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$25,000 salmon catch highlights record-breaking salmon action ... in spring

As the Fall Lake Ontario Counties (LOC) Trout and Salmon Derby came to a close on Labor Day weekend, an announcement came through from the Albany press office of the state's Department of Environmental Conservation: record-breaking trout and salmon fishing in Lake Ontario.

We've known that the fishing was good by talking to anglers, looking at the catches of the week and listening to regular reports. We've also kept an eye on the fishing derbies and tournaments like the LOC. How good was it?

The autumn contest is the grand finale of fishing events for Lake Ontario, as anglers from 42 states and several countries flock to these productive salmon and trout waters. The best part of these types of contests is that you don't have to be a professional. Every single derby, there are stories of people catching fish on their first trip out, their first derby, their first time on Lake Ontario, their first time on a boat — and this year was no exception.

Russell Pray of Kesseville found that out in only his second year of fishing the LOC events. Trolling out of the Little Salmon River off Oswego with Rick Coon of Kesseville, they headed out onto the lake Sunday despite the threat of rain. At 7:30 a.m., in the middle of a downpour, the dipsy rod went off and Pray grabbed it. Within seconds, the salmon had stripped out over 370 feet of line. As they fought 3- to 4-four-foot waves in Pray's 24-foot Crestliner, he pulled the big salmon to the back of the boat. Netting it was another challenge, having to deal with a 17-foot leader from the diver to the Green Crinkle A-Tom-Mik fly, green/silver Kingfisher flasher and the potential winning fish.

They managed to finally get the king into the boat and run it to Woody's Tackle in Pulaski. The fish weighed in at 31 pounds, 4 ounces to take over the lead held by Eric Beaver of Locust Gap by just three ounces. Pray earned $500 for catching the big salmon of the day and $25,000 for the grand prize when it was made official. "I plan to finish the basement and do some work on the boat, not necessarily in that order," he told the crowd at the awards ceremony at Captain Jack's in Sodus Point Monday.

Beaver's catch came Aug. 25 and also was reeled in off Oswego and weighed in at Woody's. It was his first time in a derby and only the second salmon he's caught. It earned him a check for $5,000 plus the extra $500 big salmon prize for the day. The 20th-place salmon was 27 pounds, 8 ounces.

Top Youth salmon was a 27-pound, 6-ounce king hauled in by Matthew Gresock of Penfield while fishing out of Rochester. He was using a Northport Nailer spoon.

In the Rainbow/Steelhead Division, the top three fish were noteworthy. First and second place came to the scales on Saturday out of Olcott. Braden Petrucci of Coal Center, Pa., hauled in a 14-pound steelhead, a personal best, while he was fishing with his father Chris and Jim Undercoffer of Lockport at 7:45 a.m. A few hours later, Anthony Lonzo of Monongahela, Pa., weighed in a personal best trout that tipped the scales at 13 pounds, 11 ounces.

Third place was the top youth in the Steelhead division and 10-year-old Gabby Hovak of North Tonawanda, the leader for much of the 18-day derby, caught her personal best while fishing with her father, Kyle. She was fishing east of Olcott but weighed it in at Wilson, where they keep their boat at Bootleggers Cove.

In the Brown Trout division, David McGowan of Rush did not wait until the last minute and he's been fishing derbies since the days of the ESLO contest, the event that started it all on Lake Ontario in the 1970s. "I caught the 16-pound, 4-ounce brown trout off Braddocks Bay on the first day of the derby Aug. 17," McGowan said. "I was sweating bullets for two weeks watching the leader board." He won $250 for the big brown for the day and another $2,500 for the big fish in the category.

McGowan had a bit of a scare Monday (Labor Day) when Jason Dale of Lockport pulled a bit of last-minute magic out of his fishing hat. After registering for the derby on Sunday night at 6 p.m., Dale made it down to Brett Schmittendorf's "Extra Large" Tiara in Wilson, and the plan was to fish the morning because the derby ended at 1 p.m.

Fishing with Jeff Parrish of Cambria and Harry Illenz of Lockport, at 11 a.m. the rod went off and Dale grabbed it. Ten minutes later, they were netting a 15-pound, 12 ounce brownie. It was the third time he's ever fished and the first brown trout he's caught. Winning money in the LOC derbies can be very easy.

Top Youth brown trout was a 14-pound, 7 ounce fish reeled in by Elijah Horst of Farmington while fishing off Maxwell Creek with his father, Ryan. The lucky lure was a Carbon 14 spoon. While it was his biggest this year, it wasn't a personal best. For a complete leaderboard check out loc.org for the top catches that were recorded. Of course, bigger fish were caught by people who were not in the derby. Remember that next year.

Getting back to the record fishing that was reported by DEC, a news release highlighted the Chinook salmon fishing from April through June, offering up a catch rate of 227 percent above the previous five-year average. We are finding out about this exceptional fishing two months later. This should have been given a priority. This is the kind of news that sells fishing licenses, the lifeblood of the state's fishing programs.

It wasn't just the Chinook salmon fishing, either. The catch rate for all salmon and trout was 37 percent above the 5-year average, too. The brown trout and Coho salmon fishing was 38 and 21 percent above the respective five-year averages for each. The Atlantic salmon catch rate, while much smaller in actual numbers was 73 percent above the previous five-year average. Too bad there was no official word until now.

Getting this information out the end of August, just before Labor Day weekend, didn't do anything to entice people into going fishing, either in-state or out. It would certainly be a boon for the small communities and businesses along the lakeshore that rely on sportfishing to survive if they received a little much-needed help from time to time.

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