Brown trout in the Lake Ontario Tributaries

Robert W. Streeter

Each fall Lake Ontario tributaries draw anglers by the thousands to chase after trophy fishing opportunities.  The primary attraction is the prospect of putting a thirty-pound king salmon on the wall, but many come for steelhead or the occasional coho, maybe even an Atlantic salmon.  While everyone seems to really enjoy these species there is another fish that shows up in the late fall and provides an incredible opportunity yet for some reason lacks the notoriety of the others.


I speak, of course, of the lake-dwelling brown trout that swim up the tributaries each fall to spawn.  Brown trout have been stocked in Lake Ontario for decades, including the seeforellen browns (football browns) that have a high growth rate and can exceed twenty pounds in some cases. For those of us used to fishing for brown trout on inland streams where a foot-long trout is a monster, catching one of the browns on the lake tributaries during the fall run is just about unfathomable.  These monsters are incredible fun to hook and land in a stream.

Brown trout come into the tributaries as early as October in most years, but their numbers build steadily into November, the month when they typically spawn.  Initially, the browns are in the streams doing the same thing other species like the steelhead are, gobbling up as many eggs from the spawning salmon as they can get.  I’ve seen brown trout stacked up by the dozen below pairs of spawning salmon during this time.  As we get into late fall, the browns set up their own nests; and they hit aggressively to defend their nest from anything they perceive as a threat.  Later they will often stay in these streams through part of the winter.  We’ve caught browns in tributaries as late as March in some years.

The typical brown that you will catch in the tributaries is around eight pounds or so; but since they are a very fast growing species in the lake, they can reach the incredible size of 40 pounds.  The current state record for brown trout is a 33 pound, 2 ounce fish caught by Tony Brown in Oswego County in 1997.

Where to Fish

Lake-run browns are found throughout the Lake Ontario tributary streams.  Working from west to east, runs of fall browns can be found in streams including: the Niagara River, Eighteen Mile Creek, Oak Orchard Creek, the Genesee River, Irondequoit Creek, Maxwell Brook, the Oswego River, the Salmon River, Sandy Creek, and the Black River. 

Among these streams, there are basically two flow regimes.  Streams like Eighteen Mile Creek, Oak Orchard Creek, the Genesee, the Black River, the Oswego River, and the Salmon River have a release from a dam.  Water conditions have to be right for the stream to fish well.  The other streams which are typically smaller are natural flows.  On the natural flows, it takes some rain and high water to draw fish into the stream, but then the water has to come down for them to fish well.  The fishing is fun on natural flows, but timing is much more critical.

Fishing Techniques

The best fishing presentation, whether you are a fly angler or a spin fisherman, is to drift the ideal bait for browns at a level where it is going to be seen by the fish.  The browns are there initially to feed on salmon eggs, and fishing either real eggs or artificials drifted along in a natural way on the stream usually brings results.   

In addition to taking the browns with eggs, they do get irritable when they are undergoing their actual spawning period in the late fall and will hit streamers or larger baits that they see as a threat to the eggs they are producing.  Fly anglers catch a lot of browns on nymphs, typically small, dark-bodied nymphs fished on a natural drift, but streamers also work.  Many of these streams have a variety of baitfish that the trout have to fend off in order to make their nests.

I like to fly fish and use longer rods (10 to 12 feet long) in the 7-8 weight range.  The rod is matched with a good reel loaded with a double tapered line and plenty of backing.  Browns are not terribly leader shy, so I use a tippet that is at least 6 pound test or more.  Fly choice is simple, an egg pattern like the Glow-bug or the Iliamna Pinkie (a chenille egg).  Browns also feed on insects, so bring along some dark nymphs like stoneflies.  Also, have a few streamers as well.

Spin fishing works well also.  Most of the spinning anglers in the area prefer rods that are at least 9 feet long and all the way up to 11 feet, rigged with 8-10 pound test line.  Good quality spinning reels with smooth drags are a must. Spinning reels are often of saltwater quality with high-tech drag systems. The most effective spinning rig is a pencil float and an egg hook with some weight just above the hook (check the fishing regulations).  With this rig, a spin fisherman can drift an egg in a natural manner and hits are easy to detect with the float.  Spoons and spinners can produce browns when the fish are actually spawning and hit out of aggression.

The regulations for the tributaries dictate what is legal for leader lengths and weights for both fly-fishing and spinning.  Of course, regulations are subject to change, so anglers should check the NYSDEC website at for any updates before fishing.

Fishing Tactics

If there are salmon spawning, the browns will be located below the salmon nests on gravel and will be feeding on the loose eggs.  It is a simple matter of drifting an egg pattern or a real egg at a level that the fish will see.  Sometimes steelhead will be mixed in with the browns.  There usually will be enough browns around that it is possible to catch a couple of them. This requires a dead drift presentation with the egg or artificial floating along at the same speed as the current.

Regulating the drift is important.  Too much weight and the egg won’t run at the same speed as the current.  Not enough and the egg gets tugged along too fast.  It pays to experiment a little with finding the right drift.  Most of the fishing will be sight fishing, so having a good quality pair of polarized sunglasses is a must.

Once the browns set up their nests, more aggressive presentations with streamers or sometimes spinners or spoons will work.  Again, much of this fishing will be sight fishing.  The trout will grab lures or flies if they have not been pounded on by a lot of fishing pressure.

Going to the lake tributaries and encountering the brown trout run is something that an angler can have a great deal of fun with.  It is a matter of learning a little about the habits of these fish and capitalizing on the right presentation.  When it all comes together, you can catch the brown trout of a lifetime!

Rob Streeter enjoys fly fishing for many species, especially trout and salmon in the Lake Ontario tributaries. He is the outdoor columnist for the Albany Times Union and freelances for several publications. He is a member of the NYS Outdoor Writers’ Association and the Outdoor Writers’ Association of America.

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