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April 25, 2011

Steelhead Numbers Quadrupled on the Salmon River in Five Years

DEC Creel Survey --
By Spider Rybaak

Fran Verdoliva, Salmon River Program Coordinator for the DEC, holds a nice spring steelhead. The fish was released back into the river. (Photo by Jessica Burt, Oswego County Tourism Office.)

OSWEGO COUNTY, NY - Lake Ontario ranks as the most productive salmonid fishery in the Lower 48 States. In fact, the world record coho salmon, a species native to the Pacific Ocean, was caught in the Salmon River near the village of Pulaski. And right when the fishing seemed about as good as it gets in Oswego County, creel surveys conducted last fall by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation show a dramatic increase in steelhead numbers.

In its "2010 Salmon River Creel Survey" report, DEC provides graphs comparing creel survey results taken in 2005, 2006 and 2010. Last year, from Sept. 7 through the fourth week of November, anglers reported catching 32,146 steelies, compared to only 7,738 taken in the same period in 2005 and 9,509 in 2006.

If you do the math, you'll see more "chromers" were taken in the fall of 2010 than were taken from September through May, in 2005 and 2006 combined.

The rainbow trout's anadromous form (living most of its life in the sea and returning to natal rivers to spawn), the steelhead is streamlined, colorful and extremely powerful. Famed for its incredible stamina and leaping abilities when hooked, it boasts top honors in the imaginations of the world's salmonid anglers.

Its most endearing quality is its human-like inclination for taking risks. Courageous to the point of carelessness, each fall and winter it ascends streams ranging in size from brooks to major rivers like the Oswego and Salmon in search of its favorite food, salmon caviar. In the spring, it runs the same streams to spawn. In the process, it offers anglers roughly eight months of opportunities for close and personal encounters with trophies the size of the ones swimming through their dreams.

The reason given for the huge increase in steelhead depends on who you talk to. Some think that current economic conditions lead to more people fishing, and the more anglers you have out there, the more fish are going to be caught.

Others attribute the greater numbers of steelhead to the explosion in the population of round gobies and other exotic forage. The way they see it, the more gobies and zooplankton there are for predators like cormorants, mink, catfish and game fish to prey on, the more alewives and other minnows there are for trout.

DEC aquatic biologist Scott Prindle, one of the survey authors, says "...indications were that there were LOTS [his emphasis] of steelhead around compared to the recent past."

Prindle just finished working the steelhead egg take at the Salmon River Hatchery in Altmar, where there were "abundant fish stacked up in Beaverbrook Dam trying to get into the hatchery."

Samples taken at the Salmon River Hatchery this spring indicate that the fish are somewhat smaller in size, but, Prindle added, "we will have to wait until the scale aging is completed to see if the steelhead are actually smaller, or if the population is weighted heavily towards younger fish."

No matter how you cut it, one thing's for certain -- greater numbers of steelhead, even small ones, indicate a promising future -- for the steelies, the anglers with trophies on the brain, and the communities along the Salmon and Oswego Rivers.

For current fishing conditions in Oswego County and visitor information, go to visitoswegocounty.com or call 800-248-4FUN.

Spider Rybaak is an award-winning outdoor writer who has been published in more than 20 periodicals. He is the author of "Fishing Eastern New York" and "Fishing Western New York" guide books that cover 429 streams and lakes in New York State. Contact him at . Check out his blog at fishingandhuntinginoswego.blogspot.com/.

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