10/4/2015
Lake Ontario 2015: Something's happening but you don't know what it is...

I've been keeping tabs on the Lake Ontario fishery as best as I can.  Things are clearly changing over there.  There are some tough decisions that are going to have to made there in the near future regarding fisheries management with the way things are going.

Here's some food for thought and some noteworthy findings:

1.)  Over the past 5 years or so we've been hearing about "record catch rates" on the big lake.   Most casual observers would deduce that the fishing must be better than ever on Lake Ontario.  However, that is not the case.  On the Finger Lakes as well as on Lake Ontario, the INTERNET is largely influencing the catch rates.   During the pre-internet times, many anglers planned trips (days or even weeks) on the big lake not knowing exactly how the fishing was and if it was slow, that's what they dealt with.  Nowadays many anglers wait until they get a good report before venturing out.  So very few boats are going out fishing when the bite isn't good.  When the bite is hot, anglers show up in droves.

2.)  Lake Ontario researchers actually had a brown trout this spring that was around 23" long and only 2" deep from the top of the fish to the belly.  That's more like a pickerel than a Lake Ontario "Football" brown.   Brown trout growth rates were very slow this spring due to the cold weather/water temps.  I can't imagine that overall average growth rates of the other salmonid species were much better, but I could be wrong.

3.)  Salmon runs were very late this year.  As of this writing (10/14) they've finally come in.  We did have a very dry summer and the late spring/winter certainly pushed the timetable back aways, but this is ominous.  Usually a decent run of early fish come through well before the main run.  Now we may just be down to one main run.  Lake trout I've cleaned in the Finger Lakes are still on track to spawn during their normal timeframe.

4.)  The timing has never been better for Atlantic Salmon restoration on Lake Ontario.   Some people think it's a failure, but wild fish have been produced over the past few years in the Salmon River.  Trying to establish Atlantics with the heavy King Salmon population is like trying to restore foxes amid Timber Wolves - it ain't going to work, but without Kings the chances of success should be much higher.  Lake trout restoration is showing lots of promise with large numbers of young wild-produced fish found during the past year.  With alewives disappearing, there's a good chance we'll see perch and walleye populations increase notably.

5.)  The old Lake Ontario charter mentality of "boxing limits of fish" might have to come to an end.  Selective harvest will be important if numbers of adult fish seriously diminish.

6.)  Each Chinook Salmon stocked is the equivalent of 2 browns or steelhead.  Wouldn't it make sense to shift over to the trout?  The trout are more adapted to Lake Ontario's current conditions.   Kings eat a disproportionate amount of food compared to the other salmonids. The browns, rainbows and Atlantics can also switch to other food sources.   Kings live and die by alewives.  The disappearance of Kings will make tributary fishing much more pleasurable - the illegal snagging contingent will diminish and hopefully disappear as will the goon mentality that comes with it.  Wild Kings would likely remain a bonus fish for years and years to come.

I can't help but feel this fishery slipping away.  And there's nothing that can be done about it.  The influx of invasives is not the DEC's fault.  And stocking more Kings makes no difference.  It's like stocking more salmon in Keuka Lake - it doesn't matter.  The positive correlation between more stocking equaling more Kings in the lake has been gone for nearly 20 years if I remember right.  And Salmon River is experiencing heavy natural reproduction of King Salmon - so many more fish are going into the lake annually regardless of stocking policies.

There are Charter Captains that talk about getting the Caledonia Hatchery back online raising Kings.  That is a pipe dream.  This talk is silly.  If your restaurant is failing you don't open up another one!   More stocking does not equal more adults.  Kings are not in the future of the Great Lakes Fisheries.  Sorry but the truth hurts.  And "you ain't gonna learn what you don't want to know."

Think of the invasive mussels like termites eating away at the lake's foundation.  Do you really want to build a costly "addition" to your house when the foundation is being destroyed?  No, you rebuild the foundation.  Start all over again.  There will be some interesting directions and decisions to be made over the next decade.