When it comes to big water, Lake Ontario is one of the biggest. With a maximum depth of 802 feet and a surface area of (7,340 square miles) it is the 14th largest lake in the world. If you include it's islands it also has 712 miles of shoreline. Fishing such massive water; while intimidating; offers tremendous opportunity for those willing to invest the time to learn it. Whether you prefer trout and salmon, smallmouth bass, or warm-water species such as carp or freshwater drum, Lake Ontario offers world-class options for all of them.
Bigwater Chrome—Many Lake Ontario charter boat captains will agree that salmon are the most iconic summer attraction. According to Captain Vince Pierleoni of Thrillseeker Sportfishing Charters, most of the lake's salmon are concentrated in the Western basin in April, attracted by the warm water emanating from the Niagara River.
"Between the first and third week of June, the lake undergoes a rapid period of warming and the fish begin spreading out into the central basin, which is when anglers begin switching over to summer tactics," says Capt. Vince.
According to water quality data, even throughout the summer the Niagara River asserts its influence on the lake by making the New York shore slightly warmer and more turbid than the Ontario side. Pierleoni prefers fishing body baits in the spring, noting that the LiveTarget banana smelt as his top producer. Come summertime however, the body baits get stashed away in favor of flashers and flies; his favorites being spin doctors and atomic flies.
Captain Richard Hajeki of Crazy Yankee Sportfishing also agrees that defining Chinook Salmon as the most sought after species for charter captains in the Western and Central Basins of Lake Ontario in the summer. "Finding forage in combination with the right water temperatures is really the name of the game for dialing in summer salmon consistently," Hajeki says. He spends most of his time fishing the Lake's Southern Shore in and around Oak Orchard, New York. To find the right temperature Richard incorporates web-based satellite data and Fish-hawk temperate probes to find and stay on fish.
"Monitoring water temperature is essential," Richard emphasizes. "Salmon are often here today and gone tomorrow, but if you monitor water temperatures closely you start to understand how winds and currents work to alter the lakes thermal landscape." He doesn't sit idle in a home port if the fish aren't cooperating, opting instead to trailer his boat and move up and down the shore to follow fish wherever they may wander.
Terrific Trout—Kings aren't the only silver bullets available to big water anglers. Charter captains also have the option of targeting rainbow trout which tend to roam further offshore and much higher up in the water column than the Chinooks. The New York side of the lake also enjoys a strong summer brown trout fishery. The browns utilize shallower, warmer water than the Chinooks. Here again Hajeki uses temperature data to zero in on areas where optimal brown trout water temperatures (55° to 60° F) intersect structural elements along the lake bottom. "The tighter this temperature band is the more concentrated the fish are," he adds. "That Round Gobies and Gizzard Shad are prime summer Brown forage."
Central Basin Sensation
The terrific Chinook Salmon and Brown Trout fishing continues to dominate the open water fishery as you move Eastward into what is referred to as the central basin. Some of the most popular points of access in this section of the lake include Sodus Bay (Wayne County), Fair Haven (Cayuga County), Oswego (Oswego County) and Mexico (Northern part of Oswego County).
The makeup of Lake Ontario differs slightly in the central basin due to the closer proximity to deeper water. Captain Ryan Williamson of Fishin Magician Charters grew up fishing out of Sodus Bay. For Ryan it's only a five mile run for him to reach depths of 400 feet. Even at these depth however Ryan tends not to run baits any deeper than 100 to 150 feet down. "The risk of getting your downrigger lines twisted goes up the deeper down you go." Ryan emphasized. "Fish below 150 feet also tend to be much more reluctant to bite." Another unique tactic Ryan employs when targeting deeper fish is to work glow spoons into his spread.
Captain Tom Burke of Cold Steel Sportfishing also fishes the central basin, with his home port being in Oswego New York. Burke emphasized just how important the inflowing rivers along the New York shoreline are for bringing nutrients into the Lake, which in turn influences baitfish location and ultimately the gamefish. "This influence is easier to see in the spring, when warm water also draws fish into proximity to the river mouths." he says."But it is also a fundamental influence that can affect summer fish behavior as well." Tom also pointed out the importance of main lake currents, which would likely go unnoticed by novice anglers."Fishing the open water is more than just randomly trolling around." he explains."For instance, if you increase the gain on your sonar you can often detect, ghost-like anomalies which are in fact open-water current streams." Based on waypoint data collected over many years Tom confirms that these currents often occur in the same locations from one year to the next, and at times they can provide a key piece of structure for fish to relate to.
Multi-Species Options—In the middle and eastern end of the Lake, the structure and the summer fishery changes significantly. From shallow water options, to the middle section, this is a highly productive portion of Lake Ontario. A series of islands loosely outlines a major depth shift in the Eastern basin (deep middle) which runs from Prince Edward County, Ontario to Henderson, New York. Anglers, here, have access to both deep main (middle) lake water and structure-filled, shallower areas. Prior to the age of GPS navigation, this area caused so many shipwrecks that it was nicknamed the Marysburgh Vortex and likened to the Bermuda Triangle.
From his home port at Henderson Harbor, Captain Bob Dick of Moby Dick Charters confirms that he has some of the most diverse summer fishing on Lake Ontario. Some of the more well-known hotspots include the Black River Bay for pike, which just so happens to be the largest freshwater Bay in the United States. There is also Mud Bay which holds the potential for walleye in 14- to 15-pound class in August. According to recent radio telemetry studies, it is now becoming known that many of these big walleye are the same fish that migrate into Canada's Bay of Quinte later in the fall.
As far as the middle basin is concerned, Lake Trout are one of the most consistent summer bites. Captain Bob says that lake trout fishing is as good as it has ever been, noting that his clients boated 21 lake trout topping 20 pounds in 2017, with the biggest topping out at 26 pounds 4 ounces. Top tactics for lake trout involve dragging cow bells with spin and glows on bottom in 120 to 160 ft of water.
The middle basin also has Salmon, but it just takes a bit longer for them to show up in anglers catches. Bob typically starts his summer salmon program somewhere between the 4th of July weekend to the 3rd week in July. He employs spoons in combination with stackers to fully saturate the water column. As summer progresses he'll then switch over to flashers in combination with flies or cut bait.
A key location for targeting chinooks is a feature referred to as "The Wall", where the depth drops rapidly from 44 to 160 feet in the middle basin. Bob also notes that he never ventures any deeper than 220 feet in search of fish.
Starting around the middle of August, he makes another major shift in tactics when chinook salmon make a very distinctive move, staging in an area known locally as the trench. This is a section of deep water where fish hold waiting for just the right conditions to push up into adjacent rivers. At this time of year Bob is 100-percent focused on salmon, with strong bites continuing throughout most of September.
Bastion for Big Bass—For the cast-and-crank angler, the shallower reefs, islands and shorelines in the Eastern end also happen to be loaded with big smallmouth bass. The bass fishery was greatly affected by the establishment of Round Gobies in this part of the lake back around 1999. Before gobies showed up, Alewife and crayfish were the two primary components of smallmouth bass diets. Today however, the crayfish portion of the basses diet has been completely replaced by Round Gobies, and bass size has increased dramatically. Where once a 3 pound bass was considered a good fish, 6- and 7-pounders are possible on any given outing.
A word of caution: This area can be a real challenge for small watercraft. The predominant wind on Lake Ontario is from the Southwest, which makes the Eastern end of the lake prone to rough seas. Even on calm days, strong currents can make fishing deep structures a real challenge. Such volatility also keeps fish and anglers on the move in search of optimal water temperatures.
Offbeat Options—As impressive as Lake Ontario's offshore game is, there is plenty of inshore opportunities as well, especially if you're open-minded enough to target many of the offbeat species. The carp fishing on Lake Ontario for instance is some of the best on the planet. On calm summer days, giant carp, some topping 50 pounds, can be seen cruising shorelines all over the lake. Harbor mouths and piers offer ideal vantage points for anglers to deploy bait and set up sophisticated carp fishing gadgetry. Although not as mobile as salmon and trout, anglers still need to be mindful of wind-induced, cold-water upwellings which can turn warmwater species off the bite.
Virtually every port, harbor and rivermouth supports its own unique species assemblage which is noteworthy in its own right, and there are far more guides and charter captains than any one article could ever cover. Clearly, if you are considering a trip to Lake Ontario, fishing opportunity is abound and the good old days may be just be right now.
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Contacts: Richard Hajeki - Crazy Yankee Sportfishing - 585-704-7996; Vince Pierleoni - Thrillseeker Sportfishing Charters - 585-615-1197; Captain Ryan Williamson 585-749-6179, Captain Mike Wilkinson 315-585-5412; Capt. Tom Burke, Cold Steel Sportfishing - 315-391-8079. Robert Dick - Moby Dick Charters - 1 315-938-5871; Kevin Lavers - Merland Park - 1-866-660-0003.