Photo by Jeff Knapp
The loud click of the trolling reel interrupted the steady, tranquilizing hum of the four-stroke kicker motor. The boat had just entered the deeper open water off Chautauqua Lake’s “Big Bar,” and we knew there was little to no chance the lure had snagged bottom.
Jumping from his seat, Harry Marfin announced, “It’s a fish!” and grabbed the rod out of its holder.
A few minutes later a fat 43-inch muskie was in the bag of the oversized Beckman net.
It was the second fish of the day: A couple hours earlier we had boated a 42-inch muskie near Whitney Bay. Two 40-inch-plus ‘lunge caught and released in a few hours of fishing is not a bad way to spend a late-summer afternoon.
But so it goes on New York’s Chautauqua Lake, a fabled Empire State muskie fishery. The lake has had its ups and downs in recent years, but it is currently ranked among the highest quality muskie waters in the country.
Chautauqua Lake is not only popular with local anglers, it attracts folks from nearby states and Canada as well. It is also a major muskie tournament site. The lake provided a record-setting event when the Professional Muskie Tournament Trail held its annual championship there last fall. Despite poor weather, the field of 50 anglers caught a record 46 muskies during the two-day event. The Ohio-based winning team of Kevin Sellers and Mike Money boated seven fish. Included in their catch was a 47.5-inch muskie. Both the tournament total and winning catch set all-time PMTT records.
In southwestern New York, Chautauqua is a natural lake covering 13,181 surface acres. The lake lies in a north-to-south setting stretching over 17 miles. Its average width is about 1 1/2 miles. The lake is divided into two major basins, with the narrows at Stow/Bemus Point providing the dividing line between the two.
Though roughly equal in size, the northern and southern basins have little else in common physically. The southern basin is quite shallow and dishpan shaped. It has an average depth of 11 feet and a maximum depth of 20 feet. A few shallow humps exist at the southern extremity of the lake. A scattering of major shoreline points adds to the structure. The water in the southern basin tends to be darker in color.
Chautauqua’s northern basin is much deeper, with a maximum depth of 81 feet and an average depth of 26 feet. The water is significantly clearer here. Weed growth is a significant factor in fish location; weed control plays into the angling game plan. Chemical treatment and mechanical harvesters are used for weed control on a controlled basis.
Numerous bays and points dot the shoreline of the upper lake. Aquatic vegetation is abundant in both the upper and lower sections of the lake, with deeper weed lines in the clearer water of the northern basin. The shorelines of the northern and southern portions of the lake are highly developed with cottages, homes and marinas. Recreational boating traffic can be heavy, particularly during summer weekends.
A wide range of species lure anglers to Chautauqua including crappies, walleyes, largemouth and smallmouth bass, but it’s muskies that many fishermen associate with Chautauqua Lake.
Native muskies thrilled Chautauqua’s sport anglers during much of the early and middle portions of the 20th century. Eventually, however, the lake began paying the price of overharvest and habitat destruction. Muskie numbers plummeted as natural reproduction rates fell. “Red spot disease,” an often-lethal infection experienced by members of the Esox family, also had a significant negative impact.
During the early 1990s, the muskie picture began taking a more positive swing. Changes were made to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s stocking practices (the DEC has a muskie hatchery on the lake at Predergast Point). Protection was given to the lake’s better spawning habitat. These factors, coupled with a 40-inch minimum length limit, have helped initiate the healing process of Chautauqua’s muskie fishery.
Fisheries managers of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation estimate that nearly 75 percent of the lake’s muskies are a result of stocking efforts. Paul McKeown, a fisheries biologist for the agency’s District 9 office, said modifications in the way muskies are raised is a major factor in the survival of stocked muskies.
Raised on dry fish food, young muskies are transferred to outdoor ponds in September and switched over to live minnows. McKeown referred to these fish as “finished” muskies, and typically they average about 8 inches in length. The biologist also noted that in recent years hatchery managers have been able to hold the fish even longer, thanks to the involvement of the Chautauqua Muskie Hunters. This conservation-minded local fishing club has been providing additional funding that allows the DEC to purchase more minnows so fingerlings can remain in the rearing ponds longer.
“These contributions have helped immensely,” McKeown noted. “The cost of minnows is a limiting factor in how long we can hold these muskies before they are stocked. The added time in the ponds has raised the average length of the muskie fingerlings to 9 inches. The bigger the fish are prior to stocking, the higher the rate of survival.”
Regarding the present status of the lake’s muskie population, McKeown said the fishery is right on track.
“We monitor the muskie population each year by tabulating the fish we collect for brood stock,” McKeown explained. “We are right about where we want to be, which is an average of 30 muskies for each of our nine trap nets. It’s been that way for several years now. I feel confident the lake’s muskie fishery is a healthy one.”
The mainstay of the Chautauqua muskie fishery is its excellent numbers of fish in the 40- to 45-inch range. But the lake also provides the chance for a 50-inch fish, a significant milestone for many muskie anglers. McKeown said the largest muskie collected by trap nets measured 56 inches. Each year, however, fish in the 52- to 53-inch range find their way into the DEC’s nets. McKeown estimated these fish to be approximately 20 years of age and weigh about 35 pounds.
Chautauqua’s forage situation has changed in recent years. Gizzard shad, which had illegally been introduced into the lake
, were a significant food fish for several seasons. McKeown noted that shad have been absent the past few years.
“We are at the northern limit of the range of gizzard shad,” the biologist explained. “The species experiences a high die-off in cold water. A severe winter a few years ago appears to have completely wiped out the shad. We haven’t seen them for some time.”
Though gizzard shad are now absent, the unauthorized introduction of another non-native species, the white perch, is also impacting the lake. McKeown said white perch can also be blamed for lower walleye numbers because of direct predation on young walleyes. However, on the positive side, it’s likely that muskies feed on white perch. Like the gizzard shad, the white perch is pelagic in nature, spending most of its time in open water. Juvenile yellow perch, crappies and suckers round out the food species most important to muskies in Chautauqua.
Chautauqua is a muskie angler’s dream, offering opportunities for casting and trolling. Both methods are highly popular on the lake. A recently conducted DEC survey suggests that larger muskies tend to use the open-water zones of the lake more, while smaller fish relate heavily to the weedbeds.
Feeling the strike of a muskie on a cast bait is indeed a thrill, but if you want to increase your chances of taking one of the lake’s bigger fish, the odds favor the angler who spends time trolling open water.
Trolling and casting are popular on Chautauqua Lake, but it’s likely that more anglers favor the former method. Trolling is an efficient way of covering the water. Though many muskie hunters may be reluctant to admit it, it’s also a less strenuous way of fishing. Heaving heavy muskie lures for hours on end is physically demanding, to say the least.
Harry Marfin, president of the Three Rivers Chapter of Muskies Inc., is a seasoned muskie angler who fishes many of the region’s better waters each year, Chautauqua included. Marfin said he had no preference regarding which basin of the lake he preferred.
“Both ends of the lake will produce fish,” he said. “My favorite is the one that’s producing best when I am there. I treat the south end and the north end as two different lakes. The south end is shallower and darker, while the north end is deeper and clearer.”
Though casting plays a part in Marfin’s game plan, most of his time is spent behind the wheel of his 18-foot Sylvan as he plies the water with trolled crankbaits.
His first consideration, regardless of the basin he’s fishing, is locating areas that hold bait, though his experience shows he catches most of his muskies away from huge schools of baitfish.
Fisheries managers of the New York Department of
Environmental Conservation estimate that nearly 75 percent of the lake’s muskies are a result of stocking efforts.
“On the southern portion of the lake, I’ll start by fishing from the Route 17 bridge toward Smith Boys’ marina near Ashville Bay,” Marfin said. “Then I troll across the lake and head toward the ‘red barn,’ and then turn and head back toward the bridge again, making a big triangle. The whole time I look for baitfish, though I’ve found that most of my muskies are caught when there are no baitfish showing up on the sonar.
“I think the odds are better either before entering or leaving the baitfish schools. When a shad or perch is in a school, he is one of a thousand, but when he is outside the school of bait, he is easy prey and the muskie’s choice.
“Also, when you run through the bait, the school will scatter and then ball back up, but by then your lures are still outside the group.”
As Marfin makes his trolling passes, he drops event markers (icons) on the GPS side of his Lowrance sonar. This gives him a better picture of where the bait is for subsequent passes.
The biggest factor in terms of how he fishes the two lakes is in the depths he targets. When fishing in shallow water, Marfin runs his lures closer to the boat.
“I like to fish the south end with crankbaits from 10 to 40 feet back,” he said. “I’ll start off with the short lines first, and then go progressively longer if I’m not catching anything. I’ll troll anywhere from 3.5 to 5 mph. I start off fast and then slow down until I find the speed the fish are looking for.
“It’s important to keep an open mind and keep trying different speeds, line lengths and lure sizes. Color can be a factor, but I think other things make a bigger difference. Crankbaits are my choice, but I know other fishermen who catch just as many muskies as I do on other brands of lures. The point is to use your favorite lures because they give you confidence and they will work.”
In the south basin of the lake, which features shallow water, it’s fairly simple to cover the water column from top to bottom and be confident your lure is within striking distance of a muskie.
Things become a bit more complicated on the northern portion of the lake, which features much greater depths. The lure types Marfin chooses for this area, models that dive deep, illustrate this.
“I work the deeper water with deep divers that I have confidence in more than a particular brand. During a one-week stint on Chautauqua early last September, I had the paint chewed off of a 606 Crane bait, which is another deep diver and a definite confidence lure.
“I fish from Predergrast Point north toward Mayville,” Marfin continued. “I then cross the lake, and work my way back down the other side. I try to keep the boat in the 35-foot zone, but again, finding pods of bait is a key. The more baitfish schools you can find, the better.
“I try to keep one lure above the bait and another below it. Usually this calls for line lengths of anywhere from 40 to 100 feet with the deep divers I use. I eventually catch them, but it is called ‘fishing’ for a reason. You won’t always catch a muskie, so don’t get discouraged. Just keep trying.”
The shoreline areas Marfin spoke of contain a wealth of muskie habitat. On the west side of the lake is Tom’s Point, Whitney Bay, Prendergast Point, Bell Tower Point, Irwins Bay and Lighthouse Point.
Rimming the northern end of the lake is an extensive weed flat often called the Mayville Flats. Trolling back down the east shore will put you past Point Chautauqua, upper and lower Dewittville Bay, Whitesides Point, Sunset Bay, Big Bar, Long Point and Bemus Bay.
During a recent September trip, I took several muskies by trolling the open-water areas off the weed lines of the larger bays and points in the northern portion of the lake.
calls for long (8- foot or longer) medium- to medium-heavy trolling rods coupled with line counter reels. Solid rod holders are needed to secure rods while trolling typically large muskie plugs.
Casters will contact fish by working the tops and edges of the weedbeds with bucktails and minnow-imitating baits. Most if not all of the bays and points mentioned earlier contain good weed cover.
Other good casting targets are the lake’s many boat docks. Many a hefty muskie has startled a bass angler skipping jigs under docks.
Good public boat access may be had at Bemus Point, Long Point State Park and Prendergast Point. Fishing maps may be obtained from Fishing Hotspots at (800) ALL-MAPS.
A wealth of information on Chautauqua Lake may be obtained from the
www.tourchautauqua.com Web site.
RELEASE FISH CAREFULLY
Keep in mind that muskies are particularly vulnerable to succumbing from the stresses related to being caught, especially during the warm periods of late summer. Successful releases are dependent on minimizing the many stresses involved. The duration of the fight should be kept as short as possible. Avoid playing a fish to exhaustion. Proper muskie tackle is usually heavy enough to keep battle times to a minimum.
All muskie anglers should carry with them the tools to safely and efficiently remove the hooks from a muskie. This includes long-nosed pliers, mini bolt cutters, such as a Knipex, and jaw spreaders.
Large landing nets specifically designed for catch-and-release fishing serve as in-the-water livewells where the hooks may be removed or cut without taking the fish from the water.