Here's a look at what's in store for New York's Lake Ontario anglers in 2005.
“You should’ve been here last year.”
We’ve all heard that one, right?
Well, this time it happens to be true. In 2004, it was truly a bonanza year for salmon in Lake Ontario. The chinook salmon comeback was even more remarkable because, just two years previously, fishermen reported one of the poorest seasons on record, harking back to the early days of the salmon introduction program. It is significant that fishermen set a new catch-rate record in 2003 and then broke it again last year.
Now, the $64 million question on everyone’s mind: Is there a trend here?
A quick look at exactly what happened last year — where and when fish were caught — will yield a few hints about the future, as will a review of the changing lake ecology, scientific studies and stocking trends.
The salmonid turnaround was due to the estimated 51,443 chinooks, also called kings, boated on the Department of Environmental Conservation’s fishing boat survey during the period of April through September 2004. Most important, the catch translated to 0.889 chinooks per boat trip, blasting the previous record of 0.657, set in 2003. The total salmon-trout harvest rate was 1.51 per boat trip. That’s red-hot fishing, indeed, for the 57,872 trips that targeted salmon and trout. An additional 26,799 boat trips targeted other species, mainly smallmouth bass, in the survey that has been conducted for 19 years.
“Chinook fishing was never better; it was a fabulous season,” commented Steve LaPan, a DEC fisheries biologist who compiled the survey at the Lake Ontario Unit stationed at Cape Vincent.
“Most fishermen prefer to catch chinooks,” LaPan explained, “and that was what made it so special,” The chinook fishing was most dramatic in the eastern region of Lake Ontario, he reported, because it started in the spring and carried on throughout the summer months. Usually, chinooks are concentrated in western basin waters during the spring and early summer, with alewives and salmon appearing in the shallower waters of the eastern end during late summer and fall.
“We don’t know the reason why, but alewives were also in the east end all season last year and the salmon were there feeding on them,” LaPan said. “We’ve always known, of course, that salmon prefer alewives if they’re available — they must taste like cheeseburgers to chinooks.”
Fisheries managers are still mystified about the change in behavior that gave eastern fishermen a special bonus, as they remain puzzled over the 2002 season, the year the catch of all salmonids plummeted.
“We told everyone back then that the fish were out there, but they didn’t show up in catch reports until the next year,” LaPan said. “All you can say is, that’s fishing!”
Another encouraging report is that some real wallhangers were reported in the chinook catch last year, according to Dan Bishop, DEC fisheries manager stationed in Cortland.
“From preliminary reports, we know that several salmon weighing over 30 pounds were taken,” he reported. Informal reports indicate that a lot of 20-pound-plus were boated, and both two-year and three-year fish, which make up the large majority of the chinook catch, appeared fat and healthy. This is a definite improvement over the 2003 survey, which included some of the skinniest salmon researchers had seen.
The western basin is the traditional hotspot for spring salmon, and both fishermen and charter captains are expecting another great year, building on the past two record seasons, according to Bill Hilts, sport-fishing coordinator for Niagara County.
“Our spring chinook fishery started as usual with a bang in April, and never stopped until September, when unseasonably warm weather seemed to put salmon runs on hold for a few weeks,” he reported. “The spring salmon fishing was easily the best we’ve had in 15 years, and the rest of the season wasn’t far behind.”
An unusually large number of one-year chinooks were taken in this area of the lake, and Hilts believes this bodes well for the upcoming season. Also, while the spotlight was on chinooks last year, a lot of coho salmon and trout were given a free pass, so to speak, which could mean those species will be more numerous and larger this year.
Speaking of trout, another record was set in western waters right in the middle of all the chinook excitement. Fishing off Olcott, Ohio, angler Rob Wilson landed a 31-pound, 3-ounce steelhead (called a rainbow trout in the DEC’s survey), dislodging the previous state record of 26 pounds, 15 ounces.
The catch totals of species other than chinooks last year were: 3,430 coho salmon, a drop from the previous year’s total of 5,079; 16,719 brown trout, a sharp decline from the 2003 catch of 22,277; and 11,472 rainbow trout, a significant increase from the 8,245 boated the previous year. Fishermen took an estimated 34,380 smallmouth bass, a little more than half of the 2003 total of 65,633, while the yellow perch harvest of 18,380 was off the charts, the third highest catch on record.
Lake Ontario is a big place to cast a line, with about 7,500 square miles of water, and the seasonal fishing patterns for various areas of the lake are helpful in planning trips. Five years of the DEC’s catch surveys reveal that May is a great month for chinooks in the western basin, for example, while other areas are usually reporting paltry catches. On average, the chinook catch starts booming in all areas of the lake in July, with the western and east central sectors dominating. The chinook catch peaks in August, with the west basin and east end in the spotlight. September is another excellent chinook month with all areas of the lake contributing to the catch, as fish head toward spawning streams.
Coho fishing has two peaks in April-May and August-September, with the western and central regions providing nearly all of the spring catch. In late summer, more cohos will be caught in eastern sectors, although the west basin is good all season.
On average, the most consistent region to take rainbows, by far, is the west end, where the fishing peaks in July and August. But there are exceptions, such as 2003, when the June rainbow catch skyrocketed in t
he central regions.
Brown trout fishermen can expect their best catches during the spring months in the eastern half of the lake. April and May are the leading months, although good fishing is reported through July.
Anglers plying eastern waters have a lock on catching spring lake trout. April, June and July are hot months for this cold-water dweller in the east end. As the water warms, however, lakers move deeper, with great catches reported for the west-central area in July, August and September.
Stocking patterns have stabilized in recent years, as the emphasis has changed to increasing the survival rate by barge stocking and pen rearing. Pen rearing rainbows in the Oswego River has been very successful in increasing the number of adult fish returning, according to LaPan.
“Unfortunately, you can’t assume it will work everywhere, however, and we’re still evaluating the pen-rearing efforts in the Niagara River,” he cautioned. “Barge stocking, now a fairly routine practice, held some surprises in that regard for fisheries managers. Barge stocking is hugely successful in some locations, and not so in others — a problem still being researched.”
During 2003, the chinook stocking target of 1,600,000 was surpassed, with 1,621,636 spring fingerlings released. The coho target was 245,000, and 256,685 were stocked, — 6,685 spring fingerlings, 155,000 fall fingerlings and 95,000 yearlings. With a target of 425,000, 452,110 brown trout were planted — 38,600 fall fingerlings and 413,510 yearlings. The rainbow target was 615,700, and 681,099 fish were stocked — 635,219 yearlings, 40,000 spring fingerlings and 5,880 fry. Laker stocking hit the target of 500,000 yearlings.
“Lake Ontario is in a state of change like never before,” LaPan emphasized. “Zebra and quagga mussels have wiped out freshwater shrimp, formerly a vital first link in the food chain, and their effect on the so-called opossum shrimp is unknown as mussels cover ever deeper portions of the lake bottom.”
Disruption of the food chain may be at the top of the researcher’s list, but it seems that every year brings a new problem for the ecosystem.
What can Lake Ontario fishermen expect this year? Something different, for sure, but the stage is set for great salmon fishing, and it’s likely to last through September!