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What's Happening to our Steelhead?

Scarred Steelhead Bear Witness
to the Fate of Many Others

By Capt. Ernie Lantiegne of Fish Doctor Charters

Reproduced with permission from the Show 2001 edition
of Lake Ontario Outdoors

Ask Salmon River steelheaders or business folks in the Pulaski area about steelhead fishing in the fall of 2000 and you'll get one, almost unanimous response..., "Lousy!"

No one wants to admit it. Everyone is hopeful the run is late. But, the fact is fewer than normal numbers of steelhead entered the river this fall, and no miraculous late season runs are expected. What a change from past years in the Salmon River when steelhead fishing was truly world class.

The first indication of the problem came in October off the mouth of the Little Salmon River trolling from my charter boat, the Fish Doctor. Normally, fishing is excellent for staged steelies concentrated at the river mouth. An average catch is 7-8 steelhead boated per trip, with occasional catches of up to 20 steelies weighing from 5 - 18 pounds. This fall, from October 25 through November 12 we boated less than one adult steelhead per trip. Only once before since 1985 have I ever seen fall lake fishing so slow, and that year river fishing was also poor. Long before the river fishing for steelhead should have peaked in the fall of 2000, it was a good bet that the Salmon River run was going to be dismal. The question is, "Why?"

Sure, study after study over a period of 5 - 10 years could be done to try to scientifically assess the problem and find its cause. Then again, we could simply open our eyes and look at the evidence before us.

I'm talking about steelhead after steelhead with an unusually high incidence of ugly scars, some of which can easily be identified as the bite marks of a cormorant. We're seeing only the fish that were attacked as smaller, "eating size" juveniles and escaped this feathered predator. The question is, "How many didn't make it?" "How many young steelhead ended up in the gut of cormorants?" I'm guessing a lot more than the antis and preservationists within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would like any of us to know about.

Not only do many of these adult steelhead have obvious scars from cormorant bites, they also have multiple scarring that, at first glance, is baffling. Most of these scars circumscribe the body of the fish between the back of the head and the dorsal fin, or crisscross the fishes body in the same area. I've scratched my head more than once, pondering the cause of this scarring. Then one day on the Oswego River, after a 2-boat trip with my son, Capt. Randy Lantiegne, a light bulb switched on as we carefully observed a couple of these scarred fish.

"If I didn't know better, I'd guess these are gill net marks on these fish", Randy commented. I was silently thinking the same thing. Randy fished commercially in Alaska for 13 years and handled many thousands of gill netted salmon. I worked for DEC for 22 years as a biologist and also gill netted many thousands of salmon, trout, and other species. Both of us have seen a lot of gill netted fish and the tell-tale marks the mesh of these nets leave.

Hopefully neither of us was correct. It's hard to believe steelhead may be falling prey to gill nets, but then again, it was hard to believe poachers were gill netting walleyes in northeastern Lake Ontario when law enforcement officers finally apprehended them a few years ago. Could gill netting be a problem? Maybe not, but stranger things have happened. If gill netting was causing steelhead mortality, the impact shouldn't be specific to the Salmon River, but would be lakewide. Considering the continuing deterioration of our steelhead fishery, it's definitely worth investigating.

If this multiple scarring is not a result of gill nets, it could be from multiple cormorant bite marks. However, in the past few years, most of the attack marks from cormorants have been in the form of a single scar.

Fact is, unbeknown to most of us, Canada still allows commercial gill netting in Province of Ontario waters, just a few miles north of Lake Ontario's New York coastline. Sure, they're supposed to be netting species like yellow perch, smelt, ciscoes, etc., but is anyone checking on these gill netters? What other species are they netting? Where did the steelhead come from that a customer of mine told me he saw on a menu in New York City?

Single V-shaped scars across the back of adult steelhead between the head and the dorsal are common and point the finger directly at Mr. Cormorant. These are the type of scars we've seen most frequently on both brown trout and steelhead since 1996. In the past two years, however, the multiple scarring pattern has become much more frequent. It's hard to believe cormorant attack behavior has changed. Why the multiple scarring then? Is the frequency of scarring on steelhead similar lakewide, or is it peculiar to only tributaries in eastern Lake Ontario? If scarred adult steelhead are showing up mainly in the eastern tribs, you can bet we re looking at steelhead mortality from cormorant attacks which are occurring not long after stocking, before juvenile steelhead have distributed lakewide. Whatever the case, it's time to do something about it.

Capt. Ernie Lantiegne operates a charter fishing business on Lake Ontario and its tributaries and has 27 years of experience in the business on a variety of waters in New York State. He also worked as a fishery biologist/manager for the NYSDEC for 22 years. His web site is at Fish Doctor Charters, or he can be reached by email at info@fishdoctorcharters.com.

Lake Ontario Outdoors is a quarterly magazine which provides comprehensive coverage of the outdoor sports for the Lake Ontario region.

Content © Troy Creasy Enterprises, Inc. and Ernie Lantiegne
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