By Jonathan LePera
Special to BassFan
The sixth stop on the 2018 Bassmaster Elite Series could provide the field with another stern test, as heavy rains forecast for this week could raise the water level on the Mississippi River in the vicinity of La Crosse, Wis. by a foot each day.
The high water means that many of the spots that proved successful during recent stops will be useless. The saddles that Seth Feider fished to make a run at the win in 2016 will be washed out with water gushing over them. The dam where Ott DeFoe prevailed will surely burn out the best set of trolling-motor batteries in short order.
The angler who wins this time will be one who adjusts to the ever-changing conditions and gets an assist from Lady Luck.
What could prove interesting are the number of anglers willing to run the locks to find untapped, more-fishable water. Those competitors will have to commit to the area for the day. If their decision proves to be a bust, they won’t have much time to lock back through and fish new water – at least not efficiently.
Before getting deeper into the bite, here's a look at the fishery itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> 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: Largemouths are predominant, but quite a few smallmouths live here
> Length limit: 14 inches
> Reputation: A good numbers fishery where the larger specimens often gang up in specific places
> Weather: Rain on day 1 and unsettled the rest of the way; the sun will make only periodic appearances
> Water temp: Low to mid 70s
> Water visibility/color: Somewhat tinted to heavily stained
> Water level: High and rising
> Fish in: 10 feet or shallower
> Fish phase: Post-spawn/summer
> Primary patterns: Flipping, spinnerbaits, frogs, swimjigs, plastics, shallow crankbaits, topwaters, etc.
> Winning weight: 62 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 12 after 3 days): 40 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 – rains during practice 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 many places the Elites visit, and thus much more valuable
For a up-close look at the stretch of the Mississippi River that’s providing the playing field for this week’s event, check out this contour map, courtesy of Navionics:
Cade Laufenberg is a local stick who amassed $15,000 in winnings in 2017 alone targeting largemouth and smallmouth on the Mississippi. He’s well-versed in its history knowing exactly how each major tournament has been won, especially the previous Elite stops.
While he says the fishing is getting better, the river sure isn’t showing out like it has in the past. Some bass, both largemouth and smallmouth, were still spawning as of last week, with some still guarding fry from the main spawn that took place during mid-May.
The high water couldn’t have come at a worse time. The grass was behind, but due to the warm spell, it’s growth has really accelerated but will surely get blown out with the high, muddy water that is soon to arrive.
The river is flowing far too fast for smallmouth to hold in, Laufenberg believes.
“What I’m wondering about is how the high water will affect things," he said. "The forage for smallmouth isn’t right. We have a major shad die-off every winter and they aren’t mature yet, they’ve basically just hatched and are just tiny.
“All those smallmouth have to eat on the main river is the pin minnows and crayfish. The amount of energy they have to spend to find a crayfish and dig it out of the rocks, it just isn’t enough to get them fat. You catch a 19-inch smallmouth and it’s just 3 pounds.”
Laufenberg finds that smallmouth don’t really get a chance to fatten up until later in the summer and fall once the larger shad and shiners are plentiful.
He points to Tommy Biffle’s 2013 pattern as a possible repeat occurrence.
Greg Hackney will pursue his second straight win in conditions that should be favorable for him.
“That deal could happen again – when the water gets super-high like that, it really limits the areas that smallmouth can be in when the current is just ripping through the river. There’s only so many places that they can be and it really limits the places that are available. But if you find that one place, there’s enough there to win a multi-day event.
“You need clean water being blown out of the slack water across a sand point or a little rock point. Otherwise, that dirty water is going to be hard to fish for smallmouth unless you are going to fish something bright like chartreuse that they can see."
The bottoms of islands, sand points and rock points, if they have a good enough current break to hold the fish, could be very productive for those chasing smallmouth providing they don’t get washed out by the dirty water coming down.
“When the water is high, they’ll likely be on the upside of the island. When the water comes up, it flushes them to the bottom side of the island.”
When Biffle won, that water wasn’t as high as it is now, but was similar to the existing conditions in that smallmouth could get flushed down and get on a current seam.
“If you find that unicorn smallmouth spot, you have a chance to blow it away,” Laufenberg said. “It’s been my experience that the water is not going to stabilize and it’s going to keep rising every day of the event and that just keeps smallmouth moving. Smallmouth might swim another 5 miles one day to the next, chasing cleaner water and a slower current.”
He’s not saying that it can’t be done, but for an angler to find four days' worth of kicker smallmouth is quite improbable. The winner might have to fish a mixed bag with kickers from both species.
Largemouth Should Win It
Tournaments last weekend were won with 20- and 18-pound bags. Based on his experiences in the upper pools that he’s been fishing, Laufenberg believes that this event will be won by the angler who finds the best quality of largemouth mixed in with a kicker fish or two.
“All that vegetation is going to get flooded; those fish are going to get stuck on the next hard line of vegetation once that happens. Any kind of standing reeds that cut off that flow and keeps out the muddy water, like a backwater pocket, they’ll push up into the edge of those reeds."
Laufenberg also pointed out that not only are the largemouth more plentiful, they’re weighing heavier right now. After all, DeFoe did catch a 6-pound monster en route to his 2016 win.
That could play into the wheelhouse of several Elites who are dangerous with a swim jig, frog or a flipping stick. The new water coming into the system is going to push some duckweed into the reeds that block the current, which Laufenberg believes is "the perfect storm."
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll compete this week.
“I’m down to less than 10 percent of the bites I was getting. I had 40 bites the first day, 15 yesterday and seven today.
"It was shaping up to be a humdinger of a tournament until this water started up. It was going to be big numbers of fish and decent weights and now you are just looking to get five fish, much less five of the right ones. The two patterns I had going I can still do it and get some bites, but it’s just a lot more work.
"It seems like the grade of fish I’m on is pretty decent and the fish seem like they are bigger than they were last time. So, if you get a limit, you’ll be in good shape. I’m catching a mix of largemouth and smallmouth.
"Should I stay or should I go is going to be the toughest decision I'm going to have to make – do I make a run to the promised land or stay and spend all my time fishing?
"I think I’m doing the right thing, but I’ve got to get five good bites. If you don’t, 12 1/2 ounds doesn’t do it here, 12 3/4 pounds is what it takes to get paid here.
"How much more water we're going to be getting is the greatest factor that will influence this tournament.”
“Every time we come here the fish seem to be slightly different than the years past. The grass changes with the floods and the water level is always different. I’ve never caught them on the same stuff twice.
"Seems like I always have to find new water or adjust to the different water levels. I still think an average of around 15 pounds a day gets it done and probably 12 pounds to cut a check.”
“The first day was pretty slow, today was a little bit better. I tried to fish some places from the past, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a typical river system. I’m still kind of piddling around with both largemouth and smallmouth.
The most recent of Tommy Biffle's four Elite Series wins came at the Mississippi River in 2013.
"There’s some big smallmouth here and if someone can find a lot of better-than-average ones, they’ll do good, but there’s a lot of largemouth here too. River fishing, a lot of times, is junk-fishing. I’m going to look at the conditions and water levels every day and make adjustments accordingly and run around and fish what looks good. It’s going to be different every day of the tournament.”
“The water level has been coming up and fast. It’s increased a foot since we started, another foot by the start of the tournament and crest at 4-foot. We started at 7 feet so the water levels will be up to 11 feet by the time we’re done. That’s a lot of extra water.
"It changed what I thought I’d be doing here. Places that may have had an eddy will have water just blowing over it. The water is coming up and spread them out and its post-spawn and some are trying to get out in the current and some are still in the backwaters.
"I think I’m going to fish for a mixed bag. The temptation of a couple big smallmouth is hard to pass up. It seems like the bigger fish are going to be largemouth, but the biggest bags are going to be smallmouths. I feel like there’s more 4-pound smallmouth in here than 4-pound largemouth."
Top 10 to Watch
Here, in no particular order, are BassFan's predictions for the top 10 to watch in this event.
1. Greg Hackney – If anyone can adjust on the fly in tough conditions, he's the guy. He’s got the uncanny ability to know when the fish are going to move and where under the toughest of conditions, especially if a frog and flipping stick are in play.
2. Kevin VanDam –This tourney could be won in the backwaters with a mix of largemouth or smallmouth. With the water coming high and flooding much of the grass, he might just get the chance to fish a KVD 1.5 square-bill over grass beds on heavy line. If he finds the right water, a spinnerbait to pick off those bigger smallmouth might seal the deal.
3. Ott DeFoe – His unflappable demeanor, love of fishing river systems, 2016 Elite win on the venue and 3rd-place finish at the MLF Summit Cup 2 years ago make him a viable threat.
4. Randall Tharp – Anytime a frog is in play, especially with thick, matted vegetation, he's sure to be a threat. He’ll roll with the changing conditions and gain some important points to keep him in contention for a Classic berth.
5. Jonathon VanDam – He loves targeting largemouth as much as smallmouth and could be one of the anglers to figure out how to make both work in his favor. He needs these points to mount a charge on the Northern swing in order make the Classic.
6. Brandon Palaniuk – If it wasn’t for a DQ in 2013 due to some Draconian rules that were in place, he likely would have left the field in the dust. That said, it’s way behind him and coming off an impressive come-from-behind charge to make the top 12 at the Sabine River, don’t be surprised to see his momentum or confidence carry over.
7. Gerald Swindle – A self-professed junk fisherman, that mode might just be what is needed to seal the deal this week. The topwater bite has seen better days, but don’t forget, Swindle is a standout with a crankbait and a swim jig which could prove invaluable this week.
8. Bill Lowen – Few are better in tough river conditions. His versatility, knowledge of river systems and lunchbox mentality will bode well for him.
9. Tommy Biffle – Fishing a swing-head jig like he did to win in 2013 just might be the ticket if he can find similar productive backwater areas. Smallmouth will seek out cleaner water and the rising levels could have them hunkering down on the bottom, relating to transitions or sandy points. This could work right into Biffle’s plan.
10. Brett Hite – Someone is going to find some clean backwaters with vegetation. A bladed jig or a swim jig could be the ace that an angler needs to flip this tournament on its head. The bait in the river system is small right now so the bass might just be looking for the bigger meal afforded by those presentations. Hite is the dark horse to win it.
Anglers will launch at 6 a.m. each day from Veterans Freedom Park in La Crosse, with weigh-ins on days 1 and 2 taking place at 3 p.m. in the same location. Weekend weigh-ins will be held at Valley View Mall starting at 3 p.m.
> Thurs., June 21 – Rain - 73°/68°
- Wind: From the NE at 9 mph
> Fri., June 22 – Cloudy - 79°/58°
- Wind: From the NE at 8 mph
> Sat., June 23 – Partly Cloudy - 82°/63°
- Wind: From the N at 4 mph
> Sun., June 24 – Scattered T-Storms - 83°/63°
- Wind: From the ENE at 4 mph