The lure of Chautauqua Lake

Eric DeFries, assistant manager at the Prendergast Creek State Fish Hatchery south of the Institution, has seen many changes in Chautauqua Lake’s fish population during his 26 years at the facility. The hatchery introduces 13,000 young muskies into the lake each year. Photo by Megan Tan.

Despite prime waters, rich tradition, interest in fishing wanes among Institution patrons

John Ford | Staff Writer


It has inspired some great minds, such as Washington Irving: “There is certainly something in angling that tends to produce a serenity of the mind.”

Or Henry David Thoreau: “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.

Or Dave Barry: “Fishing is boring, unless you catch an actual fish, and then it is disgusting.”

Or a man for these parlous economic times, Herbert Hoover: “Fishing is much more than fish. It is the great occasion when we may return to the fine simplicity of our forefathers.”

Chautauqua Lake is at our doorstep. It is plainly the Institution’s greatest natural resource. Its fish stocks have been monitored and generally maintained with skill and persistence for more than 100 years. The lake itself remains at risk, but Institution policymakers and others are directing increasing time and resources to reversing this disturbing trend.

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The lake has achieved wide renown for its muskie, walleye, bass, perch and many other species. It has been the subject of several national TV shows over the past five years. There are numerous fishing tournaments, which attract an estimated $10 million of annual business to Chautauqua County.

And yet, despite its proximity and abundance, our lake’s appeal to Chautauqua fishermen appears to have dimmed considerably. While power boaters, sailors and beach lovers fully embrace the lake’s charms, fishing seems to be lagging behind.

Richard Ulasewicz — known to all as “Uke” — has directed the Chautauqua Sports Club for 23 years. Gazing out at the Sports Club docks, he observed, “I’ve got around 140 boats moored out there. Maybe one or two of them are used for fishing.

“My greatest joy in this job is helping young people, and sometimes their grandfathers or their mothers, capture the joy of just plain fishing. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to be able to help a family bond over a fishing pole.”

Cynthia Vitters is convinced.

“I’ve been coming here for 22 years,” she said. “My son Liam, who’s 6, and my 11-year-old nephew Matt Schultz came down here to the docks the other day.”
Liam interrupted.

“Matt and I caught 38 fish the last couple of days,” he beamed.

His mom just smiled.

Uke chimed in.

“Since the new sailing center opened, we’ve had more time and space to encourage fishing. You can rent a pole from the Sports Club for $2 per hour, and I’ve even gotten in some worms for bait. And I’ll teach people how to take the fish off their hook.”

So if the opportunity is so accessible, why don’t more Chautauquans take advantage of it?

“I think a large part of the answer is that families don’t stay on the grounds as long as they used to do,” Uke said. “The shorter stays seem to squeeze out activities like fishing, which can reward patience.”

When Chautauquans do return to fishing in greater numbers, they will resume their place in a rich tradition. Fletcher “Ned” Ward, of Bemus Point, is a vocational historian with a busy day job. He is writing a history of the muskie hatcheries on Chautauqua Lake. He will be the featured speaker at a Bird, Tree & Garden Club lakefront walk evening program Aug. 8.

Eric DeFries has worked at the Prendergast Creek state fish hatchery for 26 years and lives next to it now. He and Ward can offer many insights on fishing and resource management on Chautauqua Lake.

“Efforts to conserve and replenish fish stocks in the lake began around 1887 with the formation of some concerned local groups,” DeFries said. “Hatcheries were located at various points around the lake, settling near the current Prendergast site in 1953.”

Ward noted that “poaching was big business on Chautauqua Lake over 100 years ago. In the 1903 U.S. Fish Commission census, for instance, the lake’s ‘official’ reported muskie catch for the previous year was 85,400 pounds. The real total for that year was 199,500 pounds, with illegal spearing accounting for much of the difference.

“For many years, through the Great Depression, muskies caught in Chautauqua Lake were prized throughout the country,” Ward said. “There was a big business in shipping them to New York City and even to the West.“

Tastes have changed with the passage of time, and muskies are now favored more by sport fishermen because they put up a good fight once they are hooked. Most fishermen catch and release the muskies.

Ward explained how replenishment efforts have evolved.

“For several years, the hatchery fertilized 10 to 12 million eggs each spring,” he said. “The eggs were released into the lake, where they lay on the bottom until achieving enough buoyancy to rise to the surface.”

However, he said this method was unsuccessful.

“Officials found they were just enriching the diet of other fish in the lake, and few muskies survived,” Ward said.

The hatchery changed its methods, DeFries said.

“Now we harvest eggs at the beginning of May and fertilize 600,000 of them in incubator trays,” he said. “It takes them 10 days to hatch. Then we place the hatchlings in large troughs, in groups of eight to ten thousand. Budget constraints have led us to switch to dry feed, and after trying several different kinds, we think we’ve found a type they like.

“We still use brine shrimp at the earliest stages of development, then dry feed of increasing size as the fish grow, and later, minnows when the muskies are placed in our ponds.”

At about 5.5 inches and after three months indoors at the hatchery, the young fish are transferred to one of the six Muskie ponds on the hatchery grounds.

In the autumn, the hatchery is ready to release around 13,000 muskies into Chautauqua Lake. Another 9,000 muskies are sent to other Chautauqua County lakes, and some are occasionally exported to neighboring states.

DeFries said the muskie population in Chautauqua Lake has remained fairly steady for several years. He estimates 75 percent of the lake’s muskie population is from the hatchery; this can be monitored because the hatchery clips a fin from its graduates.

The fish population in the lake is “pretty good overall,” DeFries said.

“Perch are more plentiful than at any time in the past 30 years,” he said. “Bass, catfish, panfish such as sunfish and crappies — they’re all pretty steady. We release 130,000 walleyes into the lake each year, so they’re out there.”

But the walleyes, prized for their delectable taste, are not being caught. State fish managers and local fishermen disagree about why fishermen aren’t catching many walleyes, but they concur that few are being taken.

“Part of the reason may be that walleyes are bottom-feeders and less aggressive than muskies,” said Mike Sperry, now in his fifth year as a fishing guide and with 35 years of experience fishing on the lake. “The best walleye fishing is often at night.”

Sperry, who has consulted on or participated in several recent “Versus” network fishing shows featuring Chautauqua Lake, is one of only a half dozen full-time lake guides. He runs a winter snow plow business to supplement his income.

Anchored off Whitney Bay in Magnolia just south of the Institution on a recent bright morning, Sperry said around 80 percent of his charters are for muskies.

“Our customers love the fight in them,” he said.

Most also prefer the lake north of the Stow ferry.

“The water is over twice as deep up here than further south toward Jamestown,” Sperry said. “The lake’s evolution has produced a soup bowl effect at the southern end.” Sperry and some other guides often swap information on where the day’s best fishing is likely to be.

There are fewer than half a dozen fish and game wardens for Chautauqua County, and they mostly check for up-to-date licenses, Sperry said.

Methods were more unconventional a century ago. Ward’s research revealed that John Potter, a prominent local figure who later became Chautauqua postmaster and an Institution trustee, would often venture out in the lake in a rowboat, accompanied by two comely females.

“He’d have one of the women inquire how the fishermen were doing,” Ward said. “When they would proudly show off their excessive haul, Potter would make an arrest.”

If experts say fish stocks are relatively plentiful in Chautauqua Lake, how is the lake itself?

“It’s at risk,” said Greg Antemann, a Charlotte, N.C., ecosystem restoration specialist who spent his boyhood summers in Chautauqua, worked for six years at the Sports Club and wrote his master’s thesis on the health of the Chautauqua Lake.

“The EPA put Chautauqua Lake on its ‘303(d)’ list last year,” Antemann said. “The designation means a body of water has impairment which could affect its use — in this case, as a recreational site. The designation is basically an early warning signal. The listed culprit is phosphorus, and the sources are agriculture, wastewater, septic flow — the usual suspects. The lake is described as ‘eutrophic.’ That means its upper water layers permit green plant growth.”

Mike Clancy, New York state regional fisheries manager, said he concurs. He’s been following Chautauqua Lake as a supervisory biologist for six years, and for 16 before that with the Department of Environmental Conservation.

“Like many lakes, Chautauqua fluctuates,” he said. “Some years, you get a big algae bloom; some, not so much. What we call nutrient loading from runoff is prevalent. The lake is pretty intensively developed, and local groups are cooperating with the state to buy up what hasn’t been developed yet. Chautauqua Lake isn’t critical at this point. We need to stay vigilant.”

Meanwhile, Chautauquan Tim Steitz and his family have been approaching the lake from a different perspective.

In a recent email to the Daily, he said, “We fish frequently off the docks with our little Superman and Barbie fishing poles, catching perch up to 10 inches and other panfish this year. Because of the abundance of fish in the lake that also are easy to catch, it has been something our children have enjoyed since they were very young and has become another one of our many wonderful Chautauqua experiences together.”