Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tournaments are for Families, too.

By Spider Rybaak

Kids love competition, too.
A lot of people think fishing tournaments are a lot like the playoffs in college basketball. And while some of these contests fit this format, staging numerous eliminations to determine the field that’ll vie for the top prize--the Bass Masters comes to mind—others like the Lake Ontario Pro-Am are open to everyone who doesn’t mind paying a small fee to indulge in a day of competition.

One of the nicest things about being an outdoor writer is that I get to go to new places and experience things in Oswego County’s great big back yard. Although I’ve been fishing for almost 60 years, and writing for more than half that time, I’ve never fished a tournament. So when my boss asked me if I’d be interested in competing in the Recreational Open Division in the Oswego County Pro/Am, I jumped at the chance like a steelhead going for wooly bugger.

Next thing you know I’m on the Green Dock at Wrights Landing asking Captain Bill VanWormer for permission to board his craft, the Lucky Dutchman II.

“Permission granted,” replied the good captain with a smile as big as the rising sun. I found a spot for my cooler among the stuff my four teammates brought along and settled down for the fierce competition I was sure awaited us just beyond the Oswego lighthouse.

I never met any of these guys before. But we were embarking on a challenge that brought us together like family. It was heartwarming for this old man to watch five strangers (the captain included), grown men, no less, put away their petty little concerns and concentrate on cooperating in achieving a common goal. Watching these young men enthusiastically contribute their efforts for the good of the group convinced me America’s future was in good hands.

Captain Bill effortlessly motored us beyond the breakwalls into the open lake. Having chartered for over 25 years, and competed in more tournaments than he can remember, he put us at ease with his angling skills, vast knowledge of fishing open waters beyond the sight of land and marvelous wit.

No one else on board knew much about fishing three miles out in over 300 feet of water (talk about feeling insignificant). I’d been here before but never as a contestant in a competitive event. The other men had some experience in ice fishing contests, events that at least offered them the comfort of solid footing.

But the captain was sure footed even in the early morning swells. He stood at the stern and set more rods than a smart man can count on one hand, all the while steering the ship by remote control. He set some few baits over 100 feet deep, several about 80 feet down on Dipseys, and flatlined a couple lead core lines off planer boards; all without veering more than a couple degrees off course…and even then only for a second or two.

When the first rod tripped, the guy closest to it grabbed it and the fight was on. Unfortunately, the fish got off but the DipsyDiver never released so the fellow had a good workout bringing it in. At the boat, the reality of the situation etched disappointment on his face but playful ribbing from the rest of us helped him see the humor in what just happened.

The next rod that went off met with collective patience. Everyone wanted to grab it but no one dared for fear of looking selfish. The fish got off.

That was the last time that happened. Every time the rod went up after that, someone was on it like a fly on rot.

At day’s end we managed to land a short steelhead and king. Not through any fault of our own. It was just one of those days when the fish seemed to have lockjaw. We did manage to bring in two, and, if you go by my philosophy that every fish is a good fish, we succeeded wonderfully.

Most of all, however, we had a lot of fun. Not just in giving one another moral support during the battle with fish and the playful ribbing that followed, but also by learning intricacies of fishing for salmonids in this freshwater sea, and that in the world of open fishing tournaments, everyone has an equal chance at the big bucks and the accompanying glory.

Numerous tournaments take place on the tiniest Great Lake each year. Two to consider are:

Fall LOC Derby, stretching from August 17 through September 3;                          

A-Tom-Mik Invitational, Aug 11, 2012; www.atommikinvitational.com/index.htm.

Competitive angling is a great way to get the family involved in a common goal steeped in collective excitement…and, if you’re lucky, showered with the winnings.

For more information, contact Oswego County Tourism: www.visitoswegocounty.com ; 800-248-4FUN.
Waiting for a bite: "It's got'a be out there somewhere."
Everyone jumps into action when there's a fish on. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

True Tales from Lock 6

By Spider Rybaak

Lock 6 has bass, too.
Disappointment only disappoints if you let it.

This was proven to me about the hundredth time last Friday.  I had agreed to help my good buddies at McGrath & Associates Carp Angling Services (315)882-1549) treat some nursing home residents to a couple hours of quality fishing at a local pond. Arriving at the picnic site on the beach, we were dismayed to find no one there. Just then Mike McGrath gets a call on his cell informing him our guests had been there earlier but were driven away by the extremely high temperatures and blistering sun.

So there we stood, four adult males loaded with fishing gear, staring at a shallow pond loaded with sunfish. Not that we have anything against bluegills…but we’re healthy, competitive dudes and sunnies just don’t cut it. We decide to go for carp, McGrath’s specialty, a critter he feels is totally misunderstood; a resource underutilized in our neck of the woods.

Our caravan hit the road. Rounding the last major curve on NY 481, the steam station’s two giant smokestacks appeared like they dropped out of the sky, signaling we were on Oswego’s southern limits. The mild-mannered river came into view, followed by a rest stop and the Lock 6 access road at its end. We turned in, parked, gathered our stuff and head for the bottom of the lock.

The City of Oswego’s massive water works unfolded before us, revealing how man reduced Lake Ontario’s second largest tributary to a wimp. You see, according to accounts written by the Jesuit Fathers who discovered the stream for the French Crown, the river dropped forty-something feet in its last half mile, tumbling into a mighty set of rapids that roared downstream under a constant mist.

Not anymore. Man’s intervention has utterly tamed the place, forcing its flow into submission with steel and concrete. Indeed, on the lock side, you can hear the water murmuring as it starts over the dam and hissing as it slides down the concrete. But when it hits the hydraulic at the bottom, it gives up. There isn’t even any discernible current on the east bank. The only indication the water is flowing is the surface foam swirling in a leisurely dance downstream.

But don’t let the serenity fool you. Below this gentle surface lurk some of the biggest bottom feeders in the Empire State.

First you got ‘a call ‘em--so to speak. McGrath, probably the most proficient master of carp culture in the Western World, does this by chumming up an underwater storm. He throws all manner of grains, soaked in tantalizing sauces and delicious juices, into the drink to whet their appetites. Slow beasts by nature, it takes anywhere from a few minutes to an hour—sometimes a little longer--for the carp to come around.

In the meantime, the lock pool’s other residents are fair game.

Pulling out my favorite casting rig, an Abu Garcia combo, I throw a YUM Dinger rigged wacky style. The first cast meets a smallie weighing about a pound, launching it through the surface film. Giving me a look that would scare a mad dog, the fish shakes its head, shooting the hook right back at me.

Marshall, a McGrath associate his peers nicknamed “Animal,” grabs the rod and says “Let a man show you how it’s done.”

After two casts he’s fishless and I’m smug in my knowledge that he’s just a youngster about to eat a heaping helping of humble pie.

Next cast he’s into a smallie. It gives him the evil eye, too, but Animal just laughs…or maybe it was a snarl. Shortly the fish is in his hands and he’s asking me: “See how it’s done.”

Kids, I mutter under my breath and take the rod back.

In the meantime, he’s tying a jighead tipped with one of my Berkley Gulp Three-inch grubs onto an Abu Garcia spinning outfit I brought along. Before he can cast, several carp begin jumping and swirling below us.
“They’re here” McGrath announces and orders his associates to man their stations.

I figured I might as well try the grub Animal just put down and cast it into deep water. Right when it hits bottom, it gets hit hard, sending me into a reverie: I’m gonna show the kid. A split second later the line goes limp. I reel in the jig in and find the point broke off when I set the hook.

A carp grabs McGrath Associate Darrell Stories’ bait. He sets the hook and the fight is on. We gather around his wheelchair to give him moral support.

The line goes slack.

As we’re forming into single file to take turns expressing our sympathy over his loss, Animal’s rod goes into convulsions and starts heading for the drink. Grabbing it, his reel’s drag screaming in protest, he explodes into a joyous outburst. A short time later, Mike McGrath is up to his shins in water landing the 20-pounder.

During the excitement, Darrell gets another hit, feels the thrill of a large fish resisting on the other end, and loses it.

I tie on another jighead, tip it with a 3” GULP grub and begin working it expertly. I’m really feeling good about my splendid skills…and I get a hit. There’s no fight, though. I bring it in and it’s a round goby stretching the tape at a little over 6 inches, my biggest to date.

And even though the goby was a trophy of sorts, my elation was short lived: Darrell was into another carp; Animal baited up and cast out again; and McGrath was preparing a pack (encasing his hooked bait, a corn pop, into a ball of chum) to cast out.

Smitten by the brute power of Animal’s catch, I put away my jighead and setup for carp.
Animal Starting his cast. Note pack swinging in the air off to the right.
McGrath packing the line baits.

Animal releasing his prize.

My trophy gobie.
McGrath attempting to land Animal's carp.
Line baits prior to being wrapped in a pack.
Darrell Storie fighting one that got away.
Animal feeling for the final take: carp nibble on the entire pack, and when they reach the line bait, they get hooked, and, feeling the sting, take off like a rocket.
Success.  Note the lamprey scar on the carp's belly. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Oswego: The Fishing’s Hot Even When it’s Slow

By Spider Rybaak

Janet gets her brown.

The past few days have seen some awfully bright sunlight steeped in hot temperatures. Not exactly ideal fishing weather, especially if you’re getting a late-morning start. But there’s nothing average about the open waters off Oswego and when temperatures are sticky and the fishin’s lazy, you’ll still hear a lot of sizzling lines and screaming drags.

This was brought home to me for the hundredth time on Tuesday. A few days earlier, Capt. Richard Stanton (Stanton Charter Service, www.stantoncharters.com; 315-685-0651) dangled an offer to take me and Oswego County Tourism’s Janet Clerkin fishing so I could get photos and quotes for an upcoming book.  We bit. Little did we know it would turn out to be the best fishing day of the year…so far.

I ran into some construction and bad traffic getting to Wright’s Landing so we started late, 8:45 a.m., to be exact. On the way out of the harbor, boats were already coming in with their limits of kings, punctuated with browns, lakers, cohos and steelhead. One guy allegedly even nailed a trophy landlocked Atlantic salmon.

We trolled for a couple hours trying to figure out what the fish were hungering for. The sun was beating down on us like the upper heat element in a toaster oven. The lake was flat. I was having some serious doubts. Having run charters for 38 years, Capt. Dick has great intuition, for finding fish…and reading clients. “The fat lady ain’t sung, yet, Spider,” he says, “and we ain’t done until we’re done.” (Or something like that).

Suddenly, one of the rods goes off. “There’s a hit,” shouts Ron Marlett, one of the captain’s buddies who came along for the ride.

As he handed Janet the rod, Capt. Dick observes: “Look at that little guy jump!”

Bright as a mirror reflecting sunlight, it comes clear out of the water like a curved, silver rocket at least four times. A couple minutes later, it’s in the boat, getting unhooked and released.

Fifteen minutes later, another rod goes off. The fish is much bigger. Janet makes short work of it, though, and after a few minutes of battle, she brings a five-pound brown trout to the net.

We no sooner set the line again and another rod trips. A powerful fish, it tormented the drag—and Janet’s tiring arms—for a couple seconds before spitting the hook back at us with no respect at all.

But there’s no rest for the weary.

Before Janet could get comfortable, another rod tip pops up then dives for the drink. Janet beats everyone to the rod again and the fight is on. The fish tears off at least 20 yards of line before stopping. The poor lady on the other end is reeling for all it’s worth trying to catch up. But the beast isn’t in a playful mood and takes off for Toronto. Janet struggles for another 10 minutes, brings the beast to the side of the boat and just as the captain’s getting the net ready, the lure comes flying back at us.

Janet sits down, Capt. Dick sets the rod again, Ron’s in the cabin feeling bad for Janet…and I’m yapping my head off; nothing important, just talking to talk…irritating everyone on board.

And then the meanest salmon in our part of the lake takes one of our Michigan Stingers. This time I’m on top of things; growling, swinging elbows “it’s my turn!!!!!,” I demand.

The 18-pound chinook took me on a whirlwind lesson in kingly behavior. Fighting like the devil one minute, then jumping, diving, racing right at me. At that point I actually thought he got off but Ron ordered “He’s  running at you, reel like crazy.”

I’m glad I listened because right about then the slack tightens as the fish makes an abrupt about face and makes the fight honest again by storming for Niagara Falls. To make a long story short, it takes me another 10 minutes to land him.

By now the heat was getting to us and everyone except Capt. Dick—he wanted to keep fishing--agreed it was a good time to split.

Oswego’s territorial waters are so salmonid friendly, the fishin’s great even when it’s slow…And that’s hard to beat.

Deadly Trio: (top to bottom) Gobey, Honey Bee and Modified Stinger.
The face of battle: Janet Clerkin.
Capt. Dick and Janet holding an average king

Monday, July 2, 2012

Summer Evenings on the Oswego River

Spider Rybaak

Off the wall walleye.

Everyone who knows walleyes knows the river running through downtown Oswego is one of your best bets in the state for nailing big ones in the spring. After that, according to common knowledge, the water supposedly warms up too much for their comfort and they beat fins for cooler temperatures deep in the lake.

Well, that sounds good in theory. But don’t let it discourage you in real life.

You see, uncommon guys like me who’ve fished for these delicious beasties a lot know that walleyes are a warm water fish that thrives in rivers and can take the heat a stream dishes out. That doesn’t mean they like it—indeed, most of us don’t like a steady diet of temperatures in the high 80s either—but they tolerate it until the next rain storm or string of cold nights cool things down again.

Even during the height of a heat spell, you can find hungry fish downtown. But not just anywhere. You gotta targetthe cool spots. In the morning that means fishing the shady east bank; the west bank towards evening. Then there’s always deep spots in the harbor and bridges;as long as it provides shade, it offers comfort.

I went out a few days ago around 6 p.m. to see if my uncommon wisdom still held true. Parking in the fishing access lot abutting the south side of the post office on West 1st Street (NY 48), I headed down the ramp toward the river and proceeded toward the Utica Street bridge. Buildings blocked the sun casting shade over most of the river.

A couple groups were already there. One included a couple boys who spent more time casting than fishing. Apparently they were competing to see who could reach the farthest. Still, during periods when one or the other hesitated a moment to get a soda, tie his shoe, feed the ducks…a white perch or round goby would hit.

It was almost too easy; and it might have spoiled them.

Fortunately, a guy fishing just below them hooked a walleye, luring everyone’s attention toward him. A good-sized fish, it gave him a decent run for his money. Upon landing it, the boys and some adults went over to admire the catch.

He held his good fortune like a wizard’s wand. One stroke later it was on the grass behind him…and the boys simmered down and concentrated on their rod tips, hoping to be next to land a fish big enough to shower them with adoring attention from passersby.

They never got it.

Their uncle did, however. Setting the hook on a bite that threatened to flip his rod into the drink (it was resting upright on the rail lining the linear park wall), he didn’t even have to say anything to draw attention. His rod was bent in half and everyone just knew it had to be something…worth waiting to, see.

It ran upstream…then downstream…turned and headed for the wall in the center of the river. When that didn’t remedy the feeling that it was being led by a stinging sensation in its mouth to go where it didn’t want to go, it charged for the abutment of the pedestrian bridge. That didn’t work either and it reluctantly came in, putting up resistance that a pit bull shaking a rag would have appreciated.

All for naught; it was quickly netted. After admiring it for a split second, the uncle released it. The boys cheered—and cast out to where they thought it went.

A little while later, another group showed up to fish for catfish. I didn’t stick around long enough to see if they were successful, but I know from personal experience there’s some monster cats in the river—sheepshead and carp, too-- and summer’s the best time to catch them.

So, the next time you find yourself bored in the evening, and get the urge for some action in the fast lane, head for the river in downtown Oswego and bottom-fish a crayfish or worm, or work a jig or crankbaitin the current for some cheap thrills you won’t soon forget. 

The river's loaded with hard-hitting, pan-size white bass.

Downtown smallmouth.