Friday, August 30, 2013

Training Gold

By Spider Rybaak

Gary and Kelsey.

Gary Fischer has been hunting birds for over 60 years. He’s been training dogs to retrieve for that long, too. He learned both from a beagle.

“When I was growing up,” explains the Central Square native, “I loved to hunt. But I didn’t know much about it. I didn’t know much about dogs, either. One day my beagle follows me into the field…and he knew a lot about both.”

Since then, Gary’s trained five golden retrievers, two Brittany spaniels and two pointers. As you can probably tell, he doesn’t do it professionally. Rather, he takes the family pet out, and, with a patience that would make Mother Teresa proud, teaches the pooch everything it needs to know to be his most valuable hunting asset…after his gun, of course.

“You have to start ‘em out immediately,” says Fischer. “In fact, breeders start the first step in the process, called socializing, by exposing the dog to people and different situations like playing with balls, chasing sticks and stuff.”

According to Fischer, the best time to pick up the puppy is when it’s about 7 to 8 weeks old. After you get to know and trust each other, you start training.

Fischer advises you field train 5 times a week—“don’t let the dog get bored”—and “obedience train” every day for about 10 minutes. “Repetition…repetition…repetition…,” he adds.

Fischer’s latest trainee is nine-month-old Kelsey. A golden retriever, she’s been studying under the master for about six months. Typically, class starts out in the fields on the north shore of Oneida Lake, followed by a little water work in an adjoining swamp.

On the day we go, Gary’s doing remedial work; something he calls breaking her to the shot.

“She’s not holding when the gun goes off or when she sees the game,” says Fisher.  “When a pheasant flushes or a duck flies into range, you want the dog to stay put, giving you a clear shot. If she jumps into the picture prematurely, she can get shot, scare off a second bird…a lot can happen. Secondly, you want the dog to stay put so it can see everything that’s happening,” he adds.

Arriving at the field, Kelsey’s anticipating everything, proving dogs have imagination. As Gary’s showing me how to insert the dummy onto the barrel of the launcher (it’s attached to a cylinder that fires a blank 22 cartridge; gas propels the dummy), Kelsey practically knocks me down trying to get at the thing. As they head out into the bush, she’s jumping at his every move, even before he gives me the hand signal to launch.

His first sign is for me to fire a simple blank.

Hearing the report, Kelsey tugs at the leash, trying to jump at her imaginary bird. Gary keeps her put.

Next, he signals me to launch a dummy.

This time Kelsey is surprisingly calm.  Gary issues gentle commands for her to hold and she stays put. When he says “out,” she takes off like someone fired a rocket under her butt and heads right for the spot in the grass where the dummy hit, mouths it and returns to her master.

After several more practice runs in the field, we head for a swamp. I launch 4 dummies and Kelsey retrieves each one immediately upon command. Surprisingly, I feel proud of her—so does Gary.

“OK, Spider, she can hunt. Let’s call it quits.”

We head back for the truck; each of us salivating over the thought of duck season being just around the corner.

Fischer offers the following advice:

 Any good working retriever can make a great family dog; most family dogs will not make good hunting dogs.

If you’re thinking of getting a pup, get it from a breeder with proven credentials like hunt test titles and field trial points. Mexico, NY’s Adirondac Goldens (, has a national reputation for breeding truly great dogs.

For additional information, check out the Finger Lakes Retriever Club ( and The Golden Retriever Club of Central New York (

Good places to train your dog in Oswego County include:

Three Mile Bay/Big Bay Wildlife Management Area, Toad Harbor Road (off NY 49), West Monroe;
Happy Valley WMA, NY 104 (between CR 22 and NY 13), Town of Parish;
Deer Creek WMA, NY 3, two miles north of Port Ontario.

Oswego County’s Fishing and Hunting Guide contains a map showing the locations of these and several more state forests and WMAs:

Fischer loading a dummy on the launcher.

Kelsey locating the dummy.

Delivering the dummy.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Summer Time… and the Fishin’s Easy

By Spider Rybaak  

Father and son posing with a 23-inch walleye taken at Cleveland Docks on Sunday night.

A good ol’ algae bloom blossomed over Oneida Lake the last week of July. Common in the 1950s and 60s, the event spread an undulating carpet of thick green slime over much of the lake’s surface, triggering deep anxiety among worrywarts. When the ultimate die-off occurred in the first week of this month, turning the water a chalky color, and planting a stench riding its waves, the authorities closed popular beaches temporarily.  

Fatalists began gnashing their teeth and pulling the hair out of their heads; convinced global warming had finally reached the breaking point…Oneida Lake was Ground Zero…We were doomed.

But they were disappointed. You see, the bloom and gloom came and went and the water’s as clear and the fishing’s as good--some say even better--as before the event.

Last weekend was the first to be free of the condition, drawing the masses to Oswego County’s territorial waters of Oneida Lake.

Brewerton looked like a roving boat show. A steady stream of watercraft of every size and description ran the river in both directions. Every inch of the municipal dock was occupied and as soon as a space opened up, a vessel was maneuvering into the spot.

Some bank anglers jockeyed for casting positions on the dock. The bite was typical for this time of year; slow but productive, for those that kept pluggin’, anyway. However, even those who weren’t getting communications from the deep telegraphed to their rod tips were happily catching rays and enjoying the sights and sounds of the Oneida River slicing through the countryside.

Still, the majority avoided the congestion and simply fished at the access sites on both sides of the I-81 Bridge.  Most everyone reported catching something, mostly sheepshead, pickerel, bass and panfish.

In the background, guys fishing the river from boats were realizing decent results. Bucketmouths and pickerel were cooperative in the shallow bays on both sides of I-81; smallies and northerns were hitting on the river channel’s drop-offs. 

Most believe walleyes don’t hit in August, reasoning the lake is full of food and the pike suspend, feeding on minnows that are constantly swimming by.

The rest of us keep our mouths shut and jig for them in relatively deep water like the channel below I-81 and Cleveland Docks. Walleyes are naturally drawn to current, and both spots have it. You have to fish early and late, when boat traffic is at its slowest.

Then there’s Caughdenoy. The Oswego side is wide open, offering great access above and below the dam. The plunge pool always has sheepshead, catfish, smallmouth bass and panfish, and walleyes move in at night. The quiet water on top has monster cats, sheepshead, northern pike, bucketmouths and smallies, and panfish.

Summer’s winding down and the fishing is only going to get better from here on in. But if you wait, you’ll blow the last vestiges of long, lazy days fanned by pleasant breezes. You might not see catfish jumping but you should be able to catch a few.

The lake's water was chalky in the beginning of August.

Caughdenoy on Sunday afternoon.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Between a Muskrat and a Toad

By Spider Rybaak

Bucketmouth taken on a spinnerbait on the shoals due north of Oneida Shores County Park
I’ve found myself between a rock and a hard place many times.  I’ve flown in planes and fallen in love, so I’ve been between heaven and earth, too. But yesterday’s fishing trip with Ray Chittenden was a first:  between a toad and a muskrat. 

Literally. You see, we went to Oneida Lake and concentrated on the fish-rich waters between Muskrat Bay and Toad Harbor.

While other parts of the lake may harbor the lion’s share of walleyes right now, few can compare with the massive quantities of various fish species found in this magical piece of Oswego County’s territorial waters.

What makes it so productive is its wealth of structure and habitat. Windfalls, reeds and docks line the south shore, while marsh and forest, watered by creeks and springs, cling to the north side’s wildlife management areas. Off to the west, I-81 provides riprap and bridge abutments. And down the middle of it all, flanked by fishy drop-offs, runs the main channel’s deep currents.

And Ray knew how to milk it for everything it had…except walleyes. 

Our first fish is a rock bass weighing at least half a pound. A pickerel comes aboard shortly afterwards, followed by a monster pumpkinseed; all in the first half hour.  

Searching for Mr. Walleye, we move east, into deeper water. Ray puts away the worms and starts casting. His efforts pay off with a three- pound bronzeback taken on a YUM Walleye Grub dragged on bottom along the drop-off west of Buoy 136, and a two-pounder that took a Berkley Power Teaser tipped with a Honey Worm and worked around Buoy 137. 

“OK,” he says, “We got enough smallmouths, let’s go for a  bucketmouth,” and aims the boat for the weed bed due north of Oneida Shores County Park boat launch. As soon as his spinnerbait touches the water, a largemouth of about two pounds nails it.

“We’re on a roll,” he boasts, and suggests we try for some panfish. 

We drift along Muskrat Bay’s shoreline, past residences ranging from simple cottages to palatial homes fit for a bank executive. Six perch and a blue gill later, our time running out (I only had four hours to fish) Ray asks “do you want to give walleyes another shot?”

You bet’cha!”I answer.

We head back for buoy 136 and start drifting. I’m jigging a Sonar; Ray’s working bottom with a worm on a spinner harness. The wind blows us toward the river.

A few minutes later he’s into another fish, a legal bucketmouth. 

While anglers just about everywhere are complaining about the summer blues, smart pluggers are enjoying great fishing on the west end of Oneida Lake. 

Come on over and give it a try.

 Ray with a nice smallie taken on a YUM Walleye Grub.

Monster pumpkinseed's like the waters between Muskrat Bay and Toad Harbor, too.

Bass pros scouting the west end of Oneida Lake