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The Salmon of New York

New York State's salmon are some of the largest and most eagerly sought gamefish found in northeastern freshwaters. Images of silvery leaping fish and singing reels quickly yielding line often come to mind when anglers recall, or anticipate, encounters with these fish. A diverse group of fish, salmon are found in a variety of settings ranging from the vastness of Lake Ontario to the quiet solitude found in ponds in the Adirondack Mountains.

Considered by scientists to be fairly primitive fish, salmon are characterized by small scales, soft-rayed fins, and a lobe-shaped fin on the back called the adipose fin. They have slender and streamlined body shapes that enable them to hold their positions in tumbling rivers and to make swift movements when capturing prey. Salmon are quite variable in color, ranging from the subtle shading of spots and irregular markings of young fish to the silvery metallic sheen of fish freshly taken from lake waters, and the bright, bold coloration associated with spawning season.

Salmon are adaptable fish that can thrive in both freshwater and sea water. Adult sea run (or anadromous) salmon, such as those found in Canada's Atlantic maritime provinces and in Alaska and Washington, will move into freshwater rivers and lakes to spawn. The juvenile fish will then live in these freshwater areas for a while before moving out to the sea to do most of their feeding and growing. In New York State, however, few if any salmon go to the sea and return to freshwater again. Instead, they complete their life cycle exclusively in freshwater. Large food-rich lakes, such as Ontario, Erie, Champlain, and Cayuga, serve as substitutes for the sea.

New York State's salmon can be separated into two groups: the native Atlantic salmon and the introduced Pacific salmon. While the two groups are difficult to tell apart, a look at the anal (bottom rear) fin can help. Atlantic salmon have 12 or less fin rays in their anal fin, whereas the Pacific salmon have 13 or more. The shape of the anal fin also distinguishes Atlantic salmon from Pacific salmon. In New York State, there is only one species of Atlantic salmon (Atlantic), but four species of Pacific salmon (chinook, coho, pink and kokanee).

Spawning Habits

Salmon spawn (or reproduce) in the fall, with peak activity occurring from mid-October to mid-November. Although some spawning does occur near river mouths, most spawning takes place in upstream portions of rivers or streams. Adult salmon build nests called "redds" in the stream bottom. The redds are dug by the female in areas of moving water, such as near riffles or the tail end of pools. The female moves gravel and small rocks with vigorous sweeps of her tail until a depression has been created. The eggs are then deposited and quickly fertilized.

Salmon protect their eggs by burying them in gravel. After spawning, the female moves upstream a short distance and digs into the gravel, freeing it so it will drift downstream and cover the eggs. Buried under layers of gravel, the salmon embryos develop slowly and hatch in late winter or early spring. After hatching, young salmon move downstream into lakes or oceans either immediately (in the case of pink salmon), or after one or more years of growth in the stream (as with Atlantic salmon).

An interesting difference between Atlantic and Pacific salmon is their fate after spawning. All Pacific salmon die after spawning, while Atlantic salmon may survive and even spawn two or more times. Salmon are generally medium-lived fish, with Pacifics living up to five years old and Atlantics sometimes reaching six to seven years old.

Atlantic Salmon

The Atlantic salmon is one of the most highly regarded sport fish in North America and Europe. Known to many as "the leaper," Atlantics are noted for their spectacular fighting ability, which usually includes several jumps completely out of the water after being hooked by a lucky angler. In New York State, Atlantic salmon spend their entire lives in freshwater and are usually called landlocked salmon.

Many New York State anglers are surprised to learn that Atlantic salmon were not only native to some of our waters, but they were extremely abundant. Atlantics were historically found in Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, Lake Champlain, and in many of their tributaries. They were so abundant that spearing them was easy and netting could result in catches of more than 100 fish per boat on a good night. Unfortunately, the rapid settlement and development of the state occurring during the mid to late 1800s spelled doom for this species. Dams blocked spawning streams, pollution choked waters, and widespread deforestation filled headwater nursery streams with sediment. By 1900, Atlantic salmon were all but extinct from New York State waters.

Interest in this species never disappeared, and programs to restore Atlantic salmon to New York State's waters have been under way for nearly 50 years. Currently, DEC manages about two dozen waters for Atlantics, including some of the State's biggest waters (lakes Ontario, Champlain, Cayuga, and Seneca), as well as a few small or medium-sized waters in the Adirondacks. Since very little natural reproduction occurs, annual stocking is required to maintain a desirable population size. Most stocked waters receive Atlantic salmon from a non-sea-run (landlocked) variety that has been developed in New York State over the past 16 years.

Atlantic salmon are found in a variety of habitats. In the spring, warmer temperatures and abundant food attract salmon to nearshore waters and even into the lower portions of rivers. Once water temperatures reach the mid-50s, Atlantics move offshore and into deeper portions of the lake. They are active predators throughout the summer, generally being found where water temperatures are 65 degrees Fahrenheit or less. In the fall, sexually mature fish move back toward shore in search of their home stream or the site where they were stocked. Atlantics feed heavily on other fish, with rainbow smelt being their preferred food. Other prey fish include alewife, cisco, or even yellow perch. If prey fish are lacking, salmon will eat insects and large zooplankton.

New York State anglers use a wide variety of techniques and tackle to catch Atlantic salmon. During springtime, trolling or casting lures or flies that imitate preferred baitfish produce the best catches. After lakes stratify in the summer, downriggers or lead-core line are needed to place lures and bait at the correct depths where salmon occur. Fall fishing focuses on spawning fish moving near and into rivers and streams. Since spawning salmon greatly reduce their food intake, the fish must often be enticed to strike bait, lures, or flies. Patience and perseverance are often the key to hooking a big adult Atlantic salmon in the fall. Although salmon fishing is limited in the winter, ice fishing is permitted on a number of lakes, including Lake Champlain and Lake George. Tip-ups with live minnows work well. Good waters for Atlantic salmon fishing include the Finger Lakes, Lake George, other Adirondack area lakes and ponds (Schroon Lake, Piseco Lake), Neversink Reservoir and Lake Ontario.

Chinook Salmon

Also called king salmon, chinook salmon are the largest of the Pacific salmon. While specimens exceeding 100 pounds have been taken on the Pacific coast, New York State's record fish is a 47 pounder caught in Lake Ontario. Chinook salmon have a limited distribution in New York State and are only found in lakes Erie and Ontario. Non-natives of New York State, chinooks were first stocked into the Great Lakes in 1873. Although they were sporadically stocked throughout the years, it was not until about 20 years ago that they became abundant. At that time, New York State aggressively stocked chinooks into lakes Erie and Ontario to provide a sport fishery. Using the then tremendous population of alewives as a food source, chinooks thrived and produced a spectacular fishery. Since there is not enough suitable spawning and nursery area to naturally produce enough fish, most of the salmon caught in New York State's Great Lakes are hatchery-reared.

While adult chinooks spend most of their time in deeper, open water, they will follow prey fish into nearshore areas in early spring and late summer or early fall. Sexually mature chinooks congregate or "stage" around the mouths of streams in the fall in preparation for making their spawning runs. September normally marks the arrival of the earliest run of fish into lake tributaries, and peak runs occur in October. Spawning is completed by early November and the adult salmon die shortly thereafter.

There are two distinctly different types of fishing opportunity for chinooks - open water and tributary. Open water, or boat fishing on Lake Ontario, usually involves trolling flashy spoons or other bait fish imitations. Since chinooks are often suspended in the water column, meaning neither right below the surface nor on the bottom, lures must be presented at the appropriate depths. The salmon tend to move farther offshore as spring gives way to summer, and they may be five miles or more offshore until the pre-spawning staging movements occur. Juvenile salmon, which may weight up to 15 pounds, remain suspended offshore while the larger adults weighing 15 to 30+ pounds move to their staging area.

In rivers, chinook salmon may be taken using a variety of angling techniques. Salmon egg sacs (or clusters), flashy spoons, or deep diving plugs are effective in the lower river portions, while egg sacs and other egg imitations, including artificial flies, are good in faster upstream water areas. Major Lake Ontario tributaries having chinook salmon runs include the Salmon River, Oswego River, Genesee River, Oak Orchard Creek and Eighteen Mile Creek.

Coho Salmon

Cohos, or silver salmon, are smaller in size than their cousin the chinook. Although larger specimens over 30 pounds have been captured, a typical adult coho weighs ten pounds.

Cohos were stocked into New York State waters along with chinook salmon in the late 1960s. Today, they are routinely stocked into Lake Ontario (and its tributaries) and provide excellent lake and river sportfishing opportunities. While natural reproduction of coho salmon has occurred in New York State waters, it is too limited to support a viable fishery. Therefore, DEC annually stocks hundreds of thousands of coho into the Lake Ontario system.

The behavior and distribution of coho salmon is very similar to chinook salmon. In early spring, cohos move inshore where they can feed upon smelt and alewife and find warmer water temperatures. During this part of the year, coho can provide extremely good fishing. As summer approaches, they move progressively offshore and anglers have less success in locating them. In the fall, sexually mature fish move back to the areas where they were stocked or hatched to spawn. Cohos spawn a little later in the fall then chinooks, with peak spawning runs occurring in October and early November. Anglers generally use the same techniques and gear for catching coho as they use for chinook.

Kokanee Salmon (sockeye salmon)

Kokanee, also called red salmon, are the landlocked form of sockeye salmon. When confined to fresh water, as they are in New York, kokanee are the smallest of the Pacific salmon, rarely exceeding 15 inches in length or one pound. Despite their small size, kokanee are highly regarded sportfish because their orange-red flesh makes a tasty meal.

The kokanee salmon is found in only a few lakes and ponds in New York State. They occur at all depths when water temperatures are cool in the spring and fall, but during summer most of their time is spent in deeper waters where temperatures are below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Kokanee are unusual among the salmonids, as they are highly dependent on plankton for food throughout their life. Their gills have many long, straining filaments called gill rakers, which help them capture planktonic organisms very efficiently.

During the fall, kokanee seek small streams for spawning. At this time, the males attain the brilliant green-head red-body color combination commonly associated with their sea-run brethren the sockeye. Female kokanee exhibit similar colors during the spawning season, but the color is less intense than in the males.

Kokanee may be caught by anglers using small spinners, spoons, and even artificial flies, but one of the most effective methods is to fish with a piece of worm baited on a small hook. A spinner or other attractor should be attached above the worm and hook.

Pink Salmon

Pink salmon are the least common of the Pacific salmon found in New York State. They were first introduced into the Great Lakes system in 1956 when they were stocked into Lake Superior. Since then, they have spread to the other Great Lakes on their own. Pink salmon were first reported in lakes Erie and Ontario in 1979. While substantial numbers of pink salmon were observed spawning off the beaches in the Dunkirk area of Lake Erie in 1984, their abundance has declined since then.

Pink salmon are unusual because almost all spawn when they are two years old, with just an occasional three year old specimen noted. During early fall, males develop greatly hooked jaws and a large hump in their back between their head and dorsal fin, giving rise to their nickname, humpies, as they are often called on the west coast. Females do not develop the hump back or hooked jaw. Although sea-run fish on the Pacific coast attain weights of 10 to 14 pounds, pink salmon generally weigh less than four pounds in the Great Lakes.

Pink salmon eat plankton, insects, and small fish when they are young, and shift towards eating more fish as they get larger. Because of their low abundance and relatively small size, they are not highly sought. They eat plankton, insects, and small fish when they are young, and shift towards eating more fish as they get larger. While they could probably be caught on both artificial lures or bait, few catches in New York State have been reported. No pink salmon are stocked by DEC, nor are there plans to stock any in the foreseeable future.

Salmon and People

Over the years, the distribution and abundance of salmon have been greatly affected by human activities. Damming of rivers, widespread pollution and extensive deforestation associated with the Industrial Revolution of 150 years ago, wiped out native salmon populations. More recently, however, many problems impacting our salmon fishery resources have been recognized and improvements have been made.

The lower Black River in Jefferson County is a good example of the changes that occur in fishery resources. A tributary to Lake Ontario, this river historically contained Atlantic salmon, but by the beginning of the 20th century, this population was extirpated. An historic survey of the Black River system conducted in 1931 recommended no fish stocking because of extensive pollution. In addition, dams used to provide power blocked the lower Black River at several sites, cutting the fish off from areas upstream.

Although pollution abatement resulted in significant water quality improvements by the 1960s, no salmon frequented the lower Black River until 1981, when survivors from a 1980 planting of chinook salmon began to make a fall spawning run into the river. The resurrection of a salmon fishery was under way. Continued annual stocking of coho and chinook salmon produced enough returns to support a growing recreational fishery. Angling effort grew at a phenomenal rate from an estimated 8,000 fishing days during the fall of 1982 to nearly 40,000 days in 1989.

Despite this success, more remained to be accomplished. A hydroelectric dam located at Dexter prevented the upstream movement of fish and crowded fish and fisherman into a short one-mile section of river. This situation favored a high rate of salmon harvest, but it also favored unsporting behavior. Against this background, restoration of an Atlantic salmon fishery could not realistically occur. Fortunately, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licensing procedures allowed DEC to recommend the installation of fish ladders at Dexter and Glen Park (a new hydroelectric project six miles above Dexter). By fall 1989, both fish ladders were functional and a sizable run of salmon occurred up to Watertown for the first time in decades.

Now, this historically accessible portion of the Black River is once again available to Lake Ontario salmonids, and restoration of the native Atlantic salmon is being explored.

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