Bill Hilts Jr.
A shroud of fog hung over the lake as we motored out of Long Point State Park on Chautauqua Lake to pursue walleye in the middle of June. Someone should have told the fish that.
Chautauqua is an Iroquois word that has multiple meanings. “Bag tied in the middle” or “two moccasins tied together” are often referenced, explaining the basic shape of this body of water that stretches 17 miles in length. It is two miles wide at its widest point. There is a distinct upper and lower basin, with the upper portion being deeper than its lower counterpart.
“This can be a decent time of year for walleyes using my tactics for the spring,” said Capt. Frank Schoenacker, of Infinity Charters. “I found some fish yesterday not very far away from here and that’s probably good with this fog hanging around.” Our approach was slow.
Schoenacker was showing off a new boat, an 1875 Lund Pro Guide boat rigged with a 90-horse Honda and an 8-horse kicker motor, both set up for tiller operation. It is perfect for his style of fishing, taking up to two people on the water for his fishing trips.
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“I’d like to think I am in the entertainment business more than the fishing business,” he said. “I keep things low key. If we lose a fish, my attitude is that we’ll just go out and get another one. My focus is on walleyes, but we’ll catch plenty of other kinds of fish because of how and where we fish.”
We set up a short distance from the launch ramp and dropped into the water our butterfly spinners with two No. 2 size Gamakatsu hooks that he hand-ties during the winter. The kicker motor helped with the slow troll at .8-.9 mph along the emerging weed lines.
“I am looking for active fish along the edges,” said Schoenacker. “When I do find them, I will identify the area that is holding the fish and just work that area by shortening up the focus area. I will position the boat so that the people can catch fish off either side of the boat. Occasionally, we will cast jigs and plastics when the fish are extremely active.”
His gear is quality stuff that he feels comfortable with. His preference is a 7-foot St. Croix fast action spinning rod with a fast tip rigged with Daiwa reels. If there are two fishermen, he wants both using the same gear. His fishing line is all Maxima. He likes using 10-pound braid for the main line with 15-pound fluorocarbon line for his leader. He uses a small bullet weight to get his lures to the bottom, which is where the walleyes will be.
Within 10 minutes, Rick Hilts of North Tonawanda had already caught three species of fish – a white perch, a yellow perch, and a bluegill. These fish are active, but it’s the wrong kind of fish. Our intended target is walleye. It’s a beautiful morning for fishing and the fog is slowly starting to lift, making way for a much better view of the beautiful lake and the homes that adorn the shoreline. After catching 30 or 40 more of the white perch, yellow perch, and a variety of panfish, we decide to head into the south basin to try a different area.
We run into another boat targeting walleye and it has been doing well, especially the first thing in the morning. We dropped our lines in the waters and Hilts hit the first walleye of the day. It was 17 inches long, a legal fish now.
A few years ago, concerns over the walleye population in the lake caused the Department of Environmental Conservation to make some changes. The daily limit was reduced to three fish and the minimum size was increased to 18 inches in an effort to return numbers to pre-existing levels. It worked. In 2017, the walleye regulations changed back to the state regulation of five fish each day and a 15-inch minimum size.
“Walleye populations seem to be stable right now,” Schoenacker said. “We’ve had good fishing the last three to five years. We are catching a lot of walleyes in the 18 to 20-inch range. We are also getting some larger fish in the 24- to 26-inch range. It feels pretty good where we are at. I was concerned when we went back to the state regulations, but things are going well.”
Schoenacker gave me a spinner rig with a copper Colorado blade to switch things up from the butterfly blade. Five minutes later, the hit felt different. I set the hook on a 19-inch ‘eye that brought a big smile to my face. That’s what it’s all about.
That was it for the morning walleye bite. We caught 30-40 more white perch, yellow perch and panfish to keep us busy (and it was probably more than that), but by this time of the morning the sun was high in the blue skies that surrounded us and there was a slight breeze It was far from optimal walleye conditions. It would have been a different story we had initially gone south. Then again, that’s fishing. We could have caught our non-targeted species all day. Or as Buzz Lightyear used to say, “to infinity and beyond.”
Schoenacker made an adjustment for his trip Wednesday, targeting the deeper upper basin. He fished inside the weeds early and then outside the weeds later. The night crawlers were attracting the attention of the white and yellow perch, so he switched to a plastic worm with just a piece of crawler for scent behind the butterfly blade. They caught 10-11 walleyes, including eight keepers for a successful morning and some happy customers.
He will finish the month of June on Chautauqua before he changes gears and targets walleye out of Dunkirk on Lake Erie from July to September. His bigger boat is a 25-foot Pro Line Model 25 Walk that will accommodate up to four angles. Then it will be back to Chautauqua for some fall jigging trips for walleyes that could extend all the way into November, depending on the weather.
Schoenacker is an ambassador not only for the fishing, but also for the area focusing on Chautauqua County.
“From world-class attractions like the National Comedy Center to the Chautauqua Institution and the Chautauqua Harbor Hotel, I want people to experience the area’s great attractions and restaurants,” said Schoenacker. “The better experience that people have while they are here, the more likely they will return.”
To find out more information on Infinity Charters, call 585-406-5764 or visit www.infinitycharters.com. For information on Chautauqua County, check out www.tourchautauqua.com.