Fishing the Big Lake

Fishing a body of water the size of Lake Ontario can be an intimidating experience and you must have a bit of bravado and a boat seaworthy enough to handle the big lake under ever-changing conditions.
02/13/2019
story and photos by John Adamski

Lake Ontario has become a world-class sport fishery for saltwater salmon

I grew up near Sea Breeze, where Irondequoit Bay empties into Lake Ontario; the easternmost and smallest of the five Great Lakes. With a maximum depth exceeding 800 feet, Ontario is the 14th largest lake in the world. It is bordered on the north and west by the Canadian province of Ontario and on the south and east by the state of New York, making it international boundary water that flows directly into the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lawrence River. Its primary inlet is the Niagara River, which drains Lake Erie, and one way or another each of the eleven Finger Lakes empties into Lake Ontario as well.

These are statistics that I was not aware of as a kid when I rode my bike to the Irondequoit Bay outlet to fish or to swim in the lake. And I had no way of knowing then that this 193-mile-long by 53-mile-wide freshwater lake would one day become a world-class sport fishery for saltwater salmon – all because of an invasive species.

The St. Lawrence Seaway opened to transoceanic shipping traffic in 1959. An engineering marvel, it is a complex system of canals, channels, and locks constructed within the St. Lawrence River that enables oceangoing ships to rise more than 240 feet from sea level to Lake Ontario’s surface elevation. The seaway was preceded by several simpler canal systems beginning in the 1870s when the first series of locks allowed seafaring steamships to access Lake Ontario. But ships weren’t the only maritime visitors to navigate their way into the lake. Some marine fish species made their way in as well, including the prolific alewife.

When I was a kid, tons of dead alewives – a saltwater herring that began migrating into the lake through those early canal systems – washed up on beaches and shorelines, creating smelly and unsanitary conditions for beachgoers and lakefront property owners. Lacking natural predators, populations of the 6-inch alewife flourished in Lake Ontario before invading the remaining Great Lakes via the Welland Canal, taking the same foul-smelling and unhealthy problems into America’s heartland. The lake trout, at one time Lake Ontario’s top predator, had been fished-out by commercial trawlers, and the invasion of the sea lamprey – a bloodsucking parasitic eel – decimated any lakers that were left. By the 1960s, increasing pollution caused frequent summertime algal blooms to appear, killing large numbers of fish and leaving decomposing piles of algae and rotting alewives strewn along the Lake Ontario shoreline.

In the late 1960s, millions of Chinook and coho salmon from the Pacific Northwest were released into Lake Ontario in an experimental attempt to reduce the overpopulated invaders. The tactic had proven successful in Lake Michigan. Gorging on alewives, the saltwater salmon thrived and before long evolved into a tremendous new freshwater sport fishery. Today, millions of Chinook and coho salmon – along with brown trout, lake trout, rainbow trout and steelhead trout – are stocked annually into Lake Ontario and its major tributaries, providing anglers with exceptional year-round lake and river sportfishing opportunities. And the alewife population is finally under control.

In his book Fishing Western New York, author and fishing expert Spider Rybaak describes Lake Ontario like this: “A lake this size naturally spawns a lot of fish tales. Most are true. Constantly improving water quality, copious forage, lamprey control, and the annual stocking of millions of salmon and trout by Canadian and New York authorities conspire to make this place one of the world’s top fisheries.”

Lake Ontario, along with its bays and tributaries and despite some water quality issues, has always provided good fishing for native game fish like smallmouth bass and walleyes, but it wasn’t until Chinook and coho salmon, and brown, rainbow and steelhead trout were introduced that it gained notoriety as a world-class fishery.

Chinook salmon feed almost exclusively on alewives, enabling them to reach 30 pounds or more in less than four years. Chinooks—also known as king salmon and cohos, otherwise called silver salmon—are anadromous Pacific coast species, which means that they live most of their lives in saltwater but return to freshwater rivers and streams to spawn after nearly four years at sea. Both species die after spawning. While some natural reproduction does occur in a few of Lake Ontario’s tributaries, it is too limited to support any kind of viable salmon fishery, so it is enhanced by annual stockings of hatchery-raised fish.

Kings grow larger and are stocked in greater numbers than cohos, with almost 2 million Chinooks and a quarter-million cohos stocked annually in Lake Ontario’s tributaries by New York State alone. Canada stocks them as well. When salmon are released in rivers and streams as 6-inch fingerlings, they imprint on those waters and return there to spawn four years later. By then they can weigh anywhere from 8 to 30 pounds and offer a unique and exciting fishing experience. New York’s record Chinook weighed 47 pounds-13 ounces and was caught in the Salmon River in 1991. The record coho was caught in Lake Ontario in 1998 and weighed 33 pounds-7 ounces.

The Atlantic salmon, otherwise known as a landlocked salmon, is another species that is native to Lake Ontario and, like the lake trout, was also commercially fished to depletion in the late 1800s. And its spawning streams, principally in the eastern end of the lake, were blocked by dams that put a damper on any attempts for landlocks to naturally reproduce. Today, successful management and stocking programs have enabled the Atlantic salmon to recover and provide an excellent sport fishery as well, and fish ladders have improved access to some spawning streams. The Lake Ontario record Atlantic salmon weighed 24 pounds-15 ounces. They are spectacular fighters on the end of a line and are known for their out-of-the-water acrobatics.

Rochester-born Seth Green was an aquaculture pioneer during the mid-1800s. He established the first fish hatchery in America in Caledonia in 1864 and it is still in operation today. Among his accomplishments, Green is credited with the introduction of Western rainbow trout into eastern waters and brook trout into the west. He also introduced brown trout from Germany throughout the United States.

Brown trout, rainbow trout, and steelhead trout – a sea-run Pacific coast subspecies of the rainbow – all combine to add flavor and excitement to the Lake Ontario fishery. The record brown trout weighed in at 33 pounds-2 ounces; the record rainbow trout tipped the scales at 31 pounds-3 ounces; and 30-plus pound lake trout are common as well. But the two species of Pacific salmon – Chinooks and cohos – are what makes Lake Ontario the world-class sport fishery that it is today.

Most anglers fish the lake for salmon by boat, by slow-trolling a variety of lures at various depths, depending on the water temperature and the time of the year. Fishing a body of water the size of Lake Ontario can be an intimidating experience and you must have a bit of bravado and a boat seaworthy enough to handle the big lake under ever-changing conditions. If you plan to travel any distance out into the lake, GPS-navigational equipment is a must to ensure that you return to your starting point. From 10 miles out, you can’t see shore.

Spring fishing begins in May when brown trout and a few cohos in the 6 to 8 pound range are taken by flat-lining stick baits off of the mouths of tributary streams. A device known as a planer board can be used to direct a lure away from the boat to prevent it from spooking fish in shallow water. Longer leads are used in the springtime for the same reason. As the water warms and fish move offshore and go deeper, downriggers are employed to take lures down into the depths.

A downrigger is a manual or motorized boom with a long arm and a spool of cable that is mounted to the transom or gunwale of a boat. An 8-pound weight known as a cannonball is attached to the terminal end of the cable. A rod-and-reel fishing line is attached to the cannonball and others can also be spaced at intervals along the cable using spring-loaded cable releases. Fishing rods are placed into rod holders with reels in “free spool” while the cannonball is being lowered. When the desired depth has been reached, reels are closed and wound tight to put the bowed rods under extreme tension. Then trolling begins. When a fish strikes, the recoiling rod sets the hook and an unencumbered rod and reel fight begins.

Finding salmon, especially in deeper water, can be challenging. A sonar fish finder is a must-have piece of equipment. Not only does it help to locate schools of fish and baitfish but it can also warn you to raise your gear if you inadvertently head into shallower water. There is nothing worse than a downrigger tangle. Most anglers pursue salmon by trolling lures through their preferred water temperature, which for Chinooks and cohos is about 55 degrees. And that temperature layer can be more than 100 feet deep during the summer. Because salmon do leave their comfort zone to feed, some prospecting may be involved in your search. When in doubt, look for the fleet. A number of boats congregated in an area is a good indication that they are catching fish – and the flailing of long-handled landing nets is the best sign yet.

By the middle of August, both species of salmon start schooling up in deep water to prepare for their respective spawning runs up Lake Ontario’s tributaries in early fall. As the month progresses, they will gradually move inshore and begin staging off the mouths of those rivers and streams. There are two ways to fish for Chinook and coho salmon then: trolling in the lake during pre-spawn staging or casting once they have entered the tributaries to spawn. Trolling involves fishing with downriggers using a variety of large plugs, spoons or stick baits. The venerable J-Plug in various day-glow colors, along with stick baits like the Bomber Long A and the jointed Rapala, are proven fish catchers. So are large spoons like Northern Kings and Suttons, decorated with flashy strips of reflective tape. Early in the morning you’ll find Chinook and coho salmon in 30 to 40 feet of water as they follow schools of baitfish inshore. Then they’ll move out into 60 to 90 feet later in the day. As September approaches, they will move in even closer. If you’re fishing a tributary, your best bet is to cast and drift a real or imitation egg sack.

There is no greater thrill than hooking into a 30-pound Chinook salmon. They are capable of peeling 20 to 30 yards of fishing line off of your reel in a single run and can take more than 20 minutes to bring to the net after several such runs. Charter captains call these fish “screamers” for that reason.

If you don’t have a boat that’s Lake Ontario seaworthy, you might want to look into a charter fishing trip. The benefit of a charter is that the captains are out on the lake daily and have a good idea of where the fish are on any given day. The best way to find a competent and reliable charter boat captain is to visit the Lake Ontario Charter Boat Association at lakeontariocharterboatassociation.com or the Genesee Charter Boat Association at geneseecharterboat.com. I was a member of both organizations when I chartered in the 1980s and 90s. And don’t forget to buy a New York State fishing license.


Fly Fishing the Tributaries

There are two ways to fish Lake Ontario’s tributaries for Chinook and coho salmon: spin fishing and fly fishing. Tributary fishing begins in September and runs through early November, peaking during the first two weeks of October. Catching these powerful fish requires the right gear, baits, flies, and lures as well as the right presentations to make them effective. Safety is a concern when fishing these large, fast-moving waters and wading can be a challenge at times. Always wear spiked footwear and a life preserver.

Fly fishing for salmon differs quite a bit from the traditional forms of fly fishing that you might envision. There are few if any graceful casts and back casts involved, simply because of the heavyweight equipment that is used. Fly rods from 9 to10 feet long for line weights of 7, 8, or 9 work best for salmon. Reels with a smooth disc drag are recommended to stop runs and tire fish. Reels should have enough capacity to hold at least 150 yards of 20 pound test fluorescent-colored backing so that you can see where the fish is running, and so other anglers can see that you have a fish on. Full floating lines are best as they allow better line control. Leaders are normally in the 8 to 12 foot range. For the butt section use a 6 to 8 foot length of 10 to 15 pound test line. At the end of this attach a small black barrel swivel, which serves as an attachment point for the tippet section and a dropper for split shot. The tippet section should be 2 to 3 feet of 6 to 10 pound test, depending on conditions. My own outfit consists of a 9-foot, 9-weight Orvis “Clearwater” graphite rod and an Orvis “Rocky Mountain” large arbor fly reel.

Three basic types of flies are used to catch Pacific salmon when they are in the rivers: egg imitations, wet fly/streamers, and stonefly/nymphs. Flies tied from materials that have a lot of action, color, and flash to attract a salmon’s attention and trigger it into striking work best. Larger flies work better earlier in the run in the lower stretches of the river. Use smaller sizes when fishing for salmon that have been in the river for several days or are in the upper reaches. Heavy fishing pressure or low clear water would also call for smaller flies and lighter leaders. Use patterns that are quick and simple to tie because you’ll be losing them from being snagged on the bottom and from fish that break off. I buy my flies for that reason.

Make your casts across the river and quartering upstream so that they can drift downstream in a natural way. Leader tippets should be weighted with split shot to keep baits and flies drifting low in the water column. Salmon spend most of their time in the bottom 15 inches of water, so that’s where you want your lures to be. I like to fish large streamer flies, which are minnow imitations, because I can fish them against the current.

Good wet fly and streamer patterns in hook sizes #2 through 8 that are worth trying include are Wooly Buggers in black, olive, purple, chartreuse, flame or orange; and marabou streamers in various hot colors. I prefer flashy streamers tied with metallic strands and tinsel. Good egg imitations in hook sizes from #6 to 8 in chartreuse, flame, orange or hot pink probably work best and are and the easiest to tie on. You can also try stoneflies and nymphs in hook sizes #4 through 10. Always have some tied with hot-colored flashy materials, as well as more natural colors like black and brown.

Once the Chinook and coho have established their nests or “redds,” they become aggressive and territorial. This is especially true of the males, which fight each other and drive off young trout or any minnows invading their space.


Capt. John Adamski
After qualifying for his U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license, John Adamski ran sportfishing charters on Lake Ontario aboard his 30-foot Chris Craft Catalina hardtop cruiser during the 1980s and 90s. His record catch was 222 pounds of Chinook salmon caught on a single day in August, 1991, much to the disbelief of his joyful clients, a Ligonier, Pennsylvania foursome.