Thursday, August 23, 2012

What this Year’s Final Bassmasters Elite can Expect

By Spider Rybaak

An average Oneida Lake bluegill makes sunnies from anywhere else look tiny.

The 2012 Bassmasters Elite Series tournament wraps up on Oneida Lake this week, August 23-26. And although I fished the place pretty hard in the early weeks of the season--and the bass were abundant, cooperative and big--I figured it wouldn’t hurt to go out and try my luck just before the tournament…to test the waters, so to speak, and see what our visitors to Oswego County had in store.

So I get in touch with my buddy Ray, a native of nearby Liverpool. Not only is he a pretty decent fisherman and all around nice guy, he’s got a boat--and I don’t--which makes him the perfect fishing buddy.

We launched from his berth in Brewerton and headed out for open water. The weather was fair, the southerly winds moderate. We started a few feet from the Onondaga County bank and drifted toward Oswego County.

Half way to Big Bay the perfect hit slams my black and white bucktail jig tipped with a worm. I set the hook hard and I’m into a pretty respectable battle.

A couple seconds later, I knew it wasn’t a walleye because it was fighting too hard; and it couldn’t be a bass because it wasn’t fighting hard enough. I figured it for a sheepshead; a northern pike, maybe a cat.

It was neither. Instead, it was the bane of just about every bass enthusiast I know: a chain pickerel. Packing a mouthful of razor sharp teeth, these guys are notorious for biting through the line--biting-off, in Oneida Lake speak--getting away, lure and all. Losing baits and having to tie new ones on in the thick of competition is gonna make a lot of this weekend’s guests grumpy, I thought.

Reaching the weeds at the high side of the northern edge of the channel, I change to a spinnerbait and draw a couple more monster pickerel to the side of the boat where they look at me with pagan hatred in their eyes, but don’t hit. Sissies, I think as I cast out again.

After about a half hour of short strikes and some clumps of weeds, I switch over to a 6-inch YUM Dinger and pitch it into the holes and edges of weeds, emerging weed ends, weed clusters, anything unusual that we approach.

A nice largemouth of about 4 pounds nails it in a narrow channel between stands of vegetation. Diving for bottom, he burrows into the weeds like a drill. But he never has a chance. An old hand at bucketmouth tactics, I keep my favorite Abu Garcia Revos loaded with 30-lb test UltracastFluorobraid topped off with long stretches of 25-lb test Berkley’s Pro Spec Fluorocarbon leaders. A short, forceful pull on the line and the bass, crowned in weeds, reluctantly comes to the boat. I flip him in so quick he looks at me all surprised and stuff. After taking the hero shot illustrating this blog post, I release it to give the guys in the upcoming contest a chance at catching the happiness I just experienced. 

Large bass have an intoxicating effect on me and I couldn’t stop whooping, hollering, talking away. I should’ve, though, because right when I’m modestly bragging about my prowess, I get another perfect hit, from a bass even larger than the first, but set the hook too late. I feel the tension on the line and see him jet out of the water like a green geyser with a big lump in the middle but my line comes in empty.

A few minutes later, I’m still carrying on, another hits and I lose him, too. 

All this time Ray’s having a blast with sunfish and perch. The guy loves panfish and was busy working on filling his freezer.

Before long, the massive weed bed in Big Bay starts getting boring and we motor over to the other side of the lake to start our drift anew. But the wind picks up and the temperature changes noticeably, growing colder, and uncomfortable.

As often happens on NY’s largest lake, the wind died down as unexpectedly as it came up, things got comfortable, and we regained confidence. We felt pretty good and thought we might catch another bass or two, maybe a walleye and plugged away. But it seemed we couldn’t find another fish even if we were in a submarine.

So we packed it in and I went home to reflect on the day.

It is my unprofessional opinion that Oneida Lake’s bass population is in great shape for the upcoming Bassmasters Elite. Indeed, it might even be one for the record books.

Stay tuned.

Ray showing a nice bucketmouth.

Oneida Lake's pickerel are bigger than average.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Like Minnows to Water

By Spider Rybaak

A couple more students.

You hear old folks talking a lot nowadays about how kids don’t have a handle on the real world.

“They’re so into texting they’re forgetting how to look straight ahead and their fingers and thumbs are mutating, curling and forming calluses on their tips!” claims cousin Staash.

While you couldn’t be faulted for thinking he’s exaggerating, he does have a point: the digital world has made life convenient; so easy, in fact, the wonderful virtual world that electronics brings into our living rooms and backyards can make stepping out into a landscape shrouded in iffy weather and uncooperative wildlife seem risky, or even a terrible waste of time.

Granted, interacting with digital images is the most efficient way known to science for pumping surges of excitement through kids, without them ever getting their hands dirty. But there’s more to life than the sterile audio/visual stimulation found in the digital universe. Indeed, nature whips countless sensations into every second of the day: a breeze’s gentle caress; the cacophony of boisterous waterfowl; the quiet splash of a turtle diving off a log; frogs croaking and jumping  for cover; the scolding of a startled blue heron; the pull of a fish struggling to free itself of a hook…

What’s more, these thrills are free and constantly playing along the banks of the streams and lakes watering Oswego County’s great big back yard. And the best way to launch children--adults and senior citizens, for that matter--into a future steeped in the wonders of the natural world is to take them fishing.

It’s not all that hard to do. All ya need is a rod and reel combo, some bait and a kid--anyone’s’ will do; provided you get the parents’ permission, of course.  There’s plenty of safe spots around to fish, like the parks lining both sides of the river in the city of Oswego; the locks at Fulton and Phoenix; above and below the dam in Caughdenoy; the municipal dock on the north bank in Brewerton; the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Fishing Access Site on CR 37, below the north end of the I-81 bridge; Cleveland Docks on NY 49; Fulton’s Lake Neahtahwanta...

If you don’t know much about angling, don’t worry about it. Kids take to fishing like minnows to water, and if the fish ain’t hittin’, the kids are sure to have fun watching nature bustling all around them.

However, it’s always nice to catch something. In fact, landing a first fish, regardless of size or make (carp, perch, sunfish, bullhead, to mention a few) is sure to etch itself deeply into the person’s memories for life, and might even hook them hopelessly to a lifelong pastime.

With that in mind, me and Mike McGrath, owner of McGrath & Associates Carp Angling Services, have begun conducting free monthly fishing classes this year. Primarily designed for kids, we provide everything from instructions to loaner equipment--and we’ll teach their parents, too.

Our last one was held at Fulton’s Lake Neahtahwanta last month. McGrath, one of America’s pre-eminent carp experts, held 10 children and their guardians captive for two hours, explaining and demonstrating carp subjects ranging from habitat preferences and mixing chum (a recipe of grains, syrups Marukyu baits and other delights used to draw the fish in close) to the knots and terminal tackle they’d need to successfully fish for the species.

After his course in theory, McGrath led the kids to a spot on the lake, cast out a couple lines and promptly caught a 10 pound carp. The students and their parents were mesmerized by the man’s expertise in fishing for this monstrous species, a popular game fish in Asia and Europe.

Meanwhile, I was on the beach handing out free Berkley PowerBaits, including Atomic Teasers, Power Honey Worms, Ripple Shads, Atomic Mites and Wigglers, and Johnson Beetle Spins to each student, and loaning Shakespeare Classic rod and reel combos to kids who didn’t have their own fishing equipment.

Worms were also available, but half-way through the session, so many kids (95 percent) were catching everything from bluegills and pumpkinseeds to white and yellow perch on the PowerBaits, everyone started using them and the worms were spared.

Our next class is this Saturday, August 18, at Lake Neahtahwanta’s Bullhead Point (where the gazebo stands on the pier), from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. To get there, head west on NY 3 in Fulton and follow it west to the edge of town.

For more info, contact me at or McGrath at

A couple of students.

McGrath teaching how to mix bait.

Big fish...Wide eyes...and McGrath explaining it

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Salmon River Summer Salmon

By Spider Rybaak

Local fly-fishing guide Pat Miura (315-777-3570) holding a trophy landlocked Atlantic salmon he took last spring from the Salmon River's Douglaston Salmon Run.

When you’re as pretty--and mildly wild-- as the Salmon River is, everyone wants a piece of your beauty and grace. And while the stream is lined with beaten paths for fishermen, hikers, bird watchers, yodelers, wildflower lovers, you name it, the only way to satisfaction for whitewater enthusiasts like kayakers and tubers is to get all wet. So in the spirit of making everyone happy, the power company conducts special releases each month during summer--two in July.

This year’s releases have mostly already taken place, and August was cancelled because of low water levels in the reservoir. So there’s only one more planned officially, the first weekend of September.

However, there’s always a chance we’ll get some heavy rains this month; and if we do, the river will come up all by itself. If that happens, grab a rubber tube, air mattress, kayak or anything that’ll float while you’re in it, and a buddy--you wanna have two cars so you can leave one at put-in and take-out—and launch on a whitewater thrill so mildly exciting, you’re guaranteed to get wet.

No craft?...Not into whitewater?...No sweat. There’s more to do during high water.

Take fishing for landlocked Atlantic salmon, for instance. Indeed, the Salmon River is the best fast lane in the U.S. for catching a keeper trophy landlocked Atlantic. Our Atlantic salmon are stocked by the NYS DEC.  (Natural strains of Atlantic salmon are ocean-running fish, and are on the endangered species list.)

Known as the king of fish in Europe because of its superb beauty, extraordinary leaping prowess, incredible power and stamina, and ability to survive the spawning ordeal and do it a second, even third time (it’s the only American salmon capable of spawning more than once), pursuing this fabulous critter is one of the most worthy challenges anglers face in freshwater.

Up until the 19th century, Lake Ontario boasted the world’s greatest population of these marvelous game fish. Pollution, over fishing, dams blocking migratory routes, and exotic species nailed their coffin shut before World War I.

The feds and NYS Conservation Department (precursor to today’s NYS Department of Environmental Conservation), spurred by the increased environmental awareness spawned during the hippie era (the 1960s), decided to restore the species into the tiniest Great Lake.

Late in the last century, the authorities stocked various Lake Ontario tributaries with baby Atlantics in various stages of development. But the lion’s share of their attention went to Little Sandy Creek, the northernmost skinny creek in Oswego County. It was stocked heavier than the rest, and was even placed off-limits to fishing during the salmon runs to protect the returns. The experiment failed.

Alewives, exotic forage that entered the Great Lakes system through the Erie Canal, were waging biological warfare on the Atlantics and winning. Rich in Thiaminaze, an enzyme that breaks down thiamine, a vitamin essential to salmon reproduction, the salmon were eating themselves to impotence. The condition was called the Cayuga Syndrome, after Cayuga Lake where it was first fingered. Oh, the fish still went through all the moves--run upstream, court, lay their eggs, fertilize them--but the offspring died before they could get beyond the sac-fry stage. Mortality was total.

Finally figuring out what was happening, the authorities lifted the ban on fishing the Little Sandy and got used to the idea that the only way to maintain a token presence of the species in Lake Ontario was by stocking, often with fry from eggs washed in thiamine.

Thousands of Atlantics have been stocked annually over the past 20-something years. While these numbers are tiny compared to the quantity of Pacific salmon stocked each year, the effort gives anglers a chance at catching this highly desirable and coveted native New Yorker.

The most warmwater tolerant salmon, a few Atlantics are in the river all summer long. Periods of high water, like after a rain or during whitewater releases draw fresh fish upstream. What’s more, the food rich higher water often spurs a feeding binge.

So if you’re into fishy challenges, the Salmon River offers one of the toughest in the fishing world.

But there’s more.

“For the past three years, 2009, 2010 and 2011, we’ve netted as many as 48 naturally reproduced fingerlings in the river in any given year,” claims Dr. James Johnson, ecologist and branch chief at the USGS’ Tunison Laboratory of Aquatic Science in Cortland, NY. He attributes this exciting development to “changes in lake conditions: fewer alewives--less Thiaminaze.”

There’s no shortage of theories. One even speculates the round goby, an exotic species indigenous to the Black Sea, is the hero in this wonderful mystery.  

I asked Dr. George Ketola, a research physiologist at Tunison Laboratory, if the gobies could be helping the salmon replenish the thiamine status in their eggs.

“That makes good sense,” the Dr. replies. “Gobies are high in thiamine and with the availability of that food source before spawning…if they have a month or so of exposure…it should make a difference. And I suspect it helps their spawning.”

A little over three years is a long spell in salmon time, long enough to reach trophyhood. The possibilities are the stuff of fantasy, and if you participate right now, you could be one of the pioneers in this developing fishery.

How do you tell a naturally spawned fish from a stocky? Scott Prindle, fisheries biologist at the Cortland office of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation says about the only sure way is to look at the belly fins. If the leading edges are kind’a thick and wavy, there’s a good chance it’s a hatchery fish (they get calloused from bumping and rubbing their tank’s bottom). If the fins are straight and narrow, it’s probably the real thing.

By heading up to the Salmon River you’ll experience the thrill of a naturally warmed rushing river, and the chance of catching a naturally bred trophy landlocked Atlantic salmon, something that ain’t been seen around these parts for over 100 years.  

So c’mon up to the Salmon River; we'll keep the stream up for ya...for a little while, anyway.

Fran Verdoliva releasing a nice landlocked Atlantic salmon he took in the summer of 2010.

NY007  John Kendell showing a trophy he took from the Salmon River in the summer of 2010.