By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Stay in Lake Erie and try to grind out half a dozen quality bites each day or make a bumpy 2-hour-plus run toward Lake St. Clair, where the smallmouth-catching was pretty easy but fishing time was short and the boat rides there and back were brutal.
That was the big question that confronted the 187-angler field in last week's Lake Erie FLW Pro Circuit Super Tournament out of Sandusky, Ohio. Both options produced Top-5 finishes, although the latter resulted in a lot of aching backs and damaged equipment.
Following are some specifics of how the 2nd- through 4th-place finishers went about their business on the sprawling venue.
2nd: Jacob Wheeler
> Day 1: 5, 20-06
> Day 2: 5, 17-14
> Day 3: 5, 22-05
> Day 4: 5, 18-08
> Total = 20, 79-01
Jacob Wheeler came within a single ounce of claiming his third tour-level victory of 2020. The No. 1 angler in the BassFan World Rankings spent 3 tournament days in Erie and mixed in a journey to St. Clair on day 2.
"I spent my first practice day in St. Clair and caught 21 pounds," he said. "I caught a lot of fish and I knew it had potential – I found a couple areas where it wasn't hard to catch numbers. It was pretty easy to get a limit in the mid to high teens, but not easy to get over 20.
"I spent the rest of my practice time between Erie and the Detroit River. Whatever the weather was going to do, I wanted to have a good option."
He hit about a dozen places between Sandusky and the mouth of the river on day 1 and was one of seven competitors to surpass the 20-pound threshold. Traveling conditions were more favorable on day 2, so he ventured to St. Clair and caught enough to maintain his position in the standings (6th).
With the wind at its stiffest for the final 2 days, he stayed in Erie and made a serious run at the victory. With 2 hours left on day 4, he returned to Sandusky Bay to fish grass mats for largemouth, making one upgrade for more than half a pound. He later had a bigger fish blow up on his frog, but miss it.
He primarily three dropshots and Ned rigs with traditional-style baits for those techniques, but also scored on some minnow-type offerings when the smallmouth were keyed in on baitfish.
"I felt really good about the decisions I made for the whole event – I adapted well and put myself around the fish I needed to win," he said. "The big key for me was I didn't lose very many fish. Instead of nose-hooking the dropshot baits, I was threading them on a No. 2 VMC Finesse Neko hook, which has a fluorocarbon keeper that locks the bait in place. Even if the smallmouth just nipped at it, I was still hooking them in the top of the mouth."
> Dropshot gear: 7'2" medium-heavy Duckett Fishing Jacob Wheeler Signature Series rod, Duckett Fishing Paradigm spinning reel, 8-pound Sufix NanoBraid (main line), 10-pound Sufix Advance fluorocarbon (10' leader), No. 2 VMC Finesse Neko hook, 1/2-ounce teardrop-shape VMC tungsten weight, Googan Baits Rattlin' Ned (green-pumpkin/goby).
> He also fished the Rattlin' Ned on a 1/4-ounce VMC Finesse Half Moon jighead.
Josh Bertrand wasn't getting many bites, but the ones he enticed were of high quality.
3rd: Josh Bertrand
> Day 1: 5, 22-06
> Day 2: 5, 17-08
> Day 3: 5, 22-14
> Day 4: 5, 11-14
> Total = 20, 74-10
Like winner Justin Lucas, Josh Bertrand focused on Erie and caught his fish dropshotting a Berkley MaxScent Flat Worm. He was only getting five or six bites each day, but the quality was sufficient enough to put him at the top of the standings after day 1 and again following day 3.
He had a difficult time on day 4 when the most powerful winds of the event blew out the shoal that had produced for him the 3 previous days. With just one 2 1/2-pounder in his box midway through the day, he returned to Sandusky Bay and filled out his limit with run-of-the-mill largemouths – a move he questioned when the day was over because it likely eliminated his chance of winning.
His smallmouths on Erie came from various types of rocky cover – boulders, rough spots on the bottom or any type of irregularity on the shoal (a point, an outcropping or an indentation). He was heavily reliant on his Garmin LiveScope unit to locate boulders and fish.
"I could use it to line up and anticipate what was about to happen," he said. "As I was approaching a fish or a rock pile or a boulder, but the time might boat got over it the bait was already in the fish's face. It wasn't a thing where I'd be surprised by seeing a fish on sonar and then having to try to figure out where it went.
"Just the confidence I had in knowing I had the Flat Worms and LiveScope was a really big deal for me. I know that when I get into the right areas with those I'm going to catch as much as anyone else, if not more."
> Dropshot gear: 7' medium-action Abu Garcia Fantasista Premier rod, Abu Garcia Revo Premier spinning reel (size 30), 8-pound Berkley x5 braid (main line), 6-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon (8' leader), size 1 Berkley Fusion19 dropshot hook, 1/2-ounce Bass Pro Shops XPS tungsten weight (round), Berkley MaxScent Flat Worm (black, green-pumpkin or brown back).
Scott Dobson put his extensive experience on the Detroit River system to good use.
4th: Scott Dobson
> Day 1: 5, 17-14
> Day 2: 5, 19-06
> Day 3: 5, 18-00
> Day 4: 5, 19-02
> Total = 20, 74-06
Scott Dobson, a resident of Clarkston, Mich., has vast experience on the Detroit River system and he took full advantage en route to posting his second Top-10 showing of the season. He spent day 1 near the mouth of the Detroit River, day 2 on Lake St. Clair, day 3 on the river (but a different that he fished on day 1) and day 4 on Erie.
"It was kind of a hot mess – it was controlled chaos," he said. "It was all dependent on the weather and how much time I had in a given day (whether he was in an early or late flight).
"The key was just being confident in my knowledge of the fishery. Instead of numbers, I was keying on big fish. I knew if I could get five to seven bites, they were going to be the right bites."
Jerkbaits were his primary offering on the river, where he targeted gravel, rock and current breaks. On St. Clair he fished "clean spots" adjacent to places where low-standing vegetation was growing from the bottom and on Erie he focused on boulders in the vicinity of the three Bass Islands. He employed dropshot and Ned rigs with various baits on the lakes.
He had a strong final day, but was unable to corral his biggest bite.
"I broke off a huge fish – it was a legit 5 1/2- or 5 3/4-pounder," he said. "I evidently had a nick in my line right above the hook."
> Dropshot gear: 7'4" medium-action Dobyns Champion Extreme 742 or 743 rod, Shimano Ci4+ spinning reel, 10-pound P-Line braid (main line), 8-pound P-Line Tactical fluorocarbon leader, 3/8- or 1/2-ounce Provider Tackle weight, No. 1 or 1/0 Gamakatsu Split Shot/Drop Shot hook.
> His dropshot baits included a Strike King Z Too and Baby Z, a Poor Boys Baits Erie Darter and a Berkley MaxScent Flatnose Minnow.
> His jerkbait was a Realis 100DR.
Spencer Shuffield made the long run to Lake St. Clair and back each day.
5th: Spencer Shuffield
> Day 1: 5, 18-03
> Day 2: 5, 20-08
> Day 3: 5, 19-03
> Day 4: 5, 15-14
> Total = 20, 73-12
Spencer Shuffield, who ended up No. 2 behind Ron Nelson in the Angler of the Year race, never considered fishing anywhere other than St. Clair despite the arduous commute. It was the fourth time he'd visited the venue and the second for a top-level event – he was 4th in an FLW Tour derby in 2012.
"I'm just in love with that place," he said. "I made up my mind that if there was any chance to get there, I was going. That beautiful blue water and those golden-brown smallmouth ... I'm just absolutely obsessed with them. They really make me feel like I couldn't care less if I ever caught another largemouth for the rest of my life."
He caught 17 of his weigh-in fish on a dropshot rig and the other three on a crankbait. He targeted grass in the 18- to 20-foot depth range.
"I could find (the grass) running on pad – I could see the taller strands on sonar. I'd mark four or five in a 2-mile stretch and then come back and LiveScope them.
"There was grass everywhere, but most if it was only about 6 inches to a foot tall. Then for no (apparent) reason there'd be some growing 4 feet above the rest with leaves on it. The fish would get on those taller clumps."
He did pay a price on day 4 for the long run from Sandusky and back.
"It took me 3 1/2 hours to get back and I just destroyed my trolling motor," he said. "When I hit the mouth of Erie there were 8- and 9-foot waves everywhere and I couldn't go more than about 12 miles an hour. It just beat my stuff to death."
> Dropshot gear: 7'2" medium-action Phenix M1 rod, Daiwa Ballistic spinning reel, 15-pound hi-vis yellow Yo-Zuri Superbraid (main line), 8-pound Yo-Zuri Top Knot fluorocarbon leader, No. 1 Gamakatsu Split Shot/Drop Shot hook, 1/2-ounce Ark Fishing bell-shaped weight, Berkley MaxScent Flat Worm (brown back).
> Cranking gear: 7'7" heavy-action Phenix Feather rod, Daiwa Tatula SV TW casting reel (6.3:1 ratio), 14-pound prototype Duel Hardcore fluorocarbon line, Duel Hardcore 4+ (citrus shad).