Backwater Adventures in the Florida Keys

We’ve all watched on TV people sight fishing for Bonefish and Permit along the flats located in and around the Florida Keys. Spotting fish and accurate casts are crucial. Well, there’s more than one way to catch those marauding saltwater game fish and I’ve got the proof.

Arranging a day’s charter should be simple, and it would be if I never bothered mentioning that I’m completely without sight. First and foremost, guides question how that’s going to work. Then there are the personal safety issues.

I’ve been told more than once my money was no good by guides simply unwilling to test the parameters of their insurance providers. I don’t take it personally because a rogue wave just might sweep me away, or I could fall off the dock, or I could stumble down a bank, or stick myself with a hook, or get bitten, stung or speared by a fish, etc., etc… So naturally, when I do come into contact with guides like Dave Denkers of Islamorada, a man who respects people who take chances that involve their own personal safety, I’m always thrilled and relieved.

The plan was for Dave to pick me up out front of the RV park where my family and I were staying. “Look for the guy with the white stick” I texted Dave the night before, to which he replied, “I’ll be driving a black Dodge” – a common rookie blind encounter mistake that happens more often than one might think (LOL).

At 7: a.m. the next morning I heard Dave’s SUV pull to the side of the road. I knew it was him by the sound of the empty boat trailer rattling along behind is truck. A quick hand shake and I piled in for a short ride to the marina. Five seconds of sighted guide technique instruction and I was safely on to the dock and seated in Dave’s 16-foot bay boat.

Dave was excited about the prospects for the day. Reconnaissance gathered from fellow guides led Dave to believe that the Tarpon would be on fire. I asked if this was based on reports from the day before, and Dave confirmed this to be the case. Both guides he had spoken with reported the Tarpon had been on fire. Now, I’m not a superstitious guy, and all that talk about “should have been here yesterday” stuff does nothing for me, but I did note the full moon eclipse the previous night and may have expressed some scepticism.

Sure enough, following a 30-minute cruise down the coast, weaving between islands and crossing sizeable bays, we arrived at the promised grounds. Unfortunately, all the Tarpon we spotted, and there were probably over two dozen, expressed not a flicker of interest in what was on offer. This being Pin fish drifted under floats using tidal currents and sand bars to our advantage.

After three hours our eagerness and anticipation were soon set aside along with my Tarpon float rod. We rolled up our sleeves and got down to the hard work of catching fish. We decided to switch it up and set off for a series of backwater bays.

Upon approaching our first bay Dave killed the motor and resumed poling from his elevated rear poling platform located over top of the boat’s outboard engine. We first had to cross over a set of what turned out to be astonishingly high breakers to enter the bay. I took my place at the ready on the front casting deck, but finding the rocking and pitching boat almost impossible to stand on, elected to stand in the cockpit instead. It was around that time when I heard Dave’s pole clank against the gunnel. “Dave, you O.K.”, I called back over the sound of the crashing waves that were now pouring over the bow? “I’m fine”, Dave replied, “I just fell out of the boat”.

Dave explained that while in mid push the boat dropped out from under his feet. His choices were to either attempt a landing on the pitching deck, or in the shallow water where there was less chance of him incurring an injury. Dave said that was the first time he ever fell out of the boat, and I have no reason not to believe him since it never happened again that day. It did make me pay more attention to my environment though, just in case it was going to be me poling Dave’s boat home alone. In reality however, the water was only three-feet deep and neither of us were ever in danger.

It wasn’t long after that Dave spotted a 20lb Permit feeding actively with its tail out of the water. Time after time I launched my shrimp in the direction and distance Dave instructed. The 40 mph winds weren’t helping though, with cast after cast being blown off course. Normally, I’m a relatively accurate caster with the ability to land lures within inches of the sound of surfacing fish. This time however, whether it was the wind or a communication breakdown, I’m not sure, the entire frustrating process seemed to have lasted for tens of minutes, but in reality was over within 90 seconds. O.K., try one and we were learning.

Opportunity number two came not long after. Dave spotted a Bonefish 30-feet off the stern on the down-wind side of the boat. We had agreed on a system by then. I would fire bullet casts just above the waves, and Dave would let me know when to stop the bait’s flat trajectory. By keeping my rod tip slightly elevated as the line tore through the guides, and then dropping the tip at the same time I stopped the cast, I was able to drop the bait quietly into the water and avoid startling the fish.

With directions from Dave such as “hold”, which meant not to reel, and “reel”, which meant draw the bait away from the fish to trigger a reaction, along with the various commands we adopted to target my casting, we began hooking up.

First fish over the gunnel was this pretty little Bonefish weighing in at around 3.5 lbs. I was blown away by the relatively small stature of this fish given the number of drag-pulling runs it was able to execute over the 3-4 minutes it took me to reel in. No wonder people fly all over the world to capture this species – they truly are athletes. Not a bone could I detect on its body however, which made me question why these fish were given such an unappetising name. Dave said the bones were all on the inside, and plenty of them. From what I could feel Bonefish were solid muscle.

Next to come over the gunnel was one of the most beautiful fish I’ve ever had the pleasure of holding. It was a 4 lb Permit fish and I was awful glad it permitted me to feel its amazing fins and tail. It’s also toothless which makes it even that much more inviting to hold.

Like the Bonefish, Permit too are capable of destroying drag systems on smaller spinning reels. After each fish was caught using 6 lb Power Pro line spooled on to a Shimano Sahara 2500 spinning reel, I had to carefully cast out the bait while at the same time pull line off the spool that had become impacted. I suggested Dave look into the Shimano reels that feature aerowrap technology designed specifically to prevent this from happening and to provide longer casting distances.

Aerowrap is one of those innovations Shimano has engineered that has put them well ahead of their competition. However, being the only reel manufacturer that has adopted this innovation, not many fishers know it even exists.

Later that day Dave introduced me to a deadstick method of fishing that might make many sceptical, but made a believer out of me. Once Dave had located some slightly turbid water generated by contrary currents coming into contact, he anchored the boat using an ingenious method of tying off to his 24-foot long pole that he first sunk into the soft bottom, and then bent over 90 degrees.

The method called for me to fire my shrimp attached to a 3/8 oz jig head onto a stretch of submerged white sand over 100-feet away next to the turbid water and flats grass. Keeping the line slightly slack, I was able to detect fish pick up my jig, and after a few exploratory nibbles, wolf down my bait at which time I would simply raise my rod tip while reeling down.

Using Dave’s dead stick method I was able to bring a third species into the boat – Bonnethead shark. The shark were between 3 and 4 feet in length, and while they weren’t able to provide near the fight of Bonefish or Permit, they were a welcome addition to my checklist of species captured and released.

Returning caught shark to the water is a 2-handed affair. One to hold their tail and the other the body just behind the head. Caution should be exercised to make sure sharks are released by both hands simultaneously. Shark are known to twist around 180 degrees and bite those who maintain a single grip on their tail.

Guides like Dave who spend good parts of entire days poling their sports around the flats of Florida definitely earn their pay. It’s hard work, not to mention the effects of the sun and salt water on the body. A big thanks to Dave for agreeing to take me out for the day, and to his wonderful wife who prepared for us the most amazing brownies – each chunk was the size of my fist.

We never were able to hook up a Tarpon in spite of our trying on three separate occasions that day. Too bad as it would have meant a grand slam in Florida. It was our goal at the beginning of the day, but by the end, we were feeling quite proud of what we had accomplished by working together. A true first for us both.

Blind Fishing Kayak Up-Date

Without doubt, HobieCat’s Mirage drive system for their kayaks has made a huge difference in my fishing and overall navigational ability on the water. Because I depend on my non-visual senses for all things in life, having my hands free to feel what’s taking place both above and below the water is crucial.

The Mirage system allows me to keep one hand on my fishing rod at all times to feel the bite, and the other on the rudder control. My sense of touch allows me to detect even the faintest bites, and my talking technologies and listening skills keep me on course. The fact that the Mirage drive makes virtually no noise also allows me to hear even the slightest sounds around me. It all adds up to be Zen-like perfection on the water.

The 2013 year was supposed to start with a blind kayak fishing adventure. Jenda Paddle Sports generously provided the use of 10 fully equipped HobieCat kayaks with Mirage drives, and HumanWare provided the talking GPS systems. I had waterproof tactile maps made for the ten blind competitors, and we had four shadow boats ready to assist with the measuring, photographing and release of the Northern Pike on the water. The only thing that didn’t cooperate was the weather. 70 km/h winds and whitecaps that lasted all day meant way too many fish stories were told while we hunkered down in the cabins.

Jenda Paddle Sport’s 2-day kayak fishing derby on the Rideau River was a lot of fun. The weather more than cooperated making for a very enjoyable couple days. No doubt, sharing the river with powerboats and cruisers keeps my senses honed, and in close proximity to my fishing partner. A carefully placed small bell on his kayak let me know where he was at all times, or at least until the bell fell overboard.

Catching and releasing a number of decent sized Bass and Walleye certainly added zest to my kayak fishing tournament experience, but sadly, none of my fish earned me top spot. The excellent hospitality provided by Jason Kirby and his wife more than made up for my finishing out of the money.

A humorous tale worth repeating involved a TV shoot I was featuring in for CTV’s news at 6:  for their “amazing People” segment. I was selected for the feature because of my water stewardship initiatives, and I thought what better way to demonstrate sustainable fishing than to showcase my fishing aboard my HobieCat Revolution kayak.

After the on-shore interview component was wrapped up, we moved on to the water. The host and videographer aboard my buddy’s boat, and me aboard my Hobie. We weren’t out on the lake five minutes before the heavy cloud cover let loose with a torrent of rain. Water being a problem for several of my talking navigation aids, I quickly stored the devices below deck and fell back to my human senses to navigate by. However, the rain was falling so hard that the sound made it almost impossible for me to hear. Never mind, I thought, I’ll just keep moving along and casting my lure. Well, I guess my homing instinct was working pretty well because not ten minutes later I t-boned my buddies boat. He told me after that he warned the videographer that a collision was immanent, but the grip insisted they not move as he was relishing the footage he was recording of me face-on. Of course, no one wanted to call out a warning and have their voice spoil the shot.

No damage was done to either boat or yak, and we all had a good laugh. Secretly, I was just glad I found them as I had no idea which way led back to the launch. The segment has been in rotation on CTV’s website and over their networks for over six months, and culminated with a gala dinner and award ceremony on February 22, 2014.

As far as organizing another blind kayak fishing tournament in 2014, I think not. I’ve found a better way to teach fellow blind people to fish by partnering with the CNIB’s Lake Joseph Centre. Starting last summer, we now offer daily fishing adventures out of their central Ontario facility located in the Muskoka’s. I’ll be up there myself again this spring to train-the-trainers, and again in the summer to head up a week of fishing instruction for deaf/ blind adults.

With water temperatures now finally having risen above 60 f. I’ve dusted off the Hobie and prepared my kit. A welcome new addition to my electronics this year is a “Talking Tackle Depth Whisperer” made in the U.S.

http://talkingtackledepthwhisperer.com/

With its pleasant female voice and control settings, I think the device will go far towards improving my fish capture rate.

 

Paddles up,

Lawrence Gunther

2014 Spring Update

While January offers me plenty of opportunities to ice fish, February is show season and pretty much every weekend has me exhibiting and speaking at outdoor shows. Shows this year included the 4-day Ottawa Boat and Sportsman Show, the 4-day Toronto sportsman Show, and the 2-day Toronto People in Motion show. In total over the ten days over 155,000 people visited the three shows.

Seminars:

I’ve also been busy giving seminars at conferences, fishing club meetings, derbies and tournaments, and during in-store events.  . Demand for delivering key-note addresses also continues to build.

Blue Fish Canada:

The fish stewardship charity I founded in 2012, “Blue Fish Canada”, has received several considerable grants this year. Ozilles Marina on the Ottawa River stepped up in a big way, and I can’t say thanks enough to Yves for his tremendous support. The Pietrie Island Ice Fishing Association also generously donated the proceeds’ of their ice fishing tournament, and Tides Canada and the Fresh Water Alliance awarded Blue Fish a very generous grant.

Blue fish volunteers were able to assemble and distribute just over 1,000 free shoreline clean-up kits and stewardship guides. More program activities are being planned, including a joint venture with the Ottawa Valley South Bass Masters and their hosting the 2014 Ontario B.A.S.S qualifiers. I’m also participating on the planning committee for the National Fresh Water Rally scheduled for October in Ottawa, and have a media event planned to help launch the event.

Blue Fish Radio:

Blue Fish Radio continues to gain popularity. I’m continuing to host semi-weekly episodes of the program, which has been picked up by Reno Viola’s WRVO internet radio program. Twenty-two 30-minute episodes have been broadcast to date.

Public Media:

I’ve been profiled on a number of TV networks again including Rogers and CTV twice. The Toronto Star and Ottawa Sun newspapers published good-sized pieces. Lund Boats also included an excellent information piece on my work with the CNIB Lake Joseph Centre for the blind in their spring magazine / catalogue.

Social Media:

Lures and Tours publications has generously stepped up with a commitment to feature my initiatives in their social media and hard-copy publications. T.J. from Ontario Fishing Network also continues to host and distribute related content over the web. Websites now include:

http://www.lawrencegunther.com/

http://www.blindfishingboat.com/

http://www.feelthebite.ca/

http://www.bluefishcanada.ca/

http://www.ontariocarpfishing.com/

In Store Appearances:

I worked an evening at the Sail Outdoor store in Ottawa on behalf of Muskie Canada. Plano/Frabill also had me helping out throughout May at the launch of the new “pro Fishing Sections” in many of the Canadian tire Stores located in Ontario. I managed to work six stores over five days. I enjoy hanging out in the fishing section of a store under any circumstance, but to be compensated to talk fishing is a real bonus.

Articles Published:

My articles published under the Feel the Bite tag line continue to be published in Ontario Fishing Network, Outdoors Unlimited, Yamamoto Inside Line, and other magazines and websites.

Documentary:

My 90-minute documentary is near finished after not quite four years, and should be released in 2014. Making a movie is far more resource intensive then filming video for TV? Sound production involves four stages of production alone.

TV:

TV opportunities are growing in number. Several discussions are now underway, but it often seems to be the case that “hurry up and wait” are the only two speeds this industry knows.

Tournaments:

As of June 21 2014 I’ll have fished in six fishing tournaments – can’t wait until Bass season opens. Results include two 2nd place finishes, a 4th, one big fish finish, and longest total length of Musky captured.

Awards:

I’m being featured as part of a 24-month travelling exhibition throughout Canada called “It’s An Honour!” for my having received the Meritorious Service Medal from Canada’s Governor General. The interactive exhibit is visiting towns throughout Canada that have populations of below 50,000 with the exception of a 4-day visit in Ottawa over Canada Day.

http://www.gg.ca/document.aspx?id=15263&lan=eng

Sponsorships:

Orleans Boat World, Ranger boats and Evinrude Outboards have come to my assistance once again and have up-dated my ride. Sticking with the Ranger 620 Fisherman powered with an E-TEC 250 HO. Ran this same combination last year and I love it!

Four Wheel Campers Canada has assisted by topping my new Ford 150 pickup with one of their pop-up truck campers. With the roof down it only sticks up 10 inches above the truck’s roof, and when expanded I’m easily able to walk around inside. It has two large comfortable beds and a fully equipped kitchen. Weighing only 1,100 pounds, I leave it on the truck full time and have experienced only very minor fuel usage increases – thank you Eco-Boost.

Action Car and Truck Accessories has generously stepped up with some add-ons for the Ford. My priorities for the truck right now include a backup camera and obstacle detection sensors on all four corners of the vehicle. Don’t worry, I have no plans on driving. I’ll wait until I get one of those new Google self driving cars – do you think one could pull my boat?

New Shimano Rods and reels continue to astonish me with their continuous evolution, as with their Power Pro fishing line and Jackle Baits.

Scotty, Plano, Frabill, Minn Kota, Lowrance, Trokar, Salus Marine, HumanWare, Berts Custom Tackle, all lend their support to keeping my various endeavours fluid. Eukanuba pet foods has been a key sponsor for the past six years, but news of PnG’s recent sale of their pet food division to Mars has raised concern over this relationship’s future.

Summer / Fall:

Stay tuned for reports of up-coming activities including a 24-hour fish-a-thon as part of the national fresh water rally planned for Ottawa this coming October.

Aquatic Adventures along the Gulf of Mexico

In April of 2014 my wife Anne, our two youngest children ages 6 and 8, myself and my guide dog Moby along with our 3lb Yorky, traveled down the east coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Our accommodations were a 34-foot ultra-light travel trailer that we towed with our V6-powered half-ton truck.  The entire trip lasted just over three weeks and covered roughly 7,000 kilometers. Before we could get underway however, I first had to dig and salt the trailer free from the mountain of snow that covered and surrounded our portable shelter.

Our first stop was Sarasota Florida where we jumped directly into a series of aquatic exploration activities. The 10-acre fishing pond with fishing dock located on the grounds of our first campground featured a large sign warning against feeding the Alligators on penalty of $5,000. My son and I scoped out the banks of the pond, and after determining the coast to be clear, hurried on to the fishing dock to give the fishing a try using his 3-foot ice rod. He caught the biggest Sunfish I’ve ever had the pleasure of holding. It was a Red Eared Sunfish that was as big as a dinner plate. I had to hand-bomb it in in the end as his rod just didn’t have the guts to lift it the ten feet to where we stood. He hooked it on a yellow fuzzy-grub. It may have been the size of a dinner plate, but we set her free anyway. Wish I had my camera….

The next day’s field trip to Miakka State Park had us on a 100-acre lake that scientists claim is home to over 1,000 Alligators. We weren’t disappointed. Lots of reptilians of all sizes sunning themselves on shore in groups of up to 15 at a time. We also witnessed a rare day-time viewing of a large male gulping down a good-sized 20-inch fish that he caught in a mid-lake weed bed. The air boat tour of the lake was excellent, and we learned a lot about Alligator nesting, feeding and aggression behaviours – turns out they are poor runners on land because of their soft under-bellies. Interestingly enough, on offer at the park’s restaurant was alligator stew.

Still in Sarasota we took a half-day pontoon boat cruise on to the Gulf to explore the islands and tidal grass flats. The 28-foot pontoon we were on held 20 visitors, the operator, and a biologist from the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium.

First stop was a small island where we explored the plant and island life forms. The second stop was on a tidal flat where each of us was equipped with dip nets on 5-foot poles. The biologist collected a sample of the numerous various life forms we gathered and placed them in a bucket for examination and explanation later back aboard the boat. Critters included Needle Fish and Starfish.

This foot-soaking, hands-on adventure was the real-deal and worth every penny. To catch and hold such a variety of sea life convinced my daughter that her ambition in life is to become a marine biologist.

Next stop was Fort Myers where we took a long walk to collect sea shells on barefoot beach, fed turtles living in the small pond behind our campsite, and spent a day aboard a 100-foot head boat fishing off shore with 80 others. A variety of pan-sized fish were caught, and my wife matched me fish-for-fish.

On several occasions while at the rail fishing aboard the headboat, a shortish elderly gentleman would appear at my side to offer assistance with rebaiting, untangling lines or unhooking fish. I was usually managing fine. I just assumed he was one of the deck hands. It wasn’t until we were disembarking that my wife identified the individual as the captain. While disembarking our diminutive captain noticed my white stick and commented that he hadn’t been aware I couldn’t see, to which I replied that I didn’t know he could drive a boat. The crew had a good laugh and so did the captain as we shook hands warmly and I thanked him for the great day. My 16-inch Black Spot narrowly missed out on winning the big fish pot.

Our next stop was Islamorada — the fishing capital of the world. This key is about half way between Miami and Key West. We had two events scheduled for our stay. The first being a visit to the Theater by the Sea, and the second involved my spending a day on a flats boat with a local guide to explore the back waters. Dinners at several dock-side restaurants, hand-feeding 5-foot Tarpon off the docks and a visit to Earnest Hemmingway’s fishing boat housed inside the local Bass Pro Shop all served to make our short visit at this key even more memorable.

The Theater by the Sea is one of the first ever aquariums to open in the United States and has been around for over 70 years. It includes a large man-made lake formed by flooding a former quarry. The stone taken from this pit was used to create the numerous causeways that now link the various islands together making it possible to drive from Miami to Key West.

My wife and daughter signed up to swim with the dolphins while my son and I stayed on shore under the shade and watched. My son had just turned six, was still learning to swim, and didn’t feel comfortable being used by the dolphins as a human beach ball. Our turn would come later. My wife and daughter on the other hand received kisses, rubbed bellies, splashed, danced and were taken for tows while holding on to dorsal fins. My son and I opted for the dolphin encounter, where we also received kisses, rubbed Dolphin bellies, played fetch, and received gifts of small leaves retrieved for us by the 800 lb Dolphin using its remarkably small mouth.

Stormy, our big male Dolphin had no issue with me feeling his face as I searched his snout with my hands for my gift. There’s no actual nose opening on their snout, (there nasal opening is located on top of their heads), so it’s understandable how Dolphins can kill sharks by ramming their under-bellies with their blunt snouts. It’s like a hard bony club.

My day aboard a 16-foot flats boat with David Denkers for a day of backwater fishing went as well as I hoped, with the exception of missing out on catching a grand slam (Permit, Bone and Tarpon) by one species. To read about this adventure and see the pics, visit my story called…

From Islamorada we set off still further south for Key West. We camped just a bit north of the city on a narrow piece of land that separated the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico. Our campsite was directly on the beach under the Coconut trees, which is a mixed blessing. Sure there’s shade, but there’s also coconuts from acorn size all the way up to full-sized nuts that can do actual damage when they drop out of the trees, and they do, right on to the picnic table where my kids and wife were painting seashells.

A short walk from our campground was an old unused bridge spanning one of the countless channels that connect the Atlantic to the Golf. It made for an excellent place to spend late afternoons fishing. The water would be so clear my wife and kids could see the different fish as they passed under the bridge. One minute the water would be empty of life, and the next instant everyone would be getting bit. The occasional large 4-foot-plus fish passing below would trigger screams of amazement, but unfortunately, not screams from our fishing reel drags.

Key West itself was quite touristy. We did tour Hemingway’s home and take a dip in the ocean off the beach, but probably the highlight was our dinner in a small out door cafe.

Chickens roam free everywhere in Key West, including chicks and roosters alike. My wife was amazed and shocked to witness live chickens mount neighbouring but empty beautifully set tables to perch inside the empty wine glasses. The restaurant staff would replace the wine glasses that were knocked over, but not those that served as perches and remained standing.

Chickens and chicks weaved there way between the tables, and even though the signs said not to feed the birds, there were plenty of patrons who did, which would eventually lead to the offending guests being overwhelmed by pushy chickens. Inevitably, restaurant staff would have to herd the more aggressive birds away from the table where the earlier amused and now slightly shaken dinner guests would quietly but quickly finished their meals.

A small thing I found disturbing in Key West was the amount and variety of sea coral on sale at the various gift shops. With an endless parade of monster cruise ships docking in the harbour, the shops seemed to be moving large amounts of specimens that ranged in price from $20, all the way up to $100 for specimens that easily measured 20-inches in circumference. I thought it was illegal to harvest coral.

From Key West we travelled six hours north back up the U.S. #1 highway, past Miami and Lake Okeechobee, and our final destination, Fort Wilderness at Disney World. By far the nicest campground we ever had the pleasure of visiting. Tons of privacy, trees, amenities, and a 5-day rest from driving for my wife.

We visited all the major theme parks, but by far our favorite were Animal Kingdom, where the kids participated in a park-wide treasure hunt focussed exclusively on identifying and learning about the many wild birds and animals that make this Kingdom their home. Each of the over-thirty locations we searched out on the hunt had a Disney staff member on hand to administer a test on what the kids had learned and to apply the stamps after answering the five questions correctly. The associated theme rides designed more to educate and thrill than scare were highlights, as was the amazing afternoon parade of actors, acrobats, puppeteers and folk-art inspired representations of various birds and animals.

The highlight for me was the “Land” exhibit located within the Epcot theme park. There was an amazing gondola ride along water courses that snaked their way through huge experimental greenhouses where all manner of crops were being grown. An accompanying narrative of the agricultural issues facing the planet provided an unflinching explanation of what was needed if the world was to continue to feed itself sustainably for future generations. Afterwards, the lunch counter had on offer the various organic vegetables and farmed animals grown on site. An amazing set of monstrous aquariums were also included as part of another more Disneyesque ride with biologists standing by to answer questions about the various manatees, sharks and  other sea animals swimming lazily in their huge tanks. Some of the more thrill oriented rides had lines that discouraged us from sampling, but most offered virtually instant access. In all, there were five rides / theatrical offerings that we enjoyed thoroughly in the one exhibit building called “Land”.

Our final and least enjoyable experience with water took place on our way home. The weather was overcast and drizzly, but nothing extreme when we pulled into a Walmart parking lot in North Carolina to over-night. I was therefore shocked and relieved the next morning when I heard on the radio that not one but two tornados touched down in that very state destroying over 200 homes while we slept innocently in our ultra-light weight travel trailer among a cluster of big trucks. With one more big push we arrived safe and sound at our home in Ottawa at midnight that night. When we left there was still over four feet of snow on the ground, and when we returned it was gone.  Still cool, but spring had finally sprung.

Feeling Around for Some Bay of Quinte Beauties

With Scott Campbell doing the driving and taking the photos, the two of us set off for the Bay of Quinte to meet up with the Quinte Ice Fishing Team. I wanted to feel for myself the magnificent Walleyes that fishers routinely pluck out from under the ice. We met up with Jeff Chisholm and his partner Paul McTaggart at 5:30 on a Saturday morning at a Tim Horton’s in Bellville on December 28, 2013, along with several other of the Team’s guests for the day.

While waiting for my turn to be transported on to the ice at the launch sight, I spoke with a local who showed up that morning specifically to observe where the Quinte Ice Fishing Team planned to fish that day. Even though both Jeff and Paul deliberately set off from the launch in false directions prior to extinguishing their tail lights and changing courses for the intended destination, by no means did we end up with a chunk of Bay ice to ourselves. They had us positioned over 12-inches of ice and 19-feet of water with all holes drilled by 6:30.

Jeff and Paul tested baits constantly and circulated among the four of us guests to pass on information about which baits and techniques were icing fish. From 6:30 to 9:30, the bite can be quite hot, and in spite of the four of us losing five Walleye sub-surface, we managed to successfully ice ten or so decent Walleye measuring between 16 and 25 inches.

An extreme low pressure system had moved in the day before bringing temperatures up to just above zero. Sudden barometric shifts such as this always result in neutral fish, but given that we were on the ice within three weeks of its forming, there was still plenty of action to be had. Strikes were most often sudden and aggressive, but the occasional Walleye had to be finessed into biting – the longest “cat-and-mouse” game lasted 12 minutes and lured the fish 4-feet off the bottom.

Throughout the 11 hours on the ice, Jeff or Paul would be firing up either a BBQ or deep fryer making sure we were well fed. If it wasn’t hot sausages, it was fresh buns stuffed with Walleye smothered in tartar sauce. The Team also made sure everyone had access to the hottest artificial baits and an ample supply of live minnows, and was quick to offer up fresh propane tanks and 12V batteries when the need arose. Between the food, drinks, supplies and tips, none of us had anyone to blame but ourselves if more than an hour past without a fish.

As big as the Bay of Quinte is, even 20 feet can make the difference between catching fish or not. However, with Paul and Jeff constantly scouting, it wasn’t long before anyone of us four guests found ourselves being shifted over to a more productive location. It’s this sort of constant attentiveness to the fishing needs of the guests that keep people coming back to the Prince Edward county area year-after-year even if it means driving from as far away as London, which was the case of the Ice Team’s other two guests.

Hot baits were flutter-type spoons with rattles in a chartreuse colour. Dead-sticking live bait is rarely a productive method on the Bay during the winter, for whatever reason, resulting in seasoned pros such as Jeff having developed a two-handed “double-barrelled” approach to jigging. One rod is rigged with a “call” type bait, such as lipless rattle baits, and the second has a vertical presentation tipped with a full minnow.

Cadence for the baits generally consists of a 6-inch snap up of the rod tip using the wrist, with as much as a 3-second pause between snaps during which the bait is pulsed. When a fish is marked on the sonar, the “teaser” style bait is reeled up, and if this doesn’t result in a strike, the Walleye is then left with a single target to focus on. The 2-handed method takes some coordinating, especially when reeling up, but will increase your odds significantly given the amount Walleye move around under the ice. It would seem that Quinte Walleye never cease patrolling the thousands of acres of the Bay’s nearly featureless bottom.

In spite of The Bay of Quinte being part of Lake Ontario, wind patterns pushing the open water on the lake either towards or away from the Bay result in currents being established under the ice. These currents and slack water areas influence exactly where the Walleye will or will not be at any specific time in the winter. These currents can also produce dangerous ice conditions as they ware ice away from underneath – a hazard that’s difficult to detect visually from above. Having guides who spend almost every winter day on the ice keeping you safe can make a lot of sense if you’re from away.

After several seasons of relatively pour ice conditions, all indicators would seem to suggest this year’s ice fishing on the Bay of Quinte will be excellent. What little snow there was on top had pretty much melted and soaked into the more porous ice below during the weekend we were there. With the return of the extreme cold that followed, solid ice should be around for some time to come.

At the end of the day, Scott and I left for Ottawa with five decent eater-sized fish. No truly large Walleyes were kept, but just knowing they are there will keep bringing us and others back year-after-year. A big thanks to Jeff and Paul for the great day on the ice, and to Scott for applying his driving and photographic talents, not to mention his “blow-by-blow” colour commentary as he verbalized the action being revealed on my Lowrance elite Five Ice Machine.

Not being able to see the display on the fish finder myself, I fish hard all day just like everyone else did prior to sounders coming on to the scene. I still manage to catch roughly the same numbers of fish as others. It would seem the primary benefit of using fish finders on the ice is keeping fishers focussed on their fishing. Having said that, these sounders really come into play later in February when the Walleye stop feeding and the only way to elicit a strike is to tease them as if you were using a ball of string to provoke a big-old lazy house cat to pounce.

Five Steps to Selecting the Right Bait

Over the past ten years fishing has witnessed a revolution brought on by the merger of technological innovation, scientific research and knowledge passed on by generations of fishers. The result has been ever-more innovative baits. Manufacturers are also working closer than ever with their field staff to fine-tune new offerings, and are publishing increasingly detailed usage instructions. For recreational fishers, it’s resulted in a reduction in the use of live bait, and more importantly, fewer slow days on the water. And, when minnows can cost as much as 50 cents each and night crawlers a quarter, switching to artificial makes for sound economics. So what is it that makes a good artificial bait?

Some of the variables manufacturers take into consideration when developing and marketing artificial baits include matching-the-hatch, light levels, time of year, intended species, water temperature, underwater structure, use ability, longevity, cost effectiveness, environmental impact, fishing trends, etc. It may seem like a long list, but when you take the time to think about what the modern fisher considers when deciding how to invest their time and money, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Of course there’s always the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to fishing that accounts for many of the tried-and-true baits that can be found in the average fishers tackle box.  These most often are reaction-style baits noted for their ability to generate moderate success under a variety of conditions – a sort of “one size fits all” style of lure that we wouldn’t mind being stuck with on a desert island. But, since the chance of being stranded these days is pretty much nil, why are so many tackle boxes filled with ump-teen different versions of the same style baits?

Increasingly, premium bait manufacturers are counting on fishers to possess a certain level of competency when they launch a new bait. These same companies also assume that we will take the time to learn how to properly apply their latest innovations. It’s this spirit of cooperation that is responsible for the sport’s recent and dramatic evolution.

Successful fishers begin the process of selecting which baits will be used during an up-coming fishing trip many Days before lines are actually wetted. It starts with researching the characteristics of the aquatic environment to be fished, takes into consideration the locally preferred tactics and equipment, and then determining what existing and additional new tackle is required. In short, the right bait at the right time under the right conditions. Other than weather, little about fishing as to do with luck.

No doubt, in addition to the brain-numbing variety of baits on the market, making bait selection even more difficult is the insistence of some manufacturers that their baits do it all. To counter this absence of information, deciding on what bait to buy and use comes down to both a fishers direct experience and what they have learned from trusted experts by reading articles or listening to seminars. More-and-more though, bait manufacturers who have made the investment in developing quality baits are now including educational materials on when, where and how to get the most out of their product on the water. The internet has been a game changer in this regard.

Tackle manufacturers are now able to launch new products at the time of their choosing; no longer being tied to a few days each year based on the schedule of an annual outdoor show. They also recognize the value of getting their baits into the hands of trusted experts so these fishers can, in turn, offer-up their opinions and tips through social media.

With so many choices available to fishers it’s understandable why some have grown slightly cynical of the motives of bait manufacturers. Mistakes can happen however, and it’s not uncommon to find baits in bargain bins never intended for fishing conditions within 500 miles of that store’s location. Choosing to buy baits based on first impressions alone might offer one an immediate thrill, but it’s completely reverse to how the process should unfold. The following five steps should help you to maintain control over your tackle purchasing impulses — indulging your compulsive tackle purchasing “wants” should be relegated to an optional sixth step.

  1. Learn from local experts to identify currently productive fishing techniques and baits specific to the region or body of water you plan to fish.
  2. Assess recent and potential climactic and other external influences that could impact your chosen body of water.
  3. Inspect your existing tackle suitable for the fishing scenarios being considered.
  4. Make a list of essential tackle you will need to acquire.
  5. Consult with your local tackle stores staff to identify what available stock might best fit your needs.
  6. Only once steps one-through-five have been implemented should you risk a peek in your local tackle venders clearance bins.

I like to conduct my on-line research about new baits brought to market between seasons. It’s during these slack line moments that I also sort  baits according to how each performed under various conditions. I spend just as much time remembering those glory days and the baits I used, as I do thinking how I could have turned around those less productive days. By spending time focusing on the lessons I learned I’m able to identify where I need to expand both my fishing skills and bait collection. In practical terms, it often means investing more time to research and experiment with new-to-me  products and tactics designed to address the sort of challenges that have been causing me grief.

Like everyone I enjoy telling stories about the big ones, but just as importantly, I always take time to revisit those unproductive moments with my fishing buddies at the end of each day. By thinking and talking our way through our feelings of disappointment, it becomes possible to learn from our mistakes. Sorting through the subjective emotions that cloud logical thoughts allows for clear objective problem solving, and that’s exactly the mind-set needed when you plan your next tackle purchase.

Ontario Bass Nation Qualifier

I just fished my first Provincial B.A.S.S. qualifier among 199 other competitors. It was an individual event with boaters and non-boaters rotated daily. The event is hosted each year by a local club selected by the presidents of the 21 clubs that make up the Ontario Bass Nation. This year the event was held on the Bay of Quinte, a body of water located along the north-east shore of Lake Ontario. Even though tournament limits excluded our going out into the lake proper, it still left us the 40 mile long bay to explore – a lot of fishable water.

My day one boater was the current president of the Ontario Bass Nation, Mr. Paul Kroisenbrunner. Paul’s a true gentleman to fish with, even though we were competing against each other aboard the same boat, (the Qualifier uses individual weights). Paul keeps his Stratos impeccable and his 175hp Johnson works perfectly. It was a true pleasure to fish from with its expansive rear deck.

We caught most of our fish up one of the many rivers that empty into the Bay. Paul, being from southern Ontario, is a seasoned Steelhead / Salmon River fisher and understands currents and the best way to present baits. Having grown up myself fishing trout rivers, I too took readily to the challenge. A combination of tubes and drop-shot techniques were the ticket. Paul also spotted some additional fishable waters further up the river that he saved for day two, with good results. Each of our respective bags presented the tournament director and his weigh-in officials with some of the first Smallies of the day.

Day two had me aboard Mr. Doug Catton’s brand new Ranger Comanche 520C. The Ranger easily pushed 70 MPH, and proved as nimble as a cat as we passed by quite a number of boats that left ahead of us on day two’s start.

Although our first few strategies failed to produce the numbers we were looking for, our continuously adjusting and trying different styles of water eventually paid off. Seven-inch Senkos seemed to be the ticket in the end, fished along weed edges in 8-10 feet of water.

Weigh-ins was well organized with 100 boats and 200 bags of fish to process. Mr. Reno Viola and Mr. Andrew Pallotta co-hosted the stage. Andrew also provided the staff and equipment to ensure the fish were weighed in without mortality using Shimano’s water weigh-in system.

Final results had our own club president, Mr. Frank Ramsey, taking home top prize with over 33lb of fish caught in two days. Another of our club members, Mr. Charles Sim, qualified in position 11 of the 12-person team that will represent Ontario at the 2014 North-East Regional championships to be held somewhere in the state of new York. Our club, the Ottawa Valley South Bass Masters, finished close to the top.

In addition to the actual event, tournament organizers held a one-day junior tournament the day prior, took over 30 military vets fishing, and hosted a kids fishing derby. Hats off to all the volunteers, sponsors and organizers – job well done.

Jenda Paddle Sports Kayak Fishing Derby

Each year Jenda Paddle Sports in Ottawa kick off the summer with a kayak fishing tournament. Held on the Rideau River, winners are determined by the longest fish for each species, including a prize for smallest fish over-all. The format is catch, photograph and release, and then turn in your digital camera’s card at the end of the day if you have an entry you think warrants entering.

Jason Kirby, owner of Jenda Paddle Sports, organizes the event with assistance from his wife Laura and quite a number of key sponsors associated with kayak fishing. Jason always includes a great BBQ for competitors as part of their entry fee.

My fishing buddy David mingy and I set off in our kayaks from the Baxter Conservation area with the other 35 competitors. To ensure I didn’t deviate into the boating channel, we attached a bear bell to the tip of one of Dave’s rods mounted in a rear rod holder, and a second small brass bell suspended just off the stern using a wire coat hanger and some duct tape. Unfortunately, the bear bell fell off somewhere between the staging area and the shore from where we launched, and in spite of my bending the coat hanger in every possible configuration, we just couldn’t get that small bell to ring in any sort of consistent manner without Dave having to perform the shimmy while seated in his kayak.

Navigating by talking compass on a river isn’t feasible due to the river’s numerous turns and twists. However, there are lots of sounds along the Rideau River for me to focus on as navigational aids. Whether it was cottage owners tending their lawns, birds in trees, or cars passing along nearby roads or overhead on bridges, there were plenty of audible clues to keep me well oriented. Of course, I took GPS coordinates at the start point just in case I had to return solo. Otherwise, I simply listened for the splash of Dave’s paddle, a system that works well given that my kayak is virtually soundless thanks to my Mirage Drive peddle system from HobieCat.

It wasn’t long before we got into some nice largemouth Bass chucking craws along weed edges. My biggest for the day was 17.5 inches, and my largest Walleye, also caught on a Texas-rigged craw, was 16 inches. Neither fish were big enough to win me a prize, but I came close.

By noon the recreational boat traffic on the river had grown fairly intense. When motor boats were travelling in my direction it wasn’t always easy to determine which side of me they would pass – often sounding like they were heading directly for me. After a boat had passed, the sound of its fading motor for the next five minutes or so provided an excellent audio indicator to either follow or use in maintaining orientation. Of course, there was also Dave’s yelling when I headed off in a direction that he judged as less than prudent.

Half the fun of an event such as this is the story telling and catching up with old friends at the end, and even on the water. Kayaks don’t pass each other at blazing speeds, and given that we were all travelling along the edge of the boating channel, one couldn’t help but stop and chat with fellow competitors. A truly social day with some great fishing and exercise thrown in for good measure.

New Ranger 620 Fisherman / 250 HP High-Output E-Tech!

Continuing through 2013 as a Pro Staff member for both Ranger Boats and Evinrude E-Tech, I recently took delivery of my 2013 fishing boat that I’ll be using to both introduce blind people to the sport of fishing, and to take part in the roughly 25 fishing tournaments I compete in each year. Thanks to the great support from Orleans Boat World, the transition from last year’s Ranger to my new boat was absolutely painless.

In 2012 I had the privilege of owning a Ranger 619 Fisherman rigged with an Evinrude 225 HP E-Tech. I loved that boat as it provided me the best of two worlds. Equipped with a full rear deck extension, the boat served more than adequately as a Bass fishing platform. Remove the deck, and the boat quickly converted into a Walleye / Musky trolling machine. My 2013 620 goes further in several important ways.

The new 620 also came with a rear deck extension, but now even with the extension in place, there is still more than ample room to move about the cockpit, and with the extension removed, there’s plenty of room for four guys to troll for Walleye all day.

Both the 619 and 620 have mammoth front casting decks. The extra nine inches in the 620’s length is made evident in the cockpit. Snap out carpet in the cockpit also reduces maintenance and worry.

While the rear storage boxes in the 620 aren’t as wide as they are in the 619, the fact that there are four instead of three, more than makes up for their reduced width.

Once again I let Ranger Boats put the colour package together. The 45th anniversary colours were complimented this year by Evinrude with a custom painted motor to match. The black / silver with red pin striping is quite the crowd pleaser.

Lowrance HDS Gen-II fish finders are flush mounted in the bow and driver’s consoles, which is also where one finds the key pad that replaces the key. The three deep-cycle batteries for the Minn Kota Terrova 101 are positioned mid-ship along with the starter battery in a special battery compartment in the floor.

The front deck houses five compartments. A centre rod storage box that easily swallows up 12 of my longest rods, an aerated 5-gallon bait well just ahead of the starboard console, a built in cooler in front of the passenger (port) console, and two quite large and deep compartments – one of which now contains my PDFs, safety gear, paddles, etc., leaving the other wide open for guests.

To aid with launching and trailering, I ordered the retractable keel roller system for the trailer. Once the trailer is in the water, I can simply turn the secondary winch’s handle, raise the three rollers positioned below the keel, and easily slide the 620 off the trailer. The same works in reverse, eliminating the need to power the boat on to the trailer by simply winching the boat all the way up using just one arm to turn the handle. An emergency break on the trailer also removes the need to place bricks behind trailer wheels, and the up-graded “American Racing” rims on all five tires (including spare) are a nice touch.

Finally, a really cool refinement Ranger made to the 620 was the reduced height to the walk-through windshield. Sure, it means slumping down somewhat to get out of the rain when underway, but it also means less of a “sail” for the wind to catch, and less chance of the windshield getting in the way of rods or landing nets. It just also looks a whole lot cooler!

Multi-Species Tournament

To kick off each year’s tournament season, the Ottawa Valley South Bass Masters club organizes a fun tournament in which seven species of fish need to be caught, with the total length determining the winner. Species include: Northern Pike, Walleye, Crappie, Rock Bass, Perch, Bluegill and Pumpkinseed.

This year we held the event on the Rideau River. Last year’s event on the Ottawa River was won by my partner and I, but it was tough fishing. This year most teams did well, but everyone was missing a Walleye.

Three of the ten teams caught six species. The winning over-all length was 72 inches. My team caught five species with a beautiful kicker Pike that I caught on a 1/16 oz jig on 4lb test Super Slick Power Pro line. Unfortunately, not only could we not find a Walleye, but catching a Perch also seem to be near impossible. Turns out five other boats also had trouble finding a Perch.

Great weather, great company, and a fantastic BBQ afterwards at Tim Baker’s home made for a near perfect day.