One of the questions I get asked most often is, “What’s going on with Seneca Lake?” Unfortunately, when I had this new website created a couple of years ago, my old articles disappeared during the transfer. I’d already asked my web designer to do a lot by saving and reposting all my archived reports, so I didn’t feel like having him try to dredge out my old articles. Maybe I can find some on archive.org. Anyways, I had quite a few thoughts on Seneca Lake issues, history and management. I’m not going to rehash much of it here, but with the Region 8 Diary Reports arriving in my mailbox yesterday, I have some thoughts on what we’re looking at in the future on Seneca Lake.
The most noteworthy event on the fishing on Seneca in 2021 was that the most abundant species caught by diary keepers was landlocked Atlantic salmon. This was the first time in the program’s history (which goes back to 1973) that lake trout were not the dominant species caught. Although this may seem like good news to a lot of salmon aficionados, it really isn’t. Yes, there was some pretty spectacular salmon fishing on Seneca Lake last winter and spring, but most of those fish were in large groups and they averaged 17″ long. They were also fairly beat-up by lampreys. Furthermore, the fishing seems to be much slower this year. The salmon fishing does help illuminate the potential that Seneca Lake has and has shown in the past of having the makings to be a top-notch salmon fishery – right up there with Cayuga Lake and Lake Champlain. But when you have 50% of the annual catch being lake trout – and if this is any representation of the salmonid population, there isn’t enough of a lake trout stock in the lake to buffer the impacts of sea lamprey.
I have a copy of Dan Bishop’s report entitled “EVALUATION OF THE EXPERIMENTAL SEA LAMPREY CONTROL PROGRAM IN CAYUGA LAKE, NY.” It’s a very interesting read. I don’t know much about the history of this line of research which studies the dynamics of species interaction between lake trout, browns, rainbows, salmon and lampreys, but clearly this might be the definitive thesis on how to manage a fishery with all the aforementioned variables.
The takeaway from Dan’s findings is that in a fishery that has lampreys, if your proportion of lake trout in angler catches (say by year’s end as an aggregate) is roughly 60% of the overall salmonid mix, and you have sufficient lamprey control, you should have a fishery that produces trophy fish and satisfied anglers. Trophies were considered lake trout over 25″ long and salmon/browns/rainbows over 20″ long.
If the fishery has too many lake trout, the lake trout will wind up eating the young stocked (and wild) lakers, rainbows, salmon and browns. With too few lake trout, the lampreys will attack and kill many of the non-lakers. Seneca strain lake trout (which are probably the majority strain of what we have throughout the Finger Lakes and Great Lakes, including Lake Champlain) have coexisted with lampreys for at least 160 years and have shown the best ability to survive lamprey attacks when compared to other lake trout strains. The lakers, being a bigger fish on average out in the wild, tend to draw lampreys to them, which winds up saving the other salmonids. Brown trout are the most susceptible salmonid to lamprey attacks. If you have a lot of lampreys, you will not see browns over 2 years old, and sometimes not even many 2 year olds.
As an aside, you’ll often hear anglers and charter captains in the Great Lakes talking about wanting to cut back lake trout stocking in order to protect the forage base. If all lake trout were to disappear tomorrow on Lake Ontario, lampreys would annihilate the chinooks, cohos, steelhead, browns and Atlantic salmon in short order. Yes, some of those fish would survive, but the fishery would basically be in deep trouble.
I am hoping on Seneca Lake that we have “weathered the storm” so to speak. Despite heavy stocking, relatively few brown trout appeared to have survived over the past year. At least some made it. There was a slight spike in rainbow trout caught as well. The lakers were at an all-time low. A friend of mine has done very well on small lake trout while pulling copper over the past year. I marked a lot of what had to be small lakers last time I was on the lake (last week.) Stocking numbers went up in 2020 and those fish will start recruiting to the fishery in 2023 (i.e., becoming catchable.)
Anglers sometimes report lampreys attaching to their transoms! We had that happen last fall up by Geneva. Those are adult lampreys that are close to the end of their lives. They will run up the streams this April/May, spawn and die. The hope is that once those fish are gone, the number of these parasites out in the lake will be much lower. Spring rainbows running up Catherine Creek this year mostly had healed wounds.
We may find this year to be another very tough year on Seneca Lake, but with plenty of lake trout set to mature throughout this year and next, we’ll have a better lamprey buffer. We’ll also see the alewife numbers start to go down. Fewer alewives will help yellow perch spawning success. It will also make the lake trout more aggressive and catchable.
So, what’s fishing well nowadays on Seneca Lake? Pike action there has been very good to excellent over the past few years. Lamprey control should help these fish start reaching more memorable sizes – like over 30″. Smallmouth bass fishing has been good on Seneca Lake too. Some big fish are around and there are lots of small smallmouths available too. Largemouth bass are becoming more common, with some very nice specimens being caught lake wide. Perch remain slow and their numbers are certainly down. (Given the 30 to 100 boats that have been pounding Cayuga Lake daily over the past month, I wonder how long Cayuga Lake will keep churning out the perch? That’s another issue.)
Thankfully we still haven’t seen round gobies on Seneca Lake – at least not apart from maybe one or two reported. Gobies have been a disaster everywhere they’ve shown up. Smallmouth bass populations are really taking a hit because of these noxious pests. In Ohio, Lake Erie smallmouth fishing during the spawn has now been made illegal from May 1st to June 30th. Bass numbers are going down. Oneida Lake smallmouth fishing has declined precipitously over the past couple years. Lake Ontario hasn’t produced a massive class of smallmouth bass in over 15 years despite favorable environmental conditions. Cayuga Lake’s smallmouth bass fishing is awful. Yes, you can catch trophies on all these water bodies, but the numbers are way down. Guys used to catch upwards of 40 to 50 smallmouths a day on Cayuga Lake back in the 1990s. Those days are long gone. Sooner or later the bass fishing world will wake up and realize that these little pests may be the worst thing to hit bass populations ever.
This year may wind up being the toughest year on Seneca Lake we’ve seen since 2015. The large numbers of salmon in the diaries last year obscured how bad the lake trout fishing was. But that being said, in 2023 we should see a big improvement overall in the lake trout fishing on Seneca. Hopefully we’ll see it this year, but it will be another year before the increased lake trout stocking numbers start showing up in our catches.
If you want to help keep DEC abreast in what’s going on and you fish Seneca Lake at least a few times a year, sign up to become a diary cooperator. You can click onto these links for more information: