Monday, Nov 12, 2018
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Matt Markey

OUTDOORS

Lake Ontario’s royal salmon always ready for a fight

  • King-salmon

    Mark Lodzinski, owner of Artistic Touch Taxidermy in Oregon, landed this big king salmon while fishing on Lake Ontario in mid-August with guide Eric Hirzel of Erie Gold Fishing Adventures.

    Erie Gold Fishing Adventures

  • Eric-Hirzel

    Eric Hirzel with Lake Ontario king salmon.

    Erie Gold Sportfishing

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King-salmon

Mark Lodzinski, owner of Artistic Touch Taxidermy in Oregon, landed this big king salmon while fishing on Lake Ontario in mid-August with guide Eric Hirzel of Erie Gold Fishing Adventures.

Erie Gold Fishing Adventures Enlarge

In only four years’ time, a chinook salmon grows from a tiny two-eyes-and-a-wiggle to a fully-muscled, surging, power-packed brute that can weigh 20 pounds or more and strip 150 yards of line off a fishing reel in one super-charged run.

Its life cycle consists of eat-mate-die. And you want to be there right near the end of the extended feeding phase.

Lake Erie charter captain Eric Hirzel recently towed his rig to Point Breeze, N.Y., where the Oak Orchard River dumps into Lake Ontario. Somewhere along the New York State Thruway, Hirzel morphed from walleye fisherman into salmon devotee. Those chinooks, or king salmon as they are more commonly known, will do that to you.

“For that kind of fishing, Lake Ontario is a special place,” said Hirzel, who had fished the smallest Great Lake for kings last summer with the late Keith Poland, another Lake Erie guide who had been lured north and east for many years by the siren’s song of huge kings battling anglers until the fisherman’s forearms burn.

Hirzel decided to give the chinook fishery another go this summer after several inquiries from his clients. He booked 11 charters during his planned 12-day stay here in mid-August, and the often ill-tempered weather gods decided to smile on Hirzel. He was able to make 10 of those scheduled fishing dates, and his clients landed 143 kings and about two dozen steelhead.

“We had northeast winds for several days, but for Lake Ontario, we had great weather overall,” said Hirzel, who runs Erie Gold Fishing Adventures out of Wild Wings Marina north of Oak Harbor. “It got a little sporty out there at times, but the fish were very cooperative.”

The biggest fish produced during this stretch of chinook chasing was a 25.4-pound king that measured 45 inches and was caught by Jon Haggerty of Vanlue. Hirzel said that roughly a third of the kings his customers landed were mature fish, which would soon be ready to leave the lake and make that spawning run up the river.

Lake Ontario presents a different game and demands some major adjustments in gear and tactics for a western Lake Erie walleye fisherman. Given the lake’s average depth of 283 feet and a maximum depth of more than 800 feet, cold water species such as chinooks thrive near places like Point Breeze, where schools of alewives and smelt are on the menu.

Hirzel said his approach is fairly simple — find the schools of bait and you will find the kings.

“Most of these fish only live four years before they spawn and die, so to get to 20 pounds or more in four years, they don’t do that by missing many meals,” he said. “Some days you might locate them in 80-100 feet of water, and other times it could be 500 feet. It all depends on where the bait is hanging out. If you are marking bait, you are going to find salmon.”

Hirzel said many of the fish he cleaned for his clients had a belly packed with alewives and smelt, and throats full of the baitfish.

Salmon fishing has its own set of unique accouterments, including copper lines, downriggers, Twili tips, spin doctors, dodgers, flashers, and spoons. When the fishing gets tough, some resort to meat rigs, which play to the king’s most keen food-finder — its sense of smell.

“We used a variety of approaches, including rigging alewives that came out of the fish I cleaned on the boat,” Hirzel said. “We caught some dandies on spoons, too. That biggest fish hit a spoon on a downrigger and put up a good 20-minute battle. It’s head was as big as mine.”

The Lake Ontario chinook fishery was built through stocking — both on the U.S. and Canadian sides — and is maintained through both stocking and some wild reproduction, according to New York biologists.

The state’s Salmon River Fish Hatchery specializes in raising steelhead, chinook salmon, coho salmon, brown trout, and landlocked salmon. Each year it produces more than 2,000,000 fingerlings and close to 1,000,000 yearlings for stocking. New York stocks approximately 1.7 million Chinook salmon and 250,000 coho salmon in Lake Ontario and its tributaries annually.

In 2017, the Lake Ontario chinook fishery had its best year in more than three decades, with anglers in the New York waters of the lake catching an estimated 96,226 chinooks.

“Lake Ontario consistently ranks as the most heavily fished water in the state and provides some of the best angling opportunities in North America,” New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said. While kings are present in all five of the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario produces the biggest kings, and the most.

“For me, king salmon are all about those big surges, with 100-200 feet of line screaming out of the reel,” Hirzel said. “They’ll give you a good 10-20 minute battle and it takes a team effort just to get them in the boat. There is a lot going on when you hook up a king, so I always tell my clients, no matter how loud I shout when we’ve got a fish on, it’s nothing personal.”

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.

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