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Annual Spawning Run Inspires A Certain Madness

October 13, 1995

PULASKI, N.Y. (AP) _ Shadowy shapes swarm up the Salmon River, programmed to complete a simple mission: spawn and die.

The riverbanks teem with life, too. Men wearing rubber from chest to toe line up shoulder to shoulder. Lines lit by the sun arc in an aerial ballet from either shore. Fur-and-feather flies and rubber eggs rain down on the water.

This is the annual salmon run. It turns this tiny village north of Syracuse into a boom town, with prospectors angling for trophy fish rather than panning for gold.

Every autumn, thousands of chinook and coho salmon swim 18 miles from Lake Ontario to spawn where they were spawned, at a state hatchery in nearby Altmar. Thousands of anglers from as far away as the West Coast and Europe come to catch the salmon, as well as steelhead and brown trout.

What’s the big deal?

``Big fish,″ said Les Wedge, regional fisheries manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. ``There’s no place else you can get big fish like that. You could in Alaska, but it would cost a few thousand bucks just for travel. Here, a few hundred dollars covers everything.″

It’s not uncommon to catch chinooks weighing more than 30 pounds here. A 47-pound Great Lakes record chinook and a 33-pound world record coho were caught in the Salmon River in autumns past.

On a recent morning, spectators crowded the rails of bridges to watch the battle of wits, piscine versus human, and to debate ways of giving anglers the edge.

This year, the hot topic is snagging, or snatching. That is, hooking a fish in the fin, gills, tail or anywhere outside the mouth and hauling it ashore to keep.

The state Legislature banned the practice this year after five years of debate and court battles between the DEC and business owners in Pulaski, where fishing reels in an estimated $10 million a year.

The law also prohibits possession of weighted treble hooks _ the big, three-pronged hooks that are loaded with lead and dragged through the water to snag fish.

Fly fishermen were glad to see snagging end.

``It isn’t sportsmanlike,″ said Joe Bacher of Rochester. ``They snag everything, steelhead, brown trout. Those fish aren’t coming here to die (like spawning salmon are).″

``It’s dangerous,″ said Jeon Lee of Boston. ``I saw one guy get a three-pronged hook in his head.″

Some snaggers still are snagging, surreptitiously, Wedge said. Others have switched.

``I’m not happy about it, but what can you do?″ said Donald Barber, a former snagger who was casting a Mister Twister without success. Fishing with a single hook ``makes for a long day,″ he said.

Those who catered to the snagging crowd are disgusted with the new law and the small army of officers and office workers sent by the DEC to enforce it.

``It’s totally Gestapo tactics,″ said Don Andrews, owner of the D.A. and L.A. Lodge in Altmar, population 280.

``I’ve been trying to build up my business, and now they’re taking it away,″ said Shane Muckey, who opened a lodge in Altmar 18 months ago.

``This is a renewable resource being wasted,″ Muckey said. ``Those fish will just die and rot, float down the river and stink up the town.″

``Our taxes pay for these fish to be stocked, so people should be allowed to catch them any way they want,″ said Paul Hipple, Muckey’s partner.

The state has spent millions of dollars over the last two decades on stocking Pacific salmon in Lake Ontario. The idea was to curb the population of alewives, small fish eaten by salmon, and to create a fishing industry for tributary towns like Pulaski.

Both plans worked a bit too well.

The hatchery at Altmar started churning out salmon in 1970. When salmon fishing reached its peak in 1989, 93,000 chinooks were hauled out of the Salmon River, Wedge said. There were 10,000 anglers here on one October day.

By 1992, the number of chinooks caught had dropped to 53,000, Wedge said. Since then, the state has cut stocking to save the alewives, which were threatened by too many chinooks as well as disruptions in the food chain caused by Great Lakes cleanup efforts.

``For Lake Ontario, we stock 1 million chinook a year now,″ Wedge said. ``We used to stock 2.7 million.″

With fewer fish, each becomes more valuable.

``A fish can be caught more than once with catch-and-release,″ Wedge said. ``Snaggers take them home to eat.″

State health officials warn anglers to eat little or no fish from Lake Ontario and its tributaries because pollution has poisoned the flesh.

Snagging began because it was believed that spawning salmon wouldn’t bite a hook. The technique was downright genteel compared to other methods.

``When we started stocking in the ’70s, we assumed people would come up here with fishing equipment,″ Wedge said. ``Nope. They used ropes, rocks, clubs, spears, guns, knives.″

``One guy shot a fish right in the hatchery one night,″ Conservation Officer Ray Van Anden said.

Stories of fist fights and fishing injuries abound.

``I’ve charged people with larceny for stealing each other’s fish,″ Van Anden said. ``I’ve seen a guy blinded by a split shot in one eye. Another one almost drowned when he tackled a fish and his waders filled up.″

``Most of that’s in the past, though,″ Van Anden said. ``These people are becoming sportsmen.″

Wedge holds fishing workshops at the hatchery and helped produce a video and pamphlet on techniques for catching salmon.

``The fish do bite,″ he said. ``They take wooly buggers, maribou streamers, stone flies, egg-sucking leeches, imitation eggs, spinners, plugs.″

Rich Mainolfi, who moved from Connecticut to Pulaski four years ago to open his Yankee Fly and Tackle Shop, said he expects a different sort of fishing to flourish now that snagging is outlawed.

``I think we’ll see people coming who stayed away because snagging was so barbaric,″ Mainolfi said as he snipped skunk fur to make coal car flies.

``We have a world-class sportfishery here,″ said Mainolfi. ``I’ve fished from here to Alaska, Norway, Iceland, Europe. I see people here from all over. We rekindle acquaintances, talk about fishing.″

``Sometimes the least important thing about fishing is catching fish,″ Mainolfi said. ``A lot of it is about people, and just getting out on the river.″

End Adv For Weekend Editions Oct. 14-15

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