A Little Nostalgia and a Trip to the Best Smallmouth Fishery in the Country?

by Jeff Buttolph

It is no secret that the Thousand Island Region of New York ranks among the top fisheries in the country for the sought-after small mouth bass.  This region forms the boundary waters between the US and Canada along the northwestern portion of NY state.  The smallmouth bass are, pound for pound, some of the most aggressive fighters in the freshwater ecosystem and have been bringing tourists to the Thousand Island area for as long as I can remember.   

As a kid, I grew up fishing on an old wooden 27’ Chris Craft guide boat that my uncle Joe Garnsey owned and operated.  We drifted live bait for bass, pike, perch and whatever else we were able to catch.  We would fish for our food in the mornings till around noon, then pull up to dock on a random island to indulge in a shore lunch.   This consisted of several delicious courses that some would call a “heart attack on a plate” because your doctor would certainly not approve, unless of course he or she was part of your fishing party.  Upon docking the old wooden Craft, the guide would build an open wood fire on the island and have all the supplies along to prepare and serve the food. A few adult beverages were consumed, the fire was going, the fish were filleted boneless, and prepared by dipping in eggs and rolled in batter or cracker meal.  The eggshells were somehow used to filter coffee but I was too young to remember those details.  The trimmings from fish cleaning were thrown to the turtles.  Once the fire was right, “fat back” was melted down in a cast iron skillet to prepare the grease.  The rendered down pork pieces, along with a thick slice of onion put between 2 pieces of bread was your first appetizer.  In the same grease, fresh fish from our catch was then fried.  On a side pot of boiling water, salt potatoes and sometimes sweet corn were cooked.    Salad with homemade dressing was prepared because something had to be low in cholesterol.  This is where the famous “Thousand Island” salad dressing came from.  For dessert, my favorite, was French toast that was also fried in the same grease.  The adults had some type of liqueur drizzled over it and the kids had fresh Canadian maple syrup. It’s always a trip back in time when visiting where I cut my teeth as a fisherman.   Some would call it the “good ‘ol Days” which they were, but I would say the best days for this fishery are right now.     

It would be hard to validate as the best smallmouth fishery without discussing at least the general changes between then and now. First off, the conservation efforts made by anglers in the last 30 years, has had some impact.  More of these game fish are returned to the water to be caught again than ever before. I’m the first one to pull up to a fish fry so I’m not saying that keeping a few to consume is bad in any way.  I’m just saying that the “catch and release” movement has contributed to the rising numbers of small mouth bass and has evolved, as I have witnessed over the past 30 years.  The introduction of zebra mussels, an invasive species, back in the late 80’s / early 90’s was a scare that most people thought would be detrimental to a thriving fishery.  While the zebra mussel can have negative effects, and without going into all the science behind these little filters, I never really saw much of a change in the fishery itself other than the water clarity.  I can remember seeing bottom in 10 feet of water and now, seeing bottom in 20-25 feet is not uncommon on a calm, sunny day. Perhaps the biggest change I have seen is, again another invasive species introduction, the goby.  Accidentally Introduced in the early 90’s through shipping ballast, this little, small mouth morsel is a forage fish that puts pounds on bass like protein powder to a body builder.  In the days of my youth on the guide boat, a 3-pound smallmouth was a giant.  Most fish we consumed were closer to the state limit of 12” up to around 15” which would be around a pound to a pound and a half in weight. These fish today, with the goby forage and cleaner water from the zebra mussel, are really packing on the pounds. It’s now common to catch smallies in the 5-6# range with a chance at a 7+.         

In my trip North this season, the timing was right, and the weather was setting up for the perfect recipe to catch these mighty fish in record breaking numbers and sizes.  The spawn was mainly over, and the bass were making their migration from their shallow spawning grounds to their deeper summer holes, stopping along the way on offshore structure and main lake points to feed up on perch fry, crawfish, gobies and various other forages that the great lakes and St. Lawrence have to offer. We stayed at Angel Rock Resort in Cape Vincent and they have excellent accommodations with a great, central location to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River where it meets up with Lake Ontario.   

The fun thing about this vacation was that we timed it with the Bassmaster Elite series tournament which was being held in Clayton July 10-13 for practice, and competition days on the 14-17.  Without getting in their way, we were able to fish alongside the best in the business and, at the end of the day, compare their techniques and tactics to what we were figuring out ourselves. Without a doubt, they were on’em.  Out of 90 anglers, everyone in the field had a limit every day of the tournament.  That’s remarkable and if it has ever been done before, I’m sure it hasn’t been done more than a couple times. Records were set by 2 pro anglers for catching a 4-day limit of smallmouth bass that weighed over 100 pounds, Canadian Corey Johnston weighed 100# 5oz only to be topped by rookie Jay Przekurat with 102# 9oz to claim the victory and $100,000 of gas money.  If those stats don’t put in perspective the health of this fishery, how about this?  A 20# average only allowed you to fish 3 out of the 4 qualifying days, sending you home, a little better than mid pack and not making the final cut.  I can’t think of another smallmouth fishery that can put those stats on the board. 

So, how does a rising high school angler and his dad/coach stack up against the competition you ask?  Well, the one day we tried went like this. We got our start by watching the pros launch their beautiful rigs followed by blast off at 7am, which I thought was surprisingly late, but no worries, these brown fish bite best in the sun and will eat all day.  As a long-time fan of the sport I enjoyed talking to some of these guys, and getting some still shots for the album.  Following blast off we had breakfast at the Koffee Kove in Clayton alongside many of the Pros better halves and support groups.  Hey, I’m on vacation and want to take it all in. I’m only fantasy competing today.  After fueling up, we went back to the cabin, hooked up the boat and was on the water by around 9:30-10. We couldn’t fish all day due to other family plans, so we had about 4 hours to gauge our skills vs theirs.  We chose the Chaumont Bay area for that day and found good numbers and sizes of fish in the 6-8’ depth range. The water was gin clear and you could see the fish swimming around in little wolf packs.  We keyed on fishing flat rocks that had seams or large cracks where the grass would grow up.  This gave the bass a great ambush point to hunt on the flat, cleaner bottom.  I felt good that we weren’t going to interfere with a guy competing for 100k.   After 4 hours of fishing, our best 5 weighed in at 18 pounds and change.  My son Logan caught his PB at 5.59.  We caught most of our fish on a Berkley maxscent flatnose minnow or flatworm, rigged on a drop shot.  White was the dominant color.  When the wind kicked up, we switched to a Berkley stunna jerkbait in silver or ghost white.  It was a solid 1-2 punch.  We filmed all of this for the Logan_B_Fishing YouTube page and during the editing process was when I realized that in 4 hours of fishing, we spent over an hour total fighting fish. That’s a recipe for pleasantly sore forearms. In closing, If you have your own fishing boat and want to explore some of the fishing the Thousand Island region has to offer, July and August are both great months. Clayton and Cape Vincent are both great areas to stay.   If you would like to experience going back in time, Clayton keeps the wood boat culture alive with their wood boat museum and you can still book a trip on one of these old wooden Chris Crafts for ½ day fishing and a shore dinner by contacting Captain Jeff Garnsey through the Clayton Chamber of Commerce.

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