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The Great Lake Ontario Fishery -- Good Science or Good Luck

by Gerry Bresadola

Reproduced with permission from the Fall 1999 Edition of Lake Ontario Outdoors

    The date was August 23, 1999: we were fishing in about 120' of water off the "high rocks" in Mexico Bay. The kings were very cooperative that morning, as we had boated two beauties in our first half-hour of fishing. As I headed the Dixie Dandy west toward our "numbers" I was happy about our great start and quite relaxed knowing we had already landed a couple of bruiser kings. As we trolled west our sonar indicated we were over some active fish when the rod in the #1 rigger kicked free and quickly bent in a pounding throb toward the water. Our angler was on the Diamondback rod almost as soon as it twitched and quickly found himself enjoying the strong run of another mighty king. All eyes were focused on the battle taking place when our #5 rigger tripped and veteran saltwater expert angler Archie Stewart swooped down on the pulsating rod and yelled, "We have a double"! As luck would have it each fish cooperated as well as could be expected and we eventually landed both monsters. One of the fish weighed in at 35 pounds and the other bounced our scale at 38/39 pounds. We had landed our double, which was fantastic and it turned out that each fish tipped our scale at well over 30 plus pounds, which was even more fantastic. Our crew was all smiles. Since we were all entered in the LOC Derby we pulled lines and headed for the scales at the Lighthouse Marina on the Salmon River. As it turned out the biggest of our fish weighed in at 38 pounds 7 ounces and at the time was good for second place in the derby. Once again Lake Ontario had lived up to its reputation and we thought we might be in line for a prize or two. Boy were we wrong!! We were in for a real surprise.

    By the end of the derby our 38 pound plus monster had dropped to 21st place and for the first time in history the top 10 kings were all 40 pound plus behemoths. This was an incredible happening that had never occurred in years past. Lake Ontario had once again solidified its reputation as a world-class fishery. Ten forty-pound fish in a three-week period was simply a spectacular circumstance.

    Why does this smallest of the Great Lakes continue to serve up fabulous fishing? Just what is it about this wonder that we call Lake Ontario? With the myriad of environmental changes occurring why do we continue to be blessed with spectacular angling opportunity? Is it good management, quality research, scientific adjustment or just plain good luck? Well after 25 years of fishing this wonderful resource I am convinced it must be "all of the above" We are lucky, real lucky to have all of the ingredients in place to keep our dynamic fishery healthy and productive. Let us take a look at what has transpired over the years since the birth of our trout and salmon program.

A Little Bit of History
    Prior to European colonization of the area the dominant fish species in the lake included black fin cisco, shortnose cisco, bloters, lake herring, whitefish, deepwater sculpin, lake trout, Atlantic salmon and burbot. Due to increased human population, habitat changes and pollution, by the 1960s the offshore fish community was dominated by alewives, smelt and slimy sculpin. Basically the change in the offshore fish community was a result of overexploitation, drastic changes in habitat and predation by the sea lamprey. Lake Ontario was a sorry polluted mess and its fishery was rather poor.

    This natural wonder was in deep trouble and as usual we humans were a major part of the problem. Now just as man can cause the problem, when man makes up his mind, he is eminently capable of correcting past errors and using his intelligence and abilities to do good things. For us good things started with clean water legislation and the resulting assault on pollution. Man had made up his mind to correct a wrong. Things would change, most of them for the better. Great things were about to happen to the long abused and neglected waters of Lake Ontario.

    An attempt was made in the mid 1950s to rehabilitate lake trout by introducing limited stockings of hatchery-reared fish. Survival of these fish was poor due to sea lamprey predation. In addition, Atlantic salmon habitat had been nearly eliminated. The limited supply of Atlantic's and small numbers of this species worldwide dimmed the effort to restore this fish. Basically prospects for restoring native species were bleak at best. Things that worked in the past just weren't adaptable for the conditions that prevailed in the present. If Lake Ontario were to provide a future fishery other approaches would need investigation. Those investigations would lead to our current trout and salmon program, which depends on non-native stocked salmon and trout species. It is commonly referred to as a put, grow and take fishery not dependent on natural reproduction.

    The effort began in 1968 with the introduction of Coho salmon. This was followed in 1969 with the first stocking of the mighty Chinook. Steelhead and brown trout were added to the mix in 1973 followed by rainbow trout in 1974. This program was an immediate success and the resulting sport fishery quickly became the dominant inland fishery in New York State. It would rapidly result in millions of dollars generated all along the south shore of the lake. Of all the fisheries in New York this one generated big bucks. The tourism industry in the area received a multi-million dollar boost.

    With sea lamprey control instituted in 1972, the following year the restoration effort for lake trout was resumed. In 1974 the US Fish and Wildlife Service began supplying lake trout from federal hatcheries. Overall the program was a fantastic success and Lake Ontario grew more and more popular as a world class-fishing destination. Big fish and plenty of them were the norm. For Lake Ontario the decades of the seventies and eighties were very productive periods.

Signs of Trouble
    For many years the fishery produced catches of trout and salmon that were nothing short of phenomenal. There were tons of bait, plenty of huge fish and murky water conditions that were ideal for Great Lakes trollers. All was well in Lake Ontario. Keep on stocking and they would come and they would catch. It was just that simple, or was it?

    By 1993 the warning flags were flying. Remember our clean water programs, well they were working and one of their main goals was to reduce the phosphorus levels in the water. As these levels decreased so too did the lake's ability to sustain life. The phosphorus rich days of the 50's and 60's that produced massive numbers of forage fish were purposely and systematically being reduced. Less phosphorous meant fewer things would grow such as plankton for alewives and the alewife population plummeted. In addition the unexpected and unwelcome proliferation of water filtering zebra mussels only added to the problem as these pesky mollusks filtered more algae out of the food supply. For those of us actively involved in the fishery this was an unsettling time filled with a need to make some very tough decisions, yet fed by a host of doubts as to just what was the right course for the future of the lake.

Hard Choices
    NYSDEC convened a panel of scientists, sportsmen, businessmen and various and sundry other interested parties to help decide what to do. DEC made their case, presented their findings and we listened. When it came time to make a decision opinions ranged from cutting stocking, to increasing stocking, to maintaining the status quo. This issue was charged with emotion and a strongly opinionated group really had a hard time reaching common ground. Basically it was decided that if we were to make a decision and it turned out to be wrong then that decision should be one that left room for recovery. In other words if we put fewer fish in the lake and saw that more fish were needed we could add to future stockings, on the other hand if we put too many fish in the lake and they consumed all of the bait fish how would we recover. The goal was to fine tune the fishery not destroy it. Adjustments had to be made and after much discussion with the fishing community it was decided to drastically reduce stocking of Chinook salmon, as this fish would have the largest impact on forage fish. Quite simply Chinooks ate the most bait. In essence fewer kings would mean less pressure on the alewives and smelt. NOTE: The Chinook stocking was reduced from 3 million fish annually to 1 million. Later the NYS Fishery Congress recommended a Chinook increase. The stocking number was increased to 1.6 million fish where it remains today. At the time of the original reduction, many in the fishing community were aghast at such a thought. Fewer fish stocked would mean fewer fish caught and the king salmon was the most cherished of all the lake's offerings. Was it to be bye bye to the Lake Ontario fishery? Rumors flew far and wide about the status of the lake. Doom and gloom prevailed. Turmoil begot turmoil and the pressure on many especially DEC was intense.

    Based on what has happened since this monumental decision took place, the reduced stocking edict turned out to be the right choice. Of course it is always easier to judge when you can look back to examine the results. Remember, only the Chinook stocking was reduced, the other species were not affected. After a time laker plantings were reduced but this was initially due to federal hatchery production problems.

    In my opinion the handling of the entire stocking reduction affair left much to be desired. It was a public relations nightmare. Again in retrospect we could have done a much better job in presenting the entire matter to the fishing public. We dwelled upon the negatives of the cutbacks and did little to point to the positives that surely would result. I must however admit that at the time we were not sure if stocking cuts would really accomplish anything. In effect reducing stocking meant a healthier fishery aligned to remain in harmony with the lake's ability to sustain life. We were taking a cautious approach to what could be a monumental problem. We were taking action to protect the fishery but the perception was that we had killed it dead. I was amazed at the number of sportsmen who thought the salmon program in the lake had been eliminated and that the lake was indeed "sick".

The Result
    The days of catching 15 to 20 kings per outing were surly gone but how long were those artificially high catch rates supposed to continue? Why wasn't a catch of 3 to 5 kings considered good? The reason was that we all believed the high catch rates were normal and would continue forever. Well they were not normal and the fantasy couldn't go on forever. A combination of massive stockings and a program whereby a cleaner lake equated to less food for its inhabitants were pulling against one another. Something had to be done and as difficult as it was something was done. A great, great fishery became just great, and that was a tough pill to swallow. So tough that some anglers left in disgust and never returned. We had created a monster, which allowed anglers to creel huge catches of trout and salmon. While the fishing was wonderful this artificially high catch rate couldn't and wouldn't last forever. Believe me when I say that many anglers couldn't cope with realistic catches and abandoned the fishery. Take a look at fishing boat census numbers and you will see that this is true.

    Those that stayed with the program found a different scenario but soon saw that fishing was still plenty wonderful and while numbers were somewhat reduced, all in all Lake Ontario still offered quality fishing opportunities. Having personally experienced the ups and downs even after the stocking cuts, fishing wasn't all that bad. In fact it remained quite good. Probably better than most other fisheries in the United States.

    In 1997 the NYS records for brown trout and Atlantic salmon were broken. In 1998 it appeared that a new all tackle world record for Coho salmon was set. In 99 for the first time in its history the top 10 places in the salmon division of the LOC derby were all over 40 pounds. Does that sound like a fishery in trouble? World-class fishery? You bet it is! Was it the stocking cuts, was it good science? Was it plain old good luck? In all probability each contributed to the success achieved. What is true is that DEC recognized a potential problem and worked with the angling community to come up with a plan. It wasn't easy, in fact at the time it seemed like war but finally agreement was reached and as they say, the rest is history.

If at First You Don't Succeed
    Over the years certain experiments have been conducted that many thought would lead to enhanced fishing. Seaforellen strain brown trout that grew so large in European waters were stocked into the lake in hopes that they would survive longer than domestic browns and reach weights in excess of 40 pounds. We don't exactly know why but in Lake Ontario the Seaforellens survived no longer than our domestic browns and the giant brown experiment was terminated. This strain is no longer stocked in the lake. Remember the triploid? These kings had an extra chromosome that supposedly prevented the fish from sexually maturing. This meant that the fish would not spend any energy in the spawning cycle and would theoretically grow to immense proportions. The fish were stocked in the western basin only, but the program was discontinued after results showed no extraordinary growth patterns. For a time brook trout were stocked however no returns were ever recorded. It is important not to dwell on these experiments as failures rather we should look upon the efforts by our DEC to make our fishery even better. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don't. You never know until you try.

Change And More Change
    As the lake becomes clearer and cleaner things continue to evolve. Since the inception of the salmon and trout program Lake Ontario has gone through some major environmental changes. The fact that our fishery continues to prosper through all of this is a credit to the professionals involved. In the early days the greenish waters of the lake seemed to make fishing for wary quarry like brown trout easy. Years ago if you could see seven or eight feet down you were lucky. Today water clarity allows one to see 20 to 30 feet down as part of a normal day. This changed fishing techniques. Clear water made fishing more complex. Those that adapted were successful those that longed for the good old days are still longing for the good old days and probably not fishing Lake Ontario waters.

    Adapting new fishing techniques are important to fishing success. Adapting new stocking techniques are equally important endeavors. Over the years we have learned much about stocking methods. Our DEC in concert with the angling community has combined efforts aimed at improving fish survival. When to stock, where to stock and how to stock all have evolved into a more sophisticated approach to put, grow and take management. A few years ago DEC formed a committee that included anglers to help improve stocking methods. In addition there are now several net pen projects, which are being closely monitored to see if improved survival results are attained. These net pens are supported by the DEC with actual pen maintenance conducted by volunteers within the angling community. The Oswego project will begin its third year in 2000. All steelheads have an adipose fin clip, which indicates the fish was stocked in an Oswego net pen or directly into the Oswego River. The fish have a coded wire tag imbedded in their nose, which will tell DEC whether it was a pen fish or one stocked directly into the river. If you should catch an adipose fin clipped steelie the DEC would sure like to receive the nose of the fish. Angler cooperation is important if we are to supply the professionals with needed data.

    By now most stocking of brown trout and lakers are handled via the barge stocking method. This has proved to have resulted in much higher survival than shore stocking. While it does cost more money it does provide better results, especially since the fish now have a fighting chance against the out of control Cormorant explosion. It is sad to think that we fishermen have to spend extra money to protect stocked fish from an overpopulated bird long afforded absolute protection by the federal government. I don't really know why but in the eyes of some this fish-eating vulture has received a status that borders on the sacred.

    Improvements to the water supply at the hatchery have also enhanced fish quality. New wells are providing colder cleaner water. Cleaner water means less bacteria and less disease to the fish, which translates to fewer bacterial infections and thus fewer antibiotic treatments. The fish are growing faster with less disease. That is a very healthy situation.

    When you look at the entire picture you quickly see that our fishery and its maintenance are a veritable potpourri of complex issues. It is a lot more than raising a fish and placing it into the lake. It is a whole lot more complex than that. We thought seaforellen browns would do well, they didn't. Many thought barge stocking was a waste of time, well it wasn't. Are net pens resulting in better survival, in theory they should, but only time will tell. It is such a big complex ecosystem that no one can really predict with absolute certainty what will happen next.

    What is important is that we keep trying to make improvements and adjustments as man and nature constantly alters the system. Lake Ontario is a huge body of water and it is really difficult to predict the future. So far however we have managed to maintain a truly wonderful fishery. Good science or good luck? Seems to me that you don't get one without the other. Here's to keeping Lake Ontario great. Enjoy the resource and treasure it for what it is. We can take from it but we also need to give something back. We can use it but we must also protect it. We are very lucky to have Lake Ontario, very lucky indeed!

Data provided by NYSDEC

Content © 1999 Troy Creasy Enterprises, Inc.
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