A Problem and an Opportunity along the Lake Shore

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On the first day of November I was on the Black River in northern New York, trying to catch a Chinook salmon, the largest type of trout or salmon (salmonid) on the North American Continent. I’d failed here before to actually get one in though I’ve hooked many in previous years. I just have a hard time hooking nice little salmon of under 15 pounds – the dinner pan fish I’d be happy to take home. Somehow, I consistently hook the heartbreaker rogues who strip my reel or shred the line over the course of half an hour or so.

By my second day on the Black, I still hadn’t had a fair catch though I’d landed 4 mid-size salmon who’d accidentally been foul-hooked (hooked somewhere other than the mouth) and released. The run of salmon was unusually heavy this year and there was no excuse for not catching one, really. I could see them constantly, usually several at a time rolling in the shallows, spawning or preparing to spawn. I’d never seen so many salmon anywhere, ever.

 

 

In the evening, I noticed several intrepid bulls (males) forcing their way up through the shallows of a feeder creek near a parking lot and I broke out the camera to sit and photograph their progress. Suddenly, a pickup truck, as battered as any of the salmon I was watching, roared to a stop and 3 little boys jumped out and raced to the water.

“There’s one!”

“There’s another big one!”

“That’s a giant salmon! Get it!”

Just behind them came a shabbily clad dad, rod in hand. There was no confusion about how to proceed here. He started with the closest salmon and tossed a weight and hook just across it and ripped back. In less than a minute a fourteen pound fish flopped on the shore, much to the delight of the little boys. Three more sorry fish followed in the next fifteen minutes, flopping on the bank and eliciting pokes and kicks from the youngsters.

 

 

The technique employed here is called “snagging” and it was outlawed in NY to protect the salmon on their spawning runs back in 1995, as I remember, during the years I lived in NY. It’s just hard to imagine this as sporting when real anglers work all day to fairly jaw- hook a few. What I’d witnessed was simple meat gathering, not anything that could really be described as fishing.

I’ve seen signs in recent years that this old take-what-you-can-and-run harvesting is dying out among most fishermen. Catch-and-release trout fishing came along about mid-century and nowadays many people catch-photograph-and release previously undesirable species like giant catfish and gar. It was disheartening not to just see such disrespect for the quarry but to see this being passed to another generation. This was visceral, the same thing I think most of us would feel upon witnessing such piscine procurement.

But, as with so many things, there’s another perspective that’s less than obvious.

 

 

All those salmon were near death. They don’t feed anymore after entering the river from Lake Ontario – they’re destined to spawn and die and their bodies are already breaking down from the time they begin to ascend. It was the end of the season and few tourist-fishermen would be around needing a salmon on the end of the line. These fish would have “gone to waste.” It’s common knowledge that they don’t really spawn successfully here. And then there were 3 dirty little boys whose dad wasn’t likely dwelling at the upper reaches of the socio-economic spectrum. They all needed to eat, even more than we out-of-staters needed our sport.

 

 

I released one final salmon on my last morning and went home thinking it all over. There’s a problem here on the Black and other Lake Ontario tributaries – and there’s an opportunity.

No-one seems to like snaggers and yet snagging happens constantly on all of NY’s salmon rivers, it seems, at least while the warden isn’t lurking. Salmon are routinely snatched while on spawning redds – I’ve seen it firsthand now. The game wardens are stretched thin over many miles of many rivers so it’s unlikely you’ll get caught if you do have a penchant for 1 ounce sinkers and trebles.

We could keep the question as simple as, “how do we keep the snaggers in check?” but I think there are at least a couple of questions that need to precede this. Is snagging even worth resisting?

I’m an adherent of native-species recovery strategies in conservation, to the point that I wrote a book on the native trout of the eastern U.S. (The Dying Fish: A Sojourn to the Source). The native salmonids of Lake Ontario are the lake trout and the Atlantic salmon (and perhaps lake-run brookies as well). If New York State wants to develop a strategy of native species restoration, then the hatchery-bred Chinooks, cohos, browns and steelhead should all go. We should get back to cultivating the big lakers and Atlantics, both of which have been doing very well in recent years and could do even better, one might assume, without salmonid competitors. I could support such a strategy and would be interested to see the results for all Lake Ontario’s native species. And the snaggers could have at what’s left of the non-indigenous invader salmon. Eat up boys.

 

 

But here’s the thing: the entire ecological community of the lake has changed since its shoreline was colonized, starting with the most fundamental biota, the plankton. Overall, the plankton community became drastically enriched by agricultural and other effluents about mid 20th century, even as lake trout and Atlantic salmon populations crashed. Invasive prey species took the place of native whitefish and herring – these invaders were the pelagic smelt and alewives. Lake photic depth (clarity) plummeted and the plant community, benthic and pelagic, was distorted further. An alewife forage base brought thiamine-deficiency problems to native salmonids. (Interestingly, my second job as a 15-year old kid was working at a lab where fish nutritionists were proving the thiamine connection.)

There’s much, much more to tell about the changes that have come to the lake in more recent years but all this is to say that it would be very, very difficult to get back to the lake ecology of 1700. How can we hope to have a healthy population of the two key top-level piscine predators built atop radically altered forage strata?

And this is to say that the Pacific salmons and brown trout are probably here to stay. About 2 million Chinooks were stocked by NY in 2014 and about 1.4 million by 2017. At any rate, there’s a multi-million dollar industry built around these fishes nowadays and it’s hard to just let that go.

 

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Another rationale a thinking snagger might employ to justify his takings is the thought that the state is simply going to dump more fish in next year to replace whatever he drags out. There is some merit to this – it’s true, in a way. NY’s salmon program isn’t exactly the put-and-take trout dispensary of Pennsylvanian water though. Trout and salmon (more Chinooks than anything else) are reared in pens in the lake or at hatcheries on salmon rivers (and particularly the Salmon River). Young salmon are released as fingerlings into many streams and rivers in the Lake Ontario drainage to imprint to the stream and then make their way downriver to the lake where they’ll eat and grow for at least a couple of years. Finally, they’ll push back upriver one chilly September day, striving for the headwaters or at least suitable spawning habitat, the same as any west-coast salmon.

But the fact remains that these salmon will simply spawn and die and the state will put more in, so why not snag a limit or two for yourself and the family? It’s not like we need to save some to replenish the stock.

And this is where it gets interesting. A problem and an opportunity.

It was noticed by anglers and biologists at some point late in the last century that more salmon were returning than had been introduced and that salmon fry were found occasionally – fish too small to have been stocked. This phenomenon began to be studied in 2005 and it was found that natural recruitment of Chinooks was substantial, perhaps beyond what anyone had expected. It appeared that about a third of returning Chinooks had not come from a hatchery but had hatched somewhere in the stream gravel a few years earlier.

Natural reproduction is apparently becoming more dominant as the years go by, as confirmed by another study of Salmon River Chinook carried out between 2008 and 2011. Here, it was found that nearly half of returning salmon were stream-born. Who knows what those numbers are on the rest of the rivers accommodating salmon. And here’s something else interesting about the Salmon River studies: it was found that around a tenth of Salmon propagated by the hatchery were going other places to spawn – places the fisheries mangers had never intended.

This does not seem to be common knowledge and I was surprised to learn it myself. My understanding had been that natural Lake Ontario reproduction was truly an exception to the rule and that viable offspring were not being produced and the few that were fell victim swiftly to predation.

 

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So, here’s the opportunity: How far are we from having self-sustaining Lake Ontario salmon with very little hatchery support? I think we’re close now. But the take limits would need to be cut a bit and the NY Department of Environmental Conservation would have to start managing things as though successful spawning was the expectation, not just a happy surprise.

And the reasoning for this approach goes back, in part, to our snaggers. Why protect spawning salmon if they don’t really need to spawn because we can count on more state-reared fish year after year? Doesn’t a self-sustaining fishery encourage conservation? Even if there are still greedy fellows who would like to show up armed to hook-and-haul, wouldn’t there be more of a kind of peer pressure from all those on the water to ostracize and report those stealing from the fishermen of the seasons to come?

Furthermore:  To do it right, I’d establish protected spawning sites. Admittedly, this doesn’t come from long study of the issue but rather from a few days of observation this fall (and a good deal of confirmation from angling social media). Snaggers descend on spawning sites and rip fish from the water during the act of procreation. Sportsmen’s and conservation groups could be involved in location of these sites, which might consist of only 20 to 50 square yards of river and these could be delineated as off-limits. Hence, these private groups would become more involved and invested in the whole initiative from the outset, rather than leaving it to the limited resources of DEC.

 

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Then too, there’s just something inherently wonderful about cultivating self-sustaining fisheries, even if this one can never truly be called “natural,” due to the provenance of the trout and salmon involved. For me, there’s so much more inspiration to be found in the thought that regal salmon are ascending, leaping falls between banks of golden foliage as they push that last great push to procreate, to invest in future generations. And I don’t really need to imagine it – this change seems to be coming to Lake Ontario anyway, wildness returning in spite of our worst fears for the aquatic environment.

 

 

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