Return of the Monster Kings on Lake Ontario

Tim Spraker holds a shiny king salmon landed near Oswego while fishing with Captain Ed Monette, Cannonball Runner Charters. (Photo by Capt. Ed Monette.)
Tim Spraker holds a shiny king salmon landed near Oswego while fishing with Captain Ed Monette, Cannonball Runner Charters. (Photo by Capt. Ed Monette.)

By Spider Rybaak

OSWEGO COUNTY, NY – From the looks of it, this decade will mark the return of monster kings to Lake Ontario.

Last year, several king salmon ranging from 38 to 40 pounds were caught by anglers trolling the tiniest Great Lake in late summer. While 40-something-pound fish are nothing new–indeed, they were almost common in the last century–they’ve been as rare as whiskers on a trout for almost 20 years.

Like all living things, salmon go through cycles. Ebbs and flows in the dynamic are attributable to factors ranging from food availability and disease to drought during the spawning runs.

Well, this year we have the perfect combination for even bigger fish than 2010:

Drought in the autumn of 2007 limited salmon production, resulting in a relatively poor number of mature salmon for 2011; and the explosion in round gobies–exotic forage from Eastern Europe–has the cormorants and other predatory waterfowl feeding almost exclusively on them, leaving the alewives for the salmonids.

Do the math: fewer salmon chasing an overabundance of food adds up to an unusually large number of huge kings come spawning time.

Coming Home to Oswego County.

Each year, the state Department of Environmental Conservation stocks Lake Ontario’s tributaries with 1.7 million chinook and 250,000 coho salmon; the Oswego and Salmon Rivers get the lion’s share.  After a short time in the streams, the fish migrate to the open lake where they spend the next three years eating and growing.

In the summer of their third year, their life cycle coming full circle, they’re hooked by the urge to spawn and start heading for home to the tributaries of their youth. On the way, they become veritable eating machines, putting on the fat reserves they’ll need to carry them through their spawning ordeal.

Although the plumes of all of Lake Ontario’s tributaries draw maturing salmon during their last weeks, the waters off the Salmon and Oswego Rivers get the greatest number.

Traditionally, July sees the first meaningful returns. Local charter captains like Captain Greg Gehrig (K&G Sportfishing Aboard Top Gun,; 800-346-6533), whose “bread and butter fish” from ice out through early summer is trophy brown trout, diversify by offering trophy salmon trips.

Gehrig agrees this fall promises to be one for the record books – noting that anglers were already catching fish over 30 pounds in late June from the northern half of the lake.

And that’s just the beginning; fish that size – heading for the Oswego area for the rest of summer – will be growing faster than at any other time in their lives. The possibilities are breathtaking.

The only way to take these guys right now is by trolling open water. While kings prefer cool temperatures, say the high 40s, Captain Richard Miick (Dream Catcher Charters and Guide Service;; 315-387-5920) points out that their prey likes water a little warmer, in the 50s, and that’s where hungry salmon hang out.

Miick catches most of his summer kings by deep trolling spoons like Michigan Stingers, and dodger/fly combinations off downriggers, at speeds ranging from 1.9 to 2.5 mph.

“The depth I fish depends on the location of the thermocline. In July that can be 90 to 180 feet deep. In August, it’s a little higher, between 50 and 90 feet deep,” he claims.

“From late August through September, it’s a whole new ballgame,” he adds. “Kings stage off the river mouths, revving up their fins for their spawning runs upstream. In the morning, they’re in as shallow as 15 to 20 feet, in the range of J-Plugs flatlined 90 to 150 feet behind the boat.”

For fishing conditions, charters and river guides, and visitor information in Oswego County, go to, or call 1-800-248-4FUN.

Spider Rybaak is an award-winning outdoor writer who has been published in more than 20 periodicals. He is the author of “Fishing Eastern New York” and “Fishing Western New York” guide books that cover 429 streams and lakes in New York State. Contact him at[email protected]. Check out his blog at