Typically when most people think of New York, the first thought they have is of the City. Rarely if ever do folks stop to consider what else lies outside the deep walls of the office towers. My home is in The Finger Lakes of Upstate New York. Located half way between New York City and Buffalo, the region is named for the long thin lakes which resemble fingers when viewed from above.
These lakes offer an unusual fly fishing resource which is seldom considered one of America's Fly Fishing Top Fly Fishing Spots. It lacks some of the sizzle and sexiness of say the Madison or even a few of it's Eastern Cousins like the Beaverkill or Delaware.
At first glance, this area hardly seems like a fly fishing destination. No big lodges, no big name guides, no celebrity Cable TV shows filled with cameos of famous folks or sports heroes tossing dry flies to rising fish.
Right: Taughnock Falls, the Largest Waterfall east of Mississippi, 212 feet. Box canyons like this ( Gorges) surround many of the area's lakes.
The Finger Lakes is home to many things which make this an attractive place to fish and travel. By far one of the most attractive features is Upstate New York's wine country. The so called Banana Beach is an area along Seneca Lake which has mild winter temps ( but still lots of snow) that allow grapes to mature and keep over the winter. These vineyards and small local companies create some of the finest wines made by independent companies in the United States today. While not as glamous as it's Western California cousin, Napa Valley, this is a beautiful place to visit.
Tompkins County is home to Ithaca which has received numerous awards over the years for it's unusual and interesting character and charm. In past Ithaca has been considered as: "One of the Top 100 Small Communities in America," "One of America's Most Enlightened Communities" and was also chosen as one of "The Top 10 Places to Drop Out of Society." Ithaca is largely a college community in which most of the primary business and cultural activity centers around an Ivy League College ( Cornell University ), a small private college (Ithaca College) and a county area Community College ( TC3). Many notable personalities have called Ithaca their home: Rod Searling, Chris Reeves, Carl Sagan, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg and many other noted authors, artists, intellectuals and academics. This colorful community offers hotels, cultural events, restaurants and shopping to round out any fly fishing experience.
Tompkins County was also at one time a thriving film community. Several of silent era's films were made locally and many of the film stars lived in a small English Style Victorian Cottage community called Ludlowville. Perhaps the most famous title was called the "Perils of Pauline", in which the heroine was about to be cast over a falls. Today you can fish below this famous falls and catch wonderful native rainbow trout on even the hotest of summer days.
Below: Sunset on Cayuga Lake, Near Ithaca, NY.
The Finger Lakes are home to an unusal diversity of fish and are the source for the region's fishing opportunities. At one time the Finger Lakes was covered by a sea. In a glacial period, the movement of ice carved deep gorges which were later filled by fresh water as the glaciers melted, leaving beautiful alpine lakes. Many of the lakes reach depths of over 400-600 feet. It is interesting to note that all of our streams actually flow North to exit into Lake Ontario. This unusual movement is due to the large amount of glaical activity a long time ago.
Over the years, these lakes have been home to many unusal uses. One of the world's largest inland salt mines is below Cayuga Lake. The Cargill Mine is used today and salt is harvested which is used for winter snow removal throughout the region. One of the lakes was also used by General Electric during WWII to test submarine radar equipment. Through GE's efforts the lake's underwater topography was mapped and it was discovered that the lakes are actually several smaller lakes enclosed within a lake. It is also believed that underground channels exist which connect the lakes together. There are several stories that persist even today about the underwater monsters that live in the caves between the lakes and also stories about drownings in one lake with the body showing up in another lake.
Right: A Fall Scene of Ithaca Falls and a Pool Below which holds many types of fish.
Each year a season and cycle occurs with the lakes. Fish which live in the lake will move, migrate and begin the cycle of mating. These movements allow fly fishers the chance to catch many different types of fish in shallow streams which are connected to the lakes. As rains come in or snow melts, the rivers rise and fish seek out new places for spawning. In streams you can catch rainbow trout, brown trout, lake trout, salmon, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, bluegills, carp and suckers. Each species has it's own season and will move at different times. As the fish move they eventually stop at a barrier falls. Under these falls and in the surrounding areas lie the prime fishing locations. In almost every instance, resident fish will hold in these areas throughout the year.
Tributary streams of the Finger Lakes contribute a large portion of the area's fly fishing opportunities. When lake fish migrate into the streams, they either move all the way to the source of the stream or stop at a natural road block, which in the case of Ithaca, is a series of waterfalls. Quite simply, the fish can't jump the falls and so remain below to spawn. These tributary streams located near beautiful water falls are one of the best places to fly fish and enjoy the solitude, peacefulness and scenic wonder of the area.
Visitors may find another fly fishing opportunity in the many miles of inland trout streams surrounding area lakes. Some of these streams often lie within a series of glacial gorges and require rigorous hiking in order to locate the fishing opportunities. These upstream gorges support very tiny, delicate fisheries which do not tolerate large amounts of fishing pressure. While the fish caught in these gorges may only be 8-9", catching trout below a spectacular waterfall and hiking to dramatic vistas with 200 foot drops more than makes up for any lack of size. The experience of wonderful surroundings, hiking and fly fishing provides a combined recreational opportunity unparalleled in the Northeast.
Each gorge has its own personality: although some gorges possess better fisheries, others are more beautiful. The Ithaca area alone has 3 major state parks, 8 natural gorge areas with some 150 different waterfalls ranging is size from a few feet to several hundred feet. These main areas are: Taughannock Falls, Lucifer Falls, Buttermilk Falls, Ithaca Falls , Salmon Creek and the Inlet.
The largest free falling waterfall in the Northeast is Taughannock Falls. This 215 foot waterfall is higher than Niagara Falls. The surrounding area has a rim canyon which is some 400 feet across. Downstream is a small barrier falls which offers a productive fall and spring fishing spot for migratory Atlantic Salmon, Browns and Rainbows and Lake trout are often caught from the shoreline where this stream enters the lake.
Right: This is kind of smallmouth fly fishing you can expect in the Finger Lakes
In the 1920, Robert Treman donated 387 acres of land in the Enfield Glen to the State of New York. The Robert Treman Park is now about 1100 acres in size and has become part of the Finger Lakes State Park Commission. Running through the center of the park is Enfield Creek. The movement of the water from Enfield over many centuries has created the magnificent Lucifer Falls. A hike along the trails in this gorge allows you to directly view the brink of the falls and see it's steep plunge down. Many natural stair steps have been formed by years of erosion which also add many interesting plunge pools and small pockets of water within the Creek bed itself. Far downstream lies a large pool formed by the last of the large waterfalls in the Enfield Creek Gorge. This pool is used as a swimming beach during the summer months, but when the park's beaches are closed for the season, the pool may hold nice fish which can be caught in the fall or spring . The upper Enfield Creek area is also home to an original grain mill from 1800's which has been restored and contains a small display highlighting some of the history of the building.
Buttermilk Creek Falls is named for the 500 foot series of cascading falls creating the visual appearance of creamy milk rolling down the hillside. A natural pool at the base of the falls often holds migratory lake run fish that can be caught when fish are on the move. The area above the falls has many gorges and a steep hiking trail offering wonderful views of the surrounding area. In the interior of Buttermilk State Park, you can hike to a small lake full of native smallmouth bass. The trails which surround this lake make for difficult casting so these bass are best caught by patient casting from a float tube.
Left: This is a view of the Plumber's Pool below Ithaca Falls.
Located within the town of Ithaca itself is Ithaca Falls. Situated near the local high school, it is blessed with one of the Finger Lake's best runs of fall fishing. Over the years trophy salmon, smallmouth, browns and rainbows can all be caught during the annual spawning runs. If you plan on fishing this gorge be sure to bring along some heavy rain gear. The 175 foot waterfall which is over 100 feet wide creates a brisk spray for the unsuspecting visitor who is not prepared for the amount of water that the waterfall generates. Local fly fishers are often decked out in foul weather gear when fishing this spot as protection from the spray. In colder months many folks wear thick neoprene boots, wool fishing gloves and choose to layer jackets with thermal protection to keep warm. The base pool from Ithaca Falls also offers some of the area's best dry fly fishing opportunities during the spring and summer hatches of mayflies and caddis.
Salmon Creek Falls near Ludlowville was once the center of the silent movie industry. Many small film companies were headquartered near Ithaca and several of the movie stars made their homes in this historic small village, where large Victorian homes dot the roadsides. Scenes from the movie " The Perils of Pauline" were filmed near Salmon Creek Falls and in the gorge area. Large tackle busting rainbows have been caught during spring runs here and resident trout live year around in the gorge's dark plunge pools. Carefully searching for cold water sources and locations can be a productive way to catch fish in Salmon Creek and its environs.
Right: Picture of Ithaca Falls, Home to Fall Creek.
Some folks also enjoy boating and fishing some of the tributaries. You can canoe and kayak a few of the bays, although boating in the main body of any of these lakes are best left to power boats. You can fly fish the lake which during the summer can be very cold. Brisk winds and sudden squalls can create large waves and a surf that can be quite unpredictable and dangerous. The Inlet of Ithaca's Lake Cayuga is home to one of the world's largest inland marinas. At Allen Treman State Park you can walk along the the Inlet , fish and gaze out at the lighthouses and sailboats. In the spring local college and independent crew ( or rowing ) teams practice and hold races up and down the Inlet. Here you also have a chance to catch the very rare "Cayuga Lake Golden Carp". These fish are most likely wild golden koi that either escaped a student's aquarium or were released into the lake when the fish outgrew its surroundings. In any case they are quite beautiful and very hard to catch. I have yet to land one of these brutes on a dry fly
Spotty, unpredictable and always changing are words which may best describe this region's fishing. My experience has been these fish move in and out very quickly. If it is too warm, the water is too low or the moon is wrong ( or who knows why ), they move. For the best fishing experience, you need to be prepared to follow the fish or wait for conditions to change.
The most important factors to be concerned with when fishing for Finger Lakes' migratory fish are water flow, light, air temperatures and water clarity. If the stream is muddy, fish can't see the fly. If it is warm they are less active. If it hasn't rained, the stream is low and often the fish stay out in the lake. As a rule these lake fish normally live at depths of 40-60 feet of water and prefer conditions of cold weather and low light. I have seen the sun drop over the valley wall and the fish suddenly become active simply because the air temp dropped and the light is low.
One of the primary sources of forage for migratory Finger Lake's fish is alewives or sawbellies. These minnows are about an inch long and have a silver/white belly with a green back. These are one of the main foods for salmon, trout and bass. Many local streamer patterns are used to imitate these naturals. Typical patterns are size 4-8 and contain green, white or chartreuse colors. Bucktails, deep minnows and all sorts of interesting combinations have been developed over the years for these fishing conditions.
Eggs in sizes 6-10 are good solid fall or early spring bet. Nymphs, stoneflies and hellgrammites are also popular sources of forage and are good patterns to carry for fly fishing this region. Popular flies to use are wooly buggers, deep minnows, black stoneflies. Nymphs from size 12-16 are also useful in hare's ear patterns, red fox squirrel nymphs, zug bugs, prince nymphs and other popular patterns with or without beads. One of the most overlooked patterns by far are crawdads in sizes 6-8 during the first part of the summer.
Dry flies include: Cahills, Adams, Hendricksons, Quill Gordons, Elk Hair Caddis, Humpies, Ausable Wulffs in sizes 12-16. Terrestrial patterns include: ants in size 16-18, Hoppers in 8-10, Crickets in size 8-10 or Craneflies in size 6-8-10. Many of are streams have a large amount of pocket water so a heavly hackled fly that is a good floater may be just the ticket to get a nice spring strike when the bugs are on the streams. In some lakes ( Skaneateles Lake near Syracuse ) there are signficant hatches of hexes, brown drakes and green drakes. These can be size 6-8-10 and occur at the end of June and first part of July . Often these hatches extend about a month creating a wonderful fly fishing oportunity if you can time the hatch correctly. The skies can be literally black with bugs near dark.
For smallmouth and bass fishing I like to use Cork Poppers in size 4-8, Deep Minnows in size 4, Stoneflies and Wooly Buggers in size 6-8, Hellgrimites in size 6-8 and minnow patterns or streamers in size 4-8. Hair bugs in size 2-6 can be fun to use in frog, mice, diver or popping bug shapes. I also like to use a short sink tip or a bass taper on a 9' 6-8 weight rod. One good tip is to shorten your leader to 4' for poppers and also stiffen the leader to a 1x or 2x for nymphs and streamers. These fish aren't shy and will hammer flies hard. This can be a load of fun if the trout fishing is slow.
Phil Koon's Ithaca Area Mayfly Hatches
For many years Phil Koons has been a member ot the Leon Chandler Chapter of Trout Unlimited. He has served as past President of the chapter and one of Phil's favorite things has included an annual survey of bugs. With his survey, he has overtime developed a fairly good list of the hatches for streams in the Ithaca area. By using the flies I recommend above with Phil's chart you should be able to fish most of the hatches. Other area bugs that Phil didn't include were caddis, stonefly , craneflies and dobson flies.
Date / Time Name / Family Size / Color Habitat
Apr. 1 - May 1 Blue Winged Olive 16, 18 Riffles
10am - 2pm Baetidae Olive
Apr. 15 - May 10 Quill Gordon 12, 14 Riffles
1pm - 6pm Heptageniidae Dusty Olive
Apr. 15 - May 10 Hendrickson / Red Quill 12, 14, 16 Moderate
1pm - 6pm Ephemerellidae Varies: Tan - Dusty Pink riffles
May 10 - June 1 Pale Evening Dun 14, 16 Fast riffles
3pm - dark Ephemerellidae Pale dusty yellow
May 20 - June 10 Sulfur 16, 18 Slow rifffles
5pm - dark Ephemerelllidae Yellow
May 20 - June 15 March Brown 10, 12, 14 ( 2xl ) Eddies,
All day Heptageniidae Mottled Brown pool edges
May 30 - June 10 Green Drake 10, 12 ( 3xl ) Slow pools
All day Ephemeridae Mottled green
June 10 - Oct. 10 Leadwing Coachman 10, 12 Riffles
Isonychiidae Dark gray
June 10 - Oct. 10 Tiny Blue Winged Olive 20, 22 Riffles
Baetidae Pale olive gray
July - Sept. Tricos 22, 24 Slow runs,
Early morning Leptohyphidae Black body, white wings pools
Choosing the Right Tackle
Local fly fishers typically use 9 ' or 9'6" 6-8 weight rods for salmon fishing and switch to lighter 7-8' 3-4 weight rods for dry fly fish and gorge fishing. Often it is best if you get a good pair of hiking shoes and a pack if you plan to do much fishing in the gorges. I like to use a 4 or 7 piece pack rod for trips like this. Often I might break down the rod and do some hiking in or out of an area I want to fish. I also recommend that you have rain gear, fishing gloves and polar fleece handy. Many times gorge areas can be 20-30 degrees cooler than the surrounding area. I keep the rain jacket handy and put it on when it is cool out. In the fall when the leaves drop it is also strongly advisable to have a wading staff and cleats on your wading shoes as the rocks can become quite slick.
You never know what can happen while fishing in this region and in you always need to be prepared to alter even the best laid out plans. In one instance I was all geared up one evening to catch small trout on dry flies. I began casting with a small 3 weight rod when a knuckle busting 3-4 pound smallmouth struck my dry. Unpepared for battle, I had my hands full landing this hard charging fish on such light tackle
A word of caution. By their very nature gorges and waterfalls can be potentially dangerous. Many of these natural areas are just that-natural. They often do not contain guard rails, ropes or other safety barriers. This is not Disneyland or the Amusement Park. It is as it appears and isn't some video game. While it is very exciting to stand at the brink of a falls and look out 200 feet straight down. You should take your time, be careful and if something isn't quite to your liking don't do it. I have had followed my own advice, I would not slipped in a gorge and sustained a cut requiring 20 stitches. Each year there are accidents in these natural areas from folks who were not prepared or took unnecessary chances. Be careful, have fun and enjoy your visit to the beautiful place I call home. Also many of these areas actually do not allow you to leave the trail, all hiking must be on established trails. Be sure to check NY State Park regulations before entering any area. As a side note: I do not guide and have no intentions of guiding. Those that are looking to discover new areas to fish should consult Sander's Guide to Fly Fishing, Volume 2, Finger Lakes. These are often available on abebooks.com or ebay. You may contact me and I can get you started in some general locations. Many of our streams are very fragile and can not support alot of bad fishing practices. Please release all wild trout and all salmon.
For more info on the Ithaca area check out: www.visitithaca.com or www.iloveny.com.
For more Info Contact:
Mike Hogue / Badger Creek Fly Tying / 622 West Dryden Road, Freeville, NY 13068