By Todd Ceisner
Heading into last week’s Elite Series tournament at the St. Lawrence River, some competitors were convinced targeting largemouth might be a way to sneak into contention.
With the smallmouth spread all over the river – some were still spawning during practice while others were in various stages of their post-spawn transition – it was foolish to think largemouth could pull the upset in northern New York.
A few still went the largemouth route and came away with paychecks, but after day 1, it was clear they’d be no match for the smallmouth, who thrive in the current-driven waters coming out of Lake Ontario.
Unlike other parts of the Great Lakes system where smallmouth tend to stalk balls of bait, at the St. Lawrence they let the current bring their food to them. Their aggressive nature made them easy marks in shallow water, but it was not an event where one or two waypoints was enough. Cycling through different areas, even different depth zones, was required to compile stringers of quality fish, as was adjusting to the conditions, which kept the field on its toes.
One bait that we heard little about was a tube, which has been the old faithful smallmouth-catcher for years. Last week, it was supplanted by a combination of finesse tactics and slender reaction baits.
Ultimately, Kevin VanDam took home career B.A.S.S. victory No. 24 thanks to a combination of finesse and moving baits, and those who finished near the top of the leaderboard followed the same playbook.
Below is a recap of how the rest of the top 5 did their damage. Details of VanDam’s pattern will be published Wednesday.
2nd: Brock Mosley
> Day 1: 5, 20-08
> Day 2: 5, 21-08
> Day 3: 5, 20-01
> Day 4: 5, 20-02
> Total = 20, 82-03
Brock Mosley found himself in uncharted waters before, during and even after the St. Lawrence River Elite Series.
First, he’d never been to the vast river that serves as the conduit between the Great Lakes at the Atlantic Ocean. Second, he’d not yet made a top-12 in an Elite Series event over his first year and a half on the circuit. And third, he accomplished something no one else in the field did, even winner Kevin VanDam – he cracked the 20-pound mark all four days.
“Each day, it was like piecing together a puzzle,” he said. “I never knew where the next bite would come or if I’d catch any more.”
For a young pro from Mississippi to come to smallmouth country, start his practice fishing for largemouth, then shift strategies mid-stride and finish 2nd speaks to his willingness to try something different and stick with it.
While others pitched a dropshot or relied on reaction baits, he employed the Ned rig, another finesse technique, in 15 to 20 feet of water.
“On day 1 of practice, I went looking for largemouth and never found what I’d need to make the cut,” he said. “I shifted to smallmouth and the first shoal I stopped on I had four fish for 17 pounds in the first two hours. I said, ‘Maybe there’s something to it.’ The more I did it, I got zeroed in on getting bites on the upside or backside of the shoals. I couldn’t get bit on top so I keyed in on those areas.”
It was not a numbers game for Mosley, who said staying patient was critical to his pattern.
“About every shoal I’d get a bite, but it might take me 15 to 20 minutes on each place to get a bite,” he added. “It was the mindset of knowing a fish is there and having the mindset to figure out how to get them to bite.”
In practice, he developed the Ned rig shoal pattern and found it worked from Chippewa Bay out to the tournament boundary near Lake Ontario.
“I never had to go that far,” he said.
He said the shoals featured a mix of rock and zebra mussels and the shallower ones had grass, but that wasn’t as productive.
On the final day, with the wind blowing, he knew the Ned rig was likely not going to be an option due to its lightweight nature. He transitioned to a dropshot with a NetBait Contour Worm and it produced a trio of 4-pounders, leading to the only other 20-pound bag on Sunday besides VanDam’s mammoth 23-12 stringer.
“I knew with the wind blowing like it was, the Ned rig was out,” he said. “I knew that going in, but I knew where the fish were going to be so I needed to figure out a way to get a bite.”
> Ned Rig gear: 7’4” medium-heavy Spiralite Defiant Series spinning rod, Ardent C-Force 30 spinning reel, 16-pound unnamed braided line, 10-pound unnamed fluorocarbon line (leader), 1/5-oz. unnamed jighead, 4” unnamed plastic stickbait.
> He favored the longer rod to handle the bigger weight better but he didn’t sacrifice sensitivity when needing to maintain feel on the bottom.
> Dropshot gear: 7’2” medium-heavy Spiralite Maverick Series spinning rod, same reel, same lines, 1/0 Owner dropshot hook, 3.5” NetBait Contour Worm (brown chartreuse), 3/8-oz. unnamed tungsten dropshot weight (teardrop).
> He caught a key upgrade late on day 2 with a Bagley Knocker B topwater bait.
> Main factor in his success – “The biggest thing was staying patient. I knew I’d run into three or four good ones a day if I kept with it.”
> Performance edge – “I have to give a lot of credit to Garmin. They taught me a lot on how to set up my units. Once I figured out what depths they were keying on, I shaded it different colors and I had four different depth ranges shaded. When I got into 15 to 20 feet, I slowed down and picked stuff apart.”
Brandon Palaniuk bounced between shallow and deep water and rallied to take 3rd.
3rd: Brandon Palaniuk
> Day 1: 5, 15-15
> Day 2: 5, 25-00
> Day 3: 5, 22-04
> Day 4: 5, 18-13
> Total = 20, 82-00
Whether the tournament waters include Lake Ontario or not, Brandon Palaniuk has proven he’s a force to reckoned with at the St. Lawrence River now. He was vocal about there being a legitimate chance for someone to bring in a 30-pound stringer of smallmouth and the potential for a 100-pound total next year when the Elite Series comes back to Waddington, N.Y., in mid-August.
Last week, he ran 70-plus miles toward the lake and found quality fish in 5 to 30 feet of water. He caught roughly 23 pounds on the first day of practice keying on specific rock veins and sand transitions.
“I saw a lot of big ones up shallow,” he said. “It was patternable and it was really easy Monday. I’d look at the map, drive to the next spot and they’d be there. By the end of the day, I quit casting. I’d see them and mark a waypoint and move to the next one.”
On the second day, he headed toward the lake and it wound up being his saving grace in the end. When the tournament began, he opted to start the event targeting shallow fish above Waddington, but he came in with only 15-15 and found himself in 72nd place.
“I still thought I could catch big ones up shallow,” he said. “They were still there day 1. I just didn’t execute.”
He switched course on day 2 and went to spots he’d fished on Tuesday.
“After day 1, Chad Pipkens told me it was probably better that I had a mediocre day on day 1 because it made me make a decision to change up and I wound up catching 25 (pounds) on day 2,” Palaniuk said. “Had I had a good day 1, I might’ve kept doing the same thing. I spent the majority of my tournament catching fish off places I spent one day of practice on.”
He relied almost exclusively on a dropshot for the duration of the tournament. It was the first smallmouth tournament where he was able to rely on the Zoom Z Drop bait.
“The cool thing was I normally throw green-pumpkin a lot when I’m dropshotting, but for whatever reason, I felt like I got bit better on green weenie better. It matched the gobies better. You could lay a goby and the bait together and they almost matched.”
He opted to mix deeper and shallower because he felt he had a chance of colliding with a big fish at both sections of the water column rather than relying on just one.
“The fish were spread out across the board so I was concentrating on key pieces of structure at different depths where the fish were holding,” he added.
> Dropshot gear: 6’10” medium-action Alpha Angler Rods DSR spinning rod, Daiwa EXIST spinning reel, 15-pound Seaguar Smackdown braided line, 8-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon line (leader), #2 unnamed dropshot hook, Zoom Z Drop (green weenie), 3/8-oz. unnamed tungsten dropshot weight (teardrop).
> He weighed in one fish on day 4 caught on a jerkbait close to Waddington.
> Main factor in his success – “Not being afraid to gamble on day 2. It was more of a mental battle after day 1.”
> Performance edge – “I’m a huge proponent of the Humminbird 360. Any time I’m offshore I’m so much more efficient with that.”
Brent Ehrler targeted fish in 5 to 7 feet of water around sand, rock and grass.
4th: Brent Ehrler
> Day 1: 5, 22-09
> Day 2: 5, 19-00
> Day 3: 5, 21-08
> Day 4: 5, 17-13
> Total = 20, 80-14
Brent Ehrler kept an open mind heading into the tournament. He knew several top finishers back in 2015 caught a lot of fish up shallow and with the water being higher this year and the tournament happening earlier on the calendar, he spent a good bit of practice in less than 10 feet of water.
It resulted in his fifth top-5 finish in the last calendar year, including last year’s Angler of the Year championship tournament and this year’s Bassmaster Classic.
“I thought they’d be in that 10-foot zone,” he said. “I told myself I’d look shallow because when we were there last time, a lot of guys caught them shallow. I tried deep, but didn’t get a good feel.”
What he didn’t anticipate is spending most of his tournament in 5 to 7 feet of water. He used a Lucky Craft Slender Point 112 as his search bait in practice and it got to the point where he didn’t need to the set the hook any more.
“I didn’t catch a keeper in practice until 11 a.m. Monday,” he said. “I didn’t have to catch a fish. I’d waypoint the ones that looked at it. That’s how I’d find them.”
The key element to the areas he fished were the presence of rocky and sandy bottoms.
“If you could find sand, rock and grass, the fish would be there,” he said. “People say if you get a combination of grass, the fish will be there. It’s the same thing. If you had all sand, they wouldn’t be there. If it was all grass, nothing. It had to be rock and something else.”
He relied on a smaller jerkbait in the tournament and also a spinbait when it was windy. Under calm conditions, like on day 3, he’d make long casts with a dropshot and pick off fish he could see in the distance.
On Sunday, when it was darker and breezy, he stuck with the jerkbait and spinbait all day.
> Jerkbait gear: 6’9” medium-light Daiwa Tatula Elite Seth Feider topwater/jerkbait casting rod, Daiwa Steez A casting reel (6.3: ratio), 10-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, Lucky Craft Pointer 78 (chartreuse shad).
> Dropshot gear: 7’1” medium-action Daiwa Tatula Elite AGS Brent Ehrler dropshot spinning rod, Daiwa EXIST spinning reel, 12-pound Sunline TX1 braided line, 8-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line (leader), size 1 Gamakatsu splitshot/dropshot hook, 3.75” Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Shad Shape Worm (baby bass).
> Screw Pointer gear: Same rod, reel, line as dropshot, Lucky Craft Screw Pointer 80 (ghost minnow).
> He also caught a weigh-in fish each day on a 3/32-oz. marabou jig (black/purple) that FLW Tour angler Jeff Gustafson tied for him. “He sent me a handful back in January and I kept them in my truck just for this tournament,” Ehrler said. “I’ve never ever caught them on it so it was cool to catch a few with it when it was calmer.”
> Main factor in his success – “Coming in with a frame of mind that I was going to try to find them up shallow and then grinding it out shallow.”
> Performance edge – “My (Minn Kota) Talons and (Ultrex) SpotLock were crazy. Even when I’m in shallow water and fishing into the wind, I use SpotLock instead of my Talons because if you put the Talons down and the nose of the boat is pointed into the wind the boat will spin to the side due to the shape of the boat. I’d use Spot Lock in 5 feet of water. The first two days, we had wind in the afternoon and I used it all the time.”
Jonathon VanDam said cycling through several spots each day was critical to his success.
5th: Jonathon VanDam
> Day 1: 5, 20-09
> Day 2: 5, 21-15
> Day 3: 5, 21-08
> Day 4: 5, 16-14
> Total = 20, 80-14
The past two visits to the St. Lawrence, Jonathon VanDam has focused on deeper-dwelling fish. With the event earlier on the calendar this year, he shifted his attention to shallower areas and it paid off with his second top-5 finish of the season.
“I knew there’d be some deep fish, but there area always a lot that live shallow on the Great Lakes,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where. You’ll always have some shallow areas with fish. The thing with the fishing shallow is there are not near as many fish, but the average size is better.”
He narrowed his focus to areas with less than 10 feet of water, but that also had spawning fish located in the 15- to 20-foot range. He used a small, ribbed paddle-tail swimbait as a search bait and it drew plenty of strikes.
“It was plenty clear to be able to see them,” he said.
He spent his tournament past Ogdensburg, toward Lake Ontario, in the Chippewa Bay area. He targeted sandy areas or places where the bottom transitioned from sand to rock or where sand mixed with grass.
“The big key was sandy patches,” he noted.
On days 1 and 2, when the wind was out of the west and blowing with the current coming out of Lake Ontario, he said it positioned the fish on more specific spots. They weren’t as scattered, he added.
“You’d have a long stretch of sand, say 100 yards long and they’d be on a place that was twice the size of my boat,” he said.
On those days, he opted for a bright, translucent color on his dropshot. When it slicked off on day 3, the fish were cruising and color selection was critical. He went to a smoke-colored bait to attract bites.
On the final day, with the wind kicked back up and the skies not as high, he went to a brighter hue.
Rotation-wise, he tried to hit each spot three or four times throughout a day, hoping the fish would be there or be in a feeding mood.
“On those shallow areas, the fish move in and out throughout the day and I’d cycle through them,” he said. “I might run into them for an hour, then go to the next spot and there’d be nothing. Then I’d move again and there’d be nothing, but they’d be at the next spot. I’d just go through that cycle over and over.”
Presentation was also vital. He said giving the bait any unnatural movement often resulted in not getting a bite.
“I tried to lead them, but if I shook it or gave the bait any unnatural movement, they’d swim over and look and swim away,” he said. “When I’d throw it out and leave it there, almost dead-stick it, that’s when they’d get it. The Half Shell floats, too, and that’s the reason I chose it because it just sticks straight out.”
> Dropshot gear: 6’10” medium-action G. Loomis NRX 822 spinning rod, Shimano Stradic Ci4+ 2500 spinning reel, 8-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon line, #1 Lazer TroKar dropshot hook, Strike King Half Shell (prizm shad, smoke gold purple flake), 3/16- and 1/4-oz. Strike King Tour Grade Tungsten dropshot weights.
> When he targeted deeper areas (22 to 24 feet), he went to a 1/2-oz. dropshot weight to maintain bottom contact in the current.
> He opted to go with all fluorocarbon due to the water clarity and how spooky some of the fish were. In other deep-water finesse scenarios, he’ll use a braid-to-fluorocarbon set up.
> The swimbait he used in practice was a 2.75” Strike King Rage Swimmer (KVD Magic) rigged on a 1/4-oz. ball-head jig. “In practice, they were hammering it, but during the tournament I couldn’t get them to touch it until Sunday,” he said.
> Main factor in his success – “Being able to have areas and having spots to cycle through and knowing how smallmouth relate to areas like that. It would’ve been easy for someone who doesn’t know a ton to go there and get spun out. The first two days, I only ran into them a couple times and it took me awhile to get a limit.”
> Performance edge – “My Minn Kota Talons for sure. I used those a lot and the Ultrex (trolling motor). It’s super quiet and especially up shallow, that was key. I had my transducers off because you don’t want to make any extra noise. It was almost like hunting and it was similar to what I did at Green Bay. I’d find a fish and almost stalk it.”
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