Fishing Lake Champlain
New York Fishing
By Lance Durfey
Lake Champlain is among the largest freshwater lakes in the US with a surface area of 435 square miles. In fact, it’s sometimes called the “Sixth Great Lake.” The lake stretches 120 miles from Whitehall, NY in the south, to across the border with Quebec in the north. It’s 12 miles across at its widest point and has a maximum depth of some 400 feet. And because the lake lies between NY’s Adirondacks and Vermont’s Green Mountains, the scenery is spectacular.
Lake Champlain boasts New York State records for longnose gar, redfin pickerel, bowfin and freshwater drum, plus 19 Vermont records. Throw in panfish, bass, trout, salmon and less popular species like burbot, channel catfish, carp, suckers, ciscoes and whitefish, and just about any angler’s preference can be satisfied.
Accessing the Lake
More than a dozen state or municipally operated hard-surface boat ramps are on NY’s shore of Lake Champlain (see map below), and there are several smaller municipally owned access areas and a smaller hand launch at DEC’s Ausable Point Campground. In addition, there are Public Fishing Rights (permanent fishing easements on privately owned streams) on several Lake Champlain tributary streams.
Those with smaller boats should pay particular attention to the weather, as the lake can quickly become rough, especially with a wind direction that sweeps the length of the lake’s long north-south orientation. The local National Weather Service provides a current recreational forecast for Lake Champlain (http://www.weather.gov/btv/recreation).
Anglers may fish much of the Vermont portion of the lake with their NY fishing license thanks to a reciprocal license agreement with Vermont .
As reflected by Lake Champlain’s consistent ranking in the top 100 bass waters by Bassmaster Magazine, fishing for smallmouth and largemouth bass is excellent.
Smallmouth bass tend to frequent rocky shoals and reefs or shoreline and island points. These areas are marked on most fishing maps, and some shoals are marked by hazard buoys. The most abundant habitat is in the Main Lake, north of the Crown Point Bridge. Early in the season when water temperatures are cooler, smallmouth can be found in shallow water about 5′-10′ deep. In summer, as temperatures climb, smallmouth move deeper, moving into shallower water to feed at night.
Artificial lures like jigs, crankbaits, senko or sluggo-type soft baits, jerkbaits and surface hard baits can be effective. Baitfishing near the bottom with minnows, nightcrawlers or crayfish is also popular. Most of the same lures will also work for largemouth bass, but, instead of rocky shoals, fish the edges of marshes, weed beds and shallow, weedy coves and bays. The South Lake (from the bridge in Crown Point south to Whitehall) has especially good largemouth habitat, as does South Bay. Weedy and shallower coves and bays throughout the lake also provide suitable largemouth habitat.
Yellow and white perch, bluegill, pumpkinseed, rock bass and brown bullhead are all fairly abundant in Lake Champlain and are excellent table fare. These fish are relatively easy to catch, and no special or expensive equipment is needed–not even a boat. Most of these species can be found around all types of structures, including weeds, rocks, brush, docks and overhanging branches. One spot that shore anglers should consider is the South Bay fishing pier on Route 22, just a few miles north of Whitehall. It is a 300-foot-long universally accessible fishing pier with benches and a covered area at the end. Other spots that can be effectively fished from shore include Wilcox Dock near Plattsburgh and the Port Henry pier.
Trout and Salmon
Thanks to an effective sea lamprey control program, Lake Champlain boasts excellent trout and salmon populations comprising primarily landlocked Atlantic salmon and lake trout, with lesser numbers of brown and rainbow (steelhead) trout. The season is open all year . In spring and fall, these species can be found near the surface, and surface trolling is quite popular with plugs and spoons that imitate smelt and alewives, the primary forage fish in the lake. Landlocked salmon are known to be attracted to prop wash, so some anglers troll with a short line at a fairly quick speed. Many anglers also use planer boards running small stick baits. Another tactic is trolling streamer flies such as a Grey Ghost or other smelt patterns, either by itself or 14″-18″ behind a flashing spoon like a Mooselook® Wobbler.
Anywhere from Plattsburgh south to Port Henry can hold trout and salmon in spring and late fall. In early spring just after ice-out, shore anglers can get in on the action. Smelt or alewife fished on or near the bottom at the pier and dock beside the Champlain Memorial Lighthouse near Crown Point Campground is known to yield lake trout.
By mid-June, a temperature gradient known as a thermocline typically develops anywhere from 35 to 60 feet down. The cooler water below this gradient is where trout and salmon will be. The deeper mid-lake area from Westport to Plattsburgh is the best place to fish during the summer. Deep water drop-offs just outside Westport’s North West Bay and Split Rock Point near Essex can be hotspots. Other areas worth trying are the Four Brothers Islands, outer Willsboro Bay and near Cumberland Head. Down-riggers with spoons, such as Speedyshiners, Michigan Stingers, Honeybees, Needlefish and Crazy Ivans, are effective. Use of lead core or a dipsie diver will also get down deep enough to fish trout and salmon at this time of year.
Lakers tend to be a bit slower than salmon, so slower trolling speeds around 2 mph tend to produce the most fish. Large trolling gangs of either in-line or vertical blades, large spoons or stick baits in the 3″– 4″ length are effective. During the summer, some anglers concentrating on deep dropoffs also have good luck jigging with ¾-1 oz. buck tail jigs for lakers. Lakers tend to school in the areas they like, so after catching one, be sure to pass back over the same spot.
Every year, there are spring and fall runs of landlocked salmon in the rivers that drain into Lake Champlain. From mid-April to mid-May, salmon are attracted by the warmer water temperatures and/or the increased flows resulting from snowmelt. However, the main salmon run occurs from mid-September into November, when salmon return to their home rivers to spawn. This period offers the best opportunity for shore anglers to catch a large salmon. The Saranac, Ausable and Boquet rivers have the largest runs.
Much of the Boquet River fishery occurs below the cascades near the former dam site, downstream of the Route 22 Bridge crossing in Willsboro. On the Saranac, the fishery is in the City of Plattsburgh, from the river mouth up to Imperial Dam, some three miles upstream. Access on the Ausable is more limited, with just the mouth area at Ausable Point Campground and Ausable Marsh Wildlife Management Area in public ownership.
During spring, salmon actively feed, and worms, egg sacs, spinners, stick baits and streamers are effective. Flyfishing for salmon is very popular. When the water is high or discolored, or when salmon are active in the fast water at the heads of pools, streamer patterns like the Gray Ghost, Black Ghost or other smelt imitations are good choices. During low, clear conditions, many fly fishermen use wet flies and nymphs.
Anglers should be aware that fall fishing regulations restrict the use of weighted baits, lures and flies. For details, consult the Lake Champlain Additional Tributary Regulations on page 29.
Ice fishing access is generally good, and anglers can get on the ice at any of the launches (that are usually plowed) or along most of the state or municipally owned shoreline. Because the lake is so large, it often doesn’t freeze completely. The South Lake (from the bridge at Crown Point south) and South Bay tend to freeze earlier and more consistently than the main lake areas, and some of the bays in the main lake area (such as Bulwagga, Willsboro, Cumberland and King bays) may have good ice when the main lake’s ice is still unreliable.
During good ice years, small villages of ice shanties can form around areas popular for lake trout, salmon, smelt, yellow perch, northern pike and walleye. Sometimes shanties in these areas can be rented. Jigging with small pieces of cut bait or small jigs called bibbits are effective for smelt, perch, sunfish and crappie. For larger predators, most anglers go with tip-ups baited with minnows of various sizes, depending on what they’re targeting. Just make sure the ice is safe. When in doubt, look for areas where other anglers are ice fishing.
Those new to fishing might consider hiring a fishing guide; it’s a good way to learn about the lake and effective techniques. Or visit a local tackle shop for plenty of advice and all the equipment and bait you’ll need. Experienced anglers probably already have everything they need…except the fish. No worries. Lake Champlain has plenty of fish for everybody!
Lance Durfey is the Regional Fisheries Manager in DEC Region 5.