Late fall and Where’s the Bay of Quinte Walleye

Each fall king-sized Walleye return to the Bay of Quint on Lake Ontario’s Northern shore.  Their fall return to the rivers in preparation of the spring spawn is triggered by a drop in water temperatures, but lately, this is occurring later each year.  Their over-wintering preparations include gorging on pray, which means not only are they localized, but huge and hungry – every fishers dream.  No wonder then, fishers from both sides of the US / Canada border brave the freezing temperatures and late fall storms to try their hand.

With global warming our fall weather seems to be taking on an ever-gentler character – September is the new August.  For the past half dozen years, this has meant water temperatures taking longer to drop, resulting in the Walleye returning to their wintering grounds increasingly later in the season.  On the last weekend in November my fishing buddy David Mingie and I were just one of many on the Bay with hopes that the Walleye had finally come in.

My Ranger 1850 RS was launched by 6:00 a.m. and we were cruising up the Bay in relative darkness when we began marking fish in 140 feet of water anywhere from 40 to 100 feet down.  Already a number of boats had found the same marks we had and were beginning to set out lines.  We elected instead to run further out to the mouth of the Bay to see if we could find fish closer to the surface.

On-board GPS / sonar systems like Lowrance’s HD series give excellent colour-contrasted representations of the marine world below the boat.  Couple that with a Navionic map and the only thing left is to keep looking until fish are found that can be caught without causing their swim bladders to inflate.  Our preferred target depth was 25 feet, which would avoid hyperbuoyancy issues as species like Walleye aren’t able to release pressure on their swim bladders regardless of how slowly their reeled up from the depths.

It wasn’t long before Dave and I found ourselves trolling among the other like-minded fishers – Dave counted 39 other boats within sight at one point.  Increasing the challenge of keeping lines untangled was everyone’s utilization of planer boards.

Pretty much every fisher knows about hyperboyancy issues, so down riggers aren’t an option.  Walleye are also spooky fish in nature and are less likely to bite baits trolled directly behind a boat.  Planer boards serve to draw trolled lines out to the side, which is why trolling such spreads can be a challenge.  Not only are boats dragging baits several hundred feet back, but it’s not unusual for a boat to have 2-3 planer boards out to each side 100-200 feet.  This isn’t the sort of trolling spread that makes it simple to execute quick and significant course alterations, so it takes a lot of concentration to avoid unintended traps when several boats converge on the same area.  Walleye benefit as each boat’s claim to huge swaths of water keep baits well spread out as boats are forced to stay at least 500 feet apart.

The weather was perfect – too perfect as Walleye are twilight foragers and it often helps if there’s a good chop on the water and dark clouds in the sky to reduce light levels at the shallower depths that we were targeting.  After lunch however, the wind began to pick up and so did the action.

Our spread consisted of planer boards 100-feet out to each side trolling 6” cranks down about 20 feet, 150 feet behind.  A small dipsy on the inside port side drew a stick bait down to about 25 feet, and a worm harness with a 3oz snap weight straight back off the starboard side down about 20 feet completed our offering.  (In areas of the Bay still considered to be part of Lake Ontario one can troll up to two lines per fisher.)

Our first strike came on the left planer board crankbait, a 6” purple and white deep diver.  With boats hemming us in on all sides, having the Terrova I-Pilot’s AutoPilot to rely on meant Dave and I could focus on playing and netting the fish.

When reeling In Walleye it’s important not to pump the rod.  Walleye always seem to be able to shake themselves free doing this.  One needs to keep the tip up and reel steadily.  The shimano 8’6” Claris rods I like to troll with give me excellent feedback of the fish, and the Shimano 300lc Tekota reels have the solid gearing that makes it all possible.  It wasn’t long before I had recovered line up to the planer board.  which is when things got really interesting.

We had been experimenting with a different line release mechanism, and to our collective frustration, we couldn’t release the planer board from the line.  As I held the rod and kept pressure on the fish, Dave attempted to unclip the planer board — all the time issuing course alterations using the Terrova’s wireless remote.  After several minutes passed, we decided it would be better to leave the planer board free-floating on the line.  Not a problem at first, but as the distance shortened between myself and the fish, the chance of the planer board knocking the fish off the line increased.

David Mingie 6lb Rainbow

Thanks to my excellent fish fighting abilities (luck) and Dave’s finesse with the landing net, we managed to boat our first Walleye of the day – a 7lb beauty.  All head, gills and spiny dorsal with a tremendous belly.  The fact that both treble hooks were firmly attached worked in our favor.  A quick pic, and over the side it went with a “torpedo” style release to facilitate the Walleye’s return to the depths.

The first fish was followed up not long afterwards with a second of equal size, only this time it was a 6lb Rainbow Trout.  These fish fight far differently than do Walleye, as made evident when the Rainbow began jumping several hundred feet behind the boat.  Dave reeled this one in, and in spite of its non-cooperative nature during the hook release process, squirmed free twice, I still managed to snap a quick pic before Dave sent this one back down to the depths.

While Dave played his Rainbow, I took over steerage of the Ranger using the tiller of the Minn Kota Traxxis trolling motor mounted on the stern.  With the assistance of a MaxPAC audible beeping compass, I was able to keep the boat on a course heading that ranged between six degrees.  With an occasional glance over the shoulder, Dave would give me the new course corrections that I would then lock into the MaxPAC.  (Having the Terrova 80 at the front and the Traxxis 70 at the stern, we had no problem trolling for 8.5 hours at an average speed of 1.8 mph on four deep-cycle batteries.)  The following link will take you to a short U-Tube video Dave recorded of me piloting the Ranger using the Traxxis.

We had one more hit on the dipsy line but it never hooked up.  It did manage however, to destroy the snubber I was using, which said to me, “lost the big one”.  After that low light and the anticipation of 50-plus boats all trying to get loaded on to their trailers at once had us pulling in lines and heading for the launch.  Even still, there were five boats ahead of us when we arrived.

Each year I tell myself that the long drive and increasingly later time of year means no more late fall Walleye fishing on the Bay of Quint, and each fall I’m back again.  The lure of being able to catch trophy-sized Walleye is just too much to ignore.  Sort of the circle of life playing itself out – the fish draw me out on to the water, and I draw the fish up to the surface.  We all might end the day a bit more tired than we started, but if it weren’t for this sport fishery, who knows what would happen to the Walleye – perhaps they would be scooped up in some large commercial fishing net?

This annual event could certainly be sustainable for countless generations to come, as long as fishers understand the effects of hyperboyancy and reframe from fishing deep, and as long as the government continues to design and enforce regulations that reflect reality.  Failure by either party to hold up their end will surely result in this world-class fishery being destroyed and an end to the positive economic benefits brought to Prince Edward County during a time of year when there seems little else to draw in tourists – a commodity the county depends on for their socio-economic survival.  Let’s hope that short-sightedness on the government’s part doesn’t result in the fishery being destroyed through a lack of sustainable programming like training fishers and regulatory enforcement, all of which would lead to an economically depressed region situated along side a collapsed fishery.  In the mean time, it’s up to all of us to engage in sustainable fishing practices using the limited information we have at hand, (i.e. avoid keeping large breeding fish, and don’t practice catch and release Walleye fishing at depths lower than 25-30 feet).