Historically the St. Lawrence River events have been won with big limits of smallmouths, and even though the big lake was off limits to us this time around there was no reason to think that brown fish wouldn’t be the winning ticket once again. That didn’t bother me at all because I like to fish for smallmouths and felt that I’d be able to figure things out pretty quickly.
Unfortunately, they weren’t ganged up like they were the last time the Elites went there. The water was still pretty cold and while most of the fish had spawned they were scattered out both deep and shallow. I tried both strategies in practice and the problem was that you could get just enough bites doing one or the other to become dangerous to yourself. It was easy to get committed to something that wasn’t a winning pattern. That’s what happened to me.
I ended up focusing mostly deep and used the side-imaging and down-imaging features on my Humminbird Onix units to find isolated rock piles and shoals out in 20 to 25 feet of water. Those are places where they typically live after they’re done spawning and I felt like I could catch decent limits by running those spots. A couple of times I jumped up shallow with a Megabass Vision 110 jerkbait and caught a few that way. The problem was that you really couldn’t pull into one area and blast away at the type of fish that you needed to win. The bass were more concentrated for the Elites two years ago, but this time you had to run a lot of different places to cobble together a good bag.
I was in a late flight on Day One which meant that I had a long day on the water. That was good because it was 11 o’clock before I got my first bite out deep. We’d had some bad weather roll through and I was just about to go shallow when that 3-pounder bit. Shortly thereafter I lost one close to 4 pounds and then I caught a second smallmouth that weighed 5-05. That convinced me that I was on the right spot and it was only 12:30, which meant I had plenty of time left. I got one more bite, a solid 3 ¾ pound fish, but that was it. I couldn’t believe it.
My three fish weighed 11 pounds 12 ounces, which put me in 88th place, but I knew that there was 20 pound potential there which would put me right back in the hunt. I was going to start Day Two deep again, but wouldn’t hesitate to go shallow if things were slow. Unfortunately for me, the fish bit pretty quickly and led me astray.
On my second stop I hooked about a 4 ½ pounder and the fish jumped and came unbuttoned. It happens, that’s part of the game, but it didn’t make me very happy. A short while later I caught a 3 pounder and that convinced me to stay deep a bit longer. Then things fizzled out and I decided to move up on top of the shoal with my jerkbait. My second fish was another 3-pounder and then I caught just a plain keeper. It was only 11:30, which left enough time to easily fill out a limit – or so I thought.
In New York, any fish you want to keep has to have at least one hook inside of its mouth. As anyone who has ever fished for smallies with a jerkbait can attest, they have a tendency to slap at the lures and get hooked in the head, in the gills, just about any place but inside the mouth. It’s not like you’re snagging them because they’re trying to eat it, but up there they have to be turned loose no matter what. I had at least six or eight that did that to me and once again I had to return to the weigh-in two fish short of a limit.
I suppose that if I had this event to do over again I might be tempted to fish for largemouths. I was surprised that several of my competitors pursued that path and were consistent enough to get checks. Still, I don’t think any of them had a chance to win, and with a Classic berth already assured for 2016 I have to keep taking chances for a tour-level win. That’s how I want to fish and I don’t regret that decision even when it doesn’t pan out. I’m willing to take magnum chances if the potential payoff is huge rewards. I don’t know when I’ll be in this position again so I plan to make the most of it.
While the St. Lawrence didn’t produce the finish that I wanted, it did give me an opportunity to gain additional confidence that I use the best equipment in the business. I fished my dropshot on the new Denali Lithium Shakey Head rod and I spooled up with Gamma Edge 6 lb. fluorocarbon. I used that to land smallies all the way up to 5-05, around heavy rocks, so you know it’s tough. I also continued to rely on the side-imaging and down-imaging functions on my Onix electronics. The mapping available for the St. Lawrence is not particularly developed, so it took a lot of blind looking to find the key offshore structure, and once I found it I could see in crystal clear detail what was there.
There are two more regular season tournaments this year in which I can continue to aim big and hopefully get back inside the Angler of the Year Championship cut. I’m not sure what to expect from the Chesapeake Bay. I know that it’s a tidal system and I don’t expect that it’ll be easy. The one that’s been occupying a lot of my thoughts is the following event on St. Clair. I’ve been battling the decision all year, trying to figure out if I’ll run to Erie. It’s a major pain to get there – a long run in big water – but if everything lines up right it might be my best chance to win.
96th Place; 6 fish, 19-03