Welcome to FishSalmonRiver.com
Your complete source for information on fishing the Salmon River, NY and Eastern Lake Ontario regions
Descriptions of Lake Ontario
Trout And Salmon

By Dan Bishop, Biologist
NYDEC, Cortland, NY

Chinook Salmon
Coho Salmon
Landlocked Atlantis Salmon
Lake Trout
Skamania Steelhead
Washington Steelhead
Brown Trout

Chinook or "King" Salmon are the largest of the Lake Ontario trout and salmon. These highly coveted trophy fish are available to anglers year round in the lake. The majority of the fish, however, are caught from early spring through fall. There is an outstanding lake fishery which develops from mid-to-late August and into September for mature fish which are "staging" off of river mouths prior to their spawning migrations. Once the spawning runs start, chinooks become the centerpiece of the Lake Ontario tributary fishery during September and October.

Chinook salmon are spawned at the Salmon River Hatchery during the month of October. The run consists of some precocious age 1 males called "jacks" (which are not used in the spawning operations) but is dominated by age 2 and age 3 fish. Age 4 fish have become more common in recent years. Jacks usually account for 5 to 20% of the run and weigh around 4 to 5 pounds. Age 2 and age 3 fish together generally account for 80 to 90% of the run with individual year-class strength determining which age class is more abundant. Age 2 fish average around 13 to 17 pounds while age 3 fish average from 18 to 23 pounds. And the oldest fish in the run, age 4 fish, make up less than 10% of the run and average 18 to 25 pounds. The many larger fish that are caught each year are simply fish that are larger than average for their age. The state record chinook salmon weighed 47 lb. 13 oz. and was caught in the Salmon River in 1991.

The eggs are incubated in trays until they begin hatching around Thanksgiving. Sac fry are moved to start tanks when the yolk sacs are absorbed around the first of the year. At this time they swim-up and are fed a dry diet. By May, waters have generally warmed up enough to allow stocking of the chinook parr (pre-smolts) which are stocked at about 100 to the pound (3.2 inches) at various locations in New York waters of Lake Ontario. Smoltification is a physiological change in the fish which is characterized by parr marks giving way to a silver coloration, and a strong desire to migrate to the lake. Salmon also imprint on the water that they are in when smolting occurs and return to that water when they mature. Smolting usually occurs when the chinooks have reached the size of 75 to the pound (3.5 inches). A portion of the annual stocking (20%) is intentionally imprinted on the hatchery by holding the fish until after they have smolted to provide future broodstock. In the spring of 1998, a pen rearing project was initiated in western Lake Ontario in an attempt to improve survival and homing of salmon to their stocking sites. The program was expanded in 1999 to 6 sites along the lake. The salmon are stocked into enclosed pens and held for a period of weeks until they are smolted. This allows the fish to imprint on the stocking sites while avoiding predation.

It is hardly a forgone conclusion that stocking fish will result in adequate returns. For salmon to survive and reach maturity, they must avoid the hungry mouths of larger trout and salmon from the time they are stocked until late in their first summer in the lake when they have grown too big to be eaten. After salmon have grown large enough to avoid being eaten, they then must avoid anglers who are trying to catch them. At the same time they must find enough alewives and smelt to fuel their impressive growth. Fortunately, enough salmon make it through the gauntlet to provide for future generations.

There is also an unknown but potentially significant contribution from naturally reproducing chinook salmon in the Lake Ontario system. The Salmon River, in particular, has produced large, though highly variable numbers of wild chinooks since baseflows were initiated in 1986 as a result of the hydro-power licence issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to the local power company. Unfortunately, however, adequate nursery habitat in tributaries is a limiting factor which prevents naturally reproduced fish from supplying enough salmon to provide the fishery we now enjoy.

Coho salmon are a Pacific salmon which is stocked by NYSDEC to provide both a lake and fall tributary fishery. Cohos provide an additional species in the catch during the spring brown trout fishery and offshore fisheries which develop later in the summer, particularly in the central and western portions of the lake. They also contribute to the late-summer/early-fall fishery which develops when mature chinooks and cohos begin "staging" off of river mouths preparing for their spawning migrations. Once the migration starts, cohos become an important component of the fall tributary fishery.

Spawning of coho salmon at the Salmon River Hatchery occurs during mid-October. Similar to chinooks, hatching occurs in the incubator trays around Thanksgiving with transfer to the start tanks and feeding starting around New Years Day. Cohos are moved outside to the raceways around the end of June. Unlike chinooks which have been stocked and are all smolted by this time, cohos will not begin smolting until the following February. Two thirds (200,000 of 300,000) of the coho salmon are stocked as pre-smolt fall-fingerlings in various New York waters of Lake Ontario. The other 100,000 are kept in the hatchery over the winter to allow imprinting on the hatchery to provide future broodstock and a coho fishery in the Salmon River. Coho smolts are moved to the smolt release pond in May where they are free to leave when the urge strikes them.

Cohos also differ from chinooks in other ways. Obviously, they are much smaller averaging 7 to 9 pounds as mature fish in the runs. However, there are many larger than average cohos and the state record was recently caught off of Oswego in August of 1998
and weighed 33 lb. 7 oz. The vast majority of cohos mature at age 2 as opposed to chinooks which have significant contributions from older, larger age 3 fish and even some age 4 fish. Since the fishery for coho salmon is largely dependent on one age-class in any given year, it is easy to see how fluctuations in year-class strength can profoundly influence fishing success for the species on a year-to-year basis. Individual year-class strength is of less importance for species which have several year-classes in the fishery at any given time. Coho survival, however, has been consistently good in recent years providing a dependable fishery.

As is the case with the chinooks and steelhead, there is some degree of natural reproduction which occurs with coho salmon. A lack of enough high quality tributaries to provide suitable nursery habitat, however, is a factor which limits natural reproduction. Continued stocking is required to maintain cohos at current population levels.

Atlantic salmon played a major role in the Lake Ontario fishery into the 1800s when the species was extirpated. Early accounts tell of large runs in the Salmon River, the Oswego River system and many other Lake Ontario tributaries on the New York and Canadian sides. Many factors may have contributed to the demise of the Atlantic salmon in Lake Ontario. The damming of streams which prevented salmon from reaching their reproductive grounds, over-exploitation by man, pollution, and the deforestation of watersheds resulting in warmer, more silt laden streams were among the most important of these factors.

The future role of the Atlantic salmon in Lake Ontario is uncertain at this time. Since the species was native to Lake Ontario, it is a candidate for restoration. There are, however, many hurdles which would have to be overcome for this to occur. Landlocked salmon have the lowest survival of the trout and salmon species stocked in Lake Ontario. Stockings to date have produced very disappointing returns. The size of fish produced from those that have survived, however, has been very impressive and the state record (24 lb. 15 oz.) came from Lake Ontario in 1997. Nursery habitat for juvenile Atlantic salmon would be another area of concern. Juvenile steelheads and Pacific salmon currently occupy virtually all of the suitable nursery habitat available in the tributaries and may be better competitors for this space.

Another possible hurdle to the natural reproduction of Atlantic salmon in Lake Ontario might be the alewife which is an important diet component for all Lake Ontario trout and salmon. Recent research has revealed that alewives contain an enzyme called thiaminase which breaks down the vitamin thiamin. This interferes with the reproductive abilities of the various species of trout and salmon to varying degrees with Atlantic salmon appearing to be the most severely affected. Research with Atlantic salmon in the Finger Lakes suggests that this is a major problem for this species resulting in an almost complete loss of reproductive ability. Research is needed to determine the magnitude of this problem in Lake Ontario landlocked salmon.

Landlocked Atlantic salmon run tributaries from June through November and spawn in the fall. As a result, Atlantics provide the potential for a summer tributary fishery as do Skamania steelhead. Spring fingerlings (60,000) were planted in the Salmon River in 1995 as a first step towards attempting to develop a fishery for landlocked salmon in the river. Starting in the spring of 1996, stocking policies were initiated for Black River (25,000 yearlings, 25,000 fall fingerlings), Salmon River (30,000 yearlings) and Oak Orchard Creek (20,000 yearlings). These stockings are an attempt to develop runs and further diversify and expand Lake Ontario tributary fishing opportunities. Modest numbers of adult Atlantic salmon began showing up in the Salmon River in the summer of 1998.

Lake trout were native to Lake Ontario. The species was of significant commercial importance prior to a collapse of the population which occurred in the 1950s. The disappearance of lake trout from Lake Ontario was believed to be attributable to over-fishing and colonization of the lake by sea lampreys. The lake trout in Lake Ontario today are largely a result of an intensive stocking program combined with a high degree of sea lamprey control.

Besides providing a recreational fishery, restoration of lake trout in Lake Ontario is a goal of the resource agencies in New York, Ontario and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. The stated goal is "to rehabilitate the lake trout population of Lake Ontario such that the adult spawning stock(s) encompasses several year classes, sustains itself at a relatively stable level by natural reproduction, and produces a useable annual surplus.

The plan calls for a total annual survival for adults of 60% which requires more restrictive harvest regulations than we have on the other trout and salmon species. Harvest of lake trout is limited to fish smaller than 25" or larger than 30" and the open season is from January 1 through September 30. While the "slot limit" has been somewhat controversial because anglers felt that too many of the fish that were released died, it seems to be working. Many anglers are now quite happy with the opportunity to catch lake trout over 30". Adult stocks appear to be in good shape and we have seen successful natural reproduction in some recent years.

The recent declines in the alewife population may have actually benefitted the natural reproduction of lake trout. Studies showed that lake trout fry in the eastern end of the lake were being preyed upon by alewives which were coming into shallow water to spawn just as the lake trout fry were emerging from the gravel in the spring. This may have been a major limiting factor which prevented significant natural reproduction of lake trout.

Lake trout are much longer lived than the other trout and salmon species in Lake Ontario. They grow slower and typically mature from about 5 to 7 years of age. The state record lake trout which was caught out of Lake Ontario in May of 1994, however, weighed 39 lb. 8 oz. and was only 11 years old. This fish obviously had an unusually large appetite for a lake trout.

The lake trout stocked in Lake Ontario are provided by the USF&WS Allegheny Fish Hatchery in Pennsylvania. Various strains have been stocked over the years in an attempt to gain genetic diversity. Strains stocked include fish from Lake Superior where the native strain was never completely eliminated and significant natural reproduction occurs. Perhaps the most promising strain which has been stocked is the Seneca Lake strain which are fish that have demonstrated the ability to survive in the presence of sea lampreys. Genetic analysis suggests that Seneca strain fish are providing the bulk of the natural reproduction in Lake Ontario to date. Recent declines in survival of stocked fish led to a new stocking strategy. In recent years, portions of the annual stockings were done off-shore from a landing craft vessel (barge) in an attempt to avoid near-shore predators and improve post-stocking survival. In 1998 and 1999, all of the lake trout stocked by New York were barge stocked. We will be evaluating the success of this method over the next few years.

NYSDEC stocks two distinct strains of anadromous (migrate into streams to spawn) steelhead rainbow trout in Lake Ontario; Skamania and Washington (Chamber's Creek) which both originated in the State of Washington. Steelhead are native to Pacific coast watersheds of North America and Asia. Skamania steelhead are a summer run/spring spawning strain of steelhead which was developed by the State of Washington. Early spawners were selected over time advancing the date of egg take which, combined with special diets, allowed the production of yearlings which could smolt and emigrate at the exact time as the wild smolts which were predominately age-2. This was important because data showed that fish stocked that smolted at the optimal time for emigration survived far better than those that did not.

Indiana was the first Great Lakes state to import Skamania steelhead for Lake Michigan during the late 1970s. Subsequent development of fisheries and brood stocks in Indiana and Michigan resulted in New York obtaining eyed eggs from both states in 1985. New York has subsequently developed a captive brood stock and has been successful in taking eggs from wild brood stock at the Salmon River Hatchery annually since 1995. Plans call for the development of a wild broodstock which would produce 150,000 eggs/year. Development of a wild broodstock is desirable for a couple of reasons. First, it eliminates the necessity of maintaining a captive broodstock and second, it uses gametes from fish that have proven that they are made of the "right stuff" to survive in Lake Ontario.

Skamania steelhead offer two new dimensions to the Lake Ontario fishery. They offer a late spring/early summer near shore troll fishery in the lake. This is of particular importance in the eastern basin where little except lake trout were available after the spring brown trout fishery faded. They have provided a boost to the lake fishery and some very large Skamanias in the 20 pound range have been reported by anglers.

The other new dimension offered by Skamania is the potential for a summer tributary fishery on the Salmon River. Niagara Mohawk engineers have worked with NYSDEC and USFWS officials and other interested parties to develop an ingenious plan to provide year-round base flows on the Salmon River by budgeting water on an annual basis. The plan is part of the licensing effort for the hydro-electric project with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The new summer base flow is 185 cubic feet/second (cfs) which is more than four times the summertime flow prior to 1997. The combination of higher flows and the desire that Skamania steelhead have to run tributaries in the summer could produce a whole new fishery on the Salmon River.

Skamania are spawned from late February through early April. Salmon River fish which come into the hatchery with the salmon in the fall are exposed to extended periods of artificial light during the winter to accelerate the "ripening" process which provides the early spawners. Skamanias which wait until spring to enter the hatchery are spawned at the same time as the Washington steelhead. Eggs are incubated in trays and hatch around mid-to-late May. Fry are moved to the start tanks and feeding begins about June first. A portion of the stocking, which occurs in May, is allowed to smolt and imprint on the Salmon River Hatchery to provide future brood stock. These fish are moved from the raceways to the smolt release pond at the hatchery and are allowed to leave when the urge strikes them. Those that survive and forage effectively begin to mature and return starting at age 3. Age 4 fish tend to dominate the run with age 5 fish also contributing and the cycle starts all over again.

NYSDEC stocks two distinct strains of anadromous (migrate into streams to spawn) steelhead rainbow trout in Lake Ontario; Skamania and Washington (Chamber's Creek) which both originated in the State of Washington. Steelhead are native to Pacific coast watersheds of North America and Asia. Washington steelhead are a winter run/spring spawning strain which provide both a lake and tributary fishery in Lake Ontario. Washington steelhead are available in the lake year-round with most fish being caught from early spring through fall. By mid-October, mature steelheads begin showing up in tributaries on their spawning migrations and begin to replace the salmon as the focal point of the tributary fishery. The month of November, before the water gets cooler than 40°F, is one of the best times to fish for these powerful fish in the tributaries. The tributary fishery continues through the winter and into the spring right up through spawning time in March and early April. Some of the fish that have spawned out also linger in the tributaries through April and into May. These fish are particularly hungry after the rigors of spawning and provide an excellent late spring fishery in the tribs.

The age structure of the run varies from year to year as a result of differences in yearclass strength but age 3, 4 and 5 fish generally account for more than 90% of the run with the remainder of the fish age 6 and older. Age 3 fish, which are predominantly males, average from about 5 to 7.5 pounds. Age 4 fish average from 6.5 to 11 pounds and age 5 fish average 10 to 12 pounds.

Spawning operations at the Salmon River Hatchery take place around the last week of March through the early part of April. Exact timing of the operation depends upon temperature. Eggs are incubated in trays and hatch around mid-to-late May. Fry are moved to the start tanks and feeding begins about June first. The fish are held inside through the summer and moved outside to the raceways in late September to make room for the salmon. Stocking occurs during May. A portion of the stocking is intentionally imprinted on the Salmon River Hatchery and released from the smolt release pond where they are free to leave when they want to. This ensures that enough steelhead will return to the Hatchery to provide for future generations.

Experimental stockings were initiated in 1999 to determine which stocking method(s) are most successful. Four lots of 15,000 fish were tagged with different colors of elastomer injected just behind the eye and stocked in different sites. One group was stocked in the smolt release pond, a second group in the Salmon River adjacent to the Hatchery, a third group by the lighthouse where the river enters the lake and the fourth group was taken outside the breakwall at the mouth of the Salmon River. This tagging and stocking strategy will continue for two more years and we will be able to determine which technique is most effective from hatchery returns and creel census efforts.

Net pen projects were initiated in the spring of 1998 to improve post-stocking survival and imprinting to stocking sites. Fish were stocked into holding pens at Oswego and Oak Orchard in late March/early April and held for a period of weeks while they grew and smolted prior to release. In Oswego, paired stockings were done in 1998 and 1999 to evaluate the success of this technique. Half of the fish were stocked directly into the river and the other half were stocked in the net pens. The fish have their adipose fins removed and a coded wire tag in their snouts. The codes on the tags are different so we will be able to compare relative survival and homing for the 2 groups. We plan to continue this experiment for 1 more year for an accurate assessment of the technique. We will be very interested in acquiring heads from adipose clipped steelhead in the next few years to aid in this evaluation.

Approximately 30% of the steelhead population in Lake Ontario may be wild, produced in various tributaries (particularly on the Canadian side). Some of the steelhead that run the Salmon River are produced in Trout and Orwell Brooks which are tributaries to the main stem. While contributions from naturally reproducing fish are certainly welcome in the fishery, nursery habitat is limiting and hatchery plantings are necessary to produce the level of steelhead fishing we now enjoy.

Brown trout are an important part of the lake fishery and also contribute to the fall tributary fishery. Browns are a featured species early in the spring as they congregate in the relatively warm, near-shore waters off of river mouths providing opportunity for shore and boat fishing. As the lake warms, browns move away from shore and continue to provide fishing for anglers willing to fish near the bottom where it intersects the thermocline. This fishery is often passed over by anglers seeking salmon further off-shore.

As is the case with lake trout, salmon and steelhead, brown trout are capable of getting very large in Lake Ontario. The current state record (33 lbs. 2 oz.) was caught in Mexico Bay in 1997. Fish in the weighing high-teens and 20+ lbs. category are not uncommon.

The brown trout stocked in Lake Ontario are domestic strain fish originating from our Rome Hatchery. The eggs are taken from captive broodstock and the fish are raised at various hatcheries throughout the state including the Salmon River Hatchery. The fish are stocked as yearlings in Lake Ontario around the end of May.

Concerns over predation by double-crested cormorants on recently stocked brown trout led to stocking the fish off-shore with a landing-craft vessel (barge) in the eastern half of the lake starting in 1996. Paired stockings have been done annually at Oswego and Selkirk with half of the fish stocked from shore and the other half from the barge. The two groups of fish have different fin clips which allows us to evaluate the success of the barge stocking through returns of marked fish from the Lake Ontario Fishing Boat Census and other sources. Preliminary observations suggest at least a 4 to 1 advantage for barge stocked fish. We think that the main advantage for the barge stocking may be avoiding predation by other fish. By waiting until late May to stock the fish, cormorants are not very abundant at these sites. Most of the cormorants are involved in nesting activity the eastern basin.

This document is public information prepared by the The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

Formatting © 2000 FishUSA.com