By Indrek Kongats
Walleye is the king of freshwater sportfish when it comes to the best table fare. Nothing beats pan fried or beer battered fillets of walleye freshly- caught, prepared and served with some fries and coleslaw, otherwise known as fish and chips. Very few restaurants offer this delightfully tasty species of the perch family, so you are best to catch your own.
The best time to catch walleye is during the winter months through the ice, and sportfishermen living in western New York have a couple of the best walleye lakes on their doorsteps: Chautauqua Lake and the Kinzua Reservoir, each with their unique attributes and quirks.
Chautauqua Lake lies between Jamestown and Mayville in southwestern New York. Route 17 crosses the lake, which is eight miles from I-90, Exit 60, at Westfield.
According to the DEC, “Chautauqua Lake is the largest inland lake in western New York. It’s one of the highest navigable waters in North America and is divided into two basins of nearly equal size by Bemus Point.” At an elevation of 1,308 feet above sea level and 13,156 acres in size, Chautauqua Lake is one of the most unique walleye lakes around and gets honorable mention as one of the top walleye hotspots in the USA.
Chautauqua has ideal water depths for walleye — shallow gravel shoals for spawning and deep water pockets offering comfortable, cooler water temperatures in the heat of the summer. The once-abundant naturally reproducing walleye declined in the 90s, prompting an annual stocking program of 250,000 fingerlings.
Ice fishing for walleye is generally best in Chautauqua’s north basin. Due to its deeper water and more diverse habitat, anglers will set up over a rocky or gravel bottom at depths ranging from 20 to 50 feet. The area off Prendergast Point is a good example. Other good areas include the Warner Bar, Bell Tower, Dewittville, Mission Meadows, Long Point, Victoria and Magnolia and Ashville Bay in the southern basin with numerous convenient public access points.
Two access sites are available at Bemus Point, including Long Point State Park on Route 430, one mile west of the village, and at Lake Chautauqua State Park on Route 430 between Bemus Point and Maple Springs. Prendergast Point is a popular west-shore access site off Route 394 behind the fish hatchery. The Mayville Village Park also provides access for winter anglers.
Fishing regulations for Chautauqua are as follows: Season runs from the first Saturday in May until the 15th of March, with a three fish limit and minimum size of 18 inches. As the ice has already started to form (late December) on the lake, the ice fishing season has begun and will last through to March 15th if the ice holds up.
For up to the minute images of the lake ice visit: http://www.wunderground.com/webcams/towerclimber/1/show.htm
The Kinzua Reservoir is another top walleye hotspot. Located in part in Cattaraugus County and in part in Pennsylvania, it is all part of the Allegheny River system and has produced record-setting monster walleye in the 16-plus pound range. The current Kinzua record and Pennsylvania state record was caught by Mike Holly of Bradford in 1980 through the ice at 17 pounds, 9 ounces, 36.5 inches. On the New York side, the Kinzua record sits at 16 pounds 7 ounces, 34 inches, caught in 1994. The current NYS record, although not caught from the Kinzua waters, is 16 pounds 9 ounces, caught in 2009 in Mystic Lake in Cattaraugus County.
The Kinzua Reservoir sits just south of I-86 bordering the west side of Allegany State Park. The reservoir was created in 1965, with the construction of the Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River flooding over 10,000 acres. In order to fish anywhere and everywhere on the Kinzua, you are required to hold three separate fishing licenses for the various sections governed by New York State, the Seneca Nations and Pennsylvania State. You need to check with each for current fishing regulations. Access points are at the numerous boat launch sites scattered the length of the reservoir in both New York and Pennsylvania.
The Seneca Nation’s Fish and Wildlife Department is responsible for the Kinzua’s healthy walleye population, gathering walleye eggs in the spring and raising them at their hatchery. They release annually almost two million fry back to the reservoir. Every fall, the reservoir’s waters are drawn down and the walleye move down from the Nation’s waters and concentrate in the deeper water just before the dam in Pennsylvania— here, ice fishing for walleyes is excellent. No motorized vehicles, such as snowmobiles and ATVs, are allowed on the ice, so travel across the frozen Kinzua is only on foot.
The best ice fishing methods for walleye on both Chautauqua and the Kinzua include jigging and using tip-ups. Jigging involves the use of a jigging rod and a small jigging spoon or lure, which is often tipped with a piece of dead bait. The jig is designed to dart around in different directions when it is jerked up and down by the angler.
The tip-up is basically a spool on a stick holding a line suspended through a hole in the ice. When the fish takes the bait, the stick tips up to indicate a hook up. The favorite bait to be used in conjunction with a tip-up is a live shiner minnow around 4 inches in size. These live baits are set about a foot off of the bottom.
Ice fishing can be risky in the early winter weeks, so make sure the ice is sufficiently thick enough to hold your weight. The general rule of thumb according the Farmer’s Almanac is that ice less than 3 inches is not safe, 3-4 inches is safe for one person, over 4 inches if you are in a group and over 7.5 inches if you drive onto the ice in your car. It is always a good idea to check with local bait shops or lakeside businesses that know about the ice conditions before you venture out.