My first was caught near the mouth of Alaska’s Kenai River. My last on the tribs of Lake Ontario. East or west, rare or in plenty, few things stand more true in my mind as symbols of Winter than the cold pursuit of hot chrome. Long drives – riverside coffee – and stories wisely told by new and lifetime friends. The fish are the objective, but never the expectation. A seasonal addiction fueled by memories of a lightening fast grab and a pursuant drag ripping run.
This is Steelheading.
The early darkness of December had fallen, and minutes north of Syracuse, we hit the wall of falling snow. The blizzard that wrapped our truck was illuminated by dim headlight beams as we rolled on carefully, using the tracks of the last to pass to guide our way. The destination – New York’s Salmon River – a tributary of Lake Ontario that lies north of Syracuse. This is a fishery that has consistently produced legends – and as one long-time visitor aptly described, its a place where “you can catch the fish of a lifetime every time you step in the river.” I’d been before enough times to know that hard work could pay off up there – and that big, fresh fish consistently worked through those waters. On this adventure north – now two years past – a sharp drop in temps and the fresh snow brought hope that a push of fresh fish would be moving up from the Lake.
What we saw was far from what we dreamt of.
Day 1 – I connected with 30″ a chrome hen, who eased over in the current to eat my fly. However, instead of the typical burning run, she lay unmoved. I applied subtle pressure with my rod, but she remained inanimate – living without the spirit or the energy to fight. Concerned, I waded over, secured her by the tail, and took my fly out of her lip without her offering even the slightest form of resistance. She was fresh – but I knew when I released her that time was short.
Later that day while wading downstream, we came across a dime bright 20 pound buck that lay dead without a mark on him. Over the course of the next day and a half, we saw dozens and dozens of steelhead like these – drifting down in the currents either struggling for life or already dead. Bitter. Tragic. Heartbreaking.
At the time we didn’t completely understand what was happening or the cause – but it was brutally obvious that something was SERIOUSLY wrong. Gill lice? Poison? Disease? Something was killing these fish – and en mass.
I hadn’t been back to the Salmon since that trip – but had heard from friends and customers that research pointed to a “vitamin deficiency” as the central cause. Recently though, I took the opportunity to return for a three day stint to set my own barometer with respect to the state of the fishery. Though volume is never the expectation, things are still well below normal, and it’s pretty obvious that the ecological perfect storm that led to the mass die off of the population two years ago is still casting it’s shadow. I broke one off and lost another – and though it’s encouraging to see signs of life – it remains clear that this is a river in need of time and stewardship.
Perhaps no one is more qualified to speak and stand for the River than Malinda Barna – owner and manager of the fly shop that lays adjacent to the Altmar bridge. Committed to supporting the LONG-TERM HEALTH of the Salmon, she has scripted an explanation and a call for action that I’ve inserted below. I’m sharing this because I saw the tragedy unfold first-hand – and because I’ve seen this fishery great. Like Malinda – I know it can be great again.
What’s Happened to Lake Ontarios’ Fishery?
by Malinda Barna, Nov. 2016“In recent decades, the Lake Ontario ecosystem has undergone dramatic changes resulting primarily from the introduction of exotic zebra and quagga mussels. In addition, improvements in wastewater treatment have reduced excessive nutrient concentrations to historic, more natural levels, thereby lowering the productive capacity of the Lake Ontario ecosystem. Epilimnetic zooplankton biomass in Lake Ontario’s offshore epilimnion declined by 99% over the last 30 years…” In other words…Lake Ontario water is getting too clean.
Phytoplankton (an edible type of algae) contain chlorophyll and require sunlight, water and carbon dioxide for photosynthesis to create the carbohydrates that they use for food. In addition, nitrogen, phosphorous and iron are needed for survival. Nitrogen and phosphorous are needed for reproduction; when both of these are not present phytoplankton cannot continue to thrive.
Zooplankton and other invertebrates such as the shrimplike Diporeia eat phytoplankton. With less phytoplankton there is less food for baitfish.
In an article published about Lake Michigan and Lake Huron in Jan 2012. Tom Nalepa, an emeritus research biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, found that “the energy density of Lake Huron alewives dropped 23 percent from pre-mussel invasion 1979 to post-invasion 2004, by which time Chinook salmon needed to consume 22% more alewives to attain an ideal size by age 4.”
The Alewife is also Lake Ontario’s primary baitfish. Alewives naturally contain something called “thiaminase”. Thaminase is an enzyme that destroys or inactivates thiamine. Also known as vitamin B1, thiamine is important for the nervous system to function correctly. Thiamine deficiency, most acutely seen by tributary anglers in Steelhead during 2013/2014, can cause nervous system disorders, poor appetite, poor growth, and problems with survival of hatched fry. Mitigation of thiaminase can be achieved by a varied diet. Since Nov 2012 the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) has been trying to do this by reintroducing a native species of bait. The Deepwater Cisco or “bloater” is a thiamine rich baitfish. According to 2012 DEC Commissioner Joe Martens “Lake Ontario’s sport fisheries are a significant economic driver in New York State, and were valued at more than $113 million in 2007. Re-establishing bloaters in Lake Ontario will diversify the fish community, adding stability to the lake’s ecosystem and sport fisheries.”
So, why doesn’t the DEC stock more bait? A few reasons… First, if every Hatchery in NY State raised nothing but baitfish it would be eaten up in Lake Ontario after only 1 week. Also, the lake is in a delicate state with the amount of zooplankton available. It would be easy to tip the balance further than it already is and have a catastrophic collapse.
What can be done to contain or eradicate zebra and quagga mussels?
Unfortunately, there are no known methods to control or eradicate these mussels in the wild. Some fish (like the Round Goby) eat the mussels. Unfortunately, according to the USGS, “quagga mussels accumulate organic pollutants within their tissues to levels of more than 300,000 times greater than concentrations in the environment and these pollutants are found in their pseudofeces, which can be passed up the food chain, therefore increasing wildlife exposure to organic pollutants.”
So, what can we do?
1.The NYS DEC needs to recognize… The Lake Ontario fishery is NO LONGER primarily a LAKE fishery.
According to the NYS DEC Lake Ontario Annual Report 2012…Total fishing effort for Lake Ontario (actually fishing out in the lake) was 848,905 angler hours (Section 2 Page 4). The tributaries of Lake Ontario had 1,582,428 angler hours. The Salmon River accounted for 68% of the tributaries total with 1,077,316 angler hours. (Section 11 Page 3)
The Salmon River had more angler hours than the whole NYS Lake Ontario boat fishery! And, according to the NYS 2015 Lake Ontario Fisheries Program Highlights…”Fishing effort directed at trout and salmon (in the lake) has remained relatively stable for more than a decade but was the second lowest on record in 2015.”
What does this mean? Lake Ontario TRIBUTARIES are generating more NYS FISHING TOURISM $ than ever before.
2. Discontinue supplemental stocking of Chinook salmon.
Currently, Lake Ontario’s population of Chinook salmon is comprised of 50% naturally reproduced (wild) fish. Stocking a fish that grows from an egg to 25-40lbs in approx. 3 years is an inefficient utilization of the bait remaining in Lake Ontario. Stocking more Steelhead, Brown Trout, and Atlantic salmon, fish that grow from an egg to 6-12lbs in approx. 3 years allows for a greater quantity of fish to be stocked. The consumption of less bait per predator means more fish to fish for! Also, as a bonus, these fish are a more sought-after sport fish in the tributaries.
3. The most heavily fished tributaries, such as the Salmon River, should be made NO KILL for all Steelhead, Brown trout, and Atlantic salmon.
NO KILL is NOT for reproduction. This is purely a way to allow more fishermen to catch fish for an extended period of time. The NYS DEC Lake Ontario Annual Report 2012 shows that tributary fisherman want this! “Higher release rates in recent years (91% in 2011-2012) are due, in part, to increased catch rates and anglers’ desire to conserve steelhead to maintain the quality of the fishery.” (Section 11 Page 33). The same report shows that the Salmon River had 8,608 Steelhead harvested that season and 711 Brown Trout. That’s over 9,300 fish that could have been caught again… just in this one river! A fish allowed to be caught more than once means jobs for…guides, lodges, restaurants, tackle shops, gas stations, and all the people that work in them.
Fishermen want to CATCH FISH! It doesn’t matter what the creel limit is; if a fisherman doesn’t catch any fish then he/she probably won’t come back. If the creel limit is 0 and a fisherman catches 2, 3 or possibly 10 fish…common sense says…they’ll be back.
Isn’t it ironic; undersized Atlantic Salmon, referred to as “Canadian Coho” by some charter boat captains, are being killed out in the lake because of their competition with the Chinook. If these people only understood what is going on in Lake Ontario they might see that the Atlantic salmon (the native species and, once, top predator for Lake Ontario) might just be a better choice for them. A fish that grows more slowly (and therefore eats less bait), historically achieved 40+ lbs. (these fish are much older than Chinook of the same weight) and are an extremely sought-after game fish!
Educate our politicians in Albany about the fishery and its’ potential for collapse like Lakes Huron and Michigan or its’ potential for transformation into a high quality Tributary and Lake fishery.Lake Ontario, like all of the other Great Lakes, has many problems that cannot be solved in a short period of time. What we can do that many of the other Great Lakes fisheries did not, is to utilize what we have to its’ fullest potential!
It’s time to get our heads out of the sand! These problems are not going away. We can either have a fishery for only a few more years or… a FISHERY FOR THE FORESEEABLE FUTURE.
Malinda’s Fly & Tackle Shop, Altmar, NY
Whether your a local – a visitor – or someone who has never been, this is a fight that needs voices. Please share yours to help the Salmon River!!!
DIRECT EMAIL FOR THE COMMISSIONER OF THE DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY: Basil.Seggos@dec.ny.gov
ONLINE CONTACT: http://www.dec.ny.gov/about/407.html
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
Albany, NY 12233-1010