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ATLANTIC SALMON DUE FOR A COMEBACK IN NEW YORK WATERS

IT LOOKS like the Atlantic salmon is going to be the Empire State's next glamour fish.

This species, perhaps the most storied of all, already is available to the average Lake Ontario or Finger Lakes troller as an "incidental" catch.

But if Department of Environmental Conservation plans bear fruit, at least one major Great Lakes tributary stream soon will offer "traditional fishing opportunity" for the fly rodder, spin fisherman and bait-lobber -- and it expects to restore wild fish populations, too.

"Next year, the Black River will become an Atlantic salmon/steelhead trout river, with 75,000 Atlantics and 65,000 steelies planted there every year, as coho and Chinook salmon are excluded," said Bill Abraham, Lake Ontario Atlantic salmon coordinator

The Black River will be a "traditional angling" stream, according to Great Lakes Fisheries manager Robert Lange. That's another way of saying that snaggers will be excluded.

Snagging has been a touchy political issue ever since New York got into Pacific salmon in a big way.

Initially, most Great Lakes streams allowed snagging. Fisheries managers believed that coho and Chinook salmon, which run upstream to spawn and die, might become a smelly nuisance if not "harvested."

When snagging became a terrifically popular "harvest" every fall, many anglers raised Cain about the yelling, screaming, crowding, fish harassment and stream litter.

The snaggers countered that these complaints came from purists -- "elitists" who either wanted the streams to themselves or wanted to make the fish accessible only to those who could afford costly offshore trolling boats.

A few years back the DEC stiffened snagging rules and closed all but 17 streams to snaggers.

These regulations won't change this year, said Lange, but they may see new rules governing the sale of salmon eggs. "That is is a separate issue, but snagging to sell the eggs is a factor contributing to the complaints," he said.

But even as the fish managers wrestled with pro- and anti-snagging forces, they began stepping up Atlantic salmon production in an effort to restore this fish to its former range -- and maybe appease the "traditional" angler.

Salmo salar is the fish of angling literature, the fish of royalty in Europe. There's even an "Atlantic Salmon Society" to fight international battles over high-seas commercial fishing.

On this side of the Atlantic, The society is attempting to restore this noble battler to its original range. In New England, there has been some notable success in this arena as paper mills and other industrial polluters clean up their acts.

But the fish was native here, too, in a "land-locked" form as it was left throughout the Northeast after the glaciers receded. In colonial times New Yorkers around Lake Ontario had plenty of them until lampreys and pollution got them.

"In 1983, a few Atlantics were planted in Lindsey, Irondequoit and in Little Sandy Creek in Oswego county," Abraham said. "There, a few wild juveniles were bred by returning adults, so we know they could become a wild-bred fish again. But they have competition from resident rainbow and brown trout -- and Pacific salmon, which are starting to reproduce without hatchery help," Abraham added.

The trick is to find suitable streams, stop stocking the competitors and concentrate on the Atlantic.

"Black River has potential spawning habitat upstream," said Bruce Shupp, the DEC's fisheries head. "Two power plants have installed suitable fish ladders, and the fish run up as far as Watertown, now. But more dams are needed to get them to the prime spawning grounds further upstream."

New York's Adirondack hatchery is now being rebuilt as an Atlantics-only rearing facility, so the yearlings necessary to the program will be available. This season the Catskill and Caledonia hatcheries will take up the slack until that project is finished.

Ontario is cooperating at its Credit River hatchery, where the province has barrier dams with fish traps to exclude unwanted species.

Atlantics can return as soon as two years after planting. Stocked as 6-inch yearlings, they leave the stream that summer, with most survivors returning as 6-pound fish in the fall of their third year, after two years in the lake. Those that stay in the lake, or return after spawning another year, come back larger.

Unlike Pacific salmon, Atlantics do not return to spawn and die -- they can make several trips.

To protect this potential fishing treasure, New York and Ontario will retain their 25-inch, one-a-day limit, Abraham said.

Given a chance, an Atlantic can become a 20-pound trophy, and the current 24-pound, 9-ounce state record should be exceeded.

These are not put-and-take fish to harvest every fall, but rather fish to catch, and perhaps release, to see what might happen next year.

That's what "traditional fishing" really means, whether you favor flies, spinning gear or worms. If that sounds "elitist," we should all become angling snobs.

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