After coming off a record year for salmon fishing in Lake Ontario as far as catch rate, and a top-three finish for salmon and trout catch combined, anglers are looking forward to another good year in 2019.
This great fishing doesn’t just happen.
There are many factors that interact with one another that help to produce a good-to-great fishing season. Weather, fish stocking, wind direction and more affect the fish, fish movement and, ultimately, the fishing. However, there is a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes to help maximize the fish being stocked for the benefit of all.
One of the most intense programs on the south shore of the lake is the pen rearing projects that extend from the Niagara River to the Little Salmon River in Oswego. In all, 10 different projects exist to hold salmon and trout every spring.
Started in 1998 in the Oak Orchard River at Point Breeze in Orleans County and Oswego Harbor in Oswego County, the pen effort to help Mother Nature expanded to include sites in Niagara County (Olcott, Wilson and Youngstown); Sandy Creek and the Genesee River in Monroe County; Little Sodus Bay and Sodus Bay in Wayne County; and the two Oswego County projects in Oswego Harbor and Little Salmon River.
The purpose of the projects was initially two-fold: improve the survival rate of fish being stocked into the lake and imprint the fish to an artificial “home” so they return to the same waters when they mature. A side bonus was protecting stocked fish from cormorants, fish-eating birds, especially in the eastern basin of the lake.
The projects turned out to be much more than that. They created a cooperative environment between individuals, local businesses, the fishing community and the Department of Environmental Conservation, all working together for a common goal. It brought families together to help feed the fish and watch them grow before they were released. Science students in local schools and Boy Scout troops became involved, learning about the biology of raising fish and giving them a feeling of accomplishment.
The other huge benefit is the fact that the survival rate of salmon reared in pens was better than 2 to 1 over directly stocked fish from the hatchery (received from the Salmon River Fish Hatchery in Altmar).
Capt. Alan Sauerland of Newfane, the current point person for the Wilson and Olcott projects, pointed out that “with the pen fish surviving 2 to 1 over direct-stocked fish, the pens have played a major role not only in survival, but the overall health of the salmon and steelhead that we release. This is especially important with the recent stocking cuts made by DEC and all but 5,000 of Niagara County’s stocked Chinooks will be penned.”
In Wilson Harbor out of Bootleggers Cove Marina, salmon finally returned through stocking when 10,000 salmon were put into a pen. This year, Wilson will receive an additional 10,000 salmon in the pens, a move recommended by the Niagara County Fisheries Development Board. Rather than direct-stock 10,000 salmon in the Niagara River, it was decided that in the best interests of the area, those fish should go into another Wilson pen for a better than 2-to-1 benefit. While other ports are receiving a cut in stocking, Wilson is receiving an increase.
To improve the quality of the projects and help reduce the dependence on volunteer manpower, automatic fish feeders have been purchased for many of the pen projects and have made a positive difference in the quality of the fish being released.
In addition to salmon being reared in the pens, there are efforts underway to continue raising steelhead that are being held in many of the sites, including the Niagara River, Wilson and Olcott. Scott Feltrinelli of Rochester is looking to spearhead an effort in Niagara and Orleans counties and he is currently looking for volunteers to assemble and place the pens in key locations. Call him at 585-694-9328 if you would like to be involved. He and Paul Jackson of the Niagara River Anglers will be presenting the topic at today's meeting at the Lake Erie Chapter of Fly Fishers International at the American Legion Post in West Seneca starting at 7 p.m.
Another pilot project in Wilson will involve 10,000 brown trout. Brown trout have never been held in pens locally before. However, due to survival concerns born largely out of avian predation, Sauerland hopes that by holding them a few days in the pens, they might be able to negate the excessive predation from cormorants, releasing fish at night after they’ve become acclimated to the waters.
The unpenned 5,000 Chinooks that Sauerland mentioned earlier are part of a new holding tank project for the Niagara River this spring. While the pens are placed in rivers or harbors, the tanks would be self-contained and on shore.
“We hope that this could be an innovation we can adopt in the future should it be successful,” said Capt. Frank Campbell of Niagara Falls. Campbell, who has been working with Mike Fox of Lewiston to pull together the project, visited Idaho to inspect a similar effort.
“We think that we can control our temperatures better in a tank,” says Campbell. “Every year we are the last to receive our salmon for the Niagara River pens due to water temperatures. With a tank project, we can be the first, before any of the salmon have a chance to imprint. We think it will help improve survival even further and help imprint the fish to this area.”
The amazing thing is that all these projects and programs are run by volunteers and, for the most part, using money that they have raised or received through donations. For example, the Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Association runs the Olcott pens with the help of the Town of Newfane Marina folks and some area charter captains.
One of the big events they assist with is the Greater Niagara Fishing Expo, which begins Friday at the Conference and Event Center Niagara Falls. LOTSA raises money through the salmon school and from the club's booth at the show. The Oak Orchard pen project also will have a booth at the show.
It appears that up to $100,000 could be available through DEC to assist with the Lake Ontario pen project effort this year, especially with the expansion of trout rearing. This will undoubtedly be combined with changes in regulations down the road. Current discussions are focusing on steelhead lake limits (possibly reducing from three to two), brown trout limits in the tributaries (possibly reducing from three to one), and a change in the lower Niagara River three-fish aggregate limit to see no more than two of any trout species.
There also is a move – by many of the charter captains – to not allow captain and mate limits while taking a group on a charter. We need to be more protective of our natural resources.