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Lake Ontario salmon catch rate sets record

Salmon fishing was the best it’s ever been in 2017.

That’s what New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) said at the end of January when it released the preliminary results of the Open Lake Fishing Boat Survey for 2017. Based on the Chinook (king) salmon catch rate of .141 per angler hour off a charter boat, that rate was the best ever in the 32-year history of the census. While it might not seem like a very high number, this is a catch rate that takes into account the entire New York shoreline of the lake. The previous record high-catch rate was .137 kings per hour in 2005.

“The increase in 2005 seems to coincide with pen rearing of salmon and improved survival,” said Jana Lantry, aquatic biologist for the Lake Ontario Unit of the DEC. “It could possibly be that we were starting to see more wild production of salmon naturally. Technology and the internet could also play a role, informing anglers of the best times to go fishing.”

It’s probably all the above. Whatever the case, salmon fishing has been pretty darn good since that initial jump in the early 2000s.

The survey process, conducted from April 15 to Sept. 30 every year since 1985, utilizes four seasonal technicians to conducted on-water interviews. “The way the survey was designed, covering over 200 miles of shoreline, we include fishing effort, harvest and overall catch,” Lantry said. “Tom Eckert and I also help out with the survey. It gives us an excellent overview of the lake. It’s important to understand what’s going on out there every year, working closely with our counterparts at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.” Last year, 3,726 interviews took place in collecting this essential information.

“This is important work,” Lantry said. “This is the only survey on the lake that collects biological data like this from spring to fall.”

Included in the collection of biodata is length, weight, fin clip data and any coded wire tags that might be present. It helps fisheries managers put the pieces of the puzzle together so that they can make sound decisions relative to things like stocking numbers. It gives them a better understanding of what is happening within the ecosystem.

Dan Clinger of Jersey Shore, Pa., caught the winning $25,000 fall salmon in the Lake Ontario Counties Derby at 39 pounds, 3 ounces.

All areas are not created equal on Lake Ontario when it comes to salmon fishing. The Western Basin of the lake, or the waters off Niagara and Orleans counties, is usually better for salmon in the spring than points east. By summer, fish are starting to slowly migrate to locations where fish were stocked or naturally reproduced. In 2017, more areas had an outstanding year for salmon – especially from June to September. The success realized by other regions of the lake – areas that might not normally enjoy as much salmon success in the summer months – helped to break the record mark.

There was more good news moving forward, too. The 2018 season should be even better for bigger salmon. There were plenty of 1-year-old salmon (jacks) swimming in the lake last year (18 percent of catch versus the 5-year average of 7 percent). Those are survivors and they will be returning as 2-year-olds. The Coho salmon catch rate was the highest since 2010 and the rainbow/steelhead catch jumped up 54 percent from 2015. The combined catch of salmon and trout or the “three in any combination” limit category jumped up 54 percent from 2016 and was the third-highest overall in the history of the survey. Yes, the fishing was very good … if you could get on the water.

The good news is tempered with some bad news. Due to the high-water levels in Lake Ontario last summer, fewer boats made it on the lake to enjoy the fishing. Some launch ramps were closed. Some marinas were partially or fully closed. As a result, fishing effort was at a record low last year across the lake. To put things into numbers, the previous record low for angling effort was 2016 with 46,339 boat trips. Last year, only 39,964 boat trips were recorded by survey personnel.

“The high water impact definitely limited people from gaining access to the lake and probably limited the numbers of interviews we conducted,” said Lantry. “We also keep track of recreational boating and sail boating and both of those activities were also at record lows last year.”

Chinook salmon have voracious appetites and can grow to 30 pounds or more.

There’s no question that everyone was caught off guard with the high-water issues. The bigger question is, are we better prepared should it happen again? More fixed docks were replaced with floating docks. Launch ramps were repaired and many altered to accommodate higher water levels. With the upper Great Lakes above normal as far as water levels right now and Lake Ontario nearly a foot above normal from this time last year, it’s still anyone’s guess what will happen in 2018. However, after the record-breaking performance for the salmon catch, anglers should do whatever it takes to get out on the water to catch a king or two. You won’t regret it.

There is a bit of a misconception when people think of salmon in the traditional sense. The first thing most people think of is mature kings running up the streams to spawn in the fall. Yes, that happens. For the Western Basin of Lake Ontario, some of the best salmon fishing of the year is in the spring and summer – in the lake. The single biggest attraction for salmon is the Niagara River and the famed Niagara Bar in the spring. The river attracts forage fish, it provides structure in the way of current and it supplies warmer water from Lake Erie (after the ice leaves that Great Lake). They all combine to form a dynamic fishery that is the No. 1 reason why most anglers in the Spring Lake Ontario Counties Trout and Salmon Derby choose to fish out of Niagara County. Check out the leaderboard at www.loc.org and you’ll see that more than 60 percent of all the salmon and trout come from those productive waters.

If you’ve never caught a king, it should be on your bucket list. And if you see a DEC census taker collecting survey information at the end of your trip, be sure to stop.

“It is one of the most important surveys on the lake,” says Lantry. “It’s not just about numbers. It’s also giving us a better understanding of the condition of the fish. It’s about collecting data for ongoing studies. A vast majority of anglers do cooperate with us and that is fantastic. We should be happy we have such an excellent and diverse fishery dominated by Chinook salmon right in our back yard.”

The Fishing Beat

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