A Fish Tale from the Wilderness Next-Door

Canada goose with goslings

On a clear, cold, spring morning, I drive south along the curvy shore of Conesus Lake. A thin moon casts a ghostly, pre-dawn light on the closed-up homes. Boats sit on trailers like beached whales shrouded in blue tarps. The lake’s surface is perfectly smooth, a dark mirror of the ink-blue sky. The eerie silence hardly recalls echoes of the rowdy sounds of summer fun.I turn west at the south end of the lake and then onto a graveled access road to a small parking lot – my destination: the Conesus Lake Inlet. As a 30-year lake resident, I had often heard tales of a fish spawning run there.“You won’t believe it,” I was told.

“Just like the salmon in Alaska,” they said. I was determined to see for myself.Within easy commuting distance of Rochester and its suburbs, Conesus Lake is a popular fishing, boating and recreation site for local, seasonal and area residents. Its roughly 18-mile shoreline is tightly ringed with private homes and cottages, which might suggest limited access for outsiders, but Conesus provides a whole host of year-round activities available to the public. The New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation boat launch provides a day-use entry point for boating, tubing, water skiing and fishing. The DEC has three public access sites for fishing or launching car-top boats. There are two public parks, a campground and several area restaurants. For longer stays, numerous rental properties and a few bed and breakfasts have lake views or access, best on July 3 during the annual ring of fire.

The lake is popular with anglers, and many have fish tales to tell. The one that brought me out on that frigid morning, far less well known, was that annual fish run at the inlet, a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Water Management Area.

According to Webster Pearsall, DEC Regional Fisheries Manager (Region 8), what I had been told about the fish was true.

“It’s usually around Easter,” he said. “The Northern Pike come in first and then about a week later the Walleye follow.”

Pearsall explained that the DEC puts up boards to block drainage from the wetlands, allowing the water level in the marsh to rise to create the spawning ponds where the adult fish breed and leave their eggs. To get there, the fish have to swim upstream from the lake through the inlet and then scale the small waterfall created by the boards that have been installed.

When I arrived at the site, there were already a number of spectators on the creek walk, and the creek itself was teeming with fish the size of my arm. The clear water revealed the dark, spear-like Northern Pike with their toothy underbite. The brown, torpedo-shaped Walleyes had shown up as well, breaking the surface with their prehistoric-looking spiky dorsal fins. The fish were packed together (dare I say, like sardines?) jostling and shoving each other right up to the edge of the banks, much to the delight of the spectators. In amazed silence, nature lovers, curiosity seekers like myself, and eager fishermen and women watched this seasonal show of nature’s rhythms, a sure sign of spring. But that day, those determined fish, swimming hard against water spewing in through a spillway, got nowhere. They were actually cut off from the creek that led to the falls. The DEC staff had been doing some work on the creek bed, so a section leading to the dam had been blocked off. The fish were simply queuing up, like rush-hour commuters racing to catch a train.

So, was it a fish story, I wondered, these tales I had been told even by the DEC – stories of fish flying up a waterfall? There was no way to know until the creek flowed again. I vowed to come back in a few days, hoping that by then the work would be done and the creek flowing.

The trip might have been a disappointment, but it wasn’t, because I had discovered the wilderness next door, this all-season, 1,120-acre wildlife management area. Looking for other signs of spring, I walked the nature trail through the woods and explored the scenic vistas from each viewing platform. A great blue heron flapped its enormous wings and glided by at eye level, green shoots pierced the frozen ground under my feet, and a morning chorus of birdsong filled the air. A graceful pair of geese slid through the water. I walked until a sign marked the end of the trail prohibiting further progress: “Eagle Nesting Area.” Back in my car, I drove the perimeter south on West Swamp Road (Route 256) stopping at the overlooks, then turning east on Guiltner Road, and slowing down while heading north on the less-traveled and only partially paved East Swamp Road to avoid passing squirrels, a sprightly fox, and some skittish young deer.

The next day, the heavy rains began and continued for days, until even the jokes about building an ark grew tiresome. A week later I gave up waiting for them to stop, donned a slicker and set out once more to prove or disprove this fish story.

This time, turbulent, latte-colored water roared through the creek, and slippery mud coated the walkway. A handful of eager fans stood in the chilly gray drizzle staring at the falls. I joined them. Then a Pike broke the surface, raced toward the falls flapping its tailfin furiously, and the onlookers cheered their encouragement. The fish hurled itself upward against the rushing water, but fell back and disappeared. It reemerged, trying once, then twice, finally almost appearing to fly, clearing the brink of the falls and slithering across the boards into the dark ponds of the wetlands that would be its breeding grounds.

This scenario was repeated over and over, sometimes one fish at a time, sometimes several. I watched quietly like the other bystanders, reverent witness to one of nature’s great struggles, and cheered loudly like the others at each successful, life-affirming effort. This was a real, live vision of fish out of water, ensuring their survival by overcoming what seemed like an unconquerable obstacle.

It was an unusual year. Pearsall assured me that next year, the creek would not be blocked and “everything would be back to normal.” I was hooked. I would be back. I have to tell you, you won’t believe it. It’s just like the salmon in Alaska.

You can learn more about the Conesus Inlet at the Department of Environmental Conservation’s site – dec.ny.gov/outdoor.


Nearby Interests

Vitale Park at the north end of the lake has paved walks, gardens, Sunday night summer concerts, an annual fishing derby and an annual ice-fishing derby. Long Point Park on West Lake Road has picnicking, swimming and hosts an annual art show the third week in July.

Stay lakeside at one of many rental properties. You can search conesuslakevacations.com/rentals-categories.html, or at the Conesus Lake Campground, conesuslakecampground.com.

Visit Shoreless Acres for an old-time general store experience. Pick up supplies you may have forgotten, or some of Smitty’s guaranteed fishing worms at 5006 East Lake Rd. Visit facebook.com/pages/Shoreless-Acres-General-Store/122391201177259, or call 585-346-3800.

Deer Run Winery on West Lake Road near the north end of the lake welcomes visitors year-round except for major holidays. Check for seasonal hours. Visit deerrunwinery.com or call 585-346-0850.

Boats For Rent

Mark’s Leisure Time Marine marksleisuretimemarine.com
Smith Boys

Jansen Marine of Conesus

Conesus Lake Boat Rentals

Dining out at the lake is offered at the North Shore Grill in Lakeville –northshoregrillny.com, 585-346-2200, or at the Beachcomber on West Lake Road – beachcomberny.com,


To reach the Conesus Inlet Fish and Wildlife Management Area, accessible in all seasons, drive south on either East or West Lake Road (Route 256) to Sliker Hill Road at the south end of the lake. The entrance to the parking lot is about 100 yards from Route 256.

You can access Conesus Lake at these points:

• The New York State Department of Parks Public Boat Launch on East Lake Road, four miles south of Rt. 20A, where there is a hard-
surface launch ramp and parking for 45 cars with trailers. Fee is $6.

• The DEC Conesus Inlet Wildlife Management Area located off West Lake Road (Rt. 256) allows car-top launch only. There’s parking for 40 cars.

• The DEC Pebble Beach Site, located off Pebble Beach Road at the northwest corner of the lake, has car-top access and parking for 120 cars.

• Sand Point, located off Rt. 20A and operated by the Town of Livonia and the DEC, at the north end of the lake. Car-top boats and parking for 45 cars.

by Helen Isolde Thomas

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