Thousand Islands Open: Setting the Bar for Bass Fishing
Jul 18, 2019 | 9 minute read
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Summer’s here, and that means Bass season to anglers in Ontario. Competitive types are honing their skills. Idle anglers discussing fishing spots. All of them have one species on the brain. Smallmouth Bass grow bigger and meaner here than almost anywhere else, making them the ideal target. And where better to take them on than at Kingston’s Thousand Islands Open Bass fishing tournament?

Two anglers on a bass fishing boat on Lake Ontario, with a Canadian flag flying behind them
Image courtesy of the TIO

The Thousand Islands Open has been building a real reputation over the last five years. It now draws 100 teams every summer in search of monster hookups and, with a little luck, big prizes. We spoke to tournament organizer Jamie Lemery to learn a little more about the event. We also found out why this is such a great place to catch Bass, and how to get the most out of it.

The Perfect Bass Fishery

What makes the perfect Bass fishery? Is it the size of the fish, or the variety and quality of the waters they’re found in? We like to think it’s a mixture of the two, with easy access as a cherry on top. If you agree, then Kingston will be your kind of town.

Too Many Options

You only have to look at a map to see why fishing around Kingston is so good. The city sits at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, right where it meets Lake Ontario. You’ve got easy access to the open waters of the lake, as well as the endless back bays and rocky outcrops of the Thousand Islands themselves. And that’s just for starters.

An aerial view of Ontario's Thousand Islands

“We’re so spoiled here with options,” laughs Jamie. “It’s not just Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, it’s the entire Rideau canal system. And then around Kingston there’s probably a hundred other lakes that are full of Bass that you could go to.

“I always joke that when a buddy calls me up and says, ‘You want to go fishing?’ it becomes a half-hour debate on what we’re going to do, where we’re going to go, how we’re going to catch them. Too many options, it’s a pleasant problem to have, for sure.”

Small Mouths, Big Fish

Jamie pulls no punches when he talks about Kingston’s Smallmouth Bass: “If you want to catch a 5 lb Smallmouth, this is probably the easiest place to do so.” He’s not kidding. Trophy fish are a dime a dozen in these waters, and winning catches can tip the scales at 7 pounds. There’s a very good reason for that.

“Thirty years ago, whenever there were tournaments around here, guys were fishing for Largemouth. Typical weights for five fish were around 18 pounds. So, good size fish. Then, about 20 years ago, the Gobies showed up.”

Gobies are invasive fish that arrived in Lake Ontario in the ’90s. They stowed away in ships coming up the seaway system from the Atlantic. As soon as they got into the lake, their numbers exploded. They’ve been terrible for many species in the area, but they had the opposite effect on Smallmouth.

Two anglers holding big Smallmouth Bass caught on Lake Ontario

“Over the last 10 years or so, the Smallmouth Bass have learned to exclusively feed on the Gobies. I’d say 80–90% of their diet is now Gobies. They’re high in protein. There are a lot of them around. The smallmouth don’t have to expend a lot of energy to catch them. So, they’re growing bigger and faster than ever before.”

Easy Access

Of course, the biggest fish and the best waters are no good if you can’t enjoy them. The Thousand Islands Open used to be held in Rockport, a pretty village some 30 miles down the St. Lawrence River. It was the perfect spot to begin with, but as the tournament grew, it started to bring some new complications. 

“The first couple of years, we didn’t sell out the event. We had 60, 70 teams, and that wasn’t a problem. Then, the third year, we sold out and had 100 teams, and the village just got overwhelmed. It couldn’t handle the volume of people. So we decided to move to Kingston”

An aerial view of Kingston, Ontario

Launching from a major city certainly has its advantages, as Jamie explains: “We had access to a harbor for a change. We could launch and park and everything in the harbor, and off they go. It just made things easier.” They needed a place that had good access to the river and the lake, and was able to easily deal with large groups. Kingston fit the bill perfectly.

An Unmissable Event

The Thousand Islands Open isn’t the only Bass tournament in the area. It’s not even the only one that Jamie’s involved with (he runs his own club and series when he’s not busy with this one). It does have all the makings of the perfect angling event, though: stiff competition, great prizes, and monster fish.

Tough Competition

Most competitors in the TIO are local. A few people come up from New Brunswick, a lot of Americans visit for the event, but around a quarter of the tournament is from Kingston itself. That doesn’t make it easy, though. According to Jamie, “They’re probably the best anglers in the region. It’s kind of the who’s who of Bass anglers around Ontario.”

Two fishermen standing on a bass fishing boat on a lake. One angler fights a Smallmouth Bass, which is jumping out of the water, while the other tries to net it
Image courtesy of the TIO

So, do visiting anglers stand a chance against the local crowd? Absolutely. It’s just a question of doing your homework, as Jamie makes clear. “It’s so vast an area that you can fish that I don’t think local knowledge would really help. There’s just so many spots. It’s a question of who’s put in the most time to go out and find them.

“People are going to catch fish. They all catch fish. It’s just a matter of catching fives over fours. I always joke because it’s one of the few places where you can catch four-pounder after four-pounder and you’re saying ‘These aren’t big enough. This just isn’t enough!’ Anywhere else, it’s ‘Oh, that’s a good one!’ but not Lake Ontario.”

Every team gets to fish for two days. They’re on the water for nine hours a day, and bring back the biggest fish they can find. After that, the field gets cut in half: half the teams go home, while the top 50% goes out one more time to stake their claim on some big prizes.

High Stakes

There’s a total of $100,000 at stake in the TIO, which gets split between the top 30 teams. First place wins you a cool $15,000. Second and third win $12,000 and $10,000 respectively. After that, it trickles down to $1,000 for the team that comes in 30th, which covers their entry fee.

It’s not just the money people are hoping to win, though, as Jamie explains. “If you make the cut for the third day, you get a key. This is something we started in the first year and it’s really caught on. There’s a brand new boat, and everyone gets a key. If your key starts the boat, you win the boat.”

Two men celebrate winning a boat at a bass fishing tournament in Kingston, Ontario
Image courtesy of the TIO

The fun part about this is that you don’t need to catch big fish to win big prizes. Everyone’s had those days where you put in your all but the fish just don’t play ball. This gives anglers a chance to test their luck on land if it runs dry on the water.

Serious about Sustainability

One thing that’s immediately clear in the Thousand Islands Open is their commitment to protecting the local fishery. From the moment a fish is brought aboard to after it’s released, the event is set up to try and keep it safe. For the tournament organizers, this is more than due diligence, it’s a way of maintaining the waters they love.

“We’re trying to set the bar for other tournaments that do major events on the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. We want to maintain this fishery because it’s so cool. It’s so good out there right now. But, if we keep doing what we’re doing, that’s going to go away. So we’re trying to do everything we can to keep it.”

Fish Out of Water

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that fish don’t do well out of water. The stress and change in pressure put a lot of strain on their bodies. Not being able to breathe doesn’t help, either. Because of that, the TIO has streamlined a system to limit the amount of air exposure to the bare minimum. 

Two anglers holding trophy Smallmouth Bass on the stage at the Thousand Islands Open tournament
Image courtesy of the TIO

As soon as a fish is caught, it’s put into a tank of aerated water to recover from the fight. Back on dry land, they rest in a trough of water while they wait for the weigh-in. They’re transferred to another tank set up on scales to be weighed. After a quick photo, they’re tagged for scientific study and taken to a release boat to be put back into the lake.

The whole process is designed to put the fish under as little stress as possible. Teams also start each day in waves, a third at a time. This cuts down the waiting time for the weigh-in. And that’s just one of the ways the tournament’s keeping fish alive.

Less is More

One of the most effective changes that the TIO has made is to reduce the number of fish each team catches. Most tournaments catch five, this one catches four. It seems like a minor change at first glance, but it’s had a big impact on the number of Bass surviving each year. This has a knock-on effect across the entire local Bass population, as Jamie explains.

“These guys are fishing the big females. It’s the breeding stock of Lake Ontario. You’re going to be able to keep them healthy and alive much better if there are only four fish. At the same time, it’s a 25% reduction in the amount of fish being brought back to the scales. Over the course of 3 days, that’s quite a few fish.”

Lots of bass boats speeding out onto Lake Ontario at the start of the Thousand Islands Open fishing tournament
Image courtesy of the TIO

It makes sense. Fewer fish means fewer deaths, even if some do inevitably expire. At the same time, they have more room to breathe in the tank, which keeps them healthier. And the funny thing is that it hasn’t really affected the weigh-ins compared to a couple of decades back.

“Tournaments used to be won with 20 pounds. Then, the Gobies showed up and they’re being won with 25 pounds. Now we’re just dropping it back down to where it was. You’re still going to need 20 pounds to win, but it’s four big fish in your livewell.”

Working with Experts

If you want to do something right, it’s best to ask an expert. That’s exactly what the TIO has been doing. They work with researchers from the Biology Department of Kingston’s Queen’s University, some of which are keen anglers themselves. Professor Bruce Tufts, head of the university’s fisheries studies, is even a regular face in the tournament.

The overall attitude is, “You show us the science and we’ll agree.” This feeds into every part of the tournament. The water weigh-in procedure was partly developed by Professor Tufts. They lowered their catch rate based on advice from the university. They also educate anglers on how to vent or fizz fish to reduce damage from the pressure difference.

And it seems to be working. Jamie is open that they have made mistakes in the past. Their mission is to learn from those mistakes. No fishing tournament has a 0% mortality rate, but they work every year to keep theirs as low as possible. Right now, the goal is to keep it under 5%, and they will keep working to lower that number wherever they can.

Destined for Greatness

A view up the St Lawrence River of the Thousand Islands area of Ontario

The waters around Kingston seem to be custom-built for awesome Bass fishing. Between the vast expanse of Lake Ontario and the winding waterways of the St. Lawrence River, you could spend your whole life fishing here and only scratch the surface. After that, it’s on to the other couple of hundred lakes within an easy drive of town.

Despite all this, the area has traditionally flown under the radar for many Bass anglers, according to Jamie. “It has kind of been kept a secret for the last five or 10 years, but as more and more people are coming up and seeing how good the fishery here is, how big the fish are, it’s drawing more and more tourism as well. Which is great, as long as we maintain the resource.”

And that’s what it all comes down to, spreading the word about this incredible fishery, while also taking steps to protect it. The Thousand Islands Open seems to be doing a great job at both. So whether you’re a Bass fishing fanatic, or just a casual angler looking for somewhere scenic to wet a line, why not add Kingston to your angling hit list?

We’d like to thank the TIO, and Jamie in particular, for taking the time to talk to us. We’d also like to thank Tourism Kingston for all their help in putting this article together. If you’re interested in the tournament or want more information about the town itself, be sure to check them out!

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