Our Finest Summer Muskie Lakes
October 04, 2010
For exciting hot-season action, try these proven muskie lakes this month. Trolling big lures fast is the key to taking your biggest Empire State muskie ever!
When you're dragging plugs in certain lakes and rivers, be careful what fish you call a muskellunge.
Should you try to impress some St. Lawrence River fishing guide by whipping out a photo of the nice muskie you caught the previous summer in Conesus Lake, you can expect a polite but firm correction.
"That's a heck of a fish," your captain will declare. "But it's a norlunge, not a muskie."
Well, to the average angler, a big fish is a big fish. I doubt that anyone who's caught a whopper tiger muskie in New York since the Department of Environmental Conservation started rearing them in 1968 bothered to add an asterisk when they logged the trophy in their fishing diaries.
MUSKIE OR TIGER, WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
It may look like a muskie, feel and even smell like a muskie. But it's really not Esox masquinongy at all.
Rather, it's a hybrid -- part female muskellunge and part male northern pike. It's a tiger muskie, also known as a norlunge.
Norlunge -- sterile and unable to reproduce -- generally don't live as long or grow as big as purebred muskies. Even so, tiger muskies have a few things going for them.
For starters, norlunge are really somewhat easier to catch than true muskies. State biologists also appreciate the hybrids' voracious appetite for alewives and other forage fish that tend to take over a small lake in the absence of large predators.
The tigers' infertility is another plus, for if the toothy predators turn out to be a poor fit in any given lake, the problem can be solved by simply canceling any further stockings.
When you add dozens of norlunge-stocked lakes and rivers to the smaller number of Empire State fishing holes that have historically held purebred muskellunge, New York sportsmen planning their lunker quests now have more than 100 muskie waters to choose from.
The following lakes and rivers are the cream of that crop:
The state's only purebred muskie hatchery is on Chautauqua Lake's west shore at Prendergast Point. Fisheries biologists net muskies in spring, summer and fall to make sure all is right with the natives.
The 2007 spring netting, conducted to gather eggs needed for stocking programs at several other western New York lakes and rivers and to supplement Chautauqua, yielded 188 mature muskies measuring between 30 and 47 inches long.
"Our goal last spring was to catch 28 muskies per net, and we averaged a little better than 30," said Mike Clancy, a DEC Region 9 biologist, whose office number is (716) 372-0645. "So based on that alone, I'd say the fishery is quite healthy at the moment."
On Chautauqua Lake, the minimum creel length for muskies is 40 inches, and a four-footer would be considered a large one.
"I had an unconfirmed report of a 57-incher last year," said Clancy, "but it's known for numbers of muskies, rather than really big ones."
Chautauqua Lake lies in the southwest corner of the state at Jamestown. It spans 13,100 surface acres with two distinct basins, north and south of the Interstate Route 86 bridge at Bemus Point. The supports of the federal highway bridge shelter many muskies, but the speed-trolling techniques favored by local guides also work well in many other spots.
A free fishing map, available from the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau at (716) 753-4304, will help visiting anglers find the strike zone.
One of the destinations for juvenile muskies produced at Prendergast Point is a chain of three small lakes a few miles away from the hatchery in Chautauqua County. The upper, middle and lower Cassadaga Lakes total 210 surface acres, and their outlet, Cassadaga Creek, is less than 40 feet across in most spots. Yet this system is home to many 10- to 15-pound muskellunge.
The Cassadaga lakes are off Route 60 about six miles south of Fredonia. You'll find a DEC boat launch on the middle lake in the hamlet of Lily Dale. Cassadaga Creek is best fished in a canoe or cartop boat. Local agencies have established five put-ins for canoes, from the village of South Stockton downstream to the creek's confluence with the Chadokoin River.
UPPER NIAGARA RIVER
By most accounts, 2007 was a relatively poor year for Buffalo-area muskie addicts. But the east end of Lake Erie and the upper Niagara River (above the falls) are still among the best places in the East to collect a trophy 'lunge.
One reason is the zealous protection provided by local anglers.
Members of the Niagara Muskie Association lobbied successfully for a 48-inch minimum creel length on the upper Niagara fishery and, beginning in 2002, a 54-inch minimum creel length for muskellunge caught on the New York side of Lake Erie. The Erie standard amounts to a virtual catch-and-release rule, for only a tiny fraction of muskies anywhere grow to such a size. Yet 50-inchers are caught every year around Buffalo Harbor and the islands in the upper Niagara, so if you go, be sure to bring your camera.
Summertime trollers score on sizable muskies by pulling plugs around the southwest end of Grand Island, between Tonawanda Island and the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, among other spots.
For a list of local muskie guides and a roster of boat launches between Buffalo and the falls, contact the Erie Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at (814) 454-7191. Or call the Niagara County Tourism office at 1-800-338-7890. (Continued)
The muskellunge population in Waneta Lake is so robust that the DEC has designated this Schuyler County fishing hole as a backup source for brood stock in the event of a catastrophe in Chautauqua Lake.
In spring 2005, when Region 8 fisheries crews last netted Waneta to check the health of local muskies, technicians hoisted 240 specimens into their boats. The largest was a 32- pound specimen. But Brad Hammers, a DEC Region 8 biologist, said many muskies in the teens and 20s were also examined.
Waneta is an intimate body of water, covering 813 surface acres, with a gradual slope at its north and south ends and several small points with steeper contours on its east shore.
Those points are good places to start a trophy quest.
Waneta Lake is connected to the slightly smaller Lamoka Lake by a short navigation channel that passes under county Route 23 a few miles west of Watkins Glen. There's a state boat launch on the channel.
Occasionally, muskies may travel from Waneta to Lamoka, but only the former lake is on the state's current stocking list.
To download a useful contour map of Waneta Lake, check out the DEC's web site atwww.dec.ny.gov. Click on "Fishing," and then look for the heading "Lake contour maps."
Because it has more than enough good protein to go around, Conesus Lake is one of the few bodies of water in New York that holds sizable populations of both northern pike and tiger muskies.
Ordinarily, norlunge are not stocked in lakes and rivers that hold either pike or purebred muskies. Conesus is an exception because the resident pike -- which run up to 20 pounds -- barely make a dent in the lake's huge schools of alewives.
Biologists would like to cut the alewives down considerably and therefore, pump baby tigers into the lake at a rate of about 9,500 a year. Some of those 9-inchers weigh 10 to 15 pounds when they're caught.
At 3,420 surface acres and having a maximum depth of about 66 feet, Conesus is a mid-sized member of the Finger Lakes chain. It's in Livingston County about a 15-minute drive south from the DEC's Region 8 headquarters in Avon, which may be reached at (585) 226-2466.
Route 20A skirts its north shore at the village of Lakeville.
Conesus Lake has four public boat launches, including one with room for 40 cars and trailers at the Conesus Inlet on Route 256 at the south end of the lake.
For a handy map showing likely norlunge hangouts (such as MacPherson Point on the west shore), browse the DEC's Web site listed above
CROSS LAKE-SENECA RIVER
The state-record norlunge, a 35 1/2-pounder yanked from the Tioughioga River in the early 1990s, may soon be supplanted, according to Jeff Robins, a DEC Region 7 biologist.
"I wouldn't be surprised if a Cross Lake fish broke the record," said Robins, whose regional fisheries office number is (607) 753-3095.
He bases his belief on recent-year samplings of the lake, which is essentially a deep, wide spot in the Seneca River, straddling the border between Cayuga and Onondaga counties.
The tiger muskies stocked in Cross Lake in the last several years appear to be thriving, even though they share the local chow line with native northern pike and longnose gar.
Robins has seen 10-pounders and suspects that tigers at least twice that size are present in the lake, gorging on alewives and white perch.
Cross Lake lies south of Route 370, between the villages of Cato and Meridian. There's a small, for-fee boat launch off Dugar Road on its north shore. The lake spans about 2,000 surface acres and plunges to a maximum depth of 65 feet. It's extremely weedy out to a depth of 20 feet or more and has two islands, Big Island and Little Island. Around both isles, the weed edges and drops are likely spots to encounter a sizable norlunge.
If Cross Lake doesn't hold the next state-record tiger muskie, Otisco Lake may. During the 1980s and '90s, anglers caught many 20- to 30-pound norlunge in Otisco, the easternmost body of water in the Finger Lakes chain. Fishing for tigers fell off a bit in the early 2000s. But hardwater action was good during the recent winter, and that usually presages good summer action.
Otisco lies in southern Onondaga County, about a half-hour's drive from Syracuse. To find it, take Interstate 81 to U.S. Route 20 at LaFayette, then go west on Route 20 to the intersection at Route 174. Go south on that road, which leads directly to the lake. Bear left onto Otisco Valley Road, which parallels the east shore. You'll find two for-fee marinas on that road. They're on either side of the causeway -- an abandoned roadbed that nearly divides the lake about a mile from its south end.
The causeway is a good spot to connect with tiger muskies, whether you choose to troll parallel to it or shore-cast from the structure, which is accessible on the west shore off West Valley Road.
Anglers should also explore the weedbeds around "the narrows," a spot south of the lake dam where the east and west shorelines nearly come together. A contour map is available on the DEC's Web site.
ST. LAWRENCE RIVER
Back in the late 1950s and early '60s, an incredible string of St. Lawrence River trophy catches -- including a 69-pound, 15-ounce world-record monster attributed to the late Arthur Lawton of Delmar -- rocked the muskie-fishing world.
By the mid-1970s, unfortunately, the muskie fishery in the river nearly collapsed due to over fishing, pollution and the loss of shoreline spawning habitat following the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and the International Game Fish Association then poured salt on the wounded St. Lawrence shoreline economy by withdrawing recognition of the world-record fish and several other behemoths credited to Lawton, his wife Ruth, and their angling-contest rivals Len and Betty Hartman.
Some folks in Clayton, Alexandria Bay and other St. Lawrence River ports still cry foul over the Hall of Fame and IGFA decisions, which were based on supposedly dubious documentation of the Lawton and Hartman catches. But in the meantime, a new generation of giants has been thrilling river anglers. Thanks to increasingly strict creel limits as well as the spread of a voluntary catch-and-release ethic in the Thousand Islands region, hookups with 50-inch-plus brutes have become increasingly common in the past decade.
Sadly, the muskie resurgence in the Thousand Islands has been set back by the recent appearance of viral hemorrhagic septicemia in the upper St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario.
An outbreak of the fish disease deserved at least part of the blame for a die-off of dozens of muskellunge in 2005, and a smaller kill the following summer was also attributed to the ailment. The 2006 victims included a 59-inch female muskie.
Despite the fish kills, river regulars landed some impressive muskies in 2006 and '07.
Clayton-area schoolteacher and guide Richie Clarke demonstrated the St. Lawrence's continuing trophy potential in December 2006, when he caught and released a 58-inch pot-bellied beast that weighed 52 pounds.
Likely summer spots for muskies include the downstream si
des of any of the larger islands between Cape Vincent and Clayton. Most of these trolling runs lie on the Canadian side of the river, and no serious muskie hunter will venture onto the river without a Province of Ontario license.
Readers can inquire about obtaining a license in advance of their trip by calling the Thousand Islands Bait store in Alexandria Bay, at (315) 482-9903.
Although it's primarily known for other species -- particularly bass and walleyes -- Black Lake in Western St. Lawrence County produces its share of purebred muskellunge, including some very big ones. In July 2006, for example, Gerry Vaikness of Chittenango caught a 54-inch muskie during an after-dark outing on the lake. He posed for a quick photo and then eased his catch of a lifetime back into the inky water.
Anglers unfamiliar with Black Lake should be leery of moonlight trolling. The subsurface structure includes dozens of shoals and rocky humps that aren't easily spotted in the dark. By daylight, those same prop-wreckers can be fished safely and effectively with spinnerbaits, buzzbaits and shallow-running plugs.
Black Lake is in western St. Lawrence County. To get there, take Interstate Route 81 north to the Route 342 exit north of Watertown. Go east on Route 342 for about a mile, and then turn left onto Route 37.
From there it's about 30 miles to Hammond, which is at the west end of the 10,000-acre lake.
The DEC's Region 6 office in Watertown, at (315) 785-2261, can answer reader questions about Black Lake's muskies.
To request a map and brochure on the lake, send a stamped self-addressed envelope to the Black Lake Chamber of Commerce, Box 125, Hammond, NY 13646.
One of the state's tiger muskie success stories was written in Hamilton County at Lake Durant -- a shallow, 289-acre impoundment on the Raquette River. Bypassed daily by hundreds of summer tourists on their way to other Adirondack-region vacation spots, Lake Durant has a state campground and boat launch on its northeast corner. You will have plenty of elbowroom to fish there.
Rich Preall, a DEC Region 5 fisheries biologist, said that most of the stories he hears about Lake Durant tiger muskies center around the use of live bait fished from shore. Golden shiners are common in the lake and are readily caught using small worms.
"Put a golden shiner under your bobber and you'll be in good shape for tiger muskies," said Preall, whose office number is (518) 897-1200.
Don't expect monster muskies when you come to Lake Durant, however. Though the lake has been stocked since the mid-1970s and holds consistently good numbers of the hybrids, most weigh between 7 and 10 pounds. A 15-pounder would be considered an exceptional catch.
For information on lodging, restaurants and other amenities near any of the fishing holes listed in this article, contact the New York State Tourism office at 1-800- CALL NYS.
Or visit the agency's Web site at www.iloveny.com.