Written by Earth Spirit staff member Daniel Mlodozeniec. 

Chinook or King Salmon Daniel caught at Whirlpool State Park.

            In the early to mid 1900’s, the fisheries of the Great Lakes faced a major issue.  The native Atlantic Salmon of Lake Ontario had already gone extinct before 1900, and now the Lake Trout throughout the Great Lakes were looking at a similar future.  Habitat degradation, overfishing, and predation by the parasitic, invasive Sea Lamprey had decimated the Lake Trout populations.  By the latter half of the 1900’s, the Lake Trout had disappeared from all but a handful of places within the Great Lakes.  The resulting actions taken place to establish a sport fishery would change the ecological, cultural, and economic conditions of the Great Lakes for years to come.  Between 1966 and 1970, a Pacific Chinook and Coho Salmon fishery was established in the Great Lakes.  Here in Western New York, anglers can experience what it is like to battle with one of these fiery fish on rod and line from the shores of Lake Ontario tributaries in the fall.  It is during this event that I, as well as many anglers, are reminded why Chinook Salmon are also called Kings.

            As the end of summer approaches, mature King Salmon, the largest and most stocked salmon species in the Great Lakes, begin to “stage.”  This period of heavy feeding in Lake Ontario occurs in closer proximity to the tributaries where they were born or stocked.  During staging, salmon fatten themselves up in preparation for their one-way spawning run up that same tributary. As fall approaches, the salmon venture into shallower waters and anglers can begin to target them from the piers and shores at the mouths of these tributaries.  This is when the excitement first begins.  Once the salmon begin to spawn, or run, what transpires is one of the most dramatic fishing spectacles in the state.  As the shorelines of these waterways fill up with anglers, so do restaurants, motels, stores, and other businesses nearby.  The King Salmon fishery of the Great Lakes is a multi-billion dollar industry that brings people from all over the country to New York creeks and rivers, most notably, the Salmon River in Oswego county.  In addition to the Salmon River are many other salmon tributaries, including the Niagara River (below Niagara Falls), Genesee River, Oak Orchard Creek, and Eighteen Mile Creek in Olcott.  The Niagara River, particularly Whirlpool State Park in Niagara Falls, is where I have been spending the majority of my time salmon fishing this year.  Pulling a rampaging salmon out of that mighty river with such violent currents is no small task and the salmon catch from last week was quite a dramatic one.  I was drifting a tied salmon egg sac with the current when suddenly I felt a massive pull on the line.  After a grueling five minutes or so pulling it up against the current, I managed to tire out and land the fish.  Catches like this remind me of why I am so fond of the time of year when salmon are spawning.

            Similarly to other salmon species, King Salmon undergo dramatic morphological changes when they spawn.  They darken in color and males develop a hooked nose, or kype, to help them battle other salmon for breeding territory.  King Salmon cease all feeding once they spawn, meaning anglers have to entice them to bite with aggression triggering lures or eggs as bait.  The physical burden of spawning is tremendous as salmon swim past rapids and obstacles, dodge anglers and predators, and fight one another.  At the end of the journey, salmon make the ultimate sacrifice and perish after they spawn, having given all their strength and vitality to maximize the chances of survival for their progeny.

While there is natural reproduction that occurs, the fishery is still dependent on the continuous stocking program from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.  As conditions in the Great Lakes change, the future of this fishery as well as its ethics, are unclear.  It is now the middle of October and the salmon run is well underway.  There is no better time to fish for what I call, the King of Fall.

For more knowledge and information on what is happening in the natural world around us, check out Earth Spirit’s public programs and excursions.

Recent Earth Spirit Staff Wildlife Sightings:

Sandy Geffner

– A large stand of Poison Sumac at the Houghton Bog in Springville.

– Two Bald Eagles at Silver Lake during a fishing trip.

– Numerous Bear’s Head Tooth fungi (a delicious edible fungus) at JP Nicely Memorial Park in West Falls during a public program.

Jon Roth

– A pair of Sandhill Cranes at Iroquois Wildlife Refuge.

–  A pair of Great Horned Owls hooting in the trees outside his window.

– A group of 5 bucks preparing for the rut (largest was an 8 pointer) at The Park School of Buffalo.

– A Red Fox sleeping along the tree line at Goat Island in Niagara Falls State Park.

Daniel Mlodozeniec

– A Red Fox at Whirlpool State Park in Niagara Falls.

– Chinook Salmon, Brown Trout, and Steelhead Trout attempting to leap over the rapids at Whirlpool State Park.

– Heard and responded with whistling to two Eastern Screech Owls at Devil’s Hole State Park in Niagara Falls.  They both flew up to him after the response whistling.

“The King of Fall”

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