By Sean Ostruszka
Special to BassFan
You’ve grown up always driving on the right side of the road. Now imagine being told you have to switch to driving on the left. Oh, and you have to do it on roads you’re not very familiar with. And $200,000 is on the line.
Welcome to what the pros will face this week at the FLW Pro Circuit TITLE Championship on Sturgeon Bay.
After an entire season of the traditional five-fish-limit format, the 50 qualifying pros will switch to the Bass Pro Tour catch, weigh and immediate release format, which few of them have any experience with outside of watching the Major League Fishing television shows and livestreams.
Fortunately, they’ll be “learning to drive” on one of the best smallmouth fisheries in the country, and one the BPT just visited a month ago and broke records at. Located in the northwest portion of Lake Michigan, Sturgeon Bay is simply loaded with 2 1/2- to 5-pound smallies, and reports are the fishing is on fire.
Before diving deeper into the bite, here's some intel on the fishery:
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: Lake Michigan (Sturgeon Bay)
> Type of water: Great Lake
> Surface acres (full pool): N/A
> Primary structure/cover: Humps, shoals, rock piles, break walls, docks, grass, some wrecks
> Primary forage: Alewives, shiners, gobies
> Average depth: 20 to 25 feet
> Species: Predominantly smallmouths, some largemouths
> Reputation: Known as a top smallmouth destination
> Weather: Partly cloudy, consistent temperatures in the mid 70s to 80 and just the right amount of wind
> Water temp: 68-74 degrees
> Water visibility/color: Clear, with some color in areas due to wind
> Water level: 3 feet above full pool
> Fish in: Various depths
> Fish phase: Summer
> Primary patterns: Dropshots, tubes, jerkbaits, crankbaits, spinnerbaits, jigs, swimbaits
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 5
> Biggest factors: The wind – big rollers are bound to show up in some places.
> Biggest decision: How far to go – there's a tremendous amount of fishable water in play
> Wildcard: Format. This will be the first attempt at the Bass Pro Tour knock-out, non-limit scenario for many anglers, so how they adapt will be key.
Nothing has changed
It was just a month ago that the BPT pulled into Sturgeon Bay and absolutely lit up the fish. Justin Lucas took home the victory by setting new BPT standards for single-day weight (141-09), two-day weight (205-06) and Championship Round weight (110-05).
Now here’s the scary part – the fishing may be even better now.
“They’re going to smash them,” says Jim Doering, who operates Cast N Catch Charters at Sturgeon Bay. “We had a little lull after the BPT left because we had a bunch of little alewives come in, but the past 2 weeks have been stupid-good. We’re catching anywhere from 40 to 100 fish over a 6-hour period.”
While Lucas and the rest of the BPT pros were catching transitioning, post-spawn fish, those same humps, reefs and rocky areas the fish were just getting back into in July are now loaded with smallmouth set up for summer.
"Nothing has changed," says Doering, about where the pros will catch fish. "I will say the lake side (of the Door Peninsula) will play a bigger role because the wind has been better lately. But guys are going to be able to find magical spots where they can catch 100 fish without barely moving their boats. The fish just keep coming and coming.”
The water temperature has actually cooled off since the BPT, with surface temperatures ranging from 68 to 74 degrees, which has only helped the bite. Doering is catching fish as shallow as 6 feet when the sun comes out, and the windier it is, the more it’s grouping up the fish.
Altogether, it’s setting up for a record-breaking championship.
“If I were those pros, I’d just pray for sun and wind,” says Doering. “If they get that, they’re going to light them up.”
Handling the Format
To have any shot at winning the TITLE, pros first have to familiarize themselves with the rules.
The event starts with anglers broken into two groups fishing 4 days of Qualifying Rounds, with Group A fishing on days 1 and 3 and Group B fishing on days 2 and 4. Then, the Top 10 pros from each group will move on to the Knockout Round on day 5, where the weights are zeroed from previous rounds. The top 10 from that round will move on to the Championship Round.
In the Championship Round – the sixth and final day of competition – the weights are zeroed and the highest total weight at the end of the day is crowned TITLE champion.
Needless to say, it will be quite the shift, as many pros openly talked at the recent Pro Circuit Super Tournament on Lake Erie how adjusting may be their biggest worry.
Yet, the new format does decrease one of their other worries – wind.
After many pros got their fillings knocked out running in massive waves on Lake Erie, the format will allow a trailered launch (competitors can put in at the ramp of their choosing). They won't be limited to the confines of the host bay, either, as everything from Green Bay north to Washington Island and the western side of the main lake will be in play.
“The trailering is a game-changer,” says Doering. “Not having to worry about the wind, you can actually hope to get it because it will group the fish up more. So as long as a guy can stand being bounced around, it will only make the fishing better and he won’t have to worry about a long run.”
Plus, with only 50 pros and a maximum of 25 fishing on any given day, anglers will have plenty of room to spread out and find something to themselves.
A Few to Keep an Eye On
Here are a handful of anglers who might fare well considering the way that Sturgeon Bay is set up this week.
> Ron Nelson – He just won Angler of the Year, and while he doesn’t have much experience on Sturgeon Bay, he’s great on smallmouth fisheries (and most other fisheries, for that matter).
> Spencer Shuffield – Few anglers have mastered their Garmin Panoptix Livescope as well as Shuffield. And as we just saw at Erie, he knows how to spy brown fish on his electronics quite well.
> Mathew Stefan – He’s one of the few pros with extensive experience on the fishery, which should help.
> Grae Buck and Matt Becker – Both are smallie experts and definitely worth watching.
> Jim Moynagh – He lives only a few hours from the fishery and is quietly one of the better smallmouth anglers in the field.
> Scott Dobson – While more at home on St. Clair, Dobson knows big-water smallmouth as well as anyone.
> Mon., August 24 – Partly cloudy – 80°/63°
- Wind: From the WSW at 8 mph
> Tues., August 25 – Partly cloudy – 80°/64°
- Wind: From the WSW at 8 mph
> Wed., August 26 – Partly cloudy - 81°/63°
- Wind: From the SW at 11 mph
> Thurs., August 27 – Partly cloudy – 75°/60°
- Wind: From the NNW at 9 mph
> Fri., August 28 – Mostly sunny – 74°/56°
- Wind: From the NW at 10 mph
> Sat., August 29 – AM showers – 70°/56°
- Wind: From the W at 9 mph
Lendell Martin Jr.