Lake Ontario: Shallow Multi-Species Mayhem
January 06, 2018
Captain Frank Campbell motored us out of the Niagara River mouth and onto Lake Ontario. In the one second it took to cross from river to lake we were accompanied by 76,000 cubic feet of water. As we cruised to a spot where we could see boulders in the shallows near shore.
Ontario's 53 miles of breadth and 193 miles of fetch brought surprisingly light winds for April, but 40°F water chilled the air. Campbell hunted for a pocket of warmer water rolling up the shoreline from the Niagara. When he found it, Matt Carufel of Lindy and I stood and rifled out a pair of tubes on 1/4-ounce jigs. We had two portly smallmouths in the boat before Campbell could get the trolling motor down. Over the next 20 minutes, the three of us pulled another dozen big bronzebacks into the boat.
"Uh," I stammered as line began racing off the spool. "This is no bass." It was a 10-pound lake trout. Suddenly, grey ghosts were everywhere, scissoring through pods of smelt and ripping into anything that moved. We started catching them two and three at a time. But the highlight of the day was a bulging 14-pound brown trout—also taken with a tube. Three species, all on one lure type, and all from one rolling pocket of water a few degrees warmer than the rest of the lake.
"What, no steelhead or salmon? No muskies?" I joked.
Campbell smiled. "Don't be a hog," he laughed. "But don't be surprised if one of those shows up on the end of your line. April is definitely a multi-species bonanza. Everything moves into those warmer pockets inshore, drawing big fish of every species. Bass fishing is catch-and-release only until the third Saturday in June, but you can target them."
Seasons for lake trout, salmon, steelhead and browns are either always open or already open in early spring. To target all those species with one lure at a time, Campbell has several suggestions. "Try swimming a Strike King EZ Shiner or grub on a 1/8- to 14-ounce jig," he said. "Suspending jerk baits, tubes, and soft jerks catch everything at times, too. The water has to climb up over 40°F before you see any bass in these areas, but as soon as the ice leaves the harbors you can catch trout and salmon on minnowbaits, and casting or trolling spoons."
It's a small-boat program that time of year because it's inshore and you're always targeting areas less than 10 feet deep. "Fishing is slow and deliberate with jerk baits, but you can walk a tube pretty fast," Campbell said. "Maybe let it sit for longer pauses on bottom. Even lakers will pluck a tube off bottom at times. I use a 1/4-ounce insert jig most of the time. Color isn't as critical as some other times of year, but a lot of smelt are moving around so grey, smoke, some blue flake, and natural colors are great. Water is really clear in spring, so you have to look for stained water where they're less spooky. You hunt in the direction of the wind, downwind from the creeks. Especially after a rain, creek mouths will dump the warmest water you can find into the lakes."
Captain John Oravec, owner of Troutman Charters, loves early spring on Lake Ontario. "This time frame is dynamic as the season changes from winter to spring," he said. "Harbor mouths, pier heads, shorelines, and the Niagara Bar become super hot for early drift and trolling action. Inflowing tributaries like 4 Mile Creek, 12 Mile Creek, and 18 Mile Creek in Niagara County all spew warmer water from snow melt and spring rains, drawing browns and coho salmon into the shallows. Oak Orchard River in Orleans County is another exceptional area as big drop-back, fall-run browns join the crowding cohos and lakers."
Lake-run browns swarm all Lake Ontario shorelines by early April every year. "Areas farther east, like Oswego, Sodus, and Rochester turn on first, especially during rainy, wet springs," Oravec said. "The tin boat fleet gets happy casting around the piers casting then shoreline trolling, looking for 45°F pockets when the rest of the lake is 40°F. Planer-board tactics with small stick-baits rule. The best program features smaller 2.5-to 3-inch floating-diving sticks from Rapala, Bomber, Storm, Yo-Zuri, and Challenger. Match colors to water condition, which can vary from outright mud to gin-clear. I favor fluorrescent orange and hot fire-tiger variations in cloudy water, and black-silver, green silver or black-gold outside the mud lines. If coho are in the reports, go heavy on the bright orange and hot pink."
Looking for spring kings? "The Niagara flow rapidly warms up the shorelines where smelt and alewives draw in masses of lunker spring kings off the Niagara Bar," Oravec said. "It's some of the best fishing for spring kings found anywhere in the Great Lakes. To get the skivvy on that and all the other hot bites along the shoreline, contact Narby's or Creek Road bait-and-tackle shops, or the Oak Orchard Fly shop (contact information below)."
Over in Henderson Harbor, Excursion Charters owner, Captain Dave Lee looks for the warmest temperature bands he can find before setting up to troll. "Most of the lake will be in the upper 30°F to mid 40°F range," Lee said. "The warmest water will be pinned to the shorelines, and a lot of people really enjoy the mixed-bag, inshore fishing. We're always hunting in 20 feet of water or lessâ€”often 10 feet or less—looking for the warmest water. Creek mouths are key. Not only for the warmer temperature bands, but for color. The water coming out in spring will be cloudy or stained and that's often how we find the warmest water and the hottest bites."
Lee trolls big planer boards off masts with 6 to 8 lines total."We run a minimum of 6 with 3 on each side," he said. "Depending on the day and the conditions, we're using unweighted stickbaits—Storm Thundersticks, Rapalas, Renosky's says things like that when the primary forage is smelt or alewives. My inside boards are hottest because browns try to drive fish into the shoreline. It's a barrier trout and salmon use to corral bait. We might run some medium-weight spoons in the mix. Stingers and Dream Weavers only get down a couple feet, which is perfect. Trout will rise 20 feet to hit a bait and, on the other hand, they often suspend. You don't want to run lures beneath the fish."
Speed can be critical. "Usually we're trolling even faster than summer to get a reactionary bite," Lee said. "Speed also makes the sticks and spoons work more erratically. Steelhead often join the fray inshore—staging near river mouths before running upstream or dropping back after spawning. Steelhead are fast fish. You can't troll fast enough to outrun one. People love to see steelhead hit because they immediately go airborne. Lures are close to the surface, so all species of fish boil on top immediately after biting. It's visual and exciting. Looking at the Oswego River, the Black, and the Sand River you can see a little greenish bloom on the satellite images, indicating where the warmest water is. Sand beaches warm up quicker, too. Three things: Temperature, bait, and creeks where the water is discolored.
Spring trade winds push warm water against the Eastern shoreline of Lake Ontario. The mud line coming out of the Oswego River typically tracks east, and trout ease along it, using the cloudy water as cover, circling in the warmest pockets. Browns in the 3- to 6-pound range are most common, but plenty of trout bend the scales to 14 pounds or more. Cohos, steelhead, lakers, bass, and walleyes join the mayhem when baitfish concentrate in the warmest water. Anglers can wade shorelines near creeks, fish the piers and harbors, or join the small-craft "tin fleet" as Oravec calls it and troll or cast the mud lines, finding those key spots where warm water piles up. Because all the action is shallow and concentrated, spring offers a great opportunity for fly fishermen to catch lifetime-best numbers of behemoth browns, steelhead, salmon and lake trout.
The months of March and April on Lake Ontario might comprise the most prolific multi-species wrangle anywhere in North America. How many of us can say we've caught 7 or 8 trophies in one day, each representing a different specie? Not knowing what will bite next, or how big it might be, is the kind of mystery that makes spring fishing so popular on the eastern frontier of the Great Lakes.