One of the largest natural freshwater lakes in North America, Lake Champlain is an angling powerhouse that offers some of the best fishing in the Northeast for both warm- and cold-water game fish.
Bass, trout, pike and panfish are all abundant in this massive lake, which encompasses 435 square miles and stretches 120 miles from end to end. The bulk of the lake straddles the line between New York and Vermont, with a small area extending north into Quebec.
A vast assemblage of islands, bays, fertile weed beds and rocky reefs, Lake Champlain is also a true four-season fishing lake. Bass anglers have their run of the lake in summer, and ice fishing tournaments are popular during the colder months.
Spring and fall, on the other hand, provide some of the best fishing for lake trout and landlocked Atlantic salmon.
Many areas of the lake seldom freeze, allowing hardy anglers to keep fishing open water all year.
Largemouth & Smallmouth Bass
Lake Champlain ranks among the best bass lakes in both New York and Vermont, with abundant populations of both largemouth and smallmouth bass.
As a general rule, smallmouths are more dominant in the lake’s northern half, while largemouths are most common in the southern half.
But don’t take that rule too seriously, as the two species cohabitate in many areas. Bass weighing 2 to 3 pounds are average for both species, and it’s not uncommon to catch smallmouths over 5 pounds and largemouths over 6.
The period from spring into early summer is prime time for bass fishing. Bass in Lake Champlain transition toward shallow water and pre-spawn patterns throughout the month of May, and generally spawn in June.
Bear in mind that Lake Champlain spans a lot of latitude. The south end is shallower, weedier, and warms more quickly, and bass might start spawning here significantly earlier than in the north end of the lake.
Prime spots for largemouths include Shelburne Bay, just south of Burlington. Town Farm Bay and the Otter Creek area are also great wide-mouth haunts on the Vermont side, along with the Ticonderoga area around East Creek and the LaChute River in New York.
Check out the Champlain Bridge at Crown Point too.
Soft jerkbaits, wacky worms and shad-imitating crankbaits are killer spring largemouth lures, and there can be great topwater action around weed beds in summer.
For smallmouth bass, set your sights farther north. Draw an imaginary line between Plattsburgh, New York, and Colchester, Vermont. You’ll find exceptional smallmouth action northward from there.
Rocky structure and weed beds around Valcour Island and Providence Island are among the top spots. Spaces between the big islands, like the Gut and the Alburg Passage, are also excellent. Farther north still, anglers find great bass fishing on Trombley Bay and Point Au Fer Reef.
The Inland Sea, a vast area east of the Lake Champlain Islands, is a great area to catch both species. Mostly shallow with a mix of weed beds, flats and rock piles, this whole area is prime bass water.
Come summer, deeper areas like Horseshoe Shoal become more productive for anglers armed with jigs and drop-shot rigs. Smallmouths head shallow again in September as the lake cools and weed beds die off, and minnow imitations in shallow areas can produce a lot of action.
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Bass Fishing Tips and Techniques
Best Smallmouth Bass Fishing in New York
Lake trout are native to Lake Champlain and were once one of the dominant predatory fish in the lake. By the 1950s, the population had fallen to the brink of oblivion, and a robust lake trout stocking program began.
For decades, the fishery was supported exclusively by stocking, with little to no natural reproduction. But a major plot twist occurred in the 2000s when lake trout with un-clipped fins started turning up in surveys.
Today, wild lake trout are common enough that lake trout stocking has been significantly reduced.
So, to make a long story short, now is a very good time to be a lake trout angler on Lake Champlain. Fish in the 15-pound class are available.
Lake Champlain’s best lake trout fishing takes place in the middle section of the main lake. The area from roughly Westport to Cumberland Head is the heart of the lake trout fishery, offering a lot of excellent deep structure.
And we mean deep. Lake trout are often caught by jigging or trolling over 100 feet below the surface in the summertime. A quality topographic map and a fish finder are very useful for identifying prime humps, reefs and points, and for pinpointing groups of fish.
Depths ranging from 80 to 100 feet are often best in early summer, with lake trout sometimes holding well over 120 feet down by the dog days of August.
Active fish will usually be 1 to 3 feet above the bottom chasing their main forage – rainbow smelt.
Umbrella rigs, which utilize multiple spinning blades to attract attention to a bait or lure a few feet behind them, are popular for trolling.
Jigging spoons are also great for fishing just off the bottom in deep water, with Krocodile Spoons being favored by many.
During cooler parts of spring and fall, lake trout can be caught in somewhat shallower water, often 40 to 60 feet.
The best time to find them within casting distance of shore is right before the lake freezes in December and January and right after ice-out in March.
Drifting dead smelt is a great tactic this time of year. Look for sand, rock and mud-bottomed flats adjacent to deep drop-offs.
Depths from 7 to 15 feet are often best in late fall and early spring. Try around river mouths and cliff faces, which typically have warmer water that attracts smelt.
Much like lake trout, landlocked Atlantic salmon were once abundant in Lake Champlain, so much so that farmers in Colonial times harvested them by the wagonload for both food and fertilizer. It doesn’t take an environmental scientist to guess the effect that had on the fishery.
But ample stocking has re-established a naturally reproducing population of landlocked salmon in Lake Champlain. Some anglers troll for them in deep water all year long, but most wait until their annual spawning migration in the fall.
The fall salmon run starts in September and peaks from early October to early November.
Fly fishing in Lake Champlain tributaries is excellent during this spawning period, with streamer patterns like Gray Ghost, Nine-Three and Golden Witch being effective when salmon are active.
Hendricksons, wooly worms and egg imitations are better when salmon are less active, or when the water is low and clear. Natural baits, including egg clusters and live nightcrawlers, are also highly effective, and some anglers find success with spinners and spoons.
Top tributaries to fish the Lake Champlain salmon run include the Boquet, Saranac and Ausable rivers on the New York side, along with the Clyde and Winooski rivers in Vermont.
Many of these fish are “grilse salmon,” young fish that measure 16 to 18 inches and are making their first spawning run. Unlike Pacific salmon, Atlantic salmon can survive to spawn multiple times, and it’s possible to catch mature fish weighing 8 pounds or more.
Landlocked Atlantic salmon also enter Lake Champlain’s tributaries in spring, but they don’t have spawning on their mind this season.
Instead, they’re drawn into the rivers in April and May by warmer temperatures and an abundance of spawning smelt.
Spoons like Krocodiles and Little Cleos are excellent in spring, along with stickbaits like Original Floating Rapalas.
After dining heavily in the rivers and returning, many more salmon are caught along nearby rocky shorelines on the main lake.
Fishing slows in summer, but anglers catch some fish by trolling the Inland Sea and Four Brothers Islands areas with downriggers.
The best season to troll the main lake is late fall into winter, when anglers catch lots of fish from Willsboro Point to Split Rock and around Sloop Island.
Several members of the pike family call Lake Champlain home. Muskellunge, chain pickerel and redfin pickerel are all fish that might find their way to the ends of anglers’ lines, but northern pike are the most common and sought-after members of the Esox clan.
Lake Champlain is arguably the best in New England. And while northerns are widespread across New York, Champlain is the only Vermont lake in which they are native.
Lake Champlain’s largest pike often weigh at least 15 pounds and measure as much as 40 inches.
Fish in the 24- to 32-inch range are average, and their abundance in some parts of the lake is truly impressive.
Northern pike favor weedy environments and depths between 4 and 15 feet. They may be deeper in summer, but anglers seldom need to go far out into the lake to locate them.
Weedy bays are the best places to start, and virtually every embayment up and down the lake has potential. Kings Bay, at the mouth of the Great Chazy River, is a prime area toward the north end of the lake on the New York side. There’s great water around Rouses Point too.
In the mid-lake area, Malletts Bay is one of the most reliable pike haunts near Burlington. Missisquoi Bay is a pike stronghold way up along the Canadian border, and South Bay is a good spot at the extreme south end of the lake.
August through October are prime pike months. Try running spinners, spoons and topwater lures over and around weed beds. The deeper edge of a weed bed is a good place to start, with scattered weeds being more productive than dense mats of vegetation.
Johnson Silver Minnow weedless spoons are tried-and-true lures for Lake Champlain northerns. Try tipping your spoon with a soft plastic trailer like a white curlytail grub. A steady retrieve tends to work best.
Spring also offers some excellent post-spawn pike action (pike spawn almost immediately after ice-out), and these fish are also some of the most sought-after by winter ice anglers.
More: Best Northern Pike Fishing in New York
Other Fish Species
Lake Champlain also supports healthy populations of many other fish species, some of which are considered game fish, and some of which are not.
Don’t skip an opportunity to wet a line for these other species, as the fishing can be truly excellent.
And don’t ignore the so-called “rough fish” that often go unnoticed. Lake Champlain has produced state records for, among others, longnose gar and redfin pickerel in New York, and bowfin, burbot, freshwater drum and common carp in Vermont.
Lake Champlain offers a tremendous perch fishery, with seemingly an inexhaustible supply of yellow perch in the 8- to 10-inch range and quite a few that are bigger still. They tend to favor mud and muck-bottomed areas, but are also known to school on rock piles and reefs.
Perch fishing peaks during the ice fishing season, when many anglers sell their catches to local restaurants, and deep-fried perch filets are common on menus up and down both shorelines. Ice cover varies, but bays at the north and south ends of the lake are first to freeze.
Bulwagga Bay is a popular spot near the south end of the lake. Perch move around a lot under the ice, and may school on flats and around any remaining green vegetation.
Come spring, perch spawn in protected shallows as soon as the ice recedes.
Other perennial perch hotspots include Isle La Motte, St. Alban’s Bay, Keeler Bay, Shelburne Bay and Malletts Bay on the Vermont side. In New York, check out Cumberland Bay, the bays around Point Au Roche, and the sand flats off the Ausable River.
Teardrop jigs tipped with grubs are great for ice fishing perch, as are tiny jigging spoons like Swedish pimples.
Downsized crankbaits and jigs are good in the open water season, and live worms and small minnows seldom fail to produce.
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Walleye were abundant in Lake Champlain until the late 1980s, when populations crashed due to a combination of overfishing and environmental changes. Only in the last decade or so have walleye started to show up in significant numbers again.
Today, anglers catch plenty of solid 5-pound walleye in Lake Champlain, and smaller fish in the 12- to 18-inch range are once again becoming common.
Walleye spawn every spring, with many fish running up major tributaries, especially on the Vermont side. Fishing for walleye on Lake Champlain and its tributaries is closed from March 15 to the first Saturday in May to protect the fish while spawning.
Some of the best walleye fishing on Lake Champlain takes place in early March, as walleye start heading into shallow areas, and during the first few weeks after the season opener in May. Spring is the best season for bank anglers to catch them near the mouths of tributaries.
In summer, trolling stickbaits and crawler harnesses over rocky structure at night is the most productive tactic.
Some of the best walleye spots are in the Inland Sea area, including Savage Island, Hyde Point, Ball Island and Colchester Reef.
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Lake Champlain is an underrated crappie lake, offering ample populations of both black and white crappies. Ice fishermen often catch a few alongside perch and sunfish in winter, but crappie fishing really peaks in spring.
Crappies start heading into shallow bays and backwaters in April, first to feed and bask in the rapidly-warming waters and eventually to spawn in May and early June. Crappies inhabit areas all over Lake Champlain, but the southern part of the lake turns on first.
South Bay and Bulwagga Bay are a couple of early-season hotspots, along with the mouths of certain tributaries like the La Chute River and Grand Brook.
Look for areas with abundant reeds, cattails, water willows and brush in shallow water.
Bays in the Lake Champlain Islands farther north typically turn on slightly later. Dillenbeck Bay, Hibbard Bay, Carry Bay, Pelots Bay and the Alburg Passage all have potential.
Live minnows and small 1/16-ounce jigs in bright colors are the baits of choice.
The trouble with crappie fishing in Lake Champlain, as in most lakes, is the populations tend to be cyclical. But this is such a large lake that separate populations are available in different areas, so if a particular bay is having an off year, chances are another area will still produce.
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Steelhead, lake-run rainbow trout that spend most of their lives in Lake Champlain, offer some unique fishing opportunities. Few anglers target them specifically in the main lake, but the annual steelhead run draws attention to many of Champlain’s tributaries.
The better steelhead fishing tends to be on the Vermont side of the lake, as New York discontinued steelhead stocking in 2007.
That being said, natural reproduction also occurs, and tributaries on both sides of the lake can yield good catches.
Lake Champlain steelhead don’t all run at once. Steelhead enter rivers and streams in stages starting in late fall, just as the landlocked salmon run is cooling off. Fish continue to filter in and out of the tributaries until spring.
Fly anglers catch some fat, healthy steelhead over 5 pounds using brightly colored streamers, eggs and yarn flies. Small plastic worms and natural salmon eggs are also effective.
Be sure to check current regulations, as many stream sections are closed at certain times to allow steelhead to spawn.
Lake Champlain also supports a modest population of brown trout, including some huge fish that spawn every fall in rivers that feed the lake.
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Ice Fishing on Lake Champlain
Lake Champlain ranks among the best ice-fishing lakes in both Vermont and New York.
The quality of the fishing and the sheer variety of fish available to anglers this time of year makes it a popular place, with bustling shantytowns cropping up in productive areas.
Historically, the ice fishing season started in early December, with bays at the extreme northern end of the lake freezing first. In recent years, safe ice has not been reliable until Christmas or later.
Perch, sunfish, crappie and pike are the most often caught species early in the season.
As safe ice forms over deeper parts of the lake and its bays, ice fishing for smelt becomes a major happening.
Though smelt are not as abundant as they once were, these dainty fish still have a following, especially on the northern half of Lake Champlain.
Lake trout and salmon are caught through the ice too. These species feed on smelt and anglers often find them in similar areas, usually over deep structure.
Grubs and maggots are the favored smelt bait, with jigging spoons and live smelt taking their share of trout and salmon.
The Rouses Point area, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, is often the first place to offer safe ice, along with Missisquoi Bay, which is mostly in Canada. Kings Bay and Catfish Bay follow soon after, along with the Isle La Motte bridge and the cliffs at Alburg.
The Gut between North Hero and South Hero islands is also a great spot, as are many of the bays among the big islands. Cumberland Bay near Plattsburgh and Malletts Bay just north of Burlington can be excellent.
Areas farther south like Bulwagga Bay and Whallon Bay, both on the New York Side, are prime pike and perch areas. The same can be said of Vermont’s Converse Bay and Arnold Bay.
Planning Your Trip
Lake Champlain is highly accessible along its 587-mile shoreline. Numerous parks and access sites on either side provide access, and while much of the lakeshore is minimally developed, many areas are also heavily populated and offer a wide range of amenities.
Getting to Lake Champlain
I-87 and US-9 run roughly parallel to the western shore of the lake in New York, while I-89 and US-7 do the same in Vermont. US-2 serves as a connector to many of the larger islands.
Crossing from New York to Vermont or vice versa requires some planning, as there are only two bridges that span the state line. The Lake Champlain Bridge at Crown Point is located near Port Henry at the south end of the lake, and the US-2 bridge offers an alternative at the north end.
Several cities and towns overlook Lake Champlain, the largest of which are Plattsburgh and Ticonderoga in New York and Burlington in Vermont. All of the above offer lodging and ample shopping and dining options.
Bank & Boat Access
Fishing access points on Lake Champlain are too numerous to comprehensively list. However, the following are some of the best and most popular bank and boat access sites in each state, listed roughly in order from south to north:
New York Side
- South Bay Pier: Located near the southernmost end of Lake Champlain, the South Bay Pier is an excellent spot for shorebound anglers. The pier is designed to be universally accessible and extends far out into deep water.
- Ticonderoga Boat Launch: The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) operates a public boat ramp in Ticonderoga. It’s a hard-surface ramp with parking for 52 vehicles and trailers.
- Port Henry Boat Launch: Just north of Bulwagga Bay, the DEC-operated Port Henry Boat Launch is a paved ramp with parking for 45 cars. The launch is adjacent to Powerhouse Park, which includes a popular fishing pier.
- Westport Boat Launch: The DEC operates another excellent public boat launch in Westport, with bank fishing access and parking for 35 vehicles.
- Noblewood Park: Located in Willsboro, Noblewood Park and the adjacent Bouquet Beach offer bank fishing access and canoe/kayak launching on the Bouquet River as it meets Lake Champlain.
- Willsboro Bay & Port Douglas Boat Launch: The DEC operates this hard-surface ramp with bank access and parking for 100 cars and trailers on Willsboro Bay. The smaller Port Douglas Boat Launch is an alternative launch site about 24 minutes north.
- Ausable Marsh Wildlife Management Area: Offering bank fishing and access for canoes and kayaks, Ausable Marsh Wildlife Management Area encompasses the mouth of the Ausable River and part of the nearby lakeshore.
- Peru Dock / Valcour Island: The largest Lake Champlain island on the New York side of the lake, Valcour Island has primitive boat-in campsites, which anglers reach by launching at the state-owned Peru Dock on the mainland.
- Plattsburgh City Parks: The city of Plattsburgh sits on the shores of Lake Champlain and Cumberland Bay, and ample fishing access is available at Plattsburgh city parks including Peace Point Park, the Plattsburgh Boat Basin and Wilcox Docks.
- Point Au Roche State Park: Boat launch facilities, fishing access and tent/RV camping are available at Point Au Roche State Park, which encompasses Deep Bay and parts of Treadwell Bay. The DEC also operates a separate Point Au Roche Boat Launch a few miles farther up the lake.
- Kings Bay Wildlife Management Area: The 683-acre Kings Bay Wildlife Management Area is open to fishing year-round and includes a canoe/kayak launch. Launch facilities for larger boats are available nearby on the Great Chazy River.
- Benson Landing & George Davis Boat Launch: The southernmost of many state-operated access sites on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain, the Benson Landing Acces Site and George Davis Boat Launch both offer modest launch facilities and limited bank access.
- Larrabees Point: One of the larger launch sites on the Vermont side of lower Lake Champlain, Larrabees Point offers a concrete ramp and 100-vehicle parking lot. This site is directly across the lake from Ticonderoga, and ferry service operates between the two sites.
- Lapham Bay: Another small state-operated launch site is located at Lapham Bay, offering a concrete ramp and parking for 15 trailered vehicles.
- Chimney Point State Historic Site: In addition to an on-site history museum, the Chimney Point State Historic Site also includes a lakeside picnic area and dock for fishing, near the east end of the Crown Point bridge.
- Arnold Bay: The town of Panton provides a floating dock, an ample stretch of rocky shoreline for bank fishing, and a concrete boat ramp on Arnold Bay.
- Button Bay State Park: The beautiful Button Bay State Park includes camping and cabins as well as modern boat launch facilities and bank fishing access.
- Lewis Creek Fishing Access: The state-operated Lewis Creek Fishing Access site offers bank access on a small tributary of Town Farm Bay, with a small launch best suited to cartop boats.
- Converse Bay: Located in the community of Charlotte, the state-operated Converse Bay access site includes a floating dock and concrete ramp with parking for 45 vehicles and trailers.
- Shelburne Bay: The 100-acre Shelburne Bay Park provides fishing access to its namesake bay. The state maintains a separate Shelburne Bay Boat Ramp nearby, with 40-vehicle parking.
- Burlington Waterfront: The city of Burlington offers a variety of public access along its waterfront, including Oakledge Park, Waterfront Park and the Perkins Pier Marina. Several additional parks offer access to the Winooski River on the city’s northern outskirts, including Mayes Landing.
- Malletts Bay: Concrete ramps and parking for 140 vehicles and trailers are available at the Malletts Bay Boat Ramp. Additional hiking and shore fishing access are available nearby at Niquette Bay State Park.
- Island State Parks: A series of state parks provide great fishing access throughout Lake Champlain’s major islands, most of them easily accessible along US-2. These include Grand Isle State Park, Knight Point State Park, Knight Island State Park (accessible only by boat) Alburgh Dunes State Park and North Hero State Park.
- Missisquoi Bay: The northernmost part of the lake in Vermont, Missisquoi Bay, is accessible through Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, which includes boat launch facilities.
Know Before You Go
A reciprocal agreement allows anglers with a license from either state to fish most of Lake Champlain by boat. There are exceptions, most notably the Inland Sea, which is only open to anglers with a Vermont fishing license, and South Bay, which is only open to New York license holders.
Fishing limits, seasons and other regulations on Lake Champlain may differ from the general statewide regulations in either state, so be sure to check the current rules before you hit the water.