Thursday, April 26, 2012

Last Chance Dropbacks

By Spider Rybaak

A nice domestic male rainbow caught in Downtown Pulaski.
Unseasonably warm weather turned March into the balmiest month of the year – so far. A  lot of steelheaders who came up to the Salmon River last month expecting to be blasted by winter’s last snow and cold ended up fishing in short sleeves. One Fort Drum angler I met complained, in a distinctly Southern drawl, “ Y'all, I expected to get snow-blinded , not sun burnt!”

Just then, he set the hook on a steelie and admitted, “But I ain’t complainin’…Fish On!”

While the bite, and weather, remained great the first week of this month, the second and third weeks saw cold temperatures riding high pressure systems. The weather had a curious effect on the fish. As often as not, they’d hit in the early morning but as the sun swept over the water, they’d shut right off. Hot bite one day… off the next… it was enough to make a quiet man mumble to himself in public.

This week the weather has been closer to normal; and the fish and anglers are acting like they’re supposed to. Most of the steelhead have spawned and they’re heading back to the lake, feeding like there’s no tomorrow.

While a few stragglers and late spawners – punctuated by domestic rainbows and early running landlocked Atlantic salmon – can be found throughout the stream, the main body of chromers is in the lower river, from the village of Pulaski down to the Douglaston Salmon Run.

In the middle of the week I decided to try my luck and fish in downtown Pulaski, within earshot of US 11.

On Tuesday, I used my JW Young centerpin outfit to float-fish a bubblegum-colored Berkley floating Trout Worm through the current at the foot of the Village Pool. In less than an hour, I landed a brilliantly colored, five-pound domestic rainbow, and lost two.

On Wednesday, I switched to my Spey-casting outfit and threw a stylized olive wooly bugger I got at Malinda’s Fly & Tackle Shop & Lodge (315-298-2993), over in Altmar. Using a Rio SpeyVersiLeader (got that at Malinda’s, too) with a 3.9-inch per second sink rate, I was able to swing the fly through the rapids right into the sights of a famished, three-pound steelie hen. She slammed it with the ferocity of a killer whale, almost throwing me off balance.

The fishing’s real good over at the Douglaston Salmon Run, according to river keeper Garrett Brancy. He offered, “Several of our guides (private guides who fish the DSR regularly) report everyone’s catching fish; a mixture of drop-backs and domestic rainbows, and a few smallmouths.”

“The Douglaston Salmon Run closes on the last of April,” he adds.

Which is only right; the smart money is betting this weekend will see the last of this spring’s run of steelies melt out of the river. If the typical spring weather of the last couple of days holds up, the bite’ll be a good one, adding a wonderful taste of normalcy to a spring seasoned with uncertainty.

A female steelie caught in the same area as the male above.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Bullheads and Crappies: Bank Fishing’s Rites of Spring

By Spider Rybaak
Matt Nies and son Jackson with a couple typical Toad Harbor bluegills.
An old wives’ tale says that bullheads go on their spring bite when forsythias bloom; screwy weather notwithstanding. And while Lake Neahtahwanta saw some early, incredibly fast and furious crappie action the last couple days of March through the first week of April, bullheads are a little more patient and stayed true to their normal schedule.

And, you won’t find a more convenient place in which to catch these thorny delicacies than this lake on Fulton’s West Side.  You see, not only is it located right at the shoulder of NY State Route 3, it boasts a pier and restaurant a stone’s throw from the highway and offers ample shoulder parking and fishing access on about a quarter of its shoreline.

What’s more, these normally nocturnal feeders are famished right after their winter-long snooze in the mud, and hit as eagerly in broad daylight right now as they do after dark. And that’s a good for school kids, working folks and others who don’t cotton to fishing half the night.

Equally exciting is that this year the rules have changed, allowing anglers to use three rigs instead of two, so you can still-fish worms or shrimp on bottom with a couple rods and dangle a minnow below a bobber on a third in case there’s a school of late blooming crappies snooping around the shoreline looking for love or food.

Another Oswego County hot-spot for these popular panfish is Oneida Lake’s Toad Harbor. This year everything’s swarming in at once. In fact, over the past week, you were as likely to catch a batch of bluegills as you were a limit of crappie or bushel of bullheads.

Toad Harbor is notorious for game fish species that are out of season this time of year, and you can’t avoid catching them, especially if you’re using minnows, jigs or other lures for crappies

One of the most common is the pickerel, an ancient critter that hails back to before the ice age. The smallest member of the pike family, these toothy game fish are important for maintaining a healthy prey/predator balance. Unfortunately, some guys treat pickerel with extreme prejudice, like they’re unaware the species is native to New York. Hate to tell ‘em, the reason there’s so many pickerel in the lake is because they’re filling in for the northern pike that are being slowly forced out by loss of habitat. You see, nature abhors a vacuum and is replacing the pike with their tinier cousins.

Remember, pickerel are a game fish that deserve their protected status and should be released without any further harm…until their opening day, the first Saturday of May. Then you can take them home and savor their incredibly delicate flavor.

Another species that finds “The Toad” to its liking in its off season is the largemouth bass. Last Monday, small schools of hawgs prowled the food-rich waters within easy eye-shot of anglers. One guy I was talking to about the crappie bite couldn’t keep his mind on our conversation, explaining “not while the biggest bass I’ve ever seen are swimming around me.” (Bass season opens the third Saturday in June.)

One of the two 13-something-inch Crappies I caught on April 12 at Toad Harbor on a Berkley Power Teaser tipped with a Berkley Honey Worm.

A couple ladies relaxing while fishing from the bank.

Fulton's Brian Kirby, and daughter Kristie, admiring a juicy bullhead they caught bottom-fishing with worms in Lake Neahtahwanta on April 15.

Fulton resident Charles Pollack with a bullhead he took from Lake Neatahwantha over the weekend.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Browns Abound

By Spider Rybaak

Captain Lee holding Dave Rath's first fish of the day.

May’s warmth in late February, winter winds in mid-April, robins and daffodils in early March...It’s enough to make self-respecting anglers wanna hang up their rods until June. Fortunately, Lake “O” is a huge pond and its fish don’t pay much attention to today’s screwy weather patterns. And its bread-and-butter  fishery, brown trout, proves it.

This year, the pack ice that normally encircles the big pond all winter long like a pie crust was gone in February. The unseasonably warm temperatures lured anglers to the lake’s banks and piers like Northern nightcrawlers draw robins from the South. The first-of-March bite was great, with more guys catching huge browns from the bank earlier than anyone can remember.

Gutsy charter boat operations like Good Times Sportfishing of Lake Ontario , LLC (607) 768-9121; www.goodtimessportfishing. net ) embraced the propitious weather as a rare opportunity to extend their fishing season by a couple weeks and launched their boats early. Captains Nick Lee and George Haskins invited me to go with them on April 4, this year’s maiden voyage.

As luck would have it, the weather reverted to more normal patterns that morning and when I left the house at 5:30 a.m., stiff northwesterlies greeted me at the door. I went back inside to get my Spey casting gear, half expecting to be fishing the Salmon River at 6:30 a.m. instead.

The 40 years of collective fishing experience the captains packed under their belts, combined with their 30’ long Sportcraft Express with a 10 –foot beam, gave them all the confidence they needed to cast off. I was skeptical but when I came aboard and felt how solid the craft was, I figured: hey, this might work.

We spent the first half-hour or so trolling around the mouth of the Salmon River looking for water with a little color. Slightly muddy water came into view south of the “Sticks” (lights on the jetty at the mouth of the Salmon River).  We ran through it half-heartedly because this color was caused by waves stirring up the sand on the beach—productive, on occasion, but not what we were looking for.

“We didn’t get much run-off this year,” explained Capt. Lee, a local science teacher. “So the insects, worms and other delights normally pumped into the lake this time of year are in short supply. But the unseasonably warm weather has compensated by causing insects to hatch and plankton to bloom early. Bait converges on these events and the browns are sure to be there, too, “ he continued.

“Without the normal run-off, we don’t have the numerous schools of browns that hang out in the shallows most years,” added Captain Haskins.  “But the schools we do locate are bigger and we catch 90% of our fish in 10% of the water.”

We changed course to a northern heading, hoping to find some pea-green water (the color of plankton) in the Salmon River’s plume. Before we got to the “Crab Legs” (secret charter captain’s code for a local landmark) less than a mile north of the river, a nice brown hit one of the Michigan Stingers we were flatlining off planer boards.

Dave Rath, a former Oswego County legislator, and member of the County’s Tourism Advisory Council, was on board. He expected me to take the first fish. Well, I thought he should be first. We didn’t come to blows, but by the time we hashed it out and he lifted the rod, the fish was off.

And that was all right because it only took about five minutes for another fish to hit, a nice five-pounder; and five minutes later, another hits…then another. The bite was steady for the next ¼-mile or so.

When we turned the boat to run back down, all hell breaks loose. We had doubles a couple times; and three on once. While several were small, running one to two pounds, the vast majority (I stopped counting after 15) were five pounds and a couple tipped the scales at 10 or better.

The browns should stay in the shallows into next month when warm temperatures will force them deeper.

So get out there at you’re earliest chance and catch browns so close to shore, you can skip a stone from the boat to the sand dunes.

Dave Rath fighting a brown while Captain Nick Lee tries unhooking one just landed.

Captains George Haskins (left) and Nick Lee holding a couple 10-pounders, the day's best.

The good Captain's performs the day's final service.