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NEW SALMON REARING FACILITY IN NEWFANE EXPECTED TO BOOST SPORTFISHING

Pete D'Angelo has been fishing Eighteenmile Creek since he was 5.

The 63-year-old Lockport native and resident has seen the stream grow from just a favorite local spot to one that is frequented by many in- and out-of-state anglers because of the practice of direct stocking: stocking area streams with species of young fish not native to the area from hatcheries.

So ask him what he thinks of the plan to start pen rearing chinook salmon in the Town of Newfane Marina on West Main Street, and he won't hesitate to tell you why it's a good thing.

"When I was a kid the only thing you could catch down there were sunfish (pan fish with an orange belly), perch and rock bass (also a pan fish family member)," said D'Angelo, who owns Pete's Place, at 5780 W. Main St., a bed-and-breakfast for visiting anglers. "All the stuff that has made and put Eighteenmile Creek on the map is due to the trout and salmon stocking," which started in 1970s.

Pen rearing, he said, will almost guarantee that there will be plenty of salmon and trout in Eighteenmile Creek and Lake Ontario.

"I depend on fishermen for my business, and we also have a bait and tackle shop (Slippery Sinker Bait and Tackle Shop) which is run by my son-in-law," D'Angelo said. "Our businesses are totally dependent on the influx of fishermen into our area."

That is why he was among the strongest proponents for starting a pen rearing practice here. The Town of Newfane Marina and Niagara County Fisheries Advisory Board member has been calling for this to happen for years.

Olcott finally got a chance because the state Department of Environmental Conservation was looking for another site to help improve fall season fishing opportunities in the western part of Lake Ontario.

D'Angelo and his son-in-law, Wesley Walker, will be among the more than 50 volunteers who will help with the construction of the pens, which will hold 50,000 salmon, starting at 11 a.m. Saturday. The volunteers, including Walker's wife, Amy, also will receive instruction on how to feed the fish once they arrive from the salmon hatchery at the end of the month.

Pen rearing is the practice of obtaining young fish from a hatchery normally used to stock streams and lakes and raising them streamside in pens until they're large enough to be released in the water. The pen rearing process lasts three to six weeks and enables fish to get acclimated to the stream, helping their bodies adjust to the fresh water.

Through the process, the scent of the stream becomes imprinted on the salmon so that once they've become fully mature, they'll return to the stream of their youth to reproduce and live out their final days. Fish that are pen-reared are more likely to return to the streams of their younger days than direct stock fish, so the pen rearing process ultimately increases the total number of fish available for competitive and recreational game folks.

"The fishing is just that much better," said Curt Meddaugh, a member of the Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Association. He is supervising the construction of the pens and is responsible for teaching volunteers how to feed the fish.

"They're more productive when they're on the lake," Meddaugh said. "It takes them less time to get a fish. These fish are going to be sticking around. They're going to be returning in the fall, when they mature, to Eighteenmile Creek, so the fishing in Eighteenmile Creek and nearby Lake Ontario will be better. We're looking to increase the fishing in the area. We're getting a better survival rate than when they just direct-stock."

The association -- in conjunction with the Town of Newfane, Town of Newfane Marina and Niagara County Fisheries Advisory Board -- is in charge of the pen rearing project. The Niagara County Fisheries Advisory Board and Niagara County Pro-Am Tournament are covering the $3,000 cost for the construction of the pens and various materials needed to make the project work. The pens were purchased from the Niagara River Anglers Association -- a pioneer in pen rearing, now using suspended netting without frames to rear a larger number of salmon as well as steelhead trout in Youngstown.

"It will generate more revenue" as anglers realize "we probably will be the best fishery on Lake Ontario in the Western (Lake Ontario) Basin," D'Angelo said.

As it is, Niagara County is an attractive, happening fishing destination that helps bring visitors to the area during the nontourist season, which in turn boosts the local economy.

Recreational and sportfishing generates $15 million to $20 million for the county, according to Bill Hilts Jr., Niagara County's sportfishing coordinator and outdoor sports specialist for the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. The tourism season generally runs Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend, while most of the area's most popular fishing derbies are scheduled in early spring and fall.

"It's going to improve an already very good resource, and I say just as importantly it's going to help create a better awareness for the quality of the resource we have in the local community," Hilts said. "I'm talking about the fish species available, because there are a lot of people in Western New York who don't realize we have salmon and trout in the Great Lakes.

"They're going to see this project is going to become a talk of the town type thing, and it's a good thing. We have an outstanding fishing resource right here, and a lot of times we don't appreciate it."

Since chinook salmon are native to Washington State and the Pacific Ocean, the practice has been for the DEC to stock area waters with these species from state-owned hatcheries. Eighteenmile Creek will receive 65,000 fish from the Salmon River Hatchery in Pulaski at the eastern end of Lake Ontario and another 65,000 from the Caledonia Hatchery, south of Rochester. A total of 50,000 from the Salmon River Hatchery will be pen-reared, while the rest of the fish will be stocked directly into the creek.

To deter potential poachers, Hilts said the pens will be under 24-hour supervision in a secure, enclosed area in the marina, near the sheriff's boats. Only proper personnel will have access.

Chinook salmon are the most popular species because they're usually the biggest fish in the lake and can be caught from a boat or on shore. Once they reach full size, they usually run about 4 feet long and weigh about 30 pounds.

The DEC selected Eighteenmile Creek because the stream's temperature is ideal for rearing salmon, said Niagara County Legislator John Syracuse, R-Newfane, a Newfane chiropractor. Eighteenmile Creek also flows better, which is why it was selected instead of nearby fishing streams Twelvemile Creek in Wilson and Keg Creek in Appleton.

"It's going to be a potential boon to the area and cultivate the fish hatchery for the conservation and utilization of our natural resources here," Syracuse said.

Syracuse, who has been fishing since he was 5, is originally from Elma but relocated his practice (1999) and family (2000) to Newfane because of the fishing. He also will volunteer for the project, and will be accompanied by his daughters, Sarah, 4, and Emma, 2.

"I stumbled on this area and fell in love with it," he said.

Eighteenmile Creek is one of the sites used for weigh-ins during the annual Lake Ontario Counties Spring and Fall fishing derbies. The spring derby is May 6 to 15, while the fall derby is Aug. 19 to Sept. 5. The Niagara County Pro-Am is another event that draws well locally.

The big sign of just how popular fishing is in these parts is the fact Fisherman's Park, which provides access to Eighteenmile Creek in the Burt Dam area, attracted more than 10,000 paying customers last year. The state, town, County Legislature, federal government and Army Corps of Engineers joined forces to make Burt Dam not only more accessible for anglers, but also improve the natural habitat for all fish -- an effort that was honored by the state more than six months ago.

The pen rearing project could become the latest effort that adds to the trophy case.