By Todd Ceisner
Record high water levels in Lake Ontario and along the St. Lawrence River this spring and summer have wreaked havoc on landowners as shoreline flooding has caused millions of dollars in property damage and limited access for anglers.
As a result, safety measures, such as a no-wake zone 600 feet from any shoreline, were instituted weeks ago and will be in force this week as the Bassmaster Elite Series visits northern New York for the third time in the past five years.
Locals have never seen the water at its current level, but other than competitors being more aware of their speed in proximity to land, it shouldn’t dampen the fishing this week. It might take a little longer to move between spots, but the smallmouth and largemouth are still plentiful up and down the river. Like one competitor said, “The rocks are all still in the same places.”
As was the case in 2015, anglers will be restricted to the river – Lake Ontario is off limits – but there’s more than enough water to go around – and plenty of bass.
While this will be the earliest visit in terms of the calendar for the Elite Series, this week could mimic the event from two years ago in that shallow water could attract the most attention. Of the top 5 finishers in ’15, only runner-up Alton Jones spent considerable time targeting areas deeper than 10 feet. With the elevated water levels this year, it should bring more shallow cover into the equation.
Catching fish hasn’t been an issue during practice and there’s talk that largemouth could be a bigger factor this week than in the past. To win, though, it’ll likely take a smallmouth majority.
After a six-week break, the final three full-field Elite Series events will play out over the next five weeks and the St. Lawrence River serves as the kickoff to a back-to-back sequence with Lake Champlain next week. With the points race tight at the top and around the cutoff for the AOY championship, each ounce will be magnified from here on out.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the venue itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: St. Lawrence River
> Type of water: Primary drainage for the Great Lakes Basin
> Surface acres: N/A (competitors will have access to approximately 100 miles of the river)
> Primary structure/cover: Humps, points, rock piles, weed beds, sandbars, reeds, mats
> Primary forage: Gobies dominate, but crayfish and various minnows are also available
> Species: Smallmouths and largemouths
> Length limit: 12 inches
> Reputation: A virtually untapped bass fishery with prolific numbers of both smallmouths and largemouths weighing 3 pounds or more
> Weather: Pleasant and stable
> Water temp: Low to mid 70s
> Water visibility/color: Ultra-clear despite higher water
> Water level: Was historically high in May, but has come down gradually; 2 feet higher than normal
> Fish in: 2 to 40 feet
> Fish phase: Post-spawn/summer
> Primary patterns: Dropshots, tubes, flipping, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, jerkbaits, jigs, swimbaits, topwaters, plastics
> Winning weight: 80 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 12 after 3 days): 54 pounds
> Check weight (Top 50 after 2 days): 31 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 4 for the St. Lawrence River
> Biggest factors: Finding consistent quality. River is full of bass, but big ones seem to be scattered loners.
> Biggest decision: Deep or shallow – either could be the ticket to victory
> Wildcard: Largemouths – high water will attract the bank-beaters, but can they last?
To get a closer look at how the St. Lawrence lays out, check out the map below, courtesy of Navionics:
Chris Johnston has put his time in at the St. Lawrence River. The native of Peterborough, Ont., and the 2016 FLW Tour Rookie of the year is in the midst of preparation for next week’s Northern FLW Series tournament that will launch out of Clayton, N.Y., along the river. While he’ll likely run out to Lake Ontario during the tournament, he’s well aware there are plenty of opportunities awaiting the Elite Series farther downstream.
He said he’s not seen the river at its current level or seen the current ripping at its present pace. The high water and swift current notwithstanding, Johnston believes the stage is set for a big-weight event.
“It’s going to be a good tournament fishing-wise,” he said, “but you can pretty well scrap the deep water.”
Randy Howell is still trying to get dialed in at the St. Lawrence.
He’s not saying that in a sly manner to protect potential spots he intends to hit next week. He truly thinks the shallow bite will be more consistent that anything out deep (20-plus feet).
“I wouldn’t look deep because it’s been such a late spring and the water is so quick and when it’s that quick they like to stay shallow,” he said. “There are a lot of fish in 20 feet or less.”
He said the current is so strong in some areas that a trolling motor set on 100 percent will not hold a bass boat in place. When the current is that swift, the fish don’t like it either.
“They’ll get out of that main current and anywhere there’s sand and rocks there will be fish sitting behind them,” he added. “I wish I was fishing, let’s just say that.
“There is so much water untapped and there are so many places to fish. I know a few areas nobody’s even touched. It’s like finding the needle in a haystack.”
Let There Be Sun
The forecast for Waddington is calling for partly cloudy conditions for most of the tournament. Some, including Johnston, would prefer it to be blazing sunshine throughout.
“You hope the wind stays down, but the biggest thing with smallmouth up north is how they relate to sun,” he said. “If there’s no sun, you could be on a spot with 30 fish on it today and tomorrow there might not be any. For the shallow bite, if it’s sunny for four days, the bite will be incredible.”
As much as they like the sun, smallmouth aren’t pack-oriented. Johnston says it’s common to catch two or three off a particular spot where many more show up on electronics and then have the area go cold.
“It’s not like Kentucky Lake where you can sit over them can catch them for 30 solid minutes,” he added. “The spots aren’t that dependable. You should be able to catch them for a day or two and then you’ll need to move on.”
In years past, anglers have been able to pass under the walk-through locks of the Iroquois Dam, which sit a couple miles upstream from Waddington. This year, due to the high water, that option will not be available. Instead, the main canal lock at the dam will be open for one hour in the morning (6:30 to 7:30 a.m.) and afternoon (2:15 to 3:15 p.m.) to allow free passage for pleasure boats, which includes tournament competitors.
In order to gain passage at any other point in the day, anglers will need to contact the lock master, check in with Canadian authorities and pay a nominal fee to lock either way. Bottom line: this will affect how some anglers put together their game plan. Some will choose to go through the lock and spend their whole day toward Lake Ontario while others will stay below the lock and fish from Waddington downriver.
“It will eat up some fishing time,” Johnston said. “They’re going to have to lock to fish the best parts of the river.”
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
“It’s the earliest we’ve been here and I still haven’t figured ‘em out real good. There’s so much water to cover. I went up north Monday and went down toward the lake Tuesday and they seem to be biting better down that way. I like to fish the river, but there doesn’t seem to be as many fish there as there used to be. I’m not getting the numbers like we used to.
Greg Vinson said the water is noticeably higher, but it shouldn't change much about his strategy this week.
“I’m seeing a few near beds and maybe they’re transitioning out, but the weights I’m sure will be good. I just need to get around those 3 1/2- to 4-pound average fish. I haven’t seen anybody paying attention to the (no-wake zone). When you get past Ogdensburg, you start seeing where the water’s higher. Up toward Waddington, the water doesn’t look all that different.
“(The current) is ripping in some areas when you get above Ogdensburg. That makes it different in how you try to drift and fish deep. I keep thinking the shallow bite might be better, but there are not as many up there. I’m going to keep bouncing around. I haven’t seen what I’d like to see yet. I always want to see a big load of fish or get on areas where you’re catching them. In 2015, it was a struggle for me then.”
“You know it’s going to take 17 to 18 (pounds) to get paid. I can’t get a real good handle on it, though. Today, I caught the heck out of ‘em and I found groups of fish, but they’re small. They’re not the right size. The big ones I’ve caught have been solo. I don’t know if I’m doing something wrong or what. The fishing is pretty good. It’s one of my favorite places to fish even though I’ve missed a check each time here.
“A lot of fish will get caught shallow and some will be caught deep, and I think some guys will do well with largemouth. Every time I’ve come back here I tell myself I’m going to spend a half-day looking for largemouth, but then I get to catching smallmouth and I never commit to largemouth.”
“The current is a lot stronger. It’s fishing different, but the fish are biting. To me, it seems like they’re a little shallower than in the past, but also more scattered. The quality’s good, though.
“With smallmouth, you never know. I have had a couple pretty good days, but I haven’t found an area that’s loaded up. I’m more having to run a pattern. I came in with an open mind and there’s a lot of water I’d look at under normal conditions that I haven’t looked at. Once I started to develop what’s going on, I found that what I’d typically do here is not going to work. I’ve been to some of the same areas and the fish are close to where they were. They’re just doing different stuff. They act like they’re not as far along. With higher water and more current, it’s changed them a bit.”
“I’m encouraged. Monday was decent and Tuesday I fished different stuff and didn’t get near the bites. Maybe the fish are starting to feel a little pressure or maybe it’s a case of the things I did Monday were that much better. They don’t seem to be piled up anywhere. It reminds me of the year Edwin won.
“Even though I’m a river rat from Alabama, I feel like my chances are better with smallmouth up north. I haven’t seen any of the big ones I need, but I’ve seen some decent fish. It’ll be a matter of finding enough 3 1/2-plus pound fish and hopefully turn them into 4 1/4s.
“I feel good about it. I would like to feel like I had something to myself and that’s probably going to the biggest thing. I’m not getting lot of bites in one area and if other guys are in there, it could get thinned out quick.”
Top 10 To Watch
With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the top 10 to watch at this event:
1. Aaron Martens – He’s had an un-Martens like season so far with as many missed cuts (three) as checks made. He’s yet to crack the top 25, but he’s bagged 5th- and 13th-place finishes at the St. Lawrence in previous visits so this could be where he snaps out of his funk.
2. Brandon Palaniuk – He’s as high as he’s ever been in points (3rd) this late in the season and he seems to be brimming with confidence with four straight top-20 finishes, including a win at Sam Rayburn. He excels up north, too, so this could be the start of his push to claim his first Angler of the Year title.
3. Ott DeFoe – The current points leader has had ups (3rd in 2013) and downs (78th in 2015) at the St. Lawrence in the past, but he’s back on one of his runs of consistent money finishes and the hope is it’ll continue through the balance of the season.
4. Edwin Evers – He’s good everywhere and again finds himself in the top 10 in AOY points as the season hits the stretch drive. He won at the St. Lawrence in 2015 and his only hiccup this season was a 56th at the season opener at Cherokee Lake.
5. Todd Faircloth – Had a streak of eight straight money finishes snapped at Lake Dardanelle so it’s expected he’ll get back on the consistency horse this week. The St. Lawrence has fooled him twice and we don’t expect it to happen a third time.
6. Jamie Hartman – One of the top rookies this season, he returns to his native New York with a real chance to solidfy his chances to qualify for the 2018 Bassmaster Classic. He’s still sour over his finish at the Oneida Lake Northern Open, so he’s hoping to take it out on the St. Lawrence smallmouth.
7. Kevin VanDam – Has two top-3 finishes in his last three outings and is a legitimate contender for his eighth career B.A.S.S. AOY title. He’s made checks at the St. Lawrence in the last two Elite Series stops there and is back in his element, fishing for brown bass. Fishing in swift current won’t be an issue, evidenced by his Classic Bracket win at the Upper Niagara last summer.
8. Jacob Powroznik – He needs to finish strong to help his odds of making the Classic. The St. Lawrence has been good to him in the past (7th in 2015) and he’s coming off back-to-back top-40 finishes at Rayburn and Dardanelle.
9. Greg Hackney – Working on a typically solid season and finds himself 11th in points. He was 3rd at Waddington in 2015 and with the water higher this year, he’ll have more options to possibly go off by himself.
10. Mark Davis – He’s been incredibly consistent over the past year and hasn’t missed a check this season. He was the runner-up at Dardanelle and has been in contention at Waddington before. Another strong showing will help his AOY chances.
> Anglers will launch at 6:15 a.m. ET all four days from Whittaker Park Boat Launch (State Road 37/Pine St., Waddington, NY). Weigh-ins all four days will start at 3:15 p.m. at Whittaker Park Boat Launch (same address).
> Thurs., July 20 – Partly Cloudy - 81°/62°
- Wind: From the SW at 5 to 10 mph
> Fri., July 21 – Partly Cloudy - 81°/62°
- Wind: From the WSW at 5 to 10 mph
> Sat., July 22 – Partly Cloudy - 77°/59°
- Wind: Light and variable
> Sun., July 23 – Mostly Cloudy - 73°/58°
- Wind: From the ENE at 10 to 15 mph