New York's Finest January Trout Lakes

Our state boasts some of the best winter trout fishing opportunities in the Northeast. Here's a look at where to find some of the best ice-fishing action for trout near you.

By J. Michael Kelly

The Empire State has more than 7,500 fishable lakes and ponds within its borders, but only about one in 15 hold trout. Of the 500 or so bodies of water which harbor wild or stocked browns, brookies, rainbows or lakers, only around 130, including Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, are open to ice-fishing.

Why is our state so protective of trout at this time of year?

As Les Wedge, former Department of Environmental Conservation Region 7 fisheries manager, reminded me, ice-fishing is permitted mainly in two types of trout lakes, i.e., waters that are large enough to withstand the cold-season traffic, or smaller lakes that are heavily stocked put-and-take fisheries.

The prevailing management philosophy, Wedge explained, is to grant ice-fishing opportunities in waters where an extra two or three months of angling pressure will have minimal effect on the trout populations.

Some of those opportunities are truly exceptional. In selected fishing holes in every region of New York, hardwater specialists have an honest chance to hook trout weighing 5 pounds or more on their tip-ups.

The following are among the best places in the state for winter trout fishers to make their trophy dreams come true.

LAKE CHAMPLAIN

Would you rather catch a 7-incher or a 7-pounder? Surprisingly, many of the local sportsmen who set their shanties on the ice of Lake Champlain are more into the former than the latter. They target smelt rather than lake trout.

The irony is, you needn't choose between the two species. Instead, why not start the day by jigging up a few frying-size smelt, then slip one of those tasty little fish on a No. 2 bait hook and lower it into the lake trout strike zone? Some days, the lakers will be hugging bottom; on others, they'll be right in the middle of the smelt schools getting a bellyful.

Champlain lake trout are mostly 3- to 8-pound fish, but every so often somebody catches a double-digit beauty. As a bonus, the lake has a fair population of landlocked salmon, which are also inclined to dine on smelt.

Some of the best lake trout fishing in 15,900-acre Lake Champlain is in its Essex County midsection, roughly from Willsboro south to Crown Point. Most of this expanse of ice is closely paralleled by Route 9 and accessible from west shore village piers, including those at Willsboro, Westport and Port Henry.

Anglers may creel up to three trout and two salmon of 15 inches or longer per day in Lake Champlain.

The DEC Region 5 office in Ray Brook, at (518) 897-1200, is a logical source for recent Lake Champlain fishing reports, while the Plattsburgh-North Country Chamber of Commerce, (518) 563-1000, can assist readers in locating nearby lodging.

Photo by Paul Updike

LAKE GEORGE

Once noted throughout the state for its trophy landlocked salmon, Lake George in Warren County has undergone some significant changes lately. The local salmon population has fallen on hard times, and lake trout are now the dominant coldwater species in the lake.

Sportsmen who took part in the Lake George angler diary program during the 2003 season reported many catches of 12 to 20 lakers. About one-fourth of those togue measured at least 23 inches, which is the minimum creel length for the species in Lake George.

The sport is so good that Rich Preall, a DEC Region 5 fisheries biologist, is thinking of lowering the creel length or even increasing the existing two-fish-per-day creel limit for lakers a couple of years from now.

Drill wide-diameter holes if you decide to tackle lakers here. One of Preall's DEC colleagues pulled an 18-pound lake trout through George's frozen surface a few winters back, and 10- to 12-pounders are caught annually.

Salmon are a different story.

"The catch rate for landlocks today is maybe 10 percent of what it used to be," Preall said.

He suspects that a decline in Lake George's smelt population is a factor in the salmon fade-out. Smelt numbers dipped so sharply in the 1980s that biologists banned their use or possession in the lake. Although the baitfish seem to have made a bit of a rally in recent years, the prohibition against their use is still in effect.

Lake George is off Route 9N in Warren County. Maps are available at sporting goods shops in Lake George Village, including Ellsworth Bait and Tackle at (518) 668-4624. Anglers who scan the maps will immediately notice that Lake George has two fairly distinct basins, north and south. The north basin, roughly from Ticonderoga south to the narrows at Tongue Mountain is by far the better of the two for trout and salmon. Ice-fishing access to the north basin can be had at the villages of Hague and Silver Bay, both off Route 9; and at the DEC campground at Rogers Rock.

For advice on area lodging, visitors may contact the Warren County Tourism office at (800) 958-4748. Be sure to ask for a copy of their Grand Slam Fishing booklet when you call.

SCHROON LAKE

Did you know that Schroon Lake has been home to wild landlocked salmon since the 1930s? According to biologist Preall, the headwaters of the lake straddling the border between Warren and Essex counties were stocked way back then and have produced wild salmon ever since. Currently, he estimates about one-fourth of the salmon caught by anglers in Schroon Lake - many of them 4- to 6-pounders - are either truly wild or were planted as tiny fry.

In addition to its robust landlock population, Schroon Lake has an abundance of lake trout.

"It's not known for monster lakers, but has lots of them of good average size," Preall said. "I'd say lakers of 3 to 5 pounds are the norm."

Such fish are frequently caught through the ice in the 100-foot depths between the north shore village of Schroon Lake and Clark's Island, which many locals refer to as Word of Life Island after the religious congregation that holds activities there.

Another likely location for both lakers and salmon is the deep water at the narrows, where the lake is cinched by two prominent opposing points.

The creel limit for lake trout in Schroon Lake is two per day of 18 inches or longer. Anglers are also allowed to keep up to three landlocks of 15 inches or better.

Along with trout and salmon, Schroon's waters happen to harbor some of New York's biggest northern pike. Fishing near the weedy north and south ends will give you a crack at pike up to 20 pounds.

Schroon Lake spans 4,100 surface acres and has a maximum depth of 152 feet. The DEC office in Ray Brook, listed above, will supply interested readers with a basic contour map. The Schroon Lake Chamber of Commerce, (518) 532-7675, also has a map-brochure that includes a listing of local accommodations.

LAKE OF THE WOODS

Al Schiavone, the DEC Region 6 natural resources supervisor, rates Lake of the Woods in rural Jefferson County as one of the better places in his territory to catch lake trout through the ice. Although the lake is only 166 acres, it has a maximum depth of 80 feet, along with a plentiful forage base consisting of yellow perch and whitefish.

Some of the togue in Lake of the Woods weigh more than 10 pounds. The creel limit is the same as the statewide standard, three per day of 21 inches or longer.

Lake of the Woods is about 85 miles north of Syracuse. To get there, take Interstate Route 81 north to Exit 48, north of Watertown. There, turn east on Route 342. Take that road to Route 37, turn left and drive about 15 miles to Cottage Road, which leads to Burns Road and the DEC access site.

The DEC office in Watertown, (315) 785-2261, has a free booklet on the Indian River Lakes that includes a basic contour map of Lake of the Woods.

You should be able to find bait and other tackle items at Hughes Grocery in Theresa at (315) 628-5342. The 1000 Islands International Tourism Council at (800) 847-5263 is happy to assist anglers who need help finding overnight lodging and other amenities near Lake of the Woods.

CASTERLINE POND

Don't blink when you drive by Casterline Pond, or you might miss it. The pond in northern Cortland County covers just nine acres, but don't be fooled by its tiny size, for it holds rainbow trout that weigh up to 6 pounds. It's stocked annually with about 1,000 trout, and some hold over from one year to the next. Trout survival is enhanced by the fact that no boats are allowed on the pond, and much of the shoreline is inaccessible during the spring, summer and fall. It's only after the ice solidifies in January that anglers can reach the majority of the 40-foot-deep pond.

To find the pond, take I-81 north from Cortland or south from Syracuse to the Homer exit. At the end of the ramp, turn north onto Route 281, which is the village of Homer's main street. The pond will be on the right north of the village limits.

Forest Fisheries, a marine and tackle shop a couple of miles southwest of Casterline Pond on Route 281 in Homer, is a reliable source of bait and other supplies, while the DEC Region 7 office in Cortland at (607) 753-3095 can apprise anglers of current fishing conditions.

For advice on Homer-area lodging opportunities, contact the Cortland County Chamber of Commerce at (607) 756-2814.

OTISCO LAKE

About 30 years ago, Otisco Lake briefly gained national prominence as a still-water trout fishery after heavy stockings combined with an expanding population of alewives caused a proliferation of football-shaped browns. It was not unusual in that era for trollers to hook a dozen or more 2- to 6-pound brownies in a single day on the water.

The bloom on that particular rose faded by the late 1970s as Otisco's trout population peaked, declined and then leveled off. Today, browns are just another interesting component of a diverse fishing hole, which also features walleyes, bass, panfish and, most notably, tiger muskellunge. Yet anglers who know how and where to fish for them still take some impressive trout from Otisco year 'round.

The easternmost body of water in the Finger Lakes, Otisco Lake typically has good ice-fishing for trout from mid-January into early March, and sometimes even longer. The lake is seeded annually with about 5,500 browns, a majority of them 12- to 16-inchers, by the Onondaga County-owned Carpenter's Brook Fish Hatchery. Many of those fish hold over and grow to 5 pounds and more by the time some ice-angler's shiner minnow fools them.

At 2,200 surface acres, the six-mile-long Otisco is one of the smaller Finger Lakes, but it bottoms out at a surprisingly deep 69 feet.

Most of the browns taken through the ice are nabbed while cruising just a few feet beneath the ice. Browns frequently are encountered in the area about 300 to 400 yards south of the narrows, the convergence of two opposite-shore points visible from the dam at the lake's north end. The deep water off Lader's Point on the west shore and Fitzgerald Point on the east are also worth checking out with tip-up rigs.

To find Otisco Lake, follow U.S. Route 20 east from Skaneateles or west from LaFayette to the intersection with Route 174 in southern Onondaga County. Turn south on the latter road, which leads directly to the lake.

Among other places, anglers can get on the ice at the dam or via the causeway, an abandoned road that girdles the lake near its south end.

The DEC's Region 7 office, mentioned earlier, offers a free contour map of Otisco. For help in finding nearby accommodations, contact either the Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce at (315) 470-1800 or the Finger Lakes Tourism office at (800) 530-7488.

OWASCO LAKE

Anglers wondering whether Owasco Lake really is worth fishing through the ice should ask Fred Janack of East Syracuse, who plumbs Owasco's depths now and then with son, Fred Jr. of Oneida. Last March 1, the pair drilled a few holes off the west shore and then agreed they would quit by 11:30 a.m. no matter what happened.

At the appointed hour, just as Fred Jr. was reeling in the tip-up lines, the elder Janack saw a flag stand at attention. Ten minutes later, he had a 30-inch lake trout flopping on the ice.

Such fish are fairly common in Owasco, according to the logs turned in by participants in the DEC Region 7 Finger Lakes Diary Cooperator program. In 2003, for instance, 39 diary keepers reported taking 984 trout or salmon that were legally large enough to creel. All but 73 of those fish were lake trout. The lakers averaged 23 inches in length and one stretched out to 32 inches and weighed 12 pounds.

While the diary program ends on Dec. 31 each year, the success of anglers in open water is a strong indication of the sport that awaits Owasco ice-fishermen.

One of the better locations to jig for lakers in the winter is along the southwest shore at Ensinore.

In an average year, that part of the lake has safe ice by mid-January. Another good spot is the 50- to 100-foot-deep water between Buck Point and Post Point, which are also on the west shore.

Anglers fishing Owasco may keep up to five trout or salmon per day in combination, but the total catch may not include more than three lakers or three landlocks. (Not a problem because salmon are rarely caught in the lake.) The minimum creel length for any species of trout or salmon in the lake is 15 inches.

If the trout don't cooperate when you try Owasco, consider fishing at the weedy south end for northern pike. Near Cascade, specimens weighing between 10 and 15 pounds are iced each winter.

Owasco Lake is in Cayuga County. Its north shore is in the city of Auburn. The lake is paralleled by Route 38 on the west shore and by Route 38A and Rockefeller Road on the east. Access is available from Emerson Park at the north end of the lake and via private marinas at Cascade on the south end. The DEC Region 78 office in Cortland has a contour map of Owasco Lake for anglers' use.

Cayuga County's Regional Information Center at (800) 499-9615 will assist readers in finding overnight accommodations in the vicinity of the lake.



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