Lake Trout of Lake Ontario
Michael Alberghini / Sportsmens Compass Team Member
When you mention the two great salmonids of Lake Ontario to most anglers, I’m sure their minds will go to Chinook Salmon and Steelhead Rainbow Trout. To me however these would not be my answer. I would respond with the landlocked Atlantic Salmon and Lake Trout. These two species are the only native salmonids of the lake and due to insane overfishing, became extinct. Virtually all of the Atlantic salmon and lake trout that you catch in Lake Ontario are of hatchery origin.
And this is a shame.
The restoration program of Atlantic salmon back into the lake is something I care greatly about and something I have seen rebound quite strongly, though ironically not until after they cancelled the program. Lake trout however is a species that up until recently I had never caught, and had never given much thought about. After experiencing an immense run of spawning Lakers up the lower Niagara River I was compelled to learn more about the species and came to find out that they sang the same sad tune of the Atlantic salmon.
Lake trout, a once abundant and native species to Lake Ontario is currently struggling to return to its former glory. By the 1950s overfishing, spawning habitat degradation and sea lamprey predation had exterminated lake trout from the lake. Since then there have been extensive efforts to return lake trout populations to their normal level through stocking.
Stocking of lake trout in Lake Ontario has been done since the late 1800’s but the modern stocking of yearling fish with an effort to return a spawning population of fish to the lake did not start until around the 1960’s. These early efforts were unsuccessful due to lamprey predation and were eventually shut down. Realizing that lamprey suppression was the only way to maintain lake trout populations, they began treating selected tributaries with larvacides in 1971. Barriers were also built to prevent upstream migration of sea lamprey and allow for a shorter distance of stream to be treated with larvacide.
The late 80’s saw the first evidence of sizeable wild spawning lake trout. Fry were captured in traps along spawning areas. The numbers were lower than in other great lakes but still a step in the right direction. Now that it had been shown that stocked lake trout could successfully find spawning habitat and reproduce, more steps were taken to enhance wild reproduction.
Fast forward to the present. We have rehabilitated offshore rock shoals to create optimal spawning habitat. Fishing for lake trout has been restricted to protect spawning fish. There has been a steady increase in population and a decrease in sea lamprey wounds on captured fish. But there are still a few obstacles in the way.
Researchers have speculated on the effects of alewife predation on lake trout fry. The problem occurs in spawning area adjacent to places that alewives congregate in the spring. In the past it has been suggested that stocking of non-native salmonids to control alewife population is the best course of action. However this is not a perfect solution. and it is better to just focus efforts on spawning areas where alewives do not congregate.
Another interesting aspect of the return of lake trout to Lake Ontario is the ever increasing spawning run up the lower Niagara River. With each year anglers are catching more and more lake trout full of eggs and sperm in the river, suggesting that the deep shoals in the river are successful spawning habitat. An added bonus of river spawning is that there is little chance of alewife predation. There is not a large risk of silt deposition on eggs in the river and the fish seem to be holding a firm grasp on the area.
I think it’s safe to say that in almost every body of freshwater you fish, the native species of that watershed are struggling to survive due to competition from invasive species. It may not be every place you fish but I can guarantee this is true in a lot of them. Sure, Brown trout are a glorious species. As are most other species introduced into our waters for sport fishing. But at the same time, our native species need to be protected. Aquatic ecosystems are a delicate balance and trying to find a balance between a bunch of apex predator salmonids in a lake is not going to be an easy accomplishment. But it is an important goal that we as anglers need to understand, respect and encourage.