Friday, June 27, 2014

Deep Summer Trophies

By Spider Rybaak
Monster Oneia Lake kitty
 Oswego County’s is one of the world’s best destinations for fresh water trophies. Contrary to widespread belief, however, all the hot spots ain’t on Lake Ontario. Indeed, Oneida Lake, the biggest pond in the state, offers anglers some extraordinary warm water angling, especially in deep summer.

Now, everyone worth his weight in bucktail jigs can tell you stories about the lake’s massive quantities of walleye. Those who like perch will add tales about the buckets full of 12 inchers that come out of the place, rain or shine, summer and winter. Even pickerel, one of the drink’s most delicious critters, are so cooperative, anglers who don’t have a clue on how the natural order works think the lake is infested with them.

Well, Oneida Lake isn’t infested with pickerel. It’s the most productive lake in NY, a veritable bait factory, and the pickerel, like walleyes, crappie, perch (white and yellow), largemouth and smallmouth bass, cormorants, blue herons, kids with worms, adults throwing Sonars, you name it, help keep fish populations in sync.

In other words, if there wasn’t a surplus of bait, you wouldn’t have so many pickerel and fishermen. Massive quantities of bait support great populations of game fish which in turn draw huge numbers of anglers. That’s how the natural order works.

While the pickerel, walleye and other usual suspects deserve the lion’s share of attention, the lake supports a wide variety of bottom feeders every bit as challenging to catch as the glamorous species.

Take catfish, for instance. Some experts consider them America’s most popular freshwater game. They’re popularly targeted in each of the Lower 48 states. Oneida Lake claims two of the most popular: bullheads and channel cats. Both reach trophy size around here: Bullhead will go 18 inches; channel cats can reach 20 pounds and better.

Both are fair weather species. The hotter the weather, the more active they are. Bullheads like to hit worms still-fished on bottom, while the catfish like cutbait or shrimp fished the same way. In summer, they like to hang out wherever deep and shallow waters meet; places like the public access sites at both ends of the I-81 Bridge in Brewerton, the Cleveland Docks, the municipal dock on the Oneida River a few hundred feet east of the US 11 Bridge, and the canal at the lighthouse park in Brewerton (just west of the CR 37/railroad crossing).

How about carp? This species’ popularity is booming. Indeed, travel agencies are making fortunes selling carp fishing vacations to Europeans and Asians. Local angler Mike McGrath, of McGrath & Associates Carp Angling Services (315-882-1549), makes a good buck taking these clients on carp fishing trips of a lifetime.

Best of all, carp like all water: deep, shallow, muddy-bottomed, rocky, even weedy. They’ll hit kernel corn, bread balls, pieces of potato, and a mash experts like McGrath make with grains and syrups.

But if you just gotta get the popular breeds, the lake has the answer: it’s one of the hottest spots in the Northeast for summer black bass. Out in the lake, smallmouths hang out along the channel drops, weed edges, and dumping grounds (areas where debris was dumped when the canal was being dredged); and around docks and other man-made structures in the Erie Canal. Curiously, the lake’s largemouths hangout in pretty much the same places, only they’re more inclined to be closer to shore, in warmer, shallower water.

This weekend marks the state’s Free Fishing Weekend. It’s a great time to come up to the Oswego County communities lining the northwestern shore of Oneida Lake. Who knows, you might hook the monster you’ve been dreaming about.

Hawg bucketmouth caught off the municipal dock, Brewerton.
Hoping for a duckling dinner.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Salmon River’s Hidden Gem

By Spider Rybaak

Capt. Rick with an average-size Salmon River Reservoir smallie
Separated from the Adirondack Mountains by the Black River Valley, the Tug Hill Plateau rises some 2,000 feet above sea level on its east side, and slides west, dropping to about 300 feet above sea level by the time it reaches the northeastern corner of Oswego County. Its harsh winter temperatures and proximity to Lake Ontario create lake effect snow, draping the area in 6 feet of powder during mild winters, piling more than 10 feet most of the rest of the time. Wikipedia reports the village of Redfield got buried under 141 inches of snow in a little over a week, February 3 -12, 2007.

All that water’s got to go somewhere. Some tumbles down the east slope into the Black River. A little even reaches as far down as Oneida Lake. But the greatest volume squeezes into countless streams and cuts a southwesterly course through “the Hill,” ending up in the Salmon River Reservoir, where the raging rapids are reined in, forming a peaceful body of water punctuated by numerous forested islands.

And it’s loaded with fish. Professional guide Rick Miick proved it to me a couple days ago.

Last Sunday he called to ask: “Spider, wanna go fishin’ with me and Stan in the Upper Reservoir for walleye tomorrow morning?”

“You bet’cha. What time?”

“Six a.m.,” he answered. “Meet us at the Jackson Road Fishing Access Site.”

We shoved off on time. Someone had stolen the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s nice aluminum dock, so I had to hold the boat in about two feet of water while Rick parked the rig. Then we had to get into the boat the old way: climb.  I almost made it the first try. But my old bones played a trick on me and the next thing I knew I fell backwards into the drink. The water woke me up quick and I was out before I could get totally soaked. Still, my back side dripped all morning.

We started by drifting around a few small islands near the launch, jigging bottom in 10 to 15 feet of water.

We didn’t get any walleyes, but some spunky smallies and rock bass kept us whooping and hollering.

Around 11 a.m., we figured we’d try the larger islands. When we reached the 50-foot depths off Huckleberry Island, numerous rings began appearing on the surface ahead of us. Rick slows the boat down a little to see what’s going on and we find ourselves smack in the middle of a feeding frenzy. Small fish are splashing carelessly like fingerlings in a hatchery at feeding time; but a good number are just kissing the surface like big fish do.

I surmise they’re walleyes chasing minnows. Rick thinks they’re trout. Stan doesn’t care what they are…he just wants to catch some.

I begin throwing a Berkley Atomic Teaser.  Rick starts casting a minnowbait. Stan’s drifting a worm below a bobber. The warm spring day is partly cloudy, wind’s low…life is good.

We spend the next two hours casting hard baits onto a gently chopping surface sprinkled with rising fish. We catch and release roughly 20 cookie-cutter smallies averaging 13 inches each.

Neither of us has ever seen anything like it before. Oh sure, we’ve had our thrills watching trout feeding during hatches; and schools of bass and walleye corralling and picking off bait; but never over such deep water, in such quantities for so long.

Rick tells me the place is loaded with walleyes and trout. Past experience has taught me it’s thick with rock bass and crappies. Now I know it’s loaded with smallies, too.

Also called the Upper Reservoir, the place has two DEC bank fishing access sites on Cty. Rte. 17 on the south side of Redfield. Bank fishing access is available off C.C.C. Drive. A site on Camp Road is suitable for launching car top craft, and the Jackson Road access site boasts a paved ramp and parking for about 20 rigs.

Captain Rick Miick can be contacted at 315-387-5920;

Camping for up to 3 days, for groups numbering less than 10, is generally permitted in state forests without a permit. For camping regulations, go to and type in camping on state land in the search bar.
If you like the comfort of light switches, hot and cold running water and flush toilets, try Stan’s Deer Creek Motel on State Route 3; 315-298-3730.

Stan with a nice rock bass he named Balboa

Monday, June 2, 2014

Oswego County’s Fast Waters for all Tastes

By Spider Rybaak
Rob approaching a promising log on Orwell Brook

Rob Barker has helped me with my kids fishing classes at Wellesley Island’s Minna Anthony Common Nature Center for the past five summers. He’s been especially useful in the fly-fishing section. When he informed me last fall he was thinking of retiring, I feared I’d lose a friend and trusted helper.

To my surprise, he called me in April, inviting me to go fishing for brookies in the wilds of northeastern Oswego County. I hadn’t fished up there in years, and decided this was the perfect opportunity to reacquaint myself with the fabulous menu of trout fishing opportunities this magical swath of New York offers.

We had to wait until the middle of May for the waters to finally go down enough to fly-fish. Our first stop was the stretch of Public Fishing Rights on Orwell Brook; more specifically, at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservations access site on County Route 52, north of Altmar.

Extraordinarily scenic, Orwell Brook slices through gently rolling hills. Only averaging three giant steps wide, it twists and turns constantly, digging out pools and undercut banks lined with brush and root balls. Broad stretches of shallow ripples punctuate its ideal trout habitats.

Unfortunately, we didn’t land any brookies. I had an 8-incher nail my nymph at the bend rounding a root ball, but it jumped immediately after feeling the hook, wrapped my line around a stick when it landed and got away. We did, however, catch several young-of-the-year native born rainbows.

Like all the area’s tiny creeks, some of the banks along Orwell Creek’s upper reaches are lined with brush so thick, that it covers the stream in long stretches of leafy cathedral ceilings. You’ll have to trudge quietly upstream, stooping most of the way, even walking on your knees in spots, but a well-placed fly under such difficult conditions will reward you with a trout decked in an aura of brilliance few people ever earn the right to experience.

A couple hours of struggling through the sinewy growth clinging to the brook’s banks does a number on an old man’s stamina, so Rob and I elected to try a stream that was a little more open. Since Orwell feeds the Salmon River, we had the perfect candidate just a few minutes south. We packed up our gear and headed for the special, fly-fishing only section on County Route 22.

Once again, water levels were perfect. We replaced our nymphs with stylized wooly buggers Rob tied and started swinging them across the current.

The pocket water along the massive boulders the NYSDEC placed to shore up the bank at the rapids upstream of the Paradise Pool rewarded our efforts with feisty, fingerling Atlantic salmon, brown and rainbow trout. The famous pool below gave us a few 8-inch fallfish that hit--and fought--as hard as trout twice their size.

Afterwards, we thought of trying Grindstone Creek, a brookie- and rainbow-rich blue ribbon trout stream that feeds Lake Ontario at Selkirk Shores State Park. But by the time we got to Pulaski, the sun only had about another hour‘s hang-time so we decided to try it another day.

Northeastern Oswego County is as close to wilderness as you can get in Central New York and one thing’s for sure: this country ain’t for the weak and lazy. But if you can handle the challenge of hoofing it through slippery terrain paved in sliding rocks, you’ll find solitude and beauty punctuated with trout that are the top of their class.

Each of these streams is thoroughly covered, complete with directions to access sites, in my newest book “Fishing the Great Lakes of New York: A Guide to Lakes Erie and Ontario, their Tributaries, and the Thousand Islands” (Burford Books, 224 pages, $16.95). They’re available at all the usual suspects. For signed copies, drop me a line at

Making his cast.

Fallfish may be small but they sure put up a good fight.