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Winter Swans and Soft Water Fishing

By Spider Rybaak

A couple hardy anglers trying for the last pike of 2014 at Cleveland Docks

The calendar says it’s winter; but all the mud outside says spring. Sometimes you have to laugh at the tricks nature plays on us; and go with it.

Last year folks were drilling through safe ice on Oneida Lake before Christmas, and the hard water stuck around well into March.

This year it’s an entirely different story. What little ice managed a toehold around the edge of the lake earlier in the month is gone, throwing die-hard icers into the depths of despair with worry they won’t have a season this year.

“Just look at the lake,” cried a grizzled old timer in a North Shore bar last weekend. “You’d be hard pressed to find an ice cube out there right now… In the end of December!…It just ain’t right!.”

As he sat hunched over, watering down his drink with tears, a guy comes in to show off a limit of walleyes he caught at Sylvan Beach by slowly walking the north wall, dragging a Rapping Jig, tipped with buckeyes, a few inches off bottom.

He claimed a couple guys were still “dredging for pike with jigs and worms on spinner harnesses, but a stiff wind just started blowing out of the north and staying put in the frigid air is very uncomfortable.”

The low hill on Cleveland’s north side carries prevailing northwesterlies over the village, dropping them a few hundred feet off shore. A couple guys took advantage of the cover.

Natives of North Bay, they stood at the lake end of the harbor wall, casting minnow baits anywhere there was water. Knowing their stuff, they and worked their baits in a variety of ways; steady retrieves, jerking, twitching on the surface, stop-and-go, you name it.

Their efforts netted 3 pickerel, including a 28-inch monster, all 3 to 5 feet down, over deep water.

A little further west on NY 49, just outside of Constantia, a flurry of white cruised gracefully on Sunset Bay: 40 or so tundra swans in route to winter range were taking a break, feeding on the vegetation in the shallow water.

Unlike mute swans, the orange-faced European imports you see at duck ponds, tundra swans have black faces with a yellow spot just before their eyes, and a faint strip of pink lining the back half of their lower jaw. Native to western and central North America, they spend the summer in arctic ponds and winter down south. In recent years, they’ve expanded their range further east, creating a new fly-way which carries them over Oneida Lake.

They’ll stay on Sunset Bay until ice or human harassment run them off.

The state’s largest body of water, Oneida Lake invites a wide variety of migratory waterfowl this time of year. NY 49 skirts long stretches of their favorite feeding sites. Better hurry, though, all it’ll take is a couple cold, quiet nights for ice to crown the lake, closing it to migratory waterfowl until spring.

Flock of Tundra Swamps feeding at Sunset Bay