• Lake trout cooking preparation for people who don’t think they like it

    One question I get asked on a weekly basis is “how should I cook my catch?”  One comment I often hear when I ask clients if they plan on keeping fish is that “I don’t care for lake trout, so let’s just catch and release fish today.”

    Let’s start with the second question first.  And let me preface this by saying that I don’t recall having ever eaten Great Lakes lake trout or lakers from the Adirondacks either.  Adirondack fish should taste great.  I would expect Lake Ontario fish circa 2021 to be very good too, but going back to the late 1880s, people liked Finger Lakes lake trout better than those from Lake Ontario.  I have an old article to prove it!  (See the book “Fishing North American Waters 1888”.)  I have eaten them from most of the Finger Lakes as well as from Alaska.  Generally speaking, when properly prepared from the lake to the table, I consider them excellent table fare.  Yes – excellent.   I do like Landlocked Salmon, browns and rainbows better, but not that much better.  I think all these species are somewhat in the same “ballpark.”   They are all oily fish that eat a lot of alewives.

    There are three main reasons a lot of anglers in the Finger Lakes don’t like lake trout.  Or I should say, there are three main causes of lake trout being spoiled or doomed before they even make it to the table.

    #1.)  Fish are not put on ice immediately after catching them.  I just saw three nice lakers on a stringer at Taughannock this morning.  The water temp on the surface was 70 degrees.  By the end of the day that angler will be able to poke their finger right through the skin and into the flesh of the fish.  It will be spoiled ROTTEN.  You wouldn’t put steak out in 80 degree weather and just let it fester for 8 hours before cooking it.  You wouldn’t hang a deer up in 80 degree weather either!  I’d hope not.  Non-oily fish like walleyes can handle being kept in warm water.  I don’t recommend it.  But a lot of people unfortunately need “spoil-proof” fish.  They just are clueless when it comes to taking care of their catch.

    #2.)  People freeze their catch for too long.  Lake trout is best eaten fresh – as are most fish.  Freeze them for months and they will often turn rancid in the freezer.  I have had this happen.  Oily fish generally do not fare well frozen for long.  And yes, I get guys who claim to have kept lake trout for a year frozen in water or vacuum sealed, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

    3.)  People do not remove the dark meat along the skin of the fish (along the lateral line) before cooking it.   The dark meat has an “insipid flavor.”  It’s not bitter or sour, but it tastes “off.”  It doesn’t taste good and it will ruin your entire experience of eating a nice lake trout.  Cut out ALL of the dark meat before frying the fish.  If you are grilling it with the skin on or smoking it, just don’t eat that stuff.  It will come off easily with a fork.  Think of it as gristle or fat and you’ll be good to go.

    Here is a fool proof way to prepare Finger Lakes lake trout.  If you like fish, there’s a 99% chance you will really enjoy this recipe after following the preparation instructions.  I learned this stuff back in 1997 from Jim Haviland, who used to fish the lake a lot.  He owned “Kidder’s Landing” – a restaurant I worked at for a summer when I first moved down here in 1995.  Guys at his bar hated lake trout but liked the “silver fish,” so Jim would serve them his lake trout and tell them they were brown trout as he watched his patrons gobble down plate after plate of trout.  Only after they finished eating the fish would he tell them that they were eating lakers!   Not everything below is exactly how Jim did it, but it’s close enough and I have to give him the credit here.

    First thing to do is fillet the fish after you bled it out and iced it in your cooler onboard.  I generally fillet fish leaving the rib cage in, so the next thing to do is use a sharp fillet knife and cut along the edge of the ribcage, removing it.

    "Field Dressed Fillet" ready to prepare for table

    Cut out the ribcage

    After this, we are going to skin the fish.  Jim liked to angle his fillet knife parallel to the fillet, instead of angling towards the skin.  This does waste meat, but what it does is removes the vast majority of the lateral line quickly and easily.  If you don’t want to waste meat, go right along the skin but keep in mind you’ll have a lot more trimming to do.

    Jim told me that people would say “you’re wasting a lot of meat!”  Jim would reply – it’s ok, I have a bunch more trout!   I’d rather waste some meat filleting the fish, than waste 95% of the fillet because someone doesn’t like the off taste and tosses the whole fillet out.  So figure out what works best for you.

    Skinning the fish so dark meat is mostly removed

    You could always salvage some of the meat against the skin and use it for fish cakes or something else if you want.

    Notice how you now have a very narrow “column” of dark lateral line/skin meat.  Now just cut it out with a “V” cut and discard it.

    Cut out remainder of lateral line

    Jim was adamant about never soaking the fillet in water.  He recommended just wiping off the blood with paper towel.  If you get fish $hit on the fillet, I would do a quick rinse.  I don’t think that hurts anything.

    Patting down/wiping off the blood

    Now you are ready to cut the fish fillet into manageable sized (easily cooked) pieces.  Dredge the pieces in plain old white flour.  No need for any milk/egg wash – the oil of the fish makes them tacky enough!

    Cut up and ready to dredge!

    I should mention, you’ll also want to cut out any fatty deposits, like the kind that occurs just below a fin.  Also cut out any calcium/bone that was left on the fillet as you filleted along the backbone.  Do this before you cut up the fish.

    In the flour!

    In terms of your oil, I use vegetable oil but you can use whatever you want.  The oil should be hot enough so that the fish are “surprised” a bit – they sizzle when added to the pan. You don’t want the fish to just sit in the oil with no sizzle!  On the other hand – if the pieces curl up right away, the oil is too hot and your fish will likely get over cooked.

    Fry 'em up!

    Sprinkle in some salt and pepper to taste

    This fish was a 22″ laker.  I cooked it on one side for 2 minutes and then the other side for just over a minute.  That was all and it was done to perfection!  You’ll have to experiment with fish size and cooking time.  For a large fish, just cut the pieces to a smaller size.

    Remove from oil, pat down and enjoy! I like some lemon with my fish....

    How did it turn out?  It was fantastic!  If you don’t like lake trout, or had a bad experience with them, think about trying to prepare it this way.  I think you’ll have a change of heart!

  • Announcement – Zoom Lecture on Round Gobies in the Finger Lakes

    Round Goby Rampage: The Pros and Cons of a New Finger Lakes Invader

    Tuesday, 4/27 at 7pm with Dr. Susan Cushman

    Description:

    The Round Goby, Neogobius melanostomus, an invasive fish species now in some of the Finger Lakes has been known to forage primarily on dreissenid mussels and Lake Trout eggs, but their impact on other lake invertebrates is not well known. This presentation will provide background on their identification, invasion, ecology, and current distribution of the Round Goby in the Finger Lakes. Data will be shared from lake monitoring and citizen surveys, and feeding studies conducted to assess diet preferences and likely impact on native and invasive prey as well as native fishes.

    Event is free but requires registration for link.  Here is the link to sign up:

    https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZ0pce2hrjsvHtVeovuX_BWQcfcX9eBbtNJw

     

    Biography:
    Susan Cushman received her B.S. with a major in 1998 from William Smith College and her M.S. in 2001 from The Johns Hopkins University. She earned her Ph.D. in Fisheries Science from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Dr. Cushman has taught at Hobart and William Smith Colleges since 2007 where she teaches in the Biology Department and is a Research Scientist at the Finger Lakes Institute. Her areas of research span many areas of ecology including stream ecosystems, fish ecology, invasive species, habitat restoration, and water quality in the Finger Lakes. She is the past president of the New York Chapter of the American Fisheries Society and the vice president of the Northeastern Division of the American Fisheries Society.

  • Region 8 Angler Diary Summaries

    This afternoon I had a chance to read over my NYS DEC angler diary summaries of Seneca, Keuka and Canandaigua Lakes. As most of you know, I have guided Seneca Lake fairly regularly in the past.  As late as in 2012 I did 29% of my trips there, as opposed to 31% at Cayuga – and I spent a lot of time there in the 2000s.   Keuka was a lake I guided back when I lived in Trumansburg, which is closer to it than I am now.  I averaged around 15 to 25 trips there a year back in the 2000s into around 2012, just before I moved to Lansing.  I primarily guided there for lake trout but would do occasional smallmouth bass trips there when the conditions were good for them.  I have done occasional lake trout jigging trips on Canandaigua Lake for regular clients that live out that way, but it is not a lake I have fished a whole lot, however growing up in Rochester, all these lakes were more in my orbit than the ones I guide and fish now.

    The reason I write this is that I do get a lot of questions about these other lakes.  I do have profiles of them elsewhere on this website.

    Canandaigua Lake is probably just behind Cayuga Lake in lake trout abundance and great fishing.  For people targeting lake trout on Canandaigua Lake, it took an average of .9 hours to catch a legal laker.  That might even be better than Cayuga Lake.  Fish averaged 21 inches long.  Top fish caught and weighed by diary cooperators was a 17.69lb monster!  Canandaigua might have a few bigger individual lake trout in it than Cayuga Lake, but overall I think Cayuga Lake is better on average for 4 to 9lb fish.  Without the presence of lampreys, lakers have a better chance of reaching trophy potential, even though Canandaigua doesn’t have the forage base that Seneca or Cayuga Lakes have.  The percentage of wild fish over there is around 14%. All the rainbows there are wild fish, mainly spawned in Naples Creek and its tributaries.  Rainbow trout fishing was also excellent on Canandaigua.

    Keuka Lake also has a terrific catch rate – 1.3 hours to catch a legal lake trout in 2020.  Other salmonids are rare there and strictly bonus fish.  All lake trout there are wild and especially tasty.

    Seneca Lake was slow again for trout in general.  It took an average of 5 hours to catch a legal salmonid over there.  Kept lakers averaged 22.5 inches.   44% of the lake trout caught were wild fish.  Salmon numbers ticked up a little bit over there in 2020.  They will tick up a lot this year.  No diary cooperators caught any rainbows or brown trout on Seneca Lake last year.

    Cooperator numbers were down on all three of these lakes last year.  Covid could probably be blamed for a bit of the decline in trips and anglers, especially when boat launches were temporarily closed.  Keuka Lake will be losing one of its main cooperators in 2021 with Keuka BigFoot Charters retiring.  I don’t believe a single Seneca Lake Charter Captain keeps a book anymore, which to me is bewildering.  So every year DEC has less data to work with.  At least they are seeing a large enough lake trout sample size on Seneca to be able to ascertain the percentage of wild fish.  Hopefully some of you will sign up this year.   We should see the Region 7(Cayuga/Owasco/Otisco/Skaneateles) summaries within the next week or two.

  • A few odds and ends…

    First off, I want to thank whoever sent me the #JIG mug!  I appreciate it.  There was no note or return address, so I have no idea who sent it to me.

    I have been updating the website when I have time.  When the new site was built some of the “species” didn’t transfer over.  My web designer also used some stock Finger Lake photos as a template for me.  I had completely forgotten about those, so I have been replacing them with photos of the various lakes.  I’ve also been digging through my photo archives (and I have a TON of them) and adding some more shots to go along with the “species” pages.

    Angling Zone friend Ralph told me about a great product that no boater/motorist should be without.  It’s the NOCO Boost Plus Jump Starter.  I bought the GB 40.  They are available through Tackle Warehouse, Bass Pro Shops and elsewhere.  This little gadget fits into a winter coat pocket and can jump start a dead car, truck or boat battery with ease.  As a matter of fact, with one charge you can start over a dozen (up to 18) vehicles!  Check out the YouTube videos on this thing.  No more having to ask for a jump when you have a dead battery or having to call AAA.   I can’t count how many times I’ve seen guys stuck at a boat launch with a dead battery and no way to start it.  I saw that happen back in November on Otisco Lake.

    I recently bought one and actually had to use it a week ago when my truck battery died.  It’s the real deal.  Three years ago they sold for around $70 to $90 – now they are up to $140 but they are still well worth it.

    Gift Certificates are available.  It’s a bit late now to send one out before the holiday but I have them for any occasion!

  • Region 8 Seneca and Keuka Lake Updates

    I had a chance to talk with DEC Region 8 personnel.  DEC has been working on updating the Fisheries Management Plans for the Region 8 lakes.  The last time plans were formulated was back in 1980/1981, when Tom Chiotti wrote them up.  I have copies of the old plans for Cayuga, Owasco, Skaneateles, Otisco and Canandaigua Lakes, and I’ve read the old Seneca Lake plan.   They are a real treasury of information with past stocking history, regulations, angler effort, limnological info and numerous other items of note.

    Once plans are completed, which should be in a couple months, they will be subject to public review.  Brad Hammers mentioned in the latest diary summary that increasing landlocked salmon stocking on Seneca Lake is being considered.  Brown trout stocking was virtually doubled in 2020 due to the zebra mussel infestation found at the Rome Hatchery.  Browns will be discontinued in Seneca Lake in 2021.  If for some reason we see tremendous returns of browns over the next couple years, maybe that policy will be reconsidered, but overall the brown stocking has not produced a fishery of note on Seneca Lake.   You just don’t see the effort like you do on Cayuga Lake with guys flatlining them in the winter/spring – it just doesn’t happen.  Brown trout do not fare well with high lamprey populations.  Salmon do better, so hopefully we’ll see a stocking increase no later than 2022.

    Lamprey numbers are still higher than desired on Seneca Lake.  Catherine Creek and Keuka Outlet (at Dresden) are both being slated for treatment in 2021.  Of course that doesn’t do anything to lower the numbers of lamprey currently out swimming around in Seneca Lake but hopefully it will keep their future numbers down.

    Lake trout netted this summer looked very plump.  Numbers (abundance) was about the same or slightly lower than the last netting 3 or 4 years ago.  The main reason they are hard for anglers to catch is that they are very well fed.  Alewife netting was done in September and their abundance is very high in Seneca Lake.  They netted “a ton” of them and there were plenty of good year classes present.  Lamprey wounding was down considerably on Seneca Lake’s lake trout.  I have some good contacts that fish the lake and I hear differing stories – some guys were catching lakers that were pretty beat up, and other guys were impressed by how clean they were.  Both can be true!

    Keuka Lake was stocked with 200,000 ciscoes this past fall.  They seem to be doing alright in Keuka.  I actually had a client tell me that he caught one on a worm this past summer, which was neat.  If anyone out there catches a cisco or finds one in a lake trout, please contact Region 8.  They want to know about it.  Overall numbers of lake trout on Keuka seems to have trended down a little bit since the heavy harvest through the ice back around 2015/2016, but Brad says the population appears to be increasing again.

    Those of you that fish these lakes more than a couple times a year for trout should think about keeping a DEC Diary.  I’ve been trumpeting this for many years now and I’m still disappointed in how few anglers bother with it.  It’s very little effort and with these lakes continually changing, DEC needs as much information as they can get in order to formulate good stocking/management policy.  Even if you don’t catch many or any fish for that matter, that information is important.  Angler effort and catches or lack thereof is an important component of determining stocking numbers.  So I hope to see an increase in cooperators when I receive my diary summaries next spring. I know some of you have signed up and kept a book this year and I appreciate it!

  • Seneca Lake Update

    One of the most frequently asked questions I hear is “What’s going on with Seneca Lake?  Why is the fishing so tough over there?”   I’ve gone over this plenty of times before in my articles and on reports.  I’ve had a chance to talk to Region 8 fisheries personnel and I think the fishery is headed in the right direction.

    Crews from Region 8 have finished up their Coldwater Netting on Seneca Lake.  Numbers of lakers netted (abundance of fish – or lack thereof) was similar or perhaps slightly lower than what was seen in 2017.  Overall sizes and condition of lake trout was better than then.   Lamprey scarring was low, however more live lampreys did come up in the nets attached to fish than in the prior netting.

    Natural production is down to late 1970s/early 1980s numbers.  Approximately 10% to 30% of the lakers netted in Seneca Lake were of wild origin.  In the late 1980s/early 1990s wild production was up around 65% to 75%.   Lower wild production is likely a result of high alewife numbers and issues with EMS (thiamine deficiency.)  You can Google that if you don’t know what it is.  Good numbers of 7 to 9lb lake trout showed up.  There weren’t many over 10lbs.

    Fish have been well-fed.  Smaller lake trout have been primarily feeding on sculpin.  Larger fish are eating alewives.  DEC will do forage netting in September.  There were no gobies found in any lakers as far as I know.

    This fall DEC will search for lampreys in the canals and I believe they will do a treatment.  The next treatments of tributaries is scheduled for spring 2021.

    Lake trout stocking has been increased to 2012 numbers.  Additional browns were stocked in the lake this spring due to the zebra mussel infestation at the Rome Hatchery.  The future management plan of Seneca Lake is not likely to include brown trout.  Each Finger Lake is being managed as a different lake (which they obviously are) and will be stocked with the fish that thrive the best there.  Although Seneca Lake has churned out some beautiful brown trout over the past 30+ years, the browns do very poorly there when lamprey numbers are up.   Lampreys are much tougher to control on Seneca Lake than Cayuga Lake, due to the spawning in the canals/deltas and the fact that Cayuga has a low head dam and fish ladder on its one main spawning stream which easily enables lampreys to be removed via hand.

    The good news is that Landlocked Salmon stocking numbers are slated to go up.  If enough fish are available the stocking numbers will be doubled or at least increased by 40% or more.  These fish have thrived in Seneca Lake even when lamprey numbers have been high.  The lack of gobies keeps the salmon up near the surface making for great casting, fly-casting and trolling from the late fall into the following spring.

    DEC still has to crunch all the data on their summer field work, so we’ll have a clearer picture of what’s going on by the time the next diary summaries are published and I’m sure a technical brief or two will show up online sooner or later.

  • Maryland Pike Cakes?

    As somebody who likes to target pike and pickerel as well as eat them on occasion, one of the questions that arises is what to do with those extra scraps and meaty wedges that have those annoying “Y” bones in them.  I don’t like to waste good meat but at the same time I want my dining experience to be pleasurable.  Chomping on a plethora of bones doesn’t sound like fun to me, not to mention that they can get caught in your throat.  Those aren’t my kind of thrills!

    There are boatloads of pickerel in Cayuga Lake as well as Oneida Lake.  They are superb eating.  Boneless toothies are right up there with walleyes, as my client Bill mentioned to me a few days ago – and I wholeheartedly agree.   Over the years we have played around with a lot of fish cake recipes.  I’ve tried ones from “In-Fishermen” magazine as well as others online.  They are all good.  I had a bunch of frozen scraps and it dawned on me that substituting pike or pickerel (or walleye, trout, crappie, rock bass et al) might be worth a shot in a crab cake recipe.  After all, who doesn’t like crab cakes?  Non-seafood eaters are the only people I know that don’t love crab cakes.

    I tried a recipe last week and without a doubt, they are the best fish cakes I’ve ever had bar none.  This recipe came from www.sallybakingaddiction.com    

    You can check out the link online.

    You would take a pound of so of fish scraps – I would run them through a grinder or food processor.  Mix with one egg, 1 tsp lemon juice, 1/4 cup mayo, 2 tsp dried or fresh parsley, 2 tsp Dijon mustard, 2/3 rds cup cracker crumbs (I used good oyster crackers and ground them coarsely) 1 1/2 tsp Old Bay seasoning (gotta have the Old Bay!)  and 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce.

    Blend together.  I heated up a couple large skillets and used some bacon grease.  I like to use a large ice-cream scoop to portion out the fish cakes.  I place the scoops in the pan then use a spatula to flatten them out.  I cooked them around 4 minutes per side using medium heat.   They came out FANTASTICALLY!   The cracker crumbs – especially if left very coarse give the cakes a nice airier texture than you would get by using potato buds, mashed potatoes or bread crumbs.  Great breakfast food or good for lunch/dinner.  Give them a try and see what you think.

     

     

     

     

  • A couple observations regarding gobies, lampreys, salmon and Cayuga Lake

    Lake ecosystems are so complex, it can be hard to connect the dots.  I remember talking to DEC Region 7 Biologist Jeff Robins some years ago about lampreys.  He said that historically on Cayuga Lake, the best fishing for brown trout and landlocked salmon took place right after a few bad lamprey years.

    He had all the historical and anecdotal evidence.  Take a minute here to guess why that might be the case.

    I have thought about this.  At first I figured maybe it’s because baitfish numbers would go up in Cayuga Lake and freshly stocked salmonids would have more to eat.  But upon further contemplation the likely answer hit me.  It’s probably because the larger trout and salmon (as well as some pike) get killed off, so predation via the adult salmonids isn’t a factor – i.e. a much larger percentage of stockies survives!  Makes sense when you think about it.

    We had spectacular landlocked salmon fishing a couple years ago – right after a horrid lamprey year or two.  Since then the salmon fishery has been spotty at best.  And we also have an interesting dynamic going on with gobies and lake trout.

    Vast swaths of round goby were carpeting the bottom of Cayuga Lake over the past 7 or 8 years.  Now many of them have either been eaten by predators or died off (we have had periodic goby die-offs in the late winter/early spring.)  It took Cayuga Lake’s massive lake trout population a few years to discover the “goby bounty.”  Now that the gobies are at a lower level number-wise, we still have large numbers of adult lake trout prowling the shallows throughout the cold water months without a lot to eat.  What do think happens to the freshly stocked salmon and browns that are released at Long Point and Taughannock (both major lake trout meccas)?    Despite Cayuga Lake’s great baitfish population (both alewives and gobies,) we virtually have a Keuka Lake situation here now in the spring when young fish are stocked.  Hungry predators swarming the shallows!  In the pre-goby years, lake trout spent most of April and much of May(when young trout/salmon are stocked shallow) in deep water – 120′ to 160′ or more usually is where I would find them.  Now they have moved up.  The question is will they move back out given the paucity of gobies in shallow this winter?   I’m sure some of you out there can see why I love guiding and studying these lakes so much!  There’s always a challenge ahead and different outcomes to consider. People need to harvest more lake trout – especially these shallow fish.  You can sauté them, fry them, smoke them, bake them, grill them, broil them, make chowder with them and more – your imagination is the limit.  But keeping lake trout should only help the survival of browns, rainbows and landlocked Atlantic salmon.

     

     

  • Roll with the changes…

    Great REO song and it pretty much sums up how I approach guiding and angling on the Finger Lakes.   The only constant I see in fishing most area waterways is change.  And while I’m talking 70s to 80s rock music, the other lyric/song that comes to mind is a quote from Scandal’s “Goodbye to You” – and it goes “I remember the good times baby – now, and the bad times too.”

    When I set up Finger Lakes Angling Zone guide service during the fall of 2004, my thought was that I would focus on fly-fishing for landlocked salmon mainly on Cayuga Lake but also on Seneca and maybe both rainbows/salmon on Skaneateles Lake.  That was going to be a big draw – or so I thought.  My very first guided trip was a great salmon trip on Cayuga that we really had to plan out.  I knew exactly what we needed in terms of wind/weather in order to be able to successfully target salmon on the fly.

    My history on Cayuga Lake salmon fishing at that point in time was a pretty small window.  I moved up here in 1995 from the Rochester NY area.  It took me a couple years before I really understood what was going on with the salmon – in terms of what a great fishery we had here.  I’d first fished Cayuga Lake for bass (with my buddy Terry) back in the late 1980s.  I’d smelt dipped a bit around Trumansburg in the late 1980s/early 1990s.  Looking back on the Cayuga Lake DEC fishing diary summaries, I’d arrived at a very good time in history for the Cayuga Lake salmon fishery.

    I’m not going to get into the complete modern history of Cayuga Lake salmon (though I do have the historical data and have talked with anglers that fished the lakes back in the 1960s and onward) but I’d like to present a picture here based primarily on the diary reports.  Fishing for salmon has fluctuated a lot over the years.  The early 1970s were mostly a time for rainbows and lake trout on Cayuga Lake. Salmon were periodically stocked in the 1950s and 60s and did well (when DEC could find fish to stock.)  Fishing was generally halfway decent in the 1970s, but it had its ups and downs.  The late 1970s were really tough on Cayuga Lake with it taking an average of 7 hours to catch a single legal salmonid!  And that’s back when a 14″ salmon was legal.   The early 1980s were plagued by high lamprey abundance that also decimated brown trout.  The mid to late 1980s were top-notch. The early 1990s saw a marked decline in salmon fishing after a large population of adult lake trout predated on a lot of the other salmonids.  It took an average of 6.6 hours for one of the 94 diary cooperators in 1994 to land a legal salmonid in Cayuga Lake.  That’s tougher fishing than what we saw on Seneca Lake over the past three years!  1995 was pretty good on Cayuga, but the fishing really got hot from 1996 to around 2002 or 2003 – just as I was getting into it.  Since then it has been up and down with hot fishing in 2008, 2010 – 2013 and again around 2016 and 2017.  2006, 2007 and 2014 were noticeably tough years. Had I not known about the history of Cayuga salmon fishing, I would have thought that it had been great “forever” and got really bad not long after I moved up to Trumansburg.

    These fisheries are incredibly dynamic.  In just the relatively short time I’ve been here (and it feels like just a few years, even though I’ve been here now nearly 25 years), I’ve watched as the smelt population dwindled down to next to nothing after the  fantastic runs I witnessed in the late 1980s.   Then around 2012 we had an influx and population “explosion” of round gobies, which changed just about everything again – lakers started roaming shallow during the winter in unprecedented numbers and salmon became bottom feeders.  What’s next?   Who knows, but it’s going to be interesting!   (By the way, many people don’t realize that Cayuga Lake didn’t even have smelt in it before around 1930.  They became abundant in 1946 and then declined in the late 40s/early 50s.  It shot up a lot in the 60s and 70s.   Now they appear to be scarce.  Some people think that smelt were a native specie – they weren’t.)

    My history with Seneca Lake really started around 1980.  The rainbow trout fishing was incredible!  Rainbows would run the tiniest creeks and you could catch a limit of 16″ to 18″ bows in creeks that would dry up two months later.  Smelt runs were fantastic – they’d run “black” where you could net all you’d want to clean in a few big scoops.

    “But I remember the bad times too…”  Lake trout fishing in Seneca Lake was horrible in 1979!  It took an average of 6.9 hours to catch a legal laker or rainbow out on the lake!  And that rate is for close to 100 diary cooperators – many of whom lived around the lake and fished it regularly.   A lot of the guys struggling were not slouches with a rod and reel.  Pike fishing was declining.  In the late 1980s we caught more pickerel in Seneca Lake than pike.  The bass fishing was really good, as was the perch fishing.

    Skaneateles Lake went from being the easiest and best Finger Lake to fly-fish rainbows in (if you know how, where and when) to more of a size fishery that is considerably more challenging.  Numbers seemed pretty good this year in what was once maybe the most stable cold-water fishery in the Finger Lakes.  But threats loom on the horizon with the expanding walleye population and really lackluster salmon action.

    As I write this, it’s close to the end of 2019.  We’re heading into the 2020s.  My guiding has continually had to adapt to the changes.   I wind up buying a bunch of tackle and five years later it’s virtually obsolete for what I need.  My guiding is consistent.  I’ve learned that most clients would rather have high percentage fishing – i.e. have very good odds of catching some nice lakers, as opposed to “rolling the dice” in order to either catch some salmon or perhaps nothing.  (It’s like musky fishing – some people love the high-stakes of fishing all day for a single good fish and others prefer to have more certain odds of catching pike.)  People like the fishing Cayuga is offering now more so than what was happening here in the mid-2000s. They are loving the winter inshore lake trout fishery.  It is close to world class.  Where else are you going to go from November through March and catch good numbers of lakers – basically casting bass lures?  You aren’t doing it in Alaska or Canada – it’s frozen up there!   So I roll with the changes.  When the salmon fishery gets strong again, I’ll be there.  But for now, I ain’t complaining.  The fishing is great.  “I’ll be here when you are ready…to roll with the changes!”

     

     

  • Lake Ontario 2019 onwards – a new paradigm

    What a wild year on Lake Ontario!  By nearly all accounts, spring King salmon fishing was beyond compare along virtually the entire south shore of the lake, from the Niagara Bar east past Oswego Harbor.   Double digit days were common and some anglers experienced doubles and triples on mature salmon in less than 50 feet of water throughout April and May.  Great fishing was had by the pros and recreational anglers alike.

    Flash forward to October and people are wondering where the salmon are.  Runs at the Salmon River have been way below par.  Heavy runs in past years featured hundreds of fish moving through the river over the course of a few days or off and on over a few weeks.  This year people were lucky to see a few dozen or at best maybe 50 fish move through in a day.  And anglers fishing off of piers and in tributaries west of the Salmon River haven’t seen much to get excited about.  According to an article I read in the Buffalo News, guides on the mighty Niagara River have been lucky to catch a King per boat!  Some guides have cancelled their salmon season.

    So what happened?  Did the open water anglers harvest the majority of mature salmon?   Was there a die-off in the lake?  Are the fish still out in the lake staging?  Will we see a big run of Chinook in November?

    I think what happened is pretty clear.

    #1)  We had very hungry salmon out on the lake.   Salmon rarely used to show up during the early season back in the 1980s in any good numbers much east of Wilson/Olcott/Golden Hills.  Over the past few years or maybe decade, hungry salmon have been caught out of Oswego in April and May in good numbers.  Why are they out there?  FOOD!   If there was sufficient bait out west, the fish wouldn’t need to move eastward.  I don’t put this on weather patterns or anything of that nature.

    #2) There’s relatively little bait out there.   Yes, I know that west end (from Rochester to Wilson) charter captains talk incessantly about how much bait they see on their fish finders.  And they catch fish stuffed with alewives.

    a.)  However if there was as much bait out there as they think, why would catch rates be so high?  Well fed fish aren’t going to be as apt to strike lures.  They aren’t going to move into 30 feet of water or less in April searching for bait.  They aren’t going to be chasing small groups of alewives on the surface (like I saw out of Oswego last May.)  They would stay on the west end of the lake.

    b.)  If there was so much bait out there, where are the 35lb+ salmon?  How about just the 30lbers?

    c.)  There are other indicators as well.  Perch populations are up throughout the south side of Lake Ontario.  Typically when alewife numbers are high, perch numbers are low.

    The New Paradigm will likely be as follows:  DEC will not be able to increase stocking on Pacific Salmon given the 29% drop in alewife biomass this year.   With the continuing drop in forage abundance combined with large numbers of wild Kings and good numbers of stocked fish, I would expect this pattern to remain at least over the next few years.  Kings abundant along the south shore of Lake Ontario by mid-May.  Heavy harvest by trollers.  Light runs up the tribs.

    DEC is at a critical juncture here.  If they listen to the skeptics and increase stocking of Pacific Salmon, the entire fishery could collapse.  If stocking were increased, you’d see forage species (alewives) decimated.  The chances of recovering from that are slim.  Charter guys may say, “Well if that happens, we’ll just pound steelhead or lakers.”   Good luck with that.  If the alewives collapse, what do you think happens to those freshly stocked browns, rainbows/steelhead, lakers, cohos and kings?   They get eaten!  They become the bait.

    Take a look back at Keuka Lake with its overabundance of lake trout. What happened there is worthy of examination. During the 1980s and into the 1990s Browns and Landlocked salmon were stocked at good numbers and we had good returns.  Eventually bait numbers diminished and laker numbers went up and those stocked browns and salmon, along with stocked/wild rainbows all just disappeared.   DEC was just feeding wild lake trout.  Furthermore, we had catch rates skyrocket on Keuka a few years back.  We also had small areas of the lake, e.g. around Hammondsport, where if that’s the only area you fished, you’d swear that the alewives were doing well.  There were good numbers of alewives near Branchport and Hammondsport.  That was it.  Then they disappeared.  Lessons can be learned from Keuka Lake!