The Finger Lakes offer anglers a multitude of different species to pursue. Some of the most sought after gamefish are trout and salmon (salmonids), which are found in 9 of the 11 lakes. Lake, brown and rainbow trout, along with Atlantic salmon (also called landlocked salmon), make up this incredible salmonid fishery. The table below shows which species are found in each lake. Some of the lakes are known for having large fish, while others have greater numbers of fish. If you want to catch a large lake trout or Atlantic salmon, Cayuga and Seneca lakes are the top choices. If you’re interested more in sheer numbers of lake trout, Keuka Lake is a better bet. If rainbow trout are your target, Skaneateles Lake is known for numbers, while Cayuga, Seneca or Canadauguia are known for size. The Finger Lakes Angler Diary reports at www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/27875.html and www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/73518.html are a great source of information on the trout and salmon fisheries in each of the Finger Lakes.
Though there are many different methods of fishing for Finger Lakes salmonids, three main techniques stand out: trolling, vertical jigging and fishing with natural bait.
Trolling is probably the most popular fishing technique for trout and salmon. It is a method in which up to five lures per line are slowly pulled or “trolled” behind a boat. Trolling has many advantages over casting. It allows the use of multiple rods rigged with different lures that can be set at different depths. Trolling requires special equipment and can be very frustrating during periods when waterfleas are abundant.
Trolling lures near the surface, referred to as flat-lining, can be productive, especially for landlocked salmon, when surface temperatures are cool. Stickbaits (minnow-imitating plugs), streamers and spoons are good lures for flatlining. Other than spring and fall when water temperatures are cool, it is usually necessary to get your lures deeper for trout and salmon, sometimes as deep as 100 feet or more to reach the cold water they prefer. Methods to get your lures deep down include:
Downriggers are devices attached to a boat that enable a lure to be fished at a precise depth. A downrigger is basically a heavy weight (often called a ball) attached to a steel cable that is lowered and raised by a winch and pulley system. A release mechanism is attached to the ball, and an angler attaches his or her fishing line to the release. When a fish strikes the lure, the line is pulled from the release mechanism, and the fish can be fought and landed without the distraction of any additional weight.
Divers are devices attached directly to your line that get your lure down to depth. Many models also allow you to have the diver go off to the side of the boat. The benefit of this is that you can spread your lure presentations. Divers are a great alternative for beginning trollers as they are much cheaper than downriggers and no installation is required on your boat.
Trolling with wire line has become popular in recent years. Wire is generally used in conjunction with a diving device. Wire does not stretch and bow like monofilament line, so it enables your bait to go deeper.
Trolling with copper has been a popular method for decades on the Finger Lakes. Lake trout are the primary target with this technique, and the weight of the copper line simply aids in making the lure go deeper. The traditional method of using copper, called “pulling copper,” was handlining without a rod. The copper line was held by hand, and action was imparted to the lure, usually a heavy spoon, by tugging on the copper as you trolled around. Some anglers modified old Victrola record players to wind the copper in, much like an automatic reel. Though a few anglers still do it this way, many troll with the copper spooled on a level wind reel and a downriggerstyle rod.
Trolling and waterfleas
Fishhook waterfleas, an invasive zooplankton species first introduced into the Great Lakes from the ballast water of large ocean going vessels, are now established in Cayuga, Seneca and Owasco Lake. They often collect in jelly-like masses on fishing lines and downrigger cables as anglers “troll” their lures through the water. These masses can clog eyelets on fishing rods, and the need to regularly clean lines and clear guides can make trolling extremely frustrating.
Popular trolling lures for salmonids are spoons, plugs and flies. The most effective size, color or type can often change daily or even hourly. In addition to lures, sometimes attractors are added to the line to increase action. Attractors come in a wide variety of shapes and styles. As their name implies, their primary purpose is to attract predatory fish by giving the illusion of feeding fish around your lure. Some attractors are also designed to add more action to a fly or plug. The three main styles of attractors are spinners, dodgers and flashers.
For help choosing the lures and colors that will work best at the time of your trip, please visit DEC’s online fishing report at www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/9218.html or stop at a local tackle shop.
In recent years, vertical jigging from a boat has become a very popular, especially for catching lake trout. Some anglers just jig the lure up and down a few feet off of the bottom. However, the more popular method is to lower the jig to the bottom, jig it a few times and then reel it up rapidly off the bottom a short distance, before dropping it again and repeating the process. On the retrieve, it pays to vary the speed by cranking fast, then slow and sometimes even by pausing the bait. Popular lures used are ½ to 1-ounce jigging spoons and lead head jigs rigged with plastic bait. Popular plastic baits include flukes, twister tails, tube jigs and swimbaits in white or chartreuse (yellow/green).
Jigging does not require specialized rods and reels, and it’s a great alternative to trolling when waterfleas or weed mats are a nuisance. Proper boat control and the ability to use a depth finder are important when vertical jigging. Use your depth finder to locate fish or schools of bait, and then use your trolling motor, drift sock, outboard or all three to stay on top of the fish. Depth finders are also important as they enable you to literally see your lure and any fish that react to it. It’s almost like a video game! You can see your lure and the fish as you watch and wait anxiously for the two lines to intersect!
The use of natural bait (live or dead), unlike the other two methods, can be done from either shore or boat. If you’re using minnows, please remember to use only certified bait or bait caught from the lake you are fishing. Popular baits are alewives (often called sawbellies or mooneyes), minnows, egg sacs and the “marshmallow-andworm” rig. These bait rigs are generally fished on the bottom with the use of an egg sinker, but they can also be fished anywhere in the water column. Minnows or sawbellies can be hooked through the lips, under the dorsal fin or threaded onto an English (double) hook. Egg sacs can also be fished on this same bottom rig. The marshmallow-and-worm rig is a popular local method for catching rainbow trout, especially on Skaneateles Lake. It is a standard bottom rig baited with a nightcrawler, but a small colored marshmallow is also added. The marshmallow helps float the worm off the bottom, and the bright colors also act as an attractor. Some anglers skip the worm altogether and just use the marshmallow.
Bait rigs typically work better from shore during the cool months in early spring and fall and throughout the winter, when trout and salmon are close to shore. If you haven’t experienced the thrill of catching a trout or salmon on one of the picturesque Finger Lakes, now is the time to get out and do it.
For more information on fishing the Finger Lakes, visit www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/32371.html.