Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get asked “Hey Bill, what’s your favorite lake?” Seems like a simple question but it has a very complicated answer. The main reason it’s complicated is because I don’t have just one favorite lake- I really have two favorites, each of which has its own set of reasons why it is the favorite. Allow me to explain.
First, there is Oneida Lake, a phenomenal smallmouth fishery where you can catch good fish in great numbers. On the other hand, however, there is the Northeast Basin of Lake Ontario- also a phenomenal smallmouth fishery, but one where is you may not catch ta large number of fish, but with every set of the hook, you have a chance to catch a fish of a lifetime. That makes decision making between the two too close to call. If I dissect it further, with the eye of a NY fishing guide, perhaps I am biased, but it seems to me, as an angler who has also fished championship caliber waters in other parts of the country, when it comes to catching quality smallmouth along with the possibility of boating the Smallie of a lifetime, I think this combination of lakes can’t be beat.
Oneida Lake is the largest lake entirely within the state of New York. Located northeast of Syracuse, Oneida has a surface is 79.8 square miles, and feeds the Oneida River, a tributary of the Oswego River, which flows into Lake Ontario. Until the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, the lake was part of an important waterway connecting the Atlantic seaboard of North America to the interior of the New York and the Ohio Territory. While not counted as one of the Finger Lakes, Oneida is sometimes referred to as their “thumb”. It is primarily a shallow water fishery in smallmouth terms, as these bass can be caught in 1’-15’ of water using any number of baits. There are shallow rocky flats, shallow shoals and beautiful grass lines. You basically pick your poison when deciding how to fish Oneida, as you can catch them fishing spinning gear or with a flipping stick in your hand. Another special thing about Oneida is that when you are fishing the deep grass you never know if your efforts will bag a big smallmouth or a lunker largemouth. The average smallmouth is right around 3 pounds with plenty of fish reaching the 4-5 size. In tournament terms, a 14-15 pound bag will place you in the middle of the pack and earn you a “thanks for showing up”. On this lake, it will take 18-19 pounds to get you a check.
The lake is named for the Oneida tribe, a part of the Iroquois Six Nations that occupied the region back in the day. During the early 19th century, Oneida Lake was part of the Albany-Oswego waterway connecting the Atlantic seaboard westward via the Hudson River and through the Appalachian Mountains via the Mohawk River. The navigable waterway exited Oneida Lake by the Oneida River, which led to the Oswego River and on to Lake Ontario, from where travelers could reach the other Great Lakes. This system was significantly improved- from 1792 to 1803- by cutting a canal across the Oneida Carry, after which commercial shipping across Oneida Lake increased substantially. That increase jumped further with the completion in 1825 of the Erie Canal, which originally bypassed Oneida until, in 1835, Oneida Lake was connected to the Erie Canal system by construction of the Oneida Canal.
To get to my other favorite, you simply travel an hour or so north on Interstate 81 to arrive at the northeastern basin of Lake Ontario- aka The 1000 Islands Region. This is the area I call “The land of the Giants”. Decent numbers of smallmouth can be caught and shallow rocky shorelines. These are the resident fish during the season and they typically hit tubes, spinnerbaits, swimbaits and jerk baits. While there are always fish on the shallower structure, for big fish, this area is primarily a deep water fishery. My bread and butter on Lake Ontario is fishing from 25-50’ of water. For this type of deep fishing your electronics are your best weapon along with a drop shot rig or tube. The average size of the smallmouth are right around 4 pounds, but 6-7 pound fish are always around- whether we can coax them into the boat is the big question. Again, if you think in tournament terms, in this part of Ontario, 19-20 pounds will have you in the middle of the pack, but to grab the
brass ring and get that win, you will need 23-24 pounds.
There is a lot to see a do in the 1000 Islands Region- both on the US side and across the St. Lawrence in Canada. Forts, lighthouses, art museums and even a castle dot the area which can be best taken in from the top of the Sky Needle on one of the Islands in the middle of the Seaway. The entire region- from Sackets harbor to Alexandria Bay- is a campers’ delight, providing a very wide variety of recreational opportunities for the whole family. Home to the original Thousand Islands salad dressing, you can’t go wrong planning a vacation to the region. Give me a call and we can schedule trips that may just make both of these lakes your favorites too. If nothing else, you will certainly Live The Passion!
Bill Lortz, is a long time north central NY professional guide and tournament angler. His NY NorthCountry Bassin’ guide service focuses on
smallmouth bass trips on Oneida Lake and Lake Ontario but he is also knowlegable on other New York waters as well. Bill has won a variety of regional tournaments in the Northeast, been NY BassNation Champion, a BassNation Regional Champion and fished the National Championship. Bill is ProStaff at iBass360 and his sponsors include Triton Boats, Temple Fork Outfitters Rods, Lews Reels, SunLine, Keitech USA, Mercury Marine and Navionics. We are grateful for Bill’s article and his friendship.