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New York's Finger Lakes Spring Trout

New York's Finger Lakes Spring Trout

Western New York's Finger Lakes offer some of the finest spring trout fishing in the state. Don't miss out on this amazing smorgasbord of trout-fishing opportunities! (April 2010)

Although spring trout fishing in the fabulous Finger Lakes gets little attention in the sporting press, Empire State anglers are well aware of the chain's piscatorial treasures.

According to a New York Department of Environmental Conservation-sponsored survey of fishing effort, Lake Ontario led the state in 2007 with an estimated 287,209 angler days -- an "angler day" being a whole day or part of a day spent fishing -- between Jan. 1 and May 31. The number is pretty impressive, but casting arms and downriggers got a workout on the Finger Lakes that year, too.

Seneca Lake was No. 8 in the state from January through May, and three other bodies of water in the chain that are renowned for trout (Cayuga, Keuka and Skaneateles lakes), drew a combined 116,000 angler days among them during the same period.

The Finger Lakes offer extraordinary opportunities to catch rainbow, brown or lake trout, as well as landlocked Atlantic salmon. In all, nine of the 11 lakes in the chain (excluding Honeoye and Conesus lakes) are home to one or more salmonids. Most may be fished successfully by bank-anglers, as well as boaters, and all produce fish of trophy size.

Right now is prime time to hook up with a lunker. In spring, the chain's big lakers begin feeding greedily after a long winter. Resident rainbows are either swimming up tributaries to fulfill their reproductive urges or, having completed that duty, will be found resting off the mouths of spawning streams. Browns and landlocks will be following huge schools of baitfish into lake shallows.

The angler who knows his way around the Finger Lakes region can reasonably expect to land the fish of a lifetime within the next several weeks.


Here's a lake-by-lake rundown, beginning with the easternmost link in the chain:

Covering 2,214 surface acres, Otisco Lake is primarily a warm-water fishing hole. However, it's also a productive trout spot. Browns are the quarry in Otisco, and football-shaped specimens weighing between 5 and 8 pounds are caught annually.

Otisco is stocked with more than 5,000 brown trout each year by the Onondaga County-owned Carpenter's Brook Fish Hatchery. In the late 1960s and early '70s, anglers routinely caught legal limits of Otisco browns that fattened up on resident alewives. Some years, the big ones were so stuffed on sawbellies that they could be almost impossible to catch. Today, Otisco holds fewer alewives and the predatory trout bite voraciously at times.

In early May, shore-fishermen using stick baits in search of walleyes often connect with fat Otisco browns instead. The favored location for this sport is the causeway, an abandoned roadbed that almost cleaves the lake in two.

Otisco Lake is in southern Onondaga County. To get there, take U.S. Route 20 east from Skaneateles or west from LaFayette to the Route 174 intersection. Turn south, and bear left on Otisco Valley Road near the dam. Two privately owned marinas about four miles down this road charge a reasonable fee for launching.

To get to the causeway, take Otisco Valley Road past the lake to the first right turn, Sawmill Road. Turn right, and then take the next right, which leads directly to the causeway.

So clean that it is the main source of drinking water for the city of Syracuse, Skaneateles Lake is also the finest rainbow trout fishery in the Finger Lakes chain, according to Jeff Robins DEC Region 7 biologist.

Robins, who oversees management of the lake, said the 31 anglers who recorded their catches from Skaneateles for the regional Angler Diary Cooperator program reported catching 243 'bows in 2008 that were big enough to creel. Those trout averaged 17.9 inches in length. The biggest was a 26-inch fish.

The DEC supplements the lake's wild trout population with annual stockings of about 10,000 hatchery 'bows that seem naturally inclined to hang out near shore in spring and fall.

Dan Bishop, the DEC's Region 7 fisheries manager, said the trout stocked in Skaneateles are the progeny of wild females collected at the fish ladder on Cayuga Lake Inlet and male rainbows bred at the state hatchery in Randolph.

Skaneateles Lake rainbows share space with stocked landlocked salmon that frequently grow to more than 20 inches. Its wild lake trout typically run between 15 and 18 inches, but now and then some persistent troller reels in an ancient laker that weighs 15 or 20 pounds!

A state boat launch is available on the west side of the lake about four miles south of the village of Skaneateles via Route 41A.

Shore casting is permitted in the village of Skaneateles in a small park west of the St. James Episcopal Church on Genesee Street (Route 20) and on the village pier near the dam that spills into Skaneateles Creek.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse also allows shore-fishing at its Lourdes Camp on the lake's east shore.

To get there from U.S. Route 20, turn south on Route 41 (not Route 41A) and proceed to the hamlet of Borodino. Turn right onto Nunnery Road and take the sixth right turn (Richards Road) till it dead-ends at the camp.

Not long ago, Owasco Lake was one of the best places in the state to catch a 10-pound trout -- brown, rainbow or laker. Unfortunately, the lake's food chain has been altered in recent years by the re-introduction of walleyes. It seems no coincidence that rainbow and brown trout catches plummeted after the DEC allowed local volunteers to seed Owasco with pond-reared walleye fingerlings. State biologists believe walleyes feast on brown and rainbow fry produced in tributaries of the lake. Owasco lake trout undoubtedly eat their share of baby browns and rainbows when they're available, too.

Lakers are now so abundant that Dan Bishop, a DEC Region 7 fisheries manager, encourages anglers to keep their limits of togue in Owasco.

"Owasco Lake is struggling," Bishop said last fall. "But we're not stocking walleyes any longer, and it (the lake) should start coming back."

For now, Finger Lakes regulations permit Owasco anglers to creel five trout or salmon per day, including no more than three lakers or three landlocked salmon. Trout must be at least 15 inches long, except rainbows caught in either Owasco

or Skaneateles lakes must be 9 inches or longer to creel. Salmon must be 18 inches or better in Cayuga Lake and at least 15 inches in the other Finger lakes.

The few whoppers caught in Owasco today are mostly found near the north end, off the pier that frames the lake outlet in Auburn's Emerson Park or at Burtis Point, at the mouth of Dutch Hollow Brook. Spoon-casters can score from the pier, while trollers will do well around the point after launching at the park.

The DEC office in Cortland, at (607) 753-3095, has a free contour map indicating the location of Burtis Point and other lake features. Anglers may download the map, and others showing each of the other Finger Lakes, on the DEC's Web site at

Landlocked salmon, lake trout, browns and rainbows are all on the menu for boaters and bank-fishermen in Cayuga Lake, which stretches north from the city of Ithaca in Tompkins County. Cayuga's salmon stage at the south end of the lake off Ithaca's Stewart Park and follow spawning smelt into the lower ends of two tributaries: Cayuga Inlet and Fall Creek. Landlocks weighing up to 8 pounds take Black Ghost streamers as well as small flutter spoons at this time.

Shore-fishing is popular at numerous locations around Cayuga Lake, which spans 42,956 acres -- the second-largest of the Finger Lakes.

Taughannock Falls State Park, off Route 89 on the west shore, is a consistent producer of salmon, lake trout and browns in spring. Night crawlers fished on a slip-sinker rig can be effective at the south end of the park or at the creek mouth, but minnows allowed to sink deep under slip-bobber rigs are deadlier yet.

Lakers weighing 5 to 8 pounds are commonly caught at Taughannock, and sizable landlocks have been known to swarm around schools of baitfish at the mouth of the park's namesake creek in early May.

Numerous marinas dot the shoreline of Cayuga Lake. Because the trout fishing is best in the southern half of the lake, I'd recommend shoving off from Taughannock Falls State Park or perhaps the Allen H. Treman State Marine Park off Route 89 north of Ithaca.

Finding Cayuga Lake is a snap. It's immediately south of U.S. routes 5 and 20. Heading west from Auburn, look for the intersection with Route 89. If you come to the village of Seneca Falls, you've driven too far.

The largest of the Fingers, at 43,281 surface acres, Seneca Lake is also the deepest at 618 feet off the village of Lodi in Yates County. Seneca produces some of the chain's biggest salmonids, too, including lake, rainbow and brown trout and a small population of landlocks.

In spring, all of the above can show up on the stringers of waders and bank fishers off Salt Point Road, a few casts north of Watkins Glen via Route 14 and county Route 30. The Watkins Glen pier, the wall at Sampson State Park on the east shore off Route 96A and the Geneva pier at the north end of the lake also beckon to shore-anglers.

Boaters who launch at Sampson or at the Lodi Point Marine Park off Route 89 will find themselves in mid-lake.

For up-to-date fishing reports pertaining to Seneca Lake, call Seneca Marine Bait and Tackle in Watkins Glen at (607) 535-6690, or Roy's Marina, on the west shore at the village of Dresden at (315) 789-3094.

Shaped like the capital letter, "Y," Keuka Lake is clean and cold -- and it's full of lake and rainbow trout, as well as some of the state's biggest browns.

Keuka produced a couple of state-record browns in the 1970s and '80s before Lake Ontario's forage-fueled fishery cranked into high gear.

Today, most of Keuka's big browns are caught in the south end, known as the "Hammondsport arm." The best times to hook a 15- to 20-pound whopper are spring and fall, and the best tactic is trolling as close to shore as possible using planer boards.

The Hammondsport basin is also the likeliest spot to consistently hook the wild lakers that are the most dominant predators in the lake. Live alewives fished on the lake bottom in 40 to 50 feet of water will do the job.

Lakers may also be caught on occasion by shore-casters at Keuka Lake State Park off West Bluff Drive in the Branchport arm of the lake.

To get to Keuka Lake from U.S. Route 20, turn south on Route 14A at Geneva. This leads directly to Penn Yan, which is at the lake's north end. Continue south on Route 54A from there to Branchport and Keuka Lake State Park's boat launch.

Lakers, browns and rainbows are common in Canandaigua Lake, but it's the 'bows that are unique. Every one of them is born wild in the headwaters of Naples Creek and other tributaries. These are fat and feisty fish often weighing more than 5 pounds.

After the spawning run ends in late April or early May, lake regulars like to fish for rainbows after dark using live or dead alewives on the bottom in areas up to 100 feet deep. Another method calls for trolling with streamer flies or flutter spoons over points and near tributary mouths early and late in the day. Brown trout may be caught the same way and in the same places.

Canandaigua's north shore is off Route 20 in the city that gives the lake its name. The beautiful state marine park there charges a modest launching fee, but anglers who would rather launch at no cost can do so at state ramps on Route 21, three miles north of Naples; at the small state fishing access site on Route 245, east of Naples on a tributary of Naples Creek called the West River.

Because they are both part of Rochester's drinking water supply and subject to special restrictions, we'll look at Hemlock and Canadice lakes in tandem. It so happens they are very similar fisheries, offering lakers, browns, rainbows and Atlantics of nice average sizes in rustic settings.

Hemlock Lake in eastern Livingston and western Ontario counties, covers 1,800 acres, and has a maximum depth of 91 feet. Canadice Lake is smaller, in fact, the smallest body of water in the Finger Lakes chain, at 649 acres, but its maximum depth of 83 feet nearly matches that of Hemlock.

The lakes are only about two miles apart. Take Route 20 west from Canandaigua to the village of Lima. There, follow Route 15A south. It winds between the two fishing holes. From Lima, Hemlock Lake is about a 20-minute drive, and Canadice is about five minutes farther.

Hemlock anglers must pick up a free permit on the north shore, off Rix Hill Road, in order to fish. Small boats may be launched there, but be advised there's a 10-horsepower limit for motors. The same deal applies at Canadice Lake. One must stop at the same kiosk for a free permit, and the same horsepower limit applies.

Good bank-fishing is available on both lakes, which are vir

tually undeveloped. The shore-fishing experience is somewhat reminiscent of a day in the Adirondacks, except that the fish you catch are likely to be bigger!

Basic contour maps of the various Finger Lakes may be downloaded from the DEC's Web site at

For tourism brochures and other information pertaining to travel accommodations in the region, contact the Finger Lakes Tourism office at (800) 530-7488.

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