Great Lakes Angler, originally featured June/July 2018
While trout and salmon are pelagic or open water creatures, it’s the terra firma of the lake bottom that provides the foundation for some of the best fishing the Great Lakes have to offer.
When dramatic bottom structure combines with prevailing currents and consistently occurring schools of bait fish, the stage is set for epic fishing. This is exactly the situation found on the iconic Niagara Bar, located on the west end of Lake Ontario near the mouth of the Niagara River.
Part of the famed Niagara Escarpment, anglers access the Niagara Bar by launching in the Niagara River and running downstream to Lake Ontario. The town of Lewiston, New York is a popular kick off site for anglers fishing both the lower Niagara River and the near shore waters of Lake Ontario.
In early spring the near shore waters of the Niagara Bar holds a mixed bag of lake trout, brown trout, steelhead and coho salmon. Spawning smelt are constantly coming and going from the river mouth in early April attracting a host of predator species.
Because of the strong current of the Niagara River and how rapidly the structure drops off to deep water, most anglers attack this area using plugs and stickbaits fished on three way swivel rigs. Most anglers rig up a seven foot baitcasting rod/reel spooled with 10 to 12 pound test fluorocarbon as the main line. Two ounces of lead weight is then used on a 12-18 inch dropper and a 60 inch leader of fluorocarbon line is terminated to a snap. At the business end wobbling plugs like the Mag Lip 3.0 and 3.5 or the Luhr Jensen KwikFish K-9 are popular. Stickbaits like the Bomber Long A, Storm ThunderStick, Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow, Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue and Rapala Husky Jerk also do a good job of imitating the smelt that spawn in this area.
Local guides modify their wobbling plugs by removing the belly hook to help reduce snags and adding a slightly larger tail hook. The Mag Lip 3.0 and 3.5 run exceptionally well with the belly hook removed and the tail hook upgraded one size.
Because smelt are so prevalent in Lake Ontario baits with a lot of chrome are the top producers. Locally popular plug colors include Green Machine, Grinch, Double Trouble, Lemon Head and Metallic Silver Clown.
Also in April a dependable brown trout fishery can be found from the mouth of the Niagara River east to the port of Olcott. Several feeder creeks pour into Lake Ontario in this stretch and each attract a mixed bag of brown trout and coho salmon in April.
The best areas set up where dirty run off from feeder creeks mixes with the clear waters of Lake Ontario. The stained waters created from this near shore water mixing provides the perfect place to target browns and coho. Most of the fish are going to be found in water just six to 15 feet deep.
Trolling wobbling plugs with the help of in-line planer boards routinely produces limit catches of brown trout with bonus coho mixed in. Normally these fish aren’t relating to a particular water depth, but rather to the narrow ribbon of stained water that gets pinched between the inflowing creeks and the wave action of Lake Ontario.
Lake Ontario has an absolutely stunning population of lake trout, with the average fish weighing in at 10 pounds. Fish north of 20 pounds are common and the structure of the Niagara Bar holds these fish in shallow water during April providing anglers the unique opportunity to fish lakers using light tackle.
Drift fishing is popular on the Niagara Bar. Most anglers set up their boat on the top of the Niagara Bar in 30 to 40 feet of water and let the boat slide off the edge of the break to about 70 feet of water. This shallow water/deep water transition holds lake trout consistently in April.
The three way swivel rigs described earlier are a popular way to catch these lakers while drifting. Other anglers prefer to drag jigs tipped with soft plastic paddle tails.
Pods of lake trout can also be found along the 30 to 40 foot contour stretched out from the Niagara River to Olcott. These fish are routinely taken by slow trolling (1.2 to 1.5 MPH) three way rigs using an electric motor or a gasoline kicker.
Local anglers simply long line their rigs straight out the back of the boat, preferring to hold and pump the rod while waiting for a strike. For anglers who like to catch big lake trout and do it on light tackle, the Niagara Bar is one of the best destinations in the Great Lakes.
Towards the end of April or early May, king salmon show up on the Niagara Bar in a big way. Warmer Lake Erie water pouring into Lake Ontario thanks to the Niagara River and also the Welland Canal attracts smelt, alewives. gizzard shad and emerald shiners. The kings tend to stage right along the deep water edge of the Niagara Bar in 60 to 100 feet of water to take advantage of this forage bonanza.
Trolling along the deep water edge of the Niagara Bar using spoons on downriggers and diving planers is the standard way local anglers target kings and coho. Rotators fished in combination with trolling flies are also popular with local anglers.
The Fishing 411 TV crew has fished the Niagara Bar for kings several times in recent years. “Locals stick pretty much to downriggers and divers, but we have enjoyed exceptional salmon action by also incorporating 5, 7 and 10 color lead core set ups with in-line planer boards,” says Jake Romanack. “On the outside board lines we generally run standard size trolling spoons, the middle boards get magnum sized trolling spoons and on the inside lead core/board lines we have enjoyed great success trolling the 3.5, 4.0 and 4.5 Mag Lip plugs.
The plug and spoon colors that catch kings and coho on Lake Ontario are not surprisingly the same ones that work on Lakes Michigan and Huron. In the spoon category the Green and Blue Dolphin, Yellow-Tail, Glow Frog, Sister Sledge, Mixed Vegetables, Chilly Goose and Lemon Lime are solid producers. Spoons that feature a lot of silver with chartreuse, green and blues are the top picks.
The top Mag Lip colors include HammerTime, Metallic Gold Flame, Grinch and Double Trouble. In addition to fishing Mag Lip on the inside lead core lines, these plugs also fish very well off the downriggers and Slide-Divers with about a 25 foot leader.
All the spoons, wobbling plugs and stickbaits used to target Lake Ontario trout and salmon fish better when matched up with natural fish scents. Creating a natural scent trail in the water helps trout and salmon zero in on the gear, leads to more aggressive strikes and better hooked fish.
The problem with most fishing scents is they are water soluble which means they wash off almost as fast as they can be applied. Oil based scent products do a much better job of sticking to lures and creating efficient and long lasting scent streams.
Pro Cure Super Gel scents are made by dehydrating natural Great Lakes forage species including alewives, smelt, gizzard shad, etc., and then grinding these fish into a fine powder. The fish powder is then mixed with a gel paste that stabilizes the scent so it doesn’t need to be refrigerated and reactivates the naturally oily and pungent odor. Just as importantly the paste is super sticky, stays where it is put and creates a long lasting scent stream in the water.
Super Gel is available in dozens of formulas that are effective on trout and salmon. “It sounds strange to anglers in the Great Lakes, but one of our favorite Pro Cure scents is called Bloody Tuna,” says Jake Romanack. “Our salmon fishing friends from the west coast including Buzz Ramsey, Jarod Higginbotham, Cody Herman, Dave Eng, Jason Hambly and Steve Lynch all strongly suggested we try Bloody Tuna Super Gel and it flat out works. Obviously salmon in the Great Lakes aren’t encountering any tuna, but this scent does an amazing job of stimulating both king and coho salmon in smashing baits.”
Once kings and coho show up on the Niagara Bar in May, they stick around until well into June. As long as prevailing winds keep the water along the Niagara Bar cool and baitfish in good supply, salmon are reluctant to leave.
Spoons take Lake Ontario salmon year around, but rotators with flies and also rotators with cut bait rigs become a dominate force in late spring and throughout summer. Most local anglers fish these rigs primarily on downriggers and also diving planers set up with wire line.
Steelhead that have spent most of the spring spawning in the Niagara River and other tributary streams, set up in Lake Ontario during the summer creating a mixed bag of off shore kings, coho and steelhead second to none in the Great Lakes. Local captains fish rotators and flies for salmon, but they also make sure to keep a few mini and standard sized spoons in the water for steelhead.
The top steelhead spoon colors are models that feature a touch of orange. Orange Chilly Willy, Orange Crush, Jerry Lee and Halloween are consistently productive steelhead spoon colors.
In August and September, kings once again stage off the Niagara Bar in preparation for running the Niagara River. This is the time of year when the biggest fish of the season are taken. Fish in the 20 pound class are an every day event and Lake Ontario serves up a lot of king salmon that top the scales at 30 pounds or more.
The average August coho on Lake Ontario comes in at about eight to 10 pounds, compared to five to six pounds on Lake Michigan and Huron. Adult king and coho salmon stage on the Niagara Bar and when the urge strikes them they run up the Niagara River. Meanwhile, the smaller and immature salmon tend to stay just off the bar in the deeper and cooler waters of Lake Ontario.
In November lake trout and brown trout run the Niagara River in preparation for spawning. Steelhead follow these fish into the river creating an amazing mixed bag plug fishery.
The same three way swivel rig discussed earlier equipped with the 3.0 Mag Lip plug is considered the standard way of catching these fish. On calm days guides simply turn their boat sideways to the current, lower their rigs to bottom and let the current naturally drift the boat downstream.
If the wind is blowing against the current, guides compensate by pointing their boat downstream and using the electric motor to move the boat downstream a little faster than the current. This unique presentation insures that the wobbling plugs will have maximum action.
The river plug bite gets going in November, peaks in December and weather permitting produces good catches of lakers, steelhead and brown trout all winter long.
There are lots of places in the Great Lakes that produce amazing trout, salmon and steelhead fishing, but none that offer up more consistently productive action and more rod bending species than the Niagara Bar and Niagara River.