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Local Sports

June 1, 2012

Otsego bass are a thing of the past

Many early mornings and evenings were spent trolling on Cooperstown Lake for Otsego bass back in the 1960s and 70s. By hanging our arms over the side of the boat and constantly pulling the heavy line forward and letting it drift back, the action of our lure would attract the fish.

When I speak of Otsego bass, most of you probably think of largemouth or smallmouth bass. But the old Otsego bass was not a bass at all; it was a lake whitefish.

Back in the early days, years before my time, fishermen would market fish for these "bass" after tying their boats tightly between two buoys in 50 or 60 feet of water. Pairs of buoys were left in the lake for the entire season and were baited with tiny macaroni on a regular basis.

When the fishermen arrived, they would use specialized tackle to fish for these great eating fish. On one side of the boat, they lowered a rig called a snatcher. It had a weight in the middle and a couple of foot-long arms with hooks on the ends.

On the other side of the boat, they would fish with biters. These rigs had two or four arms with small hooks that were baited with garden worms. They would fish as long as the fish would bite, often pulling in numerous three-to-five-pound fish. The old-timers would refer to these fish as humpbacks or humpies. They sold their catch every day to the little mom and pop stores around the area. Many of the local restaurants had Otsego bass on their menus.

Sometime in the late 30s or early 40s, there was an immense die-off. No one knew why, but whitefish carcasses littered the shore of the lake. Shortly after that, the lake was stocked with another type of whitefish called ciscos, which the locals referred to as greenbacks. They were a little smaller than the humpies but tasted nearly the same.

When I started fishing the lake, very few buoys remained. Everyone generally trolled for the fish and very rarely caught any of the larger humpbacked whitefish. We used lead core line, which took our lures down between 25 and 35 feet.

By the 80s, the lake changed again. Otsego bass became a thing of the past.

It may have been helped by the large number of walleyes that were stocked in the lake or the increased number of largemouth and smallmouth bass. Possibly the lake trout _ along with the landlocks and brown trout _ led to their demise. One thing for sure was the alewives that got into the lake. The whitefish laid their eggs in the gravel in 12-15 feet of water, and their fry became the main food source for the millions of alewives that populated the lake.

Otsego Lake remains a great fishery, however. The lake-trout fishing is fantastic, and great fishing exists for many other species of game fish.

But today, the Otsego bass only exists in the history books. Oh, I'm sure there are still some humpies and greenbacks still living somewhere in the lake, but fishing for them will never be the same.

Can you imagine the uproar if someone put a couple of buoys in the water between the golf course and Three Mile Point? They'd be driven off the lake before the sun reached high noon.

Otsego bass fishing was a tradition that died many years ago. It's just a thing of the past.

By the way, I got an email that a rattlesnake was seen on a lawn not far off East Street above the Oneonta High. Keep a sharp look out in that area!

Rick Brockway writes a weekly outdoors column for The Daily Star. Email him at robrockway@hotmail.com.

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