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New York's Lake Ontario Update

New York's Lake Ontario Update

The 2009 fishing season is shaping up to be another excellent year for New York's Lake Ontario anglers. Here's the lowdown on what to expect this season. (April 2009)

Depending upon whom you talk with, Lake Ontario fishermen had a good to average year in 2008. Overall, the general consensus is there are plenty of trout and salmon in the big lake, average size is where it should be and trophy fish still make up a good part of the daily catch, all thanks to a smelt population on the comeback and a thriving alewife forage base.

Unfortunately, the lake still has its problems, including potential threats to its long-term health as a world-class fishery, not the least of which is the growing zebra and quagga mussel colonies. What adverse effects these and other invasive species will have on the ecology of Lake Ontario and its trout and salmon populations is not known.

Studies are ongoing to better understand and address the situation. In many ways Lake Ontario and its fisheries are in a period of transition, but except for normal ups and downs and periods of unpredictability due to weather and other factors, anglers should expect good things this season.

The New York Department of Conservation's Bureau of Fisheries stocking policy calls for 455,000 brown trout to be released into Lake Ontario each year. The number actually released typically falls short of that mark, however, somewhere in the neighborhood of 370,000, or about 80 to 85 percent of the policy number.

In recent years, all the brown trout going into the lake have been yearlings averaging 8 to 9 inches long with the vast majority going directly into the lake at places like Henderson in Jefferson County, Oswego and Richland in Oswego County, Sodus and Williamson in Wayne County, Sterling in Cayuga County, at Greece, Hamlin and Webster in Monroe County, Carlton in Orleans County and at Newfane and Wilson in Niagara County.

Most of these locations have been receiving anywhere from 20,000 to 28,000 browns each spring, but the Henderson area and release sites in Wayne and Monroe counties have been getting from 30,000 to just over 40,000 fish! These areas offer some of the best brown trout habitat on the lake and traditionally provide the biggest sport catches of brown trout according to surveys.


The 15-inch minimum length limit on brown trout put in place to protect recently stocked and smaller fish seems to be working and will remain 15 inches this year. Given the growth rate in the lake, brown trout reach that size rather quickly. Judging by recent creel census results, most of the browns caught are between age 2 and 5, with the average length of age 2 fish running just over 17 inches and age 3 fish just over 22 inches.

Overall, the total catch of brown trout in Lake Ontario has declined since the mid-1980s and early 1990s. In 2006, the total catch was just over 26,200 fish, the third lowest catch estimate since 1985, but catch rates were up in 2007.

Despite this up-and-down trend, Lake Ontario's brown trout fishery is in good shape and brown trout remain the second most harvested trout or salmon species in the lake.

With so much water out there and places to wet a line, it might seem difficult to actually find fish, but such is not the case, particularly if anglers keep a few things in mind. Brown trout movement in the lake is seasonal and to a large degree depends upon water temperature and food.

Browns are caught as early as April and a few hearty enthusiasts are after them in March. May is considered prime time, too. In fact, as much as 60 percent of the annual brown trout catch is taken in April and May.

At that time of the season, gale winds are often pushing food onshore, the creeks full of run-off are flushing lots of forage into the lake and shoreline water temperatures are typically several degrees warmer than the open lake.

Because of these factors, brown trout tend to congregate close to shore in the numerous bays and off tributaries, anywhere the water is more comfortable and food is readily available.

The water in these locations is usually dirty or colored, and browns are less spooky.

Traveling east to west, places like Henderson Bay and Henderson Harbor, the North Pond area and Mexico Bay are all accessible from Route 3 traveling north from Mexico. Little Sodus Bay at Fair Haven, Port Bay near Wolcott and Sodus Bay are to the west off Route 104. These are all early-season hotspots with the highest catch rates typically coming from areas from Mexico Bay west to about the Rochester area.

Whenever weather and wind conditions permit, trolling tactics work well, especially with planer boards or outriggers, because they allow anglers to cover more water and to search for pockets of warm water in the process.

Boat anglers will find more than three-dozen public launch sites and as many marinas scattered along the Lake Ontario shoreline between Henderson Harbor in the east and the Niagara River in the west.

A complete list, by county, will be found under "Boating" on the New York Department of Environmental Conservation's Web site at

It should be pointed out, however, that shore-bound anglers have just as much potential for success. Beaches, jetties and piers where anglers can cast into deeper water are well represented along the entire Lake Ontario shoreline, and these potential hotspots should not be overlooked.

Both Sodus Bay and Fair Haven have piers or jetties open to the public, for example, as do Charlotte, Oswego and most other towns. Many of the state parks, such as those at Fort Niagara, Lakeside Beach, Oak Orchard, Hamlin Beach, Fair Haven Beach and Selkirk Shores, have areas where fishing from shore is possible.

Other spots shore-bound anglers should investigate are the mouths of the many tributaries entering the lake. Each, regardless of size, has the potential of holding some early-season browns. Some prime examples include Sandy Creek in the North Landing area, Little Sandy Creek, which enters North Pond, the lower Sandy River, the Salmon River near Selkirk and Port Ontario and Grindstone Creek to the west near Selkirk Shores State Park.

Again, Route 3 can be used to access these areas. Eightmile Creek near West Ninemile Point, Ninemile Creek east of Rochester and Oak Orchard Creek north of Route 104 near Point Breeze are other prime spots.

Some of these areas and several others entering the lake provide Public Fishing Rights (PFR) areas that give anglers right-of-way acces

s as well as parking in designated areas. A complete list showing the location of the PFRs as well as parking areas may be found on the DEC's Web site.

Starting in June, as water temperatures warm, Lake Ontario's browns move slightly offshore and pretty much stay there through the summer months. This is a prime time for boat fishermen because lake conditions typically allow even small craft to get on the water in safety.

It is unusual for browns to move far offshore and suspend like other trout and salmon, so look for action close to the bottom in 30 to 50 feet of water where water temperatures are cool, or along scum lines where warm water and cool water mix.

As fall approaches and into October, Lake Ontario's browns head for the mouth of tributaries in preparation of the spawning season and nearly all creeks and streams entering the lake are capable of producing late-season action.

Western basin hotspots include Twelvemile Creek west of Wilson, Eighteenmile Creek near Olcott, Johnson Creek upstream of Lakeside, Oak Orchard Creek near Point Breeze, the many creeks entering Braddock Bay and the Genesee River.

For anglers new to these areas, a host of fishing hotlines supplies weekly updates.

For DEC Region 7, call (607) 753-1551. For DEC Region 9, call (716) 855-FISH. For Wayne County, call (315) 946-5466. For Orleans County, call (585) 589-3220 or visit the DEC's Web site. These hotlines also supply updated information on other species as well.

Chinooks, rainbow trout and coho salmon continue to be major draws on Lake Ontario, and fishermen have been enjoying good catches in recent years. Fishermen who know the lake expect that to continue this season, considering that the numbers of fish available and angling opportunities last year ended on a high note.

Chinook salmon in particular have dominated the sporting harvest on the lake since 2003. In 2006, more than 59,600 chinook salmon were caught, not as many as in 2004 and 2005, but still enough to keep them "king" within the Lake Ontario salmon and trout fishery. Rainbow trout typically contribute the third largest catch, with coho salmon rounding out the top four.

If this year is like most years, fishermen can expect action on the western end of the lake to start as early as April with things really picking up in May. Although the western and mid-lake areas will undoubtedly dominate the chinook action throughout much of the season, fish should be found just about everywhere in July and August. September will be the time to start hitting the major tributaries as salmon head for their spawning areas.

Coho action traditionally peaks in April and May, and then again in August and September, with hotspots in the western basin and mid-lake sections dominating much of the action during the earlier period, while areas in the east do better later on. July and August is also good for rainbows in the western end.

As for specific early and mid-season hotspots, starting in the western region, one of the more popular areas for trolling is the Niagara River Bar, a shallow pile of rock extending nearly three miles into the lake in front of Fort Niagara. Access is best from the public launch site in Fort Niagara State Park off the Robert Moses Parkway north of Youngstown.

To the east, the waters off Wilson and Olcott should also be considered. Twelvemile Creek enters the lake at Wilson while Eighteenmile Creek enters at Olcott, and the warm water from these tributaries, plus the shallow offshore water, draws plenty of baitfish. Both locations offer launch, marina and lodging facilities as well as jetties for shore-bound anglers.

Both Wilson and Olcott may be reached via Route 18, which parallels the south shore. Wilson may also be reached from Route 104 using Route 425, and Olcott via Route 78 from the Lockport area.

The waters off Oak Orchard Creek and Point Breeze provide good Chinook and coho action, too. Oak Orchard Marine Park offers public launch facilities as well as pier fishing options.

The area is off the Lake Ontario State Parkway, accessible from Route 98 coming north from Route 104 at Childs. Traveling east, the mouth of the Genesee River and Irondequoit Bay in Rochester are always worth hitting, and the same is true of Sodus Bay, Fairbanks Bay, East Bay and Port Bay, the Oswego area and Henderson Bay as the season progresses.

Each of these locations offers public launch facilities, as well as jetties or piers for anglers fishing from shore, with plenty of local lodging and other amenities nearby.

For lodging and local tackle shop information, fishermen should visit the I Love New York Web site at www.ilove, or call (800) CALL-NYS.

One of the most anticipated periods for Lake Ontario salmon and trout fishermen is the fall, when Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead as well as brown trout head for their spawning grounds.

Although nearly every major tributary entering the lake including the Niagara River in the west play host to fall fish and local anglers all have their favorite spots, few places are as famous or popular as the Salmon River, which enters the lake at Selkirk downstream of Port Ontario.

The river is stocked annually with approximately 300,000 chinook salmon, 80,000 cohos and two strains of steelhead totaling 160,000 fish.

Pulaski is a popular center of activity and offers lodging, tackle shops, guides and drift boat services and other amenities.

For more information, contact the Pulaski Area Chamber of Commerce at (902) 822-4455, or visit their Web site at

Both chinook and coho salmon start their runs around Memorial Day, and offer world-class angling for 15- to 30-pound fish well into October. The traditional peak period is the latter part of September into the first half of October.

Once salmon enter the river they no longer actively feed, but the urge to protect territory and their natural aggressiveness makes them susceptible to egg sacs and egg-shaped lures and flies.

The Salmon River travels some 17 miles from the Lighthouse Reservoir in Altmar to the big lake, and there are 12 miles of Public Fishing Rights along the river. A map of these public fishing areas is available on the DEC's Web site.

Popular fishing spots include the Black Hole off North Jefferson and Bridge streets, Long Bridge Pool off South Jefferson Street and the Short Bridge Pool off Route 11, all in Pulaski. The Railroad Bridge Pool and Paper Mill Pool off Route 2A, the Sportsman's Pool on Centerville Road and in Pineville along Route 48 are also local hotspots.

The two fly-fishing-only, catch-and-release sections are also popular fishing spots for

all species entering the river. The lower section is on Route 52 in Altmar and is open Sept. 15 through May 15. The upper section is adjacent to county Route 22 above the Salmon River Hatchery and is open April 1 through Nov. 30.

Two strains of steelhead enter the Salmon River. The winter-run Washington strain begins to move upstream in mid-October and continues through the winter months right into spring. These fish are aggressive feeders and respond well to egg sacs or egg-imitating flies and lures.

The Skamania strain enters the river in June, usually after an increase in water flow and can offer challenging angling through summer and fall.

Brown trout enter the river starting in mid-September and continue into November. Because of the number of fish available, brown trout can be difficult to target but are often found on the heels of chinook salmon feeding heavily on eggs.

The recreational catch of lake trout comes in fifth among Lake Ontario trout and salmon, perhaps a result of higher numbers of other species, but lakers remain popular. Many of the areas previously mentioned for salmon and brown trout will also produce lake trout, although areas farther offshore in deeper water generally produce the best action.

Fishermen are reminded that the season on lake trout closes Sept. 30 and while there is no minimum length limit, the daily limit is two fish, no more than one of which may be between 25 and 30 inches.

For more information, contact the New York Department of Environmental Conservation at

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