Best Bets for Fall Fishing in New York
October 12, 2018
There must be a simple reason why the vast majority of New York anglers store their boats weeks or months before the law requires them to do so. Could it be the weather? Perhaps. The wind and the sleet and even an unexpected dusting of snow can be discouraging at times, but the pre-Thanksgiving storms normally aren’t as severe or persistent as the meteorological events that spring up from nowhere in December.
Regardless of the varied excuses we have all stockpiled at one time or another, right now is one of the best times to be out on the water. So, grab your gear and head for some of the best seasonal fishing opportunities in the world — right here in River City.
FINGER LAKES SHORE CASTING
I live with my family in the most overlooked fall-fishing region of the state — the Finger Lakes. My pet spot in the spring for warm as well as cool waters is Otisco Lake, located about two miles south of the Route 174 U.S. Route 20 intersection in southern Onondaga County. However, you’ll have to scout the shore a night or two before your visit.
Safe, reliable casting platforms (i.e., rip-rap for instance) are at a premium, and parking can be a problem, too. One reliable place to hurl the effective shallow-running Rapalas, Thundersticks and other stick baits is the causeway.
This structure, an old road bed that partially transects the lake at a point just south of the Otisco Lake Marina, holds plenty of game fish and panfish eager to take a lure. You’ll also find plenty of buckeyes, small perch and alewives.
Among many other small to medium night-time fishing spots you can try in New York at this time of year is Cayuta Lake. Located about five miles southeast of Watkins Glen in Schuyler County, Cayuta is a mere 518 acres, but its holds good numbers of walleyes. These fish are routinely gorged on alewives and therefore can be difficult to catch. However, crack the code and you can expect to hook ‘eyes which reach an average weight of 5 pounds.
THOUSAND ISLANDS MUSKELLUNGE
The upper reaches of the mighty St. Lawrence River, also known as the Thousand Islands, has seen a muskellunge renaissance in the last few decades. In the 1950s and early ’60s, the region (which really does have more than a thousand islands), was known for world-record muskellunge.
But fishing contests were so loosely regulated that it was possible to fill an entry fish with “foreign objects” to increase its weight. Many observers wondered if the ounces and inches jotted down by contest judges might have been attributable to stuffing a fish’s stomach with a few buckshot, capped with a quick-drying plug of cement. Not exactly inspiring, is it?
Eventually, those who truly loved the muskies’ heritage lobbied for drastic reform. Progress was made when, along with less questionable entries, they officially rejected Arthur Lawton’s 1957 St. Lawrence “world record” catch — which was listed at 69 pounds and 15 ounces.
Even more gutsy, perhaps, were the river guides who realized their futures depended on a self-perpetuating fishery. With that in mind, they began encouraging their clients to release trophies in return for a snapshot and quick size estimates. The emphasis on catch and release efforts gradually began paying off, with more big fish, including a couple of 60-inch monsters.
Readers who wish to take advantage of this evolving fishery would do themselves and the guides a huge favor by booking a few trips before tackling the St. Lawrence on their own. Any tackle store between Clayton and Alexandria Bay has a stack of brochures from muskie guides. They’re all very knowledgeable muskie tacticians, but some of the best include Bob Walter, Richie Clark and Myrle Bauer. All of them use Clayton as a base of operations.
The upper St. Lawrence has the dimensions of a big lake and the currents of a powerful river. And yes, it really does have 1,000 islands, plus oil barges and other sea-going vessels big enough to demand respect and a wide berth from pleasure boats. Also keep in mind that it’s also an international border, and the best fishing is on the Canadian license. Don’t forget to purchase one prior to fishing in Canada.
MORE MUSKIE LAIRS
Many fishermen are happy to hook and net the hybrid “tiger muskies” or “norlunge” which are produced by cross-breeding male northern pike with hen muskies. Yet some folks dream of one day connecting with the real thing. While genuine muskellunge are such an angling challenge that they’re frequently called “the fish of 10,000 casts,” true tiger muskies are sterile (non-reproducing), predatory game fish which thrive in small lakes and rivers that lack competing predators.
For your best chances at hooking a true muskellunge, I’d recommend Chautauqua Lake in the southwest corner of the state; the Niagara River both upstream and downstream from the famous Falls, and two small fishing holes in Schuyler County — Waneta and Lamoka lakes. Lamoka is famed for big muskies, up to 40 pounds, while Waneta fish are about half as heavy but twice as numerous as the Lamoka water wolves. Fall is the best time of the year to try your luck on the two lakes, which are connected by a short channel.
As for tiger muskies, the previously mentioned Otisco Lake, mentioned earlier for its walleye potential, also beckons anglers who would like to tussle with a state-record tiger. Several in the 30-pound range have been reported from the lake in recent years. Yet another nice spot for norlunge is at the opposite end of the Finger Lakes chain, in Conesus Lake in Livingston County. The DEC has been stocking it with the hybrids at a rate of several hundred a year and Conesus Lake now holds many tigers that weigh between 15 and 20 pounds.
SALMON RIVER KINGS
Not long ago, New Yorkers who hoped to catch their fish of fishes in Empire State waters had to choose salt-water striped bass in the lower Hudson River, or Thousand Island muskies. Stripers up to 60 pounds dominated Long Island’s salt water. Muskies grew to exceptional size but were low in numbers even in the Thousand Islands. Few anglers felt passionate about carp, which could give them a heck of a fight on medium-action rods but weren’t nearly as “pretty” or sexy as muskies or stripers.
During modern autumn excursions, the best fish to target when you are looking to fill out a record-book spot marked “empty” is sort of a no-brainer. The species that is most apt to carry you from cold water to a cozy taxidermy studio is the chinook salmon, and the very best place to land such a fish is in Oswego County’s Salmon River or just offshore from Port Ontario.
The Great Lakes record chinook or “king” salmon weighed 47 pounds, 11 ounces when river guide Troy Creasy and his Pennsylvania client Kurt Killian boated it in 1991 on an orange-colored Pacific salmon pattern.
In a typical year, DEC biologists figure 50,000 or more king and coho salmon swim up the Salmon River to spawn in the softball-size “gravel.” The fishing is good starting on the Labor Day weekend, but it improves steadily until the runs hit their peak in early to mid-October. Circle Columbus Day on your calendar.
For those who fly fish, pack your 9- or 10-weight fly rod and a couple of boxes of sunken-fly patterns with plenty of Estaz or some other flashy material wrapped around the hook shanks — you should do well.
Keep in mind that salmon do little or no feeding once they’ve turned up-river. Be prepared to swing your fly down and across the riffles and runs until one of those big fish gets sufficiently annoyed to stop your fly in its tracks.
When throwing egg and streamer imitations, be sure you “tick” across the river bottom. It’s here the big kings hang out until they are ready to take their one and only crack at propagating their species.
MORE SALMON OPPORTUNITIES
Virtually every decent sized river or creek which flows into Lake Ontario seems to attract autumn runs of spawn ready kings. Definitely worth a try in late September and on through October are Little Sandy Creek and Skinner Creek, north from Port Ontario via Route 3. And don’t hesitate to venture out on the big lake with an experienced charter captain. The action around Oswego River’s harbor, especially, can be reel-burning hot, with green and white banana-type plugs and spoons accounting for most hookups.
Even the major metropolitan areas of New York have some amazing sport fisheries. Salmon from Lake Ontario are big and tough enough for some of them to swim all the way up to the base of Niagara Falls; and they hold their own amid the gauntlets of anglers which form in downtown Rochester’s lower Genesee River gorge, too.
Syracuse has nothing quite like those natural geographical formations, but it does have tremendous autumn fishing for smallmouth bass. And the catching is even better than the fishing, now and then. Five-pounders are put back every gorgeous autumn day in Onondaga Lake, which sprawls across the city suburbs from the Destiny U.S.A. shopping mall near Geddes.
The outlet is so short that picnickers in the county park in Liverpool can see the whole thing if they walk or bicycle into the park’s recreational trail. Try the horse-shoe bend where the outlet meshes with the Seneca River. If you like it in September, and you definitely will, save a few of your favorite 3/4- and 1-ounce jigs that will draw vicious strikes from early to mid-November. A friend of mine used pumpkin-colored Twisters to boat two 6-pound smallmouths in a single November afternoon.
JUST ONE MORE SPOT
You probably thought I’d end this overview of New York’s autumn-best fishing spots with the bluefish and striped bass options around the Long Island shore. But since everybody living on the Island is already tuned-in to their saltwater opportunities, I figured this might be a good place to talk about the Peconic River, a dynamite largemouth bass fishery.
DEC Region 1 biologists tout the Peconic as capable of rewarding a skilled fisherman with a 5-pound largemouth on any given day. Late September or early October would be a great time to pull off such a feat, don’t you think?