Fresh clean ice, weathered faces, layers of clothing, lots of coffee, and up and out the door before light. Nope, this isn’t Saturday morning hockey with the kids, its trophy hunting on the Bay of Quinte or the annual ice breaker classic. For some it’s just a last kick at the can before packing it in for the winter, but for others it is the time of year they have been waiting for. The time when the brutes of Quinte move in from the lake where they have been gorging on Alewives the entire summer and now start to move into the “funnel to spawn” for the winter before moving into the rivers to spawn in the spring. The biggest fish in country stack up in what Scott Walcott of Bay of Quinte Charters refers to as the system.
It’s not for everyone, this angler against the fish and elements adventure, but if you are a walleye fisherman this pilgrimage to walleye mecca is a must at least once. This is the busiest time of the year for some of the guides and charters and it is the best time to finally catch one of those fish of a lifetime. On a good day 20+ fish are possible with a few in the teens. But it can be a long cold day of nothing if the weather turns daily and the fish scatter and stay deep or simply clam up. It’s not like there isn’t enough natural food to compete against already. The Bay of Quinte is forage rich with an array of baitfish, a food web all the other Great Lakes envy.
Roy Adams, Paul Legacey and I had been planning for a while to finally make the trip as late in the year as possible. In a normal year, or at least what we have become accustom to as normal given the climate of the last two decades, the last week of November is as good a time as any to become part of the welcoming party of the big fish moving back into the system. But the last couple of years have been different as winter shows up a little earlier. Many astute walleye specialists won’t even show up until there is ice in the harbor in the mornings. But we had heard reports that the fish were in and since the research Ranger (my boat) doesn’t like ice as much as some of the aluminum boats that frequent the home coming we thought now was as good a time as any.
We packed every warm thing we owned for ice fishing and Roy and I set out Thursday morning. We headed straight to Picton with a boatload of rods, line counter reels, plainer boards, and 4 lockers full of rigs and baits. I have fished in December for walleye on Georgian Bay where the fish are more predictable and trolling with plainer boards is almost unheard of. Quinte is such a huge body of water and you have to be prepared to cover a lot of water, keep the baits well away from the boat, and fish at various depths from the surface to 60 or 70 feet. It doesn’t matter what is successful other places, if you want to catch fish here you have to listen to the specialists or go home empty and scratching your head.
We arrived at the Picton harbor about 2:00 pm and launched the boat into 1c degree water. It was nice to see we had a scrape and a flood for the 3rd period, or at least that’s what it looked like as the ice covered the harbor like a sheet of glass. When you launch your boat at this time of year after a night of -10, something is frozen. It’s either the bilge pumps or your cooling system or the plug hole. For the boat ahead of us it was the gas line. They were the ice breaker so we waited for them to heat the lines and continue but we ended up towing them back to shore. Luckily someone broke the ice before them so we headed out of the harbor to softer water. The wind was down for a change so the 6 layers of clothing under our survival suites mad it comfortable and with hand warmers in out cloves it was like summer!
We spent two hours jigging and trolling and although we marked all kind of fish they didn’t want anything to do with us. About an hour later it was getting dark and Roy says “ wouldn’t the boat ramp freeze and become a sheet of ice?”. I hadn’t thought of that and we didn’t have any sand or salt so we high tailed back to the ramp where someone else had just salted the ramp.
We were staying at West Lake Willows owned and operated by Scott Walcott of Bay of Quinte Charters so a short drive and we were back in the warmth of the cottage. There we met up with Paul who had stew hot ready and after dinner we were all snoring early. After our test run the day before we thought we knew how to prepare and with some help from Scott we had a destination for the morning. We were at the launch by 8:00 after I forgot my fishing licence and had to go back. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t going to be any enforcement out in that weather but if there was that would be the time I would get stopped. Scott was there early and cleared the way with a nice path through some fresh ice so off to destination one. We came up empty and got ready for spot 2 where Scott told us to go.
It was like a gathering of Time on the Water board members out there as everyone we met at the launch or on the water was a member of lakesimcoemessageboard.com or spoonpullers, or fishingbayofquinte. It was a good thing we knew so many people because friend and member Glen (Tattoo Man) gave us some clip weights on the water to get the baits down to where fish were being caught. There are several methods of getting deep diving lure even deeper and clip weights are the most convenient. You can change your depth by weight or speed. We had text reports from around the bay and so far everyone but us had something to show for the day. Jack (Orangepeal) had just caught a 13+, another member reported a 12 and an 8, Glen and buddies had fish so we knew we were doing something wrong. Finally after fishing deeper and slower we netted our first fish, a nice 25 inch walleye about 7.5 pounds out of 55 feet right on the bottom. The fish hit a sexy shad Berkley Flicker Shad which had been the hot bait lately. As we netted the fish the lure hooks were tangled in the mesh and we were 45 seconds getting them out and getting the fish ready to release. But fish caught that deep need to be put back very quick and you could see the barotrauma set in as the fish bloated up and it couldn’t swim down.
Many of the ice breaker specialists and the charter boats won’t fish deep if they don’t have to. Walleye are very susceptible to barotrauma, a condition where the bladder bloats with air similar to the bends for a diver and unless released almost immediately the mortality is very high. The fish we caught wasn’t that big and very edible but it was a good lesson on preparation in case we did actually get a big fish and wanted to keep it healthy. Next time I would just cut the hooks. But the next time didn’t come fast. The next bite didn’t come for about an hour and it came unbuttoned. We trolled about 7 km with the trolling motor to maintain speeds under 1.7 mph. We could have used a drift sock but Paul volunteered for the trolling motor so as long as I didn’t have to do it I was happy.
Finally around 4:30 as the wind started to mount we decided to pack it in. It was a long cold trip back to the launch and unlike most of the other boats out with windshields, tops and heaters, the research Ranger likes it topless so brain freeze was a common occurrence at this time of the year for me. In fact cranial icing is one of my best excuses for not having to decide what we are going to eat. The temperature was dropping fast and the 7 km run back to the ramp was painful as my eyes were freezing. Next time my snowmobile helmet will be in the boat. We got back to Picton and loaded the boat and as we doing it the icicles were forming all over the boat. The water in the bilge area was frozen and so was my livewell with a fish in it.
We got back to West Lake Willows where Scott reported a tough day as well and as the emails and text came in we realized we didn’t do too bad going 1 for 3. But the wind report for the next day wasn’t pretty and one to 3 fish days in big water wasn’t appealing. Over dinner we decided to move closer into the bay where we might catch smaller fish but the wind couldn’t blow us off the water. Fishing the outer system has been very sporadic and tougher than usual. The fish have been deeper and really not stacking up the way they should at this time of year. On the other hand the inner bay and rivers have been on fire. Paul said he had a spot he thought there would be fish so we had a plan for the morning.
West Lake Willows is at the end of West Lake right beside Sandbanks Provincial Park and faces the sand dunes that separate West Lake from Lake Ontario. From the day we arrived the lake had continually collected more ice to the point that on the final morning the lake was covered as far as we could see. Boating season was coming to an end quickly.
We headed to Paul’s spot and launched the boat and within minutes were there. We found one of the deep holes Paul used to fish and within minutes I boated a nice 18 inch walleye. Minutes later we marked several fish moving in and I caught another a little smaller. I caught another using a Gulp minnow on a drop shot and now we had everyone using the same technique and bait. Roy gets another then another and then Paul kicks into gear. These were beautiful fat fish and although they were not really aggressive they could be caught. Then the Garpike moved in and Roy had fun with those for a while.
Over the 6 hours we caught 25 nice fish including a nice 6.4 pound fish that Roy (the hot stick of the day) landed. Any big fish were released. We lost another 10 as well. By 2:30 it was time to load up and head home with a nice feed of walleye and the end of a great experience on the Bay of Quinte. By the time I got home I was exhausted and felt like I had been through 10 rounds with Mike Tyson after the cold, wind, the waves and long hours. But now I will never miss another ice breaker classic.