Opening Day

Mention the words “opening day” and across much of the country people think first of the Major League Baseball season. Not here in the Finger Lakes. To thousands of outdoor enthusiasts, opening day means it’s the first day of rainbow trout season on the Finger Lakes tributaries. And make no mistake about it – it’s no coincidence that the opening day of trout fishing and April Fool’s Day are one in the same. If you ask anglers why they return at the crack of dawn to the banks of their favorite stream year after year, despite wind, rain and occasional snow, they would say: “If people think we are April fools, so be it; the joke is on them. There is no place I’d rather be today than fishing.” “It’s a tradition. My family and buddies have been coming here for 50 years.” My favorite reply is, “Let’s see – my other option was to go to work.”
Years ago, after reading a survey that concluded most people feel fishing is a legitimate excuse for missing work, I quickly concurred, hung a sign on my office door that read “Gone Fishing,” and joined the April fools on Naples Creek. When I returned to the office at the end of the day, the college dean reminded me that I had missed an important meeting. My excuse was that fishing rekindled my enthusiasm for work. He was not amused.The story of opening day is full of history, science, nostalgia and occasional true stories, although truth usually takes a back seat when it comes to fishing tales. To understand how this wonderful opening-day tradition evolved, let’s take a step back in time.
Fish shocking
Most people are surprised to learn that rainbow trout are not native to the Finger Lakes. They were imported to our lakes from western steelhead stock. For years their growth rates were disappointing, reaching only half the size of the sea-run western stock. And then someone, don’t know who or when, introduced alewives or saw bellies, as they are called locally, into the lakes. When the rainbows started feeding on the 5 to 7-inch saw bellies, their growth rates increased dramatically.Recognizing the potential for this developing sport fishery, the New York State Conservation Department began using electroshocking technology to study and manage rainbow trout. Simply stated, using backpack gas generators and long wands, fish are initially drawn into an electrical field by a process called electrotaxis or forced swimming. Once within the field, the fish experience electronarcosis. Essentially they are stunned; their muscles relax and they lose their equilibrium. They are immediately netted before they recover from the slight shock.

The captured trout are measured, weighed, and then scale samples are taken. As soon as the data are collected the fish are released unharmed to continue their spawning runs. Later, biologists analyze the scales to determine the age, growth rates and spawning history, much like interpreting the growth rings on a tree trunk. The information serves as a tool for managing the rainbow trout fishery.

Over time, the preseason electroshocking events were opened to the public. The events have become as much of a springtime ritual as opening day itself. Thousands of would-be anglers flock to Catherine, Cold Brook and Naples creeks to cheer and applaud as technicians net 5-, 10- and 15-pound rainbows. Although biologists currently have adequate data to manage the fishery, I believe they continue electroshocking for the sake of tradition and public relations – “Here is the fishery we’ve created. The fish are huge. They are in the stream. Now all you have to do is get out there and catch them!”

Colorful males
The natural history of rainbow trout is also quite interesting. Each spring, rainbow congregate at the entrances to the Finger Lakes spawning streams. As winter releases its grip on the region, the spring thaw begins. The increased water flow and temperature stimulates the spawning migrations. In some years the fish may run during prolonged January thaws or as late as April, if it has been cold and the lakes are still frozen.

Three-year-old, first-time spawning males, about 15 inches long, arrive first. They are followed by larger and older males. They swim through obstructions, jump over small dams and – based on the current, water pressure, and its chemical makeup – return to the general location where they were hatched.

As soon as the fresh-run males, then silvery in color, enter the streams from the lakes, they begin the change to their namesake rainbow colors. Their backs turn green, and black spots become more prominent on their backs and fins. A distinctive crimson to pink band develops from their tail through their gill cover. A typical male rainbow trout is long, has a pointy head and has developed a hooked jaw during the spawning season, called a kype. The kype develops with the increasing levels of testosterone at spawning time and is used when males fight to control a specific territory in the stream.

4,000 eggs
The females begin migrating into the steams next. At least 4 years of age, they are rounder in appearance and their heads are not as pointed as the males. Because they are not in the streams as long as males, their colors are not as vivid.

The female seeks out a gravelly area in the stream and begins digging a nest, called a redd, in which to deposit her eggs. She digs the redd by turning on her side and vigorously flipping her tailfin in the stream bottom until a depression 2 or 3 inches deep and the length of her body is completed. Although there is no prior courtship between the sexes, she is now joined by the males who have been fighting for the right to breed her.

When the female is ripe or when she starts passing eggs, either a single dominant male or several males swim alongside her, bumping and rolling over her, and then release a white, milky substance called milt over the eggs. The sperm in the milt fertilizes the eggs as they are deposited in the redd. After the eggs are laid, the female moves upstream and again vigorously vibrates her tail and body to loosen sand and gravel. The current carries the material downstream and covers the eggs.

Once the now-exhausted female has deposited up to 4,000 eggs, she swims with the current back to the lake. If males have more milt, they remain in the stream in search of other ripe females. Unlike salmon, rainbow trout do not die after they spawn.

As the stream warms by late May or June, the eggs hatch and the fish develop in stages from fry to fingerling to parr. They typically stay in the stream for a full year before migrating to the lakes. Most Finger Lakes’ streams are such excellent natural hatcheries for the young rainbow that no stocking is required.

All of the deep and cold Finger Lakes have good populations of rainbow trout, but for some unknown reason, relatively few are caught while in the lakes. I guess that’s why the activity is called fishing instead of catching.

“A springtime tonic”
Realizing the rainbow trout population is both healthy and underutilized, the Conservation Department opens the fishing season on April 1 during the spawning run. Studies have shown that the activity of fishermen in the streams and the catch rate while the fish are spawning do not negatively impact their populations.

For many fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, and groups of buddies, opening-day fishing for this amazing, leaping, and acrobatic game fish has become not only a tradition, but also a springtime tonic that must be indulged, regardless of the weather or work. Come opening day, however, the use of electricity to catch fish is not permitted.

The Conservation Department has recently started the trout fishing season on the Great Lakes tributaries before the traditional April 1 opener, so the number of people fishing the Finger Lakes’ streams on opening day has declined somewhat in recent years. So popular was opening day in 1948 on Seneca Lakes’ Catherine Creek that officials counted 860 cars carrying an estimated 3,000 anglers, many from out of state, along a 7-mile stretch of the creek. The local trout derby officials reported that 800 rainbow trout were caught, the largest weighing over 16 pounds.

Further, when I first moved to Naples in the late 1960s, I took a photo of nearly 50 fishermen – yes, all men – at one large hole on Naples Creek. How anyone could get a line in, no less a fish out of that hole, remains a mystery to me. Nevertheless the folks seemed to be having a good time and were well “spirited.”

Today you are not likely to see 3,000 fishermen on any stretch of stream or 50 fishermen at any one “hot spot.” These days, I enjoy heading over to Naples Creek on opening day to watch, photograph and listen to the fishing tales of strangers, friends, and my former conservation students.

As I meander along the banks of the creek, I notice some changes in the traditions. More women are fishing – alone, with friends, or with their husbands and children – and numerous father-son-daughter combinations are wading the streams, happy to share stories about their success or lack-thereof. Even though I’ve come to believe that opening day is more ceremonial than successful, I still enjoy asking youngsters if they’ve had any luck and then watching them stretch their arms wide beyond their shoulders, telling about the big one that got away. Ahh yes – another fisherman is born!

I also notice more folks fishing with fly rods in the more remote or quieter sections of the streams, totally concentrating and entranced as they artfully drift worms or homemade egg sacs into the soothing sounds created by the current.

Quietly, I watched one gentleman fly fisherman land three nice rainbow trout. After skillfully landing them, he returned all three to the stream. I took photos of him and his beautiful rainbows, and eventually walked over to chat. At the end of our conversation he said, “I hope you’re not planning on publishing those photos. You see, I called in sick today.”

As I observed and talked to a few other anglers on this opening day of rainbow trout season, it was clear to me that the fishing fraternity continues to cut across all social and economic strata. Name a career, and you’ll find an opening day angler among them, including a college professor who probably hung a sign on his office door: “Gone fishing.”

by Bill Banaszewski

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