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State Moves To Phase Out Popular Salmon Fishing Technique

September 22, 1990

PULASKI, N.Y. (AP) _ Call it temporary insanity. Or fish frenzy.

When some anglers see a river teeming with Pacific salmon weighing 30 pounds or more, just begging to be caught and mounted over a fireplace, a certain kind of craziness ensues.

″A little something pops in their heads,″ said Robert Lange, chief aquatic biologist for the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation.

James Hassan, a DEC enforcement officer, calls it ″salmon fever.″

Each fall, thousands of fishermen - from as far away as Texas and Florida - pour into tiny upstate New York villages like Pulaski to catch the Pacific salmon that return from Lake Ontario to spawn and die in the tributaries where they were born.

The fishermen pump millions of dollars into the local economy, but critics say they also bring crowds, crime and rowdiness.

The New York state DEC is experimenting with ways to breed coho and chinook salmon out of one Lake Ontario tributary, the Black River, in favor of other sport fish of comparable size like steelhead trout and Atlantic salmon. In the Black River and the Salmon River, 30 miles to the south near Pulaski, it is phasing out a controversial salmon fishing technique known as ″snagging″ in an effort to bring more order to the autumn fishing season.

Ironically, the DEC is the same agency that has spent much of the past two decades and millions of dollars on stocking the coho and chinook salmon, native to the Pacific Northwest, into the eastern Lake Ontario tributaries. The aim was to control a pesty, fast-breeding fish called alewife and to create a sport fishing industry for small communities, like Pulaski, hard by the economic troubles of 1960s and 1970s.

It worked too well, officials concede. Lange called the promotion of Pacific salmon here ″the biggest mistake we’ve made in fishing management in modern times.″

″At the time, it seemed like a good idea,″ he said. ″We simply failed to consider the human dimension.″

Snagging is at the heart of the issue.

By and large, Pacific salmon do not feed as they swim upstream to the tributaries where they were born, spawn and die. Experts say some fish will bite at live bait or lures out of habit, but only if they are not spooked.

That’s usually not the case as the salmon pour each autumn into tiny rivers like the Salmon or the Black, 30 miles to the north, which are not much deeper than the height of a person. Thousands of fishermen wait in boats or line the shoreline, rods and reels at the ready.

The theory behind snagging is this: if the fish will not bite the hook, the hook will bite the fish. Snaggers attach triple hooks, each sharply barbed, to the ends of their lines. Eight ounces or more of lead has been fashioned around the hooks, causing them to sink when cast into the water.

″Meat fishing,″ said David McGraw, a resident of Dexter on the Black River. ″They snag them in the belly, or the head. I’ve seen them drag them in by the tail. I’ve seen them burn out their reels so they won’t turn anymore, so they just back up and drag the fish on shore like a tow truck.″

The fish are huge by freshwater standards. But experts say a Pacific salmon’s meat becomes soft and unappetizing as the fish’s life cycle ends. McGraw said he’s seen some salmon pulled out of the river with white eyes and fins. They are ″decomposing alive,″ he said.

And, due to pollution in Lake Ontario, New York state officials recommend that fishermen not eat the big Pacific salmon at all. Most anglers ignore the warning.

Some people insist that snagging is not even fishing.

The practice has been outlawed entirely or severely restricted in other Great Lakes states, said Cass Sliwa of the Chicago-based Salmon Unlimited fishing promotion group. His wife, Jean, secretary of Salmon Unlimited and an angler, called snagging ″very inhumane.″

″It is no fun,″ she said. ″Snagging is not a sport.″

Fishing ethics aside, snagging does nothing to make the salmon run along the Lake Ontario tributaries more civilized.

Russell McCullough, a senior wildlife biologist for the state, says the accidental snagging of fishermen or bystanders is a constant peril as the barbed hooks whiz this way and that through the air.

McGraw said one fishermen hooked another in the eye along the Black RIver in 1989. The offending angler snipped his line and rode away in a boat, leaving the other man to find his own way to the hospital, McGraw said.

The protocol of snagging calls for a fisherman to yell ″fish on 3/8″ when he hooks onto a salmon as a signal for the other anglers to keep their lines out of the way. But, with so many fishermen on the river, lines frequently get tangled and fish are lost. Or, two anglers sometimes hook the same fish at the same time.

Fistfights at river’s edge are not uncommon. Hassan said a ″near-riot situation″ occurred one weekend of the 1989 season in Pulaski as tempers flared.

″You get a breed of people who like to fight, who don’t care how they act. There’s no courtesy. There’s no common decency,″ McGraw said. ″It’s really an awful thing to see people doing this.″

More common than fisticuffs, according to Lt. William Shamey of the DEC, is the illegal taking of fish snagging in the areas of rivers where it is not allowed, or nighttime fishing, or the taking of too many fish.

The salmon season on the Black River that ends this Oct. 31 will be the last when fishermen will be allowed to snag salmon. In Pulaski, government and tourism officials have recently agreed with the state to phase out snagging on the Salmon River by the end of 1992. In the meantime, an education campaign will try to persuade fishermen that Pacific salmon can be taken with more conventional means such as lures and live bait.

″I doubt that we’ll see any diminished economy in this community,″ said Mayor Dan Briggs of Pulaski, where the annual salmon run brings an estimated $10 million into his community. ″I have a feeling that we’re not going to suffer at all.″

But many people argue that snaggers, and snagging, have unfairly acquired a bad reputation. Shamey said snagging is the only realistic way to take the salmon as their life cycle ends.

″You’re harvesting a resource rather than just letting it die,″ he said.

And Roberta Cook, manager of a Super Eight motel in Pulaski, said she has not noticed that snaggers are more disruptive than other anglers.

″I’ve had them all stay here and I can say that one is just as polite as the other,″ she said. ″On any Saturday night, if I’ve thrown out one for being rowdy, it’s not a fisherman. They’re all in bed. They get up at 4 a.m.″

State and local officials along the Black and Salmon rivers say they hope they can make anglers throw away their snaghooks and try to catch salmon with lures or live bait.

″You have to have faith in people,″ Shamey said. ″I think the first year we might have some trouble with the snagging ban there (the Black River). But I think if they’re down there fishing, taking fish conventionally, they’ll be satisfied.″

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