Seasons for four species of freshwater gamefish — northern pike, pickerel, walleye and tiger muskellunge — all of which have a mouthful of sharp teeth, will open Saturday.
Any one of these toothy predators on the end of a line will provide a thrilling, tackle-testing battle, as well as test angling skills and nerves. Let’s take a look at the characteristics of each of these fish, the diet they prefer (both artificial and live) and where and how to find them.
I remember my first pike fishing excursion to Saratoga Lake with my uncle. We rented a rowboat at Woodbury’s in Fish Creek, rowed out, anchored, tossed out big red-and-white, clip-on bobbers with big shiners on a wire-leadered hook and watched them swim around. I was 9 years old, and for me, it was like watching paint dry.
I didn’t have the patience for that type of fishing, but when that bobber went down, stayed, and the line peeled off my Shakespeare level-wind reel, my attitude changed. You might say I was hooked.
I still enjoy bobber fishing, but I now use a thinner, slip bobber with the biggest live bait I can find. I don’t anchor, I drift fish with the live bait and toss several different types of lures with a second rod. My favorite lures in my order of preference are: Rat-L-Trap; any of the new chatter baits; brightly colored, half-ounce spinner baits; and occasionally, the old red/white Dardevle, which has been around since 1906.
Pike, like all of these other toothy critters, are ambush predators that can hold perfectly still when awaiting the arrival of their dinner. The pike is such a good hunter, the state of Maine has no size or “keep” limits on them. However, in New York state, the limit is five, all of which must be at least 18 inches long.
There are a number of very good waters within an hour or two’s drive of my home. The first is where the current state record, a 46-pound, two-ounce monster, was taken from Great Sacandaga Lake in 1940. Fishing reports and tournament results from this lake throughout the season continuously note northerns 30-40 inches and longer being caught there.
Examples of how good this lake can be are the pike that won the Great Sacandaga Fisheries Federation (GSLFF) contest last May — the top three measured 431⁄4, 421⁄4 and 403⁄8 inches, respectively. Check out the photos at www.gslff.com and while there, register for their spring fishing contest Saturday.
Other choices include Schroon Lake, where weeded areas at both north and south ends harbor good northerns that will pull a bobber down. Try trolling the depths around Word of Life Island.
Even though Saratoga Lake has been “not so good” for pike in the past few years, ice anglers caught more than usual this winter, so I wouldn’t give up the lake just yet.
And lastly, the sleepers are Lake Lonely and Round Lake, each of which gave up 30-inch pike catches last year.
I don’t know anyone who goes fishing “just” for pickerel. They’re probably the most caught-and-immediately-released game fish. Considered by most a “too-boney-to-eat fish,” I don’t think anyone would miss them if they became extinct.
There are two kinds of pickerel in New York; chain, the most common, and redfin, which are much smaller. The state record chain pickerel is eight pounds, one ounce; the redfin, two pounds, one ounce. The chain is another predator that will gobble up live bait and artificial offerings, and you really can’t tell what you have on until you get it near the boat.
They offer a good battle when hooked, and I highly recommend them for kids’ fishing. Take a six- to eight-inch nose-hooked plastic worm with or without the barb exposed and let the youngster toss it as far as they can on a spinning rod, preferably over a sunken weed bed. Let it sink six inches, hold the rod high and start reeling. This is even fun for adults. The legal limit for pickerel is five, all of which must be at least 15 inches.
Chain pickerel are found in just about all waters where pike roam, but if I wanted to have a lot of fun hooking, fighting and releasing them, I’d go to Saratoga Lake, find weeds (not hard to do), and toss that plastic worm or whatever you choose. Just remember to keep it bright and keep it moving.
As pickerel are probably the most caught and released freshwater game fish, the walleye is the most sought after and kept by fish-eating anglers. They taste very good. They’re a hearty fish, and their large light-gathering eyes, from which they got their name, allow them to see in stained and muddy waters. Because they feed at night, many anglers choose to fish for them from sundown into the night. This is especially true on lakes and rivers that receive a lot of boating and fishing pressure during daylight hours.
Nighttime walleye fishermen have told me the bigger ones bite better in the dark and are somewhat easier to find. At night, when boating pressure is low, the walleyes will be feeding in the shallows depending on the lake/river being fished. I’ve caught Mohawk River walleyes from shore at night.
Some of the better nighttime areas are at the entrances to bays. Most anglers prefer using live bait, but casting with today’s life-like, shallow-running crankbaits, fished with a slow/medium retrieve, will attract them. Several years ago, I fished Saratoga Lake at night with an avid walleye angler and actually saw the reflection of several walleye eyes in the bright spotlight of our boat.
Daytime ’eye hunters can maximize their time on the water by trolling. Old-timers like me are still partial to the June Bug spinner and a night crawler fished along the weed edges at varied depths. It’s best to use two rods to vary your depths until you find them. They’re schooling fish, so don’t run away when you catch one. Work the area thoroughly before leaving.
For good walleye fishing, I’ve got to recommend Great Sacandaga Lake first again, based on fishing reports I’ve received and especially the catches, both in numbers and quality that GSLFF’s fishing contests have produced. Both trolling and bottom-bouncing jig anglers are enabling anglers to hook up with their five-fish, 15-inch legal walleye limits on a regular basis. Veterans recommend tossing
20-plus-inch breeders back and eating only smaller legal ones.
Saratoga Lake has decent walleye action, however, the rule there is fish for ’eyes “a few hours before and after sunup and sundown.” Those who are consistently catching say they troll the weed and drop off edges in waters 10-20 feet and when they catch one, they follow up with either live bait or jigs.
One of the overlooked nearby areas for walleyes is the Mohawk River. Those walleyes that were biting close to and around the locks from 8 to 11 are still in the river. The lock area is really a good starting point, but remember to stay outside the marked danger buoys by the dams. Drifting and/or trolling the deep edges and channel drops should produce some good eaters.
This fish is a true trophy. Catching or even just having one on the line will raise your adrenaline level, even if you don’t land it. The tiger is a hybrid offspring of a male northern pike and a female muskellunge. Their diets consist of larger fish, birds and ducklings. Anglers are only allowed one tiger per day, and it must be at least 30 inches long. The state tiger muskellunge record is 35 pounds, eight ounces. It measured 50 inches and was caught in Broome County on May 25, 1990. The only stocking information I found in our area was 3,900, 101⁄2-inch fish put in Cossayuna Lake last year.
Each year, there are reports of tiger encounters and a few catches in several of our local lakes and rivers. Last year, I heard of one caught on the Hudson River near the Troy Dam in May. I don’t think there have ever been any tigers stocked there, so it may have made it there through the lock system. The Mohawk River used to get annual tiger stockings, but I haven’t heard of any lately. All my hookups, none of which I have landed, have been on the Mohawk River in the area around the Colonie Town Park. Round Lake is another once-stocked lake with occasional reports of tiger catches.
As for fishing techniques, I recommend using the same methods as for northern pike, just use bigger lures and live bait.
Good luck, and don’t forget to email me your Fish Tales at [email protected]