January 9th, 2014
Quinte Hard Water Specialists – Guide Reviewby JP Bushey January 14, 2014
Specialist (spe-cial-ist) noun: a person who dedicates himself or herself to one subject or to one particular branch of a subject or pursuit.
What happens when you take a close group of full-time fishing guides, add in premium equipment and then turn it all loose on what is easily North America’s most consistent trophy walleye destination? I’ll give you a hint: it starts with a lot of on-the-water attention to detail, plenty of fun, and it usually ends with you releasing the biggest winter walleye of your life.
I had a chance to fish Ontario’s Bay of Quinte with Brandon Oullette’s Quinte Hard Water Specialists Guide Service in late December and instantly fell in love with the entire scene. These guys don’t target anything except the biggest walleye available, and they do it with a drive, energy and experience level that leaves an indelible mark on each and every one of their guests. Five to eight pound walleye round out most days in big numbers, and every single time you drop your jig you’ve got a legitimate shot at fish from ten to fifteen pounds. It’s hard to believe. As I write this, a 14.4 pounder is occupying this year’s top spot—and we’re barely into January. Walleye over the thirty inch mark are a daily occurrence. If you’re looking for a shot at a monster through the ice, look no further.
The QHWS Culture & Craft: For most people, dealing with an ice outfitter normally doesn’t go much beyond being ferried out to a permanent shack and setting up shop for the day. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But the mentality at QHWS is a lot different. The team works tirelessly to put customers in the best possible position for big walleye encounters. Brandon and all of his guides never stop pushing. They spread out in all directions and share up-to-the minute updates using a range of mobile devices. Rarely satisfied (even while on bites that would make anyone giddy) they never stop cutting fresh holes, pouring over Navionics charts on their iPhones, making calls, sending texts and reaching for more. Their willingness to push hard for their guests is totally evident.
The entire operation is 100% mobile, driven by a fleet of portable shelters, reliable on-ice transportation and an encyclopedic awareness of walleye movements. I’ve fished the Bay of Quinte for many years, and walleye there never stop cycling between areas. ‘Pulsing’ is how Guide Ryan Shorey describes these moves. Always staying one step ahead of them is critical, and the team has seasonal, daily and even hourly adjustments down to a science. Quinte is anything but a ‘sit and soak’ ice fishery. Knowing when and where to move is something these guys have dialed right in. Their ability to anticipate, adjust and react is incredible. Subtle details like the sharpest corners on structure, areas where light levels are most favorable or where current changes occur are all second nature. This adds up to guests always being directly over top of the best possible activity. ‘Leap-frogging’ is a method whereby groups continuously jump past each other, on the hunt for fish. When schools of big fish are located, the team converges. It makes finding them fun and fast.
The guides are all fun-loving personalities, eager to make your trip the best it can possibly be. Brandon and Ryan spend the summers guiding on NW Ontario’s famous Lac Seul out of Silver Water Wheel Lodge. Trent Haggardty and Cody Skelly are also highly experienced guides with years of walleye fishing to draw on. Attentiveness and going the extra mile for guests is in their blood, and translates seamlessly to their on-ice product.
Hammers & Nails: The entire QHWS program is based on jigging. Don’t expect to wait for walleye to suck in a live minnow or to spend long hours watching for a tip-up to pop. I’ve done a lot of ice fishing in my life, and there’s absolutely no doubt that jigging is the most hands-on, tactile and proactive method you can use. You’re engaged, active and using your own mechanical skill to make fish bite. And when those fish that rush in on the sonar turn out to be long, heavy walleye, the game is at an entirely other level. Using aggressive jigging techniques for big walleye on quality rods and reels is as good as it gets, and this is exactly how these boys fish.
Northland Fishing Tackle is a major supporter of QHWS, and the team has a long, long history of solid production using their lures. During my trip, ½ and 3/4oz Buckshot Rattle Spoons were outstanding. I’ve used these baits for many years and so have millions of other jiggers. Newer to the Northland’s line up, the Macho Minnow also produced well. In both cases, these are compact, heavy-for-their-size spoons that stay vertical in areas of current, call fish in, and do a great job triggering and hooking them. At one point, we all sat and watched good friend Jesse Wright bang through no fewer than seven walleye in a row on a 3/4oz Buckshot one afternoon. It was incredible, especially since not a single of Jesse’s fish was under five pounds, and he capped it off with a beautiful fish right around eight. Northland’s family of jigging baits have long been a big part of the QHWS success story, and for good reason. Walleye love ‘em, and I’ve found this true from the Great Lakes to inland fisheries all over northern Ontario.
Always the experimenter, I also showed the fish some lighter, slower-falling spoons from Williams. Both their Ice Jig and Wabbler have a range of new colors for 2014, and I was eager to get them wet. ‘Calling’ roaming groups of walleye in is a major part of the game, so lures with good combinations of vibration, sound and flash are important. Rattlebaits, such as the Lindy Darter, Salmo Zipper or Live Target Gizzard Shad along with high-action spoons get bit all on their own, but are also valuable for sucking walleye in close, where they’ll lash out at more subtle jigging plays close by. The J60 Ice Jig in Nu-Wrinkle gold/orange triggered many fish that showed up under the hole for me, and it also drew fish in for my partners to hook. Small, two to three inch minnows dress out the jigging spoons, adding scent and bulk. Every guest gets unlimited fresh, lively minnows each day for tipping.
Whatever the lure, the QHWS guides are masters at reading fish on their flashers and adjusting their jigging style/level to get a reaction. I sat with both Brandon and Ryan for extended periods of time, and can tell you quite honestly that these guys can make walleye bite almost at will. Snaps. Pops. Lifts. Drops. Deadstick. Shake it. Reel it. Stir up the bottom. Make fish chase high, make them work for the spoon. You’ll learn a great deal about walleye behaviour and how you can best cater to it. In my mind, learning how to ‘read’ walleye and tailor your jigging to them is reason enough to get out with QHWS. These guys are that good with a jigging rod.
I saw Brandon tease and trigger walleye up to eight pounds more than ten feet up off bottom many times daily. With his rod tip at a low, hook set position, he’d weave a series of shakes, lifts and pauses until each fish eventually snapped. I’m an experienced jigger, and log thousands of hours all winter, and I can tell you that Brandon is in another league. He freely shares what he’s doing with the entire group, too. It’s all about building team patterns that everyone can ride. I’d be feeling pretty good about myself during periods of hot action, releasing four or five fish during short windows. Then I’d walk over to Brandon and find he’d nailed double that. Fishing around good fishermen is the single best way I know to get better, bar none. There isn’t a magic lure, magazine article or anything else that comes close to spending time with skilled fishermen. ‘Worth the price of admission’ comes to mind, here.
Everybody gets high-end ice gear put into their hands. The guys refuse to skimp on any element of the total experience, right down to the rods and reels their customers jig with. St. Croix Premier Ice Rods paired with Shimano Stradic spinning reels are standard issue. It’s pretty tough to complain about that! These combos are sensitive, lightweight, powerful and a total treat to fish with. Wait until you feel a nine or ten pound walleye on one of these little babies.
Comfort & Control: As a member of Ice Team, QHWS has customers set up for maximum comfort, safety and fishing success. Their entire fleet of Clam X2 Thermal portable shelters are ready to fish, with dual Vexilar flashers, interior lighting and propane heat. Fishing both early and late in the day, you’re warm, comfortable and fishing from a fully-lit (the LED light kits in the Clams are so bright there aren’t even shadows inside) platform. Padded, bucket seats, insulated bait buckets at your finger tips and plenty of room to stand, stretch out and land fish make fishing fun. It’s a fabulous way to get out with kids or your spouse. Brandon has a fleet of ATVs and new for 2014, a covered, heated Argo amphibious people carrier. Tracks are preferred over standard tires, for their ability to safely traverse anything and everything from deep drifts too slush. QHWS prides itself on being able to get customers to hot fish and back safely, often in conditions that cripple other vehicles.
The Vexilar flashers are a key part of the attack. They’re compact, easy to interpret and each fisherman gets their own. The crew are masters at dialing in the unit’s colour palette and sensitivity for crisp, accurate feedback, to the point of being able to tell the size of individual fish moments before they’d strike. I was blown away by that! Do you think you could get used to catching big walleye in real-time, using a flasher and super-tuned jigging equipment? It won’t take long, believe me.
One morning, Ryan and I slipped over to a sharp cut right on the edge of a trench. He’d been wanting to check the spot for a few days after scoping it out on his iPhone chart, and convincing me to ride shotgun wasn’t very hard. His screen lit up right away, and before he could say ‘that one looks about five pounds,’ the rod was bent over. The walleye weighed exactly 5.2 pounds. Talk about being dialed in. The Specialist’s fleet of Vexilar flashers are as critical as any rod, reel or jig when it comes to locating, reading and catching walleye under the ice.
Propane heat is delivered silently and safely to each Clam using Heater Buddies. You can fish for days on end without ever changing a tank or running out of heat. Brandon takes this little detail in a really neat direction, opting to run all of his units off 20lb tanks and long coupler hoses. The tanks stay outside the Clam for plenty of floor space inside. Every little detail is well thought out. We had some big winds and cold temps the first day of my trip, and I fished in rain bibs and a hooded sweatshirt. Lines stayed supple, the holes didn’t freeze and reels operated silky smooth. It sure beat fumbling around in the elements. With the QHWS set-up, customers are able to focus 100% on catching walleye without discomfort or distraction. The X2’s thermal material holds heat extremely well, and its ability to cut wind gets overlooked.
If you’re ever in the market for a full-service, big walleye ice trip, look up the Quinte Hard Water Specialists on Facebook or the web. They’re always a step ahead of the fish, have flexible packages and offer a range of accommodation options close to wherever they’re fishing on The Bay at any given time. Come for a half day, come for a long weekend or spend a full week. Not only will you be treated to great fishing, you’ll also see some top-flight gear in action and learn how to be a better walleye jigger. The whole deal is world class, and you can work with the team to set up your trip the way you want it. Brandon’s never far from his cellphone, and you can usually find him on the ice, able to offer fresh updates prior to your trip at (705) 872-2704. Just don’t be offended if he has to dump your call when a fish shows up on screen and hits. He’ll get right back to you!
If you haven’t fished the Bay of Quinte in winter, you’ll be amazed at the size of the average walleye. Not only that, but how close these fish are to major, urban centers in both Canada and the US is mind-boggling. Conserving big fish is a major part of the ethic. There’s a good reason these guys catch so many big walleye—they release all their big walleye. The Specialists are the guys to make it all happen for you. Definitely check them out if you want to live the walleye jiggin’ dream this winter!
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