Targeting Big Fish for Derbies, Tournaments

Lake Ontario Counties (LOC) Trout & Salmon Derby – July 1-31, 2016

Mike Hay of Lake Luzerne, NY caught this king on the Niagara Bar to win the Spring LOC Derby in 2015 – his first time fishing the area.

Catching BIG salmon and trout in Lake Ontario consistently is not an easy proposition. Time on the water is certainly a piece of the formula for success. When fishing in a contest like the LOC derbies, every year we see absolute novices winning the big prizes – usually with a little bit of luck. More often than not, they have a good charter captain or someone else who spends a lot of time on the water to show them the way. Here are some tips from professional anglers who have consistently placed in the money fishing these big water competitions.

“I wish I could say there was a secret lure or special presentation that put big fish in my boat, but there isn’t,” insists Capt. Matt Yablonsky of Youngstown, operator of Wet Net Charters on the Niagara River and the Niagara Bar (; 716-550-0413). These are some of the things he does to consistently catch big fish:

1) DETAIL-DETAIL-DETAIL: Always pay attention to the detail. Everything is important from knots to swivels; line and water temperature to GPS speed and more. If he ties a knot and it doesn’t look right he re-ties it. If his swivel looks worn, he changes it. If the line has a bad spot in it, he cuts it out. These little things are often overlooked and when the big fish does hit you want to be ready.

The 2015 summer Lake Ontario Counties (LOC) winning King Salmon came from Olcott Harbor area on Monroe County.

2) FOLLOW THE FISH: Who hasn’t heard “never leave fish to find fish!? I like to turn it around,” says Yablonsky. “Once you find fish don’t leave them! What I mean by this is watch the water currents, surface temperatures, wind direction and temperature/speed at the lure. If you figure out a pattern it will help you locate the same school of fish throughout the day and on days that follow. This is most important during the spring and early summer when the schools of fish are tight and pockets of warm water are small.”

3) QUALITY TACKLE: Just to get to the water you need quite a few expensive items: Boat, motor, trailer, electronics, downriggers and a truck to tow all of it. It’s already cost a pile of money just to get to the water. “Don’t go cheap when it’s time to buy fishing tackle. Most of the time it’s the least expensive items that are most important such as hooks, line and swivels. When big fish hit, these are the items that are most likely to fail. You get what you pay for!”

4) HARD WORK AND PERSISTANCE: Once you have the right gear, have found the fish and stayed on them, pay attention to angling details. Begin your search early for that trophy salmon or trout. Don’t miss the morning bite and, more importantly, pack an extra sandwich so you won’t miss the early afternoon bite. This is where the law of averages takes over. The more fish you catch, the better your chances are that you are going to catch the BIG one. “Put your time in and get the net wet,” emphasizes Yablonsky, who has won the Grand Prize in several of the LOC Derbies numerous times with both salmon and lake trout. It’s a numbers game for him, especially with lake trout. “During the spring derby I’ll catch 500-plus lake trout in 10 days. Out of those 500 fish, we catch three to five fish over 20 pounds on average. That’s less than one percent.”

LOC Derby dates for this year are July 1-31 for the Summer; August 19 to September 5 for the Fall. For details on weigh stations and registration outlets, check out And don’t forget about the 40th Annual Greater Niagara Fish Odyssey Derby slated for August 20-28 with an increase prize structure! Check out

Fish Doc Offers Big Fish Prescription

At the extreme eastern end of Lake Ontario, is one of the most consistent performers in competition fishing. Captain Ernie Lantiegne of Oswego, operates Fish Doctor Charters (; 315-963-8403). Some might say he has an inside track on the salmon and trout fishing – he was a Department of Environmental Conservation fisheries biologist for 22 years. He also spends a tremendous amount of time on the water and some would even claim he thinks like a fish. He is, as the name implies, a doctor of fish, so to speak.

Capt. Dan Evans of Wilson shows off a 20 pound steelhead caught out of his home port just days before the Summer LOC Derby started. The good news is that he released it … so it’s still out there!

Like Yablonsky, his work starts well before there’s any derby or tournament. “Preparation, homework and laying out an effective strategy are vital,” says Lantiegne. “When you finally make it on the water, commitment and confidence are important as you adapt to changing conditions. Sometimes it’s just plain old instinct that takes over.”

Jake Romanack of Michigan shows off a big king taken on the Niagara Bar in May.

Check out the leader board and the press releases on the LOC Derby website. You don’t need a big expensive boat to get it done. Time and time again, small boaters with less equipment find their way to the winners circle each and every event. However, being prepared for that big fish when it decides to rock your world is an important part of that winning philosophy when it comes to tackling trophy salmon and trout. “Don’t leave anything to chance, be it your vehicle, boat and motor, electronics or your fishing equipment.” There is no room for excuses and these bruiser fish have a great knack for finding those inferior links to your fishing approach.

Lantiegne relies heavily on his previous fishing history. He has either a mental or written diary of every spring king he’s caught over 25 pounds and every summer king over 30 pounds. ‘I know where it was caught, what it was caught on and what the conditions were,” says Lantiegne. “Start keeping records if you don’t already. Check out the leaderboards of the derbies because certain areas of the lake hold big fish certain times of the year.”

If big kings are what you’re after, Lantiegne’s approach is relatively simple. “Location is crucial for catching big kings,” says the Oswego captain. “Big kings usually avoid the heavier fishing pressure. I have never caught a king over 35 pounds in a pack of boats. Seek out quieter waters.” He also will focus on certain baits like a flasher-fly combination.

His favorite flasher is a ProChip or HotChip flasher in an eight-inch size. Leader length is critical, too – between 23 and 30 inches from flasher to fly. He fishes slower and deeper than normal, as well, targeting a speed between 2.1 and 2.5 miles per hour.

“Big male Chinooks spend much of their lives in 40 to 43 degree water,” says Lantiegne. “They love the deep freeze, so don’t be afraid to go down after them. Ignore the larger bait concentrations that attract smaller kings. Big boys can’t compete with the smaller, faster salmon for food.”

With the popularity of copper lines increasing in recent years, this is a perfect way to get your bait offering out away from the boat. “Copper lines run from a planer board or down the chute consistently catch my biggest kings every year. I’ve also found that running fewer lines in the water can lead you to catching bigger fish in the long run.”

When you finally do land that big boy, treat that fish with care. Don’t do anything to that fish that will cause it to lose weight, such as causing the fish to bleed from the gills. Keep the fish wet and get it to the scales as soon as possible. Don’t throw that fish on the scale until the weigh master is ready for it, too. An ounce can mean a difference between a grand prize fish and a divisional winner. You also have to be in it to win it. Every year there are heart-breaking stories of derby winning fish that never made it to the scales because someone decided that they would never be able to compete against diehard anglers or didn’t want to spend the money. If there’s a derby going on, take the time to enter and cash in!