January 7th, 2014
Gold Medal Trolling for Merland Park Monsters – How Toby JP Bushey December 9, 2013
“Bring your A-Game to The Bay of Quinte and catch the biggest walleye you’ve ever seen.”
That bit about ‘the biggest walleye you’ve ever seen’ really isn’t an exaggeration. I just wrapped up four days on this amazing patch of water and heard that said three times in the boat, by three separate friends and guests. There’s nowhere—and I mean nowhere—where I’ve seen people’s biggest walleye mark fall harder and fall more often. Can you imagine doubling your personal biggest? What about beating it one, two, even three times in one day?
It’s a regular occurrence. I’ve been fishing the Bay out of Merland Park Cottages in Picton, Ontario for close to fifteen years. Trolling techniques are viable in any manner of gross, fall weather and account for the overwhelming majority of huge walleye caught every year. Let’s look over a few of the details.
This has to be the Number One variable impacting successful trolling anywhere on earth, for any fish. A lot of what goes on down on the Bay of Quinte involves suspended walleye. You’re not grinding rock structure, you’re not fishing weedlines and you’re not working eddies, wood or anything else. Expect your baits to be nowhere near the bottom most of the time. Depths range from thirty or forty feet to well over one hundred. On the trip that just wrapped up, I rarely ran baits in less than 60 feet of water, and we found some of our biggest fish suspended in 90 to 110 feet.
So if you’re never tapping bottom or grabbing weeds etc, how do you know where your lures are running? Paper and on-line depth charts are available for nearly all the popular walleye baits. But in my opinion, nothing beats familiarity with your lures, built through hours and hours of trolling experience. Knowing exactly where you can put a lure based on your speed and amount/type of line out will stack the odds in your favor pretty much instantly. I don’t troll with a 200-lb box of lures on Quinte. I carry a handful of basic styles in a range of colors. I know how deep they run because I use them a lot. I’ll take a veteran I know in blindfolded detail over a new, hot bait that I’m clueless about any day.
A walleye’s willingness to move for your lure is a trend you need identify fast. Can fish be persuaded upward to grab baits running over their heads? Do they need to have lures within a few feet of them, or right at their precise level? Just like any other fish, you’re always better trolling ten feet over them rather than two feet under them. Finding that sweet zone where rods are firing regularly is what makes trolling hard work and rewarding. Lots of different lures and accessories work. It’s normally a matter of watching your graph and setting out as many different and complimentary set-ups as you can. Much of the Bay allows for 2 lines per fisherman. Stumbling across depth patterns and riding them is that much easier. Every single day, there’s normally a depth level that holds the most willing walleye.
I’ve caught big walleye consistently within ten feet of the surface on many late fall trips. Other times, you’re feeding your lures to fish in the 20, 25 and even 30 foot mark. It’s important to note that 30 feet is where I draw the line. Depressurizing issues with fish taken much below about 35 feet is something I don’t mess with. You’ll mark incredible numbers of fish down between 40 and 60 feet. And lots of these are walleye. I’ve never been one for chasing those deep fish, and enjoy working higher in the water, releasing 100% of my catch successfully.
What Should I Troll With?
Crankbaits and minnowbaits are far and away the most popular trolling lures. I’d bet that if we compiled a list of every single walleye over ten pounds taken on Quinte from Thanksgiving through Christmas, some kind of baitfish-shaped plug would be responsible for nearly all of them. Merland Park owner, Kevin Lavers, has built a huge chunk of his summer guide business casting crankbaits for these fish, too. This lure style is just dominant on big water for big walleye, it really is.
The real monsters fall fishermen hunt are actually Lake Ontario migrants. They filter in/out of The Bay seasonally, and are used to herding massive, shimmering schools of shad, alewives, herring and smelt out in the ‘open sea.’ Once they bunch into the confines of Quinte’s many narrows, reaches and bays, they gorge-feed. A ten pound walleye can easily ingest a couple day’s worth of calories in only a few short-spurt feeding sessions. You’re often targeting giant fish that are eager to feed, but often very well-fed and used to having their pick of primo baitfish. Crankbaits have several features that turn the tables in your favor.
Crankbaits can be used over a range of depths, effectively slotting into the action zones from the surface down to 30 feet easily. So right off the bat, we can address the ‘depth factor’ effectively. I troll exclusively with ten pound test Maxima monofilament. My entire crankbait trolling program runs off this baseline variable. I can send down deep divers, add small Off Shore Guppy Weights to shallow divers, or play any other combo in between. I fish a lot of leadcore sometimes, too. Crankbaits fit every single trolling device and depth that’s relevant to fishing Quinte this time of year.
The bread and butter Quinte set-up involves an inline planer board and crankbait. The trolling board adds a lot your lure’s action. I think this is a key benefit many fishermen overlook. Yes, they do a great job spreading your lines and helping to cover water. And sure, they’re highly visual and lots of fun to watch. But if you ask me, when you’re dealing with well-fed fish, little wrinkles in lure action can make a huge difference. Lots of turns or ‘boat surge’ created by large swells get crankbaits stalling, throbbing, dying and accelerating.
I think cranks are one of our most anatomically correct and natural-looking lures available. Being four to six inches long, they look a lot like what walleye are used to eating. Boards help take their appeal even further. I’ve said it a thousand times: I’d have caught far fewer Quinte walleye in my life without my Off Shore Tackle OR12″ boards. Periods of sustained, heavy wind also get lots of weed and debris floating around on the surface. Planer boards catch this junk long before it can slide down your line and foul your crankbait. If your next strike could be a 14-lb walleye, would you want to risk trolling around with a fouled lure? I sure wouldn’t . They’re great for skirting lines along ice floes, which is another common situation.
Staggering numbers of shad move into Quinte, and fall walleye are all over them. Despite their flattened, tubby profile, I’ve always given the edge to longer, more stretched-out lures. In all cases, crankbaits that run with a subdued, fairly tight action at low speeds (1.4 to about 1.7mph) have always been aces for me. I call it ‘The Shiver.’ In water temps from 34 to 40C, less can be more. Crankbaits, unlike spoons or other lures, really have great ‘lower limit’ action, in terms of speed. Most models are right at home running dead slow, and are plenty stable enough for speed surges, heavy wave action and other triggering moves.
Conditional Love–Wind, Waves & Ways of the Moon:
Quinte is a trophy-calibre destination. It’s just that simple. The tiny details within your day take on a whole new level of importance. Anytime I’m fishing for big fish, I want the deck stacked in my favor as much as possible. Watching for environmental changes is a simple habit to get into, and one that will make you a more successful troller. I’ve always been a fan of combining or ‘bundling’ the change points that happen when I’m out fishing.
Just as an example, on our last trip we had several fish (the majority, in fact) hit the net under periods of distinct changes in light level, wind speed/direction, and especially lunar activity. I build big walleye days around the lunar Majors, Moon Rise and Moon Set. Find out when these events occur where you’re fishing. A really simple one combines Moon Rise with Sun Set, or Sun Rise with Moon Set. Within these windows, look for weather changes. Is the sun about to pop out or disappear? Did the wind suddenly die, intensify or switch direction? Be on your best spots with your best set-ups for these periods of change as they all stack up and work for you. One thing I’ve always loved about Merland Park is its proximity to big fish. You can easily schedule intense periods of trolling with a meal break or even a nap back at your cabin. You’re never far from big walleye. Putting yourself into a good position is easier.
Wind is almost always a factor on Quinte. It normally blows, but flat-clam conditions do occur, too. In rough water, I like to focus on the upper reaches of the water column, running my ‘boards tighter to the boat. I get great ‘slingshot’ action on my lures, and I don’t think ‘high fish’ are nearly as bothered by the motor. Putting the wind at my back is almost always more productive than plowing straight into it. But not always. Running lures dead-smack into the waves gets them running as slow as possible, sometimes suspending, and makes them very easy for walleye to find and overtake. To tell the truth, upwind trolling is just one of Quinte’s little quirks. It works for me there better than anywhere I’ve ever trolled. The effectiveness of a super slow pace in water that’s cold and full of enormous amounts of feed definitely makes sense.
Calm days are a bit more rare, but can be equally as good. Zig-zag trolling with a wider, often deeper , spread gets baits moving in that slow motion, erratic fashion that fish like. I had a chance to fish with Kevin from Merland Park recently, and this guy’s a total whiz in calm seas. Using his fully networked Minn Kota iPilot and Humminbird sonar, we slipped along productive tracks and waypoints in silence, running his 21’ boat essentially with a TV remote. Guide customers love this feature. It’s quiet, and the boat is under total control from anywhere on board. Fish can be a little more tentative in clam weather, and bundling your key conditions takes on extra weight. Working fish in the 25 to 30 foot range can be more effective. And watch for them to move higher as daylight gives way to darkness. I’ll definitely use more electric trolling on future trips when it’s calm.
I think speed is definitely a change point or edge, just like the weather or the moon. Never troll in a straight line. Constantly have your baits surging and dying behind the boat. The closer I get to my daily activity windows, the more turns and speed changes I’ll throw in. It’s all about setting the table in as many ways as you can.
If you’re into big walleye and haven’t fished this magical body of water, you really need to check it out. I’ve been lucky to fish all over Ontario and Quinte is in another league altogether for big walleye. Trolling takes time to get good at, but it’s the king method. Experimentation and being able to identify and exploit good opportunities will put you on the right track. The amount of huge fish there really is staggering. With any luck, you’ve now got a new idea or two to try, and hopefully a new level of trolling confidence in general. It’s critical that we let those big fish go. Get a couple buddies on board, bundle up, stay safe and rewrite your own record book!
Check out more information on Merland Park, Offshore Tackle, Reefrunner and Bay of Quinte on the following links:
Reef Runner – website
JP Bushey is a multi-species, multi-season fisherman living in Barrie, Ontario. North-Central Ontario’s ‘big water’ is where he spends most of his time, from his home waters of Georgian Bay to The Great Lakes, Lake Nipissing and The French River. JP’s been a freelance fishing contributor for over fifteen years, and enjoys helping people to improve their fishing through his articles, speaking engagements and on-the-water instruction.
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JP Bushey is a multi-species, multi-season fisherman living in Barrie, Ontario. North-Central Ontario’s ‘big water’ is where he spends most of his time, from his home waters of Georgian Bay to The Great Lakes, Lake Nipissing and The French River. JP’s been a freelance fishing contributor for over fifteen years, and enjoys helping people to improve their fishing through his articles, speaking engagements and on-the-water instruction.More by JP Bushey