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Trolling for Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon

Fishing a water body as enormous as Lake Ontario for trout and salmon can be very intimidating. I mean, where and how do you start fishing on such a massive lake? Because of the vastness of the lake, trolling is the preferred angling method as it allows you to put a number of rods in the water (the current regulation allows three rods per angler), with different lures set at a variety of depths, all while covering a large area of water searching for active fish. Trolling in its simplest form is putting a lure out behind the boat and pulling it around, hoping a fish hits. As you will see below, trolling on the big lake is much more advanced than that. This article is meant to just give you the basics for a starting point. Like other fishing methods, trolling is a continuous learning experience. Now where to begin?

Safety First!

Photo of angler with Chinook salmon

First a quick word about safety. Lake Ontario is a huge lake, so safety should always be your number one concern. A boat that is capable of handling the big water conditions is a must. There are certain times of the year, however, such as early spring, late summer and early fall, when trout or salmon are near shore and are accessible to anglers with smaller boats. Good sonar (depth finder, fish locator, etc.) is a must for safe trolling and navigation. A global positioning system (GPS) is also highly recommended for safety. It will help you find your home port and to also help you find your way back to a productive fishing area. A marine radio is also a must for safety, weather reports and fishing information from fellow anglers.

Use temperature as a starting point,

A key factor to consider for successful trout and salmon fishing is water temperature. Each salmonid species has a preferred temperature range as well as an optimum water temperature where they will prefer to stay. Locating these areas and concentrating your fishing effort in them will greatly increase your chance of catching your target fish. Most lakes, including Lake Ontario, thermally stratify during the summer. This means there is an upper warm surface layer, called the epilimnion, with temperatures ranging from 62 - 80 degrees Fahrenheit (F). Immediately below the epilimnion is the thermocline. The thermocline is a narrow band, often only 5 to 15 feet, where there is a rapidly decreasing temperature zone. Below the thermocline is the hypolimnion, or the cold water zone where the temperature ranges from 39 - 52 F. Luckily there are temperature probes available that allow you to easily take water temperatures down to 100 feet or more. These thermometers are either hand held and lowered on a cable, or connect to your downrigger system. You can also often see the thermocline on your depth finder by turning the gain or sensitivity up. The thermocline will show as a narrow, fuzzy line. You can also use your depth finder to see at what depths the most fish are located and begin fishing there. A quick stop at a local bait shop or a visit to our Fishing Hotline Page will also help get you started at the right depth. Below is a chart showing the preferred and optimum temperature ranges for the trout and salmon found in Lake Ontario. This table is just meant to be a starting point; salmonids will venture out of these temperature zones.

Preferred and Optimum Temperature Ranges for Trout and Salmon
Species Preferred Temperature (F) Optimum Temperature (F)
Atlantic Salmon 55 - 65 60
Brown Trout 54 - 63 58
Rainbow Trout/Steelhead 55 - 65 60
Lake Trout 42 - 52 48
Coho Salmon 52 - 58 53
Chinook Salmon 52 - 58 53

Add in some bait fish,

Along with the preferred water temperature, the presence of forage, bait fish in this case, must also be present or nearby. The main forage for trout and salmon in Lake Ontario are the alewife and rainbow smelt. Like the trout and salmon, smelt and alewives also have a preferred temperature zone and are usually found in and around the thermocline. Round gobies are also becoming a prey item for brown trout and lake trout during the portion of the year when the near shore water is cool enough for the trout to access the bottom hugging gobies.

And get your lures to the right depth!

Now that we know the preferred water temperature of the salmonid we want to catch, how do we get our lure down to that depth? Each year there are popular trends for trolling; these may include new techniques or lures, or old methods re-introduced. Some of the current popular methods are the use of downriggers, divers, wire line, copper line, and lead core line. From day to day the "hot" or productive method seems to vary, with one method out producing the other. What many trollers do is to put a few lures out with different methods of getting them down, and then adjust as one seems to be getting more hits that day. Overviews of some methods of getting your lure down are as follows:

Downriggers

Photo of an angler holding a steelhead in front of downriggers.

Downriggers allow fishing at a precise depth. They are basically a heavy weight (often called a ball) attached to a steel cable that is released and retrieved by a winch and pulley system. Downriggers come in a variety of styles from clamp-on models to mounted models, and are either hand operated by cranks or run with electric motors. A release mechanism is attached to the ball, and an angler attaches his fishing line to the release. When a fish strikes the lure, the release mechanism releases the fishing line, so the fish may be fought and landed without the distraction of any additional weight.

Generally level wind or baitcasting reels are used when trolling, but spinning reels can also be used. Line capacity is important as you may be fishing 150 to 200 feet down and for fish, such as Chinook salmon, that may peel 100s of feet off the reel when they make a run. Therefore you need a reel that can handle 250 to 400 yards of 15 pound test monofilament line. Most downrigger rods for trout and salmon are 8 ½ to 10 ½ feet long and are medium to medium-heavy. They need to have a long enough butt section to fit in the rod holder without the reel hitting.

By the stacking or the use of sliders (or cheaters), you can fish multiple lines off one downrigger. Stacking is adding rods to a downrigger set up. Additional releases are put on the downrigger cable and the additional lines/lures may be attached to them. Sliders or cheaters are lures attached to a length of monofilament with a snap swivel attached to the other end. The snap swivel is attached to the fishing line that is already attached to the downrigger. The lure will "slide" down the line about halfway to the lower lure, where the line has a bow in it. The advantage of using stackers and cheaters is that they allow you to cover a wider depth range.

Divers

Divers come in a variety of styles but are generally either circular or torpedo shaped. Their purpose is to get your lure down to depth; many models also allow you to have the diver go off to one side of the boat. The benefit of this is that you can spread your lure presentations out. Divers are a great alternative for beginning trollers as they are much cheaper than downriggers and no installation is required on your boat.

Divers are tied to your main fishing line which can be monofilament, braid, or wire line, and a leader, and your lure is then tied off from the diver. When trolling, the diver is set or "in diving" mode. When a fish strikes, the diver is triggered, and you then play and land the fish with the diver in the "non-diving" mode. How deep a diver goes depend on the size and shape of the diver, setting on the diver, line type and diameter, amount of line out and trolling speed. Most divers come with a handy guide that gives you information for reaching certain depths. The use of a snubber, piece of rubber surgical tubing, between the diver and lure is recommended when using line other than monofilament. A snubber acts as a shock absorber when using a line with little stretch.

A diver rod must have backbone and strength as a diver puts a lot of stress on a rod when in diving position. Most diver rods are 7 to 10 feet. The level wind reel size will be determined by the type of line used. Many anglers like line counter reels so they can easily duplicate a setting after a fish is caught.

Wire Line

Picture of waterfleas

Trolling with wire line has become popular in recent years. Wire is generally used with a diving device. Wire does not stretch like monofilament line, so it allows baits to get deeper. Some anglers also feel that wire makes removing waterfleas easier than braided line. Waterfleas are small crustaceans that are found in Lake Ontario. They are non-native and arrived in ship's ballast water from Eurasia. They often collect in masses on fishing lines and downrigger cables. These jelly like masses can clog eyelets on fishing rods and can make trolling extremely frustrating by requiring lines to be cleared of the waterfleas often. Wire is also said to have a "harmonic hum" that many anglers believe helps to attract fish.

Wire comes in many different sizes, but a popular size is 30 pound. Many trollers put 1,000 feet onto their reels. It seems like a lot of wire, but when you figure you may have 300 to 400 feet out when trolling, and then have a feisty Chinook salmon peel off another 300 feet, you could easily be spooled (run out of line). Reels are generally large level winds because of the amount of wire needed and rods are 7 to 10 foot diver rods. When using wire, you may need to replace your tip guide with a roller guide or spring guide as wire tends to wear down a normal tip guide.

Copper Line

Copper line has also gained in popularity in recent years on the big lake. Trolling with copper was/is a popular method on the Finger Lakes for trolling for lake trout. The traditional method of using copper was hand-lining with it. The copper line was held in your hand, and you gave action to the lure by giving tugs on the copper as you trolled around. On Lake Ontario, anglers troll the copper spooled on a level wind reel. Copper, like wire, doesn't stretch, allowing lures to dive deeply. Anglers are trolling lures far behind the boat, 350 to 500 feet with the copper line and getting lures down to 60 feet or more. Generally a downrigger rod makes a good copper rod; no special guide tip is required. Reels need to have a large capacity, as generally 250 to 300 yards of 30 to 50 pound braided line is used for backing, followed by 250 to 500 feet of copper, and then a leader.

Lead Core

Using lead core line is another method of getting lures down to depth. Lead core line is lead encased in a dacron or nylon sheath. Lead core line usually comes in a 100 yard spool with each ten yards being a different color. You will hear anglers referring to having "X" colors out. A general rule of thumb is five feet of depth for every color of lead core out; for example, five colors (or 50 yards) will put your lure at a depth of 25 feet. When using lead core you will need a reel that can handle the 100 yards of lead core, 200 to 300 yards of backing (usually 30 pound braided line) and your leader (usually 50 feet of fluorocarbon). An 8 to 10 ½' down rigger rod will work with lead core, and no special tip guides are required as with wire.

Planer Boards

Unlike the methods mentioned above which are designed to get your lure down to depth, planer boards are used to get your lure out and away from the boat. They can be used, though, in conjunction with the other methods to get your lure down and out. As the name implies, they are generally board shaped and are either attached directly to your fishing line (in-line planer boards), or are attached to a cord that is fixed to a mast on your boat. You then attach your fishing line to the mast cord with a release.

Getting your lure away from the boat can help you catch fish that may be spooked by the outboard and boat in shallow water. It also allows you to cover a wider area when searching for fish. Planer boards work really well during the early spring when trolling for brown trout in shallow water, often less than 15 feet, near shore. One thing to keep in mind when using planer boards is that it requires more room for turning or maneuvering your boat. Too sharp of a turn and you will tangle your lines. Using planer boards in areas of high boat traffic or tight quarters is not recommended. For example, using planer boards in an estuary mouth on a weekend during the fall salmon run would create numerous headaches for you and your fellow anglers.

Lures

Popular trolling lures for salmonids are spoons, plugs, and attractors with cut-bait, flies and peanuts (a small plug or fly). Attractors come in a wide variety of shapes and styles, but their primary purpose, as the name implies, is attraction by giving the illusion of feeding fish and also adding action to a fly or cut-bait. The three main styles of attractors are spinners, dodgers and flashers. Spinners are usually fished with a peanut or cut-bait. Dodgers and flashers are used with flies or cut-bait.

Choosing a lure color can be mind boggling when one looks at the colors available in tackle catalogs and sporting good stores. Furthermore, the preferred color your desired salmonids are hitting can seem to change by the hour. The size, action and speed of a lure are generally more important than color, but lure color does seem to play an important role in salmonid fishing success. What many trollers do is to put down a variety of colors when starting the day and then adjust if one seems to be producing more hits. Sometime very subtle color or pattern differences can mean the difference between a full or empty cooler. If you are marking fish but not getting hits keep changing bait style and color.

Hot lure colors come and go, but some popular colors over the last few years have been green, white, chrome, chartreuse, orange, red or combinations of these colors. Baits that glow are also very popular. When starting out, it's best to buy a few of the same lures in different colors. A local bait shop or our fishing hotline pages should be able to help you choose what colors have been working. From reading the packaging and by placing the lure alongside the moving boat, you can figure out what speed your lure runs best. Similar lures should all be running correctly at the same speed. When trolling it also helps to troll in an s-curve, rather than in a straight line. Doing this will cause your lures to rise, fall, speed up and slow down, which can often provoke a following fish to strike.

What to catch!

Brown trout

photo of angler with brown trout

Spring time on Lake Ontario generally means fantastic brown trout fishing. Brown trout are found along much of the shoreline. The warmer water along shore or at tributary mouths attracts baitfish, which in turn attracts the brown trout. Stickbaits (minnow imitating plugs) are the hot lure this time of year and are either flat-lined or fished off planer boards. Good colors are generally black and silver, blue and silver, fire-tiger or chartreuse. As the lake begins to warm, the brown trout start moving farther off shore. Small spoons start to work better as anglers switch from flat-lining to using downriggers. As a thermocline develops, brown trout are usually found around it; generally where the thermocline contacts the bottom is a good spot to fish. As summer progresses, larger spoons start to work better for the brown trout and may need to be fished down to 60 feet or more.

Rainbow trout/steelhead

Rainbow trout or steelhead are usually found higher in the water column than the other trout and salmon, generally above the thermocline. Trolling small spoons around thermal bars (areas of rapid temperature change, often off colored water and littered with debris) works well for the rainbows. Rainbows are oftentimes seen leaping out of the water in their attempts to shake free from the hook, often even before the angler realizes he has a fish on. At times you may only be fishing 20 to 40 feet down over 300 to 500 feet of water. Small red or orange colored spoons are popular with anglers targeting rainbows.

Atlantic salmon

It's difficult to specifically target Atlantic salmon as they are less numerous in Lake Ontario than the other salmonids. Atlantic salmon are generally caught by anglers fishing for brown trout.

Lake Trout

Lake trout are native to Lake Ontario and prefer colder water than the other salmonids. Lake trout are often found close to bottom, so at times putting lures very close to bottom can be good. They are often called the "bread and butter" fish for the guides as they are generally more predictable than the other species. If you get at the right water depth and cover ground, you can usually get a few lake trout to hit. When the other species are cooperating and hitting well, lake trout usually take a back seat to the more glamorous species and few people fish for them. Good lake trout lures are spoons, spinners and peanuts (small plugs or flies), and dodger/flashers and fly rigs.

Chinook salmon

Chinook salmon or "king" salmon grow large, fight hard, and are a much sought after sport fish. Generally in the spring, the western end of the lake is the starting point for the salmon fishery. As spring changes into summer, the salmon fishing shifts towards the eastern end of the lake. By late summer the kings begin to stage off tributary mouths across the lake as they prepare for their fall spawning run. During the spring the salmon can be caught closer to shore as they follow baitfish into these areas. As summer progresses they begin to move farther off shore in search of cooler water. At times you may find them 100 or more feet down over 500 feet of water. Flasher and flies, flasher and cut-bait, or spoons work for these deep fish. As the salmon begin to stage off the river mouths in late summer, plugs begin to become a popular bait choice along with the above mentioned baits. J-plugs continue to be staple trolling bait for fall kings.

Coho salmon

Coho salmon or "silver" salmon typically don't grow as large as king salmon, but are tremendous fighters for their size. Cohos tend to be found higher in the water column than kings, and they seem to be less wary of boats and downrigger weights. When anglers target cohos with downriggers, they often fish lures close to the weight (or ball). Like with kings, the fishing generally progresses from west to east. Cohos, however, are usually caught earlier in the spring than the kings. Anglers targeting shallow water brown trout in the spring generally pick up some cohos. Fishing bright colored baits, reds and oranges, close to the boat is a productive coho trolling technique. Like the kings, they begin to move farther off shore as the water warms, but return to river mouths in late summer as they too prepare for their fall spawning run. Similar baits work for the cohos as for the Chinooks.