Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Drop-back Steelies and Other Surprises

Syracusan Frank Squadrido holding a nice brown trout he took in the village of Pulaski by centerpinning a trout bead below a float.

Winter finally started loosening her grip on Oswego County in late March. Up until then, her reluctance to grant us even a short thaw kept the Salmon and Oswego Rivers at steady levels all season long. When spring finally showed, it remained stubbornly cold, giving only a couple hours of temperatures that rose slightly above freezing, and only on the best of days. It was so frigid for so long, average anglers stayed home.

Fortunately, the dawning of the official trout opener saw nature relent and let some warm air sweep in. Anglers who made it out onto the Salmon River found the temperature in the high 40s, and the water level at around 1,000 cfs (cubic feet per second), perfect for wading or drifting.

And the steelies were all over the place, not just in the river’s upper reaches. Fresh ones were coming in; others were spawning; and drop-backs were milling around at the edges of fast current and at the tails of pools, taking their time drifting back to Lake O, pigging out on every bite-sized morsel they could get.

By all accounts, this year’s steelhead numbers are better than ever and just about anyone who knows his elbow from the butt section of a fishing rod has a good chance at hooking one.

A lot of browns are mixed in. What they’re doing in the river this time of year is anyone’s guess. Some claim they’re river browns, but their size, light color and great number indicates they’re freshly run.

But that was before the mother of thaws. It seems once she sprung, spring couldn’t control herself and overheated, dropping some extremely unseasonably hot days. On one, the mercury shot to just under 80 degrees.

Well, you can’t do that around the Tug Hill this time of year without a reaction. Its world famous snowpack couldn’t take it and melted…fast and furiously.

At this writing on April 14, the river is testing 3,000 cfs. That’s high by any standard. Still, what goes up must come down. It’ll drop, and when it does, it’s gonna catch a lot of big drop-backs in low water. Confident over the easy pickings in the food rich rapids while the water was high, they’ll be hungry and relatively easily available. Combined with this year's large number of fish, the situation promises some of the best fast water action the Salmon River has ever seen.

The window will be open the widest from the end of April through the middle of May; right about the time when the Skamania and landlocked Atlantic salmon begin their runs.

But say the worst happens and you don’t catch the steelie swimming through your dreams. Don’t be too hard on yourself: these fish didn’t get big by being stupid.

Just hooking one is the beginning of a life altering achievement; because now you gotta land it. And if you do, well, then you’ve earned the right to sit back and glow.

But not for too long. Getting hooked in the imagination by a steelie is addicting, and you’ll be casting for another before you know it.

A 30-inch, drop-back hen steelie Spider caught by centerpinning a pink (bubblegum) Berkley PowerBait Trout Worm below a float.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Crappie Fishing Getting Good

Crappie: early season delight

Last winter’s unusual severity--long stretches of bitter cold weather without any thaws to speak of--along with heavier than normal snowfall -- has set the early season bite back a bit. Fortunately, the beginning of the month saw things warm up enough to lure folks to their favorite panfish spots; and early indications are that the bite’s gonna be a good one.

Last week saw Toad Harbor load up with minnows and panfish. Guys fishing with mousies and spikes nailed a lot of sunnies and shiners. Those working flathead or bucktail minnows did pretty well on the crappies.

Still, the crappie fishing was spotty. Schools would swarm in, bite for an hour or so and then turn off. A few hours later, they’d come back, folks would catch a few and then the critters would shut down again.

One local crappie expert surmised: “The water’s a tad too cold for them yet. Sometime next week they’ll come round in good numbers.”

Curiously, there seemed to be a larger than normal population of intellectually challenged anglers on the banks that day. They were easy to identify because of their habit of throwing the shiners into the bushes. One guy I watched throw four to their deaths finally complained: “I hate these worthless things.”

That’s when I let him have it. “Well buddy, what do you expect?” I asked. “You come to their house, throw dinner at them and get mad when they hit. If you don’t like catching shiners don’t use the baits they feed on.”

“There’s too many of ‘em; by killing them I’m helping to control their numbers” he shot back.

“Let the fish do that,” I replied.

A dumbfounded expression crept over his face.

Figuring he was probably a pretty decent guy deep down who just wasn’t savvy to the mysterious workings of nature, I decided to let him in on it: “Shiners are forage. All kinds of fish depend on them for food, including crappies, perch, sunnies. If you go killing them before they can spawn, you’re reducing their numbers all right. And then what do you expect the bigger fish to do?” I asked, rhetorically; then answered myself. “they’re gonna feed on more sunnies, perch and crappies, which means there’ll be less for you and me. You see?”

“Oh, yeah,” he responded. “But they’re still a pain in the ….”

“Yeah, but I’ve seen days where they were all I caught. Without them, I’da been skunked,” I argued.

He smiled in agreement (told ya he was a nice guy).

Fate seemed to smile, too, because after that all I saw him catch were sunnies…and that made him very happy.

Toad Harbor should be productive from now all the way through mid-May. Crappies will be the main event for the next couple of weeks, followed by bullheads and sunfish, and pickerel when pike season opens.

If you don’t mind a little current, the floodgates at Caughedenoy can be productive. Perch mill around the structures and can be pretty cooperative if you’re there at the right time. What’s more they’re bigger than in years past.

They hang out in the slow areas and edges of the current, and respond best to a jighead tipped with a minnow and fished below a bobber so the offering moves around, an inch or two off bottom.

Feedback: Meg, a reader form Liverpool, NY, sent an email reporting that she and her 11-year-old son caught 11 perch in Phoenix over the weekend, five in the first 20 minutes.

Mexico native John Whitney and a perch he took at Caughedenoy.

Wayne Wright holding part of his family's dinner he took at Toad Harbor.

Way to happiness: Toad Harbor, a bucket and a crappie.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Catch-and-Release Cookbook

Fran Verdoliva, NYSDEC's Salmon River Coordinator, shows the proper way to hold a fish you intend to release.

Sooner or later, for reasons ranging from fishing strictly for the fun of it to catching undersized crappies or out-of-season bass, there will come a time when you’ll want to release your catch. And while your actions might seem noble on the surface, they’ll amount to releasing dead fish swimming if you’re not careful.

One of the worst things you can do to a fish is to catch it on tackle that’s too light for its size. Battling trophy steelhead with four-pound tippets and keeper muskies with eight-pound test exhausts the quarry, often to the point where it can’t recover. Horsing it in on a strong line actually preserves its strength.

This is especially true in fast, shallow water like the Salmon River. Steelies, browns and salmon earned the status of game fish because of their brute strength and stamina. Streams are littered with boulders, logs and debris, and the longer the fish fight, the greater their risk of being injured by running into something or landing on it after leaping.

Worst still is if you hook one in mild weather. Salmonids are coldwater species with a low tolerance for high temperatures. Each June through August, the Salmon River carries away countless landlocked Atlantic salmon and Skamania cadavers that never recovered from “sporting” contests with man.

The heaviest losses come when anglers photograph their trophies. Incredibly, after the fish has just fought for its life and needs to catch its breath, it’s removed from the water, admired, photographed, tickled, kissed, whatever. It’s the equivalent of you running the marathon, and right when you cross the finish line having someone dunk your head underwater for a few minutes.

Given a chance to catch its breath, a fish generally calms down. It’ll squirm around a bit but eventually stops. If you have to have a hero shot, wet your hands, lift it gently and quickly, take your photo and put it back in the water. Better still take a shot of it in the water with you kneeling next to it.

Always wet your hands before touching fish, particularly members of the pike and salmonid families, species plated in soft, small scales. Their slime is like a second skin, protecting them from parasites and bacteria. A dry hand removes it, leaving the bare spot vulnerable to life threatening infections.

Never lift a northern pike by the eye sockets. All game fish are sight feeders--that’s why they hit lures and flies. Poking one in the eyes, then lifting it can damage its vision. Blinding one amounts to a death sentence.

Avoid holding a bass by jamming your thumb and index fingers into its mouth and lifting it by the lower jaw so it suspends horizontally. While that pose might look great in magazines and on-line, it can injure, even break the bass’s jaw--and that can’t be good.

Be gentle when you’re removing a hook. Don’t just rip it out; wiggle it around to work it out. If it’s deep, cut the leader and leave it in the fish. If it’s in the throat, the fish can sometimes work it out or it’ll rust away with time. If it’s in the gut, the fish’s stomach acids will eventually dissolve it.

Never hold a large fish in a vertical position. Made to swim, its internal organs are designed to sit horizontally. When you lift it vertically, it has no muscles to support its innards and they can break away from their proper positions.

Cold, slimy and generally silent (bullheads and sheepshead can make sounds) fish are often treated like inanimate objects. But they are alive and all life is delicate. By exercising a little care and gentleness in the handling of those we plan on releasing, we not only mitigate the pain and terror of being yanked out of their habitat, we increase their chances to thrive and fight another day--maybe even spawn.