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!”