Return to the St. Lawrence River

by Chris McCotter

I have now experienced smallmouth nirvana. If you didn’t know Nirvana is a word used by Buddists to describe a transcendent state of complete peace and joy or the ultimate goal of that religion. I began to get a sense of this feeling during a Bucket List fishing trip to the famed Thousand Island region of the St. Lawrence River last year. This year I truly reached that state of fishing existence on our return visit.

After our initial foray up to the region last year, we were fortunate to spend five days there again this year; June 21-26. This year’s trip was so good, I’m not sure if I ever need to go again because we caught so many big smallmouth I don’t think it’s possible to do any better. Between the three anglers in my boat, we tallied approximately 250 smallmouth in four-and-a-half days of fishing with dozens over four pounds, five over five pounds and one true giant over six.

Why was it so good this year? Timing is everything. We booked the trip to coincide with the first full moon of the spring with 60-degree water and the first week after the bass season opened. Water temperatures were 62-67 and the smallmouth bass were moving to the beds the entire time.

My traveling companions for this visit included my 48-year-old brother and my 19-year-old son, his friend and his father (who were also in on Year One). Only my brother was a rookie but he’s an excellent smallmouth bass fisherman so we figured all was good.

HQ for the week was a nicely-appointed boathouse townhome in the Harbor Bay Villa complex facing Carnegie Bay Marina. Each night we would put our boats under the unit in a boathouse and use the ramp across at Carnegie Bay about 60 yards away should we trail the boat to another put-in.

The accommodations arranged using VRBO included a room with a double bed for our host, bunk beds for the two 19-year-old sons and a top floor room with twin beds for my brother and I. There were two, full bathrooms (showers) a small kitchen and front room with enough seating to enjoy some NBA playoff action in the evenings, plus a small deck with a gas grill overlooking the bay. In other words – the perfect HQ for our stay.

You will pay an in and out fee and a trailer fee to Carnegie Bay Marina, so factor that into your trip budget ($10 for each). The ramp is excellent and the whole facility is private with a pass code used for access.

So let’s take a look at our daily fishing adventures now that you know where we were fishing.

Day 1, Monday

After nine or so hours of driving the 572 miles up to Alexandria Bay we arrive around 2:15 pm. Yep, that means we left around 4 am. With just five days to fish, we wanted to get on the water even on our travel day.

After hauling our stuff up into the town home, it was over to the Carnegie Bay Marina boat ramp to dump in the Anna’s Marine Center TRACKER Grizzly 2072 CC. While this boat might not come to mind as your ideal fishing rig, I assure you it is more than adequate after having owned four of them now.

My rig is equipped with Humminbird depth finders and a Minn Kota Ulterra with auto stow/deploy, Spot Lock and iPilot. It’s a 21.5’, 99” wide fishing barge that does well with three anglers, and as long as it’s not too rough, rides well enough. Without the SpotLock I know we would not have caught all we did. The Humminbird Side Imaging was very helpful showing us rock piles, barges and weedlines. Humminbird was kind enough to send me the LakeMaster Northeastern United States card so we could navigate with confidence. All I had to do was insert it into the card reader slot on the side of the console unit.

The town home is located just south of Boldt Castle and near some areas we’d ID’d as good during our last visit. Problem was it was a bit windy and storm was brewing that afternoon.

We fished nearby in the lee of the nearby Schooner Island to try and see what state the smallmouth were in, looking for beds in the clear water. We didn’t see very many but did catch our first smallmouth of the trip using drop-shotted Berkley Drop Shot Minnows when we saw what looked like a bed.

These smallmouth were still a little chilly and came in pale with almost a tan chainmail pattern on them. It wasn’t until later in the week that we started seeing those awesome tiger-striped fish.

Once the rain came through, we fired up the 115 hp Mercury Four Stroke and headed up to the Huguenot Island region to check a rock pile and a point. On both spots we landed smallmouth and largemouth (not targeted) using spinnerbaits and swimbaits as the sun began to set. We took our first of many eight-fish rack photos that evening then headed back to Harbor Villa satisfied we’d squeezed the day pretty hard.

That night I vowed to puchase a box fan for the crank out window I discovered the next morning to cool down the top of the town home where we slept.

Day 2, Tuesday

Before any fishing expedition I pour over paper maps and Google Earth to try to first understand the surroundings, predict where fish should be and then memorize navigation clues. This trip was no exception. I purchased the Fishing Hotspots maps of the river where we fished and had a plan for every day.

Today we would trail the 12 miles to the Town of Clayton, launch at the city dock and try our luck on Blanket Shoals, a 400-acre between Hickory Island and Grindstone Island reputed to be a smallmouth spawning ground.

The chilly ride out from the ramp wasn’t too bad and we arrived fishing in about a 10-mph wind with heavy overcast that made sight fishing tough. We did see some beds but the fish were skittish and wouldn’t hold. We did catch about a dozen fish on swimbaits but nothing great.

It wasn’t until we moved back down the river to an area we’d found held a lot of beds last year that we began to crack the smallmouth code for the visit. Around Governor’s Island there are down current sides of islands with gravel and shell bottoms that offer the right amount of depth, current and sunlight penetration for smallmouth to space. Here we found many fish spawing and we commenced to flogging them and catching them using drop-shotted Berkley Dropshot Minnows, goby imitators and a chartreuse Strike King KVD Dream Shot.

The flogger is a slang term for what’s formally know as an AquaView – a kind of tool first used by biologists to look below the surface of the water to survey the bottom of steams, rivers and lakes. It uses a watertight plexiglass lens to get below the surface and a face-fitting end to remove glare so you can stick it in the water and look at spawning smallmouth as deep as 20 foot.

By the end of the day we had fished from Governor’s Island down to Niagara Shoals and caught 50+ smallmouth. My brother catching the first 5+ of the trip, and we thought that was a pretty good day. Little did we know it would get better…

Day 3, Wednesday

Exploring new areas is always my favorite part of any fishing trip. Today we would try and circumnavigate and fish six-mile long Grindstone Island – about a 35-mile round trip adventure. With the predicted SW winds I thought we could find a lot of lee with bedding fish on the back side of the island.

Turns out, in the morning I was right. From our Clayton launch point we navigated through Blanket Shoals and started fishing the northwest points of Grindstone Island where submerged rocks harbored plenty of fresh beds, many with fish on them.

We caught plenty here using the drop shot in calm, ultra-clear water until the winds came and scalloped the surface so we couldn’t see below. We then became nomadic, moving ever eastward along the north shore of Grindstone, stopping here and there. We bumped into a bunch more spawning smallmouth in an area known as the Lake Fleet Islands along the border of Canadian waters (the border runs run through the middle of the river, so you need to pay attention).

Here we found seven beds in 14-18’ in between two islands where the current ran swiftly on the surface and the wind was manageable. The fish looked like one pounders down there with flogger but they grew and grew as they neared the surface and most were over four pounds, my brother caught another one over five.

As we rounded the northeast corner of Grindstone the wind was pretty rough so we ran down to the Niagara Shoal area for some protection and finished out the day with a my son’s first five pounder a major highlight.

Back at the ramp we bumped into none other than Tyler Anderson of Tyler’s Reel Fishing YouTube fame. He was very accommodating and kind, even taking the time to pose for a photo with my son, who is a big fan.

I feel asleep soon after dinner in one of the chairs in the front room, then hauled myself upstairs and crashed hard to the white noise of that cooling fan.

Day 4, Thursday

Today we decided to fish from the town home and try our luck down river at some places we found on last year’s trip.

Our first stop on a flat calm, chilly morning was Excelsior Shoals. Here, we spotted a number of bedding bass in 12-14’ and caught them all before moving down river in search of larger quarry.

We stopped at a set of three islands I had fished last year that I thought might be good now that the fish were just coming to the beds. The intuition proved correct as we caught two dozen more bass on beds in the middle of protected lee area inside the island ring in 6-14’ of water. We also bumped into an old friend: MLF angler David Dudley was checking the same area!

The wind got up and the going got tough on the main river but we keep fishing and ended up around Halfway Island. There were more fish (and another five pounder for my brother) to catch but the wind was making presentations difficult even with the Minn Kota iPilot Spot Lock.

We turned around at 1 pm and had a wet ride back to the Boldt Castle region of Alexandria Bay. Here we discovered much larger fish were moving to the beds by the dozens. We spotted one fish on the down current, lee side of an island and again it was my brother’s turn to fish.

A couple probes with a drop-shotted chartreuse goby imitator on Berkley X9 braid with a 10-pound XL leader soon had him latched onto a whale of a brown bass. It was an awesome battle, but the big fish came to the net and pulled the scale to 6-1! A new PB for my brother and the biggest smallmouth I’d ever seen. Our celebration was pretty epic and reminded me what a good choice I’d made in my fishing companions. The joy we felt was a simple pleasure. It was good knowing how something as basic as catching a big fish was still able to stimulate something primordial in our brains from the sound of the whoops and yells we made.

The rest of that afternoon was like eating chocolate cake all day – we fished around some spectacular lake homes catching more smallmouth up to almost five pounds, and we didn’t have to put the boat on the trailer. We pulled into the boathouse around 7 pm, exhausted but thankful for the most incredible day yet.

Day 5, Friday

My plan for our last day was always to revisit an area we thought was the best/most fun. This was also the first day of the Major League Fishing tournament, so we anticipated we might see some of the 40 day one pros fishing. Turns out we saw a lot of them because evidently we were fishing the hottest section of the river!

We launched once more from the Clayton City Dock and headed across the river to the Governor’s Island area. It was overcast and breezy but we started catching fish soon after arriving.

In fact we caught two more five pounders – my brother and son each had one, and while fishing, we noted KVD and none other than Justin Wheeler fishing within hollering distance. My son checked the MLF website and saw that Wheeler was having a record-breaking day so we stopped fishing and idled to about 150 yards away and just watched.

The MLR pro was fishing a pink dropshot bait and flogging like crazy. It was cool watching him in real time catching the fish and seeing the live feed on my son’s phone. He was doing the same thing we were doing; drop shotting deep spawners. He spent a long time on an offshore spot that we later learned was some kind of sunken barge on an obscure shoal. Yes, we used the Humminbird side imaging to check it out after the 5:30 cut off time.

Then it was time to put the Grizzly back on the trailer one more time, head back to the Habor Bay Villa, pack up and get ready to hit the road in the morning.

To be frank, we had caught so many smallmouth, I was happy to head back in that afternoon and get ready to head home. I don’t think another five pounder would have made a difference – hard to believe, but true!

I feel like I’ve experienced the best smallmouth fishing in the world and was very fortunate to have done a bucket list trip twice. I hope you can experience this trip with your friends and family one day, and I’m happy to offer you advice if you email me at woodsandwatersmagazine@gmail.com.

If You Go

Make sure you study and bring with you the Fishing Hotspots maps. You want the St. Lawrence River/Central (1,000 Islands – Howe Island to Wellesley Island) and the St. Lawrence River/East (1,000 Islands – Wellesley Island to Chippeway Bay). I cannot stress enough how helpful they were to me on both trips. Yes, the base maps on the Humminbird are good, but I like looking at a paper map every evening, too.

You will also need a good weather app on your phone so you can keep track of any storms or wind. This is big water and you need to pay attention to the possibility of dangerous conditions every day. While we saw a number of smaller boats on the water, a 20’ or larger boat is recommended if you want to fish without restriction most days.

Purchase a flogger for the trip if you want to experience the best fishing. If you don’t, you will not be able to sight fish as well and certainly miss out on some extraordinary fun.

Understand that marinas up there are different; private marinas charge an in and out fee as well as a dock fee. There are a number of excellent state park ramps that charge $7 to launch, but keep in mind, you’ll need to keep your boat somewhere overnight if your rental (like ours) does not permit boats in the parking lot.

Alexandria Bay and Clayton offer plenty of lodging options, both VRBO and motels. There are plenty of places to eat as well. Bring a lot of 3/8 to ½ ounce drop shot weights, drop shoot hooks and drop shot baits. The weights are often flung off by jumping fish. Re-tie your dropshot hook after every third fish. Our best rigs were 7’ spinning rods with Berkley10-pound X9 line tipped with a 8-10 pound Berkley XL leader. We used mostly Gamagatzu #6 drop shot hooks.

If the fish are not on the beds, a 3.8 Keitech Fat Impact in Electric Bluegill is good as is the similar Berkley Swimmer. A 3/8-oz. jig head is the best choice in the current.

The Thousand Island Bait Shop is a must-do when you go. They have an excellent selection of everything you’d need to fish the river, welcome your visit and have two pots of coffee brewing each morning.

A seven-day, out-of-state New York fishing license will cost you $28.

Again, we stayed at a rental unit in the Habor Bay Villa community and used the Carnegie Bay Marina ramp ((315) 778-2574) and the Clayton City Dock boat ramp. The Villa was a bit over $2,500 for the week but you can split it with your buddies and bring the cost down. Only one 20’ boat will fit in the 38” boathouse, the second will stick out a bit.

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