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Friday, December 23, 2005

Trolling and Trawling

It is still dark when I pull into the marina. As I walk to my boat I can see and hear the familiar sights and sounds of fishing vessels getting ready to leave their moorings and chug their way to the open waters of Lake Ontario. Having fished these waters for two plus decades, the rumbling murmur of the awakening fishing fleet is music to my ears.  In a few minutes the marina will give up many of her fishing battlewagons as they head out in search of a productive day of angling pleasure. To me, the excitement and anticipation never seems to wane, and as our boat clears the harbor walls and powers up for a cresting dawn cruise to the so called "promised land," I realize I am one very lucky individual.

     It won't be long before we throttle back to trolling speed and lines are lowered to desired depths and the quest to hook up one of the many lake monsters begins. The VHF radio crackles and the cell phone rings as the search begins and information is distributed to the fleet from one boat to another.  Soon one of our bent over rigger rods thumps a couple of times, snaps toward the sky and just as quickly rolls down to the water with a pulsating crunch.  Fish on time has commenced. Yes sir, another great day of Lake Ontario fishing is about to unfold.

     Select the right tackle, choose an acceptable color, lower it to the right depth, troll at the right speed and the fish will come. Oftentimes the fish will come easy, sometimes they are quite elusive, but sooner or later they will cooperate and fishing turns to catching.  One thing is certain, Lake Ontario fishing is great, and all you have to do is load the lake with stocker sized fish, let them feed and grow, and fishing will be forever wonderful. That is all it takes!  Isn't it?

     While all this trolling stuff is going on, in another part of the lake, two well equipped fishing vessels are getting ready for their day of fishing. What these boats catch or more importantly don't catch will have more impact on sport fishing success than all the tackle and fishing prowess that money can buy.  These vessels are the research explorers manned by crews that include skilled scientists. Their goal is to gather and interpret data that can be used to provide the foundation upon which fishery management decisions can be based and implemented. Rest assured that without their efforts we would probably not have our wonderful trout and salmon fishery as we know it today. This past 2005 season was absolutely fantastic and when nature cooperates good things happen. To the mix we must add the benefits of good science that translates into good results. What I mean by this is if we did not control the predators (salmon) in relation to the available food source (alewives) nature would not be in a position to work her magic. A reduced energy source in the form of a reduced supply of baitfish translates to smaller salmon in both size and numbers of fish. In the case of our outstanding 2005 season, nature was assisted by quality management decisions.

     For over two decades the 65' US Geological Survey vessel Kaho operating out of the Lake Ontario Biological Station in Oswego and the 46' New York State DEC vessel Seth Green operating out of Cape Vincent have trawled, set gill nets and conducted sonar scans in an effort to learn just what is going on within Lake Ontario’s food web chain. The Kaho effort is headed up by Bob O'Gorman, Station Supervisor, while the Seth Green operation falls under the guidance of DEC veteran Steve LaPan who is the Lake Ontario Unit Leader.

      In the seventies and eighties the lake was in a phosphorus rich, fairly stable state and trawls indicated huge bait populations resulting from a healthy food chain existence. Spikes in the biomass of available predator food would occur mainly due to nature’s weather patterns, everything seemed just fine. There was plenty of food available for plenty of fish. The mantra was, "put em in, take em out."

     Then a series of eco-events occurred that transformed the lake from a stable state to one dominated by change. We entered a new era, featuring the invasion of exotic species, coupled with a drastic reduction in phosphorus levels. The first culprit was the zebra mussel which in a few short years caused major alterations in the distribution of food sources in the water column and reduced and even eliminated certain basic elements of the food chain. Finally, in the mid- nineties we faced possible disaster unless we took action. While anglers and fishery managers argued over solutions, it became clear that stocking reductions were necessary. Lake Ontario simply could not sustain life as it had in the past. Were it not for the findings of the research guys and their willingness to take an unpopular stand, I believe a fishing season like we had in 2005 would never have occurred.

     All I can say today is kudos to the research guys and gals. Were it not for their findings, our fishery could have been reduced to a pittance of what it is today. Once upon a time they were the bearers of bad news; today they are responsible for the good news. We catch fish because the scientists catch fish, interpret the catch data and provide information so that fishery managers can make decisions based upon scientific fact. . Fishery management decisions based on emotional issues or acquiescing to special interest groups generally provide poor results. (Decisions of this type do occur from time to time.) Decisions based on sound science and accurate data provide the best solutions. The scientists will mention zebra and qugga mussels, spiny water fleas, fishhook fleas, ruffe, and gobies. They will tell you of the reduction in phosphorus levels. They will point to the lakes stability in the 70's and 80's and will show how the exotic creatures have destroyed that stability. Today, their job has been made more complex as change after change sweeps across the water. The job didn’t get any easier, it got tougher.

     Recently Bob O'Gorman attended a European conference of fishery researchers from all over the world. Bob's Lake Ontario ecosystem is small when compared to the vast expanse of oceans many of the scientists were studying. All of their efforts were related to commercial fishing programs and how to keep them healthy. Many of the attendees were dumbfounded to learn that Bob's research was to support a sport fishery with no commercial implications. That seems to be unheard of "over there."  This is one more reason to be thankful for the state and federal commitment to our sport fishery.

     In the future, when you are fishing and  see one of the research boats be thankful they are there operated by crews dedicated to providing us with a quality fishery.

As you snap that photo of that 25lb king, think about the scientists up to their elbows in alewives or smelt, determining their weight and fat content so that future stocking levels can be based on accurate data. When that 40' wide x 10' high net is dragged over the bottom and hauled to the surface the analysis begins. If the net is fat with fish or empty due to lack of fish, the data is just as valuable since where fish are is important and where fish aren't is just as important. It is a complex scientific endeavor based on a volatile ecosystem seemingly in constant change, adding to the difficulty of the task facing the research effort.

     I have often wondered about what lies on the bottom of our lake. Besides living creatures, what a collection of inanimate objects the lake must possess. We know there are missing airplanes and ships lost in storms. Could there be trunks laden with treasure and valuable artifacts from days past? What other mysterious and exotic pieces have sat on the bottom for hundreds of years awaiting their resurrection? Consider if you will a few of the treasures captured by the trawling nets of the Seth Green and the Kaho. Bob O'Gorman of the Kaho lists his treasures as a toilet and a commercial washer/dryer combo. How romantic is that!  Steve LaPan reports that the most unusual treasure brought to the surface by the Seth Green was a brassiere in size triple D. Now that is quite interesting when you compare the purpose of a bra to fishing research. Both have goals of holding up, stabilizing, supporting and pointing things in the right direction.

Happy Catching!

Posted By: Capn Gerry Bresadola @ 4:40:53 AM


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