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NY State Game Fish Species

The following information is intended only as a general overview.

Oncorhynchus mykiss

Steelhead are the anadromous (migrating) version of rainbow trout. Rainbow trout are the "land locked" version, and remain in freshwater throughout their life.

Steelhead migrate from the ocean into freshwater to spawn, and then can swim back out to the ocean again if they wish.

Since Steelhead are not semelparous (meaning they do not die after spawning) they are not an "official" Pacific Salmon. But, Steelhead are often a favorite of local fishers for their large size and feisty attitude.

Identification Characteristics:

  • Head blunt, jaw short - does not extend past the eye
  • Distinct dark spots on dorsal fin
  • Square-shaped tail fin with radiating pattern of spots
  • Often has reddish stripe along sides, gill cover reddish
  • Length up to 45 inches

Spawn Timing: Late March through early June

Life Cycle:

Spawning in streams and rivers, steelhead rear in freshwater for 1 to 4 years before migrating downstream through estuaries to the open ocean. Unlike salmon, steelhead migrate individually rather than in schools. Steelhead spend 1 to 5 years at sea before returning to natal streams or rivers.

At least two specific stocks of steelhead have developed; those that enter fresh water during fall, winter and early spring -- the winter run -- and those that enter in spring, summer and early fall -- the summer run. Steelhead do not always die after spawning, but will again migrate through estuaries to the ocean.


Steelhead rely on streams, rivers, estuaries and marine habitat during their lifecycle. In freshwater and estuarine habitats, steelhead feed on small crustaceans, insects and small fishes. Eggs are laid in small and medium gravel and need good water flow (to supply oxygen) to survive. After emerging from the redd (nest) they remain in streams and rivers for 1 to 4 years before migrating through the estuaries to the ocean.

Sporting Value:

Considered one of the top 5 game fish in North America. The New York State record is held by Rob Wilson. His Steelhead weighed in at 31 pounds 3 ounces. Caught August 14, 2004 out of Olcott, N.Y.

Chinook Salmon (King Salmon)
Oncorhynchus tshawytscha

The common name of this fish species is taken from the Chinook Indians, a tribe on the northwest coast of America whose survival was linked to these salmon returning to the Columbia River.

Other common names for this largest salmon are King, Spring Salmon, and Tyee.

Adult chinook salmon are iridescent green to blue-green on top. The sides are silvery, turning to white on the belly. Black spots are present on the upper half of the body and on all fins.

The native range of chinooks in the United States extends from California to Alaska. They were successfully introduced into the Great Lakes in 1967.

The natural life cycle of salmon is one of the most interesting in nature. Salmon lay their eggs in cool, clean rivers and streams. The female makes a nest, called a redd, by turning on her side and repeatedly flexing her body and tail to form an oval depression in the gravel stream bed. She deposits pea-sized eggs in the nest as a male swims beside her releasing sperm. The fertilized eggs are covered by gravel displaced when the female digs the next nest just upstream. This process is repeated several times before spawning is completed.

The eggs stay in the nest all winter and hatch in spring. Chinook salmon, like all Pacific salmon, die after spawning. After hatching, the young salmon, called alevins, remain in the gravel for a month absorbing nourishment from their yolk sac. When the yolk sac is absorbed, the small salmon, now called fry, emerge from the gravel.

Dark stripes on their sides, called parr marks, help camouflage the young salmon from larger fish and fish eating birds. Before juveniles leave fresh water and migrate to the ocean, they undergo a special process called smolting, and are called smolts. During this time, they become silvery in color and their body becomes tolerant to sea water. The smolts stay in saltwater bays where the river meets the ocean for several months feeding on tiny crustaceans and small fish.

There are three stages in which you can catch salmon. There is the Lake Stage, River Mouth Stage and the River Stage.

Lake Stage:

Most people who fish the Great Lakes use bigger boats that tend to troll faster so the only way they can fish for salmon is with downriggers.

In the Great Lakes, you will find that salmon that are feeding tend to hang-out in a 53 degree thermal layer which is where the bait fish usually are. Basically, you just have to mark fish on your fish finder and set your downriggers at different depths within 20 feet of where you are marking the majority of the fish. In the summer they can be 150 feet deep but as the summer moves on, the salmon start to come shallower.

River Mouth Stage:

In late summer and early fall, the salmon start staging at the mouth of rivers.

They are waiting for the rain to make the water level high enough so that they can swim up stream and spawn.

River Stage:

Once the salmon go up small streams, they stop feeding. In bigger rivers like the Salmon River or the Niagara River, the salmon will still feed for the first few days in the river.

Salmon have nothing on their minds beside spawning. At this time, they are very aggressive and territorial and will defend their spawning ground from Rainbow and Brown Trout which tend to follow salmon up stream to feed on their eggs.

Once the salmon start to swim up stream, they genetically start to disintegrate. Usually by the time they finish spawning, they are almost dead. Atlantic salmon do not die after they spawn.

Brown Trout (lake run)
Salmo strutta

The brown trout is primarily a freshwater fish, but can adapt to salt water. 

The fish usually grow to 10 lbs or 102 centimeters and is noted for its fast growth rate.

The brown trout’s preferred habitats are streams, lakes or brooks. The brown trout has an olive or brown colored body and dark brown or red spots.  The tail is square with few or no spots on it. The ideal temperature for the brown trout is 56°F and 66°F. 

This trout matures in 3 to 4 years. Females spawn in the fall, producing about 10,000 eggs.  Juvenile brown trout feed on insects or other invertebrates, but as the trout matures, they also eat other fish.

The first introduction of the brown trout into the United States was by the US Fish Commission in 1883 in Michigan State. In Michigan, brown trout eggs were raised at the Northville hatchery. 

The fish were then released into the Pere Marquette River in the Northern area of the state. 

In addition, in 1883 the fish was also introduced into New York State through the Caledonia Fish Hatchery.

According to the DEC, the NY State record for a lake run brown trout was caught by Tony Brownon 6/10/97 and weighed in at 33 lb. 2 oz. He was fishing Lake Ontario out of Oswego.

Coho Salmon
Oncorhynchus kisutch
Coho salmon, also know as the silver salmon can be distinguished by the fine dark spots on the back and upper lobe of the tail fin, the long anal fin and gray gums.

Coho feed primarily on alewives, smelt, and other small fish. Adult Coho spawn during the fall in riffle areas of streams in reds (nests of gravel) which the females construct.

Sexually maturing coho develop a light pink or rose shading along the belly and the males may show a slight arching of the back. Mature coho salmon have a pronounced red skin color with darker backs and average 28 inches in length and seven to 11 pounds in weight, although coho weighing up to 36 pounds have been reported.

Mature females may be darker than males, with both showing a pronounced hook on the nose.

After spawning is completed, they die. Normally, Coho have a three year life cycle; however, a few males will return to spawn at two years of age and are known as "jacks".

Occasionally some Coho may live to the age of four.

The average mature fall Coho salmon will weigh 2 to 5 pounds before spawning.

Trolling offshore in April, May and June is most productive when using spoons, plugs, spinners and flies and squids preceded by dodgers. Even whole alewife, herring and smelt can be successful when trolled.

Coho prefer temperatures in the mid-50s F. and generally are found nearer the surface than Chinook. After 60° F. Coho tend to go deeper to find their preferred water temperature. Coho may be found in water temperatures from 45° to 60° F., with a peak feeding temperature at 54° F.

The NY State record Coho salmon was caught by Stephen M. Sheets Jr., on August 23, 1998 while fishing in Lake Ontatrio out of the Oswego Marina. The fish weighed 33 lbs - 7 oz. This beat the previous record that was caught in Salmon River by 3 oz.

Lake Trout
Salvelinus Namaycush

The lake trout also known as laker, can be distinguished by its white mouth, irregular whitish spots on the back and sides, deeply forked tail and a white leading edge on the lower fins.

The diet of adult lake trout consists of fish, insects and small invertebrates.

Sexually mature adults weight 6 to 7 pounds at about 6 years of age. Lake trout may live 20 years or longer and attain weights of 30 pounds or more.

They are usually found on the bottom between depths of 90 to 250 feet, but may be found at lesser depths when the water temperature is near 48 degrees F. 

During the spring months, lake trout can be taken in the upper layers of warmer water, but as the season progresses and water temperatures go above 48 degrees F., lake trout are normally taken near the bottom.

During the summer months (July-September) they tend to stay near the thermocline where temperatures are between 45 and 50 degrees F.

During the fall months mature lake trout move into shallow waters and reef areas in search of spawning areas.

Shiny metal spoons are successful lake trout lures when fished properly. Certain salmon lures and flies in combination with a dodger also are effective. Lake trout feed on alewives, herring, smelt, chubs and sculpins.