How To Catch Brown Trout in Lake Ontario

Man on a boat holding a freshly caught brown trout in Lake Ontario.
Mark Forcier holds big brown trout in Lake Ontario, taken from cobble rocks fishing a Fat Nancy Wiggler.

How to Catch Brown Trout

Catching lots of brown trout and catching huge brown trout are two different things.  Theses tips on how to catch brown trout have been gleaned from over 30 years of trying to produce the largest browns possible.  The biggest brown trout that swim don’t act like their “cookie cutter” cousins.  They are opportunists, they exist where you least expect them, they are incredibly hard to hold, and they are almost always bigger than you think.  Let’s break down a systematic approach that will connect you with some of Lake Ontario’s slab-sided brown trout.


Look Near Rock Formations

When targeting the biggest brown trout in Lake Ontario, I look for broken expanses of rock.  The cobble rock formations along Lake Ontario’s shoreline are my favorite locations.  Three excellent examples of these areas include Hungerford Shoal located between Pultneyville and the town of Ontario, Shore Oaks located just east of Oswego Harbor, and the region between Stony Point Lighthouse and Stony Creek near Henderson Harbor. The last region encompasses several bays that are known as large brown trout producers.  Sawyer’s and Ray’s Bay are the two specific locations that give anglers the best shot at taking the biggest fish.  

Warmer Water Temperatures

All three of these areas are in close proximity to some type of warm water flow or bottom structure whose very nature allows springtime water to warm more quickly.  In the case of Hungerford Shoal, it represents a well defined piece of broken rock structure that sits amidst a shoreline that’s covered by pea gravel.  It takes very little sun energy to warm the surrounding water.  In the spring a simple two degree change in water temperature can concentrate brown trout in Lake Ontario.  

In both cases in the eastern basin, the cobble rock is in close proximity to an estuary, warm water outflow or vast expanses of sand beach.  All these areas warm quickly and are attractive to massive numbers of brown trout.  The biggest fish will locate these areas, but once they are comfortable, they will shift onto the broken rock that is adjacent to these locations.  Now let’s examine why these big browns prefer the cobble rock.

Bait for Brown Trout

Man holding a brown trout in Lake Ontario.
Shawn Lamareau shows he knows how to catch brown trout with a fat spring brown trout in Lake Ontario that hit a Michigan Stinger near Hungerford Shoal.

Goby Minnows

Over the last ten years, there has been a definite shift in spring bait preferences.  When filleting a brown trout during April or early May, you’ll find most fish have one thing in its gullet – round goby minnows.  The goby has become a preferred bait of big brown trout in Lake Ontario during the spring.  Goby minnows love to hide in broken rock, are easy to catch, and provide great nourishment with little expended energy.  These are the basic factors that allow any fish species to attain great size.  Knowing where to look for goby minnows will make it easier to know how to catch brown trout. 

Goby Minnows Like a Broken Rocky Bottom

During the 2011 fishing season, some brown trout in Lake Ontario were caught that had as many as 15 goby minnows in their stomachs.  This is a trend that has been on the increase over the last several years.  A broken rock bottom is perfect habitat for goby minnows.  Gobys are bottom dwellers and everything that they need to survive can be found there.  

Shadows Provide Camouflage

When the sun hits broken rock structure it casts a variety of shadows.  These shadows provide excellent camouflage for brown trout while they hunt.  A good wind can produce turbid water conditions and shallow under-water points can get dirty providing excellent hunting as well.  The bottom line is that the biggest browns will utilize these areas because it’s easy!  

Big Trout in Skinny Water

In 2011 we fished these areas through early June and took large brown trout on a consistent basis. Surprisingly, some of the biggest June brown trout came from very skinny water.  I recall one event where we took six brown trout in Lake Ontario that were over 10 pounds.  The largest tipped the scales at 16 ½ lbs.  

This fish hit on an inside planer board rod while the boat was in four and a half feet of water.  The Michigan Stinger spoon (arguable among the best tackle for trout) was probably trolling in water less than 3 feet.  The bay we were fishing was loaded with gobies, there was sediment up in the water column, and best of all we were the only boats working the area.

Using the Right Tackle

Fishing With Spoons

When asking how to catch brown trout, I am sure there are many fishermen reading this that will take exception to what I’m about to say.  Six years ago I gave up plug fishing for brown trout.  Tangled lines, spiked fish, and the loss of too many trophy fish precipitated this move.  The Saiff Fleet goes fishing with spoons for trout, exclusively. 

Different Methods of Fishing for Different Seasons

The best tackle for trout, in my opinion, has been Michigan Stingers throughout the months of spring.  When summer fishing arrives, we do occasionally switch to NK-28’s. When bait fish are running on the small side, we will opt for Northern King “C-5” spoons or Sutton “West River” spoons.  These all have established reputations as great spoons for brown trout, making spoons some of the best tackle for trout out there.   

Clear Water

The beauty of fishing with spoons for trout, when you are fishing for brown trout is that your catch is rarely lost after it is hooked.  In the case of Michigan Stingers, the treble hook is light, strong, and has a large enough gap to get around the jaw bone of the fish.   These spoons are light but can tolerate speeds in excess of three knots.  This is critical when water conditions are clear and fish need a faster presentation.  

Moderate Trolling Speed

These spoons will work the top two feet of the water column at moderate trolling speeds.  This means that you can put these spoon presentations into skinny water where brown trout are hiding.  A number 2 round nosed snap clip will allow these spoons to freely move on the end of the fishing line. 

The Right Line

Our fleet does not opt for light weight trolling lines while in pursuit of these fish.  Generally 15 lb. test Trilene Big Game is the line that gets used most often.  This co-filament line is highly abrasion resistant and can take the pressure of being set in and out of releases.  

We do terminate the end of this carrying line with a small bead chain that prevents line twist.  A seven foot fluorocarbon leader is then placed between the bead chain and the lure.  Fluorocarbon is virtually invisible and will help you seduce big browns on the clearest of days.

Lessons Learned in Lake Ontario 

The brown trout we pursue are tackle busters, they fight hard!  Many years ago I had a derby winning brown trout in the prop wash at the back of my boat.  It was the last hour of the tournament and a great deal was riding on this fish.  The big brown was easily four pounds bigger than the largest brown trout entered.  My client played the brown beautifully, but just before we could get the fish in the net, he rolled and the light wire hooks on the plug straightened.  

The big brown just floated on the surface for several seconds.  The brown finally rolled over and slowly swam back into the depths along with our chances for a tournament win.  I started spoon fishing for brown trout in Lake Ontario shortly thereafter and have never looked back. 

Color Consideration

The following Michigan Stinger colors are the base patterns that we use on a daily basis.  They are as follows: Emerald Shiner, Tuxedo, Perch, Grim Reaper, Sodus Point Buckeye, and Fat Nancy Wiggler.  These are a fraction of the color patterns that we use throughout the season, but they are the essentials that will get the job done every day.

When to Go Fishing

two men posing with a freshly caught 16.5 lb brown trout in Lake Ontraio prove they know how to catch brown trout.
Vince Brown’s 16.5 lb. brown was taken in five feet of water over cobble rock in Ray’s Bay.

Quality Not Quantity

Knowing how to catch brown trout depends on what you are looking for: brown trout in large numbers, or brown trout that are large in size. If you want to consistently take big brown trout in Lake Ontario, you must resist the urge to fish where the fleet is fishing.  Hot brown trout bites can produce 30 fish in just one and a half hours of fishing.  The bite is fast and produces more fish, but the fish are generally smaller.  The big browns like the seclusion of undisturbed water.  

Warmer Water Temperature

During the early spring, in the month of April I would recommend fishing the southern shore for brown trout in Lake Ontario.  The region from Sodus Point to Irondequoit Bay holds lots of big fish.  The waters here warm sooner than other areas in the lake, and the biggest browns are aware of that fact.  Once May arrives I would suggest targeting the shoreline from Oswego to Henderson Harbor.  

Look for the Rock Piles

Henderson is a sleeper location for large brown trout in Lake Ontario.  This area doesn’t get the extensive pressure that other fishing locations but the browns are exceptional. There will be few people if you time your fishing trip correctly. Regardless of location, now you know how to catch brown trout: look for the cobble rock and enjoy fishing for the kinds of browns other anglers only dream of.

Original Article By Captain 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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