As we look forward to 2021 for brighter days, one word stands out as we plan for the new year – hope.
The distribution of the vaccine is underway in the battle against Covid-19. At the same time, plans are moving forward for our Great Lakes fisheries and the management of these special resources. We are blessed with Great Lakes Ontario and Erie, as well as the Niagara River, a strait connecting both bodies of water.
In Lake Erie, anglers were dumbfounded when they heard the 2020 estimate that walleye numbers were roughly 116 million fish. Thanks to a couple more good classes, the walleye population estimate is now closer to 150 million, according to some fisheries experts in Ohio where most of these fish spawn and live.
Yes, these are the good days when it comes to walleye fishing in New York and this Great Lake is where you want to be. Catch rates should improve.
Cattaraugus Creek is the big tributary for Lake Erie in New York. The exciting news is that work should be underway to reduce the size of the Scoby Dam in Springville (for safety purposes) and create a fish ladder that will allow steelhead access into the upper section of the creek. This will add 30-something miles of access for stream casters and better habitat suitable for natural reproduction. While not everyone is in favor of the move, I think it is a great thing for the future of the fishery. Time will tell.
Lake access has been a thorn in the side for lake users. When Sturgeon Point was shut down in 2020, it left a huge gap for walleye, perch and bass fishermen. After much hard work, the marina was dredged and reopened. By the end of the year, though, the harbor was closed again due to excessive sand and siltation. Let's hope the Town of Evans gets on the problem early to ensure that we hit the ground running when spring rolls around for perch and walleye fishing. Take that a step further and get the problem resolved so that it does not happen again.
For Lake Ontario, the Salmon River Fish Hatchery staff completed all the egg collections for chinook and coho salmon last fall. The final numbers were 1.6 million chinook salmon eggs and 860,000 coho salmon eggs, to be stocked in Lake Ontario tributaries. The chinook eggs are hatched and will be stocked this spring (translating to roughly 850,000 fingerlings for New York waters, about 550,000 fish for pens).
Coho salmon eggs are held in the hatchery for a year and stocked in the spring of 2022 as yearlings. The coho fall fingerling stocking program will be discontinued moving forward. Previously there were 235,000 fall fingerlings and 90,000 spring yearlings being stocked. While stockings will no longer be 325,000 fish, the reduction in numbers will be better overall because they will all be stocked as yearlings and survival rates will be much better.
“In 2021, Lake Ontario will see status quo as far as salmon and trout stocking numbers,” said Steve Hurst, Chief of DEC’s Bureau of Fisheries. In part, this was because DEC, U.S. Geological Survey and Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry could not conduct the spring forage base survey trawls this year.
“We’ll still be able to look at both years of alewife numbers if we are able to conduct the spring forage trawls in 2021,” said Hurst. “It kills us as scientists when we can’t conduct important research like this to manage the fishery.”
It is the agency’s hope that it will be able to implement the spring trawls.
In addition, the Lake Ontario Open Lake Creel Census, not performed in 2020 because of Covid, should come to fruition. The DEC is making changes when necessary to deal with the virus.
“We were still able to collect important biological data on the fish, include the condition of the salmon, in 2020,” says Hurst. “We conducted a diet study to look at what the fish have been eating and we continued with the coho tagging study in 2020.”
The second year of a new chinook salmon stocking strategy will be implemented in 2021 for Lake Ontario, good news moving forward. Salmon will again be held in pens, another tool to help improve survival rates of the salmon. Holding fish in these salmon pens will improve survival rates by better than 2 to 1. The new salmon stocking strategy could also improve the staging of fish off the creek mouths on the Niagara Bar, in front of Olcott, at the Oak Orchard River at Point Breeze, and at the Genesee River off Rochester. To the east, it will be Oswego, the Salmon River, and the Black River for king plants.
Fishing derbies and tournaments are being planned for 2021 in both lakes and hopefully they will be held in a way to keep people safe. Notification was received from the Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Association in early January that the organization will have its first meeting in May, its first gathering since December of 2019. It will be outdoors in Wilson. Their club tournament, which was held in 2020, will again be held in July. Time will tell if the picnic will be included or how the weigh in process will take place.
Newfane Town Supervisor Tim Horanburg could finally see a dream become reality in 2021. He has been fighting for some type of a breakwall off Olcott for over a quarter century and, thanks to the Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative, it looks like construction will start this year. It will be the icing on the cake for a long career of public service that has been extremely supportive of fish and fishing. He was a big reason why Olcott was named the Ultimate Fishing Town by the World Fishing Network in 2012. He will retire at the end of the year.
For anglers who turned to fishing for relief from a pandemic, everyone should become a mentor for another angler or two. It does not have to be a child, either. Take someone fishing and educate them on how to catch fish, how to behave properly by learning proper etiquette, and how to be a steward of the resource. It is a step in the right direction and something we should all strive for.