April 22, 2008
Fishermen net fewer smelt
Many attribute decline to influx of zebra mussel in Finger Lakes
Evan Geibel/staff photo
Tony Huizinga, left, and Brian Henry, both of Candor, search for smelt Monday night in Salmon Creek in Lansing.
LANSING — Brothers Stan and Ken Ely have been coming to scoop rainbow smelt out of Salmon Creek since they were 10 years old. Stan Ely is now 66 years old, and the smelting just isn’t the same.
“This creek used to be black with them. But now? I don’t know,” Stan Ely of Cortland said Monday night.
He and his brother, along with Alan Cameron of Ithaca and Emma Samoy of Great Falls, Mont., debated pulling on their waders and getting into the creek to scare up some smelt.
“We don’t come out for the fish — we come out for the fishing,” Ken Ely of Dimock, Pa. said after spinning a tall tale (that he maintained was true) about a fish of unknown species named “Bruiser” that occasionally knocked people off their feet while they waded in the creek.
Adult smelt migrate into tributary streams from the cool freshwater lakes to spawn in March through May.
The Ely group spent the day fishing for lake trout that usually follow the smelt up to the mouth of the creek, but have not had any luck with the smelt. Stan Ely thinks it might be too early for the smelt yet.
The season for the 6- to 8-inch fish lasts from March 1 to May 21 in Cayuga Lake and its tributaries, and they can be caught between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m., according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Web site. The limit per day amounts to 8 quarts. A fishing license is required.
The smelt are pulled out of the creeks using a fabric or metal mesh net on the end of a pole, and the smelt fishermen use lanterns to peer down into the water. Although some fishermen believe the light helps attract the fish, as if it were moonlight, others say the moon has nothing to do with it. No matter what, they need the lantern to see where to dip the net.
Brian Henry of Candor said he does not think the moon necessarily has anything to do with it. Henry and Tony Huizinga, also of Candor, walked along Salmon Creek Monday night between about 8:30 and 10 and only managed a handful of smelt.
“There’s just not as much smelt as there used to be,” Henry said. “Years ago, you could dip your net in and get the bottom of your net filled with them.”
Huizinga said he used to go more than he does now; both he and Henry said they make it out about twice a year.
“You still come out and get a few,” Huizinga said.
Like others, they believe the influx of an invasive species, the zebra mussel, into the Finger Lakes has destroyed the smelt fishery. The zebra mussels, natives of freshwater lakes in southeast Russia that had been brought to North America in the ballast tanks of transport ships, feed on the plankton that the young smelt also eat.
Henry said he thinks the smelt fishing has really dropped off significantly within the last five years, but remembers the best year for smelt was 1991, when he graduated high school.
“I remember when I first started, there was a food stand — what do you call them? Roach coaches?” Henry reminisced. “The whole creek was just full of people.”
Like some smelt fisherman, Henry’s lantern was held in a homemade device that could be slung around the neck and would hang off his chest, with a metal and wooden shield between his body and the lantern. It’s meant to keep your hands free, he explained.
“If it catches fire, you just fall in,” Henry said, laughing.
The Ely brothers and their companions stood on the shore and yelled to Henry and Huizinga, asking about the fishing.
“Don’t bother getting dressed,” Henry replied as he and Huizinga trudged up the bank and pulled away in their truck.
The Ely brothers said they’d still put on their own waders and go fishing.
“Dad used to dip out here. He didn’t care if he caught anything or not,” Stan Ely said.
“I’m bound and determined to come out here until I get a fish,” Ken Ely said.
He said that “it’s all in the water temperature,” and that the first warm rain of the season would help bring the smelt into the stream. With a chance of thunderstorms during the day Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service, Ely suggested that Wednesday night could be a good time to watch for smelt.
But Monday, the Ely brothers’ party decided to wait to go fishing until 11 p.m., and if they hadn’t caught anything by midnight they would pack it in for the night.
Meanwhile, a yellow and orange moon rose over the stream and Stan Ely got a little more hopeful.
“Look at that moon come up — it’s going to suck ‘em right out of the lake,” he said.
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