New York State fisheries biologists are willing to take on the challenge of healing a sick lake or stream, and they've accomplished that feat many times over the years, by traditional fish stockings, the introduction of unfamiliar game fish to suitable habitats and the drafting of special angling regulations. Yet as often as not, the best thing a fish scientist can do is nothing at all. A recent case in point was the DEC's response to angler complaints about declining fishing in Arnold Lake, a small but popular body of water in Otsego County which holds smallmouth bass and a variety of panfish. The grumblers blamed ice fishermen, who allegedly were depleting the 64-acre lake.
DEC Region 4 Fisheries Manager Norm McBride dispatched a survey crew to take the pulse of the lake. The investigators found good numbers of smallmouth bass and chain pickerel as well as abundant bluegills, pumpkinseeds and rock bass. About half of the panfish were so large that many anglers would be inclined to put them on their stringers. McBride decided Arnold Lake was not being depleted by ice fishermen or anything else and therefore did not need a new management plan. As the adage goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Of course, fisheries biologists have some bigger issues than local complaints on their plates. They're wrestling with foreign invaders, including zebra mussels and round gobies, which so far have been a mixed bag for New York bass waters. They also spend considerable effort on controlling cormorants, the water birds that consume tons of smallmouths annually in the St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario and Oneida Lake, among other feeding grounds. And state workers dot the proverbial "i's" and cross the "t's" by making exceptions to standard creel limits when such changes are deemed beneficial for certain lakes or streams.
Combine sound management practices with rich natural resources and you just might wind up with some of the best bass fishing in the nation. Read on for a statewide preview of the 2012 season, with a word here and there from the professionals who deserve part of the credit when the fishing is good.
WESTERN NEW YORK
Mike Clancy, the DEC's Region 9 fisheries manager, said Chautauqua Lake is a great smallmouth bass fishery that seems to be getting even better. His staff conducts an annual survey of the lake and always collects plenty of jumbo bronzebacks.
"It's just phenomenal," he declared. Five-pound smallmouths turn up regularly in the state's sampling nets, and are apt to latch onto angler's lures, too, especially in the autumn months, when lower temperatures concentrate bait and during the first half of June, when bass are on or near their spawning beds and must be turned loose after landing.
Chautauqua is one of Western New York's best-known bass fisheries, along with Lake Erie and the Niagara River, but Clancy also touts the potential of two of his region's smaller waters. Netters who visited Cuba Lake last summer captured many nice smallmouths, and biologists were thrilled by their capture of a 22-incher in little Findley Lake, a honey hole located southwest of Sherman, near the Pennsylvania border.
And keep in mind that Silver Lake in Wyoming County has robust populations of both largemouths and smallmouths, Clancy added.
In neighboring Region 8, last fall the DEC's goal was to expand opportunities when the agency eased access for anglers at Honeoye Lake, an underrated gem in western Ontario County. After consulting with the public, as well as regional fisheries personnel, the state agency's operations division temporarily closed the boat launch off East Lake Road in order to revamp the facility. Biologist Pete Austerman said he expected contractors to finish the work by early January. A wider launch area and expanded parking highlighted the DEC's "to do" list for Honeoye, which has a dense population of largemouths that occasionally grow to weigh 5 or even 6 pounds.
In truth, most of the Finger Lakes which fall under the purview of Region 8 provide excellent bass fishing opportunities. Readers should resolve to try Seneca, Canandaigua, Conesus and Keuka lakes this year, if they haven't already made their acquaintance.
CENTRAL NEW YORK
Just 10 anglers turned in the logbooks they kept pertaining to their bass-fishing forays on Otisco Lake in 2010, but their reports could have a significant impact on the management of that fishery. Solid catch rates tell Region 7 Fisheries Manager Dave Lemon and his colleagues that bass in Otisco, the easternmost lake in the Finger Lakes chain, are in good health and do not need to be protected by special regulations.
The cohort of Otisco fishermen who jotted down data for the DEC's Finger Lakes Angler Diary Program in 2010 reported landing a total of 207 smallmouths and 114 largemouths during the year. Roughly half of the bass caught were legal keepers — 12 inches or longer — but only three were actually creeled. The biggest largemouth and smallmouth caught by diary program participants were both 20 inches long.
By far the most controversial issue debated among Syracuse-area anglers is the management of bass in Oneida Lake. For several years, fishermen in most other areas of the state have been permitted to target bass on a catch-and-release basis between the end of the regular bass season (Nov. 30) and the start of the following regular season, on the third Saturday in June. However, Oneida Lake has been closed to all bass fishing, even the no-kill variation, between Nov. 30 and the Friday before the first Saturday in May. The state okayed the Oneida Lake exception largely at the behest of the politically powerful Oneida Lake Association, whose board of directors feels spring fishing for bass could provide cover for walleye poachers. The state's only walleye hatchery, which provides millions of fry and fingerlings annually, is located on the north shore of the lake in Scriba, so the dispute is far from trivial.
DEC Region 7 fisheries manager Dave Lemon thinks it is time to deal with the issue by putting Oneida Lake under statewide rules for bass beginning in October, 2012. He said there is no valid scientific basis for the OLA's concerns. Many fishermen pursue and fillet countless Oneida Lake yellow perch and black crappies in the weeks preceding walleye season, Lemon pointed out.
"Why aren't people worried about pan fishermen poaching walleyes?" he said, and answered his own question. "They don't threaten the fishery, that's why, and neither will a few bass fishermen who have to let their catch go anyway."
Regardless of the rules in effect on the lake, Oneida is undeniably one of the state's top bass fisheries, and fertile enough in recent years to attract regular big-money tournaments staged by the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.).
Otisco could be in the same class, if not for its small size and limited accessibility. Nor should Central-region lunker-lovers pass up any chance to target the other lakes at the east end of the Finger Lakes chain — namely Cayuga, Owasco and Skaneateles lakes.
Lemon said the DEC had to postpone the second round of an inquiry into the status of the smallmouth bass population in the Southern Tier stretch of the Susquehanna River in 2011. A devastating late-summer flood put much of Binghamton under water and forced biologists to "wait 'til next year," as Brooklyn Dodgers fans used to say each October.
NORTHERN NEW YORK
Like most DEC biologists, Rich Preall is an avid sportsman, and last summer Preall had the special pleasure of doing a scientific sampling of Middle Saranac Lake. It so happens that Preall, a senior aquatic biologist for Region 5 in Ray Brook, lives in the village of Saranac Lake. Middle Saranac, one of Preall's favorite fishing spots, is part of the Saranac Chain of Lakes in Franklin County. It's a short walk and a 45-minute boat ride from his house, via two locks.
Preall and a couple of Region 5 fish and wildlife technicians studied Middle Saranac for two reasons. First, they wanted to evaluate its suitability for walleye stocking; and second, they needed to collect mercury-level readings as part of a more comprehensive analysis of mercury levels in Adirondack fisheries.
The fish population in Middle Saranac Lake is so impressive that Preall dropped a tentative proposal for walleye stocking. Although the habitat is good, any juvenile walleyes put in the lake would find the swimming to be extremely risky, since the place is "loaded" with predators already.
"The biggest surprise was the yellow perch," Preall said. Perch of 12- to 14 inches were thriving. And smallmouth bass were "abundant" at every netting site visited by the DEC boats. The bronzebacks averaged about a pound and a half, or about 14 to 15 inches.
"I think any walleyes we put in there would be consumed before too long," Preall concluded.
Another interesting investigation is considering the impact of tournament bass fishing on one of Northern New York's most popular angling destinations. The "Lake Champlain Bass Tournament Dispersal Study" is designed to answer the query so often uttered at tourney weigh-in sites: "Where do the bass go after they're set free?"
The study is proceeding under the auspices of the Lake Champlain Research Institute and Lake Champlain Sea Grant at SUNY Plattsburgh, with cooperation and support from the DEC. It involves the marking of approximately 1,600 bass with external plastic tags at tourney weigh-ins held in Plattsburgh during 2011 and 2012. Another 50 bass are to be implanted with radio transmitters to help researchers track their post-weigh-in wandering.
Preliminary data gleaned from the capture of 21 tagged bass by anglers indicates a majority have not strayed far from tournament weigh stations. Most tagged fish caught to date were hooked in Cumberland Bay, off Plattsburgh.
Northern New York boasts dozens of lakes and rivers worthy of any bass angler's attention. In addition to the Saranac chain and Lake Champlain, the region's better spots include the upper St. Lawrence River, Lake George and Tupper Lake.
SOUTHEASTERN NEW YORK
One measure of the sport that's available to anglers in the Catskills and metro New York City regions is the annual Southern New York Fishing Derby, whose winners and runners-up put one impressive fish statistic after another on the scoreboard maintained by contest coordinator Jack Stewart of Carmel.
Merely to qualify for a monthly prize, a largemouth bass entered in the event must be at least 20 inches long, and the minimum for a smallmouth is 18 inches. Minimums for trout and panfish are jaw-droppers, too, but that's fodder for another story.
Some of the state's most challenging yet rewarding bass fishing awaits anglers on Long Island. Yes, island fisheries are crowded and access can be difficult in some cases. However, who wouldn't go the extra mile or two on the Long Island Expressway to have a crack at a 5- or 6-pound bucketmouth?
Chart Guthrie, the DEC's Long Island fisheries boss, has tinkered with regulations in recent years to give maximum sporting opportunities and necessary protection to the area's heavily pressured lakes and ponds. Last year, for example, he did away with a special 15-inch minimum creel length for bass in Fort Pond and Lake Ronkonkoma, and put both bodies of water under the island-wide standards, including a 12-inch minimum length and catch-and-release fishing from Dec. 1 through April 30.
Guthrie rates Forge Pond, an impoundment on the Peconic River, as Long Island's top bass fishery.
"Overall, bass fishing on the island is really quite good," he said.