Salmon River Summer Salmon

By Spider Rybaak

Local fly-fishing guide Pat Miura(315-777-3570) holding a trophy landlocked Atlantic salmon he took last spring from the Salmon River‘s Douglaston Salmon Run.

When you’re as pretty–and mildly wild– as the Salmon River is, everyone wants a piece of your beauty and grace. And while the stream is lined with beaten paths for fishermen, hikers, bird watchers, yodelers, wildflower lovers, you name it, the only way to satisfaction for whitewater enthusiasts like kayakers and tubers is to get all wet. So in the spirit of making everyone happy, the power company conducts special releases each month during summer–two in July.

This year’s releases have mostly already taken place, and August was cancelled because of low water levels in the reservoir. So there’s only one more planned officially, the first weekend of September.

However, there’s always a chance we’ll get some heavy rains this month; and if we do, the river will come up all by itself. If that happens, grab a rubber tube, air mattress, kayak or anything that’ll float while you’re in it, and a buddy–you wanna have two cars so you can leave one at put-in and take-out—and launch on a whitewater thrill so mildly exciting, you’re guaranteed to get wet.

No craft?…Not into whitewater?…No sweat. There’s more to do during high water.

Take fishing for landlocked Atlantic salmon, for instance. Indeed, the Salmon River is the best fast lane in the U.S. for catching a keeper trophy landlocked Atlantic. Our Atlantic salmon are stocked by the NYS DEC. (Natural strains of Atlantic salmon are ocean-running fish, and are on the endangered species list.)

Known as the king of fish in Europe because of its superb beauty, extraordinary leaping prowess, incredible power and stamina, and ability to survive the spawning ordeal and do it a second, even third time (it’s the only American salmon capable of spawning more than once), pursuing this fabulous critter is one of the most worthy challenges anglers face in freshwater.

Up until the 19thcentury, Lake Ontarioboasted the world’s greatest population of these marvelous game fish. Pollution, over fishing, dams blocking migratory routes, and exotic species nailed their coffin shut before World War I.

The feds and NYS Conservation Department (precursor to today’s NYS Department of Environmental Conservation), spurred by the increased environmental awareness spawned during the hippie era (the 1960s), decided to restore the species into the tiniest Great Lake.

Late in the last century, the authorities stocked various Lake Ontario tributaries with baby Atlantics in various stages of development. But the lion’s share of their attention went to Little Sandy Creek, the northernmost skinny creek in Oswego County. It was stocked heavier than the rest, and was even placed off-limits to fishing during the salmon runs to protect the returns. The experiment failed.

Alewives, exotic forage that entered the Great Lakes system through the Erie Canal, were waging biological warfare on the Atlantics and winning. Rich in Thiaminaze, an enzyme that breaks down thiamine, a vitamin essential to salmon reproduction, the salmon were eating themselves to impotence. The condition was called the Cayuga Syndrome, after Cayuga Lakewhere it was first fingered. Oh, the fish still went through all the moves–run upstream, court, lay their eggs, fertilize them–but the offspring died before they could get beyond the sac-fry stage. Mortality was total.

Finally figuring out what was happening, the authorities lifted the ban on fishing the Little Sandy and got used to the idea that the only way to maintain a token presence of the species in Lake Ontario was by stocking, often with fry from eggs washed in thiamine.

Thousands of Atlantics have been stocked annually over the past 20-something years. While these numbers are tiny compared to the quantity of Pacific salmon stocked each year, the effort gives anglers a chance at catching this highly desirable and coveted native New Yorker.

The most warmwater tolerant salmon, a few Atlantics are in the river all summer long. Periods of high water, like after a rain or during whitewater releases draw fresh fish upstream. What’s more, the food rich higher water often spurs a feeding binge.

So if you’re into fishy challenges, the Salmon River offers one of the toughest in the fishing world.

But there’s more.

“For the past three years, 2009, 2010 and 2011, we’ve netted as many as 48 naturally reproduced fingerlings in the river in any given year,” claims Dr. James Johnson, ecologist and branch chief at the USGS’ Tunison Laboratory of Aquatic Science in Cortland, NY. He attributes this exciting development to “changes in lake conditions: fewer alewives–less Thiaminaze.”

There’s no shortage of theories. One even speculates the round goby, an exotic species indigenous to the Black Sea, is the hero in this wonderful mystery.

I asked Dr. George Kutola, a research physiologist at Tunison Laboratory, if the gobies could be helping the salmon replenish the thiamine status in their eggs.
“That makes good sense,” the Dr. replies. “Gobies are high in thiamine and with the availability of that food source before spawning…if they have a month or so of exposure…it should make a difference. And I suspect it helps their spawning.”

A little over three years is a long spell in salmon time, long enough to reach trophyhood. The possibilities are the stuff of fantasy, and if you participate right now, you could be one of the pioneers in this developing fishery.

How do you tell a naturally spawned fish from a stocky? Scott Prindle, fisheries biologist at the Cortland office of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation says about the only sure way is to look at the belly fins. If the leading edges are kind’a thick and wavy, there’s a good chance it’s a hatchery fish (they get calloused from bumping and rubbing their tank’s bottom). If the fins are straight and narrow, it’s probably the real thing.

By heading up to theSalmon Riveryou’ll experience the thrill of a naturally warmed rushing river, and the chance of catching a naturally bred trophy landlocked Atlantic salmon, something that ain’t been seen around these parts for over 100 years.

So c’mon up to the Salmon River; we’ll keep the stream up for ya…for a little while, anyway.

Fran Verdoliva releasing a nice landlocked Atlantic salmon he took in the summer of 2010.
NY007 John Kendell showing a trophy he took from the Salmon River in the summer of 2010.