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History of The Salmon River Fishery

State of the Salmon River Workshop
Salmon River Hatchery
November 6, 1999


Francis J. Verdoliva Jr.

NYSDEC Salmon River Program Coordinator

Abstract Description
History Conclusion


As we prepare to enter the 21st Century in the Salmon River Corridor it is not only important to review the present status of the river's fishery, but to also reflect on the past history of the river. By doing so we can realize what we had and lost, better understand and appreciate what we presently have today, and prepare the river for future management that does not repeat the mistakes of the past and leaves a legacy of respect of the resource for future generations. The Salmon River's oral history can be traced to the early Native Americans who occupied the region and used the resource as a source of food pre 1600's, while the written history of the river can be traced to the early French explorers and Jesuit missionaries observations post 1600. A history time line of the Salmon River Corridor was broken into three categories:
  1. Early History pre 1600 to 1899 including Native American subsistence fisheries in a pristine environment and EuroAmerican subsistence, commercial, and early recreational fishing in a exploited and declining environment.

  2. Early 20th to mid 20th century recreational fisheries in a degraded river habitat mainly functioning as a hydro generating river.

  3. Late 20th century introduced salmonid sport fishery in a recovering multi-use river ecosystem. A physical description of the Salmon River Corridor including the present three reaches of the river was also included in the historical section to illustrate changes and similarities of the river over the last 400 years of EuroAmerican influence. A description of the value and importance of the Salmon River to the Great Lakes Program and its rank statewide, DEC's outreach programs with the public to accomplish goals, and a developing stewardship program (NYSDEC Salmon River Stewards) in the corridor completed the history segment of the workshop.

Salmon River Corridor Description

The headwaters of the Salmon River originate in Lewis County on the southwestern slopes of the Tug Hill Plateau at an elevation of 1800 feet. The river flows in a westerly direction through Oswego County before entering Lake Ontario, elevation 250 feet. The main stem of the river is 44 miles and the change in elevation over the course of the river is 1,550 feet. Total drainage area is 285 square miles and today includes three reaches:
  1. The headwaters including the North and East Branch of the Salmon River, and their tributaries including Mad River, Mill Stream, Fall Brook, Cottrel Brook, and Prince Brook.

  2. The Salmon River Reservoir at river mile 21 (upper reservoir), the Lighthouse Hill Reservoir at river mile 17 (lower reservoir), and the river between including the bypass reach (original river bed) and Salmon River Falls at river mile 19 (vertical drop of 110 feet) which was the historical natural barrier to upstream migration of native Atlantic Salmon.

  3. Main stem Salmon River below Light House Hill Reservoir including the tributaries Beaverdam Brook, Laney's Brook, Orwell Brook, Trout Brook, and Spring Brook. The historical reaches of the watershed pre-hydro development included two reaches, the main stem and tributaries below the Salmon River Falls, and the river and its tributaries above the falls. Today the Lower Reservoir dam blocks upstream passage of migratory fish to historical habitat below the Salmon River Falls with the loss of 2 miles of river, but the rest of the tributary system below the dam has historical habitat still available. The upper watershed above the Salmon River Reservoir is a high quality cold water fishery including stocked and wild native Brook Trout, and introduced Brown and Rainbow trout which have naturalized to the system. The lower main stem is a high quality migratory salmonid fishery consisting of introduced Pacific salmon, Steelhead, Brown trout, and reintroduced native Atlantic salmon. The lower mainstem tributaries also receive runs of migratory salmonids from Lake Ontario with natural reproduction occurring, along with small populations of native Brook trout and naturalized Brown trout mainly now being found in the upper reaches of these streams.

Early History Early to Mid 20th Century Late 20th Century
1650-1836 1900-1967 1968-1995
1837-1898 1995-1999

Early History

1650 - Native Americans (Iroquois) utilized the Salmon River up to the falls for Atlantic Salmon subsistence fishing. (Goode 1884) The Iroquois called the river "Hehhah-wa-gah11" meaning "where swim the sweet fish".

1615 - French explorer Samuel de Champlain and Jesuit missionaries including Simon Le Moyne explore the river.

1657 - 1672 - Importance of the salmon resource first documented by the Jesuits who observed Indians with boatloads of salmon during mid July. (Parsons 1973)

1684 - The river became a contested area during the French and Indian Wars between the British, French, and Iroquois Confederation because of the natural harbor and bountiful fish resource. (Salmon) British gained control of the area.

1776 - 1788 - British lose control of the area to the new United States of America during the American revolution. The Iroquois Confederation was also weakened having sided with the British. New York Governor George Clinton purchased land north of the river from the Iroquois, and Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk, bought 400 acres of the Salmon River region.

1801 - First permanent white settlement in the Salmon River area is established. The economy of the community was based on fishing (Atlantic salmon), shipping, lumber, and agriculture. Atlantic salmon are abundant.

1836 - Atlantic salmon still abundant, but the resource was already declining. (Parsons 1973) Exploitation of the resource for commercial use continued. 12 skiffs in one night take an average of 300 Atlantic salmon each, with the average fish weighing 15 pounds, and fish reported between 40 and 45 pounds, with the largest 48 pounds. (Webster 1982) Estimated skiff fishermen using spears killed 10,000 salmon a year during the mid 1800's. (30 tons per year)

1837 - Dam constructed just west of Pulaski hindering upstream migration. (Green 1940)

1864 - John Davidson, Scottish immigrant, NYC lawyer, visits the area to fish for Brook trout in the East Branch of the Salmon River above the Salmon River Falls in present day Redfield. First record of sportfishing in the river. Records catching 40 Brook trout in a morning that average 2 pounds each. Maps the upper river and names pools, runs, and riffles in the East Branch. Establishes permanent home for fishing and hunting, "The Braes", overlooking the East Branch.

1869 - Eight dams across the Salmon River blocking all upstream migration except for the river's lowest reaches.

1870 - Commercial fishermen off the mouth of the river still take in 400 salmon in a netting that range from 1 pound to 45 pounds. (Parsons 1973) Exploitation continues.

1872 - Atlantic salmon all but extinct from the Salmon River, the last tributary on the American side of Lake Ontario to still have salmon. Historically the Salmon River had supported the best runs of Atlantic salmon in New York tributaries to Lake Ontario. Dams, overfishing, deforestation, pollution and agriculture all contributed to the salmon's demise. An unknown contributing factor may also have been the introduction of Alewife to Lake Ontario through the Erie Canal. A diet rich in Alewife can contribute to reproductive failure in Atlantic salmon. (Personal correspondence George Ketola USGS)

1873-1898 - 1,156,000 Pacific salmon (Chinook) were stocked in the Salmon River. The program was discontinued because no recruitment from natural reproduction was documented. The same limiting factors of a degraded habitat resulted in failure for the Pacific salmon. During the same period 144,000 Atlantic salmon fry were stocked with low survival and recovery. Program discontinued.

1898- Lake Ontario Atlantic salmon extinct. The last pair of native Atlantic salmon was seen in a small tributary on the Canadian side of the lake. Lake Ontario had once supported the greatest freshwater population of Atlantic salmon in the world.

Early to Mid 20th Century

1900 - 1925 - Black bass are caught in considerable numbers below Pulaski. Limited rainbow trout and brown trout fishery above Pulaski.

1914 - Salmon River Power Company erects dam to form the Salmon River Reservoir and completes the Bennetts Bridge Hydropower facility

1926 - Rainbow trout introduced into Mad River, a tributary of the North Branch of the Salmon River in the upper watershed. Rainbow trout reproduce successfully and naturalize to the watershed.

1929 - 1938 - Seven species of fish were stocked in the lower main river, and trout were stocked in the tributaries. Yellow Perch, Walleye, Smallmouth Bass, Largemouth Bass, and Brook, Brown, and Rainbow trout. (NYSCD 1940)

1930 - Construction of the Lighthouse Hill Hydropower facility completed. Generation of electricity becomes the rivers dominant use. Severe water fluctuations with resulting unfavorable water temperatures as a result of power generation limits trout production in the main stem of the river.

1939 -291,000 Coho and 141,000 Chinook salmon are stocked in the main stem. No recruitment. Program discontinued. (NYS CD 1940)

1956-1959 - 28,000 Atlantic salmon stocked in the river below Lighthouse Hill Reservoir in an attempt to develop a spawning population. No recruitment and project dropped. Not only are river habitat conditions poor, but Lake Ontario was a hostile environment for salmonids with high populations of lamprey existing, and poor water quality from years of pollution.

1960 - 1967 - Minor brown trout fishery exists above Pulaski from stocking.

Late 20th Century

1968 - Pacific salmon stocking initiated in the Salmon River. 22,000 Coho are stocked.

1970 - Pacific salmon stocking continues with the addition of 22,000 Chinook and 22,000 Coho. Success very limited due to sea lamprey predation.

1972 - Successful sea lamprey control initiated in Lake Ontario tributaries.

1974 - Large runs of Pacific salmon established in the Salmon River. Steelhead stocking initiated in Salmon River adding diversity and a extended sport fishing season.

1976 - Chemical contamination (mirex and PCB) of Lake Ontario fish discovered. Stocking of Pacific salmon in Lake Ontario discontinued. Ban imposed on lake and tributaries for possession of salmonids. Continued stocking of 40,000 Pacific salmon in Salmon River to monitor contaminant levels.

1979 - Ban rescinded and Pacific salmon stocking resumed.

1980 - Salmon River Hatchery built to raise Chinook, Coho, Brown trout, and Steelhead for the Lake Ontario fishery.

1981 - Resident Brown trout stocking of the mainstem of the Salmon River for a put and take fishery is suspended. Emphasis is totally put on migratory salmonids.

1982 - 1994 - Pacific salmon sport fishery in the Salmon River highly successful. Steelhead become increasingly important as they provide a late fall, winter, and spring fishery. Tremendous economic growth in the Salmon River Corridor as a result of the salmonid fishery. Legal snagging of Pacific salmon is resulting in a growing social problem associated with the fishery. Skamania summer run steelhead are stocked in the Salmon River to add a summer component to the fishery and extend the season.

1995 - Ban on snagging of Pacific salmon enacted by NYSDEC.

1995 - Introduction of Landlocked Atlantic salmon to the Salmon River (60,000 fry). The addition of Atlantic salmon is to provide a summer fishery and offset any perceived loss of revenue from the ending of snagging. Examine the possible restocking of Brown trout to create a resident summer fishery in the main stem of the Salmon River. Success of these programs cannot take place until year round minimum flows are established in the river.

1996 -The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licensing of Salmon River hydro projects requiring year round minimum flows, providing better conditions for the development of a summer fishery and natural reproduction of salmonids. Summer recreational whitewater releases included in the license to diversify recreational use of the river. 30,000 Atlantic salmon yearlings stocked in the Salmon River as an annual stocking.

1997 - Minimum flows go into effect. Significant natural reproduction of Chinook salmon is documented. Aquatic insect life (mayflies) increasing and diversifying. NYS Legislative line item provides funding for new wells and refurbishing of existing wells improving quality of stocked salmonids at the Salmon River Hatchery. Four new circular raceways capable of raising 100,000 Atlantics are constructed at the hatchery.

1998 - First return of adult Atlantic salmon occurs in the Salmon River from the 1996 stocking, providing a limited summer fishery. Skamania summer steelhead and Atlantic salmon are raised in the new circular tanks at the hatchery. Chinook and Coho salmon runs are at record highs. NYSDEC Salmon River Stewards Program initiated on the Salmon River.

1999 - New stocking and marking methods initiated for Steelhead in the Salmon River to enhance survival and increase returns that had recently been declining. Closure of Trout, Orwell, and Laney Brooks to angling during the spawning season to protect adult Steelhead and salmon from illegal harvest. Annual monitoring of reproduction of Chinook in the mainstem is initiated by NYSDEC and USGS at Tuninson Labs. Base flow studies initiated by NYSDEC and New York Rivers United to quantify changes to river as a result of FERC licensing. Studies initiated by SUNYESF to determine potential habitat requirements for juvenile Atlantic salmon in the mainstem of the river. 120,000 Atlantic salmon fry stocked in the mainstem. USGS initiates studies looking at juvenile habitat for Steelhead and Atlantic salmon and the competitive interaction of the species in Trout and Orwell Brooks. NYSDEC initiates a mainstem biological survey to look at post base flow species diversity.

  1. Fish (salmonids) have been the major catalyst of activity surrounding the Salmon River through history.
    1. Early history - subsistence I commercial
    2. Recent history - recreational sportfishing

  2. 400 years of human activity (EuroAmerican) in the Salmon River Corridor has resulted in many changes in the fishery and the river, yet the quality of the watershed has remained at a very high standard.
    1. The lower Salmon River is a premier fishing and recreational resource of national importance. (Introduced Pacific salmon and Steelhead fisheries, reintroduced Atlantic salmon, and whitewater kayaking).
    2. Native Brook trout and introduced Brown and Rainbow trout in the upper watershed above the reservoir.

  3. The Salmon River has been declared a significant habitat because it makes up the largest cold water tributary to Lake Ontario. The Salmon Rivers assets include its natural and rural environment, clean water, wildlife habitat, and excellent public recreation opportunities.

  4. The Salmon River ranks fourth in NYS in public use. Only Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and the St. Lawrence River exceed it. (1996 NYSDBC Angler Survey)
    1. Number of anglers - 58,790
    2. Angler effort in days - 364,500
    3. At location expenditures - $15,779,200 (40% increase since 1986 when snagging was allowed).
    4. 95% of anglers fish for cold water species.
    5. 48% of anglers are from out of state. (8% increase from 1988).

  5. NYSDEC regularly meets with local groups, organizations, and other agencies to provide outreach, discuss issues, and develop management plans in the corridor. These groups include:
    1. Eastern Shore I Pulaski Chamber Fisheries Committee
    2. Oswego County Tourism
    3. Oswego County Environmental Management Council
    4. Oswego County Federation of Sportsman
    5. Salmon River Greenway Committee
    6. Tug Hill Commission
    7. Tug Hill Chapter of Trout Unlimited
    8. Eastern Lake Ontario Salmon Trout Association
    9. Oswego County Guides Association

  6. The Salmon River has become a river for all seasons.
    1. 12 month salmonid fishery
    2. Recreational whitewater activities
    3. Eco tourism at the Salmon River Falls
    4. Winter outdoor recreation including snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing

  7. Truly the Salmon River is NYS's heritage salmon river (not officially designated)
    1. Introduced Chinook salmon (Pacific salmon) that were not able to reproduce and survive in the Salmon River from 1873 to 1898 are today at the turn of the century and millennium reproducing in significant numbers in the mainstem of the river. Chinook, Coho, and Steelhead are all reproducing in the Salmon River's tributaries.
    2. 100 years after Atlantic salmon were declared extinct from Lake Ontario (1898) the first run of adult Atlantic salmon returned in the summer of 1998 to the river which bears its namesake.
    3. The Salmon River enters the next century in the best condition in over 150 years. It is our responsibility to leave its legacy for the future our children.

This document is public information prepared by the The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

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