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OUTDOORS WITH SKIP…. Fishing the St. Lawrence Seaway

The St. Lawrence River is about an 8-hour drive from Mantua, Ohio.  It is the boundary between the U.S. and Canada from New York through Maine. The first 40 miles of the St. Lawrence from Lake Ontario eastward are also known as the Thousand Islands. This area has a mystique and aura about it, which is very much unlike any other place that I’ve fished before. It is reminiscent of the typically-pictured Canadian waterscapes with much rocky outcropping, craggy, rocky islands, rocks and trees, in-water rock piles, and whalebacks (reefs that protrude above water).  Unlike typical Canadian waterscapes though, you are not out in the wilderness a hundred miles from nowhere.  There are myriads of summerhouses scattered among the islands and shorelines.  More than some of them are million dollar summer mansions.  Many of these summer cottages are easily $250-500,000 abodes. Many are quaint, turn of the last century houses in excellent repair. Many are quite modern. This is not the typical Canadian Hinterlands.

The St. Lawrence is home to a great variety of fish at different times of the year, including largemouth and smallmouth bass, salmon, trout, northern pike, walleye, and muskellunge.  The fishery is is perhaps very similar to what western Lake Erie and the islands were like 150 years ago. In the summer we target northern pike and smallmouth bass, and the ever-present yellow perch.  We stay at cottages in Fisher’s Landing, New York, about twenty miles downstream (East) from Lake Ontario.

Why go 450 miles from home to fish when we could be catching walleye and perch in the Walleye capital of the world?  This is a good question that has been posed to me several times by residents of the Thousand Islands and local fishermen here.  I say that it is a different kind of fishing than we seem to have around here.  For openers, the St. Lawrence rarely gets rough like Lake Erie constantly does. With our 18 ft. boat we can usually buzz around the islands and open waters at near full throttle at almost any time. You can fish virtually 98% of the time if you don’t mind some occasional inclement weather.  The water depths vary, ranging from the average 8-12 feet to 200 ft.  and more in underwater canyons and the geologic fault line that is the main channel for the St. Lawrence Seaway.  Different fish inhabit the different depths. We often fish the drop-offs– underwater cliffs that go from 8 feet deep to an instant 30 to 1000 feet deep.  Heavily loaded ocean and lake freighters make their way up and down this main channel providing a distinct and rare ambiance while you are on the water.  You don’t see that everyday!  And finally, we can’t catch northern pike and smallmouth around here like we can on the St Lawrence. It is not uncommon for us to boat 6-8 northerns in a day’s fishing. Northern pike put up one heck of a fight. At least half of the hook-ups never make it into the boat because the pike will get to the boat and then spit the spoon back out at you, and swim away. Their toothy, boney mouth prevents the hook from lodging. Most of the fish that we actually catch are released. We only keep a few for the grill and I haven’t caught that “big one” for the wall yet.  I find that not nearly as many fishermen target northern pike.  Some consider them garbage fish because of difficulty in removing the bones. But we were taught the proper filleting technique by the cottage owner and can make a slick, bone free fillet, which, in my opinion, is as good as any fish you can eat.

Here is the scenario that unfolded up on the St. Lawrence one day last week.  It was a rainy Tuesday morning on the River and there was a fair amount of wind—20-30 mph wind gusts from the southwest.   The weather forecast, however, said that it would clear up shortly.   At least one boat was readying to go out despite the inclement weather.  These were the button box accordion guys (so named by my wife Barb, because one of them is a true accordion star in that world of music) staying in the next cottage. They were dressed in their rain suits.  It began to rain harder as they pulled away from the dock.  Their boat has no top.  These guys are inveterate bass fishermen, not the kind with $50K+ bass boats but just an old, average 17 ft. runabout.  The rest of the boats, including ours, remained at the dock. The guy from the cottage across the channel is  “Mr. Fisher”, so named by my wife for the brand name of his boat tattooed across the side.  He is from Pennsylvania and is always the first guy out on the water usually well before dawn.  We, who are always the last boat out, don’t typically leave the dock before 8 AM and often find him fishing in one of our “secret” fishing holes well on his way to getting his limit of bass.  We run into him in other good fishing spots straddling the northern-most island passage between the US and Canada. This is a much less travelled area than the main shipping channel and typically only the local inhabitants of these northern islands fish there.  How did we find it?  We followed “Mr. Fisher” there one day!  You have to be careful and make sure you stay in U.S. waters because the Canadian Authorities will confiscate your boat if they catch you in their waters without a Canadian License.

It is a bit of a run to get to this northernmost spot. There is a sense of isolation there that is further augmented by the loons that call this place home and their eerie calls that echo across the water. Typical day-fishermen and weekend warriors tend to stick to spots close to the main channel of the St. Lawrence where the water expanses are more wide open. They also tend to use natural baits like minnows, crayfish and worms, whereas we tend to use artificial lures and spinners.  On a strong southwest wind such as is currently blowing there will be shelter behind these northern islands.  A strong perch population in the weeds means predators, i.e. Northern Pike will be close by looking for a meal.  We have been very successful in these weed beds casting large red and white flutter spoons and Red Eye spoons.

In past years we would always pick up good numbers of small mouth bass in this area. Not so these past two years though.  Ten to fifteen years ago we could easily catch 50-60 bass over the week.  These days we are lucky to see 2-3 in the same period.  I attribute it to the natural fish cycle.  There is a boom period, and there is a bust just like in Lake Erie.  Whenever the walleye are numerous the perch numbers are way down.  Likewise when the perch are prolific, walleye numbers are down.  I imagine that there is a similar relationship here with the perch and Northern Pike but we have not figured out the smallmouth bass situation yet.

This Thousand Islands area is about 435 miles from Mantua, a trip of 7-8 hours via turnpikes and good 4 lane roads.  It is not an expensive vacation.  The cottages rent for about $485 per week, which includes dockage.  While there are very few chain stores or restaurants, there are plenty of local stores and eateries scattered throughout the area.

Do you fish, hunt, trap, camp, go for nature walks? What else do you do outdoors? Drop me a line at THE VILLAGER, P.O. Box 331 Garrettsville 44231. E-mail me at Skipstaxidermy@yahoo.com or give me a call at 330-562-9801. I’d like to hear from you.

Skip Schweitzer, of Mantua, can be described from early on in life as an avid outdoorsman and old car restorer and aficionado. He comes from a long line of great lakes fishermen and hunters. He is a taxidermist and a retired psychologist. His grandfather Charles, a machinist and fisherman who fed his family with fish during the Great Depression, was one of the original auto restorers at the Thompson Auto Museum, now the Crawford Auto Aviation Museum. Skip learned to hunt, fish and restore cars from his father Roy and learned the value and appreciation of antique automobiles from his grandfather. Skip has, over the years, restored upwards of 25 automobiles including many Fords, Studebakers, Buicks, Jeeps and VWs. Skip has written extensively on automobiles and outdoors for several newspapers, magazines and auto publications this past 20 years. His current antique automobiles include a 1930 Ford Model “A”, and a 1970 Volkswagen Cabriolet. Skip’s most frequent bylines are, Outdoors With Skip, and The Old Road.