The annual Pacific salmon migration on Canada's West Coast attracts anglers from around the world. But you don't need to fly across the country to hook a prize Chinook. Closer to home, Lake Ontario offers some of the best salmon fishing east of the Rocky Mountains.
In Lake Ontario, the season starts early in the year in the western end of the lake, before the search moves eastwards. Although an impressive assortment of game fish inhabits Lake Ontario, from late June to early August, the real kings in these waters are the impressive Pacific salmon that gather in the cooler depths of the lake.
Chinook and Coho salmon were first introduced from Western Canada after the native Atlantic species disappeared from Lake Ontario in the 1890s. Despite recent efforts to reintroduce the Atlantic population, the Pacific species still rule these waters, supporting a thriving commercial and sport fishing industry. Especially exciting for experienced salmon anglers is the annual Great Ontario Salmon Derby, where the winning fish often tips the scales at more than 40 pounds in harbours from Hamilton to Wellington, including Port Hope. Pacific salmon are known for their remarkable strength, so anglers should be prepared to put up a fight. Indeed, it can take over 30 minutes to land a large fish, which makes for a chaotic scene if more than one salmon takes the bait.
Lake Ontario salmon feed mainly on alewives and smelt, which tend to school in the thermocline, the layer of well-oxygenated water that separates the warm surface from the cooler water below. To catch salmon during the warm summer months, anglers need to send their lures down deep to find the fish, 30 metres or more below the surface. The downrigger used to troll for salmon at these depths is as crucial as finding the right spot. However, an experienced local guide can supply both. To find your Derby-worthy fish just look for other salmon boats and listen carefully to the hints that fisherman pass back and forth on the radio.
The best way to learn how to fish for Lake Ontario salmon, or how to just enjoy a day travelling on the water, is to hire one of the many local fishing charters departing from harbours all along Lake Ontario. Most of these charters will provide you with safe and comfortable boats, professional tackle, and a guide with years of expertise. All you need to bring are friends, family, your Ontario fishing licence and lunch. If you do get lucky and hook a fish on the line, don't count on having time to eat it. You'll be too busy reeling in the big one!
If you prefer to observe, rather than catch, it's easy to watch salmon as long as your arm swimming up the Ganaraska River in Port Hope during September. From migratory Rainbow Trout in April to spawning salmon in September, the cool clear waters of the Ganaraska attract a wide range of fish. Locally known as "the fish ladder," the Ganaraska River Fishway is a great place to see the mighty Chinooks leaping out of the water. A fish cleaning station is open year-round near the Port Hope Marina. The marina is also an excellent place to find a charter boat operator who will help you fish the open waters of Lake Ontario.