October 18, 2023
If you walk upstream along the Salmon River from where it flows under Bridge Street in Altmar, NY on any October day, you'll be forgiven if you lose your sense of place. The Salmon River lives up to its name each autumn, seeming more like an Alaskan river than one in upstate New York. You'll see and smell the corpses of thousands of rotting chinook (king) salmon that have come up the river to spawn and die. You'll notice half-alive salmon–zombies really–flopping in the shallow side channels. While you won't encounter hungry grizzly bears, you might assume you're somewhere on the Kenai Peninsula or the Yukon Delta.
And just like the rivers of the Pacific Northwest, you're likely to see coho salmon mixed in with the kings. And steelhead. And anglers who've traveled from all corners of the world to pursue these big, brawny fish.
Outside of The Last Frontier, Lake Ontario is the best place in North America to catch, uh, "Pacific" salmon. In New York, all the way from where the mighty Niagara River divides Canada and the U.S. eastward to where the big lake chokes down to form the St. Lawrence River, chinook and coho salmon are important and popular fish species. With inshore trolling taking place in the spring and late summer, offshore trolling happening in the summer months, and river fishing heating up as fall arrives, salmon fishing on Lake Ontario is a serious business.
"I think it's one of the best fisheries in the country, if not the world," said Troy Creasy, a charter captain who owns High Adventure Sportfishing in Oswego, NY, on the eastern end of Lake Ontario. "There aren't many other places where you can fish for salmon and have the kind of daily success we have here."
Creasy said most often his customers head home after a day on the big water with plenty of salmon filets and a desire to come back for more.
It wasn't always this way. The salmon being caught in Lake Ontario today are products of nearly 60 years of an innovative fisheries management program that owes its genesis to an intersection of human activities–some unwillingly detrimental and some strategically positive. What began in fits and spurts throughout the Great Lakes system has transformed Lake Ontario into a salmon fishery like no other.
A Quick Look Back
It might seem odd that chinook and coho–two distinct species of Pacific salmon–have established fishable populations in the Great Lakes.
"I'll post pictures of king salmon on my social media channels, and I'll have people in town–people who live right here–ask me where that fish was caught," said Dan DeGeorge, a charter captain who operates Double D Sportfishing out of Rochester, NY. "Some people don't believe me when I tell them those chinook are caught here in Lake Ontario."
Chinook and cohos are not native species. Their introduction and proliferation are a result of human interference that unintentionally cleared the deck for their continued existence.
Lake Ontario is the only Great Lake that historically had populations of native landlocked Atlantic salmon, but those fish were wiped out by the start of the 20th Century. Commercial fishing, deforestation, and water pollution were all significant contributing factors to the decline, but the coup de grâce for landlocks was the construction of dams in the spawning rivers flowing into the big lake. Although fisheries managers tried restocking landlocks, the efforts failed. Federal and state fish biologists of the time formed various commissions and eventually turned their attention to other species. The initial goals included establishing a commercial fishery, but eventually shifted to setting up a self-staining recreational Pacific salmon fishery.
Shortly after the end of the Civil War, the first chinook salmon were planted in the Great Lakes. Masu salmon from Japan were stocked in Lake Michigan. Cohos were introduced in Lake Erie. Pink salmon were put into Lake Superior and Lake Huron. Kokanee were tried in Huron and Ontario. But it wasn't until the Great Lakes Fishery Commission was established in 1955 did the various efforts merge into one concerted effort.
One other thing. A big thing actually. By the middle of the 20th Century, some 70 years after they were first documented in Lake Ontario, alewives–able to move through locks and canals–began to dominate the Great Lake ecosystem. With numbers exceeding their carrying capacity, they underwent massive die-offs that littered miles of shorelines and hundreds of public beaches in Lake Michigan, Huron, and Ontario. Those massive die-offs sparked a public outcry and fishery managers had an answer. By 1966, the Pacific salmon species they had tried to establish years ago had a food source.
Play to the Base
The New York state record chinook salmon, caught in the Salmon River in 1991, weighed almost 48 pounds. The record New York coho is just over 33 pounds. Those fish all got fat on alewives.
Alewife populations have waxed and waned over the years, and while biologists use the yearly alewife assessments to determine stocking levels of trout and salmon, the prey base now carries a bigger responsibility.
"At least half the chinook in Lake Ontario are naturally reproduced," said Brian Weidel, a research fisheries biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey Great Lakes Science Center in Oswego, NY. "That number seems to surprise a lot of anglers, but it underscores how important a food source is to maintaining fish populations."
These days said Weidel, Lake Ontario's alewife population is quite abundant. With a stable supply of food, good fishing follows along. On the lake, anglers use lures, spoons, and cut baits that act, look or smell like alewives.
"The fishing is good, the population seems pretty stable. We almost always catch plenty of fish," said DeGeorge. "I like to tell people when they come to fish here that unless they've traveled and fished in saltwater or Alaska, they are likely to catch the biggest fish of their lives."
Finding a Guide
All along the New York shore of Lake Ontario, from Niagara to Watertown, you can find charter captains who will take you on the big lake for half-day or full-day charters.
An excellent resource for finding a charter boat in a part of the lake you'd like to fish is the Lake Ontario Fishing Charter Directory, which has a list of captains licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard who operate fishing charters.