New York's northern pike are here to stay, and fish in the 18-pound class are showing up in anglers' nets every season. Here's where to find them near you this summer.
Photo by J. Michael Kelly
Razor-toothed northern pike are so common in the Empire State's lakes and rivers that the New York Department of Environmental Conservation's main worry is keeping them where they belong.
Because pike are such voracious feeders, explained Rich Preall, DEC Region 5 aquatic biologist, newly introduced northerns can quickly take over waters that formerly were dominated by other game fish.
Consequently, the state does not raise pike in its hatcheries and has rarely transplanted northerns from one lake to another. Many fishermen aren't so cautious.
"Pike somehow show up in lots of places where we didn't put them," Preall said.
For example, northerns now thrive in Fourth Lake, several years after an unauthorized release by some unknown "bait bucket biologist." Herkimer County pike anglers aren't complaining, but local trout fishers are, because the toothy newcomers have decimated Fourth Lake's rainbows and landlocked salmon.
Educating the angling public, therefore, is an important aspect of the DEC's pike management program. Another keystone of the plan is protection of shallow-water spawning habitats from shoreline development and fluctuating water levels stemming from hydroelectric power generation. Regulatory adjustments are part of the deal, too. In a few waters, biologists have lowered or raised the minimum creel length for pike to nudge local fisheries in the right direction.
This cautious strategy has yielded some remarkable angling opportunities in hundreds of waters, including the following gems:
Without question, Silver Lake is one of the premier pike waters in western New York. The 761-acre fishing hole in Wyoming County has everything a growing northern pike could want, including a rich forage base of alewives and perch and thick weeds to serve as spawning and ambush cover.
Most Silver Lake pike weigh less than 6 pounds, but specimens measuring more than 36 inches and tipping the scales at 12 to 15 pounds are fairly common.
The lake is about five miles northwest of the famous Letchworth Gorge State Park in the town of Castile. To get there from Buffalo, take the Thruway east to the Batavia exit, and then head southeast on Route 63. Just before the Genesee-Wyoming county line, bear right on Route 246, which leads south to Perry. That village is about one-half mile west of the lake's north shore.
For such a cozy spot, Silver Lake has ample access. In addition to several private marinas along the shore, there's a public boat launch in Silver Lake State Park off West Lake Road.
A Silver Lake contour map is available from the DEC's Region 9 office at (716) 372-0645, and the Wyoming County Tourism Promotion office at (716) 493-3190 is happy to help readers locate nearby lodging.
There is no place in New York where an angler can count on hooking a 30-pound pike, but Conesus Lake is one of a handful of waters where northerns that size are known to swim. DEC biologists have actually handled such fish during local netting forays.
Conesus anglers catch whoppers of 15 to 20 pounds annually, but most of the lake's northerns are 20 to 30 inches long and weigh between 2 and 8 pounds. The minimum creel length for pike in Conesus, as in the other Finger Lakes, is 22 inches, compared to the statewide standard of 18 inches. Anglers may keep five pike per day, the statewide limit.
Part of the Finger Lakes chain, Conesus covers about 3,420 surface acres and has a maximum depth of 69 feet. The extensive weedbeds at both its north and south ends are good places to start trolling or casting for lunkers in July. Other likely spots include the large cove between McPherson and Old Orchard points on the east shore and the weeds off Cottonwood Point on the west side of the lake.
Conesus Lake is about 25 miles south of Rochester via Route 390 (the Genesee Expressway) and Route 20A. The DEC Region 8 office in Avon at (585) 226-2466 will supply anglers with a simple contour map of the lake.
A state launch area at McPherson Point off East Lake Road is operated by the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which charges boaters a modest access fee. There are three other public launches on the lake, including one at the south end in the Conesus Inlet Wildlife Management Area, which are suitable for small boats only.
The Livingston County Chamber of Commerce at (716) 243-4160 will point readers toward nearby accommodations.
For consistent catches of 4- to 8-pound northerns -- and occasional tussles with larger specimens -- it's hard to imagine a spot better than Sodus Bay. Catches of 10 or more such pike are frequently reported in the bay, and wallhangers of 15 to 18 pounds are caught each year.
During my last trip to Sodus in 2004, Byron guide Frank Tennity, George Fiorille of Auburn and I had less than three hours to fish. It was unseasonably cold, and a fast-moving storm system pelted us with rain, yet we caught several nice pike, the largest about 34 inches long. Most of our fish latched onto shallow-running stick baits retrieved just over the top of the weeds in 8 to 10 feet of water.
Sodus Bay is a V-shaped gouge in the Wayne County shore of Lake Ontario that spreads over 3,000 surface acres. It has a maximum depth of 44 feet, with extensive weedbeds, three large islands and numerous small coves and points to attract forage species and serve as ambush cover for hungry predators. The area between Thornton and Nicholas points at the south end of the bay is one well-known pike haunt.
Note that Sodus Bay pike are subject to Lake Ontario regulations. Anglers may keep five fish per day, as in most other state waters, but the minimum creel length is 22 inches.
The bay may be reached by driving east on the Thruway from Rochester or west from Syracuse to the Geneva exit. At the end of the exit ramp, head north on Route 14, which ends at Sodus Point. There's a public boat launch in that picturesque village.
For information on nearby lodging, contact the Wayne County Tourism office at (800) 527-6510.
SENECA RIVER/CROSS LAKE
The Seneca River begins as a
canal outlet at the north end of Seneca Lake and then flows in a generally northeasterly direction for about 35 miles through the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge and Cross Lake before meeting the Oneida River and forming the Oswego River near Phoenix.
Northern pike are present throughout its length, but some locations in the Seneca are definitely better than others. Hotspots include the upper canal east of Seneca Lake, the area around the Bonta Bridge Road boating access east of Weedsport, and especially the section in and around Cross Lake.
The river flows into Cross Lake's South Bay and then exits the lake on the opposite shore, on the back side of Big Island. Cross Lake spans 2,086 surface acres and has a maximum depth of 65 feet. It has dense weedbeds during the summer, especially along the south shore, and the edges of that jungle would be a logical place to cast or troll for northerns. Pike of 10 to 15 pounds are fairly common in Cross Lake.
Boaters may access the Seneca River at the Seneca Lake State Park in Geneva across U.S. Route 20 from the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, at the aforementioned Bonta Bridge and at Mercer Park in Baldwinsville, among other places.
Brochures on area accommodations are available from the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance at (800) 530-7488.
While its south end is known for giving up big pike through the ice, Owasco Lake is overlooked by Esox lovers during the warm months of the year. I suspect that's mainly due to the abundance of other game fish in the lake, including brown trout, lake trout and smallmouth bass. Certainly the 8- to 15-pound northerns that enthrall Owasco's hard-water cadre do not disappear in the summer.
Owasco is the fourth largest of the Finger Lakes at 6,665 surface acres, but pike anglers can confine their casts and trolling runs to a few locations. One logical place to hunt for July lunkers would be the dark water off Indian Cove, just beyond those south-shore weedbeds. Another good spot is off Burtis Point, at the mouth of Dutch Hollow Brook about three miles down the east shore from the north end of the lake.
The city of Auburn straddles U.S. routes 5 and 20 at Owasco's north end. Route 38 parallels the west shore, while Route 38A and Rockefeller Road overlook the east side of the lake. Emerson Park, on the lake's outlet, has a serviceable boat launch, but anglers who wish to explore the Indian Cove area could best do so by shoving off from one of the private marinas at Cascade in the lake's southwest corner.
Anglers are reminded that the minimum creel length for Owasco pike is 22 inches.
Information on Auburn-area accommodations is available from the Cayuga County Tourism office at (800) 499-9615.
A 2,400-acre bay on Lake Ontario's Oswego County shore, Sandy Pond has a mean depth of 8 feet and a maximum depth of just 13 feet. Weedy from end to end, it's perfect habitat for northern pike and the panfish they love to eat. A run-of-the mill pike in Sandy Pond is a 5-pounder, but 15-pounders are caught annually. In July, the biggest pike will be in the deepest part of the bay, or tucked under weed mats or deadfalls in areas where boat traffic is relatively light.
To get to Sandy Pond from the Syracuse area, take Interstate 81 north to Exit 36 in Pulaski. Follow Route 13 west to Port Ontario, turn right onto Route 3 and go north about five miles to Route 15 or, a bit farther on, to Seber Shores Drive. Either left turn will take you to several private marinas where visiting boaters may launch for a modest fee.
Whoppers of 15 to 20 pounds are caught annually by Conesus anglers, but most of the lake's northerns are 20 to 30 inches long and weigh between 2 and 8 pounds.
For lodging information, call the Oswego County Tourism office at (315) 349-8322.
Here's a bit of a sleeper, but it won't interest readers whose primary interest is a trophy-class northern. Sixtown Pond in Jefferson County doesn't grow many whoppers, but if you're one of those anglers who enjoy hooking lots of medium-sized pike in relative solitude, it could be just the retreat you've been looking for.
Shown on some maps as Crystal Lake, Sixtown Pond is off Route 178 about six miles west of the Adams exit on Interstate 81. It covers a mere 173 surface acres, and most of its anglers are local residents.
Frank Flack, the DEC's Region 6 fisheries manager, said it is fished harder through the ice than during the summer months. Tourists tend to hurry past it on their way to the 1,000 Islands or Henderson Harbor.
Sixtown holds many 2- to 6-pound pike and a few up to 9 or 10 pounds. The minimum creel length is 18 inches.
A one-quarter-mile access road leads from Route 178 to the pond. Look for the large DEC sign on the right while heading west. At the end of the access road, there's a small, ledge-rock launching area suitable for canoes and small, trailered craft.
The DEC office in Watertown at (315) 785-2261 can supply a basic map of Sixtown Pond to anglers. For information on lodging near Sixtown Pond, contact the 1,000 Islands Chamber of Commerce at (800) 8-ISLAND.
Old-timers claim the pike fishing in the 1,000 Islands region of the upper St. Lawrence River isn't what it used to be, yet a good ice-fisherman will have no problem catching several nice fish per outing in Eel Bay, Chippewa Bay and other areas where northerns stage prior to their spring spawning run.
Has the river's pike population really declined, or have local anglers lost their knack for northerns?
Both are true, in reality. Studies by the DEC and researchers from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry indicate pike populations have declined somewhat, possibly due to diminished weedy habitat. At the same time, however, pike seem to spend more time in the river's depths than they used to, as a result of zebra mussel proliferation and increased water clarity.
In July, start out trolling or casting in 20 feet of water instead of 8 or 10, and watch your catch rate improve.
The 1,000 Islands may be reached by taking Interstate Route 81 north to the Alex Bay or Clayton exits. Follow Route 12 along the river. Boat launches both public and private are all along the river. For a list of facilities and lodging alternatives in the area, contact the Clayton-1,000 Islands Chamber of Commerce at (800) 252-9806.
SARANAC CHAIN OF LAKES
The Adirondack region is full of good pike lakes, but the Saranac Chain of Lakes stands out as a consistent producer. Seven interconnected bodies of water are within a few minutes of t
he village of Saranac Lake in eastern Franklin County. They are Upper, Middle and Lower Saranac lakes, Weller Pond, Oseetah Lake, Kiwassa Lake and Lake Flower. A map of the chain may be obtained from the Saranac Lake Chamber of Commerce, 30 Main St., Saranac Lake, NY 12983.
Perhaps the best all-round pike water in the chain is Middle Saranac, which spans 1,393 acres. Its average depth is only about 9 feet and there are plenty of weedbeds to hide northerns that average 2 to 4 pounds but sometimes grow to 8 or 10 pounds.
In July, start out trolling or casting in 20 feet of water instead of 8 or 10, and watch your catch rate improve.
Access to Middle Saranac may be a bit tricky the first time you try it. The best approach is to launch at the state access off Route 3 about six miles west of the village. Once in the water, head upstream and west across Lower Saranac Lake. Follow the posted instructions to ease your boat through a small, no-fee lock, and continue into Middle Saranac Lake.
"Hungry Bay is probably the prime spot in the lake," said the DEC's Preall, who has fished it often.
Once on Middle Saranac, consider a side trip up the channel on the north shore, which leads to 180-acre Weller Pond. Although out of the way, it has plenty of weedy pockets that are loaded with small but feisty pike.
The Franklin County Tourism office at (518) 483-6788 will point visitors to nearby lodging.
Northern pike are so abundant in the bays and creek mouths along Lake Champlain's shore that generations of sportsmen on the Vermont side once enjoyed shooting big northerns in the spring -- with deer rifles!
While the statewide creel limit of five pike per day applies to Lake Champlain, the minimum keeper size is 20 inches. Most will run considerably larger than that.
Virtually the entire 110-mile length of Lake Champlain is home to at least a few northerns, but the most consistent fishing for the species is from Plattsburgh north. Kings Bay, off the mouth of the Great Chazy River, is excellent, as is the water around the abandoned railroad bridge stretching eastward from the village of Rouse's Point.
These areas may be accessed by taking U.S. Route 11 east from Malone or by following Route 87 and Route 9 north from Albany to the northern sector of the lake. Public and private marinas are available at Rouse's Point and Plattsburgh.
For advice on accommodations, try the Plattsburgh-North Country Chamber of Commerce at (518) 563-1000.