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Thousand Island Walleye Fishing

Doug Fuegel

My mother had a saying “never look a gift horse in the mouth,” and so it applies every time my friend Russ Finehout asks me if I want to go fishing with him. Now I don’t think I am a slouch when it comes to fishing up and down the St. Lawrence River in the Clayton area, but I am a novice compared to Russ who has operated a successful fishing charter business for more than 30 years.

To say he knows and understands the river is an understatement; so when he says let’s go fishing, I jump. Russ knows that when we travel the river whether it is towards the bridge or upriver towards Cape Vincent I am constantly cataloging in my mind shoreline structures, inlets and tree lines for future reference, not only for the good fishing locations, but in this unforgiving river, a bent prop.

Over the years I have “cataloged” with Russ several great fishing locations for perch, northern pike and bass but only a few walleye holes until this past season. I have fished Oneida Lake walleyes all my life using the traditional techniques of jigs tipped with a worm, drifting or trolling worm harnesses, trolling plugs or using bottom bouncers and worm spinners on a lake that for the most part has a flat mud bottom. This is not the case in fishing the St. Lawrence. Two big differences stand out: the technique and the size of the fish. First, like they say in real-estate, “location, location” and so it is with the St Lawrence River. If it could be drained it would look like a bunch of deep trenches, high cliffs and bumps. It is this tremendous uneven bottom and depth levels that makes fishing here so interesting.

From my own fishing experiences and picking Russ’s brain I have concluded each fish species has its own favorite location and depth which changes during the year perhaps due to temperature or following bait fish. It may be the bait fish, temperature or both; but mid to late summer walleyes seem to favor humps, trenches and areas in the 30 to 35 foot depths.

If you are not that familiar with the river and want to try for these huge walleyes, pick a location and first study the depths in detail on a chart and then have a good depth finder on board. A wrong drift or troll in a very short distance can have you in 100 feet of water or dangerously close to a shallow shoal.

Any of the proven walleye techniques will work, e.g. trolling deep running plugs or worm harnesses, bouncing the bottom with jigs, or as we prefer, downriggers and rods rigged with a worm spinner. On my first experience fishing with Russ I was surprised when he said we will fish with one downrigger. I thought how can we catch any fish with just one pole on the water? It turns out The Thousand Islands provides great scenery but a confusing myriad of structure and depth beneath the surface.  He knew what he was doing. We were fishing hump downriver from Clayton that probably was no larger than an acre of ground. The water off the hump was near 100 feet deep, and to keep us trolling on the site meant constantly turning doing figure eights. Any more than one line in the water would have resulted in a mess.

When fishing these walleye areas, you have to adjust the number of lines to the location. My first lesson in catching a St. Lawrence River walleye came quite quickly and painfully. The rod jumped as the walleye ripped the line from the release. I grabbed it and started reeling as any Oneida Lake angler would do, but to my surprise this fish was fighting back. I could not believe the strength of this fish. It pulled, twisted and dove like a combination of bass and northern pike rolled into one. The rod bent and I kept reeling— a big mistake; but I did manage to get the fish near the boat for a quick glance before the hook dislodged. The fish was 28 to 30 inches long.

The first words from my friend Russ were “this is not Oneida Lake and you can’t horse these fish.” I learned my lesson, and in the next hour with Russ keeping us on that hump, we boated three beautiful walleyes in the 25 to 27 inch range and lost a fourth due to a broken line. These fish are fighters and you must play them and not try to horse them to the boat.

The river has countless good walleye holding locations from the International Bridge up river to the Carleton Island region. It holds many areas where the bottom is quite steady and more than one downrigger works fine or bottom bouncing jigs or spinner baits can be used. Study your chart, pick an area and be ready for the walleye surprise of your life. A word of caution: if you wander into Canadian water be prepared to call Canadian Customs immediately and have a Canadian license. Since the area can be a confusing myriad of islands and bottom structure as described earlier it is often a good idea to hire a guide to learn the area and techniques.

For more information on Captain Russ Finehout and Thousand Island Charters visit www.thousandislandcharters. com or call April-October 315-686-1216, November-April 863-692- 9117. Doug Fuegel

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