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2000 Fishing Prospects for Lake Ontario

By Capt. Ernie Lantiegne of Fish Doctor Charters

Lake Ontario is renown for its world class fishing for trophy trout, salmon, walleyes and smallmouth bass. The New York coastline of this 200 mile long freshwater lake produces some of the hottest fishing in North America. Public fishing access on the lake and rivers is excellent. Lakewide, anglers find a wealth of top quality fishing services like marinas, charter boats, restaurants, lodging and tackle shops.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of anglers enjoy Lake Ontario's superb fishing. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's (NYSDEC) lakewide creel census, in 1999, 274,000 anglers fished 539,000 hours, on 98,000 boat trips and harvested an estimated 93,000 trout and salmon, 92,500 smallmouth bass, plus walleye and panfish.

Past censuses estimate that charter boats accounted for 11.1% of all boat trips. However, with a catch rate almost five times that of an average boat, charter boats accounted for almost 50% of the entire salmonoid harvest in 1999. The current estimate of direct expenditures by anglers fishing the New York side of Lake Ontario crowd $300 million annually.

Great News for Anglers - Record Abundance of Alewives and Cormorant Control

The Lake Ontario sportfishery enters the new millenium with exciting news for anglers. In 1999 trollers fishing in early April for lake trout in 150 -200 feet of water couldn't believe the abundance of yearling alewives. Lake trout after lake trout came to the surface regurgitating 3-4 inch herring. Later in the year, following trawl surveys conducted by the NYSDEC, biologists concluded that this year class, hatched in 1998, was an all time record. The outstanding growth of sportfish in 1999 resulting from the abundance of forage fish should continue in 2000 producing even better fishing.

Just as important, in 1999, the NYSDEC initiated cormorant control to reduce predation by this fish eating bird. According to biologists, cormorant chick production on Little Galloo Island was reduced from about 14,000 birds per year in the past, to less than 100 chicks in 1999. This reduced predation by cormorants by approximately 28%, saving an estimated 370,000 smallmouth bass and 5.7 million individual fish overall, according to Fisheries Manager, Al Sciavone.

Cormorants nesting in Canadian waters on Pigeon and Snake Islands pose a continued threat to the Lake Ontario fishery, however. Continued control efforts in U.S. waters are critical to the future of the fishery. Expanded control efforts may be necessary pending the findings of radio and satellite telemetry studies planned for 2000 to assess movements of cormorants nesting across the international border.

Continued stocking of 3.5 million healthy trout and salmon in New York waters of Lake Ontario is vital to the future of this world class salmonoid fishery. In 2000, an estimated 245,000 cohos, 1.6 million chinooks, 100,000 Atlantic salmon, 600,000 rainbows, 425,000 brown trout and 500,000 lake trout will be stocked in the New York waters of the lake. Canada will stock an additional 1.5 million salmonoids. Proper stocking procedures like the offshore barge stocking of yearling brown trout will help insure good recruitment of stocked fish.

Efforts by volunteer angler groups in projects such as chinook and steelhead pen rearing in the Lower Oswego River and elsewhere are also making a positive impact on lake and river fishing.

This combination of continued DEC management, stocking of 3.5 million trout and salmon, continued lamprey and cormorant control, and continued efforts by volunteer anglers will produce another outstanding year of world class sport fishing in Lake Ontario in 2000.

Chinook and Coho Salmon - Will the 50 Pound Barrier be Broken in 2000?

Last year anglers enjoyed excellent fishing for big chinook and coho salmon in eastern Lake Ontario. By late summer, salmon that had chowed down all season on a record abundance of forage reached trophy size with eleven of the top chinooks entered in the fall LOC Derby larger than 40 pounds, an all time record. Cohos also reached oversized proportions with a number of near record lunkers reported in the 25-30 pound class.

To predict the strength of chinook year classes and resultant quality of the chinook fishery, DEC uses the number of mature, yearling 3-5 pound jack chinooks that make their way back to the hatchery each year as an index of abundance. The bulk of this yearling year class remains in the lake in the a fall as actively feeding juveniles. According to 1999 DEC hatchery records, 1286 jack chinooks were collected at the hatchery. This compares to 591 jacks in 1998, the lowest number ever collected, and 2806 jacks in 1997, the highest number ever recorded. Jacks collected in 1998 are an index of abundance of 3-year old fish in 2000. Jacks collected in 1999 will be 2-year olds this season.

If DEC's chinook jack index is correct, look for below average numbers of 20-30+ pound 3-year old chinooks this season, and average or better numbers of 2-year olds from 12-18 pounds. However, with the superabundance of oversized 3-year olds observed in 1999, 2000 is the year when more than normal fast-growing 4-year olds should show up, perhaps our best possibility in years for breaking the 50 pound chinook salmon barrier anglers have been eyeing.

Big, scrappy cohos should also provide exciting fishing in the Eastern Basin when they stage in Mexico Bay in August and September before spawning in the Salmon River. The number of coho jacks collected at the Salmon River Hatchery in 1999 was up, indicating above average numbers of mature 2-year old cohos in the fishery in 2000. According to fishery biologist, Dan Bishop, growth of cohos in 1999 was above average. Expect more of the same in 2000.

Brown Trout - Good Fishing for "Football" Browns

Look for good fishing for "football" browns to continue all along the Lake Ontario coastline. Improvements in stocking using a landing craft to ferry stocking trucks offshore, scattering yearling trout away from cormorants, has improved survival of stocked fish.

In 1999, Lake Ontario was stocked with more than 400,000 brown trout. With an abundance of alewives, growth of stocked browns was outstanding with yearlings reaching lengths of 15 inches by late summer. These fish, as 3-5 pound 2-year olds in the spring of 2000, will produce fast action.

In the past, cormorants have taken a toll on freshly stocked browns, but 1999 NYSDEC control measures such as egg oiling and harassment of nesting adults reduced estimated fish consumption by comorants 28%, a major benefit to the overall fishery, especially brown trout fishing.

Lake Trout - Bigger and Better

Year after year the eastern end of Lake Ontario produces some of the finest, most publicly accessible lake trout fishing in the world. This consistently outstanding fishing will continue for lakers in Oswego County in 2000. Look for laker trout in deep water in very early spring, on the surface in late May and early June, and back on bottom through the hot summer months. Limit catches of 5-15 pounds will be common again in 2000, with occasional trophy fish well over 20 pounds.

Steelhead - Pen Rearing Continues, Management Effort Heats Up

Lake Ontario and its major tributaries like the Salmon and Oswego Rivers have produced spectacular steelhead fishing for years, but its going to get even better. In 1998 and 1999, Oswego County anglers initiated a volunteer effort to improve steelhead fishing by pen rearing young steelhead in the Lower Oswego River and towing them offshore to be stocked, avoiding cormorants. Although tagged, penreared steelhead are not expected to enter the fishery in signifigant numbers until 2000, initial returns of tagged steelhead reported by Lake Ontario charter captains are encouraging. Tagged fish analyzed to date by NYSDEC fishery biologist, Dan Bishop, indicate penreared steelhead are surviving signifigantly better than routine river stocked steelhead.

Meanwhile, the NYSDEC has taken steps to improve survival of stocked steelhead through advances in hatchery production. Recently, at the Salmon River Hatchery, through drilled well restoration, resultant increases in winter water temperature, and the construction of circular ponds designed specifically for steelhead production, size and health of stocked steelhead has improved. Look for even better steelhead fishing in the future.

Smallmouth Bass - Another Record Year

According to the 1996 New York State Angler Survey which polled approximately 9500 license buyers, more anglers fished for smallmouth bass in Lake Ontario than for coho and chinook salmon. Smallmouth bass fishing in the east end of Lake Ontario continues to get better and better. In 1998, according to the NYSDEC's lakewide creel census, anglers harvested a record 49,000 smallmouths. It took only one year for that record to be broken in 1999 with an estimated harvest of 92,000 smallmouths. Big "smallies" from 3 to 3½ pounds were common in 1999. Smallmouth fishing in Lake Ontario is on a roll. Lake Ontario's smallmouth bass fishery is one of the hottest in the Northeast.

Walleyes - More Big "Eyes" in 2000

Big Lake Ontario walleyes from 7-12 pounds have made headlines in Lake Ontario for several years now. Look for good fishing for big "Eyes" to continue in 2000. Fishing starts with a bang in May and early June, and continues through July and August, especially in the eastern basin of the lake.

Although many anglers troll at night for monster walleyes with large stickbaits, especially in May and June, walleyes are also commonly caught through the summer during daylight hours fishing leadhead jigs, or trolling deep diving plugs from planer boards.

Capt. Ernie Lantiegne operates a charter fishing business on Lake Ontario and its tributaries and has 27 years of experience in the business on a variety of waters in New York State. He also worked as a fishery biologist/manager for the NYSDEC for 22 years. His web site is at Fish Doctor Charters, or he can be reached by email at info@fishdoctorcharters.com.

Content © 2000 Ernie Lantiegne