By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
(Editor's note: B.A.S.S. canceled day 1 of this event due to high winds. For more on that, click here.)
The Bassmaster Elite Series is spending its second straight week at a destination fishery in New York. But unlike last week's derby at the St. Lawrence River, the event at Lake Champlain is unlikely to be dominated by smallmouths.
Lots of brown bass call Champlain home, but there's a huge population of largemouths, too, and that species runs a bit larger on average. Due to a cool, wet spring and summer, a lot of those fish are just beginning the transition to their deeper-water phase and are still hanging out around shallow cover.
The Elite Series hasn't visited Champlain in a full decade and some say the fishery isn't as prolific as it was when Tim Horton won in 2007. Nonetheless, all but a few competitors will weigh a double-digit bag on each competition day and most will have a lot of fun tangling with feisty, aggressive Northern fish.
It's the eighth stop on the nine-event regular-season schedule, with the finale set to take place four weeks from now at Michigan's Lake St. Clair. This week isn't quite do-or-die for anglers on the fringe of the top 50 in the points standings (the number that will advance to the Angler of the Year Championship in September), but for many, that juncture is fast approaching.
Before diving deeper into the bite, here's some intel on the lake itself:
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Champlain
> Type of Water: Natural lake
> Surface Acres (full pool): 278,400 (435 square miles)
> Primary structure/cover: Grass, rocks, flats, drops, docks
> Primary forage: Alewives, rainbow smelt, shiners, perch/bluegill, crayfish
> Average depth: 68 feet (deepest spot is 400 feet)
> Species: Smallmouths and largemouths
> Minimum length: 12" for both species
> Reputation: Good numbers of smallmouths, somewhat fewer but often bigger largemouths
> Weather: A bit chilly, with daytime temperatures on tournament days not expected to get out of the 70s. Thundershowers are predicted for day 1.
> Water temp: High 60s to high 70s, depending upon location
> Water visibility/color: More than 10 feet in the north, considerably less down south/tinted
> Water level: Full pool
> Fish in: 0 to 30 feet
> Fish phase: Post-spawn/summer
> Primary patterns: Flipping, frogs, cranking, jigs (bladed and conventional), plastics, spinnerbaits, dropshotting, tubes, swimbaits, etc.
> Winning weight: 76 pounds (4 days)
> Cut weight (Top 12 after 3 days): 48 pounds
> Check weight: (Top 50 after 2 days): 30 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Champlain
> Biggest factors: Variable wind and weather competitors' ability to move around might be compromised
> Biggest decision: Which species to target smallmouths or largemouths
> Wildcard: Kicker fish they're always the separator at Champlain events
Here's a look at how Champlain lays out, courtesy of Navionics:
It's Been a Wet One
Raingear has been a necessity for anglers who've ventured out onto Champlain this year. It's poured hard and often, resulting in the lake level rising about five feet since last fall.
It's about three feet higher than it was for the '07 event, which means that more vegetation will be in play.
"Some of the largemouth fishermen have been having trouble locating the fish because they haven't moved out to the structure you usually find them on this time of year," said Randy Savage of Bronzeback Guide Service. There still back in the reeds and the grass and right up on the wood lines.
He said some big bags have been showing up in local tournaments over the past couple of weeks and the action should continue to improve.
Finding the right bites has been a challenge for David Mullins on his first visit to Champlain.
"Twenty-five pounds could happen nobody's going to average that, but you could see a bag like that here and there, for sure. There should be some smallmouth bags that go over 20.
"It should be a decent tournament, but I'm sure Mother Nature is going to throw her wrench in there."
Ti has Been Tough
A high percentage of Champlain tournaments over the years have been won from the Ticonderoga area at the southern tip of the lake, where the warm, shallow water and abundance of vegetation create a virtual largemouth mecca. However, according to one local expert, the fish population there has been depleted, and tournaments are the reason.
"In my opinion, it's been declining pretty bad," said longtime Champlain ace and former FLW Tour pro Tom LaVictoire. "The quality's still there, but the numbers are down. You don't get 20, 30 or 40 bites easily anymore, you've got to work for 10 to 15 if you're lucky.
"All those fish have been hauled to Plattsburgh (the launch site of most major events at Champlain) over the past dozen to 15 years and hardly any have been brought back down. The area's not replenishing and it's getting pretty tough, to be honest."
He expects the vast majority of the Elite field to pursue largemouths on northern-end hotspots such as Missisquoi Bay and the area round St. Albans, Vt.
"The lake's about two weeks behind and last week was when the fish really came out of the spawn and got really going strong. I look for the Elite guys to smash the largemouth up north.
"The only thing is for the guys who are used to catching 30, 40 or 50 fish a day, that's pretty tough to do right now."
Here are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll compete this week.
"It's definitely not the Champlain that I think we're all used to. Every says it took spring a while to get here, and it's behind. It' seems like the vegetation isn't as thick and grown up as it should be and it seems like the fish are really scattered. I said that last week though, too, and we saw how good the catches were.
"It might be harder to get bites this time, but it's still Champlain and guys are going to catch them. But it's definitely a little bit different some areas I've fished in the past, I've had to bail on those and search for new water."
"I've gotten a few bites, but I don't know if that's good, great or whatever. I've been here several times and it doesn't seem to be quite as good overall as it used to be. That's not just me I've talked to other guys who think it's a little bit slower, but everybody's still going to get some bites.
"I've always though the sunshine made the fish bite better on these lakes, but we haven't had much of that. I've been kind of practicing for sunshine, but it doesn't look like we'll get much on the first day of the tournament. You have to be prepared for everything."
"You can get bites on this place, that's not a problem. It's a matter of getting quality. I'm sure there's some 20-pound bags out there, but this is my first time here and I don't have a clue how to catch them.
"I've been on both ends and I've caught fish on both. I'm committed to the largemouths because I haven't had time to get offshore like I'd like to. I'm just going to play my strengths as much as I can."
"It's the standard Champlain from what I've seen. There's a lot of smallmouth, but they seem to be pretty thin. The largemouth are definitely heavier, but getting the right bites is not easy.
"I think 15 to 16 pounds a day is what it's going to take to get paid, and I'm hoping I can catch that, but you never know for sure. I don't think the weather's affecting the bite that much these fish bite every day. They've only got six months or whatever to eat (before winter), so they're always eating."
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. Kevin VanDam He's traditionally tended to sizzle for quite awhile when he gets hot, and with three top-3 finishes (including last week's win at the St. Lawrence River) in the past four events, he's on fire. He's never had a lot of difficulty figuring out Champlain.
Remarkably, Aaron Martens is still in search of his first top-12 finish of the season.
2. Aaron Martens You've got to figure he's going to post a single-digit finish at some point this season, and this could be the place. He's had success at Champlain in the past and he's long been adept at finding a slightly better grade of fish on venues where everybody's catching a bunch.
3. Jason Christie He's had a stellar season (four top-20 finishes) and the setup this week should suit him nicely. He proved he was capable of solving the Champlain puzzle back in his FLW Tour days and he's unlikely to be mystified by anything he finds this week.
4. Mike Iaconelli The New Jerseyite is always a threat anytime he competes in his home region and he won a Top 150 at Champlain 18 years ago. He folded on day 2 and missed the cut at the St. Lawrence after a strong start, and that'll give him a bit of extra motivation.
5. Tim Horton The winner at Champlain the last time the Elite Series visited in 2007 has been wildly inconsistent this year, but comes in riding two straight solid finishes (the latter of which was achieved with a big day-2 rally at the St. Lawrence). Memories won't help him notch another one, but confidence might.
6. Brandon Palaniuk The Angler of the Year leader has logged four top-12 finishes in the past five events and the other one was an 18th. He's always strong on northern venues and if anybody's hotter than VanDam right now, he's the guy.
7. Jamie Hartman The rookie posted his fourth finish of 7th or better last week and now he's on another fishery in his home region. At this point, it wouldn't shock anybody if he's still competing on Sunday.
8. Dave Lefebre A couple of bombs notwithstanding, the Pennsylvanian has had a solid year and now arrives at a lake that he knows well and one that's provided him a considerable amount of money over the years. It'll be surprising if he's not among the contenders.
9. Greg Hackney Got lots of fish hanging out in thick vegetation? He's as good as anyone at pulling them out and taking them for a boat ride. He's still in the hunt for the AOY, so he's got plenty of motivation.
10. Ott DeFoe He went to the St. Lawrence leading the AOY race, but turned in a stinker (99th) and plummeted all the way to 10th. He'll be looking to gain some of that ground back at a place that suits his style.
Takeoffs will occur each morning at 6:15 ET out of Plattsburgh City Marina, and weigh-ins will take place at 3:15 p.m. near the Plattsburgh City Beach.
> Thurs., July 27 Thundershowers - 77°/59°
- Wind: From the SSW at 10 mph
> Fri., July 28 Partly Cloudy - 73°/54°
- Wind: From the NNE at 8 mph
> Sat., July 29 Mostly Sunny - 72°/64°
- Wind: From the NNE at 12 mph
> Sun., July 30 Mostly Cloudy - 78°/60°
- Wind: From the NNE at 7 mph