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Credit the Coho with starting Lake Ontario's salmon craze

It was 50 years ago that the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s Bill Pearce had a vision to stock salmon and trout in Lake Ontario, following a lead that was started by Lake Michigan. One goal was to help control a burgeoning population of alewives, a small invasive baitfish that had taken over the basin. Another was to create an economic impact in the smaller lake shore communities, attracting anglers from far and wide by making it the best freshwater fishery in North America. It all started with the initial stockings of Coho salmon, Pacific salmon from the West Coast.

Pearce was a visionary. After working his way into an administration position with DEC in Albany, he actually took a demotion in the late 1960s to organize and direct the Great Lakes Fisheries Station in Cape Vincent. He became the head of the Great Lakes Fisheries Section with DEC until 1985. After 38 years with DEC, he finally retired. It was then that he caught his first Chinook salmon in the lake and Niagara County was a part of that effort.

The late John Long, Sr. was friends with Pearce. Long was involved with everything – Conservation Fund Advisory Board, Fish and Wildlife Management Act Board, New York State Conservation Council and many more groups. He invited Pearce to come and fish out of Olcott and Capt. Bob Cinelli of Newfane arranged his schedule to be able to accommodate Pearce, Long, Bill Hilts, Sr. and myself for a morning trip on the lake. Mother Nature was not kind weather-wise but the lake did offer up a 30-pound salmon for Pearce so that he could experience first-hand what he helped to construct as the father of New York’s Great Lakes salmon and trout fishery.

The lake has come a long way since those very first 1968 Coho stockings. There were numerous ups and downs along the way. The lake’s signature fish is the Chinook or king, another Pacific salmon that fit in perfectly with Pearce’s vision. That was the headliner, the true money fish. The Coho was the cousin that people accepted as a good fish to catch, but it wasn’t the main draw.

Lake Ontario is known for its species' diversity. In addition to Chinook and Coho salmon, other favorite species include rainbow/steelhead trout, brown trout and lake trout. The Atlantic salmon was also added to the mix but the likelihood of actually catching one in the lake was slim. The fishing menu for anglers hungry for salmon and trout is impressive. Coho salmon by itself comes in near the bottom of the angler-preference surveys. However, the Coho has certainly made a name for itself in this Great Lake.

At the top of the list has to be the fact that the world record Coho comes from Lake Ontario. Yes, we said world record.  Back on July 13, 1998, Stephen Sheets, Jr. was fishing out of Oswego County when he reeled in a 33-pound, 7-ounce salmon that set the mark for the rest of the planet. This was a true Coho and not a hybrid between the Chinook and the Coho – another record that also comes from Oswego. Coho salmon do not live as long as their king cousins so seeing a Coho of these proportions is truly amazing.

This is the plaque honoring the late Bill Pearce at the New York Power Authority's fishing platform located in the Niagara Gorge. Pearce is considered the father of the Great Lakes trout and salmon fisheries in New York.

Coho salmon are feisty for their size. They put up a good tussle, twisting, turning and sometimes jumping at the end of a fishing line. They can also be very accessible for anglers casting hardware off the piers every spring. It’s not unusual for pier fishermen to reel in an occasional Coho off Wilson and Olcott. Small-boat trollers can also do well working the shoreline in the spring, picking up a mixed bag of browns, steelhead and Coho salmon.

As table fare, a spring or summer Coho salmon is tough to beat – on the grill or in a smoker. If a Coho shows up on the end of our lines, I’m always the person yelling “first dibs.” Dinner on the charcoal grill is soon to follow. By themselves, they will never win one of the big prestigious fishing derbies. However, they have contributed to an occasional tournament win here and there. Coho salmon have certainly found a home in Lake Ontario.

In an effort to ramp up research efforts on these fish, DEC and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF) are midway through a Coho salmon study and they can use the help of anglers for the next couple of years to collect information and actual fish heads.

Matthew Smuda of Gowanda shows off a big Coho he caught on the Niagara Bar last fall with Capt. Matt Yablonsky of Wet Net Charters. The Coho catch rate was one of the highest in the 33-year history of the lake creel census.

As part of a continuing effort to evaluate lake stocking programs, every single Coho salmon stocked by DEC and OMNRF was clipped from 2016 to 2018. The adipose fin (behind the dorsal fin) was clipped to help identify survey fish. In addition, many of those fish also received a 1-millimeter long piece of coded wire inserted into the snout of the fish. To help these managing agencies with the study, they are asking anglers to save the heads of Coho salmon and fill out the necessary paperwork that is available at collection points (Fort Niagara State Park Cleaning Station, Wilson-Tuscarora State Park Cleaning Station, Wilson Boat Yard, Town of Newfane Marina in Olcott and Lake Breeze Marina located near the launch at Point Breeze). You can also save heads in your own personal freezer (but make sure to hide them from your spouse or significant other). Email the DEC at fwfishlo@dec.ny.gov or call Mike Connerton at 315-654-2147.

Helpful information includes whether the Coho salmon had an adipose clip (yes, there are some Coho salmon that are naturally reproducing and this is another part of the study), date and location of catch, as well as length of the fish. This will allow fisheries biologists to determine the effectiveness of fall fingerling plants, spring yearling stockings from the Salmon River, as well as programs ongoing with OMNRF.

We mentioned natural reproduction. One river that is often referenced is the Ganaraska on the north shore of the lake in Canada. Thanks to a viewing camera installed at the fish ladder corresponding with Corbett’s Dam, fisheries personnel have seen over 20,000 salmonids swim through the fish counter. Of that total, 1,300 were Coho salmon. This is a river that has never been stocked before.

Please lend a hand with the Coho salmon study. Thanks to the late Bill Pearce, we are enjoying some outstanding fishing in Lake Ontario. Anglers enjoyed great Coho fishing last year and the Chinook catch rate was the best ever. Let’s hope it continues. And if you don’t know what to do with the Coho fillets after you save the head, send them my way.

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