October 04, 2010
Some of New York's top summertime pike waters produce fish over 20 pounds, with 30-pounders out there for persistent anglers to catch. Here's where to find them this month. (July 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Such is the single-mindedness of some veteran muskellunge guides that they feel disappointed when a client reels in a prime example of one of the greatest game fish on this earth.
I'm talking about northern pike, in particular the three-footer I tied into last year while fishing with Clayton charter captain Myrle Bauer on the upper St. Lawrence River. That brute slammed a muskie-sized plug, put up a muskie-sized fight and was darned near muskie-sized, period. Yet I could tell by the half-hearted smile on Myrle's face that he was disappointed to learn its true identity.
Not me, brother! I had a fine time playing that fish to the net -- and an even better time dining on its firm, tasty flesh, a few days after Myrle demonstrated how to remove those notorious Y-shaped bones. Bottom line: Whether the muskies are hitting or not, I will never complain about tangling with a nice-sized northern, nor consuming it afterward.
Lucky for me -- and others like me -- New York has a plethora of pike in rivers and lakes from one end of the map to the other. All fishermen have their favorites. But surely the following, listed from west to east, are among our state's very best:
If you're looking for something big and slightly scary to fill in that empty space on your den wall, you may well find it swimming below the surface of Conesus Lake. Since the 1970s, New York Department of Environmental Conservation sampling crews have netted several pike in the 30-pound class while assaying fish populations in this jewel of the Finger Lakes chain. Admittedly, you are far more likely to catch a two-foot keeper than a four-foot wall-hanger. But Conesus anglers can rest assured that some serious whoppers live in the neighborhood.
Catching the big ones isn't easy. In fact, catching any game fish can be challenging in this 3,400-acre lake in Livingston County, thanks to its dense forage base. The lake harbors so many sardine-sized alewives that resident pike (along with bass and walleyes) are often stuffed to the gills and disinclined to chase a passing lure.
The key to taking these sated monsters is dogged persistence. Fish often, hard and methodically, covering each patch of water thoroughly, rather than trolling or casting in random, rapid fashion.
Some likely places to connect in Conesus include the large cove between McPherson and Orchard points, both on the east shore, and the thick weeds off Cottonwood Point on the west side of the lake. You can pinpoint these and other promising locations by studying the lake map, available free from the DEC's Region 8 office in Avon, at (585) 226-2466, and also on the state agency's Web site at www.dec.state.ny.us.
The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation maintains a public boat launch at McPherson Point. There are three other public ramps around the lakeshore. One of those is off Route 20A at Sand Point, and another is on Pebble Beach Road at Conesus's northwest corner. The third is at the south tip of the lake, in the Conesus Inlet Wildlife Management Area.
Conesus Lake is about half an hour's drive from Rochester via Route 390 and Route 20A, but it draws serious pike, bass and walleye anglers from a large area of the state. The Livingston County Chamber of Commerce, at (716) 243-4160, will help anglers find suitable overnight accommodations.
Lately, Sodus Bay seems to host one or more bass tournaments just about every weekend. And rightly so, given its thriving population of largemouths. Just be forewarned: If you happen to sign up for one of those events, you'd best plan on losing a lure or two, especially if you toss spinnerbaits or deep-running cranks. This 3,000-acre Lake Ontario embayment in Wayne County is simply loaded with northern pike that are able to bite through thick monofilament or even one of the hard-as-nails super lines that most tackle shops are pushing these days.
Sodus Bay fairly reeks of pike -- and big ones, too. While the majority of northerns prowling the bay's extensive weedbeds are in the 24- to 30-inch range, lunkers with mouths wide enough to accommodate a softball or a downy-feathered duckling are caught every summer.
In July, the bigger pike are likely to be prowling the outer edges of the weedbeds early in the morning. But as the sun climbs, you'll probably get more hookups if you gravitate toward the deeper water, and either drift with large minnows or troll with big-lipped crankbaits. The bay's heavier pike are inclined to suspend anywhere from 10 to 25 feet down, usually in proximity to points, dropoffs and other structures that attract yellow perch and other forage species.
To reach Sodus Bay, simply take the Thruway to the Geneva exit and then head north on Route 14, which leads to the village of Sodus Bay and Sodus Point State Park. The municipal launch at the north end of the bay and several fee-launch marinas afford easy access.
Start looking for pike in the water around Newark, Eagle and LeRoy islands, which are clustered in the northeast quadrant of the bay. If northerns aren't active in the 6- to 18-foot depths between the islands, they'll most likely be suspended and feeding in the deep hole immediately to the west. There, the bottom quickly plunges to between 38 and 44 feet. It's the deepest area in the bay.
Another good spot for northerns is the area between Nicholas Point and Thornton Point, both of which reach out from the south shore of the bay.
For information on current fishing conditions at Sodus Bay, try the Bay Bridge Bait and Tackle shop.
In Jefferson County, several lakes in the Indian River chain have healthy pike populations. But none is better than Millsite Lake at growing whoppers. Frank Flack, the DEC's Region 6 fisheries manager, matter-of-factly logs reports of one or two 15-pounders every winter. He said that 30- to 40-inch northerns are fairly common catches during the warm months of the year.
Millsite, in the town of Theresa, has unusual contours for a pike lake. The average depth of the 506-acre lake is 42 feet, and the bottom drops off quickly in most places. Finding weedlines that are close to deep water is the key to getting regular hookups in July. And to that end, Flack advises visiting anglers to focus on the big bay in the middle of the south shore, where subs
tantial patches of Eurasian milfoil attract forage species and providing excellent ambush cover for predators.
The old rule of "Big bait, big fish" certainly holds true at Millsite Lake, where ciscoes in the 8- to 12-inch range have the same effect on pike that double cheeseburgers do on many pike anglers. Large silver spoons are good imitations. But local anglers prefer to use the real thing, and precede their pike outings by catching a few ciscoes on small trout flies, teardrop jigs or other dainty tidbits.
Millsite Lake is northeast of Watertown. To get there, take Interstate Route 81 north to the Route 342 exit and head east on Route 342 to Route 37. Turn left, go about four miles and turn right onto Cottage Hill Road. A state boat launch is about a mile ahead.
The state launch on Millsite Lake has parking space for about 10 trailers, but is better suited to small boats (16 feet or shorter). Motors larger than 10 horsepower are prohibited.
Flack's office in Watertown, at (315) 785-2261, has an excellent free brochure on the Indian River lakes. Several bodies of water in the chain have campgrounds on or near their shores, but if you would prefer motel or bed-and-breakfast accommodations, the 1000 Islands International Council, at 1-800-847-5263, can point you in the right direction.
ST. LAWRENCE RIVER
Fishing for northern pike in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence isn't as good today as it was 10 or 15 years ago. But it's still one of the better spots in the state, and perhaps the entire Northeast, to catch a limit of the water tigers. And though the river isn't known for monster pike, individual fish measuring between 30 and 36 inches are reasonably common.
Just keep in mind that many of the better spots for catching northerns are on the Canadian side of the river, where you'll need a Province of Ontario fishing license.
As on many other pike waters, anglers enjoy easy fishing in the St. Lawrence in May, just after the season opens. By July, however, the bigger fish are usually scattered 20 to 40 feet down, and you'll have to hunt for them. Clayton guide Bauer, at (315) 686-2122, generally gives each spot he visits five or 10 minutes to produce. If there's nothing doing in that amount of time, he moves on in search of active, feeding fish. He speeds up his search by focusing on mid-river shoals and island points and ledges that slope quickly toward deep-water weeds.
Bauer and other river guides have their secret spots, of course. But places that have earned a widespread reputation for summer pike include Button Bay, on the south side of Wolfe Island and due north of Cape Vincent; the trench off Eel Bay, on the west side of Wellesley Island; and the dropoff just east of Cedar Island in Chippewa Bay.
Between the public marinas, state parks and fee-launch ramps, visitors to the Thousand Islands have literally dozens of places to put their boats in the water. Among them -- from west to east -- are the municipal ramp in Cape Vincent, off Route 12E; Cedar Point State Park, midway between the Cape and Clayton on Route 12E; Grass Point State Park, east of Fishers Landing via Route 12; and Kring Point State Park, off Route 12 east of Alexandria Bay.
Stop at the 1000 Islands Bait store in Alexandria Bay and ask for a good map or two of the upper river. Or order one in advance of your trip from Fishing Hot Spots, at 1-800-338-5957.
The Hot Spots maps -- the series breaks the upper St. Lawrence into three sections -- show all boat launches on the American side and also pinpoints many of the more productive pike-fishing locations in the river.
For advice on lodging and other amenities, contact the Clayton area Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-252-9806; or the 1000 Islands International Council, which is listed above.
UPPER CHATEAUGAY LAKE
If you'd like to try your hand in an out-of-the-way lake that doesn't get much attention from summer tourists, Upper Chateaugay Lake might be just the place.
To find the lake, follow U.S. Route 11 across the northern part of the state to the village of Malone in Franklin County. From there, continue east through the village of Chateaugay, and then turn right onto Route 374. A state boat launch will be about 12 miles ahead on the right.
Rich Preall racks up plenty of pike by fan-casting with buzzbaits in white or chartreuse, cranking the noisy lures over and just under the surface at a moderate speed.
Upper Chateaugay Lake is one of two large back-ups on the Chateaugay River -- Lower Chateaugay Lake being the other -- that offer some surprisingly good summer fishing. Spanning 2,594 surface acres, the upper lake is about five times the size of the lower lake, and also has a more diversified and exciting sport fishery.
Until recently, Upper Chateaugay Lake was known primarily for its lake trout. It remains a very good place to catch lakers, especially through the ice. It holds a decent number of smallmouth bass and more than a few landlocked salmon and rainbow trout, but in the last 10 years, northern pike have carved out a large predatory niche for themselves and some genuine lunkers now prowl the 70-foot deep lake.
Leo Demong, a DEC Region 5 biologist who oversees management of Upper Chateaugay Lake, said pike apparently showed up in the lake in the mid-1990s. The species was not stocked by the DEC or with the state agency's approval, and it certainly wouldn't be the first time that some anonymous angler introduced pike to a place that was previously dominated by trout or bass!
However they got there, pike are now thriving in the lake. Region 5 biologist Rich Preall said that his office in Ray Brook has heard reports of local anglers boating pike up to 20 pounds in Upper Chateaugay.
A map of the lake can be downloaded from the DEC's Web site, at www.dec.state.ny.us.
For travel information, contact the Franklin County tourism office at (518) 483-6788.
While you may have to go a bit out of your way to reach Upper Chateaugay Lake, pike-filled Oseetah Lake couldn't be much easier to find and explore. It's a short boat ride away from downtown Saranac Lake Village, and you can be into fish within minutes after embarking from the Lake Flower boat launch, which is on Route 86.
State biologist Preall happens to live in Saranac Lake, and he knows Oseetah intimately.
"It has northerns and a lot of them," he said.
Most of the pike in Oseetah aren't whoppers -- 24 inches is about average, and a 30-incher would be considered a lunker. But daily catches of 20 or even 40 northerns aren't unusual there, according to Preall. He racks up plenty of pike by fan-casting with buzzbaits in white or chartreuse, cranking the
noisy lures over and just under the surface at a moderate speed.
To get to Oseetah Lake, a traveling angler need only launch his boat at the state-owned launch already mentioned, head straight across Lake Flower, bear left and keep going across the small connecting channel. Once you've hit Oseetah, you'll see a couple of small islands to your right. Preall said the closer of the two is a particularly good spot for pike.
Another hot location is the next bay to the south, where a fairly sizeable island is ringed with pike-friendly weedbeds.
Along with an astonishing number of northerns, Oseetah Lake harbors numerous 1- to 3-pound largemouth bass and schools of mostly small yellow perch.
Don't plan on racing around from one spot to another in this body of water. Oseetah is only three feet deep on average. Formed by the impounding of the Saranac River, the lake has few spots over eight feet deep, and all those locations lie in the flooded river channel. Buoys mark the old river bed, and if you veer left or right from that route with any speed, you're bound to bang your propeller on a sunken stump or rotting log.
The folks at the Franklin County tourism office listed above would be happy to help Oseetah fishermen find a spot to rest after a long day of reeling in those toothy northerns.