Is New York's Lake Ontario lake trout population in trouble? Here's a look at the status of these popular game fish and what the DEC is doing to enhance angling opportunities in 2006. (June 2006)
Is New York's Lake Ontario lake trout population in trouble? Here's a look at the status of these popular game fish and what the DEC is doing to enhance angling opportunities in 2006.
by Rod Cochran
"We had fabulous lake trout fishing in Lake Ontario last season, but we had to fish in Canada to find 'em," claims Walt Boname, a former fisheries manager who guides out of the Cape Vincent area. "I'm expecting another good season this year."
WHAT'S GOING ON?
Sportfishing has always been more art than science, of course. But putting keeper lake trout in the box seems to be a never-ending puzzle for biologists and fishermen. In recent years, lake trout have provided fantastic fishing in Lake Ontario's east end and at certain locations along the south shore -- even during a slow, decades-long decline in the population that is still continuing, according to New York Department of Environmental Conservation fisheries researchers.
More confusing, the slide in lake trout numbers has occurred despite some encouraging reports from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's project to restore a wild spawning population. Each year, a handful of young non-fin-clipped fish turn up in seining operations.
A PLAN TAKES SHAPE
Lake trout were the original top-of-the-food-chain predators in Lake Ontario. The restoration of a naturally reproducing population is the goal of a joint program including federal agencies, New York State and the Province of Ontario. Their cooperative effort attempts to stock 500,000 yearlings annually at several locations in New York waters. All of these fish are produced at the USFWS Allegheny National Fish Hatchery in Pennsylvania, mostly from eggs obtained from Seneca Lake fish. A captive brood stock derived from Lake Superior fish is also used at the hatchery, and a few years ago, eggs were obtained from a Lake Michigan trout strain.
In 2004, a total of 456,800 lake trout were stocked. All of the fish were released at various times in May, with two releases at Stony Point, four at Oswego, one release at Sodus, four at Point Breeze and one release at Olcutt.
The hatchery fish were placed in water-filled barges and towed to deep-water release sites to protect the young fish from shallow-water predators. Lampreys are regaining a foothold, however, with anglers reporting a significant increase in wounded fish. Seneca strain trout have a much higher survival rate over Superior-strain trout, apparently due to their ability to withstand lamprey attacks, according to researchers.
Recent findings of wild yearlings indicate that progress is being made and that lake trout are now believed to be spawning throughout the lake.
On that bright note, we'll look to better days ahead, and focus on catching one of those slammers that tapes well above the 30-inch slot limit. June and July are the hot months for lakers in Lake Ontario!
Northeastern Lake Ontario, from Cape Vincent to Henderson Harbor, is locally known as the "Golden Crescent," not only for its scenic shoreline and islands, but also for its nonstop fishing opportunities. Cold-water salmonids usually take the spotlight here, but fishing is also superb for smallmouth bass, walleyes, pike and perch.
Lake trout fishing kicks off along the shore in April and May -- still-fishing from docks is possible at some locations, and small boats can ply the bays and island channels.
Lakers have usually headed for cooler water by June, however, and will frequently be found 40 to 50 feet deep or more. After the thermocline sets up, trout will hang under the temperature break.
The point where the lake becomes the St. Lawrence River is a popular destination for lake trout fishermen because it offers an abundance of structure and bait.
The International Boundary runs through this area, and fishermen who choose to fish both New York and Ontario waters should know that two licenses are required, and different regulations apply.
Trolling around Grenadier and Fox islands should be a good bet, especially on the west sides where the bottom drops off abruptly to about 50 feet. Navigation charts reveal a number of named shoals, including Dooda, Allen Otty and Charity, that frequently hold lakers at this time of year.
There are a couple of cautions about fishing the open lake off Cape Vincent. Westerly storms can kick up wicked swells in a hurry, so check the forecasts. And remember that you're in the middle of an international shipping channel, so watch for heavy boat traffic.
Cape Vincent is reached by taking Route 12E from Interstate Route 81 (Exit 47) at Watertown. Marine and tourist facilities are in the village, and a public launch is at Burnham State Park, on the river east of Cape Vincent.
This is the best-known location on Lake Ontario for lake trout fishing, at least among the old-timers who were trophy anglers many years before salmon were introduced.
Trout gather off Henderson Harbor in spring and fall, and it's believed that the area's rocky shoals and islands (with their steep dropoffs into deep water) were their primary spawning areas when lake trout ruled Lake Ontario.
Stony Point has always been a hotspot, even during summer. It's a 100-foot cliff offshore known as "The Trench." You should also target water around all the nearby islands, such as Stony, Calf, Galloo and the infamous Little Galloo, where a cormorant colony has buried the island under nests and excrement.
Henderson Harbor is a boating-sailing Mecca in the eastern lake, with marinas and launches in the harbor and around Stony Point. This area is southwest of Watertown on state Route 3, which runs along the lake. Approaching from the south, exit I-81 at Adams (Exit 41). Take Route 178 west to Route 3 and the Henderson area.
Although lake trout are noted for roaming around Lake Ontario, spring and summer fishing is best at specific locations. One of those premier laker destinations is the west-central stretch of the south shore running from Rochester to Point Breeze. The top fishing month is June. The bottom profile here is saucer-shaped, dropping roughly 100 feet for every mile off shore. By this time of year, trout will be at least a mile out, usually cruising thermal changes of a degree or two, or hanging under schools of bait.
Also called Oak Orchard, P
oint Breeze is popular with lake trout anglers, although any of the access ports west of Rochester are also recommended.
Count on running into chinooks, rainbows and brown trout in this region of the lake, but those heavy marks hugging the bottom are likely big lakers. According to the experts, you'll often need to troll a couple of feet off the bottom at about 1.5 miles per hour to entice a trophy "30." Small fluorescent lures following blades or flashers seem to be popular with trout fishermen.
Point Breeze, including the Oak Orchard State Marine Park, is in Orleans County off the Lake Ontario Parkway.
Over thousands of years, the tremendous flow of the Niagara River has created the largest rockpile in Lake Ontario -- a crescent-shaped shoal that local fishermen call "The Bar." Here, the warmer river water meets colder lake water for a temperature break that marks the outflow plume for many miles easterly along shore. It's an irresistible combination for bait as well as for all the predators in the lake from bass to salmonids, including lake trout.
At the river's mouth, The Bar starts from a bowl-shaped depression 80 feet deep. Then the bottom ascends to 18 feet at the green buoy, extending into the lake for about three miles. The outer edge drops from 55 feet to more than 200 feet.
The usual slow-trolling, bottom- scratching techniques are recommended here for trout. A few anglers are content to anchor and fish dead alewives on the bottom.
Best access to The Bar is from the public launch at Fort Niagara State Park, off the Robert Moses Parkway. The village of Lewiston is a fishing center for the area, with a public launch, off Route 18F.
Marine facilities and charter captains are available at each of the above lake trout hotspots. More information is available on the DEC's Web site at www.dec.state.ny.us. Click on "Programs," "Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources," and "Bureau of Fisheries." All public boat launches are listed.
For free maps and tourism information, call 1-800-225-5697.