side of the boat, he carefully retrieves his jig, releases the fish and casts out again.

I’m fishless and growing increasingly jealous. Adding insult to injury, the curly-tail grub I’m vertically jigging keeps sticking itself in the tail. A couple frustrating minutes later, I swallow my pride and bum a bucktail. Tipping it with a worm (also bummed) I drop it over the side. In the time it takes to close the bail and reel in the slack, a two-pound bucketmouth slams it and the fight is on.

We spent the next three hours drifting over weeds loaded with pickerel, monster sunfish, rafts of large white perch averaging a pound, and another walleye.

Oneida Lake’s western half is loaded with weed beds. Watered by surviving swamps and numerous tributaries, punctuated with shoals, islands and deep rock piles, it’s the ideal habitat for all manner of bait ranging from insects and invertebrates to massive schools of minnows.

This abundance of food draws and holds a wide variety of game fish; while the weeds, boulders and shoreline structure give them cover from the sun. Add ‘em together and you come up with the exceptionally productive summer habitats this part of the lake is famous for.

 Large white perch abound in Oneida Lake this year.

A typical Oneida Lake pumpkinseed.

A typical Oneida Lake bucketmouth.

Our first pickerel.

Bob holding his 20-inch walleye.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Salmon River Reservoir: Island Bass

One for the Spider

Hailing from Hawaii, it’s only right that Pat Miura would be drawn to the Salmon River Reservoir (a.k.a. Redfield Reservoir): It’s loaded with islands and largemouth bass.

One of only a handful of guides who specialize in fly-fishing on Great Lakes tributaries, Pat’s notorious throughout the Northeast for his uncanny ability to catch trophy steelhead on streamers and nymphs. If there’s a chromer in the area, come winter, summer or high water, he’s gonna nail it. The guy’s blessed with unbelievable instincts for locating the beasts. It’s like he’s directly descended from them.

So I was really surprised to hear Pat loved largemouths. I called him one day in May to ask him to show me how he catches the Salmon River’s summer-run landlocked Atlantic salmon and Skamania. He mentioned he had just returned from a Florida vacation in which he caught numerous bucketmouths, including an eight-pounder.

So I bit.

“You ever fish for bass in Redfield?,” I asked.

“All the time, he replied. Why, you wanna try it?”

I couldn’t believe my ears: “Yup!”

So we went several days ago. Launching at the Jackson Road Public Access site (9.5 miles east of Pulaski, off Cty. Rte. 2), we headed southeast.

Islands began popping out of the water like we were in the St. Lawrence River. I mean, depending on the water level there are, maybe, 20 to 30 of them, a lot for an impoundment that’s only about six miles long. What’s more, none has any buildings. In fact, there’s no development at all along at least 90% of the waterfront, maybe more. The feeling’s about as close to “Adirondacky” as you can get without leaving Oswego County.

Next thing I know, the boat’s stopped and Pat’s casting a Rapala Husky Jerk. In a blink, he’s fighting a 13-inch smallmouth. Not big by any standard, but it fought like it was aiming at becoming a local legend.

I grabbed my pole. Before I can tie on a jerkbait, he’s landing another one. By the time I finally managed to cast out, he was landing his third cookie-cutter smallmouth.

And that kind’a surprised me; according to the experts, bucketmouths are supposed to rule Redfield Reservoir. But smallmouths made it into the system several years back, found the habitat good, and are holding their own.

Still, we came for largemouths. And Pat produced, in spades.

“Redfield Rez is tough,” claims Pat. “It’s never the same. It’s different from one day to the next. The main reason is that water is drawn out for power generation, causing the water level to change constantly.

“Fish structure: depth changes, stumps, rock piles, and any other cover you can find,” he advises. “The most important thing to look for if you want largemouths is weeds.”

When he found some, we started nailing bucketmouths. We caught and released about 20 (he accounted for at least 18), mostly on jig and pigs and Flukes, but YUM Dingers produced for me.

Knowing the reservoir has some nice walleyes, I baited one of my spinning outfits with a Berkley Power Grub and worked it on bottom whenever we came to a drop-off. I didn’t get any “eyes” but I landed a bunch of rock bass, some weighing close to a pound.

Salmon River Reservoir has loads of public access. Cty. Rte. 2 offers bank fishing at Little America, on C.C.C. Drive, about a mile east of the access site mentioned above--launching a boat, even a car-topper is difficult because of the spot’s steep terrain. Brookfield Power Company runs a day use area complete with launch site, bank fishing and picnic facilities on the north end of Dam Road. The hamlet of Redfield boasts a boat launch and handicapped access shore fishing off Cty. Rte. 17, and there’s a cartop boat launch and shoreline access on Cty. Rte. 17, just south of the bridge.

While Pat Miura specializes in fly-fishing, he's also available for bass and pike trips. Contact him at 315-777-3570.

Some Redfield islands

 Pat with our first bucketmouth of the day.

 More islands

 Pat gets another

 American territory

Casting a Fluke into Redfield Reservoir's shoreline structure.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Old Growth Point

Approaching the Lake

While the exact acreage of the East Coast’s old growth (trees at least 150 years old) isn’t known--indeed, new stands are being discovered all the time--it’s estimated that ancient woods comprise roughly 1% of the forests this side of the Mississippi. New York boasts more than half of that, primarily in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains and Alleghany State Park.

Closer to home, you’d expect to find some virgin woods in the northeastern quarter of Oswego County, in undeveloped spots like Littlejohn and Happy Valley Wildlife Management Areas or Winona State Forest. However, ranked in the top five of the state’s largest lands, they sprawl over 8,000 acres each, and finding their stands of old growth poses a formidable challenge to today’s average, time-strapped hiker.

The good news is that the southeastern corner of Oswego County is graced with Three Mile Bay/Big Bay WMA, another massive spread that offers some really old trees. Best of all, they’re at the shoulder of McCloud Drive, an unpaved logging trail that leads from Toad Harbor Road to scenic Phillips Point

No tree core samples have been taken, so Mike Putnam, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Wildlife Biologist in charge of the WMA, can’t say for sure whether they’re old enough to qualify as genuine old growth or not. Still, he’s confident the trees range from 100 to 150 years old.

He thinks the trees were never harvested by the land’s original owners.

His boss, DEC Supervising Forester Richard Pancoe, believes the trees are just shy of old age, but have reached their magnificent stature because of “site quality: good ground, deep soil and sufficient moisture.”

Whatever the case may be, McCloud Drive is an avenue through a natural treasure. Beyond the yellow barrier (designed to discourage the wild, late-night parties that used to disturbed Phillips Point’s tranquility) at the entrance to the WMA exists a spot that contemporary life forgot. Stately oaks, rough shag bark hickories and massive maples, their crowns towering 60, even 70 feet in the air, line the road like columns to an open air temple.

Off to the west side of the road, Oneida Lake gently laps the wooded shoreline. On the east, the forest reaches inland as far as the eye can see.

As you near the end of the road, the land around it rapidly narrows, forcing it to turn sharply to the east and make a loop. But the spit continues forward, growing narrower and narrower until finally disappearing into the lake.

The distance from barrier to point is less than half a mile, but the scenery is so mesmerizing it feels like a couple blocks. It’s a great place to escape the arrogance and apathy spawned by the asphalt and plastic of contemporary life and immerse yourself in a stress-free primordial setting of towering giants springing from beds of quivering flowers.

To get there from I-81, get off at the Central Square exit, head east on NY 49 for about 3 miles, turn right on Toad Harbor Road, then left, three miles later onto McCloud Drive and travel a few hundred yards to the barrier.
Old growth shag bark hickory

Phillips Point

Old growth oaks

Monday, June 6, 2011

Take a Kid Fishing

 Erin Campbell and daughter Renee admire the youngsters first golden shiner.

Normally, the month of May is the most productive time to fish from shore. Water temperatures are heating up, spurring everything in the drink to move. Trout and pike are feeding voraciously while bass and panfish cruise the shallows looking for spawning sites.

This year, on the other hand, is anything but normal. Here it is the end of May and this is being written to the beat of my sump pump still struggling to keep the basement dry. As recently as last weekend, lawns in the neighborhood were still spotted with pools of standing water. Oneida Lake has only recently gone down enough to reveal the boulders and rocky points that punctuate its shoreline, and the low lying islands that shorebirds of every feather use for rookeries.

What it all boils down to is this year’s spring panfish bite has been extended a couple weeks. For sure, good numbers of the tasty critters were taken in small lakes and streams a couple weeks ago; but the big waters like Lakes Ontario and Oneida, and the Oswego and Oneida Rivers, were so high for so long that they were all but inaccessible to average anglers.

The good news is that all the sunnies, bullheads, rock bass, and stuff that were out of range earlier are accessible now--and they’re a little bigger. What’s more, they’re joined near shore by great quantities of sheepshead, catfish and carp.

It promises to be the hottest late spring fishing in memory; a great time to teach a kid to do it. You see, children take to fishing like minnows to water…if the fish are hitting, that is.

Best of all, you don’t even have to be a great angler to score right now. Fish are hanging out in shallow spots along the edges of open water, and locating hot spots is easy. Just drive along a road that skirts a river or lake and check out all the bridges, culverts, tributary mouths and swamps you come to. Anywhere you find campfire circles and Y-shaped branches (Cousin Staash calls ‘em nature’s rod holders) sticking out of the ground, will likely have fish within casting distance waiting for a juicy bait.

If you prefer the relative comfort, convenience and safety of fishing canal structure in a village or city, try fishing below barriers like locks. Fish often stage below the massive doors while trying to figure out how to get upstream.

If you like the wild side, try the fast water in places like Caughdenoy, Phoenix, Fulton, Minetto or Oswego. Cast your bait into any spot where the water slows down a bit. For instance, along the edges of structures like old mills and concrete walls, in the pockets below boulders and bridge abutments, even the edges of rapids.

River bottoms are loaded with all kinds of debris, everything from sunken logs and discarded road materials to abandoned autos, tires, refrigerators, bath tubs and sunken barges. A good way to avoid losing the battle of the snags is to avoid them altogether, by fishing with a bobber. Set it so it keeps the bait an inch or two above the bottom.

Worms and small minnows are baits of choice for most anglers. However, a small tube jig like a Berkley PowerBait Atomic Teasers, tipped with a Berkley Powerbait Power Wiggler is equally deadly. In fact, if you or your student would rather not bother with messy live bait, you’ll find an Atomic Teaser dangled below a tiny bobber, and worked by being retrieved slowly, and jerked everycouple of feet, will fill your dreams like any squiggly, slimy bait.

Lastly, make the trip a safe one by making the child wear a personal flotation device. The water below a lock wall is generally at least 12 feet deep, and a PFD comes in handy if the kid can't tread water too well. If you're fishing a natural river bank, keep them out of the water, especially if there’s rapids, even if it looks shallow. Streams are notorious for having holes where you least expect them and the drop can be steep and deep.

Conditions like this year’s only come together every couple of decades, and June 2011 promises to go down as the most productive late spring bite of the century. So grab a kid and take ‘em fishin’: you’ll be passing on one of life’s most pleasant pastimes and achieve immortality by etching yourself into the kid’s fondest memories.

 Elevin -year-old Renee Campbell has her first close encounter with a snapping turtle.

City of Oswego residents Liane Benedict and son Jack with a rock bass the youngster caught in the Oswego River.