• Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Fishing…, Derby Winning Kings

    Posted on August 5th, 2016 admin No comments


    A 38 lb. 14 oz. LOC grand prize winner.

    “Wow, that’s a big one, isn’t it, Ernie?”, Jim Huftangel asked in a strained voice as a king salmon with a head as big as a bucket surfaced just off the stern.  I knew too much excitement can be disastrous when landing a big money king, so I simply responded, “It’s O.K.”  Later, on a certified scale at Larry’s Salmon Shop, an official Lake Ontario Counties Derby(LOC) weigh station, the big king pulled the needle to 38 lbs. 14 oz., and won the $20,000 grand prize. 

     Ten months later, on May 10, 2007, I watched as another king salmon pulled the same certified scale to 24 lbs. 2 oz.   The heavy bellied fish won the 2007 Spring LOC Derby $10,000 grand prize for Fish Doctor angler, Jim Unkel. 

     When it comes to winning big fish tournaments and derbies, all importantly, you must be in it, to win it.  Had Jim Huftanel and Jim Unkel not been entered in the derby, they would have walked away with nothing in their pocket, like so many anglers you hear about who land derby winning kings during a derby, but are not entered.

     Once in a lifetime wins in big fish derbies like the LOC Derby  may be luck.  Consistent wins or top ten placements in these derbies, with up to 6,350 entrants for 18 days of head to head competition  are definitely not left to chance.  Fishing aboard his boat, “Liquid Plumber”, Dell Casterline missed winning the 2007 Fall LOC Derby Grand Prize by two ounces, with a 31 lb. 14 oz. king, and his partner Dan Gaylewski placed first in the 2007 Summer LOC Derby, neither win depending just on good fortune.  He and other consistent big fish derby winners owe their success to an effective big fish strategy,  commitment, and hard work. 

     Any angler who consistently wins big fish derbies does so before ever putting lines in the water.  Long before a derby starts, preparation, homework, and laying out an effective strategy are vital.  Once  lines are rigged and ready, commitment, confidence, planning for changing conditions, and plain old instinct take over. 

     An effective strategy is all about experience and personal expertise.  Keeping it simple but effective is key, as evidenced by the long record of small boat derby wins where only two anglers had minimal lines in the water.  A winning strategy includes use of the right gear presented properly in the right place at the right time.

     If you’re spending  money to enter a derby and taking the time to fish it, remember that preparation is oh, so important.  Leave nothing to chance, be it your vehicle, your boat and motor, your electronics or your fishing equipment.  When you’re on your way to a weigh station with a winning king in the box,  it’s no time for a problem with a boat engine.   Even worse, when you’ve finally hooked up a big dollar king, it’s no place for rotten line, a shoddy drag, or a dull hook.  It takes preparation and attention to every detail to consistently catch derby winners.

     Homework is crucial.  I have either a mental or written 30-year record of almost every spring king I’ve ever caught over 25 lbs. and every summer king I’ve caught over 30 lbs., where and  how it was caught, and what it was caught on.  Check your own records or start keeping them.  Tournament and derby records are extremely helpful, with weigh station winners showing where and on what big kings are caught.  Derby winners must often take a polygraph exam,  so leader board information is usually accurate.  Importantly, derby winning kings consistently come from the same area. 

     Monster kings are normally 4-year old males, one year bigger and older than the rest.  Big boys don’t hang with little boys!  They behave differently than 3-year old kings and smaller males.  They appear to be loners.   In late summer, big male kings also tend to select different terminal gear than females. 

     Location is crucial to catching big kings, and not just  geographic location.  I believe big male chinooks avoid areas of heavy fishing pressure.  I have never caught a monster king salmon over 35 lbs. in a fleet of boats.  Even if it means avoiding what I consider proven big fish areas, I’ll leave them for quieter water if boating pressure is too great.  If you hear someone bragging they’re catching hundreds of kings during a derby, but no prize money winners, count them out.  First, you cannot catch a “big boy” if you already have a” little boy” on your line.  If you start crushing small fish, move away from them.  Either fish the outside edges of the hot spot, or leave it entirely.

     Fish monster king gear to consistently win big fish derbies.  My first choice…, 8″ Pro-Troll flashers trailed by Howie Flies.  Three of the last 6 LOC Derbies were won using ProChip or HotChip flashers. Three of the last four grand prize derby winners were caught on Howie Flies.   Leader length, nose of the fly to the end of the leader, is critical.  On 8″ flashers, I fish a 23″-30″ leader.  

     A big fish presentation may not fill the box, but it might just fill your wallet!  Whether spring or late summer, fish slower and deeper than normal, between 2.1 mph and 2.5 mph.  Big male chinooks spend much of their lives in 40-43 degree water.  They love the deep freeze, so don’t be afraid to go down after them, even if you’re seeing more “marks” on your fish finder at shallower depths.  Ignore large bait concentrations that attract smaller kings.  Big boys can’t compete with faster, quicker little boys for food. 

     Copper line fished from a planer board or down the chute, consistently catches most of my biggest kings every month of the year, and produced Jim Huftanel’s 38 lb. 14 oz. grand prize winner on the first afternoon of the Fall 2006 LOC Derby.  No matter how many anglers I have on board during a derby, I fish only two riggers, two Dipsys, two copper lines from planer boards, and either a thumper rod or copper rod down the chute.  Fewer lines mean more big fish!  On the riggers long setbacks from 30′ to 120′ catch bigger fish.

     Once a strategy is laid out and big fish lines are in the water  winning derbies is all about commitment to fish hard ever minute of every day of a derby and the confidence to persist.  Remember, you’re fishing for only one fish, a grand prize winner!

     When you finally catch that big money king, handle it with tender loving care.  Use a quality digital scale to weigh it accurately.  Know exactly what size fish are on the leader board.  Be careful not to cause bleeding from the gills, which reduces weight.  Keep the fish moist.   If there is any question, head for the weigh station. When you get there, do not remove the fish from the cooler until the station master is ready to officially weigh it.

     If you don’t think properly handling derby contenders is vital, ask Jim Unkel, whose 24.2 lb. king won the $10,000 grand prize in the Spring 2007 LOC Derby  by a mere 2 ounces, rather than the $1,000 first place in the Salmon Division!


  • Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Fishing…, Familiar Bite Alewives

    Posted on August 1st, 2016 admin No comments


    This Atlantic salmon hit a Sushi Fly behind a Whip Flash flasher

    As I stood at the rigging table in the stern of my charter boat wiring a Familiar Bite alewife strip in a Sushi Fly, my thoughts drifted back 50 years.  It was about then, sitting in an old wooden rowboat on a remote Adirondack pond that my Dad had showed me how to bait a single hook lake trout spoon with a fresh strip of minnow.  I remember him saying, “It’s the bait that makes the difference”.

     Some things never change, and for Great Lakes trollers, quality  bait can still be the difference between a long day on the water or a cooler full of trout and salmon, , especially when fish are a bit negative, spurning standard, unbaited spoons and flies.  In Lake Ontario, the bait of choice, of course, is the alewife, the fresher the better.

     A few Lake Ontario trollers now collect, cure, and freeze their own alewives, jigging them with sabiki rigs, a series of tiny jigs on a leader designed to catch species like mackerel, Pacific herring and alewives.  For those who do not catch their own bait, whole alelwives, cut bait, some of it from Pacific or Atlantic herring, and Sushi Strips are now available in sport, shops.

     But, and this is a huge “but”, there is a drastic difference in quality of this bait.  When it comes to whole alewives, the best available is from Familiar Bite, fresh, perfectly cured, frozen and vacuum packed alewives with silvery scales, bright eyes, and firm flesh that look  like they just came out of the water(and they did).   The worst alewives I have seen are from Dream Weaver,  discolored, shrunken eyes, soft mushy flesh.

     Confidence is everything, when it comes to the evolution of an effective trolling spread.   Thirty years of trolling bait on Lake Ontario has done that for me.  Trial and error, success and failure, it has all gone into the equation of a salmon spread I now use routinely combining whole bait, Sushi Flies, and artificials.   But when it comes to bait, the secret is the quality. 

  • Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Fishing…, Monster Kings Come Home

    Posted on July 17th, 2016 admin No comments

    This 38 lb. Fish Doctor king was caught on August 17 in Mexico Bay.

    Veteran Lake Ontario anglers have always said, “When the monarch butterflies start to migrate across Lake Ontario, the monster king salmon start heading.

     Home is the southeast corner of Lake Ontario where hundreds of thousands of fingerling king salmon are stocked each year and literally millions are hatched naturally in the Salmon River.  Every late summer, mature king salmon, some upwards of 30 lbs. begin to feel the urge to return to their natal streams where they were stocked or hatched.  They steadily concentrate in larger and larger numbers in late August and early Septemb er.  These silvery torpedoes have cruised the 200 mile length and 50 mile breadth of Lake Ontario all their life gorging on alewives, but the urge to spawn brings them home to the Mexico Bay.

    In August, 2015, I watched dozens of monarch butterflies flutter their way across Lake Ontario as they migrated south.  The old saying held true, as I watched Fish Doctor anglers boat kings up to 40” and 30 lbs. 4 oz.   On an  Augusts past, anglers like Henry Tharau and his fishing buddy Gordy both brought giant kings caught the same morning to  Maggie Rathje at Fish Wish Taxidermy in Port Ontario, New York to be mounted, preserving lifelong memories of monster kings.  Later, that same day in the  afternoon,  a California angler, Larry Peltz boated another monster king close to 30 lbs., the biggest fresh water fish he had ever seen.

    As I watched the action, I thought, “Yup, no doubt about it.  It is August and the big boys are definitely on their way home!”


  • Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Fishing…, Catch and Release Browns

    Posted on July 17th, 2016 admin No comments


    Dan Barry released this brown unharmed on May 13.

    As I slid the net under the struggling, hook jawed brown trout, I knew that it was well over 30 inches long.  The battle on 8 lb. test line was a test of the ultralight gear we were trolling with just east of Oswego Harbor in late April.  With the big brown in the net but still in the icy water, I turned to Jim and asked,  “What do you think?  Should we release him or do you want to put him in the box?”  Jim answered, “I don’t know.  That’s the biggest brown I’ve ever seen.  What do you think?”

    “Well”, I said, He’s a big boy, but he’s not very heavy because he spawned last fall and probably spent most of the winter in the Oswego River where food is scarce.  One thing for sure, he won’t be very good eating in that condition, especially compared to the heavy bellied 2 to 4 lb. 2-year old browns we’ve been catching.”  “That’s all I need to hear”, Jim replied. “Let’s get a quick photo of him and send him on his way.”  As I released the brown, I knew that in only 6 months, after gorging on alewives all spring and summer, this same male brown trout would easily reach 16 lbs.

    To release or not to release, that is the question many anglers ask.  My answer…,  it all depends on what you’re catching, which water you’re fishing, and what your personal outlook is.  It also depends, of course, on size and creel limits for each trout and salmon species in the water you are fishing.

    On Lake Ontario, every season, anglers who fish with me release many browns, a very few sublegals, along with some trophy brown trout.  Since we are trolling mostly with artificials, most browns are lightly hooked on spoons, stickbaits, or flies.  Because many browns are caught in the shallows in April and May when water temperature is cold, they are easy to release unharmed as long as they are not out of the water for long.  It is not uncommon to boat 20 to 30 or more browns in a 6 or 8-hour charter trip in the spring, so it’s a perfect time for catch and release fishing. If a brown inhales a lure, is bleeding from the gills or has a hook in an eye, that fish is a candidate for the cooler.  If it is lightly hooked, it’s released.

    In contrast to immature, sublegal landlocked salmon which tend to shed scales in a net, the scales of brown trout are much more durable.  It is common to catch browns with evidence of hook scars around their mouth, evidence of a previous release or close encounter.

    In the summer, when browns are deeper, it is still possible to release them unharmed.  Unlike lake trout, or other bottom fish like cod, the air bladders of browns do not balloon as they are pulled from the depths.  As long as browns don’t remain in the warmer surface water too long and are out of the water only briefly, most can be released unharmed.

    Lake Ontario brown trout, stocked in May as 8” yearlings, depending on winter conditions,  usually grow to 2-4 lbs. by the following April when the fish are 2 years old.  By fall, many of these 2-year olds are 4 to 6 lbs. and run Ontario tributaries to spawn around the first of November.  Immature 2-year old browns with bright orange flesh that haven’t yet spawned are a better choice on the table than older dropback spawners, one of the reasons many anglers release larger browns.

    With a creel limit of 3 browns per person, an annual lakewide stocking of around 600,000 browns, and the fact that Lake Ontario browns don’t reproduce, there is no biological reason for releasing legal brown trout.    That decision is more a matter of personal preference.



  • Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Fishing…, Fishing Cheaters

    Posted on May 15th, 2016 admin No comments


    This dandy brown hit a spoon on a cheater.

    On the morning of May 12, 2016, I watched the #1 rigger rod hammer down hard as a king salmon nailed the silver/red spoon we were fishing on a fixed cheater 10’ above the release.  Only 30’ below the boat, it was a violent hit that brought everyone onboard to attention.  Val boated the king, the last of their 12 fish limit, 11 kings from 5 to 18.5 lbs. and one brown. My crew had released somewhere between 10 and 15 other kings from 1 – 4 lbs., plus a lake trout.  As usual, cheaters, had added to the catch.


    Cheaters, sometimes called fixed sliders, are effective anywhere downriggers are used.  This rigging technique involves a four to ten foot long leader that is piggy-backed to a monofilament main line hooked to a downrigger release in the standard fashion.  The key to the successful use of a cheater is the way it is fished.  Leader length and position of the cheater lure in relation to the terminal lure are critical.

     After 20 years of experience fishing these specialized rigs on Lake Ontario, I prefer to attach cheaters to the main line with an ingenious device called a Liberator, manufactured by Roemer.  It is small, attaches firmly to the main line, does not damage abrasion resistant line like Berkley Big Game, and can be easily adjusted to fish any distance above the weight.  Correctly attached to the main line, it does not immediately slide on a strike, increasing the chances of a solid hookup.  Importantly, when a fish is hooked on the lure at the terminal end of the line, the Liberator automatically releases when the device contacts the rod tip.  If the cheater leader is not twisted around the main line, the Liberator simply slides down the line and out of the way.

     \When using Liberators, fish a main line of at least 15 lb. test, and rig your cheater leaders with the same line.  When I am  fishing brown trout in the thermocline in July, I am re fishing 15 lb. main line, if water feas allow,  and 15 lb. cheater leaders.  If  the fleas are heavy, the main line is 30# test.  This time of year, when I am cheating spoons over dodgers or flashers and and flies, I fish 20-30 lb. test monofilament on both main line and cheater.  Just select the leader length you want.  Tie a large snap swivel on one end of the leader and a standard snap swivel on the other.  Attach the large snap to the Liberator and the smaller snap swivel  to the spoon.

     The basic principle behind use of a cheater is that it not only allows an angler to use two different lures on one line, but also allows two different types of lure presentation, fishing a spoon on a long setback off the mainline and another spoon on a shorter setback off the.  The fish will “tell” you which presentation they like best on a given day.


  • Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Fishing…, 5/14/16 Report

    Posted on May 14th, 2016 admin No comments

    Chjuck with one of 12 kings that went into the cooler on 5/12/16

    If you’re waiting for the king salmon season, wait no longer.  The king salmon bite is on!

    King salmon fishing could not have been  better out of Oswegoon the morning of 5/12/16 when my crew of Adirondackers climbed aboard the Fish Doctor and we headed out to deep water where I had located a bunch of kings, cohos, and lakers suspended over deep water.  It took a few minutes for the trout and salmon to “warm up”, but when they did, it was steady action all morning.

    We were fishing a “high, wide, and handsome” program away from all the other boats with megaboards way out and loaded with leadcore sections and copper.  It was a spoon bite all the way, with not much attention paid to the dodgers and flashers that were in the water.

    The result was a limit of kings up to 18.5 lbs. and many small kings released.  The speed troll we were fishing was purposely a little hot for browns and lakers, and avoided all but one of each of them.

    Heck of a king salmon bite for May!

  • Lake OntarioTrout and Salmon Fishing…, Changing Salmon Behavior

    Posted on April 10th, 2016 admin No comments


    A 7/18/15 catch of kings.

    When I toured states like Michigan a few winters ago giving seminars at Chip Porter’s  “Salmon Institute” I often heard Chip Say, “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always catch what you always caught.”  Chip used that saying to encourage anglers to improve their techniques and resulting catch rate or success. 

     However, in my experience that saying only holds true when fishing conditions remain the same.  If you’re fishing a good program and catching lots of fish you’re good to go, right?  Just keep on doing what you’ve been doing.  But…, what if conditions change?  For instance, what if the water clarity of Lake Ontario changes as a result of a massive zebra mussel infestation and visibility increases from 3-5 feet to up to 35 feet?  How are those jointed chartreuse Rapalas you’ve caught spring browns on in shallow water working out for ya now?  Not so good, eh?  Time to quit doing what you’ve always done, eh?

     Well, it’s happening again.  This time with king salmon.  Always  reliable, right, showing up on the east lake around late June, concentrating on bait and providing good offshore fishing in July, and stacking up in Mexico Bay like cordwood in August and Sept.

     Concentrating in July?  Stacking up in August and September?  In the past two years?  Seriously?  Well, if you think so, you haven’t been fishing the southeast corner of Lake Ontario.  Things have changed.  If you’re still doing what you  always did, you’re missing the boat!

     Kings are showing up earlier in the season than ever, as we saw aboard the Fish Doctor when the first two kings of the season were boated on April 18, 2015, and we averaged 5 kings per  trip in May while most other boats were fishing browns. 

     On most days in July, kings were scattered far and wide offshore, and it took a “pedal-to-the-metal” program to consistently put any numbers in the box.

     In August and early September in Mexico Bay kings and cohos were not stacked up like cordwood, especially off the mouth of the Salmon River, and to pound that area day after day was futile.  Time to look elsewhere.

     If you’re still fishing for kings like you always did on Lake Ontario, most of the time don’t count on catching what you always caught!

  • Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Fishing…, Light Lining Kings

    Posted on April 9th, 2016 admin No comments


    Rev. Thomas James with a light lined king he caught in May, 2014.

    A few years back on a clear, sunny day in early July, the water was rough enough on eastern Lake Ontario that the Oswego Pro-Am Tournament had been cancelled.  The early morning brown trout bite was a good one, but as the northwest winds drove the thermocline deeper and deeper, the browns shut down.  My move to deeper water for kings with  a full progam of dodgers and howie Flies was not producing, even though we were seeing kings near bottom in 130 fow.   

     After two hours with nothing, my crew for the day watched me switch the port boom  rigger from a dodger fly on 30# line to a  Monkey Puke Stinger  on 8 lb. mono, 35 feet behind the weight.  One hundred fifty feet of cable put it just off bottom and slightly below and behind the nearest dodger/fly on the port  corner rigger.  The Stinger fired in about 10 minutes. 

     Three hours later, after adding another Monkey Puke on the starboard  boom rigger, the Stingers had produced 4 kings, while dodgers and flies on 7 other lines had produced only one.  On other occasions I clearly recall, when kings were really in a foul mood, every king boated on my charter boat was taken on spoons, usually Stingers or Suttons,  fished on light line

     Ultralight king salmon gear is a part of the Fish Doctor arsenal, any time of the season.  On certain days and in certain conditions, especially in gin clear water under a midday sun,  light rigs fished with spoons will put more kings in the boat than heavier gear.  However, you have to be rigged properly, or you willl  lose a bunch of gear and some nice fish. 

    Light action Fish Doctor Shortsticks, Penn 965 International reels, Berkley Big Game line in 8 or 10 lb. test, and Sampo ball bearing swivels are my choice.      

  • Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Fishing…, Cone of Disturbance Revisited

    Posted on April 5th, 2016 admin No comments


    Do not believe the old wive's tale that browns like this will not hit close to the boat.

    Every spring I see the same thing, and I’ve written about it before.  Two anglers trolling for browns from  a small boat with planer boats 100 to 200 feet from the boat and one or more planer board lines fishing from the boards way out away from the boat.  Meanwhile, my hottest planer board rod is just 15’ from my charter boat.


    Planer board lines fished in stealth mode far from the boat do catch fish, but day after day, depending on the conditions, the hottest rod in the water on my boat is just outside what I call the cone of disturbance(COD).  That is the edge of the area below and alongside the boat where fish, including brown trout, are pushed away from the boat by noise and electrical charge in the water. 


    COD varies from boat to boat with the “quietest” boats usually properly grounded, fiberglass inboards like mine, the “Fish Doctor”, while the noisiest boats are usually I/Os and outboards, especially on aluminum boats.  4-stroke outboards may be the exception.  The COD also varies with fish species, the COD for browns being wider than the COD for cohos which sometimes seem to want to hit a lure right in the boat!


    Envisioning a big V-blade snow plow pushing thru the water, you can see how fish are pushed away from a boat as it passes by, concentrating fish on the edge of the COD.  It makes sense then, if you’re running planer board lines, to run one or two lines right in the sweet spot, at the edge of the COD.

  • Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Fishing…, Trolling Speed Ruts

    Posted on March 23rd, 2016 admin No comments


    May 5, 2004..., four kings at once on a rainy morning

    It was May 11, 2006, and the spring king salmon bite out of Oswego Harbor had been vicious since May 2, when the kings first moved into the area.  My  charter for the morning was 89-year old Bob Shepard, his wife, 81-year old Jeanette, and their so called “younger” cousin, Norm, the youngest of my crew.  With just a ripple on the water and no other boats in the area,  conditions were ideal for my “experienced” anglers as we trolled eastward at 2.3 – 2.5 mph.  The eastern sky was lightening over Tug Hill Plateau.

     Because of their age and the fact that action had been fast and furious just at day break every morning, I decided to abandon my 7-rod spread in favor of three rods, two riggers and a thumper rod, to keep onboard action under control.  Fifteen minutes went by and nothing.  Hmmm???  Then the digital clock on my dash said 30 minutes without a nibble.  I added two Dipsys and two copper lines to the spread, not quite as confident as a half hour earlier.  Now the sun was thinking about poking above the horizon.  I could not believe what was happening.  I continued trolling at 2.3 – 2.5 mph, my standard spring trolling speed. 

     Then I realized I was violating one of my cardinal Fish Doctor rules…, AVOID TROLLING AT THE SAME SPEED STRAIGHT AS AN ARROW(unless its working!).  As I turned the boat slightly to port, finally, the copper rod with the Casper(flasher/fly) fired, the drag on the Penn 330 GTI reel screeching.  As I sprang for the rod, Bob threw his hand up with a, “I’ve got it, Ernie!”.  I watched in agony as the aged old boy very, very slowly made his way to the rod…, backing now streaming from the reel. 

     A hefty fish, Bob could barely hang on to the rod, not to mention battling the fish.  The hand writing was on the wall.  As much as I hated to slow the boat from what I considered ideal spring trolling speed(even though it hadn’t been working so far), I dropped the port trolling bag into the water, slowing the boat to 1.8 mph.  The king kept running and I feared the old man would either fall overboard or collapse on the deck of my cockpit.  That was it.  I hit “Auto” on the Simrad and dropped the second bag in the water slowing the boat to just over 1.0 mph.

     That is when 5 other rods fired, all with kings on them, one on a spoon, two on dodger/flies and three on Caspers.  Long story short, my crew eventually landed all 6 of those kings, two on riggers, one on copper, two on dipsys, and the sixth on a thumper rod.  Although, I feared any of the three might expire right there in the cockpit, the only one with elevated blood pressure was the captain, as I eyeballed wire lines, a copper line and a mono line criss crossing behind the boat.!

     Five kings hitting at once trolling at just over 1.0 mph and the third hitting off the board on the inside a turn???  The moral of this story is do not get stuck  in a speed rut.  If kings are hitting at what you consider the optimum speed, don’t change it.  If they are not, mix it up, changing trolling direction and speed, even if it’s way slower or way faster than you normally troll.  Oh, yeah, and bring some blood pressure meds with you, just in case J