Fishing the Lake Ontario Shipping Lanes

Two anglers holding up huge catches they made on the Lake Ontario Shipping Lanes.

Imagine a wonderland of Lake Ontario fishing where King salmon, Lake trout, Brown trout and Steelhead all exist in the same general area- just stratified at different levels of the water column!

How To Find The Lake Ontario Shipping Lanes

For years, I have been talking to fishermen about the Lake Ontario Shipping Lanes.  The Shipping Lanes are located due west of Galloo Island, between Galloo and Main Duck Island (located in Canadian waters).  This myriad of fish does exist there and the time to ply its waters is from the last week of June thorough the first three weeks of July.  The Saiff Charter Fleet has always referred to this time period as the “Hot Zone” and the name reflects just how good the fishing can be.

The Hot Zone

A Winning Setup to Catch Many Fish Species

Just last summer, we had the chance to prove the “Hot Zone” mystique in striking fashion.  It was the first week of July and we were headed SW down the steep edge of the Shipping Lane Wall.  The boat was in 125 ft. of water and we were rolling down the edge at 2.3 knots trolling a combination of downriggers and Dipsey Divers.  Loaded on the riggers were 3 NK-28 spoons in Black/Silver and Purple Dalmatian.  A higher outside rigger was loaded with a Silver E-Chip Pro Troll flasher with a green Pro-Am fly.

The two Diver Rods carried Michigan Stingers and were set higher in the water column.  As we edged in on the wall, the deepest rigger shook, then fired under the weight of an 18lb. Laker.  The hook was barely set in this fish when the outside flasher/fly combo took a vicious rip from a King that immediately started heading for Canadian waters.

Fortunately, these two fish were headed in opposite directions as I cleared the Wire Dipsey from the King’s side of the boat.  I had decided to clear both Diver rods but as I stowed the first, the second took a throbbing strike from an 8lb. Brownie that had been hanging in warmer water along the edge of the wall.  The Michigan Stinger had done its job and the chubby football hit the net at the same time as our Laker.  5 minutes later we were sliding the nylon under a gorgeous 25lb. King.  Once again I got to witness smiles, back slapping and lots of photographs- all courtesy of the “Hot Zone” and the Lake Ontario Shipping Lanes.

Coming From the East

The part of the Lake Ontario Shipping Lanes that we like to fish is about a 16 mile run for anglers fishing from Henderson Harbor, NY.  Once a fisherman has navigated through the “Trench” and around Calf Island, it’s a straight westerly shot to the shipping lane wall.  The eastern basin of Lake Ontario is known for its incredible structure. In fact, the structure is what helps to make this fishery so diverse and dynamic throughout the season.

In the mid 1980’s, we discovered that this region would hold summer Kings along with many other species of cold freshwater fish.  At first, we didn’t put all the pieces of the puzzle together but after 30 years of working this region, we understand the recipe that is so indispensable to blue water fishing.  The Lake Ontario Shipping Lanes exhibit the “Holy Grail” of fishing conditions for the angler- temperature, bait and physical structure!  Let’s take a look at why it works so well during the “Hot Zone” period.

When summer temperatures begin to heat, fish schools are in constant transition as they seek out their natural comfort zone.  Hopefully, this temperature zone coincides with prevalent schools of bait or the angler can be left scratching his head.  When the two aren’t together, a fisherman must make the choice of whether to fish temp or bait?  Regardless, when the two aren’t together-it can make fishing tough!

How The Shipping Lanes Flow

An Angler on a boat holding up a huge fish, caught while fishing the Lake Ontario Shipping Lanes

Fishing the Shipping Lanes takes the guess work out of your search for fish.  The Shipping Lane is a deep water chasm (formed by the glaciers) that runs from the Southwest to the Northeast as it stretches towards the St. Lawrence River.  This physical structure coincides with the natural flow of water as it exits Lake Ontario. Consequently, there is continuous flow at the Shipping Lanes as colder bottom waters are drawn towards the St. Lawrence. This flow does two critical things that keep the Lake Ontario Shipping Lanes alive with big predator fish.

Cooler Water Temperatures

First, the colder bottom water keeps the temperatures consistently cold throughout the middle of summer. Second, the flow stirs the bio mass attracting massive amounts of baitfish to this region.  Baitfish like Smelt and Alewife ball up along the steep walls of the Shipping Lanes, taking advantage of the natural structure.  The Shipping Lane Wall provides Kings, Lakers and Browns a consistent place to hunt for food where the temperatures and current match their natural preferences.

Warmer Water Temperatures

The following is a common scenario that many anglers will find when they arrive at the Lanes.  The top of the Shipping Lane wall is just 65ft. so warmer waters are found on top.  Pushing over the top, the bottom will fall away dramatically.  In just 3 to 4 boat lengths, anglers will find themselves in 130ft. of water.  Pushing further to the West, water depth will increase to the maximum depth of around 185ft.  Since Browns and Steelhead tolerate warmer waters, you will find them on top of the wall or very near its edge.

Lake Trout at the Edge of the Wall

Located deep along the wall is the coldest temperature so Lake Trout will reside here just under the schools of bait.  Lakers love the edge of the wall because they can rise to take Alewives or root in the crags of the wall for Deep Water Sculpin.  Generally, anglers will find Kings somewhere in the middle of the water column.  Kings will rally bait just off the Shipping Lane wall where they can use the darkness of the wall to slip up on frenzied bait schools.

Follow the Bait

The sunny summer days will find bait located tight to the wall as it works to stay in relative darkness, employing the natural camouflage of the wall for protection.  Overcast days (preferably with chop) will see the bait move off the wall, where it is more easily corralled by the local King population.

How to Spot Actively Feeding Salmon

Remember, you don’t have to see salmon to catch salmon!  “Watch the bait”……if it’s strung out, there are no Kings working the Alewives.  When the bait is balled heavily, it’s because they are grouped for protection.  It’s a sure bet that salmon are strafing the smaller fish pod, so get the bait or lure on your fishing line. Try your luck slightly above the balled up baitfish and you’re likely to get a larger fish to take a bite.

When this scenario presents itself, salmon anglers should throw the temperature probe out the window!  Keep this in mind: “A King doesn’t get to 30lbs. in 3 ½ years by not eating everyday”!  When the bait is balled, you should fish it. Salmon tend to follow the baitfish, so that’s where the good salmon fishing is.

Mid-Summer is the Best

The salmon fishing scenario related at the beginning of this article is not uncommon.  It’s a set of circumstances that we see year after year in this region of Lake Ontario.  We have always classified the “Hot Zone” as the last week of June through the first three weeks of July.  30+ years in the fishing business has allowed us to track the trends of the “Big Pond” and this is the time period that we think is best for variety and a good chance at catching salmon.  This time frame can vary if there are wild swings in climactic conditions but this is the general trend.

Reading Wind Conditions

Since the predominant structure in the eastern end of the lake lies SW to NE, anglers should choose the correct wind days to fish this region.  For instance, a steaming NW wind will push fishermen onto the wall at 90 degrees making it virtually impossible to hold a consistent depth.  SW winds and NE winds are the best for fishing the Lake Ontario Shipping Lanes.  Fishermen can pick a depth along the wall and fish directly into the wind or use the following-sea to troll with the waves.

Using A Fish Finder To Find The Trout And Salmon

When you arrive at the “Lanes”, don’t be in a hurry to set up.  Slide your boat off the edge at 90 degrees to the wall and watch the sonar to see where browns, lake trout and salmon are relating to the bottom. This is also the time to see where early bait schools are located.

The Saiff Fleet likes to drive around a bit to get a sense of what’s happening at the Lake Ontario shipping lanes on in the early morning.  We also employ Garmin sonar units equipped with CHIRP technology.  CHIRP sends out a variety of sonar signals in different frequencies.  These new units automatically select the best signal for minimum noise and maximum target separation.

The Shipping Lane’s structure and water are incredibly dynamic.  The sheer wall is solid rock, the bottom of the “Lane” is sediment, the bio mass effects water clarity and currents continuously change the thermocline.  Garmin’s CHIRP technology samples these changes and always produces the “Best Look” for the angler.  A picture is worth a thousand words so having the best sonar imprint definitely gives anglers the edge, making the angler the top predator in the lake.

Never A Dull Moment

The best part of fishing the Lake Ontario Shipping Lanes is that it’s always an adventure.  Originally, we were attracted to this area for its phenomenal summer king salmon Fishery.  Now, we appreciate the variety as much as we like the idea of taking big Kings while salmon fishing the Hot Zone.

There are many different ways an angler can catch cold water species like brown trout, lake trout, steelhead and salmon on Lake Ontario.  Many time frames are skewed heavily towards a particular species of fish.  The Shipping Lanes during the “Hot Zone” offers the angler a look at everything!  Sample the variety, see what you like and then return for a more dedicated approach on an individual fish species.  Once you’ve experienced fishing in the Lake Ontario Shipping Lanes, it’s a guarantee that you’ll want to return to the Big Pond.  Lake Ontario is world class fishing on your doorstep-“Hot Zone” fishing is simply the gateway to Angling Paradise in the Great Lakes region.

Original Article By Bill Saiff III

About The Author

Capt. Bill Saiff III owns and operates the Saiff Charter Fleet in Henderson Harbor, NY.  For more information, visit the team online at

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