Bill Hilts Jr.: For Lake Ontario, 2021 fishing is starting out much better
Bill Hilts Jr.
13 hrs ago
It's important to have different year classes of alewives to help support the fishery in Lake Ontario.
Bill Hilts Jr.
Lake Ontario is showing off its versatility in the fishing department again. The Great Lake has been enjoying some outstanding salmon fishing – and trout, too – despite some hiccups along the way.
Last week, a few 26-pound king salmon were caught in the stretch of water that extends from the Niagara Bar to 30 Mile Point, in hopefully a sign of good things to come for the many fishing competitions that have started up this week.
Last year, the Spring Lake Ontario Counties trout and salmon derby did not happen; the Salmon Slam and #1K a Day contests were delayed; and the Wilson Harbor Invitational Salmon Tournament was moved to June. The Lake Ontario Pro-Am Salmon Tournament was canceled, and charter captains were down for the count until Phase 1 of reopening. This year, we have some normalcy.
It was a challenging year for fisheries management, too. With no spring forage trawls and no open lake creel census, a big part of the management research was missing.
The trawl survey was canceled the day after it began and scientists initiated an emergency diet study with the help of angles. More than 800 samples were collected from May through September, Brian Weidel with U.S. Geological Survey, said.
“We looked at Chinook, lake trout, brown trout, steelhead, and Coho salmon and none of them had many small, age-1 alewife in their stomachs (3-4 inches),” Weidel said. “The vast majority of them ate larger (5-8 inch) alewives.
“From diet studies in the past, we knew the sizes of alewife in diets very closely matched the sizes in the trawls. Given no small fish in diets, we could infer the reproductive success from 2019 was low. This was critical because trawls showed us reproduction in 2017 and 2018 were below average.
“With that evidence, we can predict that 2021 adult abundance may be the lowest that we have ever seen. More positively, we have some limited evidence that alewife production was above average in 2020.”
Spring forage trawls have now been completed for 2021. Wiedel said more than 245 trawls were collected by the crews from the USGS Great Lakes Science Center, NYSDEC Cape Vincent, and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, with the results to come.
Earlier this year, lake managers announced salmon and trout stocking would pretty much be status quo for overall numbers. A second year of a new Chinook salmon stocking strategy in New York was implemented for Lake Ontario. Salmon were once again to be held in pens, another tool to help improve survival rates by better than 2 to 1.
The new salmon stocking strategy could also improve the staging of fish off the creek/river mouths on the Niagara Bar, in front of Olcott, at the Oak Orchard River at Point Breeze, and at the Genesee River off Rochester among Western Basin stocking locations. To the east, Oswego, the Salmon River and the Black River for king salmon plants could benefit from the revised approach.
As far as Chinook salmon stocking, the plan is once again for 845,568 fish in New York waters, with 545,568 kings held for three to four weeks in the pens. In Canada, they will be stocking 344,000 kings, with 166,000 salmon in the pens. Last year, no salmon were held in the pens in Canada due to Covid-19.
Hats off to the many volunteers who have made the pen rearing projects as success at the New York sites. One of the big players locally is the Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Association, or LOTSA, a dedicated group of recreational fishermen who are doing their part to ensure a bright future for the Lake Ontario salmon and trout fishery.
“This year LOTSA’s Pen Rearing Project expanded again,” said Capt. Alan Sauerland of Newfane, coordinator for the Olcott project this year. “For 21 days, we held 111,000 Chinook salmon and 17,000 Steelhead in nine fish pens located at the Town of Newfane Marina in Olcott. The pens were assembled on March 27 through the efforts of over 40 volunteers.”
The fish were received April 6 and moved into pens to their temporary homes on “A” dock in Eighteen Mile Creek.
“When the fish were received from DEC, the Chinook salmon weighed 126 fish per pound and the steelhead were 24 fish per pound,” Sauerland said. “During their stay, they were fed continuously via belt feeders that were loaded every morning by Dennis Stabler, Capt. Vince Pierleoni and Marina Director Scott Scheffler. The warmer water temperatures and continuous feeding led to impressive growth during their stay and produced some of the best results that we have seen.”
On April 25, the steelhead were released into Olcott Harbor. On April 28, the Chinook salmon were released into the harbor just before dusk to minimize risk of predation from birds and other fish.
“At release, the Chinook almost doubled their size to an average of 67.4 fish per pound and the steelhead averaged 15.97 fish per pound,” Sauerland said. “DEC had ‘hazers’ working in the harbor for two days after the fish release to deter predation from birds as well. The pens were pulled out of the harbor on April 30 and another group of volunteers did the dirty job of having to clean all of the nets with pressure washers so that they can be reused for the 2022 Pen project.”
Other pen rearing projects along the south shore of the lake enjoyed similar success stories, all encouraging news for the future of the salmon and trout fishery.
Total stockings for species other than salmon are 505,200 for steelhead, 480,000 brown trout, 320,000 lake trout and 135,000 Coho salmon. The 45,000 Skamania trout stocking has been phased out of the program and replaced with Atlantic salmon.
Natural reproduction is another significant factor when it comes to Chinook salmon. Managers do not know how much natural reproduction they are getting in the lake, from both sides of the border. An earlier study suggested nearly half the salmon in the lake are naturally reproduced, but that it must fluctuate from year to year. Natural reproduction raises additional questions and concerns. There is no way of controlling it from year to year; there is no way to assess survival rates; and there is no way to figure out how many alewives are being consumed.
Every year in the Salmon River, New York’s primary tributary for natural reproduction, an annual seining index is conducted weekly during May and June at four sites. In 2019, the mean catch per seine haul was 850 fish, the third highest on record. Those are catchable fish in 2021.
The Lake Ontario Open Lake Creel Census is also underway in 2021 after it was canceled in 2020. If you are stopped at any of the harbors by fisheries technicians, please cooperate and provide accurate information.