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Salmon River Corridor

The Salmon River Corridor/Watershed is located in northern New York midway between the cities of Watertown and Syracuse. The area drains approximately 280 square miles of forested, agricultural and rural residential lands on the western slopes of the Tug Hill Plateau, in Oswego, Lewis, Jefferson (and a small area of Oneida) counties and discharges into eastern Lake Ontario. The watershed is extensively forested and supports world-class salmon and trout fisheries. It is the largest of New York's cold water tributaries to Lake Ontario.

Map of the Salmon River and Tributaries
Salmon River and Tributaries

The Salmon River system is one of several that form the radial stream drainages of the Tug Hill Plateau, a landform that slopes gently upward and eastward from the Ontario Lake Plain to an elevation of 2100 feet in the east-central portion of the region. Elevations of the Salmon River watershed range from 1900 feet at the upper headwaters to 250 feet at the Salmon River mouth on eastern Lake Ontario.

Water Resources

The greater Tug Hill, in which the Salmon River corridor is located, is a region where exceptionally good water quality exist due to an overall lack of impervious surface and because of high levels of forest cover. The region contains over 4000 miles of rivers and streams, 117,000 acres of wetlands and one of the largest (121,000 acres) intact forest blocks in the state. The abundance of water resources within the Tug Hill region is attributed, in part, to the 42-50 inches of precipitation that fall annually across the region. Lake effect precipitation delivers more than half of the annual precipitation and results in high seasonal variation of stream flow. Consequently an abundance of water is available during most of the year to sustain the extensive wetland systems, high velocity streams and eroded gulfs of the region.

Fishing on the Salmon River
Fishing on the Salmon River

The exceptional water quality of the Salmon River supports a world-class fishery. The Salmon River, along with its tributaries Trout Brook, Orwell Brook and Beaver dam Brook, is classified by NYSDEC as a Class C(t)- a designation for fishing, recreation use, and fish propagation and survival. The river is stocked with more than 412,000 fish, including brown and brook trout, steelhead rainbow trout, and Chinook and coho salmon. The fishery represents a significant local economic resource. In 2005 the Salmon River accounted for 30% of the total angler trips and 60% of the total angler effort (angler hours for all New York tributaries to Lake Ontario) (Prindle et al).

Freshwater Estuary and Dune System

The 270 acre Salmon River Freshwater Estuary is a system of open waters and marshes located at the mouth of the Salmon River at Port Ontario. The system is bounded by carrier dunes at Lake Ontario to the west, and by the last river riffle in the Salmon River. Some of these lands are owned by the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, some by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and some are privately owned.

Salmon River Gorge

Salmon River Falls, Altmar, NY
Salmon River Falls

The Salmon River Gorge begins at the 110 foot high falls and continues downstream for approximately 3000 feet. The Gorge includes 120 foot high sheer cliffs and talus slopes that support unique plant assemblages and several rare plant species. The 112 acres immediately surrounding the falls and gorge was purchased by the State of New York in 1993 and is currently managed as the Salmon River Falls Unique Area by the DEC.

Fisheries

The Salmon River has a long history as a prolific fishing resource dating back to the Native Americans of the Iroquois Confederacy, whose name for the river means "where swim the sweet fish." As early as 1657 Jesuit missionaries witnessed Iroquois fisherman hauling boatloads of salmon from the river, and the economy of the first white settlement founded in 1801 was based in large part on fishing. Well into the late 19th century the Salmon River was among the most productive native salmon-producing tributaries to Lake Ontario. Abuses occurring in both the lake and within the watershed, though, greatly altered the fishery resource of the river prior to the 1900s. Lake Ontario originally supported two top predatory species: the Atlantic salmon and the lake trout. A number of factors led to the collapse of these species' populations, including over-fishing, deforestation, loss of alteration of spawning habitat within the tributaries (for migratory Atlantic salmon), and inhibition of spawning migrations by dam construction. Another factor causing the decline of Atlantic salmon was the introduction of alewife to Lake Ontario. The eventual loss of predatory fish in the Great Lakes led to an overpopulation of alewives and rainbow smelt; and in order to reestablish predatory control in Lake Ontario, Pacific salmon were stocked in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The DEC responded to the failure of salmon stocks to reach self-sustaining levels by constructing the Salmon River Hatchery in Altmar. Since 1981 the Altmar hatchery has supplemented fluctuations in salmoides productivity and currently stocks Chinook, coho, steelhead and Atlantic salmon. The hatchery has created a year round fishery and is currently a fundamental resource for maintaining the sport fishing industry. The Pacific salmoides have shown excellent growth and reproductive capacity in some tributaries of the Great Lakes, including the Salmon River.

The interior of the Salmon River Hatchery building

By the early 1980s, natural reproduction of Pacific salmoides was documented in the Salmon River system, and within a decade this system was estimated to be the leading Lake Ontario tributary for naturally spawned salmon. Excellent juvenile habitat and barrier-free spawning routes within the Salmon River watershed would permit reintroduction of Atlantic salmon. Based on a recent analysis using introduced rainbow trout, which as similar habitat requirements as Atlantic salmon, as a surrogate, abundant spawning and juvenile habitat exist for Atlantic salmon within the watershed (McKenna and Johnson 2005). However, the continued presence of alewife within the Great Lakes system would likely continue to limit the ability of Atlantic salmon to establish a self-sustaining population.

Fishing the Salmon River
Fishing the Salmon River

Today sports enthusiasts converge in the area, especially in autumn, to reel in several varieties of salmon swimming upstream to their spawning grounds. Significant economic activity results from anglers visiting the watershed from outside the region, the state and the US. The regional fishing industry includes guide services, river and lake charters, fish cleaning, bait shops, restaurants and motels. The fishing industry is active year-round to cater to salmon fishing in the lower reaches of the Main Stem and the major tributaries, trout fishing in the cold headwaters of the upper watershed, warm water bass fishing as well as ice fishing on the freshwater estuary and the reservoirs, and lake fishing from Port Ontario.

Substantial risks to the fishing industry are posed by fish pathogens, invasive fish (such as carp, gobies, and lamprey). Other concerns that challenge long-term management of the fishing industry include potential over-fishing stream and destabilization and erosion due to excessive use, loss of public access on private lands, pollution and contamination by toxins and surface water and groundwater withdrawals.

Recreation and Tourism

Outdoor recreation is a vital component of the economy in the Salmon River corridor, as well as in the greater Tug Hill region. Recreational opportunities include: hunting, trapping, fishing, hiking, camping and nature study. Many individuals canoe on the region's small open waters and calm streams, boat from Port Ontario, and raft on the Salmon River when recreational releases of waters from the reservoirs permit. In addition, many hunting clubs include members who travel to the region from elsewhere. Other low-impact recreational uses of the watershed's resources include bird watching, hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Snowmobiling is popular in the winter.

Salmon River Corridor's Office

Because of its unique importance as a natural resource and its ability to improve the economic opportunities of the area through tourism and recreation, the DEC created the Salmon River Corridor's Office which is housed at the Salmon River Hatchery. The Special Assistant to the Salmon River, is a one-person office based out of the Salmon River Hatchery in Altmar. The position is tasked with the following duties:

  • Serve as staff advisor to the DEC regarding policy, regulation, legislation, programs and public information about the Salmon River resource, including its fishery and ecology.
  • Represent the DEC at hearings, conferences, meetings and other occasions where issues pertaining to the Salmon River are considered.
  • Assist in the development of a year-round sport fishery on the Salmon River, including Atlantic salmon.
  • Serve as liaison to Salmon River communities; environmental, sporting and conservation groups; institutions (schools, civic organizations, governments), businesses, National Grid, and other utilities and individuals.
  • Develop and implement an outdoor education component to the public facilities at the Salmon River Hatchery, featuring the resources of the Salmon River and eastern Lake Ontario tributaries.
  • Develop and implement a public information program to educate the public on all aspects of the Salmon River and its ecosystem.

Forests and Forestry

The watershed possesses a working forest landscape that is vital to the local forest products industry. Forest lands include a mix of private and public holdings. The extensive forest cover throughout the watershed is fundamental to sustaining the water quality and habitat that is necessary to maintain the region's fisheries, and it contributes to the large, un-fragmented core forest landscape of the Tug Hill. Ten state forests exist in the watershed: Salmon River State Forest, Altmar State Forest, Kasoag State Forest, Battle Hill State Forest, Chateaugay State Forest, Hall Island State Forest, O'Hara State Forest, Sandy Creek State Forest, and Trout Brook State Forest.

Sandy Creek State Forest
Sandy Creek State Forest

In 2009 the DEC began work on the Upper Salmon River Unit Management Plan which will cover the Salmon River, O'Hara, Hall Island, Battle Hill and West Osceola state forests. The unit will also include the 36 acre Jackson Road fishing access site and 151 acres of conservation easement lands covering Huckleberry and Burdick Island in the Salmon River Reservoir. Another 675 acres of land to be acquired in a pending acquisition from National Grid is part of this unit as well. These lands are located near the village of Redfield in the towns of Orwell, Redfield, Osceola and Florence.

Possible Threats to the Corridor

Priority issues in the watershed include the continued protection and sustainable management of its excellent fisheries and extensive forests; ongoing commitment to a viable tourism and recreation industry; management and protection of the substantial wetland systems in the watershed, some of which support rare species; protection of the abundant, clean freshwater resources; maintenance of the rural character and open spaces in the watershed; and maintaining the ability of the watershed's resources to adapt and recover in the face of large-scale threats such as global climate change, invasive species, and atmospheric deposition of acid, nitrogen and mercury.

Emerald Ash Borer
Emerald Ash Borer, an invasive species

Seven critical areas have been identified that could profoundly affect the condition of conservation efforts in the corridor. They are:

  • Invasive Species including several aquatic and terrestrial plants and some fish.
  • Regional and Global Issues like atmospheric deposition of acid, nitrogen and mercury, global climate change and water level regulation of Lake Ontario
  • Altered Hydrology that would reduce base flow in headwaters and higher order streams of the watershed, increasing surface water temperatures and reducing wetland areas and saturation levels
  • Land Cover/Land Use Changes including sprawling development, roads and utility rights-of-way, dams and stream crossings by roads that lead to loss or fragmentation of stream networks, wetlands and forest
  • Physical Habitat Disturbances which occur when soil or vegetation is disturbed or basic habitat structure altered. This includes streamside soil disturbance by ATVs, livestock, and over- use by anglers, flooding by beaver, clearing for development or streamside access and views and unmitigated forest management practices
  • Pollution and Sedimentation including all point and non-point sources of nutrients, toxins and other forms of pollution, as well as erosion, run-off and other types of sedimentation, including poorly functioning septic systems, urban runoff, industrial point sources and agricultural and forestry practices that do not meet recognized best management practices for water quality
  • Pest, Pathogens and Diseases that threaten the health and productivity of fish, wildlife and forest species. These include viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS), type E botulism, viburnum leaf beetle, beech bark disease complex, sirex woodwasp, eastern and forest tent caterpillars, emerald ash borer, Asian long horned beetle, and hemlock wooly adelgid.
Atlantic Salmon being sized by DEC Fisheries staff
An Atlantic Salmon being sized by DEC staff

Overall the Salmon River corridor is in excellent condition, presenting a great opportunity to protect the area's significant natural resources before they are lost or degraded. The corridor has a variety of large landowners whose decisions could affect extensive portions of the system. Opportunities exist to work with these large landowners and to help them think about their property management decisions. There is strong local support for maintaining the character and environmental quality of the Salmon River basin.

Information and Resources

Maps

There is a great deal of information on the Salmon River Corridor. A general map of the Salmon River Area shows good places to fish.

Oswego Harbor Wrights Landing Marina (PDF) (277 kB)

Mexico Point Boat Launch (PDF) (142 kB)

Pine Grove Access (PDF) (171 kB)

Lake Ontario Accessible Sites Map (PDF) (275 kB)

Oswego River Accessible Sites Map (PDF) (320 kB)

Salmon River Accessible Sites Map (PDF) (326 kB)

Salmon River Reservoir Accessible Sites Map (PDF) (230 kB)

Reports and Research

Salmon River Watershed Natural Resources Assessment- Part I (PDF) 61 pages, 2.7 mB

Salmon River Watershed Natural Resources Assessment- Part II (PDF) 212 pages, 4.7 mB

Salmon River Watershed Natural Resources Viability Analysis Part I (PDF) 134 pages, 4.2 mB

Salmon River Watershed Natural Resources Viability Analysis Part II (PDF) 129 pages, 3.2 mB

Salmon River Greenway Corridor Community Enhancement Project Part I (PDF) 17 pages, 3.8 mB

Salmon River Greenway Corridor Community Enhancement Project Part II (PDF) 9 pages, 4.9 mB

Forests and Accessible Locations

The Salmon River Hatchery is a popular tourist stop for those coming to the corridor. Up the road from the hatchery are the Salmon River State Forest and the Salmon River Falls Unique Area, popular with hikers. For those with mobility impairments Access for Anglers with Disabilities , Accessibility at the Salmon River Falls area, the Redfield Accessible Platform and Accessible Recreation Designations in Region 7 offer helpful information.

Fish, Fishing Locations and Fish Health Advisories

The Salmon River, the Salmon River Reservoir, and the Lighthouse Hill Reservoir are popular fishing spots in the Salmon River Corridor. The DEC offers weekly updates on fishing opportunities through its Central New York Fishing Hotline. Fishing Rights Maps are available so that people know where easements in the corridor exist to legally fish. Information on the Salmon of New York will help one in identifying different salmon found in the corridor. Other fishing information available includes: Redfield access platform and steelhead fishing in the tributaries. Fish Health Advisories informs people as to what fish they can and should not eat.

Fish Stocking, Identifying Fish, and Special Fishing Regulations

A Freshwater Fish Gallery and information on similarities and differences among NYS Salmon provide educational information for those who are starting to fish. Current fish stocking in Oswego County and special fishing regulations for Oswego County contain important information for those who plan on fishing in the corridor.

Further Information

For further information, contact Fran Verdoliva, Special Assistant to the Salmon River, at 315-298-7605.