Oswego, N.Y. - Draining all of Central New York, including Oneida Lake and the Finger Lakes, the Oswego River is Lake Ontario's second largest tributary after the Niagara River. Its fishing, on the other hand, is second to none. In fact, many seasoned anglers consider the stream's last leg--from below the lower dam in the city of Oswego to its mouth--the best kept fishing secret in New York State. The stream started out the year by living up to this enviable reputation. Anglers who fished the rapids in Oswego, the first "port city" on the Great Lakes, in January and February reported catching massive quantities of steelhead. Spring rolled in with the high water levels normally generated by snowmelt...But then the rain came. "I only got out a few times last March because of the excessive run-off," recalls Kevin Davis (www.catchthedrift.com; 315-342-4861), one of the most successful professional guides on the river. "Normally, the river flows at about 15,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) in late March. This year it more than doubled, reaching 30,600 cfs, the highest I've seen it in the 16 years I've been a guide." "Steelhead are sight feeders," continues Davis. "With so much murky water around [11,000 cfs at press time, May 26: editor], they could be anywhere. With the visibility so poor, you have to bump them on the nose with the bait for them to see it." What Goes Up Must Come Down The nicest thing about high water is it always comes down. And when it does, the Oswego River will shine. While the trout bite is over until fall, another one of America's most popular game fish will be around: walleyes. The fish that made Oneida Lake famous, it's not a particularly large growing species; two- to three-pounders are considered "good-sized." Everywhere, that is, but Oswego. Around here, anything below six pounds is considered small, fish around nine pounds are "good-sized" and a 12-something pounder earns you bragging rights. Bass and northerns are also present in the lower river. Smallies can be taken in the rapids and harbor area, while pike and bucketmouths hang out in the quiet waters around Wright's Landing where they feast on the abundance of crappie and panfish like sunfish, perch, rock bass, and bullheads. Catfish are plentiful...and big. They're taken all summer long on everything from clumps of worms and chicken livers to cut bait, shrimp and Berkley Gulp Catfish Chunks still-fished on bottom. Finally, the river is loaded with huge carp, sheepshead, and bowfin. Classified as rough fish, these critters are hard fighters that boast legions of fans. Indeed, our carp are so plentiful and big, European and Asian anglers vacation in Oswego County just to fish for them. The Returns Late September sees salmon run the rapids to spawn. Kings start the ball rolling, their numbers growing steadily until the third week of October, then declining until they all but disappear by late November. Cohos, their smaller cousins, start running about the third week of October and stop a few weeks later. Football-sized and trophy brown trout begin their spawning runs in October, too. Davis predicts "this year's run should be one for the record books;" basing his forecast on "the huge number of two-year-old browns we've been getting in the lake this spring." What's more, the browns should be huge. Karen Ashley over at Woody's Tackle and Gifts in Port Ontario reports "I've had a lot of bigger than average browns brought in this year to be weighed on our certified scale, including 14 ½ and 13-something pounders." Before the browns and salmon are even finished spawning, gangs of Lake "Os" steelhead charge into the rapids to feed on their eggs. Additional groups enter the river all winter long to take advantage of its slightly warmer temperatures, and the salmon and trout eggs swept out of the pebbles by shifting currents. Their numbers swell dramatically when their spawning season begins in the spring. Dams and Pools Upstream of the Varrick Dam the Oswego River's fishery remains pretty much the same as it was when Europeans first settled the area. The only major changes are the dams that have been built to tame and harness the flow in Phoenix, Fulton, Minetto and Oswego, and the disappearance of the massive populations of landlocked Atlantic salmon that ran the stream from Lake Ontario to the tributaries of Oneida and Onondaga Lakes and the Finger Lakes. Behind each dam sits a long pool loaded with the indigenous warmwater fish. They don't generally get as big as their downstream relatives with access to Lake Ontario, but trophies are definitely available. In the spring, the rapids below each dam fill up with tons of fish migrating to spawning grounds, everything from panfish and bass to walleyes, gar pike and shad. In addition, fish of every stripe are drawn back to the rapids after heavy summer rains by delicacies like worms, insects and grains riding the current after being carried off the land by run-off. Safety Oswego is the most fisherman friendly county in the state. Each river village offers loads of safe bank fishing at the locks, under bridges and along the canal, including access for the handicapped. Indeed, the city of Oswego's River Park runs for over a mile on both sides of the river, offering a fenced, level concrete wall from which to cast. But if you just gotta walk in the water, a little common sense can go a long way in assuring your trip is productive and memorable:
- Wear a personal flotation device, traction devices like Korkers; and polarized sunglasses to cut through the glare so you can see where you're walking.
- If the current feels like it's too strong, it probably is so back off.
- Pay attention to your surroundings. Check out the volume pouring over the dam. If at any time the flow seems to be increasing, the rapids appear to be growing louder and the water feels likes it's creeping higher up your legs, get to shore immediately.
- If you're casting from the old riverbed into the powerhouse pool in the city of Oswego, count the number of hydraulics (each operating turbine generates turbulence below it) at the foot of the building. If you hear a warning alarm, or even if you don't, but hear (they're rather loud) or see one or more new hydraulics bubbling up below the plant, get to shore as fast as you can.