Better River Fishing In Ontario – How To Get It

An angler fishing the Grand river in the summer for big brown trout.
An angler fishing the Grand River in the summer for big brown trout.

Great River Fishing In Ontario Is Hard To Find

I’ve been fishing Ontario rivers for over 36 years and have seen the good years and the bad years. I also see good rivers and I see bad rivers for fishing. Our rivers are fragile and it requires more than hope the get better river fishing in Ontario.

Going back 6 or 7 years ago (2011 to 2014), river anglers in Ontario experienced some pretty great fishing. We were spoiled and we got a glimpse of how great our rivers can actually be.

Those years I saw more 20-inch brown trout in one season than I’d usually see in 3 years, and we had more 20 to 30 steelhead days than I thought possible.

My Clients were catching an average of 12 to 16 big steelhead a day, almost every day. For over 2 months between late October and December was like I’d died and gone to steelhead heaven. The hardest thing for me those years was dealing with chapped dry, very cold, and even cut fingers from releasing so many fish so often.

As a guide, that was a problem I’d like to see every year!

But then something happened and things started to change, things got bad.

Declining Fish Populations

A nice fall steelhead
A nice fall steelhead

As some of you Ontario great lakes anglers may have noticed over the last few years there seems to be a significant decrease in the numbers of trout, steelhead and salmon in our rivers. Where did they go?

In fact I’ve been hearing the same thing all around the great lakes region the last few years.

There has also been more anglers out fishing than ever despite less fish and low water, Why?

And now, worms on the ground, some trees are budding and some steelhead are in full spawning mode, and it’s only the end of February 2017 as I write this.

What is the reason for the lack of fish and the increase in anglers, and what can you and I do help bring back our rivers to their maximum potential?

Possible Reasons For Rivers In Decline

One of my river biologist friends suggested that during those peak good years we were coming off a few years of colder and wetter than normal summers combined with some milder winters and that those types of conditions are great for the survival of baby steelhead, salmon, and resident trout.

The results of those cooler summers were more and bigger resident trout, and more returning steelhead and salmon.

But unfortunately, the last few years we’ve seen earlier springs with longer dryer summers, very little rain in the fall along with one really long cold winter, all of which is wreaking havoc on all those resident trout and baby steelhead stuck in the rivers during those extreme conditions.

On top of that there is a lot more anglers on the water taking what little fish are left.

All of that combined could be why there’s a lot less fish now, and judging by the worms and the budding trees in February this trend could continue, but don’t worry just yet.

The reason for the increase in angling pressure could be a simple one. When you have a few great years of fishing, people tell people about the great fishing and those anglers go fish and catch a bunch of fish, and then they tell more people, and soon everyone wants to get out and fish.

Guys that may not have fished for years are now going out to fish and keeping fish, and new anglers start getting into it because of what they’ve heard about the great fishing and the might keep fish. This all contributes to lower numbers of fish.

This year, we have far more anglers on the river during a time of poor fishing and that makes things even tougher, but things are improving.

Because the fishing is now tough, that will deter some anglers from fishing and that will hopefully allow the fish populations to improve.


One of the best Ontario Troiut rivers
One of the best Ontario Trout rivers

Many anglers believe there is nothing they can do to get better river fishing in Ontario, but there is, and it’s simple.

Yes, it’s true that we anglers can’t do anything to control the weather or the increases in the population, or the pollution, or a warming environment.

But we do have the power to make a change for the better and we can easily have better river fishing in Ontario.

There are 4 simple things you can do for better river fishing in Ontario for you and everyone.

  1. Practice being environmentally friendly.
  2. Join a conservation group.
  3. Practice catch and release.
  4. Give back and get your hands dirty for 1 hour a year.

Even if every single angler did one of these things we could have better river fishing in Ontario.

At home, we should all be recycling, turning off the lights to conserve energy, and using less water? All this helps to improve the environment and slow global warming, but what you really need to do to get better river fishing in Ontario is to join a conservation group that stands up for anglers and for river fishing.

I’m not saying you need to join and then commit a ton of hours planting trees or for stream rehab, just join. That’s it. Why?

If you want to see more fish in the river for many more years to come we need to make sure our waters are clean, cold, accessible, managed properly, and that our water is protected and being used wisely.

If a group of 12 concerned anglers goes to the Ministry Of Natural Resources and asks them for change on a river, asks them to protect a river, or asks them for permission to stock some fish, or to do some needed stream rehab, they are such a tiny group that they are not likely going to have much influence to get anything done.

But, if a group of 1000 or 10,000 or 50,000 concerned anglers approaches the OMNR with the same concerns, it’s far more likely that they will get what they want. Just by joining trout unlimited, or Ontario Steelheaders, or other angler groups that have the same views and goals as you do can really help. DO NOT RELY ON THE OMNR…. simply put, they are part of the problem. See what I mean below.


A fast flowing Ontario trout river
A fast flowing Ontario trout river

As an avid angler who loves our rivers I have been working with a number of Conservation Authorities, fishing groups, and with Trout Unlimited Canada.

These groups put pressure on our government services to maintain water quality, maintain and improve fishing through stream monitoring and restoration projects, protect our waters from commercial and industrial uses, increase access, and are the voice of Ontario river anglers.

But they need your help because the more people backing them the more they can do to protect, maintain and improve our rivers and the faster we can get our rivers fishing at their full potential again.

Imagine if every river angler joined a fishing group that wanted the protection and improvement of our rivers and demanded to be heard.

The Benefits of Helping Hands

I know I said you don’t have to lift a finger to actually help out but there are two benefits if you do.

Last year I had the pleasure (and it was fun) to help a group of volunteers plant over 1000 trees and shrubs along the banks of the upper Credit River.

Hopefully, the results of this will mean lots more little brook trout in that area and a healthier, cooler river for miles downstream which could result in more brown trout, steelhead, and salmon in the near future.

Trees are very important to fish! In a nut shell trees provide shelter for the animals and the adult mayflies and other bugs the fish feed on. The leaves and other parts of the trees fall in the water adding nutrients for the water vegetation and the insects which baby trout and salmon feed on.

 Trees and shrubs provide shade and shelter which can help keep the water cooler and maintain higher oxygen content and provide cover for fish. Trees can also slow and prevent run off, silt build up, and help stabilize the river banks, all good things for the little and big trout and salmon, especially on those hot summer days. We need more trees!


It only takes 1 or 2 hours of your time to plant a couple dozen trees or more and if hundreds or thousands of Ontario river anglers donated at least 1 or 2 hours each year, our rivers would improve faster then our warming environment could damage them.

That 1 or 2 hours could mean hundreds of hours of better fishing for everyone in a short time. Think about it, 2 hours of getting your hands dirty for hundreds of hours of better fishing, that’s a great return on investment if you ask me.

There are a lot of great organizations out there that you can volunteer your time with. There are lots of good rivers around Toronto. Look up your local Conservative authorities and see if they have volunteer tree planting days.

Go on-line to Trout Unlimited Canada, Friends of the Grand, Izaak Walton Fly Fishing Club, Ontario Streams, and the many other great fishing groups and clubs around Southern Ontario to see if there’s a way for you to volunteer your time to help bring your favorite river back to its maximum potential.

As a side benefit to donating my time with a few of these groups, not only did I feel great that I’ve been giving back to the rivers, but I’ve also met some good friends and contacts that have shared their fishing knowledge with me.

The knowledge and friendships from other anglers have been priceless.

Did you know that guys that regularly contribute to these clubs are often better anglers due to the fact they are far more knowledgeable from all the shared techniques and fishing spots their new friends share with them.

You can’t buy that kind of knowledge and it’s free when you help make your river better.


Another very simple and easy way to improve our rivers is simply to practice catch and release and spread the word.

Until our OMNR (fisheries management)  gets smart and implements catch and release zones or slot limits on more or even all our trout rivers, I believe the fishing will continue to suffer and we will never see the full potential of our rivers.

Having a 5 fish limit on brook trout and brown trout is really dumb and a very out-dated way of thinking.

Most of the time it’s hard enough to catch one 20 inch trout becuase angler keep all the fish before they can even get that big. Keeping fish lowers the population of eating size fish and forces anglers to keep 5 ten-inch fish instead of 1 20 inch fish, the cycle of lower fish populations and poor fishing continues.

If anglers were required to release 4 out of 5 fish and were only permitted to keep 1 fish over 20 inches there would be a lot more 20 inch fish to catch and keep.

And keeping one 20 to 25-inch trout is about the same amount of meat as five 8 to10-inch fish. This makes more sense to me. Much better fishing and bigger fish to eat sounds awesome.

Catch and release, size limits, and slot limits are scientifically proven to work and we need them here, and we need them soon. Anglers catch big trout and that trout ends up in a frying pan instead of spawning and improving our fishery. Our rivers are too fragile to sustain this type of abuse and anglers need to re-think this old mentality.

All the best trout rivers that I guide are rivers that have catch and release programs. If I want to go out today and catch 5 brown trout over 20 inches I’ll go to one of these rivers because even though I guide other rivers that know very well, they are catch and keep rivers and there simply isn’t many big fish to there.

How do we change this, how do we get all our rivers to be as good as these catch and release rivers where an angler can catch 5 big trout in a day. Simple, join a club that is forward-thinking and wants to promote these types of programs. The rivers that already have catch and release are like that because of groups on those rivers that pushed for it.

You may not realize this but world class trout fishing is possible in Ontario.

Many of the designated USA world-class or trophy trout waters are catch and release or have slot limits in effect, and believe it or not, many of these rivers have way, way, way, better fishing than the vast majority of our trout rivers do, at least the ones that I have fished were much better, and it’s not because the rivers in the USA were cleaner, it’s simply because those rivers are better managed!

You can not just sit back and rely on the OMNR to provide better river fishing in Ontario. If this was the case there would be a lot more fish. I do not believe that our OMNR has done enough and has not adopted the needed modern methods for improving our river fishery.

I have guided thousands of anglers and it’s pretty clear, anglers want more and bigger trout and good access to fish. Am I wrong? Most anglers struggle to catch trout of any size. Steelhead is an exception, but when it comes to brown trout and brook trout the fishing is tough.

It’s a simple as that, so no lets all join together and figure out how we do that. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here, there are programs all over North America and even in Ontario that show us modern methods to improve a trout river. The most simple solution is to lower catch limits and have size restrictions in place and add catch and release zones on many more rivers.

So with an ever-increasing population, increased pollution, and a warming environment, catch and release are more important now than ever before, and the groups and clubs mentioned above are the needed voice to make these changes happen.

With your help, your voice, and your support, it will get done.

Just by simply supporting your local club with your time or your membership money and releasing all your fish and spreading the word, we could start seeing our rivers get back to their full potential again, instead of the steady decrease in fish we are seeing now.

Now is the time to act, it doesn’t cost much, and it doesn’t require a lot of time and effort, but a little goes a long way when thousands of people get together for one great reason. These are some great organizations that help with stream rehabilitation and tree planting.


These are just some of my thoughts and opinions.

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