Tips from the Pros (and amateurs) for Catching a Derby Winning Fish - by Bill Hilts Jr.

Time on the water is a huge factor for success. Knowing what to do under the conditions you are facing is always a plus.

Tim Anderson of Columbus, OH with Capt. Vince Pierleoni (right) and a 31 lb. 5 oz. leading LOC fish.


It has been a strange year and a half dealing with COVID-19 and fishing con-tests, especially with derbies on Lake Ontario. After the Spring 2020 Lake Ontario Counties (LOC) Derby was canceled due to the virus, derby organizer Dave Chilson with Empire State/Lake Ontario Promotions was apprehensive about having summer and fall derbies. There were so many unknowns.


The first was COVID-19 and what New York was going to be enacting to deal with the pandemic. Charter captains were back in business in the state (if they followed certain guidelines and protocols), but many states were banned from visiting the state if those traveling protocols were not being followed. Add in the unknown of what was going to happen with Lake Ontario water levels after the devastations of 2017 and 2019 on the lake relative to flooding. Should he take a chance?


In the summer and fall Lake Ontario Counties (LOC) Trout and Salmon Derbies held in 2020, thousands of anglers flocked to the waters, including many new anglers with the Empire State boundaries. It was their way of dealing with the certain guidelines and protocols), but many states were banned from visiting the state if those traveling protocols were not being followed. Add in the unknown of what was going to happen with Lake Ontario water levels after the devastations of 2017 and 2019 on the lake relative to flooding. Should he take a chance? In the summer and fall Lake Ontario Counties (LOC) Trout and Salmon Derbies held in 2020, thousands of anglers flocked to the waters, including many new anglers with the Empire State boundaries. It was their way of dealing with the County.


“We started fishing the derby 6 years ago when a group of friends made the decision to fish Lake Ontario and the LOC Derby,” said Anderson at the awards gathering in Sodus Bay, NY. “After doing research on the Internet, we went with one of the winningest skippers on the Great Lakes to increase our odds for success. Through the years, we have placed numerous fish in the money, and it finally paid off big time this year.” Like the saying goes, you must be in it to win it.


The crew of fishermen included Jake Campaign of Northeast, PA.; Shane Mosher of Danville, Ohio; and 3 other Columbus fishermen, Joe and Greg Bratton, and Tim Eckert. They headed out into the lake on August 29, 2020 and the weather forecast did not look good. As they motored out with Capt. Vince and his mate Nick Glosser of Newfane, they managed to work the waters west of Olcott in 75-to-80-foot depths out of Pierleoni’s 38-foot Viking named “Thrillseeker II.” They needed every foot of that boat, too.


Using a DW Diver 140 feet back on a No. 3 setting, the DW 42nd Spoon took a hit and stayed deep. They were debating whether it was a salmon or a big brown. After its first explosive run, they knew it was a king salmon. Three more runs and 30 minutes later, they finally netted the big king at the back of the boat… as the winds really started to kick up. It was time to go in.


“It was the largest salmon that I’ve ever caught,” said Anderson. “We’re go-ing to split up the money so that we will have future fishing trips for many years to come.”


Having a little bit of luck helps, too. Ohio had been placed on the New York blacklist of Covid-19 hotspots and many fishermen wondered if they would be able to make the trip for the derby. When it was taken off the list August 11, it was game on for the LOC Derby. Ohio was put back on the list Sept. 8, 2020 a day after the LOC Derby ended. It must have been Anderson’s lucky shoes!


Van Hoff's meat rig.


As we approach the fall LOC derby, slated for August 20 through Sept. 6 this year, who better to ask for some insight into how to catch a winning derby fish than Capt. Pierleoni. This is what he had to say:

“Ok, these tips are from the heart,” insists Pierleoni. “I have been fortunate to have landed or been responsible for 5 Grand prize category salmon, and many top 3 placings in both salmon and trout divi-sions in the 3 seasonal LOC derbies (and the ESLO Derby prior to LOC) held each year.”


“Although everyone wants a magic bullet—put XYZ lure, in XYZ place, and WIN—that is not how it works. We have taken prize winners on Dreamweaver spoons, dodger and squids, Spin Doctors and A-Tom-Mik flies, Bomber plugs, Live Target plugs, Northern King spoons, and Storm Thundersticks. It’s not a magic lure as much as utilizing a proper tool in a correct presentation in a place that increases your odds.”


Here are some of his insights that can help you increase your chances at catching a fish that can make a difference in any kind of fishing competition:


1) Most of the many high placing fish Pierleoni has been responsible for have come from “clean” water—meaning very little to no traffic. He can only remember a “Cash Bash” Grand prize winner they took in the ‘90s that came in the middle of a pack. Over-sized fish of any species are that way because they are spooky and have turned their noses up at many presentations. They are also not as likely to be competitive like smaller individuals of the same species. Pierleoni can remem-ber several prize winners that were taken well away from traffic and some that they caught on relatively slow days.


2) Prepare, prepare, prepare. Envision hooking that giant fish before you ever leave the dock. The biggest fish will always expose the weak link. Obvious checks of line, leader, and knots goes without saying. There are many other things anglers blow off like the mesh in the net—are there holes or broken strands? Does the net handle have cracks that will give when the giant is netted? Do you have a way to slow your boat down in a following sea? It does not matter if you get the big one to bite and you cannot land it. Surging following seas will cause trouble when trying to put a big salmon or trout in the net. Preplanning as if you will be successful will help when the moment of truth occurs.


3) Fish where the big ones are. This sounds stupid but often several extra-large fish of the same species are taken from the same area of the lake—and it is not always where the MOST fish are being caught.


4) Use your head—the LAST thing you should do if you are trying to win a derby is follow closely behind a charter boat. Whether it is a competent operator that is catching active fish, or just a boat with a lot of rods out spooking fish, it does not matter. Mr. Big will rarely be waiting for you coming up the rear. 


“Like many other hunting and fish-ing pursuits, the oddball giants are often caught going against the grain and think-ing outside the box,” says Pierleoni. Do not be afraid to try new things, too.


If you think that charter captains have the upper hand for derbies, in all reality they probably do because they spend so much time on the water. However, remember that in dealing with different customers every day, you are also dealing with different levels of proficiency. That can also hurt you.



Recreational anglers can do very well for competition fish, too. Just ask Joe Yaeger of East Amherst, NY. He is the president of the Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Association ( and is an avid fisherman. He also puts big fish in the boat, winning local LOTSA club tournaments, as well as the LOC Derby. He looks at derby fishing with a different set of eyes. Here are some of his tips for targeting, and catching, big derby kings in the summer.


1. Stay away from the boat traffic. Big kings do not like boat traffic and will move out of that area. Target the outside area around the heavily fished area to have a better shot at a Derby winner. 


2. Thin out your spread and get your lures away from the boat. Target some baits in the warmer water just above the thermocline. Drop down to a single downrigger with your speed and depth probe on it. Run no more than 2 divers on a setting to get them further away from the boat. Run one in the warmer water just above the thermocline and the other one deeper. Al-ways run 2 coppers, one on the deep diver side targeting warmer water just above the thermocline and a deep one on the other side in water above the deep diver. 

3. Big kings love flasher and fly combos or flashers with cut bait this time of the year. Fully commit to them and run them on every rod. Vary the styles of flash-ers to provide them with different actions and determine what action they want. Run your speed at the slower end versus the faster end of your preferred speed range. 

4. Target the inshore waters versus offshore areas. Big summertime kings are already starting their staging process and know where they want to be. Focus on nearshore waters where the thermocline exists—20 to 30 feet off the bottom is ideal. 

5. Commit to the program. This is not about numbers or filling the cooler with fillets. This is about having the best shot at catching big kings. This is sometimes an advantage over charter operations because often numbers are more important than size, even if they are derby fishing.


Yaeger is sincere in his information sharing. He is the point person for the Greater Niagara Fishing Expo, a pure fish-ing show that is a “teaching fishing” event for all ages and all levels of expertise. In 2020, more than 200 free seminars were offered to attendees and the 2022 show (COVID-19 canceled the 2021 show), set for Feb. 17-20, 2022 at the Conference and Event Center Niagara Falls, will be even bigger and better. Included as part of the Expo is the premier Salmon Fishing School hosted by his LOTSA group. It sells out ev-ery year. Check out for the salmon school or www.niagarafishingexpo. com for the complete event.


Joe Yaeger holds up the derby winner reeled in by Sandy Brown who was fishing off his boat. 


Another LOTSA standout when it comes to fishing derbies and tournaments is Marty Polovick of Lockport. He has had a hand in or won several LOC Derby events and loves the sense of competition.


“It is important to remember that you fish differently depending on the season,” says Polovick. “During the summer to me it is critical to watch the lake tempera-ture to see where the thermocline is. The winds play a crucial role in the water temperature, especially a northeast wind, which can turn the lake water over. When this happens, you must fish offshore more where the water temperature is more stable, preferably in 300-500 foot of water. I personally prefer the summer LOC because you have the option to pick the better weather days to fish and the boat traffic is not as heavy.”


“For the morning bite we use a lot of white and glow spoons and flashers. When the sun is high, we change to silver and chrome spoons and flashers. We also go deeper with our rigs.


“In the fall the fish start moving in closer to shore so we change our methods. It seems like the water temperature is not as critical in the fall because the salmon are coming in to spawn and the temperature does not seem to affect them as much.”


“Having a network of fishermen to call is very beneficial,” insists Polovick.
“I belong to LOTSA and this is a group of dedicated recreational fisherman for the most part. When you are on the lake it is good to keep in touch with your fishing friends and other LOTSA members. Most are more than willing to share where the fishing is hot and what lures and techniques are working that specific day. It is important to share fishing reports as well as to receive fishing reports.”


John Van Hoff of North Tonawanda is another recreational angler that shows up as a derby winner on a regular basis. For the fall LOC Derby or other contests late in the year, he runs a meat program when he is looking for a big derby fish. He focuses his efforts closer to shore, near or on the bottom.


“I like to run my meat slow,” says Van Hoff. “Anywhere from 1.8 to 2 miles per hour with 2 rods, one in each corner rigger. I keep the distance from 21 to 24 inches from the flasher to the bait head in the spring and summer. In the fall I extend it to 50 inches off the big 11-inch Bechhold paddles, fishing them slow and deep.”


When Van Hoff is in search mode, he will seek out a pod of kings and work it in different directions. When he is running meat, he will not run any spoons. However, he will use flasher-fly set-ups and shortens up the lead to 18-20 inches to get more of a whip. He will keep the lead behind the downrigger balls to 10 to 15 feet.


Christian Hilts of North Tonawanda shows off a big summer king that was putting on the pounds for the fall derby.


His preferred head for meat is Rhys Davis because of the natural curve in the head. “They are already tuned, and they work great,” says Van Hoff. “I will doctor the heads up a bit with permanent markers and I might add a little glow prism tape. My favorite color is glow/green or just green as far as the bait head color. It seems to work best on big fish.”


Time on the water is a huge factor for success. Knowing what to do under the conditions you are facing is always a plus. There are still no guarantees for derby success though. Every year it seems as though there are winners that have never fished before, it was their first king salmon, or it was their first time fishing Lake Ontario. Just remember: You must be in it to win it!

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