Shore-Fishing the Finger Lakes

The pier at Watkins Glen is popular with both anglers and tourists.

Most of the Finger Lakes quiet down considerably after Labor Day weekend when “summer people” padlock camp doors, drain water pipes and move boat hoists to dry ground. Not everyone says such an early good-bye, however. In recent years, it has become increasingly common to see docks left in place long after Halloween. Some of the docks are used to launch trailered boats, but on several of the lakes they serve mainly as casting platforms for ardent shore fishermen. Municipal piers, beaches and other places where public access is available also bustle with activity after the lakeside foliage turns color.

Partly because of their comparatively easy public access, lakes in the eastern part of the Finger Lakes chain – Otisco, Skaneateles, Owasco, Cayuga and Seneca – give non-boating anglers their best opportunities to catch a variety of species. In these lakes, shore fishermen find everything from delectable pan fish and walleyes to hard-fighting bass and pike to shimmering trout and salmon. Based on observed angler effort, the salmonids – salmon and various species of trout – appear to be the main attractions in the region, especially during the autumn months.

My frequent fishing buddy and avid shore fisherman, John “Kid” Corbett agrees: “It’s my favorite time of the year. Lots of guys look forward to the first day of trout season in April, or the June opening of bass season, or whatever, but fall fishing is as good as it gets, in my opinion.”

Camp Lourdes, a summer camp on the eastern shore of Skaneateles Lake, is owned by the Syracuse Catholic Diocese and is open for fishing when campers are absent. Carpenter’s Point at Lourdes is a favorite spot of Corbett’s and is great for catching salmon and autumn trout, most notably large rainbow trout. My personal-best catch at Lourdes was a 26-inch bruiser that bit at the western tip of the camp’s north shore in October, 2009. You’re probably wondering what sort of “wonderbait” accounts for all those big rainbows.

My go-to rig, and that of most other diehard Skaneateles rainbow-chasers as well, is the “marshmallow sandwich,” which consists of a garden worm or nightcrawler on the bend and a cocktail marshmallow on the point of a size 2 or 4 hook. Corbett is one of a few regulars on the Skaneateles fishing scene who deviates from the standard recipe – he normally uses two marshmallows and no worm.

Of course there’s more to fishing marshmallows, with worm or without, than merely baiting up and casting into the nearest water.

The most important component of a successful day of shore-casting for Finger Lakes trout and salmon is a location where the targeted fish swim close to shore at least part of the season. If you have a fishy spot, you’re on your way to shore-fishing success. Without a suitable location, you can look forward to plenty of casting practice and long waits between bites. Aside from finding a sloping point, creek mouth, sudden drop-off or other type of structure that is of moderate depth, you will find shore-casting to be a rather simple pursuit.

Successful devotees of the worm-and-marshmallow tactic rig up by putting a 1/4- to 1-ounce egg-shaped slip sinker onto a 4- to 8-pound running line, then knotting a bead swivel to the end of that mono. A 24- to 30-inch-long piece of leader – I prefer 4-pound test – is affixed to the free end of the swivel, and a bait-holder hook completes the terminal set-up.

The worm needs no dressing up before it hits the water, but I like to wrap my marshmallow in a 2-inch square of Spawnee salmon egg-sack mesh. It’s tied off with elastic thread and trimmed neatly. This improvement means my marshmallow will stay on the hook without dissolving for hours, instead of minutes. Whether you are shore-casting, trolling, or fly-fishing, the more time your bait is in the water, the more fish you will catch.

People who don’t do this sort of thing routinely ask why I bother with the marshmallow. After all, worms are the most popular fishing bait of all and work just about anywhere they are legal. It’s a good point, but a marshmallow topping has at least three things going for it in the Finger Lakes scenario. One, they must taste good, or trout wouldn’t eat so many of them. Two, they are buoyant: When fished on a slip-sinker rig, they float 6 to 12 inches off the bottom. The worm goes along for the ride and bobs seductively at a depth which is patrolled by neighborhood predators. Finally, if you use plain white cocktail marshmallows over the pastel-colored ones, as I do, they can be seen far off, as well as at close range.

Some Shore-Fishing Accessories
Shore-fishing is patient, feast-or-famine fishing. I often bring a couple of sand spikes, which are tubular rod-holders with pointed ends that can be pushed into the soil or gravel to hold my rods upright at a steep angle. If my outing is to last more than an hour or two, another essential is an empty bait bucket or a folding chair sturdy enough to support my weight as I relax between bites. My rods vary from 5 to 10 feet in length, but they have in common a soft tip that wiggles and then stands at attention when a trout takes the bait.

So as to not spend an entire afternoon or evening squinting at my rod tip, I often attach a small bell to the tip guide. When the bell rings, I hurry to the sand spike, lift the rod, tighten the line, and set the hook with a joyous shout of “got one” to my friends. When the bite is on, bells are ringing and reels are screeching up and down the beach.

Not everyone uses the sand spike or a derivative to fish for inshore trout. Kid Corbett is a bit of an innovator – or perhaps just a rebel – in that he frequently sets one of his rods in a horizontal “bait-runner” stand. Unlike the sand spike user, who reels his line in just enough after casting to make it bend slightly (and straighten when the bait is picked up), the angler with a bait-runner holds the rod parallel to the ground and leaves the bail open so that a biting fish can easily pull line off the reel. To detect strikes on such a rig, Corbett takes a loop of line from his reel and puts it under a small rock. When the loop is gone, Corbett quickly gives his line a visual check, and if it’s moving, he lifts the rod from its holder and sets the hook.

Corbett likes to fish marshmallows solo, without worms, because he’s found that only trout seem to hit them consistently. Especially on warmer-than-average days, Skaneateles Lake’s rock bass and smaller yellow perch nibble incessantly on my worms yet leave the marshmallow intact.

“If I get bites on my marshmallows, I’m pretty certain they’re trout,” Corbett said.

However, there is no corollary that says trout don’t bite on worms. The indisputable fact is, trout love worms – always have and always will, whether they’re washed down with sugar or not.

Everyone who gets serious about Finger Lakes shore-fishing will eventually come up with their own little tricks of the trade, and apply them to a variety of species. While Skaneateles Lake is one of my favorites, several others in the chain offer good opportunities for salmonids, and some also feature excellent seasonal fishing – in both spring and fall – for walleyes. Bass and assorted pan fish are also available to shore-bound anglers. See page 60 for a lake-by-lake prospectus.

1. Conesus Lake
Star attraction: Walleyes
When, where and how: The spawning run of walleyes in Conesus Inlet is like a “coming attractions” trailer shown just before the feature film begins. Sometimes the preview is better than the “reel” thing, yet whopper walleyes can sometimes be caught after dark for three to four weeks after the season-starter date in early May. Try Long Point Park, midway along the west shore.

2. Hemlock Lake
Star attraction: Bass
When, where and how: While most think of lakers when Hemlock is mentioned, the conversations among shore anglers inevitably swing toward the plump largemouths and smallmouths that cruise around the weed lines. Almost the entire shore can easily be fished in all seasons.

3. Canadice Lake
Star attraction: Chain Pickerel
When, where and how: Almost the entire shore of Canadice is accessible to anyone willing to hike through the surrounding forest and cast a spinnerbait and rapidly retrieve it in weedy areas.

4. Honeoye Lake
Star attraction: Bluegills
When, where and how: Aside from the state boat launch off East Lake Road, and a small town park at its north end, Honeoye Lake has no public shoreline. However, the boat launch area, like the rest of the lake, teems with 7- to 8-inch bluegills, just right for frying. They bite best during the late-May to mid-June spawning run, when their rubber-tire-size nests are visible in the shallows.

5. Canandaigua Lake
Star attraction: Yellow Perch
When, where and how: The city pier at the north end of Canandaigua Lake is very popular, especially in the spring when big jack perch and other pan fish come within casting distance. Use small jigs tipped with mealworms or minnows.

6. Keuka Lake
Star attraction: Lake Trout
When, where and how: From early November and on into April, bank fishers might connect with lake trout by casting fast-sinking spoons or jigs from Keuka Lake State Park in Branchport.

7. Seneca Lake
Star attraction: Northern Pike
When, where and how: Picking the best shore fisheries on Seneca Lake is not easy because public access is somewhat limited even though a wide variety of species can be targeted from its banks. The municipal pier at Watkins Glen and, to a lesser extent, the pier at the north end in Geneva, teem with lake trout, northern pike, yellow perch, black crappies and bluegills. Fish it with appropriate-size minnows.

8. Cayuga Lake
Star attraction: Lake Trout
When, where and how: Taughannock Falls State Park is a west shore hot spot for salmonids located off Route 89, about 8 miles north of Ithaca. The steep drop-off at the mouth of Taughannock Creek provides great shore-casting for landlocked salmon and brown, rainbow, and lake trout. Lakers are very abundant and average around 5 or 6 pounds. They – and other trout and salmon – are susceptible to ¾-ounce white jigs, but fishermen do even better by casting a minnow and slip bobber beyond the drop-off.

9. Owasco Lake
Star attraction: Yellow Perch
When, where and how: Shore access is quite limited on Owasco, with one major exception, Emerson Park in Auburn. At the north end of the lake, it has a long pier which attracts a variety of fish, most notably in the late autumn. Perch, pike, walleyes and lake trout are all possible here. Try minnows and slip bobbers.

10. Skaneateles Lake
Star attraction: Rainbow Trout
When, where and how: As noted above, hefty rainbows are available at numerous locations around Skaneateles Lake, but public access is somewhat limited. The most popular spot is Lourdes Camp, owned by the Syracuse Diocese. It’s available spring and fall when the kids’ camp is not in session, but anglers are urged to pick up after themselves and not build fires. Another favorite location is the retaining wall in the park next to the Episcopal Church in the village of Skaneateles, but be sure to bring a long-handled net.

11. Otisco Lake
Star attraction: Walleyes
When, where and how: From early May through June and again from mid-October until ice-over, walleyes chase alewives and other baitfish after dark along the Otisco Lake shore. Headlamps are recommended for safety, but turn them off while waiting for a strike as light beams may spook the fish. Cast stick-baits such as Rapalas and Thundersticks in black-and-silver, fire tiger, clown, and other color patterns. Night fishermen gain access along Otisco Valley Road, at the dam, and at the causeway – a long-retired road bed at the end of Masters Road on the west shore.


by J. Michael Kelly