June 21, 2021
By Joseph Albanese
Note: This article was featured in the East edition of May’s Game & Fish Magazine. Subscribe Now
New York’s Finger Lakes are a gem in any season, but late spring is an exceptionally good time to wet a line. Longer daylight hours have spurred the urge to feed in the lakes’ many gamefish species, and cool water temperatures keep fish in the shallows. This combination of factors translates into some of the most exciting angling of the year.
While the Finger Lakes may be grouped geographically, each has its own unique personality. Many hold healthy populations of trout and salmon, which are most often targeted using trolling techniques in the open-water season.
Cayuga Lake is a top producer of quality salmon and brown trout. Seneca is known as the "Lake Trout Capital of the World" for good reason. Keuka holds rainbows, browns and landlocked salmon.
But some of the lakes are two-story fisheries, containing cold- and warm-water species. As such, they offer unique angling opportunities.
This clear, cold lake supports a healthy population of naturally reproducing lake trout. Rainbow trout and landlocked Atlantic salmon are also present, though the illegal introduction of walleye has curtailed the latter. Smallmouth and largemouth bass also swim here, but they tend to play second fiddle to the excellent yellow perch fishery.
Unlike others in the chain, Skaneateles lacks a large forage base. This can make it tough to fish, but it can be very rewarding once you get it dialed in. Skaneateles means "long lake" in one of the local Iroquoian languages, and at 16 miles in length it certainly lives up to that moniker. With 315 feet of depth for fish to roam, they can be tough to locate. Local guide Mike Crawford of Upstate Guide Service (315-283-8871; upstateguideservice.com) has Skaneateles figured out, targeting trophy rainbows and lakers with fly gear and light tackle.
Trout are shallow through June, says Crawford, and while many guides troll to cover ground, he prefers the more hands-on approach light tackle offers. Vertical jigging with baits such as Swedish Pimples can be very productive, as can drop-shot rigs. To be successful with these techniques, you first have to find the bait, which means relying on your electronics. Fly anglers can also get in on this action, especially when an evening hatch brings rainbows to the surface.
The easternmost of the Finger Lakes, Otisco offers an interesting walleye fishery. Most of the year, Otisco's walleyes prove to be elusive, despite the lake's smaller size giving them less room to hide. An abundant alewife population keeps them fat and happy, with little need to chase down bait. But in the early spring, hungry walleyes hit the shallows, eagerly swallowing up anything they can.
"From dusk to dawn in early May, you can find walleyes right along the edge of Otisco," says Finger Lakes native Tom Cunningham, who has been fishing the region since he was a boy.
Walleyes use their large eyes to their advantage, hunting in the skinny water throughout the night. Starting the first Saturday in May, anglers don waders and slip into the lake as the sun sets, casting their lures in the dark. Stickbaits such as Storm Thunder Sticks and classic Rapalas are top producers.
Tiger muskies call Otisco home, too, and the opener—also the first Saturday in May—is one of the best times to target them. Your best shot at a trophy tiger is in the weed beds at the north and south ends, which shouldn’t be too thick at that time of year.
Concentrate your efforts at likely ambush points, throwing swimbaits, crankbaits or spinners in the 5- to 8-inch range in natural color patterns. Though tiger muskies are known as the fish of 10,000 casts, you can hit the water with confidence knowing that Otisco Lake is one of the best waters in the state for the muskellunge-and-pike hybrid.
Honeoye Lake lies on the western edge of the Finger Lakes region. Though it is one of the smaller and shallower water bodies, it produces outsize northern pike and largemouth and smallmouth bass. Other available species include walleyes, chain pickerel, black crappies, bluegills and yellow perch. Water temperatures in the summer regularly exceed 75 degrees, which precludes the survival of trout and other cold-water species but provides an ideal environment for members of the sunfish clan. Honeoye only reaches a depth of 30 feet and features an abundance of eelgrass, pondweed, Eurasian milfoil and water stargrass, providing plenty of habitat for bass and panfish.
Bass fishing is catch-and-release-only through the spring, but Mike Fiorentino of Sweet Melissa Charters (585-905-6252; sweetmelissacharters.com) says early is better for hook-ups
"Honeoye is very weedy. The spring offers some of the best fishing because of the limited weed cover," he says.
Traditional spring favorites such as suspending jerkbaits, jigs and soft plastics work well.
Some of the best northern pike fishing of the year runs well into June. After the spawn has concluded, the streamlined predators look to pack on some pounds. You can find them ambushing baitfish on the edge of whatever weeds are present. Use large swimbaits, crankbaits or topwater plugs to score.
IF YOU GO
The Finger Lakes are home to a wide range of accommodations, from five-star resorts to rustic campgrounds. If all-out pampering is the order of the day for you or your significant other, Geneva On the Lake (315-789-7190; genevaonthelake.com) offers in-room massage services while you gaze out onto Seneca Lake. Mirbeau Inn & Spa (877-647-2328; mirbeau.com/skaneateles) is a stone’s throw from Skaneateles Lake and offers everything you could want in a relaxing getaway. If your taste in lodging isn’t so exorbitant, there are plenty of bed-and-breakfasts and affordable motels.
If camping is more your style, check out Letchworth and Watkins Glen state parks. Letchworth is known as the "Grand Canyon of the East,” and offers stunning views of the Genesee River as it plunges over three major waterfalls. Watkins Glen also delivers mesmerizing views, with 19 waterfalls over 2 miles of river.
It’s hard to beat a great meal served on the water, and Lakeside Vista (315-636-1083; lakesidevista.com) on Otisco Lake does so without breaking the bank. Its selection of finger foods, burgers and salads is sure to please most anyone. Mill Creek Café (585-229-2620; millcreekcafe.com) in Honeoye serves up favorites made with local meats and produce. The Sand Bar (585-394-7800; lakehousecanandaigua.com) offers the ideal location to watch the sun set while sipping a local wine or beer and enjoying your favorite pub food.
The Finger Lakes region is famous for its many wineries. Keuka Spring Vineyards (315-536-3147; keukaspringwinery.com) offers a tasting room overlooking the east side of Keuka Lake, letting you drink in some of the best views of the Finger Lakes to go along with their complete selection of wines. Lakeshore Winery (315-549-7075; lakeshorewinery.com) is one of the oldest on Cayuga Lake, offering an educational tasting room experience right on the water. Beer lovers aren’t left out to dry, either, with local breweries like the Finger Lakes Beer Company (607-569-3311; fingerlakesbeercompany.com), Lucky Hare Brewing Company (607-546-2036; luckyharebrewing.com) and others offering excellent craft selections.