Conditions for fishing in Lake Ontario have changed considerably in recent and distant years, and a Department of Environmental Conservation state of the lake meeting highlighted and defined key aspects of this dynamic fishery.
Experts from New York State and Ontario Province discussed everything from bait/forage fish to salmon and sturgeon during more than three hours of summations on aquatic studies Thursday night at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Lockport.
The main focus was on salmon and trout management, with just a brief mention of the bass fishery that has been in decline for nearly a decade. Curiously, when Jenna Lantry, DEC researcher, gave a presentation on boat fishing surveys, bass numbers clashed; the survey had trips continuing to decline while catch numbers showed modest gains for the past three years.
Prey fish monitoring has the alewife population about the same in 2013 as it had been in 2012 as a bait source in the upper water column.
But among the benthic (bottom-relating) baitfish, the round goby has taken over as the dominant species, replacing the slimy sculpin, a native species that served as a major game-fish food source previously.
In general, the trend is to restore native species and reduce invasive species as much as possible. But biologists see gobies as a healthier food source for trout and salmon; massive consumption of alewives has proven to be harmful to salmonids, especially in their reproductive functions.
A harsh winter may result in a reduction of alewife production, but the read on Lake Ontario’s bait biomass remains stable and about on par for the past 10 years.
The DEC boat survey studies also have the trip counts stable for the past 10 years, with slight declines in angler participation. Yet the catch per hour rate has improved in recent years to rival the remarkable catches recorded in the late 1980s.
For example, the 2011 survey was the fourth highest catch-per-hour numbers for anglers fishing that year.
A highly successful 2010 crop of king (Chinook) salmon had studies of 2- and 3-year old salmon running wild at both the eastern and western ends of Lake Ontario. For recreational and professional anglers, the 2012 crop of “teenage” Chinooks showed so well in western waters that the 2013 season held more promise than it actually produced.
Charter Capt. Bob Cinelli attributed that 2013 drop to excess pressures on the 2012 salmon stock. Boaters saw less mature three-year-olds last fishing season, but the overall catch rate remained sound lakewide.
For years, brown trout had been a close second behind Chinook salmon as the top target for salmonid seekers.
In 2013, lake trout made a stellar showing, replacing browns as second highest. A strong showing of rainbow trout in Ontario’s western waters moved that species up to third place in recent surveys.
Atlantic salmon, a once-dominant native fish species, made a good showing in 2011, followed with slight declines in 2012 and 2013, but the count remains above average.
The lake herring now appears only in the upper Great Lakes, but the deepwater ciscoes are returning.
In general, the Ontario stocking program is based on selecting feeder streams with minimal or no wild fish hatches.
Bill Hilts, Jr., outdoor writer and Niagara County fisheries coordinator, asked if Canadian and New York State hatchery programs had plans for increased salmon stocking in western waters. Since hatcheries had a reduction in salmon stocking, the fall salmon run in the lower Niagara River has been poor in recent years.
Steve LaPan, Great Lakes Fisheries supervisor, noted that the salmon relate heavily to the Salmon River. The spring run of kings is outstanding from Fort Niagara eastward to Orleans County, but, as LaPan noted, “There just isn’t a salmon river at the west end of the lake to draw fall fish.”
LaPan went on to point out that Lake Ontario provides anglers the highest catch rate and biomass of trout and salmon among all five Great Lakes.
Despite this long, cold winter, prospects are up for another productive year for Chinook and lake trout, a good season for brown and rainbow trout and a so-so year for coho salmon.
To view the current Lake Ontario Fisheries Program Highlights, go to http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/fishing.html.