1985, Oswego River Dam
By Tom Lloyd
I was surprised when my neighbor, Jerry Groff, came over to my house in mid-September and suggested the two of us do a two-day salmon fishing trip the coming weekend on the Oswego river, near Oswego, NY. Jerry was the spitting-image of Santa Claus, father of five kids, and a soon-to-retire high school teacher. He told me he had been told by a fishing buddy that with the recent cold snaps in upstate New York, the salmon and steelhead trout were running from Lake Ontario into the several northwestern New York rivers that drain into Lake Ontario. I had done stream trout fishing for years, and my son, Aaron, and I had done a day of off-shore lake trout fishing with Phil and Shelly Rothermel the year before.Salmon is my favorite dinner fish, so I accepted the invitation and offered to drive, using my 1975 fire-engine-red Dodge window van. Jerry’s buddy said we would need chest waders, a big study fishing net on a long pole, heavy duty spinning tackle ,and a couple big coolers to bring back our catch. Jerry already had his gear and I needed only to get a pair of chest waders, which I picked up the next day at Shyda’s Sporting Shop.
Jerry had collected the necessary information from his buddy about what motel to stay at, where to get three-day out-of-state fishing licenses, and what part of the Oswego river to fish. We left Mt. Gretna at 8 AM Saturday and by 2 PM we were buying the “right” kind of fish egg bait and paying for our fishing licenses at a little bait shop outside Oswego. One mile upstream from where the Oswego meets Lake Ontario is the Varick hydroelectric dam, and we were told to fish right below the dam. At least 50 other fishermen had been told the same thing, but that was OK because the river was extremely wide. The Varick dam is relatively low but stretches for over 700 feet across the river. Regardless of where fishermen were standing, the river level was generally up to between their knees and mid-thighs because the riverbed is a vast series of limestone shelves, similar to the Suequehanna. From the moment we arrived, we heard guys already in the river calling out, “Fish on, net help please!” so Jerry and I quickly rigged up and waded out. Everyone was hoping to catch 15 –30 pound fish, and you absolutely had to have two guys to land such big ones. Lots of guys were fishing as pairs and everyone had a long handled, large net stuffed down the back of his chest waders. So when a guy got a fish on, his buddy or another nearby fisherman would wade to him, pull the net out of the guy’s waders and help him, hopefully, land the fish.
Fishermen had accessed the region below the dam from both side and were sprinkled all over the river, which had a swift current. I started wading out and found that the river bottom, like the Suequehanna’s, was a huge mosaic of slippery limestone. You proceeded slowly because where each shelf ended there would be either a drop of a foot or so or a rise in the height of the river’s bottom. I started fishing and over the next half hour slowly moved toward the center of the river. Guys were catching fish and when I was out about 250 feet from shore, I began having strikes too. Soon one of my strikes turned into “fish on” and it was quite a fight. It was clearly a much larger fish than I’d ever hooked before. A nearby fisherman came over, pulled my net from the back of my waders, and was prepared to land the fish. I had it almost to net range and we could see that it was probably a 20-pound steelhead. Then it broke free. So I returned to casting and rebaiting. I had a couple more strikes and had every expectation of catching a big fish.
As soon as I heard the siren, I realized the river current had increased and the water level was rising. Though no one had told Jerry and me to expect dam releases I was well aware of them from my canoeing experiences. I reeled in my line and started towards shore. The river level was rising quickly, approaching groin level. While I began moving towards shore, I saw I was farther from shore than any of the other fishermen. I immediately realized and processed the danger of my situation. The current had already become fast enough and the water level high enough that were I to stumble, my chest waders would instantly fill with water and I would be swept downriver. The outcome would probably be deadly as I knew it would be impossible to get out of water-filled waters in a fast-moving river. I needed to make it to shore as quickly as possible, making sure I didn’t slip into one of the holes in the river’s limestone bottom. I reached over my shoulder and drew out the long handled fishing net, turned it upside down and began using it as a steadying staff against the push of the current and as a probe to feel for abrupt holes or ledges in the river’s bottom at each new step. I was terrified as the water level cane up past my waist. Since I knew that there was no acceptable Plan B, I focused all my attention on moving as quickly as possible but making sure I didn’t fall. By the time I got to the river bank I was exhausted and shaking.
I found Jerry back at the van and we were both in wonderment that there was so little warning about the dam release and no warnings along the river edge. A couple of other fishermen who had fished below the dam before said that day’s experience was unusual and that usually there was a loudspeaker announcement of any upcoming dam release followed by a siren, followed by a 15 minute wait period. Other than the siren which sounded as the water was beginning to rise, none of the other warnings were used when I was in the middle of the river. After the death of a fisherman swept away by a dam release in 1990, a series of warning signs were posted along the river and on posts in the river. Then after the deaths of two fishermen at the same place in 2010, the local authorities passed an ordinance requiring fishermen to wear life preservers.
After I stopped shaking Jerry and I headed to the motel where he'd made a reservation. We cleaned up and went to dinner and I returned to the motel and crashed. Jerry borrowed the van and went bar hopping until the wee hours and I didn’t hear him when he returned. The next day, Sunday, after a pleasant short-order café breakfast, we checked out two other streams that Jerry’s buddy had told him about. Curiously, the runs were long over in those streams so by noon we were on the road and heading back to Mt. Gretna. The next week I placed an ad in the For Sale Classified ads of the Lebanon Daily News,” Men’s Fishing Chest Waders with Anti-Slip Boots, size 11.5. Used one time. $30” A guy from Palmyra bought them the day after the paper came out. Whew!