Lake trout fishing regulations need to be revisited for the Lower Niagara River
Lake trout season opened up in the lower Niagara River and Lake Ontario on Jan. 1. The actual season runs for nine months, through Sept. 30. Then it’s shut down for three months, closed because of spawning considerations. Therein lies the problem. Fish with a closed season cannot be targeted to catch. It’s also a gray area for holding up one of these fish for a quick picture before its release. The location that is affected more than any other is the lower Niagara River and the Niagara Bar off the mouth of the mighty river.
The stretch of river from Niagara Falls to Fort Niagara and beyond – roughly a 10-mile stretch of productive water – becomes a lake trout haven every fall. Of course, it’s not just lake trout that are swimming in these waters. Steelhead, brown trout, smallmouth bass, muskellunge, walleye, salmon and more can be found in the river from October to December. However, the number one catch is undoubtedly lake trout. Where else can you go in this state and catch lake trout from shore and boat consistently?
Lake trout run the lower river every fall. Dr. Dimitry Gorsky with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has documented the successful spawning of lake trout in this fish factory, an extremely rare occurrence. In fact, according to Gorsky, lake trout spawning in a river system was last documented in two rivers off Lake Superior back in the 1940s. This is good news for the USFWS and New York because the agency has been charged with creating self-sustaining populations of lake trout in the Great Lakes. While that has been accomplished in Lake Superior, they still have a ways to go in the other four lakes.
Starting in early October, lake trout begin to show up in force. Shore casters will toss spoons, spinners and jigs; egg sacs, egg imitations and flies/streamers – to catch salmon and trout. At the top of the list is the lake trout. Some anglers follow the rule as an absolute and will not even take the fish out of water. Others will handle the fish and take a quick picture before releasing it. As long as the fish is handled with care and released quickly, I’m okay with the latter approach. Who can deny someone from documenting a catch that may be their first laker or even first fish ever?
In 2015, outdoor writer Dave Figura wrote in his Syracuse column about an interview he had with the DEC press office in Albany. He asked about taking a picture of a fish out of season and the office said the agency would be writing $250 tickets for anyone who did that. It created a firestorm on social media. People still bring that article up to try and settle arguments. If you were to research further, though, one of Figura’s follow-up articles to that was that DEC rescinded that strong stand about taking a picture of a fish out of season. They went as far as saying they wouldn’t ticket anyone for taking a picture of a fish caught out of season. While I don’t agree with targeting fish out of season, the lower Niagara is filled with a wide variety of fish species and you never know what you’re going to catch. You would have to close the fishing season down if you didn’t want to catch lakers in the fall. That’s not going to happen.
As a compromise and to make things above board, there is a proposal that will be submitted to DEC that would allow for catch and release fishing in the lower Niagara River from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31 for lake trout. It could be for the Lake Ontario basin’s New York waters, too. In looking at some of the other Great Lakes regulations, the Province of Ontario opens its lake trout season a month earlier – Dec. 1 – for Lake Ontario and the lower river. New York’s lake trout regulation for Lake Erie and the Upper Niagara River is open all year with a daily limit of one fish. If USFWS and DEC asked for some wiggle room on the season length, you could make it catch and release from Oct. 1 through April 1. However, I don’t believe that would be necessary due to the minimal impact to the resource. Catch and release is the normal practice in the Niagara River for lake trout anyway. In fact, many don’t realize that lake trout are part of the three-fish limit for salmon and trout in the river – unlike the lake regulations that keep lake trout separate from salmon and trout. Yes, it’s a bit convoluted. And having a catch and release time frame is no different than what DEC does for bass right now – catch and release from Dec. 1 to the opening of the next regular season.
I also think that DEC and/or USFWS should do a better job educating people on proper fish handling practices for lake trout and create a better awareness for the effort to create a self-sustaining, natural-reproducing population of these fish, one indigenous to Lake Ontario. Education has been lacking for the most part.
If people are targeting fish specifically out of season or carrying a threatened or endangered status, that’s a different story. For example, there were some guys targeting sturgeon in Buffalo Harbor a few years ago – absolutely wrong. If you catch a sturgeon by accident, try not to take it out of the water. Maybe a quick pic near the water would be okay. There was a photo circulating on Facebook last fall where a sturgeon was held vertically with a fish-holding spike up through the gills. Not good. That fish probably died. The captain received a ticket for it; he should have. Captains are the ambassadors of the fishery and they should be educating the general public. Targeting muskies out of season is wrong. But catching one while you are fishing for trout is okay. You can’t help it. Take a quick pic near the water and release it, but know how to properly handle a musky. Don’t hold it vertically. Keep it close to the water and release it immediately. Common sense needs to come into the picture at some point. That’s my take on it. Hope it makes some sense.