St. Lawrence River Fishing: 2024 Thousand Islands Angler’s Guide

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Offering some of the best fishing in New York for bass, muskellunge, walleye and several other species, the St. Lawrence River provides world-class angling on a grand scale. Few places in the Empire State have such a broad array of fishing options.

The river originates at the eastern end of Lake Ontario and drains the entire Great Lakes system into the Atlantic Ocean. Much of the river also forms the border between the United States and Canada.

The initial stretch of the river from Cape Vincent to around Morristown—about 60 miles, though measurements vary—is referred to as the Thousand Islands region. It is here that anglers will find much of the best fishing in the St. Lawrence River.

The Thousand Islands (a.k.a. 1000 Islands) region actually includes over 1,500 islands, ranging in size from a few square feet to several square miles.

A vast complex of rocky shoals, deep ledges and weedy embayments, the Thousand Islands supply virtually endless fishing opportunities.

Smallmouth Bass

The bass fishing in the St. Lawrence River is nothing short of spectacular, with smallmouth bass dominating most anglers’ catches.

Smallmouths ranging up to 4 pounds are abundant, and a 5-pounder barely raises an eyebrow.

The river is a frequent setting for bass tournaments, and it almost always takes a five-fish limit weighing over 20 pounds to win here. The St. Lawrence ranked number one on Bassmaster’s annual list of America’s best bass lakes in 2022.

Smallmouth bass abound on the river’s many rocky ledges and shoals. The St. Lawrence offers an endless supply of precisely the type of rocky structure that smallmouths love.

A good depth map is a very useful tool for identifying likely spots in this vast region, but you don’t usually have to go far to find great smallmouth habitat. Spring and fall are the best seasons to catch them in relatively shallow water.

Fishing in bays and around the rocky island shorelines is productive in May and June. In accordance with New York’s bass season, the fishing is catch-and-release-only until the third Saturday in June, by which time bass will be in post-spawn mode.

Summer bass fishing can be extraordinary, but be prepared to fish a little deeper than you’re accustomed to.

Ever since invasive zebra mussels arrived in the early ’90s, the water has become much clearer, and smallmouths are commonly found over 25 feet deep.

At times, they may be as deep as 50 feet, but they’re also known to feed in shallower spots or even suspend over deeper areas early in the morning and on overcast days. On days with a stiff breeze, bass will likely follow it toward windward shorelines.

River currents also drive bass movements and behavior. Although the current may seem imperceptible in many areas, bass still position themselves below current breaks, including islands and rock piles.

Jigs and finesse soft plastics on drop-shot rigs are the baits of choice for fishing deep structure.

A 5″ wacky worm is a great option for shallower areas, with darker, natural colors faring best.

The introduction of round gobies in the last 20 years has been a major change. Bass have increased in size, and studies suggest that gobies now make up 80% of smallmouths’ diet.

Any bait that resembles a goby is a good bet, with dark-colored tube jigs continuing to excel.

Largemouth Bass

With such an excellent smallmouth fishery at their fingertips, it’s unsurprising that many anglers overlook largemouth bass in the St. Lawrence River. But largemouths are also abundant, even if their populations are more localized.

Largemouths thrive in weedy shallows, bays and backwater areas all along the river. Bays like Goose Bay and Chippewa Bay are among the best spots, along with Lake of the Isles, a not-quite-closed-off embayment on Wellesley Island.

There can be great sight-fishing for bedding largemouths in early June—again, it’s catch and release only until the third Saturday. Largemouths continue to bite throughout the summer months, generally in shallower water than smallmouths.

Mouths of bays and channels between islands are good areas to find summer largemouths. Some of the best spots are where rocky structure and weed beds meet.

A very common feature throughout the Thousand Islands is rocky shorelines that drop off toward a weed bed at a depth of 6 to 10 feet. The margin between the rocky drop-off and the weed edge is a prime spot to find largemouths, especially first thing in the morning.

Casting around docks and boathouses is also productive in areas where the shoreline is more developed.

Wacky worms and soft plastic jerkbaits are great largemouth lures, along with spinnerbaits and crankbaits.

Walleye

Walleye in the St. Lawrence River are both large and abundant. The population is maintained through natural reproduction as well as generous stocking by the DEC, which has given walleye fishing a significant boost in the last 20 years or so.

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The walleye season in New York begins the first Saturday in May and runs until March 15 the following year. The current state record, weighing 18 pounds 2 ounces, was caught on the St. Lawrence River on opening day of walleye season in 2018.

Various parts of the river offer different walleye fishing opportunities in different seasons. A few hardy anglers do very well fishing rocky shoals during the final, chilly weeks of walleye season in early March.

But the season opener in May is the date that most walleye fanatics look forward to.

By this time, walleye have usually finished spawning, and some of the best spots are mouths of rivers that empty into the St. Lawrence, including the Oswegatchie and Grass rivers.

The best walleye fishing in spring is generally in the section of the St. Lawrence downriver from the region considered to be the Thousand Islands. The Ogdensburg area and below the Moses-Saunders Power Dam in Massena are prime spots in May and June.

Jigging and dragging crawler harness spinner rigs are good tactics in spring, and depths around 20 to 25 feet are often productive. Walleye may be even shallower at night, and some of the best fishing takes place after dark.

Springtime anglers catch a lot of healthy, eating-size walleye in the 18- to 24-inch range, along with the occasional trophy (as the opening-day state record catch will attest to). But the summer months produce some of the biggest walleye of the year.

By summer, the bite shifts up into the Thousand Islands, though the areas below the dams farther downriver can still be productive.

Trolling deep shoals, island points and drop-offs in the Thousand Islands produces some of the biggest walleye from late summer into fall.

This is a great time to catch big ‘eyes, but the action can be slow. Depths in the 30- to 40-foot range are often best.

The Carleton Island area, not far from the mouth of the river in Cape Vincent, is a prime spot.

Try black-colored jigs or live minnows.

Muskellunge

The St. Lawrence River has a longstanding reputation as one of the best places to fish for muskellunge in the world. New York’s state record muskie, a 67-inch fish weighing 69 pounds, 15 ounces, was caught here in 1957.

Along with Lake Erie and the Niagara River, the St. Lawrence remains one of New York’s best places to catch a coveted muskellunge over 50 pounds. That being said, there’s reason to be extremely cautious about the future of the St. Lawrence River muskie fishery.

Muskellunge numbers have dropped precipitously since around 2005, with blame usually directed at round gobies.

These invaders eat muskellunge eggs and can potentially spread a deadly virus. A prominent muskellunge fish kill in 2022 was especially worrying.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Anglers still catch muskies in the river and have an honest shot at a trophy. Going out with a guide is highly recommended for anyone unfamiliar with the river.

Muskellunge are widespread throughout the Thousand Islands region, and many are also caught farther downriver to the Ogdensburg area and beyond. Trolling is the best way to cover water and maximize potential strikes.

Edges of shoals are the top areas to troll for muskies, with August and September being peak months. Anglers also land some big ones later in the fall as these big predators feed heavily in anticipation of winter.

Ledges and drop-offs provide muskies with easy access to both deep and shallow water, allowing them to follow schools of baitfish in either direction. Depths between 20 and 40 feet are ideal.

Plugs and cranks like Radtke Pike Minnows, Cisco Kids, Jakes and Depth Raiders are favored by many, with 10″ models being standard. Oversized spinners like Mepps Muskie Killers are also excellent options.

Check out all of the best muskellunge fishing lakes and rivers in New York.

Northern Pike

Northern pike are exceptionally common in the St. Lawrence River. Although musky anglers sometimes view them as a nuisance, plenty of folks go out of their way to target pike. And with good reason.

Known for their fierce battles and line-slicing teeth, northern pike are capable of topping 25 pounds. Fish measuring 30 to 36 inches are common in the St. Lawrence.

Pike season opens in May, and the first month is the best time of year to find them in shallow water.

Having just spawned in April, pike will still be in weedy bays all along the river. Button Bay and Chippewa Bay are a couple of the best-known spots, but there are many, many others.

Large pike gradually transition to deeper haunts by summer, particularly favoring weed lines, shoals and points. However, anglers will still catch many at larger bays’ deep mouths, while smaller pike mostly populate the shallows..

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The best pike lures for the St. Lawrence River are those that produce some metallic flash, including spinners and spoons. Gold-colored Doctor Spoons are a local favorite, along with Mepps #5 Aglia Bucktails.

Yellow perch are a major forage species for pike, and spoons with some yellow on them tend to draw a lot of strikes.

Spinner crawler rigs, more commonly used for walleye, also catch a lot of pike. Most anglers bait the rigs with either a live nightcrawler or minnow.

Ice fishing for pike is also very popular. Baiting tip-ups with live minnows around submerged islands and weed beds in the river’s bays is the perfect approach in January and February.

Eel Bay and Lake of the Isles on Wellesley Island, the bays around the village of Alexandria Bay, Goose Bay and Chippewa Bay are all excellent ice fishing areas for pike. Wheathouse Bay, a bit farther downriver near Ogdensburg, is also excellent.

Find more northern pike fishing hot spots in New York.

Other Game Fish

The St. Lawrence offers outstanding fishing for many additional species, including some that aren’t traditionally considered to be game fish.

For example, bullhead catfish invade shallow bays in extraordinary numbers every spring, and freshwater drum weighing over 10 pounds are common.

Bluegill and sunfish abound in shallow weed beds as well.

Long story short, don’t forget about these other fish species that also provide excellent fishing in the Thousand Islands.

Here are a few of those additional species we’d like to spotlight:

Yellow Perch

Yellow perch are some of the most abundant fish in the St. Lawrence River, inhabiting reefs and weed beds in prolific numbers. The ice fishing season is an especially popular time to fish for them.

As soon as safe ice forms on bays, anglers start catching great numbers of perch using jigging spoons, grub-tipped teardrop jigs and Jigging Raps.

Big “jack” perch in the 10- to 13-inch range are not hard to come by, though you may have to catch 100 dinks for every 10 jumbos.

Another great time to fish for perch is during the weeks immediately after ice-out, usually from late March to early April. Perch spawn this time of year in protected shallows, and anglers catch a bunch using live minnows.

Emerald shiners are the ideal bait if you can get your hands on some, but fathead minnows will also do the trick, along with bits of nightcrawler and small jigs.

Perch will be found in the backs of practically every bay and protected harbor areas and marinas.

Lots of quality perch will continue to be caught from docks and shorelines in Cape Vincent, Clayton, Alexandria Bay and Ogdensburg from late spring into summer. However, the best fishing for larger perch shifts to shoals on the main river in somewhat deeper water.

Crappie

Bays and backwaters along the St. Lawrence River offer excellent fishing for black crappies.

Even though fun to catch and delicious to eat, anglers often overlook this species to target other fish that are easier to find and catch reliably.

Crappies are notorious for vanishing like ghosts after the spring spawn.

Ice anglers catch their fair share of crappies in the Thousand Islands, with Lake of the Isles arguably the region’s premier crappie haunt. Goose Bay and other bays also have ample crappie populations.

Spring crappie fishing starts to pick up in April after the ice has receded from the bays and the shallowest backwaters begin to warm up. A good string of warm days can bring crappies flocking to the warmest available water.

Lots of scrappy 9- to 12-inch crappies are caught throughout the spawn, which is usually wrapping up by late May. After that, schools of crappies are nomadic and hard to pin down.

There can still be a good bite on summer evenings, as crappies emerge from weed beds just as the sun goes down.

Boat docks and marina areas can also continue to produce in summer, with crappies often seeking shade under structures that reach into deep water.

Common Carp

The St. Lawrence River has been called America’s carp capital, and few places in the country offer more or bigger carp. Anglers commonly catch carp weighing 20 pounds here, and 40-pound fish are available.

Carp are amazing fighters, and battling a carp that big is something you won’t soon forget.

Methods used to catch them vary widely. The presentation is often as simple as a few kernels of sweet corn threaded onto a hook and fished on the bottom. But serious carp anglers often go to greater lengths to target big carp.

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Specialized European-style carp fishing gear and techniques have started catching on in the region, including 12-foot carp rods.

Boilies—hard-boiled baits made using grains and a variety of scents and flavors—are the top carp baits for serious anglers.

The months of June, July and August are the peak of the carp fishing season.

These fish inhabit areas throughout the river and are easily targeted from shore.

Planning Your Trip

The Thousand Islands region has been a major tourism hub in New York going back to the 19th century, and a wide range of amenities are available.

More than a dozen state parks line the shoreline of the river, and several towns offer shopping, dining and lodging.

Alexandria Bay, roughly in the center of the Thousand Islands, is widely considered to be the gateway to the region. Cape Vincent is another major hub at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River as it drains Lake Ontario.

Farther downriver, small cities and towns like Ogdensburg and Waddington also provide access. The river gets quite busy with anglers, campers and recreational boat traffic in summer, but the region’s vast size generally allows elbow room for all.

Getting to the Thousand Islands

The Thousand Islands region is easily accessible from most directions.

Interstate 81 takes drivers on a straight course from Syracuse to Alexandria Bay in about 90 minutes. State Routes 12, 12E and 37 run alongside the river, connecting many towns along its shoreline.

Bank & Boat Access

Anglers have countless options for enjoying the St. Lawrence River.

In addition to the 14 state parks along the river, there are 12 state and municipal public boat launch sites, to say nothing of dozens of privately owned marinas and campgrounds.

Some of the best public access sites, starting at the mouth of the river at Lake Ontario’s eastern end, are located in the following communities:

Cape Vincent

Located at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, the town of Cape Vincent offers excellent bank fishing and free public boat launch facilities at East End Park, which is also a popular scuba diving site.

Burnham Point State Park offers additional fishing, boating and camping opportunities nearby. This park is the closest access to the excellent fishing areas around Carleton Island.

Clayton

Cedar Point State Park includes a fishing pier, campground and boat launch facilities just west of Clayton. The Clayton Municipal Docks has an additional public launch site and 200-foot floating dock complex.

Alexandria Bay

Alexandria Bay, often referred to as Alex Bay, offers the widest range of access options on the American side of the river.

Bank and boat access is available at the Village Docks and Scenic View Park.

Several excellent state parks are just a few minutes away, including Keewaydin State Park and Kring Point State Park, The latter sits on a peninsula between the main river and Goose Bay. Both offer camping, boat launch facilities, docking and bank fishing.

Another great option is Wellesley Island State Park, just across the Thousand Island Bridge from the mainland. The largest camping complex in the region, this park offers boat launch facilities and excellent fishing access on both the river and Lake of the Isles.

Chippewa Bay

Overlooking the bay of the same name, the hamlet of Chippewa Bay provides a free public boat launch at the end of Denner Road, next to the Chippewa Bay General Store. Cedar Island State Park, accessible only from the water, is a short boat ride away.

Morristown

In addition to a public boat ramp and bank fishing access at Bayside Park, Morristown is a short drive from Jacques Cartier State Park. The latter offers excellent launch and docking facilities, as well as bank fishing, campgrounds, and a swimming beach.

Ogdensburg

The city of Ogdensburg, located at the mouth of the Oswegatchie River, offers ample public river frontage for bank fishing at Morrisette Park and public boat ramps at the neighboring Patterson Street Boat Launch. Additional bank access is available on the Oswegatchie River.

Waddington

The town of Waddington has several excellent options for bank fishing, including ample open shoreline near Waddington Beach. Additional bank fishing and a public boat launch are available at Whittaker Park.

Massena

Several public parks in Massena offer fishing and boating access. The town operates the Fish Massena website, providing a handy guide to getting on the water.

Nearby Robert Moses State Park also offers camping, fishing access and boating facilities. The park is located on Barnhart Island, the northernmost point in New York State, and is accessible by car across Barnhart Island Bridge.

Know Before You Go

The Canadian border bisects the St. Lawrence River, and officials on both sides take the boundary seriously. A Province of Ontario fishing license is required to fish on the Canadian side.