Salmon Fishermen, Extend Your Season
Marshall Maynard holds up a 22 inch male salmon in dark spawning colors, caught and released a few years back on, October 22nd at Willsboro Bay
As the cooler temperatures of late fall arrive and the Atlantic salmon spawning run winds down on Lake Champlain’s tributaries, some salmon anglers have thoughts of retiring their gear for winter. Most large trolling vessels are shrink-wrapped and in storage, in anticipation of the approaching chill. Many outdoorsmen are ignoring the water, entirely focused on the woods. What some fishermen are unaware of is that some of the best salmon fishing occurs on the broad lake from late October, until the mid-winter ice forms. With a modest boat and motor, the proper tackle, and an enthusiastic mindset for brisk fishing, a hard-core Lake Champlain salmon angler can take full advantage of the year round open season. It’s an opportunity to experience bountiful fishing well into winter. With the exception of an occasional bald eagle or two, the salmon angler will encounter little competition on the water.
On the broad lake during late fall and early winter Atlantic salmon are often foraging aggressively on baitfish in the upper portion of the water column. A young adult class, from 15 to 18 inches, is most prevalent, but larger stock occasionally joins the mix. Pound for pound, These Atlantic salmon are every bit as energetic as their Pacific rivals. When hooked, they frequently make powerful, lightening-fast runs and exciting acrobatic leaps of amazing height, invigorating a cold angler’s heart. The occasional bonus brown trout, steelhead or lake trout may be caught, complementing the big water experience.
Trolling at a fairly quick pace is key to catching Atlantic salmon. Lures can be flat lined, just below the surface, or attached to downriggers and lowered to moderate depths. Relatively light rods and 6 - 8 pound test line are appropriate for this application. Choose small lures like Honey Bee, Needlefish, Mooselook or Stinger spoons that flutter enticingly at higher trolling speeds. An excellent color choice is copper with a bit of red in it. Smelt pattern streamers are also very good producers, either used together with a spinning outfit or flat lined with a fly rod. Consider trolling a shorter line, since salmon are usually attracted to the motor’s prop wash. A depth finder is helpful to locate schools of baitfish. Troll above the clouds of bait and take note when an occasional cisco (lake herring) or white perch is caught. This is a cue to raise the lures closer to the surface. When a salmon is hooked the captain should make another quick pass over the same area. Often an additional fish from the frenzy can be enticed to attack the lure spread. If these fish are carefully handled and quickly released they will survive to thrill again.
A few years back I had a conversation about salmon fishing on the broad lake with a dedicated US Fish and Wildlife Service Fisheries Biologist working out of Ray Brook, New York, named Dave Nettles. Tragically ,Dave was killed in an automobile accident shortly after, but his words still ring true about when he explained the abundance of young adult Atlantic salmon on the broad lake during months when they might otherwise be making spawning runs. “Spawning frequency among adult salmon is definitely variable. A few salmon will return to spawn after the first year as "grilse" salmon, but usually they spawn after their second, or even third year of lake or ocean growth.” Officials in charge of the expanded lamprey control program these days are upbeat about salmon stocks improving as treatments progress in both Vermont and New York tributaries.
This late in the season, cool windy weather dictates the number of days one can fish in reasonable comfort, so choose favorable days forecasting light winds and warmer temperatures and dress in layered winter clothing, as you would if you were ice fishing. Use caution when launches freeze at waters edge, and remember to drain and protect your motor from the elements after use.
Some good locations to target salmon on the New York side include Brown’s Point, Indian Bay, Ligonier Point, and Willsboro Bay. Trolling from the Essex Ferry to Split Rock including Whallon’s Bay can also be productive. On the Vermont side try areas outside Shelburne Bay like Juniper Island, Juniper Ledge and Saxton Point. Vermont and New York have easily obtainable limits of two fish, no less than 15 inches in length.
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