Survey: Lake Ontario fishing better than ever

Buffalo, N.Y. — Lake Ontario fishing – at least for the big lake’s salmonids – just keeps getting better.

In fact, better than ever, according to the DEC’s preliminary Lake Ontario Boat Fishing Survey for 2012.

“Lake Ontario experienced the fourth consecutive year of the best (total) trout and salmon fishing – the 10th consecutive year of the highest chinook salmon catch rates; the fifth consecutive year of the highest rainbow trout catch rates; the second and third best years for brown trout and coho salmon fishing; and the second consecutive year of lake trout catch rates comparable to those observed through much of the 1990s,” the report read.

The survey is the result of interviews of Lake Ontario anglers by DEC staff between April 15 and Sept. 30. The final report will be available in the spring, generally around the time of the annual “State of Lake Ontario” meetings in March.

Despite the great fishing, the survey showed angler effort was down on the lake this year by nearly 20 percent compared to the five-year average. A total of 56,182 trips were recorded.

DEC officials, as well as other state fish and wildlife agencies, have grappled with declining angler numbers and effort in recent years. In New York, it’s been a frustrating trend given the quality of the fishing as well as the varied options, ranging from a pair of Great Lakes (Ontario and Erie), the Finger Lakes, legendary trout streams, saltwater fishing and other waters such as Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River.

“We had some poor weather days in April when we began our survey in mid-April,” said Jana Lantry, a fisheries biologist with DEC’s Lake Ontario unit. “And I believe July (angler numbers) was down. The drop (in boat trips) is usually explained by weather conditions.”

Those who did take to the big lake, however, generally had some great fishing, notably for chinook salmon, which have seen catch rates at or near record levels for 10 straight years.

The estimate chinook catch rate of 1.9 fish per boat trip was about three times higher than the 1985-2002 average of 0.6 fish. April, August and September were the hottest months, with record catch rates, while the catch rates approached record levels in May, June and July.

Feeding on a solid alewife forage base out in the lake, the chinooks are not only plentiful, they’re big.

“A 2-year-old chinook averages 30 inches, and a 3-year-old fish runs about 36-37 inches,” Lantry said. “We have the largest chinooks of all of the Great Lakes, and chinooks are the biggest player in our trout and salmon fishery.”

Chinooks dominated the total catch, according to the survey, with an estimated 88,828 caught. That represents over 45 percent of the total catch, and the total harvest of 55,114 comprised 51 percent of the total harvest.

Brown trout catch rates were at 0.85 per boat trip, with the total catch of 39,507 fish, 23,305 of which went home with the anglers. Lantry said the bulk of the brown trout catch was comprised of 2-year-old fish and came as incidental catches by anglers targeting chinooks.

She added that it’s difficult to compile data on brown trout year classes since smaller fish aren’t typically caught on the rigs run for the big chinooks. “Because of that, we really don’t have good data on 1-year-old fish,” she said.

Other highlights of the survey were:

• rainbow trout catch rates, at 0.72 fish per outing, were at record high levels for the fifth consecutive year. Catch rates were at or near record highs in every month of the April-September survey, while the harvest rate – 0.27 fish per trip – was down 23.8 percent from the five-year average.

• coho salmon, which Lantry called “a relatively minor component” of the Lake Ontario fishery, showed a harvest rate of 0.18 fish per boat trip, the third highest ever observed since the survey began in 1985. May, July, August and September were the best months for coho fishing, according to the report.

• lake trout numbers remained solid, although the laker fishery was again generally underutilized in 2012. The catch rate of 0.48 fish per boat trip was on par with 2011 but three times higher than the 2007 record low of 0.12. “Record low catch rates observed in recent years are likely due to excellent fishing for other (salmonids), coinciding with low lake trout abundance,” the report read.

• Atlantic salmon catch and harvest rates were low, but well above the 1995-2008 average. Lantry said the factors behind the low Atlantic salmon numbers are unclear, but there have been encouraging signs in the form of natural reproduction in the Salmon River and increased stocking levels in Canada.

• yellow perch catch rates were down by 53 percent, at an estimated 35,770 fish. Officials, however, said the perch tally is subject to wide variations from one year to the next because few anglers target them. Lantry said water temperature issues may also have been a factor in 2012, especially in the lake’s eastern basin.

• smallmouth bass fishing remained well below average, with an estimate of 20,636 bronzebacks caught between the June 16 opener and Sept. 30. Still, that number was well above the 2010 record low, and the catch of 3.3 fish per boat trip was nearly double 2010’s 1.9 tally.

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