It will be a strange thing to look off the upstream side of the Altmar Bridge on the Salmon River in October and see no one there.
Normally in October, the big, deep pool would be ringed with fly-fishers, mostly lobbing heavily weighted leaders with egg flies, nymphs or gaudy salmon patterns in hope of enticing a bite from a king or a coho salmon.
This year, that pool and the rest of the Lower Fly Zone, which normally opens Sept. 15, will be off-limits until Halloween because of low, warm water. Even though the fly zones are catch-and-release only, the Department of Environmental Conservation said it’s concerned that too many salmon will be “inadvertently” killed by anglers.
And if those fish die, the DEC won’t be able to collect their eggs at the Salmon River Fish Hatchery, a quarter-mile upstream, to make the Pacific salmon Class of 2016.
The Salmon River is absolutely loaded with kings, also called Chinook, right now. Thousands of them raced upriver in a 10-day run that began shortly after Labor Day.
It’s somewhat surprising to have so many salmon in the river, given the conditions. The river’s flow is supposed to increase from the summer level of 185 cubic feet per second to the fall flow of 335 cfs on Sept. 1, but not this year. There has been so little rain in the area that the Salmon River Reservoir is 14 feet below the crest of its dam, which the DEC calls a near-historic low.
So the summer flows are still in effect. Evidently, the fish decided they couldn’t wait for rain and charged up the river, rooster-tailing through the skinny riffles.
Those that survive the gauntlet of flies, lures and baited hooks from the river mouth to the Altmar Bridge will face no further opposition en route to Beaverdam Brook and then the hatchery, where they will give up their eggs (though not the way they’d like to).
Interestingly, the hatchery has a lot less to do with the production of Chinook salmon on the Salmon River than it used to. Observers say the majority of the kings in this year’s run were born not in the hatchery, but in the river itself.
“The majority of the run is from natural reproduction four years ago,” said Mike Carota of Schenectady, president of the Lake Ontario tributary Anglers Council.
How can he be sure? The DEC has a fancy machine that clips the adipose fin off each hatchery-raised fingerling it stocks in the river each spring. Most of the fish coming back this year have adipose fins, Carota said.
Fran Verdoliva, the DEC’s river keeper, said he landed four Chinooks in one outing during the big run and all were wild.
So even if the number of Chinooks that make it to the hatchery is down a bit this year due to the dry weather, the impact on the run four years from now, when this fall’s eggs return as grown-up salmon, may be lessened by the ability of the Chinooks to reproduce on their own.
The minimum flows for summer, fall and winter were instituted in 1996. Before that, the river would all but dry up when the power company wasn’t spinning its turbines, and survival of salmon eggs was dicey at best.
The minimum flows make sure there’s enough water for the eggs to incubate all winter and for the young salmon to migrate to Lake Ontario in early summer. Natural reproduction of Chinooks has been rising ever since, and seems to be reaching critical mass.
In any case, 185 cfs is a measly flow for the Salmon River in the fall. Here’s hoping we get some rain, to bring in the rest of the Chinooks and the coho, the brown trout and the steelheads, too.
Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at email@example.com.