Lake Ontario offers big game fishing

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Brandon Harrison
Brandon Harrison caught a salmon in Lake Ontario on Aug. 23, 2019.

Get this, world-class salmon fishing is just a few hours away.

That’s right, the New York shoreline of Lake Ontario and western ports near the Niagara River offer world-class fishing that one might expect to travel thousands of miles to enjoy.

If you’ve never experienced trading punches with an angry king salmon, you don’t know what big game fishing is all about. Last year’s salmon fishing was excellent almost all spring and summer long. It’s time right now to plan a trip.

Upcoming season

I asked Bill Hilts, a trusted western New York region’s fishing “know everything” guy for his take on the upcoming season.

Here’s what he wrote: Last year’s record-high water levels didn’t slow the fishing action at all as we look to 2020. While the salmon catch rate didn’t ellipse the record catch in 2018, it was higher than 2017 when it established a new record mark at the time. Fishing for salmon has been excellent in Lake Ontario from April through September, as long as the weather cooperates.

Replenishing forage base

Because of concern over the forage base in the lake, fish managers are planning on reducing lake trout and salmon stockings by 20 percent in 2020, but that’s not a bad thing. Allowing the forage base to replenish itself for the long-term benefit is a good thing intended to maintain this trophy fishery.

One consideration that’s not often recognized is that there is a significant amount of natural reproduction of salmon in the lake. The last study that was performed on this showed that natural reproduction accounted for nearly half of all the salmon in the lake. It could be higher now, and a new tagging study will be underway for salmon in 2020 to study this.

Pen rearing projects

Adding to the cause, pen rearing projects for salmon can be found all along the Lake Ontario shoreline. These projects help with survival rates and could also help imprint these fish to the areas they are stocked. Past studies have shown that salmon reared in pens will survive better than 2-to-1 to direct stock salmon. Like in 2019, the 2020 pens in Niagara County will hold every salmon for this part of the lake.

There is one exception: a project designed to hold the fish longer that could also improve survival rates in the Niagara River. By holding young salmon in pens, the fish are better able to imprint the location and thus are more apt to return to the river when they mature. The practice also protects the young fish from intense predation.

Early season

Look for some early-season brown trout action to take off in the spring time. Some anglers in recent weeks have been successful fishing for near shore brown trout while fishing the shoreline near Olcott by working stick baits in just 8 to 12 feet of water.

Boats drifting the Niagara Bar off Fort Niagara have been doing well on browns and steelhead, with the occasional king showing up on the end of the line. But what about the coming summer months, when the big boys are targeted?

Summer fishing

Summer fishing takes place from near shore structure to off shore depths in excess of hundreds of feet as growing salmon do nothing but eat, and eat some more. Since salmon live only a few years, they tend to gain fat and muscle faster than a Sumo wrestler. And that’s what Lake Ontario big game fishing is really all about. Hilts said he has no reason to think the lake won’t produce memories just as fast and furiously as in every recent year.

Expo

If you want to learn how, when, and where to experience this fishery, the Greater Niagara Fishing and Outdoor Expo is set for Jan. 17-19 at the Conference and Event Center (www.niagarafishingexpo.com) in Niagara Falls. Hilts said that this is the region’s best example of a “teaching” show, offering over 200 seminars over the course of three days.

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Mike Tontimonia has been writing weekly columns and magazine features about the outdoors for over 25 years, a career that continues to hold the same excitement for him as it did at the beginning. Mike is a retired educator, a licensed auctioneer and marketing consultant. He lives in Ravenna, Ohio and enjoys spending time at his Carroll County cabin. Mike has hunted and fished in several states and Canada from the Carolinas to Alaska and from Idaho to Delaware. His readers have often commented that the stories about his adventures are about as close to being there as possible. He is past president of the Outdoor Writers of Ohio and a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Mike is also very involved in his community as a school board member and a Rotarian.

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