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A Trip To Lake Ontario
By Rich Johnson

  The small, four seat Piper aircraft touched down with the grace of a feather as our fishing trip to the north was now underway. I’d heard from Capt. Tom Burke of Cold Steel Sportfishing Charters in Oswego, NY stories of the great action for a variety of species in his area of the Empire State. Tom sails the eastern basin of Lake Ontario where they regularly catch brown and steelhead trout, lake trout, several kinds of salmon along with the usual array of freshwater species of large and smallmouth bass, walleye, catfish and other panfish.

   I had originally planned to fish with Tom in his 18-foot heated drift boat back in April on Pulaski’s Salmon River for steelhead, but raging flood waters on the river forced us to postpone. With the semi arid weather these last three weeks, the river flow had severely dropped making steelhead fishing just about impossible, so it was time to move his operation to Lake Ontario as he does in late spring. On the lake Tom pilots a 33-foot Egg Harbor sportfishing vessel with the latest electronics and custom tackle. A day with Capt. Tom on the water was a real lesson in how captains fish in other areas away from the Island.

   First I was amazed at how enormous the Lake Ontario waterway is. Flying in on the small Piper with my webmaster and pilot Amir, the lake seemed endless like the Atlantic Ocean. It has its own weather patterns in summer and lake effect snow in the winter, it’s as dangerous as the ocean or peaceful as a farm pond. It is truly alive and a wonderful change of pace from the brine surrounding Long Island. I’d been looking forward to this kind of action for quite a while.

   We arrived at the boat around 5 a.m. The full moon had yet to descend and shared the sky’s matinee billboard with a rising orange sun. Winds were calm (for the time being) and the day promising. We fished the confines of the Oswego River’s harbor as southerly winds pushed the warmer water off the shoreline for two days prior to my arrival. Trout congregated in the harbor where warmer river water mixed with the chilled, bright blue lake to form an oxygenated cocktail in which giant schools of baitfish were “temperature trapped” in this elixir of doom. Sea gulls, terns and predatory fish all feasted on the hapless baitfish as the color screen on the fish finder lit up with the red, blue and yellow markings of fish being chased by predators.

   The 9-foot, super limber trolling rods made of 5-weight fly rod blanks (all nine of them) were set out on a pattern behind the boat with planner boards and downriggers armed, ready for battle. The smaller saltwater reels were filled with 600 yards of 8-pound test Berkley line and only 6-pound test fluorocarbon leaders making the connection between us and the four-inch freshwater plugs we tried to tempt our quarry with precarious at best, for here on Lake Ontario you can pull a 3-pound smallmouth or a 45-pound king salmon on any given pass.

    The first line went off only a few minutes after putting them out. The first catch was a 4-pound sheepshead, a sort of freshwater drum very similar in appearance to a black drum in saltwater. A hard fighter and bony in nature she was returned to the water. The next line went off and it was a silvery version of a 3-pound brown trout, so prized in this area. The Lake Ontario brown trout are not brown at all after living in the lake prior to and after spawning. They take on the luster of a rainbow with the spots on these fish not at all familiar to the stream wading flyfisherman. Only after entering the river to spawn and spending some time there does it take on the familiar look of what we know as a brownie.

   We continued to fish this fine morning totaling eight fish in a few hours as each battle seemed to take a little longer on the spaghetti rods we used to pull Lake Ontario’s bounty from Oswego Harbor. It was very surprising, to pull trout weighing 3 to 11-1/2 pounds on such light tackle…on the troll no less. The idea of 8-pound test, trolling small swimming lures at 1.5 knots being violently attacked by quality fish and not giving out when the strain of a long battle wears weary was truly amazing. It was certainly worth the trip and I would strongly recommend it to anyone they try a trip to the northwestern corner of the Empire State. You can contact Capt. Burke of Cold Steel Sportfishing at 315-298-2500 or on the web at

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