OSWEGO COUNTY, NY – Back in the early years of the 19th century, Lake Ontario had the greatest population of landlocked Atlantic salmon in the world. So many ran the tributaries each fall to spawn, men could drive horse-drawn wagons into the streams and spear or net a load full. Housewives would wade in up to their knees and catch salmon dinners in their aprons.
Although they were capable of overcoming incredible natural obstacles like waterfalls and raging, shallow rapids, they were no match for human progress. A combination of dams, overfishing, and water pollution completely wiped them out of the tiniest Great Lake by the 20th century.
As our nation grew, her waters got dirtier. Late in the 1960s, the Chicago, Detroit and Buffalo Rivers caught fire. Seeing the writing on the wall, Americans demanded anti-pollution measures. Municipalities and heavy industry cleaned up their acts, setting the country on course to a healthier environment.
It worked. The stuff in the country’s rivers and lakes began looking and feeling like water again. Healthy, balanced fish populations rebounded rapidly.
But the Great Lakes, the world’s greatest reservoirs of fresh water, presented a new problem: exploding populations of baitfish. Alewives and smelt grow quickly, predators take longer. Each spring, windrows of winter-killed baitfish, 18 inches deep by up to 10 feet wide, ringed Lake Ontario in a smelly crust.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation responded by stocking voracious chinook (aka king) and coho salmon, rapidly growing species indigenous to the Pacific Ocean. They tore into the schools of bait like kids into a chocolate sculpture.
Giddy with success, the NYSDEC decided to restore Atlantic salmon into the system and commenced stocking massive numbers in 1983. They even set aside Little Sandy Creek in Oswego County as an Atlantic salmon nursery, and banned fishing on the stream in autumn to protect the spawners. It didn’t work. You see, the salmon’s main food source, alewives and smelt, contain Thiaminaise, an enzyme that destroys thiamine (vitamin B1), an essential nutrient salmon need to reproduce. Without B1, salmon fry can’t survive. The program was dropped in 1987.
Traditionalists, primarily fly fishermen, kept the pressure on. Their efforts bore fruit in 1996. The state has been maintaining a token presence by annually stocking 30,000 into the Salmon River and 20,000 into Oak Orchard River ever since.
The Salmon River has long been regarded as one of the premier fly-fishing destinations in the world. Two stretches of the upper river, comprising nearly one mile, are designated as catch-and release fly-fishing areas. The upper fly-fishing section is open April 1 through Nov. 30. Parking is on county Route 22 above the Salmon River Fish Hatchery. The lower fly-fishing section starts at the county Rte. 52 bridge in the village of Altmar and is open Sept. 15 through May 15.
Recently, the authorities have been catching baby Atlantic salmon in survey nets that are too small to have been stocked. The jury is still out on what is causing the natural reproduction, but some point to the lake’s most prominent scapegoat: the round goby.
It seems this native of the Black Sea is rich in thiamine. And though they occupy different niches–salmon are pelagic and gobies prefer shallow, inshore waters–their paths cross for a short time in spring and fall when the lake’s water temperatures are consistent throughout. Apparently, Atlantic salmon prey on enough gobies during these short spells to enrich themselves with thiamine to keep them fertile.
And there’s more. Atlantics can tolerate warmer water than any other salmon, allowing them to enter the Salmon River in summer where they stay until the kings start appearing in late August.
Keep in mind these fish are relatively rare, and “their runs are cyclical,” says Fran Verdoliva, the DEC’s special Assistant for the Salmon River. “Three years ago we had a bumper crop return to the Salmon River. This year might be better…who knows?”
They’re worth the effort. They strike streamers readily, and will even hit a dry fly. What’s more, with natural spawning going on, you might catch what purists consider the cream of the crop: a naturally bred Atlantic salmon (they’re easily identified because wild fish have all their fins).
The best time to fish in the river is when the water’s high; after a rain, for instance, or during one of the power company’s recreational white-water releases (the next one is scheduled for the weekend of Aug. 30-31). So if you’ve been salivating over the thought of fishing the Salmon River but haven’t because of the busier fishing conditions of autumn, c’mon up in summer. You won’t find the massive numbers of trophy Pacific salmon that run when the leaves are turning. Instead, you’ll find limited quantities of landlocked Atlantic salmon surrounded in the summer beauty and peace this precious Oswego County stream–which was named after the species it is famous for.
For year-round Oswego County fishing information, accommodations, and visitor information, go to www.visitoswegocounty.com, or call 1-800-248-4FUN.