Finding The Bait Fish of Lake Ontario


Man in holding up a salmon caught after locating some of bait fish of Lake Ontario.
Milt Rosko shows off a nice spring salmon, an example of the many impressive fish of Lake Ontario, caught near Olcott.

Locating the Bait Fish of Lake Ontario

Location, location, location. Those are the first three things to consider in the business world if you want to achieve success. It’s not much different in the world of fishing on Lake Ontario.

“Early Spring is about finding the forage,” insists Capt. Vince Pierleoni of Newfane. “If you can start locating the bait fish of lake Ontario, along with some warm, stained water, you’ve got the recipe for catching fish in the early season!”

Find the Fish

If you are looking for success with early season salmon and sping lake trout fishing, food is a key component to your angling equation. Pierleoni should know, as one of the top charter guys on the lake for more than a quarter century, he now uses his 35 foot Viking, aptly named THRILLSEEKER II, to produce fish consistently – day in and day out. That’s his job.

Fishing Technique Depends on Target Species

Depending on which fish of Lake Ontario you are looking for, anglers can be targeting depths as shallow as four feet or as deep as 200 feet of water. Brown trout and coho salmon will often move very shallow. “If  gobies are the only food present, you will probably just find browns prowling the waters,” says Pierleoni, who charters out of Olcott. “If there are emerald shiners, alewives, or smelt, you can find coho or any of the other salmonid species.”

Early Salmon and Spring Lake Trout Fishing 

Jim Stabile with spring salmon taken off Wilson.
Jim Stabile with spring salmon taken off Wilson Harbor.

King salmon and lake trout are usually found in 50 to 200 feet of water, even in the early Spring. If you can find a pocket of water warmer than most of the water around the area and it is holding baitfish and has some color, you should find these predators looking for their next meal by locating the bait. “Match presentations to the type and size of baitfish in your area,” says Pierleoni. This would mean body baits or spoons, depending on personal preference. 

Warmer Water Temperatures Means Bigger Fish

“The mild winter should provide us with big fat salmon as they have been out there feeding while we have been hunting and watching football. The longer the water stays above 39 degrees, the better the bait population will fare, and the better the growth rates for our kings and cohos.”  Water temperature dropped below 39 degrees for the first time in 2012 on January 14, but warmer weather was forecast for the following week.

Temperatures Matter for Fishing in Cold Weather 

If this weather pattern keeps up, anglers should expect the early Spring pattern to be shorter and the fish to disperse throughout the lake faster and earlier in the Spring according to Pierleoni. Of course, this will depend on how cold or mild February and March are. This can change one way or the other despite how mild the early winter has been so far. It’s tough to predict what Mother Nature will be pitching to us come spring training time.

Keep an Open Mind

“I guess the most important thing that we learned last year is that you have to keep an open mind to changes in the lake,” says Capt. Bob Songin of Rochester. “Every spring is not the same. Traditionally the warming waters from west to east on the southern shore would bring the alewives up from the cold, deep water to feed in the warmer water and the salmon would do the same feeding on that forage.”

This is where Songin spent most of his time targeting the salmon with great success out of Wilson aboard his 31-foot Tiara named “Reel Excitement,”  moving down from his home port of Oak Orchard to take advantage of the spring action. “This is the scenario I personally like to see since you can target these fish with the lightest tackle and have the most fun fighting them.” But every spring is different for the fish of Lake Ontario.

Spring Sport Fish Behavior Depends on the Species of Baitfish

man holding a brown trout on the Niagara River
When Vince Pierloni is forced off the big water because of weather he can always grab his river boat and try out some trout fishing in cold weather – this brown taken from the Niagara River.

“One spring we had a resurgence in smelt numbers which preferred to stay in the colder, deep water. Some versatile and adventurous individuals figured out how to catch those deep salmon. While they were not as much fun to catch, the results were very good – proving again that the salmon will be wherever the food is, so focus on locating bait. 

“Last year we had a tremendous amount of wind which turned Lake Erie to mud. The turbid water came down the Niagara River to us. I spent most of my time looking for clear water to fish and when I found it we did fairly well. The continuous winds ended up pushing a large block of warm water far offshore, farther than we would normally have expected in the early spring.

“Once we found the water off Wilson, we discovered it was loaded with alewives and salmon. So I guess to sum this up, I will continue to look for our traditional spring conditions but keep a more open mind to changes that can affect where we are going to be locating bait – where the fish of Lake Ontario are.

Lake Ontario Fishing is Impacted by Weather Patterns

“As far as this coming spring with the warmer weather this winter, I believe we will have larger fish since they have had more favorable conditions to feed longer this fall and early winter. As far as spring tactics and success, it will depend on what happens from mid-January forward. There is still plenty of time for cold weather over the next six weeks. I know today I have my wood stove on high to keep the house warm and its eating logs like candy.” 

Pay Attention to the Details Before you Fish 

To improve your success once you’re done locating the bait and target species, you need to pay attention to details. Remember everything from direction to speed, temperature to depth, and  lure color to lead length. There is no replacing time spent on the water. However, one way to provide a shortcut is to charter a captain on the lake and pay attention to how he catches fish. Ask questions.

Joining a fishing club like the Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Association ( or the Eastern Lake Ontario Salmon and Trout Association  ( is another way to gain additional insight through its members, through meetings, guest speakers and more. Even charter captains are learning something every opportunity they can – especially if it translates into more fish for customers or a tournament box.

Original Article By Bill Hilts, Jr.

About The Author

Bill Hilts, Jr. is Niagara County’s Sportfishing Promotion Manager and Outdoor Sports Specialist for the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation. He is a member and past president of the NYS Outdoor Writers’ Association and the Professional Media Association. 

  • Related Posts

  • Categories