August 31, 2011
Many legendary rivers in New York aren't what they used to be, but anglers loyal to some less famous streams say their fishing keeps getting better.
By J. Michael Kelly
Trout rivers gain big reputations by producing fine sport for multitudes of anglers over an extended period of time. Most such waters deserve their fame; yet anyone who has recently fished some of New York's hallowed rivers is honor-bound to admit that many of those streams are shadows of their former selves. The West Branch of the Ausable River in Essex County, for example, a river I truly love, takes a fierce pounding from tourist-anglers every year and doesn't seem to have the same abundance of mayfly hatches that it once did. Similarly, the Beaverkill River in our historic Catskills region has recently suffered from a bitter cycle of floods and droughts.
I have supported organizations that would protect rivers of legend from dams, development and other modern threats, but meanwhile allocated the majority of my fishing time for streams that are trending up rather than down. In the process I've sampled numerous New York waters that are generally unsung in the sporting press and underrated by most anglers.
UPPER GENESEE RIVER
When I ask fly-fishing friends about the upper Genesee River, they often act puzzled. The typical mental pictures of the Genny center on the salmon-and-steelhead smorgasbord on the part of the river in downtown Rochester and the breathtaking gorge in Letchworth State Park that's known as "the Grand Canyon of the East." My indelible snapshot of the Genesee, however, features a long, glassy flat near the Pennsylvania border, blanketed with mayfly spinners and dimpled by surface-feeding trout.
The first time I gave this stretch a thorough try I caught four 20- to 21-inch browns in three days. Three of them inhaled dry flies during thick evening hatches of Ephemerella invaria and Ephemerella dorothea mayflies, recognized as simply "sulfurs" to most anglers. The upper Genesee reminded retired Syracuse firefighter Mike Brilbeck and I of the West Branch of the Delaware, with one notable difference. Whereas the West Branch is usually quite crowded in May and early June, we had long stretches of the Genny to ourselves.
The section I quickly grew to love is the catch-and-release area that begins at the tiny Allegany County village of Shongo and ends two and-a-half miles downstream at Belmont. Several clearly-marked road crossings off state Route 19 afford easy access from Shongo to Belmont.
Much of the Genesee trout water is about 60 to 80 feet across. Its pools are generally slow-moving and deep, and good casting and wading skills are a prerequisite for consistent hook-ups. Along with an assortment of dry flies -- March Browns, Cahills and tan caddis are essentials in May, along with those sulfurs -- you'll want a few Wooly Buggers or other streamer patterns to work the water between hatches. Be sure to wear chest waders if you hope to cover all the productive water.
You'll want to stay a few days when you visit the Genesee, and reservations are recommended because the Wellsville-Belmont area has a limited number of motel rooms. Contact Allegany County Tourism at (716) 268-9339 for lodging advice.
Once considered an exceptionally productive April-May stream, Owasco Inlet has quietly morphed into one of Central New York's better all-seasons fisheries. The huge rainbows that the Inlet was known for -- like the 10 1/2-pounder I caught back in 1981 from a tributary -- are rare these days because most of Owasco Lake's juvenile rainbows wind up in the gullets of resident lake trout or walleyes before they get a chance to grow up. Yet 20-inch 'bows can still be caught now and then during the spring spawning run.
And, as rainbows have waned in recent years, wild and stocked brown trout have expanded their niche in the watershed. During the last several years, I have caught numerous 15- to 18-inch browns in the deep pools between the Cayuga County villages of Moravia and Locke, and I routinely hook into 10- to 13-inch wild rainbows in the same stretch.
Further upstream, in and around Groton in Cortland County, rainbows aren't as common but wild browns are plentiful for those who bushwhack to the better pools through alder thickets and beaver meadows.
In late April, anglers who have been diligently drifting spawn sacks or nightcrawlers in the hope of hooking a lake-run spawner or two take notice of rising fish. From about April 25 through May 10, Hendrickson mayflies (Ephemerella subvaria) hatch with a satisfying degree of regularity. The duns appear beginning around 2 p.m. and the hatch declines an hour or two later. Excellent nymph fishing precedes the hatch and a good spinner fall often follows it, at around 5 or 6 p.m., and lasts until nearly sunset. My personal-best fly fishing catch during Hendrickson time on Owasco Inlet was a 25-inch rainbow that took an emerger pattern and most of my fly line for a long downstream run before surrendering.
While the wide pools and riffles below the Route 38 bridge in Locke are ideally suited to fly-casting, Owasco Inlet can also be fished effectively with bait or lures throughout its length. Just remember, pursuant to special regulations for Finger Lakes tributaries, Inlet trout must be at least 9 inches long and the creel limit is three a day. Only single hook points are allowed. Check the regional rules on pages 32 and 33 of the current issue of the state Freshwater Fishing regulations guide.
Finger Lakes Tourism can point readers to the varied accommodations available in the Owasco Lake area. Their number is (800) 499-9615.
NINE MILE CREEK
Some readers will wonder if they've flipped to this page in error, as Nine Mile Creek is far from unknown in the Syracuse area. Outside of Onondaga County, however, the creek is rarely mentioned in the same breath as "Delaware," "Beaverkill," Ausable" or other famous rivers, although it has more trout per acre living within its banks than many of those other streams do. Nine Mile -- which happens to be my "home water" -- flows out of Otisco Lake in southern Onondaga County, then tails Route 174 through Marcellus and Camillus before spilling into Onondaga Lake.
Because the last-named body of water is just now in recovery from decades of pollution and neglect after years of talks among the state DEC, Honeywell Inc. and other impacted parties, many anglers from elsewhere assume that Nine Mile is also grossly polluted and not worth fishing.
In fact, Nine Mile arguably has the best water quality of any sizeable creek in Upstate New York, with daytime temperatures in prime sections rarely climbing above 65 degrees on the hottest of summer days and no major pollution problems since the 1970s. The creek is generousl
y stocked with browns and brookies by the Onondaga County-owned Carpenter's Brook Fish hatchery and also harbors wild browns and ranbows from Marcellus Falls, downstream. Wild browns are so thick that some locals consider the annual off-load of 20,000 or so hatchery fish to be redundant.
"The stocked fish are a needed buffer to protect the wild browns from angling pressure, which is quite heavy," said DEC Region 7 Fisheries Manager Dan Bishop, who lives within a short stroll from the creek in Marcellus.
So, what makes Nine Mile "great" instead of merely good? I'd cite its number of big browns; the influx of massive limestone springs that assure solid hot-weather fishing; and the wild rainbows that seemingly showed up out of nowhere six or seven years ago.
Some DEC biologists think the first of the silver bullets exited one of the Finger Lakes, most likely Skaneateles, then swam down the Seneca River, into Onondaga Lake and finally leapt over the waist-high Amboy Dam on their way up Nine Mile. As a certain TV detective used to say with a shrug, "Works for me!"
Regardless, Nine Mile's browns are the fishery's bread and butter. They average 10 to 12 inches but occasionally measure twice that long in the lower reaches of the creek.
Your best chances to catch a big one are on the opening day of the season and again during the sulfur mayfly hatches from mid-May until the day lilies bloom in late June.
For lodging information, anglers bound for Nine Mile can contact the Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce, at (315) 470-1800.
For ease of access, variety of water types and abundance of trout, Chittenango Creek is hard to top, whether the trout streams compared to it hail from New York or Montana. The creek that follows Route 13 through the Madison County villages of Cazenovia and Chittenango is outstanding by almost anyone's standard. I see it as sort of a cut-down version of the far more famous Ausable, with its profusion of pocket water, slippery wading and spectacular scenery.
Chittenango Creek is heavily stocked by state hatchery tankers beginning in mid-April and can be counted on for fine early-season bait and lure dunking. Around the first of May a reliable daily hatch of Hendricksons commences, followed by June sulfurs and summer caddis flies.
Jake DeCapio of nearby Marcellus loves to drift a small beadhead nymph in the deep holes just upstream from the village of Chittenango and swears 25-fish days are fairly common.
"A good number of those fish will be stocked two-year-olds between 12 and 15 inches long," he added.
Interestingly, Chittenango Creek receives only moderate fishing pressure. That may change a bit this season, however, now that a new no-kill area has been established on the stream, immediately downstream from the Fenner-Sullivan town line. Such areas are generally quite popular in New York state, although no fish may be creeled and only artificial lures or flies are permitted within their boundaries.
Although it is less than 40 feet across in most spots, Chittenango is slick bottomed and I recommend the use of non-slip soles and a wading staff along its entire length.
Madison County Tourism can help anglers find overnight accommodations.
While we're on the subject of tricky wading, I should mention the gorgeous but slippery as a snake Chateaugay River, which drops and bounces over a couple of scenic waterfalls through Franklin County and then into Canada.
Fellow Onondaga County resident Bruce Douglas joined me on my last visit to the Chateaugay in August and I asked him for his lasting impressions after the trip.
"I didn't think it was going to be that good," he said. "It was full of fish and insect life, too. It's a beautiful river in a beautiful setting."
Douglas caught approximately two dozen trout one afternoon on the river after a drenching downpour while I, expecting water to roil up more than it did, used 'crawlers to hook half as many trout.
Rainbows dominate the catch in the area we fished above the U.S. Route 11 bridge. Most are 8 to 11 inches long, but you can expect a 12- to 14-inch brown every so often.
The Chateaugay flows under the federal highway just west of the village of the same name. Public fishing rights apply to the Route 11 area and to one or both banks downstream, from crossings at Drayton Hollow Road and Sam Cook Road. The latter is deceptively broad and shallow but holds many current-toned rainbows that are willing to hit deep-drifted nymphs or bushy, high-floating dries.
Contact Franklin County's tourism office at (518) 483-6788 for lodging assistance.