Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Icing Around

By Spider Rybaak

Dan and Kaytee of Constantia and part of their catch.

Cousin Staash called last Saturday morning to report: “Global warming’s on hold. The ice on Oneida Lake is anywhere from 7 to 11 inches thick and the place looks like tent city, man. Wanna go ice some perch, maybe a few walleye?” he asked.

Syracuse wouldn’t be playing Villanova for another three hours so I figured why not.  I met him at the Cleveland Docks fishing access site and we walked out onto the water. 

An hour later, we’re fishless. Another hour goes by and all we got to show for it is the memory of a couple runts we released. I decide to go home and watch the game.

Stopping at a couple shelters on the way, none admitted to having caught anything of significance. One voice in a lone shanty isolated from everyone else by several hundred feet of frigid emptiness on all sides claimed he hadn’t seen a fish all morning. Blood stains on the ice at two of his five tip-ups testified otherwise, especially since the footprints to and from the holes led to his Clam.

It was pretty obvious he had secrets he wasn’t going to reveal so I just kept walking towards shore and my appointment with Syracuse University basketball’s second disappointment of the season.

Sunday morning rose squeaky white, blue and cold. The loss to Villanova was only a heartbreaking memory and I resolved to forget about it and go on with my life. The first steps on the ice set things right again.

It was that quick because a couple that was coming in as I was going out had fish: two yellow perch about 11 inches each, and a white perch only slightly shorter but twice as broad. They got ‘em on minnows.

A little further out I’m at a crossroads: the group of shanties off to the right was a couple hundred yards closer than the one to the left, so, you guessed it, I went right.

Before long, I’m surrounded by a bustle of activity I haven’t seen on Oneida Lake since Labor Day weekend…if then. Dozens of colorful shelters punctuated the frozen waterscape, conversations of their tenants riding the frosty air. 

Snowmobiles and ATVs ran in every direction. Man-drawn sleds loaded with equipment moved back and forth over the sparkling setting. And everywhere in between, lone anglers sat out in the open, fishing minnows on Jigging Raps or spoons like Swedish Pimples, or insect larvae on tiny ice jigs like Someday Isle Tackle’s Water Puppets and Shimmerlings.

Seeing the entrance to one shelter open, I go over. A walleye is on the ice at the door. Inside, Jim McCarthy, a resident of Clinton, sits steely-eyed, focusing on a tip-up about 10 yards away.

Not realizing he’s having a hit, I commence to bugging the man with questions like how they hittin’?

“My flag just went up,” he responds and flies out of the tent with such blurring speed, I’m left wondering if he was ever really there.

I follow him to the tip-up and the reel’s spinning so fast I worried the friction would create so much heat it would undermine the ice below our feet. But Jim was faster and before you know it, he’s got a whopper of a perch on the ice.

A couple more stops revealed the action was similar everywhere. One lady described it perfectly: “They ain’t exactly jumping out of the holes to get our baits; they’re biting steady, just enough to keep the excitement flowing and to put dinner on the table tonight.”

 Like dancing on ice.

 Hot ice action: Oneida Lake.

Jim McCarthy with a nice walleye he took on a large buckeye in 18 feet of water.

McCaCarthy landing a whopper perch. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Downtown Oswego’s Winter Wildlife

by Spider Rybaak

Nice brown taken behind Motel Row.

To average folks, fishing in winter is the realm of hardy types who sit around on the ice all day staring into holes at their feet and wishing for a fish to pop out…or something like that. Truth is, there’s another form of winter fishing: casting from ice into open water. And Oswego County offers the best opportunities in the East.

By best we mean the most productive and, since some are right in downtown Oswego, the safest and most convenient casting platforms imaginable.

You see, the Oswego River runs through the heart of the Port City. Linear parks paved in concrete and lined with wrought iron fences skirt both banks. Each winter, nature plants snow on the walkways and pedestrians pound an icy path through it. And although you might slip and slide a little, particularly while trying to maintain control during a trophy trout’s sizzling runs, the fencing is solid enough to prevent you from falling into the drink.

The water below each park has its own personality.

The western bank borders fast water. Spurred into agitation by tumbling over the dam and pouring out of the powerhouse’s turbines, it’s squeezed into a raging bottleneck by the Oswego Canal on the opposite shore, and by a couple of stone walls in the center of the river. 

The east side is much slower.  The locks jutting into the river below Bridge Street, and the abutment a little beyond, further divert the flow west, braking what’s left of the flow to a crawl that gently caresses the east bank.

This time of year sees water temperatures at their lowest. And while trout are classified as cold water fish, they slow right down when the water temperature drops into the low 30s. This is especially true of brown trout, the most warmwater tolerant of the breed.

Numbed by the cold, they’re lethargic, not into fighting rapids or chasing food, making the gently flowing east bank just what they’re looking for.

I went out behind Hotel Row last week to see if that formula still applied.

Sure did. Of the dozen or so anglers I ran into during the course of two days, four had big browns to show for their efforts.

A couple guys took one apiece on Berkley Twitchtail minnows jigged slowly-- at a crawl, actually—on bottom. 

A guy from Westchester County had three in a bag, including a ten-pounder. He caught them all on egg sacs still-fished on bottom.

The fourth guy tried hiding a nice brown but its tail poked out of the back of his jacket. I didn’t ask him too much…He just seemed like the type of guy who wasn’t into disclosing secrets.

The heat wave of the past couple days will raise the river’s level greatly, drawing massive quantities of browns and steelhead from the open lake. And the place they’ll focus on will be the relatively calm waters behind Hotel Row.

Still, a few of the steelies are sure to run the rapids on the west bank.

Ice row: Behind the power plant on the west bank.
Powerplant reminder to dummies: Rising wter can drown ya!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Coyote: NY’s Top Dog

By Spider Rybaak

Jerry Donegan checking messages as his "pet" coyote looks on.

One of the nicest things about fishing is it exposes you to nature’s menu of wonders. Take night fishing for walleyes at Oneida Lake’s Phillips Point. Jutting into Three Mile Bay/Big Bay Wildlife Management Area, it’s ideal for surf fishing. You arrive in the early evening, wade out as far as you can and start casting. Before long, the sun goes down, taking the wind with it, ironing the lake into a smooth undulating sheet spotted with stars…sometimes the moon.

Casting out into the sparking night, you reel in your line, dreams of walleyes swimming through your mind. But there’s more in store than just what meets the eye: the night’s song of frogs croaking, fish splashing, deer foraging…and coyotes howling.

That’s right, coyotes. The state’s loaded with ‘em; between 20,000 and 30,000 according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Not to worry, though; they’re not all in one place. Requiring anywhere from 5 to 20 square miles of home range, a family of coyotes (parents and the year’s offspring) is very protective of its turf and runs off interlopers.

“Back when my dad started hunting em’ they called them coydogs,” says Jerry Donegan, “which is reasonable, because they looked like a coyote/dog mix.”

“But they’re not hybrids,” claims the Caughdenoy native. “In fact, they stick with their own kind and would rather eat dogs than mate with them. One of my neighbors lost his dachshund to one in his own backyard a few years back. He managed to get the coyote to release the dog but it was curtains for the pooch.”

NYSDEC agrees with Donegan’s assessment, classifying the state’s current top dog (fox used to hold the title) as a distinct species. Called the Eastern coyote, it’s fully 30% larger than its Western counterpart, a size differential some attribute to the species mating with Timber wolves. According to this story, Wiley Coyote’s relatives started moving east to take advantage of the vacuum left when the forces of civilization wiped out our timber wolves. While trekking through the Great White North, they ran into timber wolves in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, and those lucky enough to survive the encounter mated; the rest is history, as they say.

There’s several ways to skin a coyote.

Donegan prefers to go for the critters in organized hunts. He and his buddies start out by searching places like Three Mile Bay/Big Bay and Klondike WMAs for fresh tracks.  When a set is located, cell phones lead the hunters to the spot. They put dogs on the scent, and then spread out, searching for clearings in the woods where they sit down, wait…and hope. It can take anywhere from a few minutes to a couple hours for the dogs to get the coyote up and running, and pointed in the direction of the hunters.

“Dogs baying while running toward you send adrenalin rushing through your body,” Donegan reveals, a flush of excitement spreading over his face. “And when the coyote appears, coming right at you…it’s the greatest!”

Some guys like to hunt the beasts one-on-one. Decked out in camo, surrounded with masking scents, they sit motionlessly, calling them in by imitating the distress calls of fawns, rabbits, even puppies.

Coyotes take to huge woods like ticks to dogs, and all of Oswego County’s WMAs support them.

However, patches of woods will do when large forests are few. If you like hunting closer to the beaten path, landowners are generally willing to let you on their property.

Donegan thinks “the reason folks are more open to coyote hunting is because they’re so abundant. Seeing populations of small game like pheasants and rabbits in decline, a lot of farmers blame coyotes and are more than happy to allow you to hunt them on their property.”

Coyote hunting season runs from October 1 to March 31. There is no bag limit and they can be taken day or night.

Jerry and wife Ellen holding coyote pelts.
Coyote country.
Robert Donegan with a toothy coyote skull.