Coming from the West Coast catching a double-digit brown is a once in a lifetime experience, for most. Nevertheless, if you live in Oswego, New York, and troll Lake Ontario, catching a 10-pound brown matches the feat of landing a 3-pound stocked rainbow out West.
“A 10-pound brown is a nice fish, but last year we caught one to two of those on almost every trip,” says guide Troy Creasy of High Adventure Sport Fishing.
Similar to the Milwaukee Harbor experience on the western shore of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, eastern Lake Ontario’s brown trout fishing is almost surreal to West Coast anglers. Staggering growth rates, aggressive stocking, and great water quality help categorize five-pounders here as “dinks”.
“Boy I hate to call them dinks, but a five-pounder is about as small as we get them most days,” Creasy adds. “We are blessed with a tremendous fishery.”
Roughly 25 miles north of Syracuse, the city of Oswego is situated on the eastern end of Lake Ontario. It’s one of the few fisheries in North America that is on the rise, and in a big way. While this Great Lake is enormous, which can be intimidating (193 miles long, 53 miles wide, 712 miles of shoreline and depths to 802 feet) the browns are concentrated and readily available in the spring.
“The opportunity for a world-class fish that isn’t as available on the West Coast is a daily thing here. You can catch browns here that many areas don’t have,” says Creasy. “We expect numbers. It’s typical to land a dozen browns in a half-day outing and many days we’ll catch a lot more. There’s stupid days where we’ll do a dozen in a hour, but that doesn’t happen every day.”
While Lake Ontario has yet to yield consistent numbers of 20-pound plus fish the way Racine and Milwaukee has done in recent years the average size of Ontario’s browns has been increasing. Today it takes 17 pounds or greater to get Creasy excited. In fact, these big browns take a back seat to the lake’s banner steelhead and king salmon fishery, which are a portion of the daily catch, too.
“The browns are here all year, but we only fish for them in the spring,” Creasy adds. “In the summer we only fish for the browns if the kings refuse to bite. It’s just not that big of a deal to catch a 10-pound brown anymore. There’s a lot of them out there.”
Aggressive stocking keeps the eastern end of Lake Ontario littered with short, yet stout browns. Rather than long and slender, these fish resemble footballs. They beef up on baitfish and can put on up to a half-pound per month.
“There’s certain areas of the lake that tend to be stocked with more browns because they do better and the eastern basin gets a lot of those browns,” notes Creasy. “There are browns all over the lake and some great fishing for them on the west end as well, but they really congregate here in the spring.”
Historically, Lake Ontario sees hundreds of thousands of browns stocked in its waters on the U.S. side. Canada plants some, too, but their stocking program is more reserved.
Browns are reared at the Salmon River Hatchery. Stocked in May at an average of seven inches (yearlings) these fish have a tendency to breach three pounds within 12 months. Many, however, grow much quicker.
“Some of them are actually way bigger. I’ll catch five-pound browns that are just over a year old, but they all don’t grow that fast,” Creasy says. “Our growth rates are amazing though. We have browns that have been in the lake for two years that are bigger than 10 pounds.”
Creasy attributes much of the success to the folks at the Salmon River Hatchery. Of the browns that are stocked specifically in Oswego County waters, there’s a high survival rate, likely because these fish are dumped off barges. According to Creasy, the state drives their brown trout onto barges which motor offshore prior to releasing the fish. The browns are scattered over a large area to increase survival and also avoid being bird food.
While browns are stocked throughout Lake Ontario barge stocking only takes place on the eastern end. The practice is successful. In 2011, creel surveys pinned the average weight of a brown living in the lake one year at 5.5 pounds. That’s greater than previous years by a bunch, Creasy says. Keep in mind, growth rates change annually. This year, Creasy believes that the number will rise.
“If the lake stays warmer the baitfish survive better and can stay in shallower water. When the lake gets real cold the baitfish have to go deep to find warmer water and when they do that there’s less food for the browns,” Creasy explains. “In the coldest years there are bait die-offs, but that’s not going to happen this year. The temperatures are really warm. The browns are going to eat better and expend far less energy doing so.”
Warmer temperatures aren’t the norm in this section of the Snow Belt.
Winters are historically brutal here. Meanwhile, the rare warm winter enables the food cycle to churn more rapidly than normal and fish to grow quicker than on an average year. Browns use alewives and gobies to produce staggering growth rates. These baitfish drive the entire cold water fishery on Lake Ontario.
“The warmer water allows the predator fish to be more active and feed during the winter. We see bigger fish when the water is warmer,” Creasy adds. “The colder water makes them more lethargic and grow slower. We don’t have that problem this year.”
Browns are caught year-round near Oswego. Nevertheless, May is the official kickoff. Spring brings the browns shallow into warmer water to feed. When the sun starts to warm the shoreline the browns come in droves.
“It’s pretty simple. The nearshore temperatures are warming. That brings the baitfish in and the browns follow the bait,” explains Creasy. “The shallow shoreline warms up the fastest. The Oswego River area is good because it’s one of the largest tributaries into the lake and the Oswego warms quicker than some of the other rivers as well.”
In May, the connection between warming shallow water and migrating baitfish combines to draw browns to the bank. Most days, the bite is incredible, although wind can ax all success, too.
“If we have an offshore wind it can make the fishing tougher because it takes that good, warm, bait filled water, sucks it offshore and scatters the fish,” Creasy explains. “From Oswego the wind we don’t want to see would be considered a south or east wind. That’s our worst wind.”
Despite fishing out of a 31-foot Penn-Yan wind cancels charters. Keep in mind trolling Lake Ontario is more similar to an ocean than a lake. On the other hand, when winds don’t howl the bite is no short of incredible.
Spring is marked by flat-lining F-9 and F-11 Floating Rapalas, Smithwick Rattlin Rogues and small spoons like Dreamweaver Super Slims and Eppinger Evil Eyes, each of which is intended to imitate baitfish.
“Nearshore there’s difference fish for the browns to feed on. The alewives are our main forage fish, but in the spring our nearshore bait is emerald shiners, sticklebacks, smelt, and round gobies,” notes Creasy. “There are so many gobies in here that the browns are gorging on them, but they spend a lot of time eating alewives, too.”
Considering the massive numbers of baitfish in Lake Ontario it’s surprising that the browns strike stick baits. Nonetheless, in April and May those trolling in five feet of water or less stay busy with action.
“We’ll put the balls down three feet if we are in five feet of water just to get the lures off the surface,” explains Creasy. “I’m trolling a 31-foot boat in five feet of water with planer boards. A lot of times I’m in five feet and my lures are in three feet, but browns are that shallow. In fact, sometimes I’m in five feet and the guys with smaller boats will be in two feet of water trolling. Think about it; if the lake is 36 degrees and it’s 40 degrees right on the bank those browns will be in that 40-degree water so you have to be able to troll shallow. Your warmest water is right in the sand and in the rocks.”
Consequently, the gin-clear water forces anglers to downsize tackle. Creasy runs eight-pound Maxima Ultra Green on his mainline and six or eight-pound Maxima fluorocarbon on his leaders.
“We’ll run six-pound test for browns that can reach 20 pounds,” Creasy says. “It can be tough sometimes, though. It’s not uncommon to have triples in the shallows, which can make things a bit tricky.”
Browns pin themselves to the bank in April and May. Normally, by June warming water sends them deeper. While they’ll remain in the same geographical area expect them to dive into 20-60 feet.
“As the water warms they slip out and down. Once the thermocline forms, they’ll move with it. They don’t move to other parts of the lake, they’ll just move deeper,” Creasy says. “In June sometimes I’ll have lures in 10, 30 and 60 feet because the water will all be the same temperature before the thermocline forms and you need to cover more water. The browns are still gorging in June, but the fish are in a larger territory and become harder to target.”
Come July and throughout summer the browns remain, yet anglers focus on steelhead, king salmon and the occasional silver or Atlantic salmon. Browns almost become a nuisance.
Imagine that. A five to fifteen-pound brown being no big deal.
In Oswego, it happens everyday from in late spring and early summer.
- written by Chris Shaffer
If You Plan To Make The Trip:
Where: Oswego, New York (25 miles north of Syracuse)
Transportation: Most major airlines service Syracuse International Airport
When: April through June is peak season
Why: World class brown trout fishing on Lake Ontario
Tourist Info: Oswego County Tourism: visitoswegocounty.com
Guided Fishing Trips: Captain Troy Creasy highadventurefishing.com
Local Tackle Shops: Fat Nancy’s and All Seasons Sports in Pulaski