Where to go for New York's lunker walleyes later this spring? Here's a look at five of the best places to go when the season opens. (March 2008).
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
The Empire State's walleye season doesn't open until the first Saturday in May. But March is none too early to start grilling what's left in the freezer and making plans to reel in fish that will fill it up all over again.
While you may be satisfied with your local lake, New York has numerous walleye hangouts that are worth visiting. And there's no time like the present to get busy on the research to make your spring junket successful. Make contacts with regional fisheries biologists, local tackle shops and fishing guides.
If you plan to make more than a day trip, you'll need to chat with the state's tourism folks, too.
To make your planning process a little easier, here's a report on five of our state's best early-season walleye waters:
ST. LAWRENCE RIVER
Let's start with the forgotten part of a legendary fishing hole. Though the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River -- roughly from Cape Vincent to Chippewa Bay -- has earned a reputation for lunker walleyes, that fishery is at its best in late summer and early autumn.
Through July, at least, steadier action will be found farther down the river, near Ogdensburg.
Try hopping jigs along the sandy bottom or dragging spinner-and-worm harnesses weighted with a 3/4- to 1-ounce bell sinker in 20 feet of water.
In the Ogdensburg sector of the St. Lawrence, public launch facilities -- all within shouting distance of state Route 37 in St. Lawrence County -- include ramps at Morristown, off Water Street, in the city of Ogdensburg on Riverside Avenue and on Pine Street in Waddington.For information on motels and other accommodations, contact the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce at (315) 386-4000.
In July and August of 2007, a big hatch of perch fry sated the appetites of Oneida Lake walleyes. Though that development frustrated local anglers, those extra calories should yield some extra-chunky fish this spring. That's welcome news, for even though Oneida produces plenty of walleyes, very few tip the scales at more than 3 or 4 pounds.
In this 51,000-acre central New York honeyhole, the average walleye is a 17- or 18-incher -- just right for filleting and frying. It's not difficult for an experienced angler to catch a lake limit of three such fish during the first several weeks of the season.
This year, researchers at the Cornell University Biological Field Station at Shackelton Point expect Oneida to harbor around 350,000 adult walleyes.
That's about 100,000 fewer than the lake's long-term average, but should be more than enough to hold the attention of visiting anglers.
Typically, most of the adult fish in Oneida Lake spawn in its several major tributaries, with the biggest run by far occurring in Scriba Creek, where the state walleye hatchery may be found. Lower Scriba Creek is off-limits to fishing. But other tributaries, including Fish Creek and Chittenango Creek, also have significant spawning runs in April and frequently hold late-arriving walleyes when the season opens.
Tributary fishing can be exciting for the first week or two of the season. But most anglers in Oneida Lake will get better results by drifting with night crawlers or trolling with shallow-running stickbaits in the vicinity of creek mouths. Or try casting after dark from popular shore accesses, such as the Interstate Route 81 bridge at Brewerton.
A trio of state boat launches -- one on the south shore off Route 31 between Bridgeport and Lakeport and the others on the north side of the lake off Route 49 at Toad Harbor and Godfrey Point -- are notably convenient for Oneida anglers.
Lake maps are available in numerous local tackle shops.
Oneida Lake covers portions of Oswego, Onondaga and Madison counties. Readers may start their search for nearby lodging by contacting the Oswego County Tourism office at (315) 349-8322.
Oswego County's other walleye gem is at the lower end of the Oswego River, in the same urban setting that plays host to a massive run of Pacific salmon each September and October.
When May rolls around, the salmon are far offshore in Lake Ontario. But the sidewalks overlooking the river in the City of Oswego's East Side and West Side parks are likely to be crowded with walleye fishermen.
Those hopefuls are seeking lunker fish in the 10- to 13- pound class. Specimens are caught almost daily in the lower river, following the season opener on the first Saturday in May.
Most of the whopper walleyes that nose into the Oswego River to spawn and school in the harbor feed on alewives and other baitfish.
They bite best after dark. That explains the glow of lantern lights along the shore and the rumble of trolling motors that can be heard in midriver on the gloomiest of nights in May and June. Some local captains swear the best fishing for Oswego walleyes is from midnight to dawn.
Most of the whopper walleyes that nose into the Oswego River to spawn and school in theharbor feed on alewives and other baitfish. They bite best after dark.
In the last two years, early-season fishing on the lower Oswego has been complicated by the proliferation of round gobies in the river. Gobies -- an invasive species that hitchhiked from Europe in the ballast of ocean-going freighters -- are now so abundant that anglers in Oswego harbor have a hard time keeping them off their hooks.
To minimize encounters with the 3- to 8-inch pests, try working a curly-tail jig or a floating-diving crankbait.
For the last two years I've been privileged to take part in frequent nighttime fishing trips with several of Syracuse's finest. City police Lt. John "Kid" Corbett and his buddies are the nemesis of Otisco Lake walleyes, as well as the local criminal element.
Otisco, the easternmost fishing hole in the Finger Lakes chain, holds several thousand adult walleyes, according to estimates by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. And many of those fish weigh between 5 and 7 pounds.
Prime time for Otisco walleye fishing is from late May through June, when swarms of spawning alewives draw big walleyes close to shore. The tried-and-true lures for these fish are skinny, shallow-running stickbaits.
Otisco Lake is off Route 174 and Otisco Valley Road, about four miles south of U.S. Route 20 in the Onondaga County towns of Otisco and Spafford. Good shore-fishing areas include the rocky shore off the dam at the lake's north end and the causeway, an old roadbed that nearly divides Otisco near its south end.
The DEC's Region 7 office in Cortland will supply inquiring anglers with a simple contour map of the lake. Call (607) 753-3095.
For lodging information, start with the Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce, at (315) 470-1800.
If you need a walleye fix before the new season arrives, one lawful option is a visit to the DEC's hatchery on Oneida Lake in mid-April, during the annual egg harvest. Another spirit-reviving possibility is a post-April Fool's Day hike along the banks of the Conesus Lake Inlet.
If you take the second route, don't forget your polarized sunglasses, for you'll need them to get a really good look at some of the heftiest walleyes you've ever seen. Last time I trekked to the Inlet, I eyeballed walleyes that I'm certain weighed more than 12 pounds apiece! I wish I had caught one of those monsters a few weeks later, but it was not to be: Conesus Lake walleyes are notoriously difficult to catch, and a one-day visit seldom yields success.
The best way to put one of the lake's lunkers on a stringer is to do your fishing at night. And the best place to make that happen is off the mouth of Conesus Inlet. Local experts score by trolling with sawbelly-sized crank baits and stick baits from sunset to sunrise along the south shore of the lake. If you want to focus on one of the double-digit trophies that clog the Inlet each April, make sure your boat has running lights.
Conesus Lake is off Route 15 in Livingston County, about a 45-minute drive from Rochester. At its north end is the village of Lakeville, and there are state boat launches at Lakeville and also at McPherson Point on the east shore.
The DEC's Region 8 office in Avon, at (585) 226-2466, can supply a contour map of the lake.
The Livingston County Chamber of Commerce, (585) 243-2222, is your logical place to start looking for overnight accommodations.