Three State of Lake Ontario meetings were held in appropriate locations around the lake the past couple of weeks (Lockport, Rochester and Pulaski), coordinated by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. It’s a great way to see what happened in 2016 and what the plans are moving forward in 2017. All of the meetings had good attendance, showing the interest in what’s been happening with the fishery – the open lake, the tributaries and the Niagara River. The big question: Are Lake Ontario and the tributaries half-full or are they half-empty?
Steve LaPan, Great Lakes Fisheries section head, set the stage for the “half-full” argument when he pointed out that “in 2016 we exceeded every target level of salmon and trout that we stock.” The only exception was lake trout and that’s a program coordinated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If you are a stocking proponent, that’s very encouraging for the next few years as those fish continue to grow for the angling cause.
Starting with Atlantic salmon, the stocking target is 50,000 yearling fish. The final stocking number last year was 82,000 yearlings and 74,000 fall fingerlings. The brown trout target is 397,000 yearlings. The actual plant last year was 495,620 yearlings. Chinook numbers went up from the normal target of 1,761,600 to 1,880,000 spring fingerlings thanks to an additional plant of 100,000 kings in the lower Niagara River to help make up for a Canadian shortfall. For Coho salmon, target numbers are 155,000 fall fingerlings and 90,000 yearlings. Actual stocking numbers were 99,150 yearlings, 157,640 fall fingerlings and a bonus of 59,210 spring fingerlings. Rainbow trout target numbers are 623,200. Actually stocking saw 662,170 trout planted in the lake. Good news!
For 2017, the same target levels are in place with the exception of king salmon and lake trout. In the good news category, the lower Niagara River will see a dedicated brown trout stocking of 15,000 fish, plus up to an additional 10,000 browns in bonus stocks when available – something we’ve never seen before.
Region 9 Fisheries Manager Mike Clancy has been fighting for this dedicated stocking for years and he was finally granted the permission to include the Niagara River as a regular stocking site this spring.
Salmon stocking is being reduced by 20 percent in 2017, but some changes are being made to improve the survival rates. Some pens along the southern shore of the lake are actually increasing in numbers at some sites, giving fish more of a fighting chance.
It was noted at these meetings a tagging study was recently completed that compared pen-reared salmon with direct stocked salmon. The pen-reared salmon survived at better than two to one. The Port of Wilson in Niagara County will also be holding 10,000 salmon in pens for the first time since the early 1990s – more good news for salmon chasers.
And before you think that the glass might be half-empty on this point, remember that natural reproduction of Chinook salmon in the lake is a huge X-factor. In fact, 2016 was one of the largest natural hatches of salmon from the Salmon River (according to DEC) and nearly 50 percent of all the salmon in the lake are currently the result of natural reproduction.
Lake trout stocking numbers were supposed to be 500,000 in 2016. Due to an outbreak of epitheliocystis at the Allegheny National Fish Hatchery in Warren, Pa., about half of the fingerlings died. Last year saw a stocking of 384,250 fish in Lake Ontario; and we’ll probably see less than 300,000 in 2017. A Federal hatchery in Vermont has been put on alert and could help with additional fish in 2018 if needed. The good news is that we are starting to see more natural reproduction with lake trout, to help supplement the stocking effort. In fact, the last three years was the highest natural reproduction that the agencies have ever seen in the 30 year history of the program.
How was the fishing in 2016? In the Western Basin of the lake, the time period from May to August was good to very good for salmon. Niagara enjoyed its normal spring salmon fishery with a mix of trout. When it hit June, the salmon fishing remained above average; the July fishery was second to none for salmon fishing anywhere in New York for that timeframe. While August was below average for almost everyone, September saw a bit of an uptick with two to three weeks of staging action on the Niagara Bar. Salmon topped the list of fish being caught followed by lake trout, brown trout and steelhead. Overall fishing effort on the lake was down some 20 percent but catch rates were not that bad when compared with previous years.
A tributary creel was conducted from September 2015 to April 2016 and it shed some light on how poor the fishing for salmonids has been in the streams. Angler hours dropped from just under 1.6 million hours (in 2011-12) to 910,000 angler hours. Three-quarters of the effort is from the Salmon River. The next top three spots were the Niagara River, 18 Mile Creek and the Oak Orchard River with over 25,000 angler hours each.
As far as catch numbers, Chinook numbers caught overall in the 21 streams surveyed were less than 44,000 fish. The estimated steelhead catch was 49,000 fish, more than half coming from the Salmon River. For brown trout, the Oak Orchard River topped the catch list at just over 5,000 fish, followed by Irondequoit and Sandy Creeks at just over 4,000 fish.
On the forage base assessment front, alewife numbers saw a spike in 2016. The most encouraging news was that crews conducted bottom trawls for the first time ever in Canadian waters. One haul was the largest that the survey crews have ever recorded. The real test will be this spring after a second consecutive mild winter. Keep your fingers crossed.
So after looking at this brief overview, is the Lake Ontario glass half-empty or half-full? Going into 2017, half full is more likely. In fact, it might be more like three-quarters full. Thanks to the education provided by the Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Association and the Greater Niagara Fishing and Outdoor Expo, more people should be sampling the salmon and trout fishery and enjoying this great natural resource.