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An online space for outdoorsmen from CNY and beyond. Tell us about the one you caught or the one that got away.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Smallmouth bass provide great sport

The anglers drift alongside an island fishing with live bait or jigs, enjoying the St. Lawrence River scenery, and engaging in pleasant conversation. Suddenly a line goes taut, the rod bends sharply and the angler reacts by setting the hook and gleefully calling “I’ve got one!” The battle ensues, punctuated by fast, powerful dives, sizzling runs that peel off line and spectacular leaps from the water. After several tries and subsequent dives a chunky smallmouth bass is brought to the net.

This scene is still repeated along the Lake Ontario shoreline and the Niagara and St. Lawrence Rivers but not as often as it used to be. Smallmouth bass fishing still is a main attraction for anglers in these areas as well as elsewhere. But declining numbers make the experience based on quality rather than quantity these days.

Like the old Indian fable of nine blind men touching an elephant in different areas and giving vastly different descriptions, the assessment of smallmouth bass fishing on the Niagara, St. Lawrence or Lake Ontario areas will vary depending on a person’s perspective. For the tournament angler or the person who wants to some larger bass, the fishing is great. For the average angler who wants lots of action or the fishing guides who wants his clients to catch lots of fish, the fishing is definitely suffering.

Tournament anglers will almost always catch fish, and more of them than the average angler. Of course their key to success and money is to put several large fish in the live well. When they catch four or five big smallmouths they are happy because they will probably score high in the tournament weigh-in.
Guides who know the river, the smallmouth’s preferred locations, and the habits of the fish can also catch fish. A decade or two ago they could usually take a couple clients out and catch 50 fish in a day. Now they have to work hard to catch a dozen. Fishing guides from Niagara Falls to Ogdensburg have told me the same thing.

Creel surveys and general comments of the average angler have said they have similar experiences of declining numbers. This does not count the problems of viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) that occurred a few years ago the central area of the Lake Ontario shoreline. Net surveys taken by the DEC each year show much smaller numbers of smallmouth in most areas.

There are several studies and research by the NYS DEC and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources trying to pinpoint the causes of the declining numbers. However some theories make sense and are accepted by a large number of anglers and guides.

In the past couple decades the habitat has changed due to invasive species like zebra mussels. There has been the well known predation on small bass by cormorants, and now the infestation of round gobies (another invasive species).

Gobies are believed to heavily prey on the eggs of smallmouth bass as they spawn. Studies in Ontario and Wisconsin show this. Northern pike and perch are less subject to this problem because they spawn earlier when the gobies are less active.

One study using underwater cameras focused on bass nests. They showed catching, landing and subsequently releasing the male bass who was guarding the nest. In just that short time lapse, gobies rushed in and consumed 40% of the eggs on the nest. This is a main reason why anglers and guides in northern waters are dead set against a pre-season catch and release season.
Those eggs that hatch into small bass face the usual obstacles to survival, but none greater than cormorants. These fish eating birds consumer prodigious amounts of fingerlings and small bass. Studies and examination of the crops of cormorants show that they eat a pound of fish a day, and a great deal of that is small bass.

The small percentage of smallmouth bass that survive have less competition for food. In fact mature bass feed on gobies, thus growing large from the abundant supply. This is why you are likely to catch larger, bragging sized bass these days in the waters of many Lake Ontario bays and the Niagara and St. Lawrence Rivers.

These factors are not present in other waters like Indian Lake or Oneida Lake yet. Thus the populations in these and other waters are still healthy due to lack of the two main predators – gobies and cormorants. There are cormorants on Oneida Lake but the population of the disgusting birds has been kept under control due to federal programs and volunteer hazing efforts.

What are the implications for the St. Lawrence and other areas? At the very least the business of the guides, etc. has been affected. Some guides report less bookings as the word gets out. Visitors from other areas who used to make it a ritual to fish the St. Lawrence or areas of the Golden Crescent on Lake Ontario on opening week have declined. Two people that I know used to come from Ohio every year to fish the Thousand Islands. Now they have decided it is not worth it.

Most of us will probably still continue because we like the experience and catching quality smallmouths. A few years ago someone asked Gil Tornatore when he was going to start fishing for other species. His reply was “when the St. Lawrence runs out of smallmouths!”


WOOLER MEMORIAL FISHING TOURNAMENT: The Bill Wooler Fish-On Memorial Tournament will be held on Saturday, August 25 on Oneida Lake. The adult division will be for walleye based on length and pay cash awards while the kids division will have entries for all species of fish. All youngsters will receive a prize and refreshments. This is a family event designed to showcase the Oneida Lake fishery and get youngsters involved.

Weigh-ins will be at Marion Manor from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. Awards and a chicken barbecue will follow. Proceeds will benefit the Wooler Memorial Scholarship Fund.

Sponsors include Lake Ontario Outdoors,, Pirate Charters, Hanifin Tires, Marion Manor Marina, All Seasons Sports and The Oneida Daily Dispatch. Contact Matt White at 315-762-8148 for details.

FISHING REPORTS: For the latest in fishing conditions and tips check out and Up to date reports on Lake Ontario, Oneida Lake and many other popular fishing waters around Central New York will be posted frequently. Check out the news, events and original articles by area experts.
CANOE PADDLES: If you have wooden canoe paddles that see a lot of use during the summer, they will need care. The blade should be coated with spar varnish (which is impossible to obtain in New York State now). Obtain some from a neighboring state or as a last resort use spar polyurethane, which will not last very long.

Do not varnish the long handle or it will become sticky. Coat that part of the paddle with linseed oil.

HANDY LIGHT: Sportsmen, including campers, always need a lot of gadgets and accessories but are reluctant to carry too many things that are heavy or bulky. However a light is something that usually comes in handy many times. Coghlans, the company that supplies many camping accessories, has come up with a light that is small yet effective. The small light fits in the palm of your hand and has a clip that can be connected to key chain or belt loop, etc. It has a bright two LED light that is great for finding items in your boat after dark, finding the lock on your truck door or locating items in a dark tent, etc. Cranking the handle for one minute gives you 30 minutes of light. It is available at most sporting goods or camping stores.

BACKPACKING TIP: Think small. Eye drop bottles can be used to carry small amounts of soap, first aid disinfectant, or even Tabasco sauce. Pop off the topper spout and rinse the bottle with a mild bleach solution before refilling. Mini liquor bottles or film containers can also be used for toothpaste, condiments, meds, or sunscreen, etc. This saves lots of space instead of the original packing.


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