Fletcher E. Ward, a Bemus Point resident, has done his “homework” in writing his informative book “Saving Chautauqua’s Muskies: A One Hundred Twenty-Five Year History of Rearing Muskellunge on Chautauqua Lake.”
Ward researched widely to gather information and included an extensive collection of photos of hatchery activities going back more than 100 years. The bibliography alone spans 18 pages.
Chautauqua Lake became a major tourist destination with improved transportation in the 19th century. Elaborate hotels around the lake touted what was then called “Chautauqua pickerel” (muskellunge) as a popular table fare. Ward cites official yearly catch records back then that sometimes exceeded 200,000 pounds of fish.
Dwindling musky numbers became a concern. The lumbering industry and harvesting methods, including netting and spearing, severely affected these large, spawning-aged fishes. As early as 1841, petitions were submitted to ban spearing.
As musky numbers continued to drop, additional laws were enacted and prestigious hatchery designers such as Seth Green at Caledonia began working on programs to propagate fish stocks.
Ward cites several attempts to introduce other fish species in hopes that harvesting these fishes might take some pressure off musky stocks. In the 1920s, William Kendall wrote, “zeal and enthusiasm seemed to have outweighed judgment and forethought,” recalling efforts to stock brown bullheads and “salmon-trout” in the lake and place “black bass” in surrounding feeder streams.
But the big-fish lure of this largest member of the esox family continued to harm muskies through the 12 decades Fletcher chronicles in his studies.
Seth Green died just as organizers set up the first musky hatchery in Greenhurst in 1888. Expenditures began at less than $1,000. Since then, five hatcheries have been managed by state agencies from the early fish commissions to the modern Department of Environmental Conservation.
Two sites dominate musky hatching — Bemus Point and Prendergast. Greenhurst, Tom’s Point, Stony Point and other sites were set up to spawn and rear fish, but the Bemus Point property became a mainstay from its start in 1898.
The state acquired an 80-by-130-foot parcel of land at Bemus Point, just south of the ferry crossing, in 1903 for $450. That hatchery functioned through the first seven decades of the 20th century and was razed in 1977 as the Prendergast site became more effective for musky hatching and rearing.
Many expert fish culturists worked Chautauqua hatcheries from their start in 1888, but Raymond G. “Ray” Norton stands out locally and nationally. Norton served as hatchery manager from 1930 to 1971, developing facility structures and field functions. The hatchery system at Bemus Point and Prendergast became the largest muskellunge hatchery in the world.
A trap net system begun at the start of the hatchery program can still be seen around the lake during the spring fish-collecting season. Larry R. King began supervising the Prendergast Hatchery in 1995 and continues to produce healthy fish stocks at that site today.
Ward concludes his musky-saving text with references to Capt. Larry Jones and other charter captains skillfully practicing catch-and-release fishing methods to enjoy and sustain Chautauqua’s healthy population of muskellunge.
The book is available at stores around Chautauqua Lake or a signed copy can be ordered by sending $31 to: Fletcher E. Ward; 3724 Crestview Drive, Bemus Point, NY 14712.