Spring Fishing in Erie & Ontario

Great Lakes

For angler Mike Elnicki, who’s fished the Niagara region of the Great Lakes for more than 20 years, “Spring on the lakes is the best fishing.” When he’s not busy as a doctor of internal medicine, he’s an active outdoorsman and expert fisherman who knows what’s biting and where. He also happens to be our editor-in-chief’s big brother. Fishing on the Great Lakes hasn’t always been fantastic, Elnicki explains. “Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Great Lakes were horribly polluted. Fish were dying. You’d go to the beach and see dead fish everywhere.” Folks then would’ve laughed at the idea of the lakes being a great fishery. “We would ask our uncles what it was like in the old days, and it was phenomenal. They talked about going out — two guys in a boat — and filling the boat with fish in a day.”

Mike Elnicki fishing on Lake Erie and caught a Lake Trout

The Great Lakes Revival

Fortunately, the Clean Water Act of 1972 helped the Great Lakes begin to recover from decades of industrial waste, agricultural runoff and sewage being dumped into the water. The program mitigated pollution in the Great Lakes, and the water improved substantially. Fish populations started to rise, and a recreational fishing scene reemerged, boosting economies in coastal communities.

As a medical resident living in Rochester in the 1980s, Elnicki observed fishing’s resurgence in Lake Ontario firsthand. “People were afraid to eat them,” he noted, but fishing tournaments began cropping up and fishermen were reeling in coho salmon off the wharfs. He fondly recalled catching a 30-inch, 10-pound lake trout during his residency.

Since he began fishing the lakes, Elnicki attests the water is “noticeably cleaner.” And with more cities taking pride in their waterfronts, he believes the Great Lakes will only continue to improve.

Fish are thriving once again — and Great Lakes mean great fish. Because of the lakes’ magnitude and abundance of food available, fish here can grow up to two feet long in a couple of years. Having fished worldwide, Elnicki commented how fish in the lakes grow “crazy fast” compared to elsewhere. So, what's biting this spring?

Lake Erie’s Bountiful Catch

Perhaps the best Great Lakes comeback story, Lake Erie was declared dead in the 1960s due to unchecked pollution. Now encircled by celebrated parks, beaches and nature preserves, it supports one of the world’s best walleye fisheries and provides fun for the whole family.

Mike Elnicki with a Brown Trout from Lake Erie

The lake comprises a western and eastern basin with the town of Erie, PA, in the middle. The western basin is best known for its massive walleye run each spring, drawing tens of thousands of anglers from all over the country. As early as late March, millions of walleye migrate to the western shores of Lake Erie to spawn and feed on bountiful schools of bait fish and billions of hatching mayflies.

Although sometimes tricky to find since they’re always on the move, walleye swim in schools and consecutive catches are common. Most walleye caught during this time range from 19 to 25 inches long, but catching a 30-inch, 14-pound fish is possible. As the weather warms, the fish migrate west to east and are found from Toledo, OH, to Erie, PA.

Typically enjoyed battered and fried, “The walleye are phenomenal to eat, and there are tons of them,” Elnicki affirms. Also found near walleye schools are perch, a cousin of walleye with similar behavior.

The eastern basin of Lake Erie in spring is all about the steelhead. A subspecies of rainbow trout that typically migrates from the Pacific Northwest out to the ocean, the steelhead in the Great Lakes have adapted to utilize the lakes as they would an ocean. In springtime, they travel from rivers and tributaries that flow in and out of Lake Erie to congregate in the lake’s east basin.

The main put-in locations for fishing eastern Lake Erie are the town of Erie and Presque Isle, PA, or Fredonia and Buffalo, NY. Finding spring steelhead can be a challenge and professional guides can help track them down. Early spring conditions can be frigid so it’s best to plan for “Montana-cold weather,” Elnicki advises.

Later in the spring, the Buffalo-Niagara area hosts a world- class smallmouth bass fishing scene. “It’s on outdoor TV, which shows that it’s good,” Elnicki notes. People come from all around to take part in the action and six-pound fish aren’t uncommon. The bass are catch-and-release only during their spring spawn.

Reel in Whoppers from Lake Ontario

Northward from Lake Erie, the 36-mile-long Niagara River runs over and through the renowned Niagara Escarpment — descending 326 feet at Niagara Falls — then continues downstream and empties into Lake Ontario. Anglers prize the lower Niagara River as well as the shallow west end of Lake Ontario near the mouth of the Niagara River, known as the Niagara Bar.

Mike Elnicki with a Steelhead

As for what’s biting in early spring, Elnicki asserts, “Ginormous steelhead — can you imagine getting a rainbow trout that’s 30 inches long and weighs ten pounds? It’s a hoot! And there’s a bunch of ‘em!” Exquisite cooked on the grill, these massive 10-pound steelhead are joined by similar-sized brown trout and even bigger lake trout that reach up to 15 pounds.

Helping to feed these gargantuan fish are schools of tiny smelt that spawn nightly in the mouth of the Niagara River. Smelt are also delicious to eat — often featured in Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes Christmas Eve dinners and loaded with heart-healthy omega-3s.

Elnicki describes fisherman during a typical smelt-catching episode. “They only do it at night, usually while drinking considerably. They net these little fish and fill buckets full. You have to gut them and cut the heads off, but then you eat pretty much the whole fish.” Smelt are best when eaten fresh (sometimes after a nap) and are typically pan-fried, paired with beer and a basketball game.

Later in the spring, coho salmon begin to appear en masse in the Niagara Bar. Having just fished there for coho last April, Elnicki boasts, “We caught nine salmon in three hours, and they’re phenomenal to eat — the best salmon you ever had in your life when you’re eating them fresh.”

For fishing both the lower Niagara as well as near-shore waters of Lake Ontario, a popular put-in site is the town of Lewiston, NY. Famous for being one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad, Lewiston welcomes visitors with small-town charm, eye-catching storefronts and mouthwatering eats. Downriver from Lewiston sits Fort Niagara, a restored British colonial military outpost dating back to 1726, known for its well-preserved architecture and captivating early American history.

The eastern basin of Lake Ontario toward the St. Lawrence River in the famed Thousand Islands region offers a different fishery with world-class spring muskie and pike fishing. Reaching upwards of 40 pounds, the muskies caught in eastern Ontario are “ridiculously big” as Elnicki puts it. Short for muskellunge, these larger-than-life fish swim alongside humongous pike that can register in the 25- to 30-inch range.

Whether you plan on hitting Lake Erie or Lake Ontario, the fish will be biting this spring. Just be sure to plan for brisk weather and consult with local experts for tips on maximizing your catch.

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