Fishing Eastern Lake Ontario
This page provides background on Lake Ontario in general, and detailed information about both near-shore and off-shore fishing in eastern Lake Ontario in the region from Oswego northeast to Sandy Pond. It also discusses the Salmon River estuary and
South and North Sandy Pond. For additional information about the sport fish of this region and fishing in the rivers and streams of this area, please see our Stream Fishing and Stream Descriptions pages on this site.
Background and Lake Description
Lake Ontario is the smallest of the five Great Lakes by surface area, but it is the 14th largest lake in the world. It is 193 miles in length and 53 miles wide at its widest point. It has a total surface area of 7,340 square miles, 726 miles of shoreline
and a total volume of 393 cubic miles. It is about 248 feet above sea level. It averages 283 feet deep and has a maximum depth of 802 feet, making it the third deepest of the Great Lakes after Lakes Superior and Michigan. It has a flush time of
about six years. The Lake Ontario basin encompasses 24,720 square miles and is home to more than 7.9 million people. Eighty percent of the water flowing into Lake Ontario comes from the Niagara River, which flows out of Lake Erie. Lake Ontario
discharges into the Saint Lawrence Seaway to the northeast.
Lake Ontario is bordered only by New York State to the south and the Province of Ontario to the north. Canada's commercial, industrial and population centers are located along the northern shore, particularly around Toronto. It is the most urbanized
of all the Great Lakes, and it has been considered by some to also be the most polluted of all the Great Lakes, due at least in part to the fact that it receives the discharge from the other four Great Lakes.
The Canadians utilize Lake Ontario for commercial fishing far more than New York State. The Canadian commercial fisherman primarily target whitefish, American eel and yellow perch.
The Oswego River area in New York has been designated as an "Area of Concern" by the United State Environmental Protection Agency. Currently the New York State Department
of Health has issued an advisory which recommend not eating any of the following fish (among others) from the New York waters of Lake Ontario: Lake trout over 25
inches, brown trout over 20 inches and chinook salmon of any size. It also recommends that persons eat no more than one meal per month of the following fish (among others): Rainbow trout, smaller lake trout and coho salmon over 25 inches.
A recent controversy has arisen over double crested cormorants and their predation on Lake Ontario sport fish in general, and brown trout and smallmouth bass in particular. The cormorant is a migratory bird which is federally protected. It is also
a voracious predator of fish, and has been found to prey heavily on smaller fish. These birds nest in large numbers on Galloo Island to the northeast. The evidence suggests that these birds have been eating large numbers of smaller brown trout
and smallmouth bass, and have significantly reduced the survival rate of stocked brown trout. As a result, the DEC recently began "barge stocking" of brown trout. It now stocks significant numbers of brown trout off shore by using a
barge, rather than stocking them in the streams where they are easy prey for the cormorants. Although the data is not conclusive, it is believed this stocking method will significantly improve the survival of the stocked brown trout and produce
an even better brown trout fishery offshore. For more information on this issue from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, click HERE.
Areas of the Lake
Near shore areas
There are a number of near-shore areas in the region which are popular with anglers. Nine Mile Point is an easily located spot that is a consistent producer. It is located just west of Sunset Bay. There are three power plants in this area and the
large cooling tower and numerous buildings are visible from many miles away. There is a shallow water discharge from the Nine Mile 1 power plant, in about 13 feet of water, and a deep water discharge at the Fitzpatrick power plant in about 30
to 40 feet of water. These power plants discharge warm water into the lake, which attracts both bait fish and sport fish, including lake trout and brown trout in the spring and fall, and smallmouth bass during the summer.
Moving east, the warm inflows from Otter Brook and Catfish Creek at Pleasant Point make this area popular for near-shore fishing, especially for brown trout and lake trout in the spring and for smallmouth bass late in the summer. The area off the
Butterfly Swamp, around the mouth of Butterfly Creek, is also a popular near shore area. Other favorite areas include around Mexico Point, which is just off the mouth of the Little Salmon River, the A Frame Point, which is about 1/2 mile west
of the mouth of the Little Salmon River, and Hurlbutt's Bluff, which is about 1/2 mile east of the mouth of the Little Salmon River.
The mouth of the Salmon River is a very popular location for trolling for salmon and steelhead when they are about to make their spawning runs. Because the current flows to the north, most anglers troll from the mouth of the river north to the area
known as "the slab" at Deer Creek.
Much of the off-shore fishing is dictated more by the location of the thermocline than anything else. When fishing off-shore, most anglers try to fish just above or below the thermocline.
The fish taken off-shore can be found in any location of the region. However, the area from Alcan Point east of Oswego northeast to beyond Nine Mile Point in the depths from 70 to 160 feet is a favorite off-shore area. This area is popular for lake
trout during July and August at depths of around 100 feet. In shallower areas anglers target brown trout during these periods. In later summer, anglers move into deeper water of 120 feet and over for chinook and coho salmon.
Salmon River Estuary
The estuary of the Salmon River produces very good catches of northern pike in late spring. In early summer, it can also be very productive for smallmouth bass, which move into the estuary to spawn.
North and South Sandy Ponds
North Sandy Pond is generally shallow and weedy. South Sandy Pond is much smaller but reaches depths of up to 25 feet. Both ponds have a very good northern pike fishery, particularly in the spring right after the season opens. Both ponds also hold
decent numbers of largemouth bass which are taken during the summer months. These areas are also popular for ice fishing in the winter months.
The area is an excellent producer of large brown trout in the early spring. The fishing for browns starts as soon as the lake becomes fishable in the spring. In the early spring brown trout, with some lake trout mixed in, move into shallow waters
and are taken all along the shorelines, and browns are even taken by shore anglers. Areas near stream mouths and other warm water points can be even more productive, especially when the water is still cold.
Locations which are popular in the spring include the warm water discharge points from the power plants west of Nine Mile Point and at the mouth of Grindstone Creek off Selkirk Shores State Park.
By the end of April, the steelhead have left the streams and can be found in the open lake. The brown trout which made their way into the rivers have left the rivers and entered the lake by mid-June. In the spring, most of the chinook and coho fishing
in Lake Ontario occurs in the western basin.
By mid-June, when once the season opens, smallmouth bass are nearing the completion of their spawn. Some will still be in shallow water of 10 feet or less. They will move out into deeper water as the spawn ends and summer approaches.
In late spring and through the summer chinook (king) and coho salmon, brown trout and steelhead can all be found off-shore. These fish get larger as the season wears on.
Lake trout are the most consistently caught fish during July and August. As the summer wears on, the action turns more to salmon, particularly chinook salmon. The salmon season generally begins in earnest in August and continues off-shore until September,
when these fish begin to move in toward the rivers and steams to spawn. About the middle of August the chinook and cohos begin to school in deeper waters off the Oswego and Salmon Rivers, in the 80 to 150 foot depth range. As the weeks pass, they
move closer to shore.
Smallmouth bass continue to provide good action throughout the summer in the near-shore areas.
By mid-September, the chinook and coho schools have moved to the near-shore areas off the stream mouths. Much of the action turns to trolling for salmon in the 20 foot to 50 foot range, particularly off the mouths of the Oswego and Salmon Rivers.
Trolling for salmon just off the mouths of the tributaries becomes popular in September and October, as these fish school off the creek mouths prior to making their runs. In November, the action switches to targeting steelhead and brown trout. Especially
productive areas for late season steelhead and brown trout are the warm discharge points from the power plants west of Nine Mile Point.
Offshore Fishing Boats and Gear
Boats and Boat Equipment
Boating on Lake Ontario is significantly different than boating on inland lakes. The lake is vast and can be deadly. If you do not have an appropriate boat, you will be risking your life boating on the lake. Deep V-hull boats are the norm on the lake.
The deep hull gives the boat stability and the ability to take the waves. Tri-hulls have too much bottom surface, cannot take the waves well, and its occupants will get pounded by the waves. Pontoon boats and typical shallow "bass boats"
are not appropriate any distance from shore. Any boat under 16 feet in length is also risky to take far from shore.
If you plan to fish in the deep waters, at least a 50 horsepower motor is recommended. Many boats which troll on the lake have two motors; a large motor for getting to and from the fishing waters, and a small, 5 or 10 horsepower long shaft pull start
outboard motor for trolling. This combination has at least two advantages. First, it saves wear on the main motor, which can foul after extended trolling at slow speeds. Second, it provides a safety net - if the main motor dies (or the batteries
die and will not start the main motor), the trolling motor can bring you back (albeit slowly). Many who do not have a separate trolling motor use a trolling plate on the main motor to maintain a slow trolling speed. Many lake boats also have two
batteries. Two batteries give you added protection that you can get your big motor started to get you home.
There are three common pieces of equipment used on lake boats that are highly recommended: a marine radio, a fish/depth finder, and a navigational aid consisting of either a loran or a GPS unit. The marine radio is an important safety item to call
for help if you or other boaters might need it. The coast guard monitors channel 16. A radio can also be used to call for a marine towing service if you need one.
A fish finder, although not necessary for safety, is very helpful for locating fish and structure in what can seem like an endless expanse on the lake.
A navigational aid is a very important safety aid, as well as an asset to successful fishing. Until recently, most boats on the lake were equipped with a loran, which is a land based radio wave positioning system. It is relatively accurate and can
return you to port or your fishing hot spot with ease. Lorans use their own numbering system rather than longitude and latitude coordinates. Lorans are being replaced by the GPS, and the loran transmitters will be turned off sooner or later, rendering
the loran useless. The GPS, or global positioning system, is an even more accurate, satellite based positioning system. It displays location using longitude and latitude coordinates. Like the loran, the GPS can store numerous "way points",
such as home port and fishing hot spots. You can then call up a way point, and the GPS will tell you which direction to go to get there. It also provides much more information, such as how fast you are going, how long it will take you to get to
your destination, how far off course you have gone, etc.
Finding your way on the lake can be difficult. If you motor out to deep water with only a compass, then troll about for several hours, using only a compass to return to port will be difficult and very inaccurate. If the waves suddenly pick up and
you have to return quickly and directly, or if a fog bank rolls in and you cannot see more than 20 feet from your bow, a Loran or a GPS will be worth every cent you paid to get you home safely.
Many boats equipped for fishing on Lake Ontario also have a planer board mast (to run planer boards), two or more downriggers (manual or electric), multiple stand-up rod holders, a sizable cooler with ice, and a large, long handled net. Other items
to consider taking on your boat include a map of the lake, a first aid kit, binoculars, sun glasses and sun screen (there is no shade on the lake), rain gear, an extra jacket, a good anchor with plenty of line, sea sickness medicine, hook extractors
and a fish "club." Before leaving for a trip on the lake, review the boating regulations and your gear to be certain you have all the necessary equipment and leave a float plan.
Lake Rods, Reels and Lines
Most anglers use similar rods and reels on the lake for trolling or drift fishing for all the larger species. The common rod is a relatively long (about 8 feet) trolling rod in the 10 to 20 pound line class. If you plan to use a diver, especially
a dipsey diver, use a diver rod with a strong lower section that can withstand the strong pull of the diver. Many regular rods will break just above the handle if used with a diver.
By far the most common reel for trolling is the level wind reel. Reels with line counters are becoming very popular. These reels allow you to more accurately set lines on divers and planer boards.
Line used for trolling varies. The most common lines used are from 12 pound to 17 pound test. Light lining is becoming more popular, but is still not widespread. Twenty pound line is not uncommon, especially for use with divers.
Some anglers use wire line or lead core line. Connected to the end is a piece of clear monofilament, to which the lure is directly attached. Wire line has much less drag and will take a diving plug or a diver considerably deeper than monofilament.
It also has no "stretch." Lead core has weight in the line and can also be used to get the lure down.
Trolling and Trolling Methods
Most off-shore fishing is done by trolling. Trolling speed can be very important. Generally trolling speeds should be between 1.5 and 3 m.p.h. Anglers generally troll within the upper end of this range for salmon and steelhead, and in the lower end
of this range for lake trout.
Flatlining is the simplest of the trolling methods. It consists of sending a lure out as you troll away. Once the lure reaches the desired distance behind the boat, close the bail and let the lure pull behind the boat. Line counter reels are very
helpful for determining how far back the lure is running. The depth of the lure can be controlled by the type of lure used. Deep diving lures, equipped with large lips, can be pulled to depths of 15 feet or more. However, the distance any lure
will dive is also dictated to a large extent by the type of line used. Heavier monofilament has much more diameter, creates much more drag, and therefore prevent a lure from diving more than a lighter line of the same material.
Planer boards are used to fish close to the surface, but away from the noise and disturbance of the boat. A planer board mast, planer boards and releases are all necessary. A typical mast has two lines and two spools, one for each side. The planer
boards (usually made of redwood) are hooked to the end of the line connected to the mast. As the board is let out on the water, it "planes" away from the boat. One board planes right, the other left. The boards often are equipped with
a flag so they can be located while in use.
Once the boards are out, each line is set. A lure is sent off the boat and allowed to drift the desired distance it will be fished behind the planer board line. Once the desired distance is obtained, the bail is closed. A release is connected to the
planer board line. One end of the release slides along the planer board line, and the other end has a rubber clip for grabbing the fishing line. Some anglers use rubber bands tied around the line, which are then placed into the release. The line
from the rod is pinched on the release clip, the bail is opened, and the line begins to slide down the planer board line and away from the boat. Once the line is the desired distance down the planer board line and away from the boat, the bail
is again closed and the rod is put in an upright holder. While the rod is connected to the planer board line, the fishing line goes sideways to the planer board line release, then back behind the boat. When a fish strikes, the line releases and
whips to a position straight back from the boat.
Planer boards are popular for fishing early in the summer, when the water is colder and the fish are closer to the surface. It allows you to put multiple lines out on both sides of the boat without tangling them as easily as you would if they were
all straight behind the boat. Planer boards are also used to troll for smallmouth and to troll for salmon and trout close to shore in the fall.
Divers are somewhere between flatlining or using planer boards, and using downriggers. The diver takes the lure down deeper than a flat line, but cannot reach the depths or the depth accuracy of a downrigger. Divers do, though, have the ability to
get the lure down a considerable depth, and get the lure away from the boat. Divers often plane to one side, allowing multiple lines to be fished across the back and sides of the boat. They are also less expensive than downriggers.
Divers come in a variety of styles. The Dipsey Diver is the most popular. Other divers include the Fish Seeker and the Jons Diver. With most divers, a short piece of line is prepared with a snap swivel on each end. One end is connected to the diver,
and the lure is attached to the other end. The length of this line will determine the distance the lure will run behind the diver. The end of the line from the reel is connected to the front of the diver. The diver usually has a release that must
be closed so the unit dives down when set into the water. The rig is then sent over and allowed to dive down, back, and sometimes to the side. Some divers can be set to adjust the angle they will plane to the side of the boat, allowing divers
to be set to plane right and left behind the boat. The depth they dive is determined by how far they are let out behind the boat. For this reason, a line counter helps to return the diver in the same general location. When a fish strikes the lure,
the release is opened and the diver planes toward the surface.
Some ambitious anglers use divers and planer boards. The lines are set out on divers, the sent out the planer board line to get them further apart. This allows fishing a multitude of lines both down and away from the boat.
Downriggers are used for accurately getting a lure to any depth. This requires a downrigger and a downrigger weight with an attached release. Downriggers come in both manual and electric models. The electric models wind the weight up and down automatically.
The downrigger has a wire line on a spool, a swivel base, a mast which extends the wire over the water, and a heavy snap swivel on the end of the wire line. Manual models have a handle to crank the wire line and weight up and down. A large downrigger
weight is connected to the swivel on the end of the wire line. The weight has a release connected to it. The release has a rubber clip for grabbing the fishing line.
The fishing line and lure are sent over the boat and allowed to run out the distance you want the lure to travel behind the downrigger weight and release. The bail is then closed. The downrigger mast and weight are swung toward the boat. The fishing
line is then connected to the release on the weight. The bail on the fishing reel is opened, the weight is put over the water, and the steel downrigger line is let out. The weight, with the fishing line attached to the release, begins to drop
nearly straight down. The downrigger has a depth counter so you can see how far it is going down. When the desired depth is obtained, the downrigger is stopped, and the bail on the fishing line is closed. The rod is put into the holder attached
to the downrigger. The rod will be bent over hard, since the line is connected to the release which is nearly straight down below the boat. The line should be tight, but no so tight that it pulls the line out of the release.
When a fish strikes, it pulls the line out of the release. Since there is considerable tension on the rod when connected to the release, the downrigger "sets the hook" when it releases. The rod suddenly stands up when a fish is on.
Multiple lines can be stacked on a single downrigger line. To stack lines, one fishing line is connected to the release on the weight in the normal manner. Let the downrigger down the distance you want the two lines to be apart. Once this distance
is reached, stop the downrigger and close the bail on the first reel. Attached the stacker, which consists of a wire line with a safety clip (put over the downrigger line) and a rubber release on each end. One release attaches to the steel downrigger
line. The second release is attached to the second fishing line you wish fish off the downrigger. You must then open the bails on both reels, and send the rig down the remaining distance. Doing this single-handedly is challenging.
Lake Ontario Sport Fish and Fishing Methods
The stream fishing section of this site contains detailed background on the salmon and trout of this region. For additional information on these species, please see that section of this site.
Chinook, Coho and Atlantic Salmon and Steelhead Trout
Chinook and coho salmon have similar habits. Because they are so much larger, anglers tend to target chinook, and may pick up cohos in the process. Steelhead also behave and are taken similarly, except that steelhead enter the rivers several weeks
later than salmon and survive the spawn and return to the lake in the spring. Atlantic salmon, also known as landlocked salmon, are being reintroduced into Lake Ontario. They are still an incidental catch and are not generally targeted specifically.
Chinook, coho and steelhead tend to avoid coming close to shore or into shallower water until they are ready to spawn. During the summer months, they will generally be only in deeper waters, and usually in waters over 100 feet in depth.
In the spring, winter run steelhead return from their spawning runs in the streams and can be taken near shore, generally near stream mouths. Skamania steelhead can also be found near shore during the summer, since they are summer run steelhead.
Generally, however, in the summer and early fall, these fish are scattered in the deeper waters of the lake. They are taken almost exclusively by trolling. Since they are rarely near the surface when far from shore, they are not usually caught with
planer boards or on flat lines. These fish do not generally school during the summer and early fall. In the late fall, these fish begin to school off the mouths of the streams as they prepare for their spawning runs, and they can be caught just
off shore. The salmon school first, usually beginning in mid to late August. The winter run steelhead typically begin to school in mid to late September.
Since salmon and steelhead are usually holding in deeper water, they are usually taken with downriggers or divers. Favorite lures for salmon and steelhead include plugs such as Hot-N-Tot, Hot Shot, and large spoons such as NK Magnums. Imitation plastic
squids and cut bait rigs are also popular.
Dodgers, flashers and other attractors are often used when fishing for salmon, especially with squids. Popular dodger sizes are #0, #1 and #2. Dodgers are normally fished 4 to 12 feet back from the downrigger weight. The fly or lure is put 18 to 24
inches behind the dodger. Some anglers will use a "stacker" release and run a spoon or plug off a downrigger line above the dodger.
Fishing for salmon and steelhead in the fall near shore is done quite differently. Occasionally boats will anchor near the mouth of a stream and cast spoons (of the casting type, like a Little Cleo, not the trolling type). Most who fish from boats
near the shore troll. These anglers use either planer boards or flat lines, since it is often too shallow to use a downrigger or diver. Downriggers can be used if you are in deep enough water. Many try to troll in very shallow water (sometimes
less than 15 feet), and lures can be caught on the bottom if you are not careful. Plugs, especially J-Plugs, are popular. In the peak of the fall salmon and steelhead season, the water off the stream mouths can become crowded with boats trolling
and weaving past one another. Be considerate when fishing in these conditions. All the boat traffic also scares the fish. As the day wears on and traffic increases, the fish tend to hit less and suspend at a lower depth.
As explained above, there is an excellent brown trout fishery early in the season. When the lake becomes fishable, browns can be found very close to shore, and to depths of up to 20 feet. Early in the season when the water temperature is cold, the
fish will be in the warmest water they can find. As the water warms above about 47 degrees, the browns begin to move out to stay in water temperatures in the 47 to 65 degree range. Browns are both structure and bait oriented, so look for them
where there is both bait fish and bottom structure. Early in the season browns can be taken from shore. One of the best producers for brown trout is any location where the thermocline intersects the lake bottom. If this can be located, generally
brown trout will be there too, especially if there is also structure present.
Many anglers fish for browns using lighter gear, which includes line between four and ten pound test. Browns are also light sensitive, so if the browns are in close to shore, fishing is better early or late in the day or when skies are overcast. Typical
trolling speeds for browns is in the 1.8 to 2.3 m.p.h. range.
Popular areas for brown trout in the spring include the shoreline areas near the mouths of Otter and Catfish Creeks near Pleasant Point. When the water is cold, try the warm water discharge points off the Nine Mile power plant and the Fitzpatrick
Popular lures for browns include stick baits such as Rapalas, and spoons.
Lake trout are native to Lake Ontario. They mature far more slowly than salmon and steelhead, and large lake trout can be more than ten years old. Because lake trout mature so slowly, there is a closed season for these fish on Lake Ontario during
their spawning season. In addition, Lake Trout of a certain size must be released to permit them to spawn. See the Regulations page for more information.
Lake trout are one of the most consistently caught species in eastern Lake Ontario. They can be taken throughout nearly all of the off-shore angling season.
Lake trout are usually found on or near the bottom, except in the late May and early June when they may be near the surface and closer to shore. Nearly all lake trout are taken by trolling a downrigger close to the bottom. Spoons are the most popular
lure for lakers. Typical troll speeds for lake trout are about two m.p.h. or less.
Smallmouth fishing is an often overlooked fishery in Lake Ontario. The lake holds very good populations of smallmouths of substantial size. It is likely this fishery will increase in both popularity and publicity in the near future. A recent DEC survey
showed that in 1999 the number of boat trips targeting smallmouth nearly doubled from the year before and reached its highest point ever.
Smallmouth tend to hold over some type of structure, and are generally found near shore, in the 10 to 35 foot depth range. Popular spots for smallmouth include the near shore area off Butterfly Swamp, the rocky bottom areas off the mouth of Little
Salmon River at Mexico Point, off "A Frame Point" west of the mouth of the Little Salmon (off from the A frame cabin), on either side of the mouth of Catfish Creek, at Nine Mile Point around the shallow water discharge from the Nine
Mile 1 plant and the deep water discharge at the Fitzpatrick power plant, at the mouth of the Salmon River at Port Ontario and at the entrance to North Sandy Pond.
Some out-of-towners use traditional bass boats and fish as though they were in a reservoir or river. This can be quite dangerous, as these boats are not designed for big lake fishing. If you use a bass boat on the lake, use common sense, stay close
to shore, watch the weather and be prepared to run for harbor if the waves pick up.
Smallmouth are taken by a variety of methods and with a variety of baits and lures. They can be taken by still fishing, drifting or trolling. Popular baits used when still fishing or drifting include minnows and soft-shell crayfish, usually fished
near the bottom. Bucktail jigs tipped with a nightcrawler are also popular. Smallmouth can also be taken by the traditional method of casting a lure. However, the fish may be holding in more than 20 feet of water, so you must get the lure deep
enough to present it to the fish. Smallmouth can also be taken by trolling. In mid-summer, smallmouths are occasionally taken much further off-shore in significantly deeper waters.
Traditionally walleye populations have not been consistent enough to support a significant walleye fishery in eastern Lake Ontario. As a result, they are not frequently targeted in the lake. However, there is a distinct near-shore fishery for walleye
off Oswego Harbor each spring, usually from the last half of May through the first half of June. From evening and into the night, walleye school just off the harbor mouth, and anglers in boats congregate in large numbers targeting the walleye.
Most anglers use large floating stickbaits, such as size 18 Rapalas, to fish for these walleye. There is also some walleye fishing around Nine Mile Point, but again it is not nearly as popular as the fishery for trout and salmon.
Special thanks to Captain Ernie Lantiegne of Fish Doctor Charters for his assistance with this description.