For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve looked forward to the dog days of summer and salmon fishing on the Great Lakes.
It pains me to report that I only live about 50 miles from Lake Michigan, but these days most of my summer salmon fishing takes place six hours to the East on the New York waters of Lake Ontario.
Admittedly, the last two summers have produced some of the biggest Chinook salmon on record for Lake Michigan, but a big fish here or there does a poor job of making up for what overall has been tough salmon fishing in the Michigan waters of Lake Michigan.
In fairness, the Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan are producing better salmon fishing opportunities than the Michigan waters largely due to enhanced stocking efforts on behalf of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The Wisconsin DNR deserves a lot of credit for working to maintain the salmon fishing traditions of Lake Michigan.
Meanwhile, Michigan has put more emphasis on stocking lake trout than salmon. In part this is happening because Michigan is feeling pressure from the US Fish and Wildlife Service who’s management plans favor emphasis on native species. Stocking of lake trout is also part of management goals for the 2000 Great Lakes Consent Decree treaty. The decree regulates sport fish harvest among five different bands of Native Americans and also the State of Michigan.
Collectively lake trout plants from the USFW Service and additional plants required as part of the 2000 Consent Degree leave Michigan biologists reluctant to increase salmon stocking. The fear among Michigan biologists is that over stocking the lake with predators can potentially put too much pressure on the fragile Lake Michigan forage base. The current Great Lakes Consent Decree expires in August of 2020 and until a new treaty is agreed upon the future of Lake Michigan’s salmon fishery hangs in the balance.
While Michigan struggles to find the best salmon management path, New York understands that the tourism dollars are going to be spent where anglers can catch a mixed bag of salmon, steelhead, brown trout and lakers. Ironically, the good ole days of Great Lakes salmon fishing are here and clearly the most consistent action takes place on Lake Ontario.
PORTS TO EXPLORE
Literally all of the New York waters of Lake Ontario from the mouth of the Niagara River on the West to the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River on the East produce noteworthy Great Lakes fishing for Chinook, coho, steelhead, brown trout and lake trout. Most anglers traveling from Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio are spending the majority of their time on the Niagara Bar and east to the ports of Wilson and Olcott. The ports of Point Breeze, Rochester, Oswego and Henderson Harbor also produce outstanding fishing for those who don’t mind traveling a little further.
WORKING OUT THE TIMING
Much like Lake Michigan, Lake Ontario salmon embark on predictable migrations that are primarily driven by water temperature and the seasonal movements of important forage species like smelt and alewife. The western end of Lake Ontario winters significant numbers of Chinook and coho salmon.
In late April and throughout the month of May, warmer and nutrient rich waters from the Niagara River attract baitfish and in turn salmon to the famed Niagara Bar. In many years schools of smelt and alewife stick around and in turn salmon stay put on the Niagara Bar well into June, providing awesome fishing for weeks.
When salmon disappear from the Niagara Bar there is a pretty good chance they have simply moved off shore and towards the ports of Wilson, Olcott and Point Breeze. In most years the summer months find a mixture of Chinook, coho, steelhead and lake trout holding five to 10 miles off shore.
Depending on wind direction, water temperature and the movements of baitfish, salmon and trout can be found at Olcott, Wilson, Point Breeze and the Niagara Bar. By late August and early September typically the salmon are staging more consistently off the Niagara Bar in preparation for annual spawning runs into the Niagara River.
In the summer of 2019 a school of salmon took up residence on the Niagara Bar in July and the Fishing 411 TV crew were lucky enough to hear about these fish from some of our New York friends. To be blunt the fishing was world class and only a handful of anglers got in on the action.
In Lake Ontario, the most desirable water temperatures for salmon are found 50 to 80 feet down over 100 to 250 feet of water. Subsurface currents on Lake Ontario are a common issue anglers must be prepared for.
“I’d also be lost on Lake Ontario without my Fish Hawk X4D, speed and temperature probe,” says Captain Yablonsky. “We have so many crazy sub-surface currents on Lake Ontario, there is no way to be consistent without knowing what is happening below the surface.”
Local charter captains compensate for these currents by outfitting their downriggers with streamlined weights such as the popular Shark Cannonball that cut the water a little better than traditional round balls.
“For those anglers who decide to travel to Lake Ontario, coming prepared with some larger downrigger weights is a good idea,” says Jake Romanack of Fishing 411 TV. “The 10- and 12-pound downrigger weights commonly used on other Great Lakes waters are a touch on the light side for the heavy current situations often encountered on Lake Ontario. Instead I’d recommend 15- to 17-pound cannonballs for fishing Lake Ontario.”
Besides downriggers equipped with larger cannonballs, Lake Ontario trollers put a lot of effort into magnum-sized diving planers fished on wire line. “I depend heavily on the Slide Diver with the Magnum Ring,” says Captain Matt Yablonsky of Wet Net Fishing Charters. “Rigging my Slide-Divers using wire allows me to fish much deeper than rigging with super braid. Wire also allows me to double stack divers, putting more gear in that critical 50 to 80 foot depth range.”
Downriggers and wire diver rigs take the lion share of the salmon on Lake Ontario during the summer, but sinking lines such as lead core, stranded copper wire and weighted stainless wire are also important fish producers.
“When fishing sinking lines it’s best to rig them as a segment of sinking line knotted between a backing line and a fluorocarbon leader,” adds Romanack. “I start with a Daiwa 50 size Saltist level-wind reel and spool on 200 yards of 20 pound test monofilament for a backing line. Next I add the desired amount of lead core or Torpedo Weighted Stainless Wire and finish with a 50 foot length of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader material.”
Lead core can be attached to backing lines and leaders using the double uni knot. When fishing weighted stainless steel wire, a small barrel swivel is the best way to connect the sinking wire to the backing line and also leader material. Torpedo Divers produces their own swivels for terminating wire line set ups.
The nice thing about fishing segmented sinking lines is they can be matched up with in-line boards like the famous Off Shore Tackle Side-Planer to fish these lines out beyond the diving planer lines and cover more water.
“Our typical summer time Lake Ontario set up consists of eight lines including a 10 color of lead core on the outside board line, 300 feet of Torpedo Diver Weighted Stainless Wire on the inside board line, a Slide Diver on a No.1 setting and a downrigger for each side of the boat,” adds Romanack. “This eight-rod set up pretty much saturates the water column from 50 feet down to as deep as necessary to contact fish.”
In-line planer lines can easily be rigged so when a fish strikes, the line trips from the tow arm release, but remains attached to the line via a second clip mounted at the back of the board. “We set up our Off Shore Tackle boards with an OR19 orange release on the tow arm and an OR16 Snap Weight Clip at the back of the board,” says Romanack. “This set up allows us to trip the board when a fish is hooked and fight that fish without having to fight both the board and the fish. Rigging this way also eliminates any need to clear lines to fight fish.”
For fishermen who want to release their boards, but prefer to use super braids as the backing line, the Off Shore board can be rigged with a Sam’s Release produced by Silverhorde Tackle Company on the tow arm and an OR18 Snapper Release from Off Shore at the back of the board.
The nice thing about Off Shore boards is they can be rigged with a multitude of different releases making them useful for all sorts of trolling situations. “Instead of having to buy “walleye boards” for walleye fishing and “salmon boards” for salmon fishing, I simply switch out the releases on my boards to match whatever type of fishing I’m doing currently,” explains Romanack.
All the popular salmon tackle routinely takes fish on Lake Ontario. In the summer time the Fishing 411 crew splits time fishing a mixture of gear including Magnum Silver Streak Spoons, rotators with flies, rotators with meat rigs, 3.5 Mag Lip plugs and a new cut-plug from Yakima Bait called the SpinFish.
“The SpinFish is a rotating plug that can be taken apart and filled with scent, pieces of cut bait, tuna fish, etc.,” says Romanack. “We only had a handful of these new lures to try in a few select colors, but we were able to catch fish consistently on the SpinFish rigging it on a downrigger about 72 inches behind a four-inch Fish Flash attractor. We stuffed ours with Pro Cure Super Gel in the Bloody Tuna formula a scent product that has produced exceptionally well for us over the years.”
Others are finding success with the SpinFish rigging it in combination with the same rotators commonly used to fish meat rigs and salmon flies. “As time goes on I expect the SpinFish will become a staple among Great Lakes salmon trollers,” says Captain Matt Yablonsky of Wet Net Fishing Charters. “The ability to keep a long-lasting scent stream in the water is huge for salmon fishing.”
Over the years the Fishing 411 crew has come to the conclusion that magnum-sized trolling spoons produce best on Lake Ontario. Lake Ontario has a lot of alewives in all year classes. Magnum spoons including classic colors such as Green Dolphin, Metallic Green Froggie, Glo Froggie, Green Skirt, Veggy Delight and Green Chilly Willy are lights out for salmon on Lake Ontario.
Mixing different kinds of terminal tackle can be a slippery slope. Not all the popular salmon gear fishes well at the same speeds. The once popular herring dodger is a good example of terminal tackle that is very speed sensitive.
Dodgers typically fish best at the slower end of salmon speed, while rotators, plugs, spoons, Fish Flash and cut-plugs have the best action at moderate to faster trolling speeds. This is precisely why rotators have largely replaced dodgers for a majority of salmon fishing applications.
One noteworthy exception is the use of dodgers and flies for coho. In this case, most captains and recreational anglers are fishing all their lines with the dodger/fly combination and targeting coho specifically rather than other trout and salmon species.
WRAPPING IT UP
It’s not much of a debate. The best salmon fishing in the Great Lakes is happening on Lake Ontario. The spring salmon fishing on Lake Ontario gets all the media attention, but the fact is summer salmon fishing on Lake Ontario is second to none. The dog days of summer are the perfect time for a road trip.
- written by Mark Romanack (Fishing 411 TV)