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How the DEC is improving fishing in Lake Erie tributaries

Like the Beatles hit song “Getting Better,” New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Lake Erie Fisheries Research Unit is doing their best to do just that – make things better in Lake Erie’s tributaries for trout … and trout anglers. Some big alterations are taking place in 2018, which may be the perfect segue into David Bowie’s “Changes.”

At the top of the list, brown trout stocking in Lake Erie will no longer take place.“Brown trout is only 2 percent of the tributary component,” says James Markham, senior aquatic biologist with the Lake Erie Unit. “These fish were designed to improve harbor fisheries in Dunkirk and Barcelona. However, with the closure of the Dunkirk power plant and no warm water discharge to attract fish, we’ve noticed that the harbor catch rates are way down.” As a side note, brown trout are rarely targeted by boat anglers. The fish do not show up in any of the agency’s research nettings with the exception of one drop off near Brocton Shoal in 90 to 100 feet of water. It was time to end it.

Those 45,000 spring yearling brown trout are being replaced by 45,000 fall fingerling domestic rainbows from the Bath hatchery. “Those rainbows will be stocking in the four most popular tributaries – Chautauqua, Canadaway, Cattaraugus and Eighteen Mile creeks,” says Markham. “Based on past performance, we hope that these fish will improve early-season tributary runs in September and October. The reason that these four streams were selected is because over 90 percent of angling effort and catch are in these popular streams in any given year.”

Stocking policies will change starting in 2018. Steelhead will be stocked further downstream, closer to the lake.

Another change involving domestic rainbows is a 5,000 spring yearling stocking earmarked for the Erie Basin Marina and the Buffalo River. The Erie Basin fish will be moved to a tributary.

Angler surveys help fisheries managers determine the overall catch, use and harvest of the tributary fishery. Two DEC survey technicians conduct angler interviews and car counts at 75 different sites covering eight stocked streams from mid-September to mid-May. Five angler surveys have been completed so far, starting with 2003-04. The most recent was 2014-15. There is a survey on-going right now through 2018. You can see it’s important to cooperate with these information collectors. They are also obtaining important angler opinion information, helping DEC to make important changes … with a little help from their friends.

Getting back to steelhead changes that will be taking place, 10 Lake Erie tributaries received a total of 255,000 spring yearling steelhead. These are traditionally received from the Salmon River Fish Hatchery (SRFH). The list of tributaries (in addition to the “big four” mentioned earlier) also includes Silver, Walnut, South Branch of Eighteen Mile, Buffalo, Cayuga and Cazenovia creeks. Moving forward, Cazenovia Creek will be eliminated from the list. The 10,000 stocked trout from that stream will be re-allocated to Chautauqua Creek – where those fish originally came from in 2004.

It is hoped that infrastructure improvements at the Salmon River Fish Hatchery will help deliver a larger product to the streams.

“Cazenovia Creek was a test stream,” said Markham. “We are always striving to develop fisheries in urban areas. This one never seemed to develop.”

There are also some subtle changes that could make a difference with trout stocking survival. Tributary stocking locations will be moved further downstream, but not at the mouth of the creeks. While there are no guarantees that this will improve fish survival, if hatchery infrastructure projects at SRFH improve the quality of the product being stocked, it could make a huge difference with survival rates and ultimately return rates.

Cameron Huntley of Buffalo caught this Lake Erie tributary steelhead last week using a pink egg sac.

A study is in place to determine the emigration pattern of steelhead after they are stocked in Chautauqua Creek. In 2015 and 2016, four lots of 15,000 steelhead annually were uniquely marked to determine fish movement. Two lots of fish under 5 inches and two lots of fish over 5 inches have been stocked in the upper portions of the creek and the lower portions of the creek to see what works best. So far, early results are showing that size does matter. Bigger fish stocked higher up in the creek have been surviving better. However, the higher stocked fish that are smaller in size are showing emigration patterns that find fish movement going the wrong way – heading further upstream. When that happens, they are less likely to find their way out into the lake … and survive. This is one of the tasks being assessed through the angler survey.

“In a perfect world, we would be getting a larger product to stock,” says Markham. “We would stock them five miles up a tributary. Based on our research, though, we think we can hedge our bets and get better survival by stocking the smaller steelhead closer to the lake.” It’s all about the research and making sound management decisions based on that information.

Two other projects that could have a big impact on the future of certain tributary trout fisheries both involve fish passage efforts allowing fish to get up further into a system. The big one is located at Scoby Dam in Springville along Cattaraugus Creek. The 40-foot high dam structure is in poor shape and out of safety compliance. The plan is to lower the dam down to 12 to 15 foot range with a fish ladder that could allow steelhead to migrate up into the upper reaches of the creek. By opening up connectivity into the headwaters, natural reproduction would undoubtedly increase and the amount of fishable waters would be expanded considerably. The current timeline has construction starting in 2021. There will be more on this at a later time.

Submissions can be emailed to and should include name, hometown and particulars of the catch.

At Smith Mills in Silver Creek, a small dam project is now a safety hazard in the Town of Silver Creek. Complete removal and stream reconstruction will start in 2018. “While it’s not a high quality stream, the best habitat is above the barrier,” says Markham. “We should see a limited number of natural reproduction with steelhead.”

These changes and projects moving forward should help to improve the catch rates in the tributaries. After seeing catch rates at more than .6 fish per hour in the first three stream surveys, catch rates for the last two were between .3 and .4 fish per hour – still pretty good, but anglers would like to see it … “Getting Better.” We’ll just have to wait and see.


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