Lake Ontario Mixed Bag by Jarod Higginbotham

Lake Ontario Mixed Bag by Jarod Higginbotham

great lakes mackinaw

Recently, I was invited by good friends Mark and Jake Romanack of Fishing 411 Television to join them for a TV shoot on the famed Niagara Bar. One of the hottest destinations in the Great Lakes, the “Bar” as the locals refer to it is located where the Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario. 

For a few short days we all planned to converge on the historic city of Lewiston, New York. Nearby Fort Niagara is strategically located at the mouth of the Niagara River and is considered to be one of the earliest colonial settlements in the Upper Great Lakes region.

Modern day Lewiston is a quiet tourist town that attracts visitors who are anxious to get a glimpse of Niagara Falls. Lewiston also attracts countless fishermen who target trout and salmon in the lower Niagara River and also on nearby Lake Ontario.

In late April and throughout the month of May staggering numbers of kings, coho, brown and lake trout show up on the bar and run headlong into spawning smelt. The structure that forms the Niagara Bar is part of the famed Niagara Escarpment, an outcropping of rock that runs east and west connecting Ontario to New York and the Upper Great Lakes.

I’ve fished other Great Lakes waters for trout and salmon, but this was going to be my first trip to Lake Ontario. Making the trek from my home in Zillah, Washington to Lewiston, New York required a grueling 16 travel hours complete with three connecting flights!

Jake met my flight at Buffalo International Airport about 1:30 in the a.m! A trip nearly a year in the making, sleep was optional and we immediately started working on a game plan to best approach Lake Ontario’s spring salmon. Unfortunately our time in New York was going to be short and the weather wasn’t looking good.

One of the goals we kicked around was to apply some of my favorite plug fishing secrets to see how well plugging “west coast style” might work on Great Lakes salmon and trout.

It’s interesting to note that the lures and baits salmon anglers use on the west coast are similar in many ways to the those favored by Great Lakes salmon fishermen. The biggest difference is not so much in the baits, but rather the presentations used to get this gear in front of fish. 


Three different kinds of sinking lines are popular among Great Lakes trollers including lead core, copper line and weighted stainless wire. Lead core line has been around a long time, it’s user friendly and is typically used to target fish in the top 50 feet of the water column. Copper line has gained a following on the Great Lakes because it’s heavier than lead core and fishes deeper. Unfortunately, copper line isn’t user friendly and tends to kink, backlash on reels and tangle endlessly.

A new product known as weighted stainless wire is rapidly replacing copper line on the Great Lakes. Weighted stainless wire is about the same weight as copper line, fishes about the same depths and is very resistant to backlashes and tangles.

All three of these weighted lines are fished by sandwiching a pre-determined segment of sinking line (100, 200, 300 feet, etc.,) between a 50 foot length of fluorocarbon leader and a generous amount of monofilament backing line. The lure, fluorocarbon leader and all the sinking line is played out behind the boat until the backing line is reached. An in-line planer board like the popular Off Shore Tackle Side-Planer is placed on the backing line and the board allowed to pull the sinking line and lure out to the side of the boat.


The Fishing 411 guys do a lot of fishing with sinking lines and also in-line planer boards. Their “go to” spring salmon set up incorporates six board lines (three per side) including a pair of five color (150 feet) lead core rigs, a pair of 10 color (300 feet) lead core rigs and a pair of 300 feet weighted stainless wire rigs.

All these sinking line set ups feature 20-pound test Maxima Ultra Green as backing line. “We use monofilament as backing material because it enables us to rig our planer boards to release when a fish strikes,” says Jake Romanack. “Because we’re stacking two or three boards per side of the boat, it’s critical that the boards can be released when a fish is hooked. This allows us to fight fish without having to clear other planer board lines.”

Jake and Mark like the Off Shore Tackle Side-Planer because it comes factory equipped with a heavy tension pinch pad style line release on the tow arm of the board and a Snap Weight Clip mounted to the back of the board. The Snap Weight Clip looks like an ordinary line release, but it features a plastic pin between the rubber jaw pads. When the clip is opened and the line placed behind the plastic pin, the board is fixed onto the line.

Picture a spread of six planer boards (three per side) and a fish is hooked on the outside board. By simply giving the rod tip a little snap, the line can be tripped from the tow arm release, leaving the board attached to the line only by the OR16 Snap Weight Clip. Because the board is at this point no longer planing out to the side, the struggling fish pulls the rig from the side of the boat directly to the back of the boat. The fish is in turn reeled and landed without having to clear the middle or inside board lines.

To get the best from this board set up we ran spoons on the outside and middle boards and Mag Lip plugs on the inside boards. The outside board is fishing closest to the surface, the middle board a little deeper and the inside board is fishing the deepest. We finished out the rig by running another pair of Mag Lip plugs on our downrigger lines.

In part our goal was to prove a point that fished properly plugs catch as many fish as spoons. In recent years the Fishing 411 guys have done exceptionally well trolling Mag Lip plugs in various sizes for salmon, lake trout, brown trout and steelhead. On this particular trip we had plans to take plug fishing to the next level. 

Fishing plugs in combination with sinking lines like lead core makes it possible to fish these productive lures at depths much greater than they would normally run. Secondly, using in-line boards provides the advantage of covering much more water than would be possible with conventional products like diving planers or downriggers.

Both the inside board lines were fishing a Mag Lip 3.5 plug treated with Pro Cure Bloody Tuna Super Gel. The downriggers were used to fish 60 and 80 feet down using a 4.5 and 5.0 Mag Lip respectively.

Seven feet in front of these plugs we ran a 6-inch Big Al Fish Flash and completed the set up by wrapping the belly of these plugs with strips of fresh frozen herring held in place with a stretchy thread. Wrapping plugs with strips of herring, anchovy or other baitfish is a common practice on the west coast, but something anglers in the Great Lakes have not yet embraced.

Wrapping a plug with thin strips of baitfish doesn’t change the lure’s action, but it significantly helps the bait set up a powerful scent stream in the water. A wrapped plug provides a good scent stream for about 30 minutes. At that point many anglers simply use an after market scent like Pro Cure fish oils or gels to recharge the scent stream.

plugs fishing


When using attractors like the Fish Flash in combination with plugs, I like to color match. If the plug I’m using is predominately chartreuse or orange, those are the same colors I’m going to select when picking out a Fish Flash. In the clear waters of the Great Lakes it’s also critical to rig the fish flash five to seven feet in front of trailing lures. The clearer the water, the longer the leader between the Fish Flash and the lure needs to be.


We started our fishing adventure at a popular spot east of what is called “The Red Can” in 60-100 feet of water on a tip from one of Yakima Bait’s pro staffers in Lake Ontario, Matt Yablonsky. The tip paid off in great fashion as Mark, Jake and I boated multiple lake trout on day one of our pre-fishing adventure on all sizes of Mag Lip crankbaits as well as spoons. Interestingly our best lake trout bait was a Mag Lip 5.0 wrapped with herring fillets.

On previous trips to other Great Lakes waters I’ve seen wrapped plugs out-produce the “go to” baits like spoons, rotators and fly combinations, etc. Catching a steady diet of lake trout was a bonus, but the next day filming was starting and the goal was to produce a mixed bag.

On filming day Jake, videographer/editor Gabe Van Wormer and myself hit the water at dawn. Jake and I were beyond excited to get back out on the water and apply what we learned the day before. Luck and a short, but good weather window were on our side.

We started our troll a little west of the red can and headed east along the 80 to 100 foot break-line with a spread planer board and downrigger lines! In the first few hundred feet of trolling we hit a lake trout double, both on Mag lip 3.5 on our inside board lines, one on a finish known as “payday” and the other on metallic gold flame. The lake trout were both around 15 pounds which are typical of Lake Ontario trout.

As the morning wore on we continued to catch a steady diet of lake trout with most of the fish coming on the 3.5 plugs on boards and a few bonus fish on the 5.0 plugs fished on the riggers. The day before most of our action came on the riggers armed with 5.0 Mag Lip. We opted to switch out the 5.0 Mag Lip baits on the riggers with smaller 3.5 models to see if we could yield a different result.

We barely had the downriggers set with smaller plugs when our first salmon of the day t-boned a “payday”, a popular color that’s metallic chartreuse with red wings on the side. Jake was closest and grabbed the pounding downrigger rod. About 10 minutes later our first “dime bright” spring Chinook was flopping in the net.

We were in the middle of high fives, silly grins, and Facebook photos when one of the inside boards with another 3.5 Mag Lip ripped back. Judging by how fast the board was skipping backwards it was obvious we were hooked into another Chinook.

This time it was my turn and I got to experience what a trophy fish on 300 feet of weighted wire feels like! Lake Ontario is known for producing lots of king salmon in the 20-25 pound range. Landing one of these brutes on wire line with the boat still trolling is no easy task. In less than 20 minutes we boated two quality fish, both on plugs.

After another brief picture session the celebration was over and it was time to get to work refining our pattern! One of the cool things about fishing is that times like this give us the unique opportunity to verify what we “think we know” about catching fish.

About 10 minutes slipped by without any action. We were just about to pull lines and head back upwind to set up on the waypoints that produced earlier when two rods fired at the same time including a downrigger and, you guessed it an inside board line.

The rigger fish turned out to be another big lake trout, but the board line was pinned with our third Chinook of the season. This king ripped on another 3.5 Mag Lip, this time in a color known as NFL. The NFL color is silver with a red herringbone down the side. This color isn’t available in the 3.5 Mag Lip line up, but Mark and Jake used the Yakima Custom Color program to order a few dozen 3.5 NFL models for themselves and their fishing buddies.

salmon fishing great lakes

Back at the dock we spent a lot of time visiting with other anglers. We were the only boat with more than one king in the bag. On this trip it looked like we were on the front edge of the spring bite and it was obvious that very few kings were around. That’s when it started to sink in that in a tough salmon bite our plug set up not only worked, it worked better than the gear local anglers use day in and day out.

I am fortunate in my job that it takes me to these bucket list destinations to not only learn, but also to be able to teach different methods and share ideas with others who have the same passion for fishing as I do. Incorporating plugs like the Mag Lip into Great Lakes salmon and trout trolling set ups has helped us boat a lot of salmon, lake trout, browns and steelhead.

Wrapping plugs and using quality scent products like Pro Cure to create a scent stream in the water has dramatically refined our plug fishing strategies. Also, understanding that plug size can and does make a difference on any given day is a critical piece of the puzzle.

As salmon anglers we tend to gravitate towards the larger plug sizes like the 4.5 and 5.0, but clearly there are days with the smaller 3.5 and even 3.0 plugs are what the fish want. Staying flexible on the water and being willing to work the gear is what it takes to be successful targeting salmon and trout.

My thanks to dear friends Mark, Jake and Mari Romanack for inviting me on a trip I will never forget. Everyone can enjoy the action when this episode airs on World Fishing Network during the first and second quarters of 2017. Anglers can also see this episode on line by visiting the web site and simply clicking on the TV Episode pull down menu.

- Jarod Higginbotham

Yakima Bait Co. 

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