story and photos by John Adamski
That’s the universal exclamation when a fish trips a downrigger rod. “And just what is a downrigger?” you might ask. The short answer is that it’s a piece of modern fishing equipment that’s used to catch fish that dwell in deep water – namely trout and salmon. Exactly what a downrigger is and how it works will be discussed later on in this article. But first, let’s look at the different species of fish that inhabit each of the Finger Lakes to see how the various methods of catching them have evolved from Native American fish traps to downriggers and other sophisticated pieces of today’s fishing gear.
The 11 glacially-formed Finger Lakes – from west to east Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye, Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, Skaneateles and Otisco – feature a host of coldwater and warmwater fish species that vary from lake to lake, depending on the depth and temperature of each lake’s waters. For example, Honeoye, which is the shallowest Finger Lake at 30 feet, does not harbor the same variety of fish as Seneca, which is the deepest at 618 feet and a lake bottom that is below sea level. Honeoye is strictly a warmwater fishery, while Seneca is both a warmwater and coldwater fishery. Conesus, at a maximum depth of 66 feet, and Otisco at 76 feet, are the only other Finger Lakes that are strictly warmwater fisheries. The other eight, because they are deeper and colder, are both.
The difference between coldwater and warmwater fisheries has to do with the water temperature preferences of certain species of fish. For example, salmonids like lake trout and landlocked salmon prefer temperatures that are below 65 degrees. They are usually found in or below the thermocline, which is an abrupt temperature layer that separates deeper cold water from the warmer water closer to the surface, and is most prevalent during the summer months. Depending on the lake, the thermocline can range anywhere from 30 to more than 100 feet deep, which has historically made fishing for any salmonid more challenging than catching species that prefer warmer, shallower water. Largemouth and smallmouth bass, northern pike, walleyes and panfish including bullheads, sunfish and yellow perch can tolerate water temperatures well into the 70s and thereby fall into the warmwater fish category.
Native American Fishermen
The Haudenosaunee, otherwise known as the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, lived in what is now upstate New York. They had a passion for hunting and fishing, and observed specific times of the year for each pursuit. Spring and summer spawning seasons were the preferred times to fish while fall and winter were reserved for hunting and trapping. Native fishermen used spears and nets to catch fish. At times they’d form large fishing parties where men in canoes would herd spawning fish downstream into large nets held by other men on either side of the creek or river. This technique could result in a catch of 1,000or more fish in just a few hours. The catch from fishing parties was then divided among the village’s families or used for a communal feast. Much of the meat from fish was smoked, dried, and stored for later use.
Eight-mile-long Conesus Lake does develop a thermocline of sorts but the deeper waters aren’t cold enough to sustain trout and salmon. During the 1970s, experimental stockings of brown trout, which can tolerate warmer water temperatures than other trout species, proved to be unsuccessful. Today Conesus provides excellent fishing for both species of bass, northern pike, bluegills, yellow perch, and walleyes. It is known to produce enormous northern pike. In 1991, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) began stocking tiger muskies – a fast-growing but non-reproducing northern pike/muskellunge hybrid. This hard-striking fish adds an element of excitement to Conesus Lake’s fishery.
Hemlock Lake is 7 miles long and 90 feet deep. It is one of two Finger Lakes – neighboring Canadice Lake is the other – that have a wild and undeveloped shoreline. Both lakes are located within the Hemlock-Canadice State Forest and provide drinking water to the City of Rochester. The thermocline in Hemlock is relatively shallow at just over 30 feet. Primarily known for its lake trout fishing, Hemlock’s coldwater fishery also includes brown trout, rainbow trout, and landlocked salmon. Warmwater game fish include largemouth and smallmouth bass, and trophy-sized chain pickerel. Panfish include brown bullhead, bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish, rock bass, and yellow perch.
At three miles long and 95 feet deep, Canadice is the smallest Finger Lake and the highest in elevation. And like her bigger sister, Hemlock Lake, which lies just a mile to her west, Canadice also maintains a shallow 30-foot thermocline during the summer months. Its coldwater fishery is comprised of lake trout and brown trout and its warmwater species are the same as those found in Hemlock Lake with the addition of black crappie. Because both of these lakes are drinking-water reservoirs, there is a 16-foot boat/10-horsepower motor size limit and other special regulations in place. Fishing at either of these lakes provides a unique experience in that their forested and undeveloped shorelines resemble those of an Adirondack or Canadian lake.
Honeoye Lake is the second-smallest Finger Lake at 4 miles long and has no thermocline at all. It harbors the following warmwater fish species: black crappie, bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish, chain pickerel, both species of bass, walleye, and yellow perch. Its excellent largemouth and smallmouth bass fisheries attract several sponsored fishing tournaments every summer, and its walleye fishery is exceptional as well. But because of its small size, fishing pressure can be intense at times.
At almost 16 miles long, Canandaigua Lake is the fourth largest Finger Lake. It is called “The Chosen Place” by Native Americans because the hills at its south end are considered to be the birthplace of the Seneca Indians. With a maximum depth of 276 feet, Canandaigua is both a coldwater and warmwater fishery. Sport and panfish species that inhabit the lake include black crappie, bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish, brown bullhead, chain pickerel, brown trout, lake trout, rainbow trout, whitefish, largemouth and smallmouth bass, rock bass, and yellow perch. Canandaigua is especially known for its large-sized yellow perch.
Keuka Lake, once known as Crooked Lake, is the only Finger Lake shaped like a “Y.” At nearly 20 miles in length, Keuka ranks third in size among the 11 lakes. Its thermocline ranges from 30 to 35 feet deep. The 9-mile long peninsula known as Bluff Point rises 800 feet above the lake’s surface and separates the east and west branches of the lake. The east and longest branch, anchored by the village of Penn Yan at its north end, is the shallower of the lake’s two appendages. The west branch, with the hamlet of Branchport located at its northern tip, contains the deepest water at 183 feet. The village of Hammondsport lies at the lake’s southernmost tip. Game and panfish species found in Keuka Lake include landlocked salmon, black crappie, bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish, brown trout, lake trout, northern pike, rainbow trout, rock bass, smallmouth bass, and yellow perch. Keuka Lake is best known for its prolific lake trout fishery and large-sized yellow perch.
Seneca Lake lies in the geographical center of the Finger Lakes Region. The city of Geneva is located at its north end and the village of Watkins Glen lies 38 miles away at its south end. Seneca is the deepest Finger Lake, and at 3 miles wide contains the largest volume of water. Seneca’s thermocline varies from 60 to 125 feet, which makes fishing for coldwater species more of a challenge. Desirable species that inhabit Seneca are landlocked salmon, bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish, brown bullhead, brown trout, lake trout, both species of bass, northern pike, rainbow trout, rock bass, and large yellow perch.
Seneca is known for its excellent lake trout fishing, which is why it is billed as the “Lake Trout Capital of the World,” as well as its excellent smallmouth bass and yellow perch fisheries. The National Lake Trout Derby has been drawing contestants to Seneca Lake every Memorial Day weekend since 1964.
Even though it is nearly 40 miles long, Cayuga Lake ranks second in size because it is not as deep as Seneca. The northernmost 6 miles of Cayuga are shallow and weedy, offering the angler some excellent largemouth bass fishing opportunities along with panfish like bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish, and sizable yellow perch. With a maximum depth of 435 feet and a deepwater thermocline at 70 feet, Cayuga offers an exceptional coldwater fishery as well.
Other fish species that inhabit the lake include lake trout, landlocked salmon, rainbow trout, brown trout, smallmouth bass, northern pike, chain pickerel, black crappie, channel catfish, brown bullhead, and lake sturgeon, which are protected by a year-round closed season. Cayuga also hosts a number of sponsored bass tournaments each year.
Owasco Lake lies just south of the City of Auburn and is a little over 11 miles long. With a maximum depth of 177 feet and a 35-foot-deep thermocline, it features excellent coldwater and warmwater fisheries. Sport and panfish that reside in Owasco include lake trout, brown trout, rainbow trout, both species of bass, walleye, northern pike, bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish, rock bass, black crappie, yellow perch, brown bullhead, and yellow bullhead. Fishing at the south end can be good for panfish, northern pike and smallmouth bass. Lake trout fishing is excellent year-round and ice fishing for them can be exceptional in years when safe ice forms around Ensenore Point. Just as with all of the other Finger Lakes that contain them, trout fishing is open all year long.
At 16 miles long and 300 feet deep, Skaneateles Lake most closely resembles Canandaigua in shape and size. Its thermocline averages 35 feet deep. As with Hemlock and Canadice Lakes, it is known to be one of the cleanest Finger Lakes and provides drinking water to the City of Syracuse. Game and panfish include lake trout, rainbow trout, landlocked salmon, largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleye, chain pickerel, bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish, yellow perch, rock bass, black crappie and brown bullhead. Skaneateles is known for its excellent smallmouth bass fishery and good panfish, bullhead, and pickerel fishing as well. Rainbow trout and landlocked salmon can be caught trolling on the surface in the spring and fall.
Five-and-a-half mile long Otisco Lake ranks seventh in size among the Finger Lakes and as we have already noted, at 76 feet in depth it is one of the three shallowest and does not support a coldwater fishery per se. Located just south of the City of Syracuse, Otisco is the easternmost Finger Lake. Game fish that call Otisco home include brown trout, both species of bass, walleye, and tiger musky, while panfish include bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish, rock bass, black crappie, white crappie, yellow perch, white perch, channel catfish, and brown and yellow bullhead. The north end of the lake is noted for good panfish, bass, and tiger musky fishing. During routine DEC fishery surveys, largemouth bass exceeding 20 inches are frequently collected.
No story about Finger Lakes fishing can be complete without some mention of the Miller and Sutton lure companies. In 1929, Edmund Miller began the manufacture of metal fishing lures in the village of Springwater, New York. As an avid angler who fished the nearby waters of Hemlock and Canadice Lakes, he produced a line of spinners, trout spoons, and wobblers of his own design. The company has long since closed but its lures are prized by any angler lucky enough to own them.
The Sutton Company was founded in 1867 in Naples, NY, by jeweler and Canandaigua Lake fisherman Scott Sutton. His designs for lightweight silver-plated flutter spoons became legendary and are still produced in Naples by his descendants today. Back in the day, both Miller and Sutton lures were synonymous with Finger Lakes fishing.
Shallow water fishing
There are several tried-and-true methods for catching warmwater fish species and without a doubt, fishing with live bait like crayfish, minnows or worms can be the most successful. So can casting with artificial lures like jigs, plugs, spoons, and spinners. Trolling a wobbling spoon or stick bait along a shoreline or weed bed can also be effective, especially for pike, pickerel, and smallmouth bass. I’ve heard it said that fishing lures are designed to catch fishermen, not fish, but I’ve had my share of good luck using artificials.
Deep water fishing
Rochester-born Seth Green was an aquaculture pioneer during the mid-1800s. He established the first fish hatchery in America in Caledonia in 1864, which is still in operation today. Among his accomplishments, he is credited with the introduction of Western rainbow trout into Eastern waters and brook trout into the West. He also introduced brown trout from Germany throughout the United States.
While conducting research in the Finger Lakes, he discovered the existence of the thermocline and developed a method for fishing its various temperature layers by trolling a weighted main wire line with five separate cloth leaders attached at 10-foot intervals – each of which was terminated with a light flutter spoon. Today it is known as a Seth Green Rig.
Old-timers traditionally trolled for lake trout in rowboats using a spool of copper wire with a heavy spoon twisted onto the terminal end because the wire reached the lake bottom faster than the braided cloth fishing line of the time. Some used a Victrola Rig, a device fashioned from an old Victor Talking Machine windup phonograph on which the record playing turntable was replaced with a large diameter pulley to let out and reel in wire without getting it tangled. Paying wire out wound up the machine’s torsion spring, which then rewound the wire as it was retrieved hand-over-hand. Oftentimes this system was combined with the above-mentioned Seth Green Rig.
Today’s deepwater fishermen troll with downriggers, a boat-mounted device that takes rod-and-reel fishing lines attached to a cable release into the depths using a heavy weight known as a cannonball. After locating fish activity on a sonar fish finder, the downrigger – whether manual crank or electric – can lower fishing lines and lures to where the fish are. When a fish strikes, the line is released from the cable and the rod-and-reel fight begins.
For Finger Lakes boat launch and public access points: visit dec.ny.gov/outdoor/32371.html
Anyone over the age of 16 has to have a license to fish in New York State. For more information, visit dec.ny.gov/permits/6091.html