Our Finest August Muskie Waters
October 04, 2010
No one knows why muskies are so aggressive in August, but these voracious predators are ready to take any bait or lure from shore or boat this month. Don't miss out! (August 2006)
Photo by J. Michael Kelly
A couple of years ago, St. Lawrence River guide Bob Walters used an underwater camera to record the heart-pounding sights of giant muskellunge following -- and then savagely taking -- a trolled lure. His video footage, which showed more than a dozen muskies in the 40- to 56-inch range, was the hit of several outdoors shows the next winter.
Dedicated anglers and New York Department of Environmental Conservation biologists can share the credit for this amazing fishery. Guides such as Walters, and fanatical fishermen like the members of the Niagara Musky Association, have worked hard to protect and enhance the state's major muskie fisheries including the St. Lawrence and Niagara rivers and Chautauqua Lake. By preaching a strict catch-and-release ethic, muskie devotees have made sure that their favorite fish live long enough to spawn several times and, in the process, grow to gargantuan proportions.
Why do so many veteran muskie guides encourage -- or even require -- their clients to release fish that most anglers would consider the catch of a lifetime? It's not that muskies are bad to eat. Most old-timers rate them on a par with the northern pike that are a staple of Thousand Islands shore lunches. No, catch-and-release has caught on for the simple reason that a big muskellunge is an old muskellunge.
DEC biologists say that those 40- to 50-pound monsters that lure wide-eyed anglers to the Thousand Islands are typically 20 to 25 years old. Even a 48-incher that meets the minimum creel-length requirement on the upper St. Lawrence is a teenager -- and most such "keepers" are females capable of laying several hundred thousand eggs during their annual spring spawning run.
Knowledgeable guides understand that it's not only sound conservation but also good for business to revive and release such fish.
The DEC responded to angler sentiments by raising minimum creel lengths in some notable fishing holes. Although the standard keeper size for muskies in most New York lakes and rivers is a mere 30 inches, a 54-inch minimum is in force on the upper Niagara. Muskies must be at least 48 inches long on the St. Lawrence and 40 inches in Chautauqua Lake before you can legally put them on a stringer.
In addition to flexing its regulatory powers, the DEC serves muskies and muskie anglers through hatchery propagation, population monitoring and specialized research. A state hatchery on Chautauqua Lake produces enough fingerlings to sustain not only that fishing hole, but several smaller fisheries as well.
Another state fish farm, at South Otselic in Chenango County, cranks out hybrid tiger muskies for stocking in dozens of other lakes and streams.
Periodic netting surveys are used to take the pulse of muskie populations in waters throughout the state. And over the last two decades, the DEC has joined with the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry to identify and protect key muskie spawning and nursery habitat in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River.
Last summer, state biologists also worked with fish pathologists at Cornell University to determine the cause of a widespread die-off of large St. Lawrence muskies. Ultimately, they concluded that the fish had succumbed to bacterial infections after being weakened by the rigors of spawning, coupled with an abrupt change in water temperature. Although fishing was poorer than usual after the die-off, scientists are optimistic that the Thousand Islands muskie population will make a strong comeback starting this year.
If that good news isn't enough to make you sharpen the hooks on your favorite plugs, keep reading, as we examine current prospects for a hookup in New York's best muskellunge waters.
Let's start with the lunker lairs in the western part of the state and fan-cast our way east.
If you crave numbers of muskies, rather than the occasional hard-to-come-by monster, consider a trip to Chautauqua Lake. It's one of the few bodies of water in the East where an experienced angler can reasonably hope to catch several muskies in a single outing. While multiple-muskie catches rarely occur elsewhere, they are almost routine on Chautauqua, which nestles in the southwest corner of the state at Jamestown. When Muskies, Inc., holds one of its catch-and-release tournaments on this lake, it's not unusual for a single boat to report double-figure landings of fish in the 30- to 44-inch range.
On Chautauqua Lake, the keeper size is 40 inches, and a few 50-inchers are reported each season. Chautauqua's fishery is fueled by the state hatchery at Prendergast Point. Each spring, DEC crews net the lake to obtain brood fish. The biggest ever captured during such a foray was a 56-incher, according to Paul McKeown, DEC Region 9 fisheries manager. The Prendergast Point facility produces about 25,000 little muskies annually for stocking in Chautauqua. Any surplus fingerlings wind up in other western New York muskie waters, such as the Cassadaga lakes, Olean Creek and the Allegheny River.
Some 17 miles long and two miles wide, Chautauqua Lake has many points, dropoffs and weedbeds that reek of muskies. Some of the better-known spots include the pillars that support the Route 17 bridge at Bemus Point, the deep water off Prendergast Point and Ashville Bay, which is off Route 394 on the west side of the lake. Newcomers can find their way to these locations with a free fishing map available from the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau at (716) 753-4304.
Chautauqua is about an hour south of Buffalo and two hours west of Elmira via Route 17 (the Southern Tier Expressway), which is being converted to U.S. Route 86. There's a state boat launch at Long Point on the east shore off Route 430, and several private marinas that allow launching for a modest fee.
Most of New York's famous muskie factories -- including Chautauqua Lake, the Niagara River and the upper St. Lawrence River -- are big, roomy waters where a 4-foot-long fish has no trouble finding a place to hide.
Not so the Cassadaga Lakes and their outlet, Cassadaga Creek. In the Cassadaga system, anglers who cast buzzbaits or other topwater lures around fallen limbs and other cover have a good chance of seeing a Chautauqua-strain muskie, or at least its subsurface swirl, before it's hooked.
These are intimate settings compared to typical trophy venues. The upper and lower Cassadaga Lakes,
located due south of Fredonia in the Chautauqua County towns of Pomfret and Stockton, are a combined 210 acres in size. Although the water in the two lakes is slightly turbid, anglers can sometimes spot Cassadaga muskies suspended above the weeds that sprout virtually everywhere in August. Such fish aren't gigantic by muskie standards, but the DEC's McKeown assures that 10- to 15-pounders are caught fairly regularly.
Muskies of comparable size are scattered throughout the lower two-thirds of Cassadaga Creek, but especially in the meandering stretch between South Stockton and Ross Mills.
A canoe or johnboat is ideal for fishing either the Cassadaga Lakes or the creek. The state maintains a small launch area with parking for 20 cars at the end of Dale Drive, which is between the two lakes, off Route 60. Cartoppers can also be eased into the creek at several points including County Road 71 north of South Stockton and Knight Road, off Route 380 near Ross Mills.
The Chautauqua tourism folks mentioned above can help Cassadaga visitors find accommodations near Jamestown or Fredonia.
When the season opens in June, Buffalo-area anglers enjoy some of the hottest muskie fishing in the world, especially in the harbors in Lake Erie's northeast corner and in the stretch of the Niagara River upstream from the falls. The Erie action slows considerably in the summer, but tight-lipped locals continue to connect with 50-inchers in the river, often by trolling after dark.
I can't recommend night-fishing to uninitiated visitors. But traveling anglers willing to line up a guide with the help of the Erie Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at (814) 454-7191, or Niagara County Tourism at 1-800-338-7890, could be in for one of the more memorable evenings of their fishing careers.
In the upper Niagara, big muskies are the rule rather than the exception with fish in the 48- to 52-inch range a daily possibility. The large average size of fish above the falls is at least partly attributable to the staunch catch-and-release ethic promoted by the Niagara Musky Association.
The association pushed for the 54-inch minimum keeper size -- which has been in effect on the river since October 2002 -- knowing that it would protect 99 percent of the muskies available to anglers. Given these circumstances, it wouldn't be surprising if some old female, caught and released a couple of times, eventually lived long enough to break the 60-inch mark.
While the best summer fishing is after dark, daytime trollers take some Niagara muskies in August around the southwest end of Grand Island, between the Peace Bridge in Buffalo and Tonawanda Island; and over Sunken Island, a hump off the north side of Grand Island.
Numerous launch areas are available above the falls. A complete list is available by calling the Erie and Niagara county offices mentioned previously.
Its fishing has been slightly off for the last couple of summers, but little Otisco Lake in southern Onondaga County is still the best place in New York to catch a tiger muskellunge or "norlunge" -- the sterile hybrid produced by crossing a male northern pike with a female muskie.
Otisco is stocked with about 7,500 tigers annually, and quite a few of them have grown into 20-pounders by the time they're caught. I know of one specimen that weighed 30 pounds and change, and another, a bit lighter than that fish, which measured 50 inches. The presence of such brutes suggests that Otisco Lake is a strong candidate to produce the next state-record tiger muskie, one even bigger than the 35 1/2-pounder pulled from the Tioughnioga River back in 1990.
At 2,214 acres, Otisco is one of the smallest bodies of water in the Finger Lakes chain, but it has sufficient depth, structure and forage to grow large norlunge. It bottoms out at 70 feet and has sloping points, steep dropoffs, and extensive weed beds. Alewives and white perch are so abundant in the lake that state biologists have nagging concerns about maintaining a proper balance between predator and prey.
For reasons I've never quite understood, August has always been prime time for connecting with an Otisco norlunge. You'd think the big boys would be scared silly by the personal-watercraft jockeys who race up and down the small lake on summer afternoons. Instead, the dog days always seem to bring on the bite.
Trolling off the deep weedlines and across the major points is a good way to catch Otisco tigers in August. So is casting spinnerbaits or buzzbaits in the shallow, muddy south end or in Turtle Bay, a lily-padded cove on the east shore north of Amber. You can pick out some likely spots of your own on the contour map that the DEC's Region 7 office in Cortland keeps handy. Their number is (607) 753-3095.
Getting to Otisco Lake is easy. It's only half an hour's drive from Syracuse, near the geographical center of the state. Take U.S. Route 20 east of Auburn about 12 miles (where there are numerous motels) or west about the same distance from the LaFayette exit on Interstate 81. Turn south on Route 174, which leads directly to the lake.
The only public boat launch is a tiny carry-in site at the west end of the causeway, an old roadbed that divides the lake near its south end. Most boaters launch at one of two private marinas on the east shore, off Otisco Valley Road.
By now, most New York Game & Fish readers have heard about New York's controversial state-record -- and former world-record -- muskellunge. Caught by the late Arthur Lawton in 1957, it supposedly came from the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River and weighed 69 pounds, 15 ounces. Doubts about its authenticity led the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and then the International Game Fish Association to expunge the fish from its record listings a few years ago. As of this writing, DEC officials were considering wiping Lawton's catch from the Empire State record book, too.
Most of today's muskie-chasers couldn't care less. Let's face it, Lawton's "record" is nearly half a century old. We're more interested in the behemoths that swim in the St. Lawrence these days -- for it so happens that Thousand Island muskies of 50 inches and up are more common now than they have been for decades. Lately, even the magic 60-inch barrier has been breached, and in recent seasons, several river guides have reported catching muskies that weighed 55 pounds or better.
As with the Niagara River, the St. Lawrence fishery owes its renaissance in great measure to the many conservation-minded guides and clients who've had the good sense to put muskies back alive. During the 1980s and '90s, the catch-and-release ethic took hold in the Thousand Islands. Instead of directing successful clients to taxidermists, guides took lots of pictures and handed out catch-and-release certificates and muskie paintings to happy anglers. The result is that very few muskies of any size are kept any more.
One could hardly blame Fred Lang of Cape Vincent for keeping his lunker of a lif
etime, of course. Lang was trolling for walleyes just off Grenadier Island, where the waters of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence mix, on Aug. 20, 2004. He had just lowered a 4 1/2-inch jointed plug with his downrigger when the big one hit. It weighed 46 pounds and measured 60 inches, which makes it one of the longest muskies taken from the river since Lawton's era.
The smart way for the average angler to enter the race for the next New York muskie record is to hire one of the many good guides that work the Thousand Islands region. Be forewarned, though: Most guides in the region target muskies only in September, October and November, when these river giants go on a pre-winter feeding spree. In August, you'll have to ask around to find a guide who isn't booked for other, more plentiful species.
Start by calling the Thousand Islands International Tourism Council at (315) 482-2520. Ask for a list of guides operating out of Cape Vincent, Clayton and Alexandria Bay and start dialing. The council can point out local lodging choices, too.
Would you like to catch a muskie on a fly? Or would you be thrilled just to see a big one lying in ambush in a clear river pool? Then plan to wade or float the Grasse River, one of New York's more underrated muskellunge waters.
One reason the Grasse gets overlooked is its location in northern St. Lawrence County. For most New Yorkers, that's a far piece from home, and there are other, better-known muskie fisheries along the way. Nor are Grasse River muskies notably large, for their kind. The average fish is probably a 10-pounder, although specimens three times that size are possible.
Most muskies must be promptly returned to the water after landing, because the local minimum creel length is 48 inches.
Like the Cassadaga cakes, the Grasse is well suited to a canoe or other cartop boat for about 85 of its 115 miles. Muskies are most often encountered in the 36-mile section between Canton and Massena, where you'll find numerous bridges and other put-in sites, some officially designated and others not.
Among several other interesting float trips, consider the eight-mile stretch between Canton and Morley, which has lots of 3- to 6-foot-deep runs and pools supporting walleyes, smallmouth bass and muskies.
Anglers may order a detailed description of the stretch in Fishing and Canoeing the Grasse River, a publication, available free from the DEC Region 6 office in Watertown, at (315) 785-2261.
When you make your trip, be prepared to do some wading and dragging, since the Grasse has many shallow riffles between its deep pools. And don't forget your PFD.
To get to the Grasse, take Interstate 81 to Watertown in Jefferson County, and then follow Route 11 northeast to Canton. For information on motels or other accommodations, call the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce at (315) 386-4000.