From the 12 August 2005 New York Outdoor NewsPART OF NY HISTORY, THE ERIE CANAL OFFERS FINE FISHING, TOO
By Bob Confer
More often than not, the lack of accessibility to fishable water is cited as the key reason why many people don’t fish on a regular basis. But, there exists a body of water in New York State which can readily smash this misconception. It traverses the state for some 350 miles, is connected to over 170 more miles of networked waterways, supports hundreds of miles of adjoining trails, and is within 25 miles of 80% of the upstate population. This accessible, marvelous water way is none other than the Erie Canal.
The most famed portion of the 524-mile New York State Canal System, the Erie Canal was opened in 1825, serving as that century’s key trade route, opening up the West to settlement and economic development. It sped the flow of resources from the Midwest to the Atlantic and within 15 years of its opening made New York City the busiest port in the America’s, moving more goods than Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans combined.
With its economic boom long since gone thanks to rail, roads, and air, the Canal has made a comfortable transformation to a recreational destination. Numerous towns dot the waterway, many of which tout the Canal’s uniqueness and their own historical quaintness. Boats of all types and sizes frequent the Canal. Hikers, bikers, and joggers have made the adjoining trail system a very popular stop. The Canal is now managed by the New York State Thruway Authority, an organization that has made a concerted effort to market the waterway both nationally and internationally.
Despite the Canal’s recreational uses being well-known and well-advertised, one of the greatest recreational pursuits of all-time – fishing – has become an afterthought. The Canal is perceived by many anglers to be a dirty waterway, devoid of all but rough fish. It is also looked upon as a poor angling choice due to its artificial and uniform channel-like appearance. Adding further to this stigma is the fact the Canal is drawn down or dewatered every winter, which tends to make one believe a healthy fishery could not be sustained.
Such stereotypes are unfounded. Michael Wilkinson, Senior Aquatic Biologist for the Department of Environmental Conservation says, "although the Canal does not appear "overly" fishy in some sections it does provide fishing opportunities…smallmouth bass, rock bass, and sheepshead are quite common." You will also find a smattering of largemouth bass, walleye, northern pike and crappies throughout the Canal. Furthermore, being that it is book-ended by the Upper Niagara River and the Hudson River, and fed by numerous waters in between, the Canal has become home to any number of fish that frequent those waters. So, the occasional hook-up with trout, salmon, or even muskellunge is not out of the question.
More than just quantity, the Canal produces quality as well. For proof, one need look no further than the leader board in 2004’s Erie Canal Derby, an family-style event that has been going on since 1991. Last year, anglers in Niagara and Orleans county caught a 4 pound smallmouth bass, a 5 pound pike, and an 8 pound walleye; all decent fish no matter the water!
Not only do you have an endless supply of fish to chase, you have a nearly endless means by which to do so. Totally unlike the situation with most bodies of water within our borders, the land-based angler has an incredible amount of access. The entire canal system supports over 240 miles of trails, including the continuous 100-mile long Heritage Trail that runs through Western New York. Entrance to these trails can be had at any number of bridges in the 200 villages, hamlets and cities that border the Canal. A good portion of the shoreline along these trails is tree-free, affording the chance to cast to your heart’s content. Such ease of accessibility coupled with a rather refined environment – many of the trails are of well-maintained soft gravel – makes a trip to the Canal a great place to get youngsters into fishing. This is further proved by the founding tenets of the aforementioned Erie Canal Fishing Derby. When asked about this increasingly popular derby, founder Steve Harrington said, "Just about anywhere you go there is plenty of accessibility to fish the Canal because of its banks. Whether young or old, disabled or handicapped, you can fish and have fun." He added that the Canal’s accessibility and the derby "brings families together, getting them to do something together for enjoyment".
Much more than just a shoreline fishing destination, boating can be another peaceful means by which to fish the Erie Canal. It is navigable May through October and there are over 80 public and private marinas throughout the state. A pass is required by all motorized boats and there are certain periods when the Canal is open for business, giving larger boats the chance to navigate through the locks and under lift bridges. So, before hitting the water make sure to do some research via the Thruway Authority’s website, www.canals.state.ny.us
Getting to the fish is easy. Catching the fish is just as easy. Much of the canal’s fairly uniform shoreline is supported by large rocks that were deposited by those who toiled in the Canal’s construction. These rocks provide shelter to very healthy populations of crayfish and minnows that ultimately end up supporting the upper end of the aquatic food chain. Therefore, to catch the Canal’s gamefish bounty it is imperative that you offer an attractive presentation in such rocks, and there are no better lures for this task than soft plastic twisters and crankbaits.
The old stand-by of many a tacklebox - 3" white twisters - work wonders in the Canal. They can be slowly bounced among the rocks, getting into the cracks and crevices where the crayfish hide and the bass and walleyes hunt. Hang-ups will be numerous, as is always the case when jigging in rocks, but break–offs will be minimal. By walking upstream or downstream it is very easy to dislodge your jig.
Small, crayfish-hued crankbaits work equally as well in the Canal. The best method is to walk the shoreline and cast downstream - parallel to the shore - retrieving the crankbait rapidly and bouncing it off the rocks in five feet of water or less. This method will produce smallmouths all day and walleyes at dawn and dusk.
Other methods work quite well, too. In the dog days of Summer, small surface lures cast in the shallows prove quite effective on bass in the evening. Live worms and minnows jigged amongst the rocks or besides structural walls under bridges, docks and guard gates has produced many a decent fish. Spinners cast along the shoreline are great at catching bass, but, beware, they are more apt to snag as compared to the more buoyant crankbaits.
The Erie Canal is truly an asset to New York State. It helped make us what we are, one of the most powerful economies in the world. It offers unlimited recreational potential and historical value. And, it is home to a very diverse, very exciting, and very accessible fishery, one that will please everyone, from the youngest of anglers to the most-experienced of outdoorsmen. So, get out and enjoy what the Erie Canal has to offer. You won’t be disappointed.