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  • Ken Perrotte

Lake Ontario Salmon - Fishing Near Mouth of Niagara River Offers Trifecta of Action & Options

Updated: Jun 20

fishing group with salmon

“There’s one!” came the urgent shout as one of the eight deployed fishing rods bent sharply toward the water. Matt Crawford pulled the rod from the holder, gave the reel a couple cranks, felt resistance, and then kept slowly winding as a large king salmon twice went aerial a couple hundred feet off the transom.

“Wow! Nice fish,” I exclaimed.

Indeed, it appeared to be a dandy. Our skipper Randy Jaroszewski's quick eyeball estimate pegged it around 20 pounds. Our lines had been in the water just a few minutes when the king (also called a Chinook) hit a "meat rig." Crawford, a Vermont-based outdoor writer and no stranger to managing big fish, carefully worked the salmon to the back of the boat where the fish gave a couple last, resentful surges. Jaroszewski netted it. The big salmon must have been a rogue. We didn’t get another bite for over an hour, and it was time to adjust tactics and location.

A Fishing Trifecta  

Lake Ontario is deservedly renowned for its incredible salmon fishing, the easternmost, productive big-water salmon fishery in the United States. Expeditions there in the spring of both 2023 and 2024 yielded exciting, educational trips on the water, and a bounty of delicious fillets that, whether smoked, baked, grilled or pan-sauteed, were a hit at many dinner tables with family and friends.

The trips came courtesy of the great folks affiliated with Niagara Falls USA Tourism, especially Frank Campbell, a longtime, respected charter fishing guide and a superb spokesman for the amazing fishing opportunities to be had in the area, whether you venture out on the Lower Niagara River (launching out of Lewiston or nearby Fort Niagara State Park), make a quick boat tow to fish Buffalo Harbor on Lake Erie, or head just a little north and launch into Lake Ontario. 

The 36-mile Niagara River connects Lakes Erie and Ontario and is split into two sections with mighty Niagara Falls almost in the middle. Together, the three waters make for a winning fishing trifecta. The river's water flow is incredible, with some reports of averages of about 200,000 cubic feet of water per second. It provides Lake Ontario with about 80 percent of its water and the tremendous current attracts sportfish from salmon to steelhead, lake and brown trout, smallmouth bass, and even muskellunge.

While Lake Erie is renowned for its walleye and smallmouth bass fishing, Lake Ontario is where salmon, both the kings (again, often called Chinook) and their smaller coho cousins, plus lake trout abound.

salmon fingerling net in river
Finglering salmon are transferred to a holding pen near mouth of Niagara River - photo courtesy Frank Campbell

According to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, approximately 1.7 million king salmon and 250,000 coho salmon are stocked annually in Lake Ontario by New York State. Most of the main tributaries in New York received between 90,000 and 300,000 stocked salmon in 2023. Some of the stocked salmon come via a “pen-stocked” cooperative effort between the DEC and regional sportsman groups. One such pen is situated on the Lower Niagara River, about a mile from the river’s mouth. The fingerling fish are placed in the pens where they acclimate to the river while enjoying protection from predators. The fingerlings quickly “smolt," imprinting on the scent of the stream. After about three weeks, the fish are released.

Coho salmon may stay in the tributaries for up to a year, according to DEC, but they grow quickly once moving into the lake. Kings move into the lake and then return to rivers where they were stocked, with fish aged 2 and 3 years old comprising 90 percent of the run. The annual run begins when the mature salmon begin to "stage" off the river mouths, usually around mid-to-late August. Rainfall and water flow dictate when the run begins in earnest, but salmon often move into tributaries sometimes in September with the run often peaking in early October. Catching wild salmon is also possible, especially around the Salmon River where some studies have shown about 70 percent of the mature fish anglers catch are wild.

Angler with big king salmon

Amazingly, kings can grow to about 25 pounds by the end of their third year. Even heftier fish are possible. Mature cohos average 8-10 pounds. When those large fish smack a bait and decide to go aerial, executing magnificent jumps 100 feet off the boat’s stern, it’s exciting.

One thing I learned in my initial salmon outings is that these fish are also unpredictable and aggressive. You might experience powerful head shakes and those incredible jumps after the fish is hooked, but there may be times when you’re winding the reel, thinking, “I lost it. This fish got off.” Not so fast. Instead, that fish is likely racing toward the boat faster than you can crank. You need to make up line and try to keep things tight because once a big king gets near the boat, it can get fluid fast, with the fish running ahead and into any lines still set, wrapping around the motor and more. I don’t think

the notion, “Okay, you got me. I’m coming in peacefully,” is possible with a king.

One angler/inventor from Alaska even created a landing net that combines the net with an easily removable metal club integrated into the handle. Called the “Handy Bonk,” it lets you stun the fish before trying to handle it.

The Icebreakers Cometh!
Angler letting out fishing line
Randy Jaroszewski lets out fishing line

Jaroszewski, our Lake Ontario salmon fishing guide, although he doesn’t guide commercially, saying it would, “ruin my solace.” Randy owns, with his wife Tracy, Lakeshore Hardware & Tool Rental by ARTIE in Hamburg, New York. Randy captains "Team Icebreaker," and they do exceptionally well in fishing tournaments on both Erie and Ontario.

The western New York native learned how to fish on Lake Chautauqua, schooled by his father Wally Jaroszewski and his grandfather "Matty" Jaroszewski. They’d finesse troll for walleyes on the weed edges every weekend when Randy was a young lad.

“These were some of the greatest times I had as a kid,” he says, “learning to fish and tie spinner rigs with my grandpa and father. All the while, trying to avoid the almighty musky that loved to steal our catch from our lines and our stringers and fish baskets hanging off the boat.”

He recalls enthusiastically reading his grandfather’s outdoors magazines as a child, especially noting the prevalence of articles about the western New York and Niagara region. “I was just fortunate to have grown up here,” he says, “and on any given day, you can re-live any of those articles -- from stream fishing Olcott for trout and salmon, to fishing for walleye and perch on Lake Erie.” 

Angler holding nic king - Chinook salmon

Competitive fishing beckoned when he reached his 30s. He noticed there was great walleye fishing in Lake Erie, and it was much closer to home than the 50-mile drive to Lake Chautauqua. The tournament bug bit – hard - and he was fully hooked as he reached his 40s. “ I didn't start fishing salmon tournaments until about 10 years ago,” he explained. “It was a timid start fishing the ’King of the Lake Spring Tournament’ staged out of St. Catherine's, across the lake in Ontario, Canada. Walleye tournaments on Lake Erie didn’t start until closer to summer so the spring salmon events on Lake Ontario helped fill the gap. “Just enough to feed our addiction to compete,” he admits.

Jaroszewski says they initially did okay and seemed to always get a “Big Fish” candidate. They usually fish just two salmon tournaments a year, but they’ve figured out how to consistently finish in the money (including a few second-place finishes), stringing together more and bigger fish. He laughs when he notes, “We’re known as the "walleye guys" to the "salmon guys." His personal best salmon weighed 23 pounds, but his team’s ability to put together a six-fish box ranging from 65 to 92 pounds factors in their tournament successes.

Smiling angler with healthy king salmon
Matt Crawford with a nice king
The 2024 Trip

Typically, the tributary fishing for king and coho salmon begins in early-September and runs through early-November, with the peak often occurring during the first two weeks of October. We fished the last week of April. Both the air and the water were still cool.

This year, we staged out of beautiful Bootlegger’s Cove Marina in Wilson, New York. I boarded Jaroszewski’s 2005 Everglades 290 Pilot boat with Crawford, Jordan Albertson of SPRO, and Mark McQuown, a marketing representative with Garmin. The boat is eminently fish-able, with twin Yamaha 250s and a water-cutting narrow deep-V hull is unbelievable. Randy said the boat sometimes takes a pounding on these big lake tournaments and it has exceptional range. “We sometimes make 68 mile runs in tournaments and this boat has a 300-mile range at full throttle,” he says.

Boat electronics showing fish

Salmon fishing in big, deep lakes – like walleye fishing – is a technical gig. Jaroszewski is a Garmin pro staffer. His boat is outfitted with the latest tools, such as a Garmin 8616xsv at the helm and an 8612xsv on the back with GT-56UHD, GT-51TH and a LVS-34 Livescope transducer. Note: see the provided links for images and information. He also uses a Garmin autopilot and radar unit. “This set-up allows me to cover everything from bass to walleye to perch to salmon year-round in any conditions. In this area of Niagara Falls, you must be ready to follow the weather and adapt to it by switching species as the weather dictates,” he says. “The boat is always ready to fish.”

salmon caught on SPRO lure

Albertson had brought some of SPRO’s newer stick baits, including the Mad Minnow 120. The aim was to see if salmon might like them. It didn’t take long to find out that they did. The lures are also incredibly effective with smallmouth bass, as I learned in the Lower Niagara River a day later.

Jaroszewski’s favored lures are called “meat rigs.” He says these lures, in which you insert a small fillet of herring secured with pieces of toothpick, tend to catch the most fish year-round. One of the most popular lures the day we fished was the A-Tom-Mik meat rig combo with three teasers and a slow spinning flasher in the “Grinch” pattern.

In the end, we had a box full of beautiful salmon, along with one medium-sized lake trout I wanted to keep for the smoker.

Jaroszewski broke down our key to success.

Three anglers with nice lake trout
Lake Trout, Too!

Water Temp is Key in the Spring for Lake Ontario Salmon

“For early season fishing, we want to fish the warmest water in the area,” Jaroszewski says. “These pockets of water seem to hold more active fish. This can be tricky when fishing in changing winds and dealing with currents from the Niagara River (which empties into Lake Ontario) that can stretch for 20 miles.”

Jaroszewski said a late April tournament he fished saw 41-degree water surface temperatures. But 20 feet below, his Fish Hawk and Smart Troll Probes registered 45 degrees down to 40 feet. The overall depth was 65 feet. “I know that can seem confusing but, basically, the middle of the water column was warmer than the top or the bottom by 4 degrees,” he says. “That’s where we found our active fish.” We had the same experience on our outing, first collecting just a couple of fish deep in colder water before making a run closer to the Niagara Bar and finding the sweet spot where they salmon wanted to play – and eat. A few degrees at fishing depth made all the difference.

angler holding nice chinook salmon
Author with a nice king
Where to Fish

Opinions vary widely on the best places to fish on Lake Ontario. They are often based on where anglers live. Some people believe the biggest fish are found at the northeast end of the lake, where it empties into the St. Lawrence River. Jaroszewski doesn’t subscribe to that notion, saying, “I fish both areas and this is seasonally dependent. Spring is better in the Niagara Area while fall fishing tends to be better in the Pulaski area. The eastern basin has a better fall run due to the large stocking that has existed on the Salmon River (often double or more of that of other tributaries) over the last 20-plus years."

Smaller coho salmon appear to be more prevalent in the spring off the Niagara Bar, seemingly following the pattern of the kings, Jaroszewski says. But diehard tournament angler that he is, Jaroszewski doesn’t target these smaller, albeit tasty, salmon. “They’re ghosts to me, with the occasional fish taken year-round,” he says.

“From my experience, the schools of fish seem to work in a counterclockwise fashion around the lake, following the Canadian shore in early spring, then showing up predominately in April-May at the Niagara Bar,” he adds. “These fish then slowly move east along the American shore as summer progresses.”

Fast-growing salmon, especially voracious kings, are always looking for warmer water, which seems to better hold the bait,” Jaroszewski observes. “All summer long, you can catch good size fish in the waters from the Niagara to St. Lawrence Rivers.”

angler playing salmon with rod and reel
Jaroszewski’s Gear

Okuma rods and reels with Coldwater line counters. The 8-foot, 6-inch medium/light power. Why? They work for everything from salmon to walleye. He changes his Okuma reels depending on the main water depths and seasons. For deepwater salmon, he’ll go with 55 series reels; shallower salmon setups include 30 series reels.

Jaroszewski employs 50-pound braid on his main lines with a micro swivel followed by a 6-8-foot fluorocarbon leader. The leader weight varies by species. Walleye get 14-pound leader, while salmon get beefier 30-pound leader. He likes the 50-pound main line because it works better with the clips on his Offshore Planer Boards. “No slipping!” he says. “Plus, I don't have to change it out from species to species. I just change the leader.”

meat rig lure

The meat rig lures included offerings by A-Tom-Mik, Diabolic and GRC. “We mainly buy these for the colors that we like but always end up upgrading the line and hooks,” he says. “These guys are doing their best to control costs in the manufacturing process, and they do a great job! But we upgrade the hooks to Owner and Trokar, in 3x and 4x strengths.” 

His boat’s downriggers are made by Scotty, but he says any downrigger that can lift a 17-ball suffices. He used 17 pounds to lessen blow back when trolling at 2-3 mph, noting, “We want these lures as vertical as possible!”

Boat Launch Sites along Lower Niagara River (courtesy of New York DEC)

salmon with Rapid jaw gripper

Located near the foot of Center Street, the launch at Lewiston Landing Waterfront Park is the most upriver launch site on the New York side of the Lower Niagara River. There are loading docks on each side of a two-lane concrete ramp. The facility is maintained by the Village of Lewiston and provides anglers with year-round access, restrooms, fish cleaning station and parking for 50 vehicles with trailers. Fee charged when launch attendant present.


The Youngstown Launch is located at Water Street Village Park, off Water Street in the Village of Youngstown. The launch is a one lane concrete ramp. Parking is limited on Water Street; however additional parking is available for trailered vehicles on Hinman Street (stairway leading back from foot of Hinman St. to launch site). No fee.


A launch is available within Fort Niagara State Park, which is located just north of Youngstown. The park entrances are off Lower River Rd. /18F and the Robert Moses Parkway. Two separate launches are available (one for launch, one for retrieval), each with two lane concrete ramps. This park also offers restrooms, a fish cleaning station and parking for 50+ vehicles with trailers. A fee to use the park may be charged, depending upon the time of year.

boat on lake ontario with fishing lines set


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