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Lake Ontario Fall Tributary Fishing

Lake Ontario Fall Tributary Fishing

Lake Ontario's tributaries offer some of the best salmon, steelhead and trout fishing in the world. And the hottest fishing of the year on the tributaries that feed Lake Ontario takes places after the first snow flies in November and December. Book a guide to float one of the Ontario region's amazing rivers or pack your waders and discover these waters for yourself in late fall where uncrowded waters and massive brown trout, steelhead and salmon await. A trip I took to this amazing fisher last fall bolsters the argument made by many that Lake Ontario's tributaries may harbor the best fly fishing in America.

At 0°F, in the civil twilight before dawn, the Niagara River looked worse than a mosh pit at a rock concert. Ice floes swept past from bank-to-bank in the massive current that drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario.

Captain Frank Campbell pulled into the parking lot and I walked over. He opened the window. "Guess we're not going," I said.

"Why not?" he replied. He assured us ice would not be a problem, backed his Lund down the ramp and away we went—hull rattling against ice chunks all the way upriver to a likely drift where shoreline points slowed the sub-freezing current (the surface registered below 32°F all day).

It was cold. It was nasty. But we had the river—and all the Niagara's mighty steelhead and lakers—to ourselves. "November to December is my favorite time of year," Campbell said, as he slipped the net under our fifth big rainbow in under an hour. "Thanksgiving to Christmas is when we see 20- to 30-fish days for steelhead. The Niagara stays warm longer in fall, then stays colder longer in spring because it drains Lake Erie, which cools slowly then warms slowly, extending our season. We can catch open-water smallmouths at Christmas. Our cold-water season begins in late October when the steelhead start coming in behind the king salmon."


Campbell uses trout beads (8 to 10 mm), yarn balls, or spawn bags tied with 4 or 5 salmon eggs on a three-way rig and tries to keep the lines vertical as he drifts over 10- to 25-foot depths. "We have spawning browns, steelhead, and a sizable run of lakers coming up the river in November. The lake-trout run starts in November, peaks around Thanksgiving, and is done by Christmas. Some specimens of each species reach 20 pounds or more. Though the average overall is around 8 pounds—some years fish run much bigger."

Why Fall Works

Less pressure, less pleasure-boat traffic, and more fish are concentrated in upriver areas where spawning habitat is strong and kings are on beds—those are Campbell's reasons for favoring late fall and early winter.

"Bad-weather days end up being the best, believe it or not," he said. "Weather can be anything from 30°F to 60°F. November always has some of the worst weather—freezing rain—but trout fishing is awesome. Up to this past year we've had no dedicated stocking of browns, but this year the New York Dept. of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) stocked 25,000 browns and will continue stocking for next several years. The prognosis is really good because browns grow giant here. We popped a 31-pounder last year and I've had one other over 30 in my boat on the Niagara."

While we were dodging ice floes and popping rainbows upriver, my good friend Captain John Oravec (the legendary Troutman) was a few miles below us catching walleyes up to 12 pounds and two muskies over 47 inches with emerald shiners.

"We catch everything later than the entire surrounding region," Campbell said. "We did really well last year on smallmouths in the second week of December. We caught everything that week—smallies, steelhead, lakers, browns, walleyes. We target bass with jigging spoons and swimbaits in depths of around 30 feet. For sure, this is the best time overall and the best time for mixed bags."


Walk and Wade

You can walk down into the Niagara canyon and fish from the bank, but foot soldiers find dozens of other streams feeding Lake Ontario that have extended seasons for trout and salmon. Brian Kelly, avid angler and outdoor writer, will be out there somewhere.

"Oak Orchard Creek is extremely good for browns in November and early December, then the steelhead run in force," Kelly said when I caught up to him later. "It's a world-renowned brown-trout stream. People come from all over to fish Oak Orchard. It's wadable for about 5 miles below the dam. The frog water down low is the place to look for staging browns, and there is a lot of public access. It's wide and shallow, no boats—lots of gravel bars and pocket water. Beads under floats work really well there for everything.

"Most of the time it's pretty clear, and even tiny size 6 mm beads can be really effective," Kelly added. "Oak Orchard is one of the nation's premier streams for browns weighing 20 pounds or more. Always a handful of teenagers around you somewhere that time of year. You can see browns moving through, one after another. I've never seen a spot around the Great Lakes with more giant browns moving through."

Another Kelly favorite is South Sandy Creek. "It's the Betsy of the East," says the Michigan expatriate. "It's a real gem. Lots of slate and gravel substrates. It winds through forest country for 10 miles below an old low-head dam—just like the Betsy River in Michigan. Floats and spawn bags work wonders there for a good mix of browns and steelhead. No pressure at all once the snow starts to fly."


Johnson Creek, says Kelly, is smaller in size and really water dependent. "But after a good rain the browns ram up it and the fishing is almost Alaskan. Even this little creek is among the streams mapped for public access on the NYDEC website (links below)."

Vince Tobia has been a Cattaraugus Creek Outfitters fly fishing guide for 18 years, and loves to wander the many streams between the Cattaraugus (actually on Erie) and Rochester, New York. "We're sandwiched between both lakes and late fall the best time for lake-run trout and salmon," Tobia said. "We guide on Oak Orchard, 18-Mile Creek, and a bunch of smaller Lake Ontario streams—all wade fishing. Countless creeks and rivulets flowing into the lake have runs of trout. The larger they are, the more fish they get—but the more people also. But few of these streams are navigable, so we don't have to deal with boats."

Tobia's clients swing streamers, or dead-drift with egg patterns and nymphs. "For steelhead and browns, a 10-foot, 8-weight with a floating line and an 8- to 10-pound tippet is optimum for handling a rogue salmon if you hook one. Kings will still be around in November, but fresh coho-salmon can begin running in November, and they can be highly aggressive."

Farther east is the world-famous Salmon River, where Mark Sabia is a partner in Lazy Larry's Bead business and president of the Oswego County Guides Association. "I'm mostly steelhead fishing in the Salmon River, Black River or Oswego River from late fall through winter," Sabia said. "November and December is a good time. Fish are active, bright silver and hot. When you hook one it goes ballistic because the water's still a little warm. They follow salmon up to gorge themselves on eggs. Our primary tactic is float fishing with beads or bait using centerpin rods. Most of our rods are 10 to 13.5 feet long. When spinning we use a 10.5-foot rod and our centerpins are 11.5 to 13.5 footers. We drift to spots and use drift boats as fishing platforms while anchored. If the water's low we might get out and wade. Main lines are 10-pound test, leaders are 5- and 6-pound Drennen fluorocarbon, and we use size #8 Red Wing Black Bird hooks most of the time."


The Salmon runs through Pulaski near the lake, but upriver the scenery is pristine and reminiscent of places much wilder. "Sometimes we walk in," Sabia said. "It's a beautiful river with lots of wild scenery, turkeys, deer, the occasional fox or otter. You feel like you're away from civilization. The river has only one steep rapids called The Staircase right in Pulaski. Otherwise it's an idyllic river to drift."

Be ready for anything, weather-wise. "You never know—might be beautiful sunny and warm, might be a downpour, might be a white-out blizzard," Sabia said. "That's part of the charm. We're on the east end of Ontario and lake effect snow or rain can come out of nowhere. Very diverse weather in late fall, early winter, but so worth it. Never a better time for a pristine trophy."

The Oswego and Black are big rivers but short. "The first dam is half a mile from Lake Ontario on the Oswego, and the Black River has a dam about 15 miles upriver," Sabia said. "The Black is in the town of Dexter and Oswego is in Oswego. Fishing can be very good. Not too many people fish the Black, but it holds fish. Not as many as the Oswego or Salmon, but the pressure can be light."

Other Lake Ontario tribs that offer excellent salmon and trout fishing in New York include Sterling Creek, the Genesee River, South Sandy Creek, Marsh Creek, the Little Salmon, Johnson Creek, Keg Creek, 12 Mile Creek, 4 Mile Creek, Maxwell Creek, Irondequoit Creek and many others—all listed within the Public Fishing Rights Maps site from the NYDEC.


Few angling opportunities in America can beat the Holiday season for tackling the mighty Niagara, drifting the stately Salmon, or wading a lonely Lake Ontario tributary with a friend or two. Especially after the snow flies. The only footprints you find might be your own, from days or weeks prior. Trout are big and aggressive, boiling, leaping, stripping line, and being generally obnoxious. In small waters, "Most steelhead are lost in the first 10 seconds," warns the NYDEC website. You may need to pinch yourself if things wax a bit dreamlike.

For more information, visit:

Links And Contacts:

Steelhead Fishing In Lake Ontario Tribs—NYDEC; Public Fishing Rights Maps—NYDEC; Cattaraugus Creek Outfitters (Vince Tobia); Niagara Region Charter Service ; Captain John Oravec's Troutman Charters; Oswego County Guides; Oswego County Guides Association Mark Sabia 315/427-1692; Bill Hilts Outdoors Niagara; Fishing The Genesee River—NYDEC; Lazy Larry's EZ Systems

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