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Tips for Derby-winning Lake Ontario salmon and trout

The Lake Ontario Counties Spring Trout and Salmon Derby ( kicks off Friday (yes, it’s still on!) and runs through May 14 – 10 days of fishing fun with anglers competing for over $44,000 in prizes and a grand prize of $15,000 for the biggest salmon overall. Over 3,000 fishermen will be hitting the lake wherever their boats will take them for the spring event since the entire lake is fair game.

Competitive fishing on Lake Ontario has a long and storied history. Ever since Rochester’s Dick Schleyer gave his first grand prize away in 1975 for big-fish recognition in the Empire State Lake Ontario (ESLO) Trout and Salmon Derby, there isn’t anything that has created more excitement and brought more people into New York State than fishing derbies of this magnitude – known for over two decades as the “ESLO.”

“Some of the ESLO derbies brought in more than 14,000 fishermen from more than 40 different states,” said David Chilson from Ontario, N.Y., part of the ESLO team with Schleyer back in 1989. “It was incredible what these derbies did for the lake shore communities and the overall economy for the state – from fishing license sales to purchases of food, beverage, gas and accommodations.”

James Nowakowski of East Aurora caught this winning steelhead in the Fall Derby of 2015 while fishing with Capt. Matt Yablonsky of Wet Net Charters. It weighed in a 18 pounds, 15 ounces out of Olcott.

More than four decades later, the “new” derby in town is the LOC that begins this week, started up through a group known as the Lake Ontario Sportfishing Promotion Council (LOSPC). Time has flown by and the LOC has been around as long as the ESLO was at this point – and Chilson is running it. Locally, there are some fishing experts that have risen to the top when it comes to competition fishing – both tournaments and derbies. Here are a few tips that could help you catch that spring grand prize salmon or one of the divisional winners - lake trout, brown trout, walleye and, of course, salmon.

The Fishing Beat (May 3)

“The most important thing when fishing the derbies is preparedness,” says Capt. Vince Pierleoni of Newfane ( Pierleoni is one of the top anglers on the lake when it comes to fishing in derbies and tournaments.

“It starts with the equipment, making sure you performed maintenance on everything and you’ve replaced the fishing line for the new season. King salmon and other trophy fish look for weaknesses in your gear.

Patrick Barber (left) and Richard Barber weigh in a lake trout at Creek Road Bait and Tackle in Lewiston. Patrick won the lake trout division last year with a Niagara Bar fish that weighed in at 27.5 pounds last spring.

“The next phase of this is to pay attention on the boat and be aware. You never know when that winning fish is going to bite. You need to stay alert and be ready at all times. When I look in coolers at the tournaments I compete in, some teams might not have the numbers but they may have one big fish. That’s all it takes for a derby. Anyone can catch that derby-winning fish.”

When that big fish is on, you also need to be prepared for chaos. “Big fish will do the unexpected,” says Pierleoni. “When they wrap around a wire diver or a downrigger cable, remain calm and figure out what you need to do quickly. Everyone on the boat should have a role and you need to know what that is before the fish even hits.”

From the tactical side of things, Pierleoni insists that it’s important to stick with what works and “match the hatch” as far as the size of the baitfish. “Stick with what is working on the lake, be it salmon or trout.” It makes sense:  The more fish you catch, your odds will increase for catching a winner.

Michael Hay of Lake Luzerne caught this spring derby winner in 2015 fishing the Niagara Bar - his first time fishing the area and his first derby.

Of course, that winning fish could be anywhere – especially in the spring. According to Pierleoni, the king salmon are really starting to turn on right now and they can be found from 10 feet of water to 200 feet of water. Those fish can be caught on spoons, stickbaits, cut bait or flasher and fly. “Bait can be a crucial factor,” says Pierleoni. “Just because there isn’t bait on your electronics doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The bait could be up higher in the water column or hugging the bottom.”

Capt. Matt Yablonsky of Youngstown ( ) is another regular in the winner’s circle when it comes to Lake Ontario fishing contests. “Catching a Derby winning fish can be as easy as being in the right place at the right time. However it usually takes a little extra to find the big ones. The big fish normally eat early so don't waste any time in the morning getting to your spot.  Big fish are usually dominant fish which means they can be loners.” Yablonsky has had a couple grand prize winners and numerous divisional winners come off this boat through the years.

“Focus your efforts outside of the pack of fish and boats to try to locate that dominant fish.  These big fish are older and smarter.  They let the younger fish swim through the schools of bait and bust them up.  As the younger ones are busting up the bait, they injure some.  As those injured bait fish fall out of the school, the big fish cherry pick them because they are easier to catch.  So to imitate this natural situation, I'll run my lures below where I'm marking the bait and the majority of the fish.  I also slow down to make the lures look more ‘injured.’ There is no guarantee you’re going to catch a derby winner but these few things will increase your chances.”

Catches and Hunts of the Week (May 3)

Before you go out fishing, pick up a copy of the rules and read them. People can be disqualified for not paying attention to certain details. One of the biggest violations is not keeping your catch after weighing in one of the top two fish in a division or the grand prize salmon or not showing up at the awards ceremony (a requirement for the grand prize catch and top two fish in each category).

Another big tip is purely common sense. Taking a page from the state lottery commercials, you have to be in it to win it. If you are going to be fishing on the lake when a derby is going on, take a chance and buy a derby ticket. Nearly every single derby, we hear about the fish being caught that would have won the contest … but they failed to get in. Keep that in mind if you go fishing on Lake Ontario in the next 10 days. Good luck.

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