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!