Hit the North Shore’s Bars for a Grand Slam

Spider Rybaak

Dennis, Pittston, Pa, a guest of Anglers’ Bay,
holding an “eye” he took betweenCleveland and Vienna Bars

Early last week, I was trolling along NY 49 for some juicy quotes and photos for my next book, “Fishing Oneida Lake” (Burford Books, Ithaca, NY, scheduled for release in autumn, 2014). A group of guys standing around in the parking lot of David C. Webb Memorial Park at Taft Bay caught my eye. They looked too burly, hairy and ugly to be trying out for the Olympic figure skating team. So I figured they must be ice fishermen.

I approached them slowly. When you look like me, you walk gently so’s not to scare anyone.

“How were they hittin’, fellas,” I asked.

All but the hairiest remained silent.

“I got my limit of walleyes,” he answered “but came up a little short of a Grand Slam.”

“Say what?”

“I was trying to hit an Oneida Lake Grand Slam,” he answered, looking at me askance, like I was really dumb. “You know, a limit of walleyes and a limit of perch,” he continued, with great patience and understanding.

“Of course I know what you mean,” I protested.

I mentioned what I was doing and Craig Storms immediately volunteered to take me ice-fishing, to show me “How to pick up walleyes and perch on the North Shore’s bars.”

Surprisingly, all the other guys started opening up, too. True to the tradition of camaraderie Oneida Lake ice-fishermen are known for, they all pitched in with stories of their day. Everyone agreed to having a ball, even though the day was the coldest so far this winter.

An aspiring guide, Craig volunteered to take me fishing to show me how it’s done. We agreed to meet 6:30 a.m., on January 8, at Apps Bait, tucked into the northeastern corner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Cleveland Docks Public Fishing Access Site.

We ended up heading out at Anglers Bay, just west of Vienna Bar, because we were “walkers” (the term mechanized icers use to describe their pedestrian counterparts), and that’s where the steep drop-off into the lake’s deepest area comes closest to shore. About a quarter-mile out, Craig pulls out his smart phone, goes to the Navionics App and starts looking for the 20-foot depth on the drop-off, more specifically, “a bend in the structure.”

Craig likes to fish the bends because they attract more fish. When he finds one, he digs a hole and lowers his MarCum LX5 sonar into it.

“The bottom’s carpeted in fish,” he announces with the excitement of a man who just had the world’s most beautiful woman invite him over for a chat.

He digs a couple more holes. Setting up his Otter Double–a two-man shelter–he pulls out a jigging rod loaded with a Slender Spoon, hooks on the top half of a pinched buckeye (he actually lets his left thumbnail grow all winter so he can pinch bait–and irritate his wife). Dropping it to bottom, he lifts it a couple inches and starts jigging pretty forcefully, in 4- to 6- inch sweeps, punctuated every 6th time or so by lifting it to arms-length.

I tie-on a Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, bait it, and follow his lead.

After about 30 minutes, our arms are twitching … Nothing.

We move about 10 yards north, into 28 feet of water. Craig drops his bait. A line separates from bottom and rises toward it (the lake floor, fish and the lure all appear as short horizontal lines on the graph).

“Seeing a separation head for your bait is very exciting. When it merges with the bait, the temptation to set the hook can be overwhelming. But don’t do it!” he says, with a look as serious as cancer. “Wait until you feel the hit before setting the hook,” he advises.

The fish hits. Barely legal, we agree it’s still a nice one. Breaking out in a smile, the master says “I can’t remember ever seeing a bad one, come to think of it.”

Dropping his lure back down, Craig gets another hit almost immediately, but loses it.

Things are starting to smoke, I think.

I get a hit without seeing a separation. The fish sped in out of the sonar’s range. It’s a shorty, too.

A couple minutes later, I watch a separation rise to my lure. Then it goes down again. Then it comes up.

“Steady…steady,” Craig instructs.

After playing a mind game for a couple minutes, the fish hits. The fight is a good one. We’re using 4 lb. test line so it takes a couple minutes. But it appears, dodging maddeningly in and out of view. Finally, it goes vertical and Craig pulls it out of the hole.

After high-fiving, and taking hero shots, I decide to lay the thing down near the graph to get a photo of our set up.

Craig warns me not to…But no, I don’t listen. Somehow, that big, fat walleye managed to stick her head back into the hole. Craig grabbed her, but she slipped through his fingers like an exciting dream when you wake up.

The Cleveland, Phillips and Vienna Bars boast drop-offs where walleyes and perch gather in winter, and slowly move west. Find the magic depth and you’ll stand a good chance of pulling fish dinners out of the hole until your arms hurt.

Still, Craig reminds everyone: “Grand slams don’t happen very often; only about 1 in 25 times out. But that’s what makes ‘em so worth it.”

You can access the best walleye spots from the Cleveland Docks Fishing Access site at the sharp bend on the hamlet’s east side, and at the little park at the end of Mill Street in the village of Constantia.

Craig landing a good one.
One of our shorties
Craig on Ice