Anglers often associate world-class fishing with distant travel to exotic locations, but if you happen to live close to Lake Ontario and it's many tributary rivers and streams, the winter fishing of salmon and trout is an experience that is hard to beat. Not only does it provide shore-based anglers the opportunity to connect with salmon topping 30 pounds, but the diversity of salmon and trout provides anglers with a deep enough roster to keep stream anglers busy through the fall, winter and spring.
The exact assemblage of fish you're likely to encounter varies considerably from one river to the next, influenced by a number of factors, including river size, the availability of suitable spawning habitat and localized stocking practices.
The state of New York and the province of Ontario collectively stock approximately 5.7 million salmon and trout into Lake Ontario annually. In addition, approximately 50-percent of the Chinook salmon in the lake are naturally reproduced. Salmon and Trout species stocked into Lake Ontario include Chinook salmon, rainbow trout, brown trout, coho salmon, Atlantic salmon and lake trout. With the exception of lake trout, all of these species return to rivers and streams to spawn. Even lake trout make use of harbor mouths and make short runs up some tributaries. In an effort to put some sense of scale on how prolific and important this fishery is, a 2015 survey indicated that in the New York portion of Lake Ontario, including it's tributaries, anglers caught more than 234,000 trout and salmon.
It may be the smallest of the big lakes but few freshwater options offer the diversity anglers experience on Lake Ontario and its tributaries. From west to east, the abundance of choices between species, seasons and styles is enough to provide anglers with a lifetime of opportunities. The action begins in the west as the waters of the upper lakes pour into the Upper Niagara River. Anglers can connect with big steelhead in the 20 pound class, along with legions of fat lake trout, coho, and Chinook salmon. Add in the occasional big brown trout and lake sturgeon and it quickly becomes obvious that the Lake Ontario Region is a world-class fishery.
While Chinook salmon are generally the most iconic of the Lake Ontario fishery, Atlantic salmon are becoming more prevalent thanks to coordinated efforts between Ontario and New York environmental agencies. Atlantic Salmon were once native to Lake Ontario, but were extirpated in the early 1900's due in large part to habitat degradation. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has been stocking Atlantic salmon in Lake Ontario since 1983. In Ontario, the 'Bring Back the Salmon' initiative was launched in 2006 by the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters and Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, along with more than 50 partners to help restore a self-sustaining Atlantic salmon population.
Traditional night tactics include casting glow-in-the-dark spoons or rattlebaits, favored for their attention-grabbing qualities and for having enough weight for making long casts. Three-quarter to one-ounce spoons like the Little Cleo, and Mepps Syclops are top spoon options. Some night anglers will even venture out in boats to troll or anchor just out in front of harbor mouths to get away from the crowds. Chinook and Coho salmon both go through a dramatic metamorphosis leading up to fall spawning, and both species die shortly after spawning. The fact that they even hit lures at all is largely believed to be a habitual reflex or an act of outright aggression.
In spite of their size, big fish in confined spaces are easily spooked, especially once subjected to fishing pressure, leading many river anglers to employ more refined Float fishing and bottom drifting techniques. Top producers typically include roe bags, chunks of skeins or various egg imitating plastics.
While the Chinooks tend to be the big draw, you'll also find rainbow trout and the occasional Atlantic salmon mixed in to the river catches. Depending on the area, rainbow trout make up a sizable percentage of the fall run, and where there are fish, you will find a cadre of anglers that are specialized in catching them. Unlike the salmon, rainbow trout won't spawn until the spring, so those fish that are using the streams and harbor mouths at this time of year are very much interested in feeding.
Coho salmon and Brown trout enter the rivers much later than the Chinooks, which helps to extend the river fishing for those die-hards undeterred by the cooling temperatures.
While rivers are clearly the big draw for both fish and anglers in the fall, there are also many smaller hot spots for those anglers willing to think outside the box. Warm water discharges and isolated harbors for example can often see big runs of stocked fish, in spite of a lack of spawning habitat.
Timing is a big deal. Experienced anglers are particularly attuned to rainfall, as this is often the best indicator of fresh runs pushing upstream. You can also expect to invest some time researching access points, those stretches of river that are open to the public, fishing seasons and any other specialized restrictions. Some stretches of river for example may be designated as fly fishing only.
Once you have an idea of when and where you can fish, some on the water reconnaissance is often required to identify key holding pools. Each river will likely have it's own particular characteristics which can influence fishing success. Muddier rivers for example may produce best after having had a few days to settle out after a big downpour. Consistent anglers tend to stay mobile and be willing to move quickly when a piece of solid intel of fresh runs of fish comes to light. If your new to an area, local tackle shops are often willing to provide at least enough information to get you started.
Trout and salmon are some of the gamest fish in freshwater. If your an angler game enough to try them, then Lake Ontario tributaries might be worth adding to your trip-list this winter.