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New York's Lake Ontario Fishing

New York's Lake Ontario Fishing

Overall, things are looking good for the 2004 fishing season on New York's Lake Ontario, but many aspects of the fishery bear watching. Our expert explains.

By Rod Cochran

The only guideline that fishermen have for tomorrow is what happened yesterday, and these days you can't even take that to the bank. But based on last year's catch results, salmon and trout fishing in Lake Ontario this season should be just a little short of fantastic.

That 2003 was to be a banner year became apparent during the early inshore season for brown trout and salmon. The good news rolled in from all parts of the lake, according to Bill Hilts, who monitors fishing success in the western end of Lake Ontario for Niagara County.

"The 2003 season was outstanding for salmon and trout fishing, the best we've seen in a decade," he commented. "Spring fishing for kings around the Niagara Bar and east to Thirtymile Point was very good. Fishing was good all summer long, capped off with a very good run of salmon in the Niagara River and several south shore locations."

Reports of limit catches were even sweeter because the 2002 season had been a downer. And, there were those worrisome studies revealing a rapidly changing ecology at the bottom of the food chain caused by expanding zebra and quagga mussel colonies and other exotic species accidentally imported from Europe. The severity of these ecological changes is yet to be determined, but Lake Ontario is offering spectacular fishing right now, and it will continue all summer and fall.

June is a transition month on the big pond, as springtime wind patterns diminish and water temperatures reach the critical 60-degree level.

Photo by Mike Gnatkowski

Spawning alewives will begin leaving the shallows, and brown trout and salmon will follow the bait schools to deeper waters. As the offshore fishery kicks in during July and August (the two most productive months for kings), locating salmon becomes a little easier, according to Bob Cinelli, veteran charter captain fishing out of Olcutt.


"Weather patterns are stabilizing and salmon will be feeding on thermocline situations," he explained. "You can frequently find fish in the same places for a week or more."

Cinelli believes the warmer summertime water triggers longer and more active feeding periods for salmonids. He expects that larger fish will be caught this summer due to last year's warm fall and elongated feeding period.

"We were catching kings in the lake well into December," he noted.

Developing fishing patterns for offshore salmon and trout, however, is a constant challenge for fishermen and charter captains alike, and each year is a little different. Last year's catches proved without question that the fish are out there. But, it's a big lake, and once the trout and salmon have dispersed, it takes the latest electronic gear and experience on the water to locate fish.

June means the opening of the bass season in Lake Ontario, which offers some of the best smallmouth fishing on the continent. Using live bait and bottom-scratching artificials, fishermen find hot bass action from the Niagara River all along the south shore wherever there is a little rocky structure to the rocky dropoffs in the east end, and in the noted shoals at Henderson Harbor.

The only real hints for salmon and trout fishing are contained in last year's catch census conducted by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation's Lake Ontario Unit based at Cape Vincent. The study runs from April through September and has been conducted annually since the mid-1980s. Chinook salmon produced the most dramatic increases during 2003 with an estimated fishing catch from boats of 62,094 kings.

"It was a fantastic fishing season for trout and salmon," stated Steve LaPan, a DEC fisheries biologist stationed at Cape Vincent.

Only 27,932 chinooks were boated during the previous year, one of the worst totals on record, but last year was truly fantastic, the best since 1994, when 84,361 fish were caught. The seasonal catch pattern for chinooks was typical, starting in April, with good fishing in May, and then dipping into June. Great fishing occurred from late June through September, but August was the top month, with anglers reporting a catch of 12,752 kings. The western sector of the lake was the most productive with a catch rate nearly equaling the combined catch of the east-central and east regions.

The coho salmon catch rate also improved significantly last year, providing similar expectations for 2004. The boat survey revealed a catch of 6,801 fish last season compared to 3,835 reported the previous year. Last year was also a bonanza year for brown trout, with 40,625 fish reported from boats, up from 26,006 taken in 2002. The rainbow (steelhead) catch totaled 13,943, a healthy increase from the 8,533 fish landed the previous year.

The lake trout catch dropped like an anchor last year, with a catch of 16,435, down from the 46,292 lakers caught in 2002. Lake trout fishing had been trending upward since 2000, no doubt because of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program to re-establish a reproducing population in the lake.

Wild-spawned fry have also been increasing, but the situation is very complex. One factor for the declining catch could be last year's superb salmon fishing, which may well have diverted fishing pressure from lakers.

It's no secret that when the fishing's tough, lake trout are targeted because they're easier to find. Another factor is that lakers are bottom feeders, the precise location where mussels are changing the aquatic world, and possibly, diminishing lake trout food supplies.

This is what has researchers scratching their heads - a disrupted food chain extending from the bottom of the lake to the top, ranging from microscopic plankton to king salmon. The key food of predatory species here is alewives, fish that occurred in such abundance prior to the introduction of Pacific salmon that they washed up dead in piles around the shoreline.

Smelts, which have virtually vanished, were in a dietary second place, followed by sculpins and a few other bait species of minor importance. The primary food of alewives, smelts and other bait species had been scuds (diporeia), which have nearly disappeared from the lake in recent years, according to Bob O'Gorman, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Biological Field Station in Oswego. Diporeia are hatched on the bottom of t

he lake, which is rapidly being blanketed with zebra and quagga mussels (also competitors for plankton).

"Mussel colonies are like a carpet being unrolled from around the lake toward the middle's deepest water," O'Gorman explained.

The mussel "donut" now extends to depths exceeding 450 feet, apparently heading toward 778 feet to close the "hole" entirely.

Alewives are now feeding primarily on mysis, also called opossum shrimp, but on the whole, are not thriving, according to O'Gorman's studies.

Alewives collected in 2003 were in their poorest condition since surveys began in 1978. Complicating the picture further is another exotic species imported in bilge water from Europe, the round goby, a perch-like species that is now prevalent in the lake, but is reputed to eat mussels - yet another mystery to unravel.

What's next? Well, no one knows for sure, but there is a hint out there in landing nets. It has been apparent to many experts that salmon and trout have been getting smaller (that is, growing slower) as indicated by tournament entries and general observations of many fish caught over the course of a season. A DEC study at the Salmon River fish hatchery has confirmed that last year, when catch rates indicated spectacular fishing, the salmon and trout weren't eating so well.

Based on measurements of the cohos and chinooks that returned to the hatchery, the 2-year-old and 3-year old chinook females had mean weights of 13.3 pounds and 16.8 pounds, respectively, the lowest on record. The 2-year-old males seemed to have found enough calories, with a mean weight of 12.8 pounds, but the 3-year-olds were the skinniest on record, with a mean weight of 16.4 pounds. A large number of chinook jacks (1-year-old males) made it back to the hatchery last fall, but their mean weight of 3.7 pounds was also the lightest on record. Coho spawning weights were similarly depressed below those of prior years.

Keeping track of the changes in Lake Ontario these days is no picnic, but it means there's always a surprise out there waiting for you!

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