Here's a look at what's in store for Empire State bass anglers in 2006. (May 2006)
Not infrequently, some sportsman's organization complains about all the money the New York Department of Environmental Conservation spends to rear trout, salmon and walleyes in the state hatchery system and urges that they use some of that cash to raise bass instead. However, there's a good reason why the DEC doesn't stock Empire State lakes and rivers with bass -- it doesn't have to.
In fact, our bass lakes, rivers and ponds are in such robust health that state biologists have no qualms about opening the vast majority of them to year-round angling. As this May issue of New York Game & Fish went to press, the DEC was into a last round of public comments on a proposed regulatory change to permit catch-and-release fishing for bass, using artificials only, outside the current bass season running from the third Saturday in June through Nov. 1. If approved, the regulation would take effect Oct. 1, 2006.
Historically, the state has frowned on bass fishing, even on a no-kill basis, during the closed season. That stricture was based on the belief that bass needed protection from angling during their late-spring spawning season. In particular, state biologists generally believed that when male bass were removed from their guard posts near newly hatched fry, rapacious bluegills and other fish would quickly move in and consume the helpless youngsters.
It turns out that the prohibition against between-seasons bass fishing might have been superfluous. Doug Stang, chief of the DEC's Bureau of Fisheries, said the mid- or late-June start date contained in existing state law "did not really protect bass from exploitation as much as we thought it did.
"Recent research shows that spawning is still occurring in many lakes when the season opens," he added. "And yet, we still have pretty darned good bass fishing. So, maybe allowing fishing during the spawning period is not as detrimental as we once thought."
The DEC decided to consider the feasibility of off-season, catch-and-release bass fishing at the behest of many bass clubs and individuals.
Ultimately, Stang signed off on the concept in most state waters, but not all.
"We left out the tidal portion of the Hudson River, because we've known for some time it has very little spawning habitat and therefore limited recruitment," Stang said. "Other exempted areas include Long Island and New York City, where many special regulations are already on the books; and the bass waters in Jefferson, St. Lawrence, Franklin and Hamilton counties in the northern part of the state."
Among the Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties' waters that definitely won't have year-round catch-and-release bass fishing in the near future are the northeast portion of Lake Ontario and the Thousand Islands section of the St. Lawrence River. DEC Region 6 biologists are concerned about continued predation on young bass by flocks of diving cormorants and the potential impact of the recently arrived round goby on the food chain in the big lake and the upper St. Lawrence.
Bass waters in Franklin and Hamilton counties were exempted from the statewide catch-and-release rule because biologists in the Region 5 office felt the many small lakes in that part of the state would be too vulnerable to depletion if spring and early summer bass fishing was permitted.
Finally, the new regulations include an interesting loophole for Lake Erie, where a spring trophy season has been in place since the mid-1990s. Starting this fall, catch-and-release bass fishing will be allowed on Lake Erie from Dec. 1 to the Friday before the first Saturday in May. From the first Saturday in May through the Friday before the third Saturday in June, Erie anglers will be able to keep one bass of 20 inches or longer per day. Previously, any bass 15 inches or longer could qualify as a keeper during Erie's special spring season.
"We decided we wanted to be a little more restrictive in Lake Erie because we're concerned about the possible impact of round gobies on that fishery," Stang said.
Gobies are an invasive species, native to central Asia. They've spread steadily eastward through the Great Lakes system after arriving in Michigan's Lake St. Clair in 1990. Bass relish them, but they relish bass eggs in return, and some experts fear gobies may be capable of wiping out whole year-classes of game fish.
State officials can't eradicate gobies, but do believe they can control them the same way they manage bass fisheries in most instances -- through regulations and public education. Anglers have been barred from using gobies for bait or transporting them from one water to another for several years, and warning signs have been posted in tackle shops and marinas in Great Lakes shoreline communities.
While fishermen should heed those signs, they also might want to keep the gobie in perspective. The little fish are worrisome because of their rapid proliferation, but they're just the latest in a series of foreign invaders -- zebra mussels, Quagga mussels, ruffe and others -- that have threatened to upset the ecologies of New Yorkers' favorite fishing holes. So far, the newcomers have impacted many lakes, but have destroyed none.
Following is a region-by-region update on what the state's bass managers have been up to, along with their picks for hot fishing in 2006.
WESTERN-CENTRAL NEW YORK
One way DEC Region 9 fisheries managers evaluate fishing holes in the state's western counties is to do a little fishing themselves, with nets and electro-shocking gear. In 2004, Region 9 senior aquatic biologist Joe Evans and his colleagues sampled fish populations in Rushford Lake and Chautauqua Lake. The former is a 585-acre impoundment in northwestern Allegany County; the latter a famed 13,000-acre honeyhole in Chautauqua County at Jamestown.
Although the data are still being compiled, Evans said the latest sampling confirms that Rushford "is a pretty good smallmouth bass lake, with very few largemouths." Net catch rates and bass growth rates in Rushford Lake are above average by New York standards.
"The bass there grow pretty fast because the lake has annual draw-downs of 30 to 40 feet, which concentrates forage species and results in easy feeding for several months a year," Evans said.
The size and numbers of smallmouth impressed DEC crews, who electro-shocked Chautauqua Lake in October. Some of the smallmouths collected during the survey weighed between 6 and 7 pounds. If the largest hen smallies in the lake were to be caught in June before they had laid their eggs, Evans mused, they might challenge the current state-record br
onzeback, an 8-pound, 4-ounce porker yanked from Lake Erie in the 1990s.
"We saw several strong year-classes of smallmouths in the sample," he said.
Region 9 boasts several excellent bass waters in addition to Rushford and Chautauqua. Among the best are Silver Lake in Wyoming County, which is noted for good-sized smallmouths; Red House Lake in Allegany State Park, a home to lunker largemouths; and the Niagara River, where 50-bass days are common above and below the falls.
The Finger Lakes, perhaps New York's most underrated fisheries, are divided among DEC regions 8 and 7. Bill Abraham, retired Region 8 fisheries manager, deserves credit for getting the catch-and-release season concept rolling. One of his last acts on the job was to establish a no-kill spring bass season in the Finger Lakes that were under his jurisdiction. Those lakes -- Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye, Canandaigua, Keuka and Seneca -- are open to catch-and-release bass fishing again this spring from May 6 through June 16, the day before the statewide season opens.
Dan Bishop, Region 7 fisheries manager, oversees the rest of the Finger Lakes -- Cayuga, Skaneateles, Owasco and Otisco). He rates all four as among the best bass waters in the central part of the state.
"The minimum creel length for Skaneateles Lake bass, which had been 10 inches, will go to the state-standard 12 inches in October 2006," Bishop noted. "That's because bass 12 inches and longer are increasingly common there. It's a great place to catch smallmouths now, including many 14- and 15-inchers."
Cayuga Lake, south of Seneca Falls, is stuffed with largemouths at its north end and smallmouths elsewhere, Bishop said.
The Region 7 manager's looming concern is the goby, and what it might do to inland fisheries if anglers don't obey the prohibition against transporting the little pest from place to place.
"So far it's working, but it may be just a matter of time before somebody introduces them to our inland lakes," he said.
Most worrisome, perhaps, is the prospect of gobies becoming established in Oneida Lake, the 51,000-acre favorite of bass and walleye anglers north of Syracuse. The burgeoning smallmouth population in Oneida Lake would undoubtedly fatten up on gobies, but the little fish might exact a measure of revenge by consuming intolerable numbers of bass eggs, Bishop fears. Meanwhile, Oneida Lake as well as the connected Oneida, Oswego and Seneca rivers offer some of the state's best smallmouth angling.
NORTHERN NEW YORK
The upper St. Lawrence River and the sector of Lake Ontario around Henderson Harbor happen to be two of New York's most popular bass-fishing destinations. The fact that both were exempted from the statewide catch-and-release proposal demonstrates the degree of regulatory autonomy that DEC higher-ups grant to regional resource managers.
Frank Flack, Region 6 fisheries manager, stood firm against year-round bass fishing in the Thousand Islands and Henderson Harbor, because he and his staff are convinced that smallmouths in those waters are already under extra pressure from cormorants and invading gobies.
Cormorant control is the No. 1 management priority on the upper St. Lawrence and eastern Lake Ontario at this time, Flack said. The good news is, recent efforts to limit cormorant reproduction by oiling eggs and killing excess birds on Galloo Island and other nesting sites have proven effective. In particular, cormorant flocks in the Henderson Harbor area have been reduced by more than half. The bad news is that gobies are breeding so rapidly and will soon become a key link in the regional food chain.
"We really don't know, yet, what their ultimate impact will be," said Flack.
The DEC Region 5 fisheries staff convinced Stang and other agency leaders to keep lakes in Franklin and Hamilton counties out of the catch-and-release package, on grounds that those North Country waters are less fertile and have shorter growing seasons than their counterparts in the state's western and southeastern sectors. Further, said Rich Preall, a Region 5 biologist, because spawning starts later in the Adirondacks than in more southerly areas, the region's bass are already heavily pressured on their nests and could be harmed by further attention in May and early June.
Many northern New York lakes have superb populations of bass. In June, 2005, Preall and colleagues sampled Lower Saranac Lake in Franklin County for walleyes. During three nights of electro-shocking, they collected only one walleye but hundreds of smallmouths, including many 2- and 3-pounders.
For largemouth action, Preall also recommends Little Tupper Lake in the Whitney Wilderness Area in Franklin County. Several years ago, unidentified persons illegally introduced bass to Little Tupper, known for its heritage strain of brook trout. Since then, trout numbers have declined while 1- to 3-pound bucketmouths have become commonplace.
Flack's regional favorites for smallmouths and largemouths include Black Lake in western St. Lawrence County, and any of the large river systems in the state's northern tier of counties, including the Oswegatchie River below Cranberry Lake, the Indian River in Jefferson County and the Mohawk River and state Barge Canal in Herkimer County.
SOUTHEASTERN NEW YORK
The southeastern region of New York, including the Catskills, Hudson River region and Long Island, has a surprisingly diverse array of bass fisheries -- and some of the most unique angling regulations in the state.
Starting this fall, catch-and-release bass fishing will be allowed on Lake Erie from Dec. 1 to the Friday before the first Saturday in May.
New York City's Department of Environmental Protection owns more than 20 reservoirs in the region, and guards their water quality with rules that might be described as fussy but effective.
For starters, you'll need a DEP access permit to fish any of the city impoundments, plus a boating permit from the same office to keep a non-motorized rowboat on the shore of any one of those reservoirs. The details are spelled out on pages 28-29 of the 2004-2006 New York State Fresh-water Fishing Regulations.
"It's worth the trouble," said Norm McBride, the DEC's Region 4 biologist. "The fishing in Pepacton Reservoir (on the East Branch of the Delaware) and Cannonsville Reservoir (on the Delaware's West Branch at Stilesville) is just terrific."
Wayne Elliott, Region 3 fisheries manager, was just as effusive in his praise of the bass action in Neversink Reservoir in Sullivan County and Ashokan Reservoir on Esopus Creek in Ulster County. He described the bass population in both as "outrageous," and said they're underfished because most anglers target trout.
Along with the two Delaware impoundments, McBride touts the Mohawk River from Schenectady upstream. Although the river's bass have had recruitment problems lately, a high percentage of surviving fish are 15- to 20-inch lunkers, McBride said. He aims to study the Mohawk recruitment issue this year.
Elliott had no trouble excluding the tidal Hudson from the statewide catch-and-release plan because Region 3 has piled up reams of research on the mighty river's bass population.
"We've known for years that the lower Hudson's bass have an astounding growth rate," he said. "We also know there aren't too many of those fish because of inadequate spawning areas. Hudson River bass need all the protection they can get at spawning time."
To give the river's fishery an extra boost, the DEC is expected to raise the minimum creel length on Hudson River bass from the current 12 inches to 15 inches, effective Oct. 1, 2006.
Upstate anglers who have never fished Long Island would be amazed at how many nice bass swim in its ponds and streams.
Charles "Chart" Guthrie, Region 1 fisheries manager, said those local rules eliminated the need to put the statewide changes in effect on the Island.
Long Island already had the longest bass season in the state. Its anglers may start casting the first Saturday in June instead of the third Saturday, and keep going through March 15. In all Nassau County waters, bass must be turned loose after they're caught. In most Suffolk County waters, the state-standard creel limit of five bass of 12 inches or longer is in force from the first Saturday in June through Nov. 30. From Dec. 1 through March 15, bass fishing is allowed on a catch-and-release basis.
The exceptions -- including Lake Ronkonkoma, Fort Pond and Belmont, Artist and Blydenburgh lakes, are listed on pg. 44 of the state regulations guide.
"These regulations have paid off," said Guthrie. He noted that Since Nassau County went no-kill a couple of years ago, 4-pound largemouth have become common in many ponds.
One Long Island fishery that literally dried up in 2002 has recovered nicely and should provide exciting action this season, said Guthrie.
After a long drought finally ended, the DEC restocked Hempstead Lake in Suffolk County with baitfish, chain pickerel, bluegills and largemouth bass. The rare transplanting included 200 bass, many of which were beer-bellied beauties.
Through all the regulatory adjustments, the Peconic River and the series of small impoundments along it have produced Long Island's most consistent bass fishing, Guthrie said.
For more information on New York's bass-fishing opportunities, anglers can contact the New York Department of Environmental Conservation at www.dec.state.ny.us.
For advice on lodging alternatives near any of the fishing spots described above, readers can contact the New York State Tourism office, at 1-800-I-LOVE-NY.