Angler preference leads to the end of walleye stocking in New York’s Owasco Lake

Auburn, N.Y. — Owasco Lake will continue to be managed as a trout fishery as the walleye population fades from the lake following the end of a stocking program 12 years ago.

DEC Region 7 fishery officials, at “State of the Lake”-type public meeting here last month, said it became readily apparent that Owasco Lake couldn’t serve both trout and walleye anglers.

“Rainbow and brown trout numbers dropped down when the walleyes became well established,” said regional fisheries biologist Ian Blackburn. “The walleye were feeding on freshly stocked or wild juveniles and browns. So we went the salmonid route.”

That determination was made after a 2013 survey of anglers showed a preferences – by a fairly narrow margin – for trout over walleye.

Walleye can still be found in Owasco, but they are fewer and bigger. An experimental netting effort by DEC showed the average length of what walleye are left in the lake at over 23 inches, with “a lot of fish much larger,” Blackburn said.

“Their numbers are slowly dwindling and there is little to no natural reproduction,” he said. “The lake is trending more toward a trophy walleye fishery. It’s not a numbers lake by any means now. Folks in the know, who know how to catch them, can get some trophy fish.”

But Owasco Lake is generally known now for its trout offerings. Lake trout are caught regularly by trolling or jigging, and rainbows and browns are also present in solid numbers and attract plenty of angling attention.

DEC’s stocking program now calls for the annual planting of 10,500 fingerling lakers, 11,000 yearling brown trout stocked in the lake as well as tributary streams, 20,000 fingerling rainbows stocked in tributaries and another 5,000 ’bows stocked in the lake.

“Since the walleye stocking ended the rainbows and browns have bounced back strong,” Blackburn said. “There have been other clear-cut cases of walleye introduction (stocking) where other fisheries declined dramatically. The problem is walleye share the same water column with rainbows pretty much year-round.”

The laker stocking program remains critical to the Owasco fishery; the percentage of wild lakers in the lake is minuscule.

“We rely entirely on stocking to support that fishery,” Blackburn said. “The goal there is to not drop the laker trout to a level that’s not fishable, and to maintain a diverse salmonid fishery. We cut laker stocking in half after we stopped the walleye stocking, and there’s still a pretty good fishable population. Anglers are not having an issue catching decent lake trout, and we’ll adjust stocking if we have to.”

DEC has tweaked its fishing regulations for Owasco Lake in recent years. There’s a five trout daily “in combination” limit for browns, rainbows, lakers and landlocked salmon. You can keep five lakers, but your catch can include no more than three browns, rainbows or landlocks, with a 15-inch size minimum on all trout.

“It’s an additional tool to favor an increased laker harvest and reduce the harvest of rainbows, browns and landlocks,” Blackburn said of the regs change on the eastern Finger Lakes (Owasco, Cayuga, Otisco and Skaneateles).

Other highlights of the DEC’s PowerPoint presentation at the public session:

  • bass, notably smallmouths, comprise the bulk of Owasco’s warmwater fishery, especially as the walleye numbers continue their decline.
  • the presence of alewives may impact salmonid reproduction, as they have in other lakes such as Ontario. “They’re a great good source but there’s a bunch of problems that come with them,” Blackburn said.
  • a 2016 gill net survey of lake trout in Owasco showed an average length of 20.4 inches; angler surveys showed a slightly higher average size caught by hook and line, at around 23 inches.
  • juvenile salmonid reproduction surveys of 2016 showed rainbows tend to favor the upper stretch of Cayuga Inlet and Hemlock Creek for spawning, with Hemlock Creek described as “a young-of-the-year rainbow factory.”

Those fish, DEC officials say, will add to the lake population if they survive predation.

  • brown trout reproduction is lower in the tributaries than rainbows.

DEC fisheries staff say additional participants in the angler diary programs for Owasco, Cayuga, Otisco and Skaneateles are needed. Owasco’s angler cooperator numbers are particularly low.

To learn more about the diary program contact the Region 7 fisheries office at (607) 753-3095 ext.213. To participate, go to fwfish7@dec.ny.gov and provide your name, address and the lake(s) for which you would like to record your fishing trips.

“Because we have separate diaries for coldwater lakes and tributaries, and warmwater lakes, please specify which type or types you regularly do so that we can send the appropriate books(s),” officials said.