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Bill Hilts Jr.: Wet Net, Hound Dog Set Pace in 34th Niagara Pro Am Salmon Tourney

It’s been quite a year for Capt. Matt Yablonsky of Youngstown. The skipper of the Wet Net Fishing Team has already gotten married and bought a new boat in 2018. Now you can chalk up his first major tournament win with the 34th Annual Lake Ontario Pro Am Salmon Team Tournament out of Niagara County June 1-2.

James Spinelli and the Hound Dog team from Wellsville swept the Amateur Open class when they won both the Friday and Saturday single day contests for their first tournament wins as well. They also earned the Niagara Falls USA Amateur Open Cup.

In the Pro Division, it was back to old school as tournament director Penny Lyman moved the tournament back to the first weekend in June and instituted a “no communication” clause for the 24 professional teams competing for $30,000 in prize money. After a near perfect day that left the Wet Net team in fourth place with a score of 213.32 points (based on 10 points per fish and a point per pound), Lake Ontario kicked up a bit and forced teams to deal with more difficult conditions.

Yablonsky and his team of Mike Barry of Tonawanda, Jim Dolly, Jr. of Gasport and Matt’s wife Christin Yablonsky came in with the best score of the day, bringing a 12-fish tournament limit to the scales for the second day in a row and score 231.21 points. Their two-day total was 444.53 points, good enough for the $11,000 check. They narrowly beat out Yankee Troller and Capt. Richard Hajecki of Rochester with a score of 441.57 points. Second place won $6,000.

“Our strategy for the tournament started on Thursday as we pre-fished the waters off Wilson,” said Yablonsky, a competitive angler who has a strong history in placing high in the Lake Ontario Counties (LOC) Trout and Salmon Derbies every year. “At the end of the day we found near-perfect water off Wilson and decided to focus in 120 to 180 feet of water with a north-south troll for day one. We ran a 95 percent magnum Silver Streak spoon program in UV and Glow green and charteuse colors.” Yablonsky credited Chip Cartwright from Silver Streak who sent a care package of lures just before the tournament. Some of those key spoons caught 21 of their 24 tournament fish.

The Wet Net team ran a relatively simple program off the new boat, a 29-foot Blackfin Combi that has only been in use since May 1. Yablonsky likes running three downriggers and four divers and he stuck with his strategy. “We dropped the riggers to 50-60-70 feet in the morning and moved them up to 35-45-55 feet later in the day, paying attention to our water temperatures,” he said. “Divers were relatively shallow at 105 and 120 feet back for the high ones, 165 and 180-feet back for the inside rods. I run all Slide Divers.” They had their 12-fish tournament limit by 10:53 a.m.

Saturday conditions changed dramatically with 3-4 foot waves out of the northeast greeting teams. “This was where our boat really helped as it cut through the waves like they weren’t even there. We put our spoon spread out but we added one Dreamweaver Premium cut ballyhoo rod and started looking in the same waters as Friday. We didn’t hit our first fish until 7:14 a.m. However our diver rods lit up and we were boxed out by 10:34 a.m. with a bigger average size than we had on Friday. I knew that many of the boats were running to the Niagara Bar where the first day leader Yankee Troller had been fishing. I was also confident that with a northeast wind, the Bar would probably produce smaller fish based on my experience of fishing there.” They won by less than 3 points.

Rounding out the top five Pros were Vision Quest and Capt. Pete Alex of North East, Penn. with 420.19 points ($5,000), Shark Tank and Capt. Greg Gehrig of Oswego with 405.81 points ($4,000), and Screamer A-Tom-Mik and Dave Antenori of Clarks Summit, Penn. with a score of 404.94 points ($3,000). Big fish and a check for $250 in honor of the late Tom and Ethel Letcher was the Summer School team led by Capt. Tom Pearse of Grand Island with an 18.34-pound king salmon.

In the Amateur Open Division, each day was a separate contest. The Hound Dog team led by James Spinelli of Wellsville won both days for the best three fish totals. Also on the team were Jeremy Beckwith and Brian Insley, both of Wellsville. After winning the first day with a score of 79.87 points ($900) and a big fish of the day at 22 pounds ($250), they duplicated the 3-fish win with a score 57.97 points ($900). They also had the best two day total among the amateurs, giving them the Niagara Cup, a check for $500 and a Raymarine Dragonfly 7 unit. The only thing that they didn’t win was Big Fish for the second day. American Dream led by Rick O’Hara of Ransomville earned those honors with a 12.90 pound king, winning $250.

“We didn’t get to pre-fish the tournament but we had fished the Niagara Bar the weekend before,” said Spinelli. “We decided to stick with what we knew and our program was a mix of riggers, divers and copper wire rods. Our target was 50 to 70 feet down over 200 to 250 feet of water just off the ledge. Our first two fish Friday morning was the big fish, a 22-pound king, and a 17-pound king. And then when we saw pro team Yankee Troller set down right near us first thing and we knew we had made the right move.”

The team ran a mix of Moonshine and Michigan Stinger spoons. Anything with orange in it was working for them, like a Stinger Inmate Orange or a Hogs Wild spoon. “Thanks to Capt. Bob Songin’s ‘At the Bar’ Facebook posts all spring, we picked up some tips that really helped us. Running a flasher and fly combination – an A-Tom-Mik Stud Fly with two face double crush white flasher – we caught our biggest fish of the tournament. We also took a nice fish on a 300-foot copper wire rig running cut bait.

On Saturday, they stuck with basically the same program. Because the amateur boats could launch any place in Niagara County, they pulled their 23-foot Baha Cruiser from Wilson and launched at Fort Niagara first thing. Since the tournament was called for the amateur boats at 8:07 a.m. due to rough conditions, it gave them slightly more fishing time to put their three fish in the box and secure the win. There were 19 teams in the Amateur Open Division each day, competing for $5,500 in cash and another $2,000 in product.

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