Our Man In Canada
September 30th, 2002

Lake Ontario Chinook: Small Stream Tactics
By Chris Marshall, Photos By Glen Hales

Fishing for salmon and migratory trout in the tributaries of Lake Ontario's north shore is unique, in that there are no large rivers with significant runs. Moreover, all of them lie west of Trenton. There are tributaries at the east end, but all are warm water streams. A number of these have incidental runs of both trout and salmon, and there is some evidence of limited spawning success of chinook in at least one of them, but the for the fly fisher the pickings are sparse and unreliable at best. The two largest north shore tributaries, the Trent (which is huge) and the Moira, both of which run into the shallow, warm waters of the Bay of Quinte rather than directly into the lake, are among these. There are also incidental runs in some of the outlets to Lake Ontario around the shores of Prince Edward County. However, all the tributaries with significant, self-sustaining runs of migratory salmonids are located west of Trenton and all are small.

Fishing such streams is very different from fishing the big waters of the tributaries of the upper Great Lakes, especially for fish as large as chinook. In some ways, it's easier, for unless the water is running high and stained from heavy rains, the fish are very visible—even in the deeper pools. Consequently, sight fishing for them is a breeze. However, in these conditions, they spook easily, and playing big fish in such cramped quarters is less satisfying than it is the big rivers. But it has its own unique charm and challenge.

Every species of migratory trout and salmon which inhabit Lake Ontario can be encountered on the north shore tributaries in the fall. Chinooks, which produce the heaviest runs, start entering the streams as early as the middle of August, peak in September, with a few stragglers as late as the beginning of November. These are followed by coho in September. There are far fewer of these than chinooks, which is a pity, as they keep their condition much longer, with vigorous fish available into December. Brown trout also start showing up in late September and a few will hang around after spawning on into November. The rainbows, which don't have the same urgency as the other species (which are all fall spawners) will start showing up at the mouths and the lower reaches in November, but very few will move any distance upstream until early spring. Mixed in with these will be a sprinkling of pink salmon and, on a few streams where they've been stocked, Atlantic salmon. October also brings in a good number of lake trout and a few of the rare north shore coaster brook trout, but as these are out of season at this time, they can't really be counted as part of the legitimate fishery. Rain plays a major role in the timing of the runs, as all species tend to hang around at the mouth and move upstream during post-rainfall freshets. Rainbows, for instance, will even move back and forth between lake and stream as the flow waxes and wanes.

The primary focus of this feature is on chinooks, but the gear and tactics described, apply to the other species with only minor modifications.

Chinook Streamcraft Strategies

While chinook will run upstream during the day if the water is high and stained, under normal water conditions, they prefer to move at night. Many of the fish that have made a nocturnal move can be found holding in riffles and shallow runs early the following morning. However, once they've been disturbed by anglers, especially those chucking heavy hardware at them, they take refuge in the deeper pools. When chinook are holding in pools they're harder to target than when they're holding in shallower water. It's harder to track the fly visually in the deeper water of pools, and, because the fish are more densely packed, the chance of inadvertant foul-hooking is increased significantly.

This means that it pays to get to the stream at the crack of dawn if you want to fish in optimum circumstances.

Techniques

Let's assume that you're an early bird and you've found a pod of chinook holding in a shallow run. You should position yourself directly opposite or just downstream from them. Get as close as you need to be so that you can see your fly as it drifts or swings downstream. If you move carefully and quietly, you should be able to get as close as 15 feet to them, but if you can manage from 20 or 25 feet away, so much the better.

The composition of the pod and how much they're involved in spawning or pre-spawning will determine how you'll tackle them. When chinook first enter the stream, they're more or less randomly mixed, but they quickly form into groups of several males with a single female. Once this has happened, the males are very susceptible to a jazzy, in-your-face streamer, which they'll clobber as a potential challenge to their virility.

Therefore, check the fish in the pod carefully. Males have a somewhat longer head than females and a pronounced kype. They also tend to engage in typical male behaviour—chasing each other and jostling to be first to mate. If this is what's going on, tie on the most offensive streamer in your box and swing it across and downstream. You'll get attention from at least one of the males—possibly from all of them.

Both males and females can be tempted, whether they're in a spawning group or not, with a dead-drifted fly, triggering their instinctive feeding response with a fly drifted repeatedly across their noses. This is where it's essential to be in a position from which it's possible to observe the fly as it drifts and the movement of any fish which might take it. Simply watch the drift and when you see a mouth open and close on the fly, set the hook. As chinooks will eat the spawn of other chinooks, egg patterns work well in these circumstances, but other patterns such as Spring Wigglers and Woolly Buggers are also effective. Patience is essential here, as it usually takes repeated drifts to induce a take.

If you've arrived at the water after the fish have been spooked into the deeper pools, you'll find that they're less willing to hit a fly. In the deeper water, it's also more difficult to detect a take. Nevertheless, the same basic techniques apply, it just takes a bit more patience and concentration.

Hanging in There

Chinook are big fish: the average size is around 20 pounds and many will approach 30, with the occasional 30 plus specimen. When you hook one of these on a small stream, it's very different from hooking one out in the lake or on a river-sized tributary. Most fish simply head downstream for the lake. On a small stream (most of which have lots of bends an prolific streamside vegetation), you have to follow, frequently at a run, when a fish roostertails through the ubiquitous alder-fringed bends. This means that felt-soled wading boots are essential to avoid slipping as you rush through slippery bedrock and boulders.

On small streams, hooked chinook rarely, if ever, jump. However, if you happen to foul hook one (a regular occurrence when they're packed tight in pools), prepare for fireworks, especially if you've foul-hooked it in the tail.

Gear

Because you're targeting big fish in small streams, it's necessary to have gear which is sturdy enough to stop fish quickly. A 9 weight outfit and a rod with lots of backbone is ideal. Because the streams are shallow, a floating line is all you need. It's not necessary to have lots of backing, as you'll follow the fish on foot. I've never had a small stream chinook take me into the backing. Because chinook do not spook easily, there's no need for long, fine leaders and tippets. Four to five feet of 10 pound mono is quite sufficient. On the few occasions where it's necessary to get the fly down deep, shot pinched on the leader will do the trick. ~ Chris Marshall

Credits: From the Fall 2002 issue of The Canadian Fly Fisher. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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