By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
The Mississippi River out of La Crosse, Wis. has been a frequent stopping point for the Bassmaster Elite Series over the past decade or so. It's teeming with bass of both the largemouth and smallmouth varieties and, once located, those fish can be caught in a variety of ways.
The FLW Tour will sample the venue for the first time this week, and it'll do so earlier on the calendar than any of the Elite events took place. The spawn is somewhere near its peak and there are a lot of fish on beds, but the ones that have already gone through the reproduction ritual aren't grouped up and chomping like they will be a month or so from now. Post-spawners can be caught, but not one after another in the vast majority of locales.
The water level will also be a major factor as the area was hit with about five inches of rain earlier this week. Unquestionably, a lot of fish will be in different places than they were when the Tour field was last on the water on Tuesday.
"It's anybody's game is all I can tell you," said Tour veteran Tom Monsoor, a La Crosse resident who's competed on the river for decades. "There is no pattern on this river when the water goes up, the fish go up, and when it goes down, they go down. They move around and it's constantly an ongoing deal."
It's a northern fishery with a relatively short growing season, which makes 4-pounders quite scarce. The goal is to catch five in the 3-pound class, as an average of 15 pounds per day will almost certainly carry an angler through both cuts (to the top 20 after day 2 and the top 10 the following day).
Before getting deeper into the bite, here's some info on the fishery itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: Mississippi River
> Type of water: Floodplain river with numerous locks and dams
> Surface acres: Unavailable (Pools 7, 8 and 9 stretch for approximately 70 miles)
> Primary structure/cover: Deadfall timber, brush, grass, weeds, lily pads, riprap
> Primary forage: Crawfish, shad, bluegill
> Average depth: 5 feet
> Species: Largmouths are predominant, but quite a few smallmouths live here
> Minimum length: 14 inches
> Reputation: A good numbers fishery where the larger specimens often gang up in specific places
> Weather: Cloudy, relatively cool and breezy with some precipitation possible
> Water temp: High 60s (river) to mid 70s (backwaters)
> Water visibility/color: A couple feet or more in some places and almost none in others/clear to heavily stained
> Water level: A couple of feet high
> Fish in: 10 feet or shallower
> Fish phase: Spawn/post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Flipping, spinnerbaits, frogs, swimjigs, plastics, shallow crankbaits, topwaters, etc.
> Winning weight: 62 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 20 after 2 days): 28 pounds
> Check weight (Top 50 after 2 days): 24 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for the Mississippi River
> Biggest factors: Water level rain on the days leading up to the tournament could have a big impact on the bite in the extreme shallows
> Biggest decision: One or more some will wrestle with staying in one pool or locking up or down in search of something better
> Wildcard: A 4-pounder they're less common here than some places the Tour visits, and thus much more valuable
For a up-close look at the stretch of the Mississippi River thats providing the playing field for this weeks event, check out this contour map, courtesy of Navionics:
A One-Pool Derby?
As is normally the case for La Crosse events, pools 7 and 9 of the Mississippi are in play in addition to the launch pool (8). However, locking could be problematic.
Anglers received a text message from tournament director Bill Taylor notifying them that there will be no designated locking times for competitors, and getting the barges through will be the only priority for the lockmasters.
Last year's debacle at Pickwick Lake, when more than 20 anglers failed to weigh in on day 1 due to a locking delay, is still fresh in the minds of many anglers, so the majority will likely opt to remain in Pool 8.
Jeff Gustafson said spending several days on upstream pools last week was of no benefit for this event.
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll compete this week.
"This place has got a lot of fish. It's a healthy fishery, but 3-pounders are like gold here. There's a lot of 1 1/2- and 2-pound bass and a 4 is like a giant.
"It's fun for me to go someplace new and see some new scenery and experience a new fishery. It's the only major fishery I've never been to before and I asked Larry Nixon about it and he said he was here once in the early or mid '80s but hasn't been back since.
"I had a decent practice for largemouths. I never could find the smallmouths, but I didn't spend a lot of time looking for them. When a place is brand new to you, it takes some time just to learn your way around.
"I've seen a lot of fish on beds and around beds, but I haven't seen anything big, just bucks. I've got a hunch that they're right in the middle of it all and some have already spawned. I'm seeing some empty beds.
"With no pre-spawn to speak of and them not being on their post-spawn pattern yet, they're just kind of scattered. I haven't seen even a handful of fish over 3 pounds.
"It's definitely a fun place to fish. You can catch some in the backwaters and some in the current, too. There's even some largemouths out on the main river."
"I really don't know what these fish are going to do. The water was dropping, but now it's coming back up after the rain last night and yesterday. People say I have an advantage because I live here, but the advantage I have is I know where to run and not get stuck on a sandbar. I've got to find the fish, too.
"It might be all muddy when we get back out there and that changes the whole game, and on top of that we've got a cold front coming through. Things were starting to set up after the water had dropped so much and they were getting to where you could catch them again. Somebody will really find them I found one spot where I could get at them.
"It looks like the wind is going to change directions and blow the opposite way of what I wanted it to. I wanted it to blow out of the south because that makes it easier to fish upstream."
"Just fishing, it seems kind of tough. You can catch one here and there, but it's not like when the Elites came here in June and guys were catching 50 on a frog. They were done spawning and they were eating by then. I think you can throw the stuff from those tournaments out the window because the Elites were never here this early.
"The river's fishing pretty decent and it's chock-full of fish. A bunch of 2 1/2-pounders might get you a check, but it's going to take 3 1/2s to win. You can find spawning fish grouped up, but it's going to get crowded in some areas.
"I'm going to try to target smallmouth and mix in some largemouth you're probably going to need both to win. I'm just going to start with the smallmouth and see how it progresses."
"My practice wasn't really that great. I found a couple areas with a lot of fish, but they're going to be busy. I'm going to have to grind it out because I don't have anywhere I can go where I can catch 30 or 40 fish.
"I spent 3 days in Pool 4 before I came here and fished a little tournament there, and the fishing was a lot better up there for me. I'd heard that the pools were kind of all the same, but everything I learned up there didn't work down here. I wasted a lot of my practice chasing that stuff around.
"I haven't been able to get on the smallmouth at all and that's kind of disappointing because I feel like they should be right in my wheelhouse. I've marked a dozen or so largemouths on beds, but I'm sure other people found them, too. I'm just going to keep my eyes peeled while if fishing and if I see one staying on the house, I'll try to catch it.
"In general, I'm not super-excited. A lot of boats are going to be on the same stuff I'm fishing. I'll just have to buckle down and grind it out."
Top 10 to Watch
With the above in mind and more, here are BassFan's recommendations for the top 10 to watch in this event.
1. Bryan Thrift The No. 1 angler in the BassFan World Rankings has a general disdain for river systems and much prefers competing on reservoirs, but he's so hot right now that he could catch a double-digit bag from a horse trough. Don't look for him to surrender much of his massive lead in the Angler of the Year (AOY) race.
2. Tom Monsoor The 68-year-old has had a rough season, with no finishes better than 65th and three of 106th or lower in five outings. However, his knowledge of this fishery is vast and he likely knows where he can catch some good fish with his swimjig.
3. Andy Morgan The Tennessean is a long way from his residence, but he could make himself right at home amongst the myriad of shallow-water targets that are available. He's climbed to 5th in the AOY race after his bomb at Lake Travis in the season's second event and he's a good bet to move up another rung or two at this derby.
4. John Cox The reigning Forrest Wood Cup champion has struggled at times this season, but has turned in two placements among the top 7 in the last three events. His shallow-water game is nearly unparalleled and he'll be right in his element at La Crosse.
Matt Stefan is a Wisconsin resident who comes into the tournament with some good momentum.
5. Matt Stefan He comes in hot, having made the 20-cut in both of the previous two events, and he's competing in his home state on a venue he knows well. He also loves fishing rivers. Everything points to a third straight weekend appearance.
6. Scott Martin The winner at Lake Cumberland in early April has posted finishes all over the board this year, but he's still one of the most versatile anglers on the circuit and will have many options to choose from this week. He'll be looking wash out the bitter taste of his 81st-place showing the last time out at Beaver Lake.
7. Clark Wendlandt He'd posted three consecutive finishes of 11th or better prior to a 142nd-place stinker at Beaver. He possesses all of the tools necessary to fare well in this one.
8. Scott Canterbury Thrift's closest pursuer in the points race comes in off back-to-back single-digit showings at Cumberland and Beaver. He excels in skinny water and it'd be no surprise if he made it to the final day for the third straight time.
9. Todd Auten The veteran from North Carolina hasn't had a great year (he's 77th in the points) and needs high finishes this week and in the regular-season finale at the Potomac River. The present set-up should suit him extremely well.
10. J.T. Kenney He loves to wield a flipping stick and is a master at catching bedding bass, and he'll have ample opportunity to do both in this event. He could just about lock up a Forrest Wood Cup berth with a solid finish.
Competitors will take off at 6:30 a.m. CDT each day from Veterans Freedom Park, located at 1 Clinton St. in La Crosse. Weigh-ins will be held at the same location beginning at 3 p.m. on days 1 and 2 and 4 p.m. on days 3 and 4.
> Thurs., May 18 Cloudy 56°/43°
- Wind: From the NNW at 14 mph
> Fri., May 19 P.M. Showers 59°/48°
- Wind: From the ENE at 12 mph
> Sat., May 20 Thundershowers 68°/51°
- Wind: From the SE at 13 mph
> Sun., May 21 Mostly Cloudy 64°/52°
- Wind: From the WNW at 13 mph