Capt. Paul Nienaltowski of Port Austin, Mich., wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. He brought his 28-foot Carolina Classic from Lake Huron to fish the Wilson Harbor Invitational Tournament last year and Team Mermaid failed to enter the Lake Ontario Counties (LOC) Trout and Salmon Derby. The crew ended up reeling in a 25-1/2-pound salmon in 2016 that would have won first place in the Salmon Division. They lost out on some cold, hard cash – a story that is repeated time and time again on this Great Lake. Lessons come hard on Lake Ontario.
This year, the foursome signed up right away for the LOC Derby and their persistence paid off. On May 9, the team (consisting of his brother Alex from St. Clair Shores, Mich., Ken Rutz of Port Austin and Chris McConnell of Port Huron) was trolling north from the Niagara Bar looking for clean water. One line in particular was 250 feet of copper, outfitted with a Diabolical meat rig in a Black Magic coloration.
“When we hit clear water in 300-foot depths, we swung the boat around and headed south,” said Nienaltowski. “It was when we hit the 180-foot mark, the rod and reel started to scream line. The salmon took three long runs and at one point it was 650 feet from the boat. Forty minutes later, we netted the fish – a 27-pound, 8-ounce king salmon. It was my biggest spring salmon by far and was just a half pound shy of my biggest salmon ever that I caught back home. What a thrill. This is why we came over from Michigan.”
The Lake Ontario salmon and trout fishing season kicked off unofficially on May 5 when the popular LOC Derby was held for 10 days around the lake. The contest was filled with many challenges and even started a day late for most as strong winds pounded the lake for opening day. Not a single salmon was brought to the scales. It seemed to go downhill from there.
Not that the fishing was bad, but high water levels created an air of confusion. Some boat ramps were closed down; a state of emergency was issued by each Lake Ontario County in New York for extreme water levels; some lake businesses were shut. Many people thought the lake was closed right down.
Several LOC Derby weigh stations were closed, too. Some marinas were closed. The awards ceremony, traditionally held at Capt. Jack’s in Sodus Point, was moved because the main street was off limits due to the water problems. Bald Eagle Marina in Orleans County came to the rescue last minute.
Despite it all, the fishing was good.
First place in the Salmon Division was Lee Beaton of Clifton Springs with a 25-pound, 5-ounce king salmon. He’s been fishing in the LOC Derby since it was started in the 1990s and, before that, in the Empire State/Lake Ontario (ESLO) since the 1980s. He started fishing with his dad. In all that time, they never really won anything substantial, but they always had a good time.
Three years ago, Lee’s father passed away. That first year of fishing without him, he won first place in the Salmon Division. This year he did it again, fishing with his buddies Gary Erb of Williamson, Jim Skolny and his son Dave from Manchester aboard Beaton’s 22-1/2 foot Grady White named “A-Dik-tion” - named after dad.
They hit the winning $1,500 fish straight out from Wilson using a wire diver set back 150 feet on a No. 2 setting. The lucky lure set-up was a white Pro Troller flasher and a purple glow A-Tom-Mik fly. This one was the biggest spring salmon he’s ever caught. It sounds like dad is still helping out.
In the Lake Trout Division, it was a case of catching fish they were not intending. Brian Marketich of Beaver Falls, Pa., and Ken Champagne of Chillicothe, Ohio, fish the LOC Derby religiously year after year. They won the first place salmon in 2011, but that was when the Grand Prize was the biggest fish overall and the lake trout won the big check for the last time.
Once again the duo was fishing around the Niagara bar (just west) when Marketich hooked into a 22-pound, 10-ounce lake trout … while salmon fishing. The laker hit a Pro Troll flasher and a green/black/glow A-Tom-Mik fly in 55 feet of water using a dipsy diver on a No. 3 setting, 120 feet back.
There was a tie for the Brown Trout Division this year – both out of Niagara County. The tie-breaker is who weighs the fish in first and Dave Rafle of Edinboro, Pa., won the $1,200 prize with a 16-pound, 12-ounce brown caught May 8. It hit a Northern King Kevorkian spoon. Fishing with Justin Nekoloff of Coreopolis, Pa., and Jason Heydinger of Erie, Pa., the trio headed straight north out of Olcott looking for clean water. When they hit 185 feet of water, a 19-pound 11-ounce king hit. As soon as they got it to the boat, the brown hit, just 27 feet down. Then another king slammed their offering as soon as the brown was in the net. This was Rafle’s second derby ever.
The runner-up brown (also at 16 pounds, 12 ounces) came when the group of Rob Eversole, Jeff Yosko and Will Yeager, all of McKeesport, Pa., saw their boat break down. They chartered Capt. Matt Yablonsky of Youngstown on May 12 and worked the murky water between Fort Niagara and Wilson with Dreamweaver Super Slim spoons off in-Line Off Shore boards in 13 feet of water. They had a banner day on salmon and trout, also catching a 30-inch Atlantic salmon. Eversole caught the big brownie, his largest ever, around 1 p.m. It came at a good time.
For a complete rundown of spring winners, check out www.loc.org.