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A Place Where Big Trout Grow

Anglers also net big salmon at Burt Dam in upstate New York

By: Eric Sharp, Detroit Free Press

BURT, N.Y. (MCT) - If you catch a 9-pound brown trout on a fly rod, you'd think you could expect some bragging rights. Not here at the Burt Dam, a couple of miles up 18 Mile Creek from Lake Ontario.

The 9-pound, 4-ounce brown (29 inches long) is my personal best on fly, nearly 2 pounds bigger than the previous personal-best brown I caught in New Zealand a few years ago. But in the past 20 minutes on this little tailwater stream, my rooster crest has been deflated by watching three other anglers land browns that are even bigger.

A 33-incher that pushes 15 pounds was caught on a single chartreuse egg fly by David Denzel. The retired orthopedic surgeon who lives on a farm a few minutes away likes to fish here for a couple of hours in the morning, when the crowds aren't too thick.

Denzel is fishing with a modest-priced Shakespeare Ugly Stick rod and an Okuma reel that would easily be within the budget of election icon Joe the Plumber. And the average flop-and-drop cast that he has to make is 15 feet.

"It took me 20 minutes to land him," Denzel says of the stunning fish with a viciously hooked jaw and big black and golden brown flanks that fade into a butter-colored belly.

He looks upstream at an angler fighting a big chinook salmon and says, "The king salmon are still pretty thick, but I don't really enjoy them. I fish down here where there's a better chance of catching a brown trout or a steelhead. The browns are just starting, and they'll get better in November and December. I fish them until I can't stand the cold anymore."

Denzel's 15-pounder isn't the biggest brown trout that someone has landed in this creek in the past three days. That was a 17-pound-plus fish whose picture is displayed in the Slippery Sinker tackle shop in nearby Olcott, N.Y. The picture is on the counter next to the 37-pound chinook that another angler caught the day before.

"The kings are all the way up to the dam, and they're mixed in with a lot of browns and steelhead," says Wes Walker, owner of the Slippery Sinker. "The browns are averaging 7 to 8 pounds, and the average salmon here is 22 to 28 pounds, although we see some that are 15 to 17.

"The good fishing for steelhead and brown trout starts next month and lasts right through the winter. The cohos usually start at the end of November and are here until Christmas."

Unlike Lake Michigan, where the prey base has been diminished greatly, and Lake Huron, where the prey base has virtually collapsed, Lake Ontario still holds huge numbers of baitfish and salmon grow to sizes that are now largely memories in Michigan.

But New York state also stocks a strain of sea run brown trout that, like their steelhead cousins, spend a couple of years feeding in the big lake and then return to coastal streams to spawn. The average brown trout from these streams would be a once-in-lifetime trophy on most Michigan trout rivers.

The same egg flies and nymphs in sizes 10 and 12 that work for salmon and steelhead in Michigan streams are good for the salmon, steelhead and browns here, along with small spawn sacks.

But many anglers still use big skeins of spawn and lures that Walker says are overkill and often not as effective. "A lot of these guys still think you have to use big stuff and snag them," Walker says. "I try to tell them to use small stuff, but some of them just won't listen."

Denzel began fishing salmon here 30 years ago when he used big, ugly weighted treble hooks called Michigan crickets. "Then we learned how to catch them on spinning rods and smaller lures," he says. "I got into fly-fishing for them a couple of years ago, and that's even more fun."

A half-dozen streams along a short stretch of Lake Ontario in western New York offer fabulous fly-and spin-fishing for big chinook salmon.

The fishing sites are about the same distance from Detroit as are Lake Michigan streams like the Pere Marquette and Manistee, a one-tank-of-gas jaunt just when the Michigan salmon runs are winding down.

But what draws many anglers here every fall and early winter are the huge, lake-run brown trout.

On western Lake Ontario, the best-known rivers with the easiest access are Johnson's Creek, Oak Orchard Creek and 18 Mile Creek (not to be confused with an excellent Lake Erie salmon stream of the same name 40 miles away). I like 18 Mile because it seems to get less pressure than the other streams if you can fish at midweek.

The direct-line distance between the Burt Dam and the mouth of the creek on Lake Ontario is less than two miles, and most of the salmon and trout fishing takes place in the half-mile stretch of fast water downstream.

On a recent Wednesday and Thursday, about 20 anglers ringed around the pool below the dam, where the water was roaring down a 40-foot concrete wall. They were hooking a lot of salmon.

Another 30 or so were working the half-mile of water downstream, easily waded riffles and pools where salmon and steelhead were thrashing about everywhere.

On this day about half of the 25 cars in the township-run parking area (fee $2) were from out of state, mostly Ohio and Pennsylvania. One of them had brought Dave Kardell and his friends from Pittsburgh to fish the pool below the dam.

"I've been coming here 15 years," Kardell says after releasing a big salmon. He holds the hook up and says, "Look how that fish straightened it out. I try different brands of hooks here, and if they bend, I stop using them."

His buddy, Randy Nesbitt, landed a fish in the high teens, released it and a few minutes later hooked and broke off another that would have bettered 25 pounds.

"We've each caught seven or eight salmon in two hours," he said. "I think that's a pretty good day."

Shawn Giordmaina lives in the Mississauga, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto whose tall buildings are visible from the beach at Olcott on clear evenings, 35 miles across the western end of Lake Ontario.

He and his friends are fishing with fly and center pin rods, drifting egg patterns and nymphs through a run where they hope there aren't as many salmon.

"The good rivers in Ontario are about the same distance from home as this place, but the fishing is better here," Giordmaina says. "I stay away from that mess up by the dam. There's more salmon there, but I could stand here all day and catch steelhead and be happy.

"On the rivers (in Canada), five or six fish is a good day. Here, five or six rainbows is a crappy morning."

Giordmaina stares at a half-dozen anglers scattered along a 150-year stretch upstream and adds, "I've never seen so many guys here on a weekday in my life. We'll come back in three weeks, and it will be empty."

© 2008, Detroit Free Press.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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