Despite some new fish diseases and some invasive species in bass water, New Yorkanglers can still enjoy some of the world's hottest bass action this season.
If you know of any state with better all-round bass fishing than New York's, please tell me where I can get a one-way airline ticket, pronto. But before I pack my bags, do me another favor. As my kids might put it, get real.
The truth is, any state reputed to have a bass resource comparable to that found right here would have smallmouths and largemouths in roughly equal abundance and of better than average size, border to border. A New York-like fishery would include not one, but two of the Great Lakes. It would feature at least a dozen rivers, several of them wadeable, with lunkers in every pool; and a cluster of deep, shimmering glacial potholes reminiscent of our fabulous Finger Lakes chain. To qualify for our league, bass-wise, a contender state would have to take in a vast, fish-rich wilderness region like the Adirondacks. Last but not least, any state worthy of the "Best for Bass" label would feature plenty of suburban waters which are so close to home that commuting anglers can get in a few casts after work.
Some states have a few of these assets, but only one has them all.
Maintaining and enhancing these natural treasures is a duty that falls to the Department of Environmental Conservation, and the job never seems to get easier. Along with traditional management problems, DEC fisheries personnel have recently struggled with tight state budgets, outbreaks of Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia and other fish diseases, and the rapid advance of round gobies and other invasive organisms through heavily used fishing holes. Yet state officials see the bass angler's glass as half full, rather than half empty, and they say New York Game & Fish readers can anticipate outstanding sport in 2011. Here's a region-by-region report:
WESTERN NEW YORK
DEC Region 9 Fisheries Manager Paul McKeown said fishermen should have a very good 2011 bass season throughout the western part of the state, and particularly in three large bodies of water which he oversees: Lake Erie, Chautauqua Lake and the Niagara River.Erie's special spring season, which begins the first Saturday in May and ends the Friday before the third Saturday in June, gives anglers a legitimate shot at catching record-class bronzebacks. During the spring event, fishermen may creel one smallmouth of 20 inches or longer, per day. Thanks to a super-abundant forage base, Erie may soon produce a bass that's even heavier than the state-record 8-pound, 4-ounce specimen caught in the lake back in 1995.
"Erie bass are growing faster than ever, thanks to the round gobies," said McKeown.
Don Einhouse, coordinator of the DEC's Lake Erie unit, confirmed that age 2 and age 3 smallmouths living in the lake are now about an inch longer, on average, than they were before gobies first showed up in the Great Lakes chain in 2000.
"Could it be just a coincidence?" he mused. "I certainly don't think so."
The incredibly prolific goby, native to western Asia, now numbers in the billions in both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, and is now the most abundant forage species in the upper St. Lawrence River, as well. Although it is notorious for eating the eggs of other fish and is too small to be sought-after by sport fishermen, it has one grace.
"Bass love to eat them," said Einhouse.
If Lake Erie is the best place to catch trophy smallmouths in the state, Chautauqua Lake and the lower Niagara River aren't far behind. Throughout the season but especially in the fall, Chautauqua rewards diligent anglers with smallies weighing up to 6 or even 7 pounds, and as a bonus also holds largemouths weighing up to 6 pounds. The Niagara between the falls and its mouth teems with 3- to 4-pounders, and occasionally is good for a 5-pound smallmouth.
Anglers who are not comfortable with big-water challenges might check out the Cassadaga Lakes, clustered south of Fredonia in Chautauqua County. McKeown said the lakes "are sort of sleepers." They hold numerous largemouths and smallmouths in the 1- to 2-pound range as well as a few larger bass. The Cassadagas (Upper, Middle and Lower) are also famous for their muskellunge fishery.
CENTRAL NEW YORK
Only in New York could the 11 bodies of water in the Finger Lakes chain be overlooked or underrated! Each of the 11 -- Canadice, Canandaigua, Cayuga, Conesus, Hemlock, Honeoye, Keuka, Otisco, Owasco, Seneca and Skaneateles -- have healthy bass populations, and all but Conesus and Honeoye are "two-story" fisheries that harbor trout in their cold depths and bass in shallower locations.
The reason the Fingers don't always get their due in the outdoor press or from ordinary anglers is their proximity to the state's biggest and most touted fishing spot, Lake Ontario.
When it comes to bass, however, Lake Ontario's future prospects are a bit unclear. According to DEC creel surveys, bass catch rates and angler-days spent targeting the species have declined significantly in recent years. Anglers used to catching 50 or more smallmouths a day at hotspots like Fair Haven and Port Bay now struggle to catch a five-bass limit.
"Gobies are definitely a major player in the fishery, but we're not sure what their role is," said DEC Region 7 fisheries boss Dan Bishop. "They could be eating bass eggs and contributing to a population decline."
Alternately, bass in Lake Ontario's eastern basin may be so stuffed with gobies that they're simply harder to catch than in the past.
Bishop is bracing for a not-too-distant day when gobies will show up in some of Central New York's best inland fisheries. Last year the species was confirmed to be present in Onondaga Lake, which is an excellent bass fishery on the outskirts of Syracuse. From Onondaga, gobies have a short swim to the Seneca River and on through the Oneida River and interconnected canals to the 51,000-acre Oneida Lake.
Anglers are reminded that state regulations forbid the transport of gobies from one water to another and also bar the use of gobies for bait, any time or anywhere.
Goby worries aside, Bishop expects outstanding smallmouth and largemouth fishing this year in Oneida Lake and all of the Finger Lakes. He also likes the Seneca River near Baldwinsville and the Susquehanna River between Binghamton and Owego.
NORTHERN NEW YORK
It's hard to imagine a bass-fishing smorgasbord more interesting or rewarding than the one that stretches from eastern Lake Ontario and the upper St Lawrence River to the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain. Northern New York f
ishery managers think the sport in their sprawling neighborhood is as good as ever, despite ongoing concerns about fish diseases and winged predators.
DEC Region 6 fisheries chief Frank Flack said smallmouth bass in the northeast corner of Lake Ontario and the Thousand Islands sector of the St. Lawrence River seem to be on the rise now that state and federal biologists have put a big dent in local cormorant flocks. The colonies on Little Galloo and other islands in the lake now host roughly one-fourth as many of the rapacious, fish-eating birds as they did in the late 1990s. Their impact on bass, perch and other species sought by anglers has dwindled accordingly, and officials do not plan to reduce the notorious flocks any further for the time being.
Region 6 wildlife manager Jim Farquhar said more aggressive action may be needed simply to maintain the status quo on the United States' side of the St. Lawrence, at least until the Province of Ontario authorizes a joint effort to control riverine cormorants.
Gobies and another invasive species, the zebra mussel, have changed the way anglers fish in the northeast corner of Lake Ontario and the Thousand Islands, Flack noted.
"The bass relish gobies, and the mussels have left the water so clear that it's often necessary these days to fish for smallmouths 40, 50, even 90 feet down," said Flack. "They're just not in the shallows much, anymore."
Shallow, near-shore spots are still a good bet for both largemouths and smallmouths in another of Flack's favorite fishing holes. Black Lake bass have thrived in the last few years, thanks to the DEC's adoption of a 15-inch minimum creel length in the mid-1990s.
Farther eastward in the state's North Country, Ray Brook-based fisheries biologist Rich Preall foresees lots of good things happening to bass anglers in 2011. Although he rates Lake Champlain as "clearly the premier bass fishery in our region," Preall recommended that fishermen pay closer attention to the seemingly countless number of bass-populated small lakes, rivers and ponds in the Adirondacks.
For example, Preall likes the Saranac River in and downstream from the village of Saranac Lake. It's rarely fished by anyone, other than locals, but is well-suited to fishing from a canoe or even by wading. A skilled angler can catch a dozen or more nice smallmouth there on a lazy summer morning, using spinners or even live nightcrawlers.
Another up-and-comer is Lake Pleasant in Hamilton County, where the smallmouth population exploded after abundant smelt spent several years chowing down on local walleye fry. Smallmouths ate the plump smelt "like mad," Preall said.
SOUTHEASTERN NEW YORK
Norm McBride, whose responsibilities as Region 4 fisheries manager include the upper Delaware River system as well as the beginnings of the mighty Susquehanna, hopes a slight relaxation of the rules pertaining to fishermen on Cannonsville Reservoir turns out to the wave of the future. The reservoir on the West Branch of the Delaware near Deposit is owned by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. Until two years ago, the DEP required anglers on all of its reservoirs in the Catskils and Hudson valley to keep boats permanently moored along the shoreline. That meant people who wanted to launch on more than one reservoir needed one boat for each lake. Now Cannonsville users can come and go freely with their permitted vessels, provided they present the craft for steam-cleaning at one of six locations prior to each launching.
"I hope it leads to more positive changes," said McBride. Meanwhile, Cannonsville holds many 3- to 5-pound smallmouths and is well worth visiting. Boat motors are still forbidden, and the DEP continues to require that anglers apply for a free recreational permit before fishing in any of the lakes, McBride stressed.
McBride's counterpart in Region 3, Mike Flaherty, said the city reservoirs are renowned for their big bass. To some degree, Flaherty feels, the good odds of connecting with a lunker can be attributed to the complicated access requirements. Many, if not most, of the anglers who fish regularly in the reservoirs in Putnam and Westchester counties without motors also disdain electronic depth-finders and other modern fishing aids. Good shore fishing is also available at most of the city reservoirs. For a brief rundown on DEP rules, turn to page 36 of the 2010-11 edition of the DEC's "Freshwater Fishing" guide book. It's handed out with each purchased fishing license.
One cannot write honestly about New York's best bass fishing without offering at least a small bow in the direction of Long Island. DEC Region 1 fisheries leader Charles "Chart" Guthrie says at least a couple of the waters under his jurisdiction "merit a special trip" by anglers from other parts of the state.
"The best we have on the Island is the Peconic River, particularly a 120-acre impoundment on it known as Forge Pond," he said. "Six-pound largemouths are not uncommon there." Be advised that it's a carry-in launch.
Another good one to visit is Lake Ronkonkoma, where the DEC has supplemented the bass fishery with a successful introduction of walleyes, Guthrie said.