By Todd Ceisner
For some anglers, it’s easy to see how the Mississippi River can be an overwhelming place. With miles and miles of backwaters and fishy-looking places at virtually every turn, getting settled into a rhythm there can be a chore. And that’s not factoring in the constantly changing water levels, clarity and current that impact how and where fish position on cover.
To Ott DeFoe, the Mississippi felt a little like home in east Tennessee, where the Tennessee, Holston and French Broad rivers flow, and it was that comfort level that helped him collect his first career full-field Elite Series victory last week at La Crosse, Wis.
“When I fun-fish at home, I do it on the river,” he said. "It’s what I like to do. Because of that, I’m a river geek back home. I’m going to see what the flow’s been doing. Is it rising or falling, what’s the CFS? Based on that, I can tell you, ‘We’re going to catch them on this kind of stuff,’ and I can tell you how big they are before they bite. Because of that knowledge at home, it played right into this. When they’re true river fish, they act exactly the same.”
His victory didn’t come as much of a surprise – it felt like a matter of when, not if he’d ever win an Elite Series event – but how he got it done may raise some eyebrows. He remained in Pool 8 during the tournament and meandered back and forth along a spillway where Lake Onalaska, a productive area in Pool 7, emptied into the upper end of a backwater on Pool 8. At that spot, he almost exclusively threw a line-through 6-inch swimbait and caught the bulk of the fish he weighed in, including the tournament’s 6-01 lunker on day 2.
The other half of his 1-2 punch was a 150-foot patch of grass toward the southern end of Pool 8 where he punched a creature bait. He weighed in five of his fish from that spot – two on day 1 and three on day 3 – and four of the five were between 3 1/4 and 3 3/4 pounds.
Neither spot was particularly susceptible to the issues others faced elsewhere. If the water rose at the spillway, it was hard to tell because of the steady current coming over the dike. Clarity didn’t seem to change all that much there either.
“I came into it with a lot of confidence,” he said. “I almost felt like I could go without any practice and still catch a solid bag.”
Here’s how DeFoe got dialed in on the Mississippi.
DeFoe came to La Crosse thinking he’d focus more on smallmouth because they tend to carry more weight than the average largemouth there. Little did he know he’d wind up only weighing in one during the tournament.
His general river knowledge helped him identify high-percentage areas based on the conditions in practice, which were mostly overcast.
“Practice was a lot of that way,” he said. “I didn’t need to fish that bank because I knew I’d catch them right there based on how it looked. That’s why the whole if it’s up or down, I didn’t care because I understand what to do if it’s up or down. It was about seeing what they were doing.”
He spent some time in Pool 9, where catching 2 1/2-pounders was fairly easy. He also had located the small stretch of grass on the lower end of Pool 8, so his plan was to hit the punching spot on his way to or from Pool 9 each day. He’d caught a 3 1/2-pound largemouth punching, but all the other 3-plus pound fish he caught in practice were smallmouth on wing dams or sand drops.
“I thought to win, as is usually the case there, I’d have to target smallmouth,” he said.
On the third day, he ran up to the spillway since he’d caught them there during the two previous Elite Series events in La Crosse.
“I thought maybe it’d be a place to get an easy check,” he said. “I could go there and catch 12 pounds early each morning and then go catch big ones.”
His first two bites there were 2 1/2 and 3 pounds, both largemouth.
“That got my attention,” he added.
It also forced him to made a decision on how he’d split up his time on day 1 of the tournament. He was 18th in points and locked into the Angler of the Year Championship and virtually locked into the Bassmaster Classic. With the boat order on day 1 dictated by points standings, he knew he’d be in the first or second flight, so his chances of getting a spot along the spillway were pretty good.
“Being in the position I was in, I knew I’d be an early boat number and I knew other guys would go there,” he said, referring to the spillway. “I knew I’d get one corner of it, at least, but I thought it had potential. I thought of it as the low-hanging fruit.”
He also never thought he’d be able to go back to it day after day and catch quality fish there.
“I really thought it was a one-day spot,” he said. “I figured maybe I could go back and catch a few, but I didn’t know there were that many there.”
> Day 1: 5, 17-07
> Day 2: 5, 17-11
> Day 3: 5, 16-07
> Day 4: 5, 12-01
> Total = 20, 63-10
He started Thursday below the spillway and made his first casts near the right-hand corner since that was close to where his bites in practice came. He caught a small smallmouth keeper right away, then boated a 3 3/4-pound largemouth.
“I was like, ‘Dang,’” he said.
Jason Williamson joined DeFoe, but at the opposite end of the spillway. Eventually they crossed paths and Williamson revealed he’d caught nothing there so far. DeFoe made his way over to where Williamson had been and finished his limit with a 3-pounder, a 4-pounder and a couple 2 1/2s.
“I had about 16 pounds in the first two hours,” he added.
He left the spillway around 9 a.m. once the sun got high and bounced around in the area before heading to his punching spot around 11. His first fish there was just over 3 pounds. He culled two more times and by noon, he had nearly 17 1/2 pounds.
While he was culling one of his fish, fellow east Tennessee resident Brandon Card pulled in to fish the same grass patch. DeFoe said they both made the remark, “I was hoping you wouldn’t have found this spot,” to each other before DeFoe left in an attempt to find other areas for Friday.
Wicked thunderstorms and soaking rain dominated Friday until mid-afternoon. By the time the sun broke through, DeFoe was mentally spent.
“The morning went pretty good,” he said. “I didn’t catch big ones like Thursday. Then it started raining and lightning and the fishing was not very good after that morning flurry.”
His grass area didn’t pay off either.
“My head was almost out of it,” he said. “It had crossed my mind that the day was shot and that I could go check in early and go get a hot shower and eat dinner. I had the cut made.”
He gathered himself, gnawed on some jerky and rode out the day.
“At about 2:30, the clouds broke and I went back to the spillway thinking maybe it had reloaded,” he said. “I caught a couple around 3, which helped.”
It got to be about 3:20 and he had a 4 p.m. check-in with a 15-minute boat ride to get there.
“That’s when I caught the Mississippi Queen,” he said, referring to the nickname he bestowed upon the 6-01 brute that devoured his swimbait and anchored the 17-11 stringer that put him in the lead after day 2. “That was pretty amazing.”
He stuck with the same two spots on day 3, eliminating the non-productive places he’d been stopping at in between.
“The grass spot was a big player,” he said. “I hit it around noon and caught two over 3 pounds quick.”
He culled one more time there before heading back to finish his day at the spillway, where he picked up another half-pound upgrade to maintain the lead with 16-07.
DeFoe left the dock with a 2-plus pound lead on Sunday morning, a respectable advantage on the Mississippi. He was fishless and in scramble mode until 10 a.m. when fellow competitor Gerald Swindle tipped him off to a stretch on the Minnesota side of Pool 8 where he’d just caught some smallmouth.
DeFoe acted on the tip and got back on track before ultimately finishing the day at the trusty spillway, where he caught a 3-pounder – on the swimbait – in the closing minutes to clinch the win.
Winning Pattern Notes
> The water immediately below the spillway ranged from 8 to 10 feet deep and DeFoe would make countless casts with his weightless swimbait, to the point he admitted to “checking out mentally” due to the repetitive nature of the routine.
“It’s a typical summertime deal,” he said. “Fish tend to congregate in the most current, plus it was the head of a giant backwater and the water was still in the 70s.”
> He described his punching area as a ditch that was part of a maze of ditches that ran through a massive flat.
“It was one of hundreds of ditches there, but it was the only with fish to speak of,” he added. “It had a good mix of coon tail, some string grass and duckweed. The first day was good because there was no wind and the water hadn’t come up. It was pretty and clean. It deteriorated over the course of the tournament. There was a lot of pretty stuff around, but that was the only spot that had bass on it.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Swimbait gear: 7’ medium-heavy Fenwick Elite Tech casting rod, Pflueger Supreme XT casting reel (7.1:1 ratio), 15-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon line, 6” unnamed swimbait (various colors), #1 VMC treble hook (rigged line-through).
> DeFoe rigged the treble hook on the belly of the bait and used a “solid color” during low-light conditions and a “translucent” hue when it was brighter.
> Punching gear: 7’8” heavy-action Fenwick World Class casting rod, Pflueger Patriarch casting reel (7.9:1 ratio), 65-pound Berkley Trilene braided line, 1 1/2-oz. unnamed tungsten flipping weight, 4/0 VMC heavy-duty flipping hook, 4 1/2” unnamed creature bait (black/blue).
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “Committing to those two areas. There was a lot of other stuff I drove by that I could’ve spent time on and caught fish on, but I knew those two areas had quality fish on them.”
> Performance edge – “After the Potomac, I had the new Minn Kota Ultrex trolling motor put on and where I was fishing, I had to make a particular cast each time to get those fish to bite. It was very specific the way they were set up. The cool thing about the trolling motor is the Spot Lock feature that will hold you on the spot. It will hold you in any kind of current as long it can run up to wide open and hold you there, it’ll do just that. I could tap that button after I’d catch one, then go back and cull, get back up and make the same exact cast.”
Much of the tackle referenced above is available at the BassFan Store. To browse the selection, click here.