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Bill Hilts Jr.: Catching Finger Lakes fever on Cayuga Lake

Cayuga Lake could probably be compared to the late Rodney Dangerfield, deserving of more respect (especially in the angling department). For those in the know, Cayuga Lake could very well be the headline act of the Finger Lakes Region of the state and fishing is really starting to take off for landlocked salmon and trout right now.

This lake would probably receive more recognition if it wasn’t in the shadow of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Of course, they don’t call those lakes “great” for nothing. They are spectacular fisheries. Therein lies both good and bad news for Cayuga Lake anglers. Because the attention is on those Great Lakes, this fishery can continue to flourish. It is stocked annually with 60,000 lake trout, 25,000 brown trout, 40,000 Atlantic (landlocked) salmon and 50,000 rainbows. It doesn’t receive the fishing pressure that the other large lakes do. Some would like to keep it that way.

When Chris Kenyon of Wolcott invited me to spend some quality time with Captain Morgan, I had other things in mind. Instead, it was an on-water meeting with fellow scribes Leo Maloney of Sherrill, Wayne Brewer of Seneca Falls and Kenyon aboard Capt. Jim Morgan’s 25-foot Wellcraft, the Seneca Chief on Cayuga Lake (315-651-5433, www.senecachiefguide.com). This Capt. Morgan had his own kind of spice, starting with a penchant for Rolling Stones (both young and old versions). First mate was Wolfie Dickinson, from the same mold. Both fishing fanatics were from Lodi, born and bred.

We all met at Dean’s Cove State Marine Park at 7 a.m. on the west side of the lake, the morn of a holiday weekend. The weather was near perfect and so was the company. It’s always good when you can spend time with special friends that also share the same passion for communications with a focus on writing. It was a time to update each other with our lives. In the past, it was always about recent fishing or hunting trips, upcoming outdoor adventures or camping forays into the wilderness. On this day, we spent the first hour updating each other on our health. Time is passing much too quickly.

Bill Hilts, Jr. shows off a landlocked salmon from Cayuga Lake with Capt, Jim Morgan of Seneca Chief Charters by his side

We motored to the east side of the lake and Wolfie started putting out the spread – planer boards and downriggers in the shallows. We would be targeting landlocked salmon and trout in 14 to 16 feet of water. Morgan is an Okuma man and he prefers to run medium-action 8-foot Okuma downrigger rods off the riggers and the boards. His line is Berkley Big Game, 10-pound test.

Our first fish was a small rainbow trout, hitting a jointed J-9 Rapala in black and silver. The second was a lake trout on the same bait but this fish is a bit bigger. It leds to some friendly jabs as we shared a morning on the water together, reliving previous experiences in the outdoors.

“Let’s pick them up and run back across,” said Morgan. “We should be doing better than this.” After guiding for 28 years, Morgan has a sixth sense that he has come to listen to. Back to the west side, where we started, and Wolfie sets our gear back into the water as we continue to discuss things like the New York State Outdoor Writers Association. It’s a group we all have in common. The total number of membership years for the four of us combined is nearly 120.

Lures are back 120 to 125 feet off the boards. The riggers are down only 9 feet as we troll south in 15 feet of water. The rigger pops and Kenyon reels in a nice pickerel, caught on a Moonshine Crab Face spoon, a UV glow-in-the-dark lure that would produce many more fish throughout the morning. That was the lucky bait for several bigger lake trout, too.

Outdoor writer Chris Kenyon of Wolcott shows off the first pickerel of the day.

The action was consistent, and the fish were worthy adversaries. Kenyon had the biggest lake trout of the day on, a fish that tipped the scales near the 10-pound mark – if we had hauled it into the boat and if we had a scale. We won’t say who was performing the net duties, but it did cause Kenyon to howl a bit. It was a nice fish. For all of us media folk, it was not the loss of the fish itself, it was the opportunity for a kicker picture fish for the day.

“Fishing is really starting to turn on in the lake,” said Morgan. “We have seen some nice catches of browns, rainbows and lake trout. However, we really haven’t been seeing the numbers of landlocks that we’re accustomed to for this time of year.”

Almost on cue, a big fish jumps behind the boat. Atlantic salmon. Morgan is clearly excited and we’re still not sure which rod it is. The port side rigger releases and I am standing next to it. Like a big cat I pounce on the rod and take up the slack in the line. The fish is airborne again, putting up the battle of the day. The majestic fish had hit on the turn as we were starting to head back to the launch ramp.

It was less than 10 minutes and we had the silver warrior to the boat. This one had been hooked deep, so it would be best if this one came home with me to cook on the grill. It was the Moonshine Crab Face spoon that enticed the fish to hit, a 6-pound salmon. It was a fitting conclusion for the morning.

Cayuga Lake is the longest of all the Finger Lakes, checking in at 38 miles from tip to tip. It is the second deepest at 435 feet and the second largest as far as total surface area (only to Seneca Lake). It’s also very versatile as far as fish species, affording good warm and cold-water fisheries for a true two-tier fishing lake. If you are into camping and you want to combine it with a fishing trip, two campgrounds I can personally recommend include Taughannock Falls State Park in Tompkins county and Cayuga Lake State Park in Seneca County. There is also good access from Cayuga County at Long Point State Park.

As far as the fishing, this type of action should continue until the middle of June. Then these fish will start to transition to deeper water. And this is one Capt. Morgan that I won’t turn down for a second shot. Or third.

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