Friday, September 30, 2011

The Returns are Here Again

Salmon Update: This season's largest run of kings entered the Salmon River Wednesday night, September 28. They're still entering the river as of this update, 11:30 a.m., Thursday morning. With rain predicted straight through the weekend, they should continue pouring in until the beginning of next week.

Owen Baxter, and his dad Don, of Boonville, N.Y. show off a Salmon River king

All the rain we’ve been having lately has spurred salmon into running Lake “O’s” tributaries a little early this year. In fact, enough fish entered the Salmon and Oswego Rivers in the first week of September to raise angler excitement to peak-run levels. And while a lot of guys got early thrills, these initial fish haven’t put a dent in the regular runs. Which, are just getting started.

Within the last few weeks, major numbers stormed the Salmon River (the Oswego always turns on a little later and should pick up this week). Anglers have reported tackling with near record numbers of kings and cohos.

Fortunately, for fish and fishermen alike, decent rain at regular intervals coupled with forecasts for more, means river conditions should remain almost perfect and stream banks and bottoms should be full of both for the next several weeks.

While Mother Nature is doing her part to make the angling experience more enjoyable, we are also realizing better conditions as the NYS DEC has been diligent in their efforts to eliminate lifters and snaggers from the environment.

“Now that lifting, lining, whatever…aren’t fashionable anymore, the chances of catching a clean fish are better than ever,” says Sean Rae, a Syracusan who fishes the river. “I’ve caught two today; neither one had wounds or hooks in its body.”

All the usual offerings are producing. Plastic eggs still seem to be the bait of choice but a lot of anglers are tossing flies, egg sacs and sponge to good effect, too.

What’s more, folks targeting early steelhead with everything from beads and Berkley Floating Trout Worms to yarn flies are finding their offerings are luring a lot of salmon.

Good numbers of fish are available throughout the river. Indeed, they’re stacked like cordwood below the bridge in Altmar.

The stream’s population of salmon should remain relatively consistent throughout the day for the next month or so as Brookfield Power continues to help balance the ebb and flow of natural precipitation. You see, the power company has agreed to release a steady stream high enough to draw and hold the beasts throughout the spawning season, a partnership that almost guarantees your trophy will be there waiting for several weeks to come.

For Safety’s Sake

The Salmon River is one of the slipperiest in NY. Wear clean Korkers or similar traction devices to help you keep your footing. A pair of Polarized sunglasses should be worn to help penetrate the glare so you can see where you’re stepping—and easily spot your prey.

Spawned in the Tug Hill Plateau, the Salmon is very sensitive to run-off and can rise quickly. Make a mental note of water levels before stepping in. In other words, note its location on a large object like a rock, bridge abutment, root ball or windfall. If you see, or feel, the water rising, get out immediately. Experts advise wearing a flotation device—it can be a life saver.

A hen coho taken by the author on September 21. 

Triple Deuce Charter's Matt Rubley, a Pulaski native, admiring a large male coho he took on September 21. 

Fishing at Ellis Cove on the Salmon River 

Watching the fish from the bridge in Altmar 

Stanley Cole of Snowcamp, N.C. fly-fishing for kings in the catch-and-release section of the river in Altmar.

Ron Haney of Altmar, who lost his right arm in an accident, shows how he fishes for kings

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pond Hawgs

 Pat with an average-size Sandy Pond bucketmouth.

Sandy Pond is mostly known as a splendid sandy beach bordered by majestic sand dunes where sunbathers toast themselves to a symphony of high winds, roaring waves and the cries of water birds of every feather.

On the other side of the dune sits the real Sandy Pond. Covering roughly 2,400 acres, it’s the largest embayment in the Eastern Lake Ontario Dune and Wetland Area, a 17-mile long natural barrier system containing the tallest sand dunes between Cape Cod and Lake Michigan.

The beauty of the place makes it extremely popular. Much of its shoreline is developed with camps, homes, and campgrounds. The place gets so crowded in summer, I never gave its warm weather fishery any thought.

However, I always knew “the Pond” was a well for northern pike and perch in winter, and crappies after ice-out. Some guys I normally consider reliable sources of information claimed it was a bass hot-spot in summer, but when I went with them, we got skunked every time. So I ignored it from then on.

That was, until I went fishing on Oneida Lake with Pat Miura last July (see blog post of Aug. 2, 2011). One of the most popular fly-fishing guides on the Salmon River (315-777-3570; ), Pat spends his summers pursuing bass.

As often happens, our conversation drifted around our fishing experiences. I mentioned my lousy luck on Sandy Pond.

“Really!” he said, incredulously, “There’s a lot of bass in Sandy Pond…Some really big ones, too.”

“Oh yeah,” I countered, “Prove it.”

“OK,” he replied.

Late last month we fished the place and I’ve been eating humble pie ever since.

Only averaging 8 feet deep, it’s loaded with bass habitat: docks, creek mouths, windfalls, sprawling weed beds, boating channels leading to campgrounds and summer camps, reed fields, you name it. The problem is, you gotta look for the stuff.

You see, Sandy Pond has…lots of sand; sandbars stretching for hundreds of acres, in fact. And you wanna avoid fishing over these barren spots.

Once we located a fishy looking area, all the usual suspects worked: floating lures like Zara Spooks and buzzbaits in calm areas, Berkley Powerbaits, especially Texas-rigged  4-inch Finesse Worms and Carolina-rigged 6-inch Finesse Worms in and along weed edges, Smithwick Rogues jerked in deep water and Berkley’s Heavy Weight fat Sink Worms fished wacky style.

During the heat of the day, I found finesse presentations extremely gratifying. A good braided line like Nanofil on my spinning reels and Spider Wire Fluorobraid on my Abu Garcia Revo and Toro Winch allowed me to feel even the slightest take.

This time of year the pond prepares to hibernate.  Most of the boating crowd has gone back home. With hunting and salmon seasons just around the corner, a lot of local pressure is removed from the waves, making it possible to find some peace on the pond.

Pat says autumn is one of the best times to fish Sandy Pond. The bass are big, fat and cooperative, the scenery is colorful, and the days are brisk, making for the kind of trips you’ll be telling your grandkids about.

 Casting to some heavy brush.

 Bassin' in the reeds.

My biggest of the day came out of some heavy cover clinging to a sand dune.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Curtiss Gale Wildlife Management Area: Fulton’s Primordial Woods

Trees so tall you can't see where the canopy begins.

About a mile south of Fulton, a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation sign hangs on the west shoulder of Cty. Rte. 57, its golden letters announcing the Curtiss Gale Wildlife Management Area.

You search in vain, left and right, up and down the road, for a parking site or access point (the road on its north end is a private driveway).The only way in is from the shoulder of the highway or from the WMA’s 1,000 or so feet of Oswego River waterfront.

And if you decide to hike in, don’t expect to find even the barest amenity like a trail.

No, this lack of human intervention isn’t a sign of our tough economic times and things to come; it’s the result of DEC honoring an agreement it made with the pair of gentlemen who gave this magnificent patch of woods to the state to insure its rare, primordial beauty is never blemished by human kindness and remains a refuge for wildlife.

You see, H. Salem Curtiss and Thomas K. Gale donated the area to the DEC with the stipulation that hunting and trapping are prohibited.

That’s one of the things that make the spot unusual: hunting is a management tool used on all the other WMAs in the state.

Seems the donors’ kind restriction was contagious, spawning a rare moment of cooperation among all concerned.

Normally when a pristine piece of property this close to a metropolitan area is acquired, selfish interests band together to develop it, usually destroying its natural makeup with bathrooms, fences, and groomed trails, making it look like a franchise of the state park system.

Instead, they left the place to nature’s devices; and wow, what a job she’s done!

The forest has never seen mechanized equipment. Its rolling complexion doesn’t have one rut. Instead, the ground is carpeted in a uniform patchwork of plants and forest litter.

And the floor is old; older than the old growth trees reaching so high you need binoculars to recognize the leaves.
I know…I got a stiff neck trying.

I had to identify several by their bark.  A black cherry boggled my mind; how it managed to grow so straight and tall is nothing short of miraculous. Tulip poplars, maples, oaks, hickories, beechnuts, you name it, tower to heights I never knew the species could reach. They’re so far up there, in fact, it’s surprising the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t make them wear blinking lights. 

These behemoths aren’t the exception; the forest’s full of majestic old growth. Adam Perry, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation puts it in a nutshell: “There’s a lot of really old, big trees there. If you’re into big trees, it’s the best place in Oswego County to see a bunch in a small area.”

Covering only 45 acres, Curtiss Gale WMA is one of the smallest in the system. Straddled by the highway and river on the east and west, and posted  signs to the north and south, it’s virtually impossible to get lost--or even disoriented--in the place.

And that’s great for family groups and others who fear wandering off the beaten path. The moment you step in, the trees start to dwarf you but never so much you have to worry about losing your way out.

To learn more about WMAs, including their locations, go to

 One of countless giant tulip poplars.

No trails through Curtiss Gale WMA's magic forest.

Oswego River’s Master Chef

McGrath with a carp... they kept coming all night long.

On the water, Mike McGrath II looks like your average angler. But look close enough and you’ll see the guy’s fishing habits are anything but common. You see, the man’s favorite game is carp, and he owes his extraordinary success to his knowledge of carp cuisine.

Not cooking the brutes, mind you--hell, seafood chefs are a dime a dozen. But preparing meals that carp find so irresistible, they pack so thick into holes he chums, their wakes swamp the shoreline.

OK, that might be exaggerating things a bit. But the fact is the man knows more about the tastes of rough fish than anyone I’ve ever met. In fact, he’s so savvy about their dining habits, his firm, McGrath & Associates Carp Angling Services (315-882-1549;, is famed for providing fishing adventures dreams are made of.

While most anglers fantasize about fishing action so fast and furious their arms ache for weeks afterwards, few ever have their dreams come true. A trip with McGrath, on the other hand, leads to so many carp, you’re immediately inducted into an exclusive group of smiling anglers incapable of ever wearing a straight face again.

Now, I’ve known about the river’s fantastic rough fish populations since early childhood. Back in the 60s, me and the boys would chip in to buy a can of kernel corn, go to our favorite fishin’ hole, throw three-quarters of the can into the drink to draw the fish, sit down and wait. We caught a lot of carp…but we had to wait. And we waited a lot between hits.

Not master carp chef McGrath. He reduces the waiting time to anywhere from a few seconds to a couple minutes by chumming the area with a fragrant recipe he calls a “tending pac” or “12 pac.”

In a big bowl, he mixes crushed popcorn, crème corn, quick oats, puffed wheat, corn pops, Panko bread flakes (Japanese breadcrumbs) and millet. Adding Marukyu carp sauce or R&W Carp juice for added scent, and reconstituted calve’s milk replacement as a binder, he mashes the ingredients into a ball and squeezes it 12 times; hence the name 12 pac.

“One youngster I know spits in his bait to bind it,” says McGrath. “We call him animal.”

After lobbing several baseball-sized chunks of the stuff into the spot he wishes to fish, and scattering several handfuls of boiled feed corn around the site to whet their appetites further, he gears up.

“This fishing is so brutal, I have to re-spool at least twice a month,” he says, while winding 14-lb Stren mono onto his Alvey reel, an Australian contraption which allows the spool to be moved so it’ll cast from the front like a spinning reel, or the side like a center-pin.

Terminal tackle consists of a slip sinker on the main line, a barrel swivel and a couple snelled hooks. The hooks are tied side-by-side onto the swivel’s bottom ring.

Baiting each of the hooks with a corn pop, he encases them in an egg-sized 12 pac and casts.

A carp is usually munching on the offering before the water can dissolve the 12 pac.

I reduced the time between hits even more by fishing a single corn puff dipped in Marukyu carp sauce, enticing numerous catfish to hit before the bait could reach bottom.

Mike, being a carp purist, wasn’t as thrilled as I, a catfish enthusiast.

“We’re fishing for carp, he reminded me. “When I start getting too many catfish, I cast to a different spot.”

I spent the next hour or so catching and releasing so many fish I broke out in a sweat. It was as heavenly a fishing experience as a mortal angler could ever hope to find down here.

All made possible by a guy who looked beyond prejudice, recognized the value of the Oswego River’s incredible carp population and founded McGrath & Associates Carp Angling Associates, an affordable guide service to fishing excitement that’ll take you beyond your wildest dreams.

McGrath mixing his secret tending pac (carpspeak for chum).


Terminal rig showing hooks holding line bait (carpspeak for bait).


Baited hooks wrapped in tending pac.


McGrath with the prize.


McGrath Associate's Darryl Storie holding a bonus catfish.