Salmon in NY waters have complex natural instincts

In northwestern New York, anglers flock to Orleans County in the fall to bring home pounds of salmon. Oak Orchard River and its small tributaries, Marsh and Johnson creeks, are among the most popular destinations for the species, as well as for brown trout and steelhead.

Chinook, or king, salmon are stocked in New York waters. These fish actually are Pacific salmon that are raised in state hatcheries, said Matt Sanderson, a regional fisheries biologist with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Brown trout and coho salmon also are stocked by the state.

New York has been stocking these species since the 1960s, and Anderson said it has become quite the sport fishery, especially in Lake Ontario and its tributaries.

“The salmon that are there are migrating up streams to spawn. The adults live in a large body of water, like Lake Ontario and in other Great Lakes, where they are stocked,” Sanderson said.

When the fish reach about 4 years old, they start migrating up the streams to which they were “born,” or, in this case, first stocked in.

“They do have a homing instinct and sometimes they will go right to the stream they were born to spawn and die,” he said.

All salmon spawn only once.

The “run,” as it commonly called by anglers, begins in October. The last of the fish spawn by early November.

The fish are raised in a hatchery beginning in October and, in April, are taken out to be stocked.

“We have two different methods we use to stock. One is a group of volunteers, fishermen, charter boat captains and other interested people will stock in large net pens they constructed,” Sanderson said.

That happens on tributaries of Lake Ontario, such as Oak Orchard River.

“Early to mid-April, volunteer groups feed the fish in the holding pens for about three weeks until the fish can grow and smolt,” Sanderson said.

Smolting refers to a stage of growth in salmon, in which it becomes covered in silvery scales and first migrates from fresh water.

“Salmon biology is they smolt in the pens and they will imprint to that particular water and could increase the likelihood they will migrate back up that tributary,” Sanderson said.

The other method of stocking is direct stocking in the tributary, done in early May.

The pen stocking method is said to help the fish survive in the lake, according to Sanderson.

“Right now we are in a study to determine whether raising fish in pens is better than directly stocking into the lake,” he said.

There is evidence, Sanderson said, that some of the non-native chinook salmon are reproducing naturally in the wild.

“A (stocked) chinook salmon would have the adipose fin removed. As part of a study, we mark all fish that we stock into Lake Ontario by clipping the adipose fin off by using a very expensive machine for all 1.8 million salmon stocked,” Sanderson said.

The adipose fin is a small fin on the top of the fish, in between the dorsal fin and the tail.

In the study, the DEC is trying to determine just how much of the population is naturally reproducing.

The Atlantic salmon is native to the waters of New York and should not be confused with the non-native species.

Sanderson said about 20,000 of those are stocked in Lake Ontario in a year.