By Bill Hilts Jr.
Despite record-high water levels, shoreline damage and more access issues, Lake Ontario had another excellent year in the fishing department, and prospects for 2020 were looking good.
Then COVID-19 arrived in the Empire State, and elsewhere for that matter.
“Salmon and trout fishing on Lake Ontario was excellent again in 2019,” said Chris Legard, Lake Ontario unit leader for DEC out of Cape Vincent. “After a record setting year in 2018, great fishing continued in 2019 with anglers catching an average of 4.0 salmon and trout per boat trip, the fifth highest catch rate recorded in the 35-year history of the survey.
“Much of the quality fishing in 2019 can be attributed to near-record Chinook salmon catches throughout the season and across all ports,” he continued. “Anglers caught an average of 2.8 Chinook salmon per boat trip, 76 percent above the previous 10-year average and ranked second only to the previous record high of 3.6 fish per boat trip set in 2018. Given favorable wind and weather patterns, we are optimistic that excellent Chinook salmon fishing will continue in 2020.
“Total fishing boat effort on Lake Ontario from April 15 through Sept. 30 was estimated at 46,309 boat trips in 2019, which is 18 percent below the previous 10-year average. Lower than average fishing effort in 2019 was likely due to cold and windy conditions in April, extremely high water in June and July.”
The high water impacts resulted in a program from Gov. Andrew Cuomo that created the Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative that made over $300 million available to infrastructure improvements for adjusting to what was being termed “the new normal” for the lake as far as water levels.
In August, to let people know that Lake Ontario was open for business, free fishing licenses were available in August to Labor Day for residents and nonresidents alike. Half-price admission was also available in state parks around the lake, including campgrounds. There was even a 30-second commercial that was aired promoting Lake Ontario. The result was a bustle of activity around the lake late summer and plans for REDI projects moved forward at a rapid pace heading into 2020. Then COVID-19 hit, putting things on “pause.”
As 2020 unfolded and stocking plans were being made (prior to the coronavirus impacts) things were moving along just nicely. A mild winter and a wide-open Lake Erie were allowing the waters of the lake to warm quickly. King salmon and brown trout were starting to hit.
“DEC anticipates meeting all Lake Ontario stocking targets for Atlantic salmon, brown trout, Chinook salmon, coho salmon, lake trout and steelhead in 2020,” Legard said. “We will not be stocking domestic rainbow trout in Lake Ontario in 2020, and our stocking target of 75,000 domestic rainbow trout will be replaced with brown trout. The only surplus stocking we anticipate in 2020 is brown trout.
“We anticipate stocking a total of 585,000 brown trout in 2020, approximately 180,000 more than our stocking target (75,000 to replace domestic rainbow trout and approximately 105,000 surplus). The surplus brown trout stocking in 2020 is from the Rome Hatchery.”
“DEC hatchery staff began brown trout stocking at the shore stocking sites in central and western Lake Ontario in mid-March and anticipate completing these sites by mid-April,” Legard said. “Chinook salmon and steelhead stocking at pen-rearing sites began on April 3 and completed during the week of April 13. Shore stocking of steelhead began in late March and should be completed by mid-April. Barge stocking for lake trout and the remaining brown trout sites (Fairhaven, Oswego, Mexico Bay, and Stony Point) is planned for mid-May, but is subject to potential modification or cancellation as the COVID-19 crisis evolves.”
We mentioned Chinook salmon stocking and one of the biggest changes we will see in 2020 is that a new stocking strategy will be taking place that will give anglers in the open lake, fishermen taking advantage of the staging fishery off the creek and river mouths, as well as tributary fishermen the biggest bang for their slightly diminished stocking efforts.
DEC announced last fall that they would be reducing salmon stocking another 20 percent based upon the spring forage base trawls for alewives, the primary baitfish for Chinook salmon. It was time for a change regarding a stocking strategy.
“Current Lake Ontario salmon and trout stocking allocations were set decades ago based on shoreline distance within each DEC Region,” Legard said. “Current allocations do not necessarily account for angler preferences, fishing effort in a particular area, geographic and seasonal differences in fish distribution, or potential to benefit both open lake and tributary fisheries.”
The coronavirus is having its impacts felt on other fisheries management issues such as with the tagging of the Chinook salmon being stocked. Plans were underway to resume with the tagging of Chinook salmon after a study involving coho salmon was completed. Tagging this year was halted due to COVID-19 concerns. The last time Chinook salmon were tagged was 2010, 2011 and 2013.
After months and months of discussion and comment periods, new regulations were approved for Lake Ontario and its tributaries earlier this year, that went into effect on April 1.
The least controversial of the Lake Ontario proposals was the extension of the lake trout season for the lower Niagara River and Lake Ontario. Based on the new rule, anglers will now be able to legally target lake trout starting Dec. 1 instead of Jan. 1. It falls in line with the same season that is currently observed on the Canadian side of the river and the lake, too.
Lake trout, part of a federal stocking initiative attempting to create self-sustaining populations in the Great Lakes, will run up into the lower Niagara River each fall to spawn. Successful lake trout spawning in the lower Niagara River has been documented since 2011.
A new open lake regulation on steelhead was met with a bit more resistance. The new creel limit for salmon and trout reduces steelhead from three to two fish per person each day.
In Lake Ontario, anglers have the option of keeping a combination of three rainbow trout (including steelhead), brown trout, coho salmon and Chinook salmon.
The two steelhead limit falls in line with the current regulation that is in place in Canadian waters.
Due to an oversight when the regulations were originally written up, the lower Niagara River is exempt from this new lake regulation of two steelhead per person. Discussion is already underway to make changes next year to have the river fall in line with the open lake regulations like it traditionally has.
Two other regulations changes involve the tributaries of Lake Ontario. A hard push came to lower the brown trout limit from three to one fish per person, as well as increase the minimum size limit from 21 inches to 25 inches for steelhead. Steelhead already has a one-fish per person daily limit. The new stream limit will be no more than one steelhead with a minimum size of 25 inches and no more than one brown. The open lake minimum size for steelhead will remain at 21 inches.
The tributary fisheries for the Lake Ontario basin are extremely important in the overall scheme of things. The single biggest impact involves the Salmon River, home to the lake’s primary fish hatchery and a resource for significant natural reproduction.
DEC conducted a survey of salmon river anglers from Sept.ember 2018 to May 2019 and the total estimated effort was 135,788 angler trips totaling over 840,000 angler hours. This is the second highest effort ever documented (the highest was from 2011-12 with over 1 million angler hours).
At the top of the list of species caught is the Chinook with more than 83,400 fish caught, harvesting 34,000 of those caught. Steelhead numbers were runner-up with 41,500-plus fish caught and just over 5,000 fish harvested, the second highest on record. Coho salmon had a catch of slightly more than 6,100 fish, creeling 3,366 of those fish. Brown trout numbers were at 1,677 fish, followed by only 160 Atlantic salmon.
As far as natural reproduction in the river, DEC conducted seining in the river to track wild young-of-the-year salmon. In 2019, 850 were collected per haul, the third highest since they’ve been tracking these numbers (2001).