Oswego River Comes Alive

By Spider Rybaak

Migell Wedderburn with a nice king he caught fly fishing in the old riverbed between the middle wall and Leto Island. “They’re all over, and I hooked so many they tore my leaders to pieces,” claimed Pennellville resident.
Huge schools of salmon started charging into downtown Oswego over the weekend. Hundreds are staged in formation in the power company’s tailrace. Suspended anywhere from 18 inches to three feet below the surface, averaging more than 20 pounds each, they look like a surrealistic raft of monster sardines on a hari-kari mission outside of a processing plant. In reality, they’re waiting for the river to rise a little, and offer them an easier, safer path upstream

Adding to this once-a-year angling extravaganza are legions of brown trout ranging from 6 to 15 pounds. Only about 1/3 the size of the kings, the water level is much more comfortable for them and they look and act like giddy aces, darting through the assembled Chinooks like fighter planes tearing into a formation of sluggish bombers.

The vast majority of salmon is still decked-out in fading silver to olive drab, the color of fresh-run fish. However, black specimens (precocious salmon that matured a little quicker than average) slice through the group, heading upstream to spawn. Easy to spot if you’re wearing polarized sunglasses, you can see them carelessly jet over the school, jump the low barrier atop the ancient riverbed directly in front of the turbines (see photo below), and, sometimes, even follow their dorsal fins cutting the surface of the whitewater as they beeline-it for the dam.

Most of the fresher fish still have a few days to go before their biological clock sets off the alarm that’ll force them willy-nilly into the dangerous shallow rapids. They’re milling around, waiting for rain to swell their passage, or at least the cover of darkness, before making their run.

Still, all the good seats in the tailrace are filling up fast. Some of the more independent salmon, feeling crowded, join the single file of scouts steadily going over the top into the no-man’s land of whitewater. Even though their numbers are small compared to what’s waiting down below, there’s enough in the bubbly to offer world class fishing.

Surprisingly, few anglers were around on Sunday. In fact, less than a dozen fished from the high wall downstream of the powerhouse. A lot more were in the rapids upstream, especially around the dam, but nowhere near what you usually find during the peak run.

Rains were heavy in the Finger Lakes and Oneida Lake regions and the water is sure to come up this week. This run is a good one, maybe even one for the record books.

Brookfield Power Inc. has issued a new dress code for the river between the dam and the powerhouse: you must wear a personal flotation device to enter that part of their property. A guy sitting in the crane on top of the falls that clears debris from the intake canal is watching and throwing anglers out who aren’t conforming. It’s no sense giving him a hard time because the power company owns the western half of the riverbed and has the right to regulate who fishes there.

Regardless, be careful in the rapids. The water can come up at any minute and one of the best ways I know to ruin a fishing trip is to get carried away by the current, PFD or not, getting all wet and losing your rod and reel. Before entering the river, make a mental note of where the water is on a rock or retaining wall, and the flow pouring over the dam. If it seems to be going up, get out quick. If you gotta err, err on the side of caution; you can always go back in if you misjudge.

Robert Donegan of Caughedenoy holding a king he caught on the Salmon River on 10/8/12.
Father and son catch a big brown…and a memory.
Frank Panek, Uncasville, CT holding his king.
King going over the top.
Jump for freedom: One that got away.
The number of anglers on the Oswego River this past weekend was surprisingly small for the peak run.