Ever have a plan blow up in your face? Me too. Most recently at the FLW Costa on Lake Champlain out of Plattsburgh, New York. This was a bass fishing tournament on one of the best fisheries in America, and after 4 days of practice, my tournament strategy was golden; or so I thought.
Lake Champlain: Practice Days
Practice Day One
The third cast on my first day of practice I landed a 4-pound smallmouth bass on a topwater bait. After just 3 hours, my 5 best smallmouth would weigh over 18 pounds. A major tournament the day before took less than 20 pounds to win, so I knew I had stumbled onto something special. In addition to the topwater bait, I caught fish on tube jigs and spybaits.
I felt the baits would continue to work, but more importantly, I was sure the fish would still be there come tournament day. This was a 2-day event with the top 12 advancing to a third day. Anglers can weigh their best 5 bass and the heaviest stringers of fish would win. Tens of thousands of dollars were on the line.
My first day of practice was a Sunday. The tournament began on Thursday, so I had time to expand on my initial findings. I was in the Northwest area of the lake near Alburgh, Vermont. Lake Champlain is over 120 miles long and encompasses over 224,000 acres of water. It is considered as one of the roughest bodies of water in America, but rich with both smallmouth and largemouth bass. Navigating rough seas is a concern for all mariners, but I follow the 5 Common Sense Boat Safety Tips; plus my boat is protected by Megaware.
For the rest of Sunday I searched for new schools of smallmouth and largemouth in the shallows. Unfortunately, I was not able to add anything.
Practice Day 2
Feeling like I had found something unique, I kept the rest of my days of practice close to where I had success on Sunday. Close is a relative term. On smaller lakes, a mile might be close, but on Lake Champlain, 20 miles is close. So, I spent Monday in Missisquoi Bay, which is about 20 miles away.
Early in the day, I searched out smallmouth bass on some rock piles and on the flats. This yielded minimal success. My search then led me to break lines and even an outflowing creek, but still no success.
Then I went shallow – really shallow.
The area had experienced a cool spring and summer. The aquatic vegetation was now sparse, however, the reeds were healthy and ample. Reeds provide little cover for ambushing largemouth bass, but I noticed isolated patches of lily pads about 30-40 feet deep in the reeds. With the trolling motor literally blazing a trail, I went in. If I wasn’t 6 feet tall, no one would have been able to see me – good thing my KeelGuard and SkegGuard protect my boat in the shallow water!
I punched these pads with a variety of creature baits, and it was an immediate success, and I caught nearly 20 over the next few hours. The largemouth were eager. In fact, I concluded they were protecting fry. Unfortunately, big fish were not in high supply. My best 5 bass would have weighed just 14 pounds, which is not going to cut it on this great fishery. Still, I felt there was potential for a big fish if I needed it during the tournament. (Bryan Thrift who won the tournament caught many of his fish in Missisquoi Bay.)
Practice Day 3
Weather forecasts called for strong, south winds, and they didn’t lie. I launched from Point Au Roche State Park on the west side of the lake and ran to the opposite side called the Inland Sea before the waves got large. The Inland Sea would be about 20 miles from my Sunday area – a safe distance to manage time during the tournament.
It took just 10 minutes before I boated a 4-pound smallmouth bass! Unfortunately, that was about all the action I would get. Over the next 5 hours I boated only 2 largemouth bass in the 2-pound range and a handful of tiny smallmouth bass
I probed islands, rocks, weed beds, shallow and deep water. The Inland Sea on Lake Champlain is enormous, and there was much more to cover, but getting back to my truck was becoming a concern.
By this time many waves were over 5 feet tall, and the winds were supposed to strengthen, so I ran back. What took just 20 minutes to drive in the morning took nearly an hour as I had to maneuver through 3-6 foot high waves. The state park is in Treadwell Bay. I stuck around in it for 2 hours hoping to find a school of fish, but even here the waves grew to 5 feet in height. I was literally blown off the lake that day, and I felt uneasy about not finding anything worth adding to my tournament strategy.
Practice Day 4
This would be a short, final day on the water as mandatory registration and a meeting would begin at 3:30 in the city of Plattsburgh, New York. I got up early and was on the water by 6:30. I launched very close to where I had my success on Sunday, and while I would not make any casts to the spots from that day, I would be looking for productive areas within a few miles from my Sunday spots.
Soft rain and light wind accompanied me as I fished the entire west side of Isle La Motte just south of where I launched. I drifted with the current along the island and had a tremendous day. By the time I got to the end of the island, I had located 3 spots holding quality smallmouth bass. Best of all, I was convinced that the tube bait was the real deal. My bait was mimicking a perch color and some the bass spit up 4 and 5-inch perch as I reeled them in. This was the confirmation I needed. I knew where good fish were holding, what they were eating, and a bait that mimicked it.
My biggest concern was how aggressively they were eating the bait. Some had swallowed the hook, so I called the smallmouth guru, Heath Wagner, and he offered expert advice to keep them healthy in the livewell. I told him that weighing anything less than 17 pounds tomorrow would be a disappointment and that I was hoping for an 18-pound limit.
Lake Champlain: Tournament Days
Tournament Day One
My alarm was set for 3:30, but I was up at 2:15 – I was so excited! And confident. Out of 180 anglers, I was taking off 61. The weather was beautiful on Lake Champlain and the ride to my first stop was calm. It took just 22 minutes to run 22 miles. I knew the bites would come, and I told my co-angler, “What I don’t know is if the bites will be spread out or be in a flurry.”
It ended up being neither.
In the first 2 hours I had 2 bites – one on a topwater plug, the fish missed it, and one on a spybait that I failed to land. I saw the fish on the topwater, and it was a dandy, but it would not bite again despite my many repeated casts.
After 4 hours, neither my co-angler or I had a single keeper. I had managed to catch a handful of sub-legal sized bass and northern pike while my co-angler had a single bite, a 4-pounder that spit his bait inches from the net. Desperation set it.
There was no doubt in my mind that I was around quality fish, but it perplexed me that I could not get a bite from one of them. It was time to salvage the day. It was imperative I have a limit good enough to keep me in the running after day 1. There’s a saying in tournament fishing: “You can’t win a tournament on Day 1, but you can lose it.” I chose to run 20 miles to Missisquoi Bay to punch for largemouth.
On my first cast, a 2-pounder clobbered my bait and I set the hook with authority. The fish came to the surface, shook its head, and my bait came flying back at me! Poor execution, but a good sign. Over the next 90 minutes I had 10 bites; however, I only landed 2 and only 1 was a keeper! Perplexity shifted to frustration. My hooksets seemed good and my hooks were sharp, but I could not land one.
We ran back to our starting point with just 1 hour left to fish. On one of my first casts, I boated a 3-pound smallmouth bass with the tube bait. Over the course of the hour I lost another 3.5 pounder and caught another of that size along with a giant walleye and mess of perch. At quitting time, I had just 3 keeper bass that weighed 8-3 pounds and put me in 161 place.
Tournament Day 2
Emotionally, I was rock bottom. The flurry of fish during the last hour confirmed I was around good fish, but I did not understand why they did not bite until the end. Clearly, it was a mistake to leave them to target largemouth bass. Today, I would not abandon them – I would stick out the day in this area chasing smallmouth to see how high I could climb in the final standings.
Weather is always a big deal on Lake Champlain and on this day competitors were greeted with a stiff southern wind. My 22-mile run north took 45 minutes and I was soaked by the time I got there by the spray of the waves. Our starting spot had 3 and 4-foot waves and it was difficult to stand on the boat.
We stuck it out for 2 hours, but, again, we had 0 fish in the boat. This was the same spot we ended in yesterday – what were the fish doing?!?
I ran to a wind-protected bridge and bagged my first keeper, a 2-pound largemouth, and a few sub-legal smallmouth on the tube. Another competitor came by and told us the spot we were fishing earlier now had 6-foot waves on it!
At 10:00, we ran to the west side of Isle La Motte, which provided some protection from the wind and over the next 2 hours. During this time we both caught a keeper smallmouth, but I lost a 4-pounder. That fish haunts me as a testament to how badly my plan blew up during the tournament. I felt a bite on my tube and I set the hook. One second after hooking that fish, I felt my line snap and then the big fish came jumping out of the water. Talk about insult to injury.
The winds calmed down around noon, so I ran back to our starting spot. Surprising, the waves were just a foot high. Like the day before, one of my first casts produced a 3 ¾ pound smallmouth with the tube. Over the next 2 hours, my co-angler boated 2 additional keepers, but lost 3 others including a 4-pounder. I caught 2 more keepers but lost another giant on a spybait. I finished with 4 fish weighing 11-7 pounds. This jumped me up to 127 place.
A Moment of Reflection
Today these fish still confuse me. Had I just caught what bit, I would have finished in the money, but why did the bites fade away? Why was the morning bite so bad? One theory is their eating habits changed and I noticed the livewells were loaded with pieces of crawdad the smallmouth had spit-up. During practice they were eating perch and perhaps my biggest mistake was not realizing this. My bait selection did not mimic crawdads, it mimicked perch.
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