By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
The Bassmaster Elite Series has visited the St. Lawrence River four times since 2013 and will return during each of the next three seasons under a deal between B.A.S.S. and the Village of Waddington (N.Y.) that was announced over the weekend. That suits Josh Bertrand just fine.
The St. Lawrence is nearly 2,500 miles from Bertrand's home in San Tan Valley, Ariz., but the journey has been a profitable one for him each time. He's logged four finishes of 16th or better at the venue and on Sunday he claimed his first Elite Series victory.
The 29-year-old topped a 107-angler field in a 4-day smallmouth shootout that produced staggering numbers of 20-pound stringers. His 95-03 total edged good friend and fellow Angler of the Year contender Justin Lucas by 13 ounces.
One of his main keys to victory was patience – he endured some long periods without a bite each day, but doggedly stuck with his routine of drifting over specific humps and shoals with a dropshot rig. The quality eventually showed up.
"I didn't bail because I knew they were going to come around at some point every day," he said. "I just had to get through the lulls and keep moving around. I knew there were 5-pounders on those stretches and when my bait drifted to them the way they wanted it, they were going to bite it."
Following are some of the specifics.
One of the first things Bertrand did when he arrived for practice was check some of the places that had produced for him on previous visits.
"There were fish just about everywhere I'd seen them in the past, but they were a shade deeper this time around," he said. "I didn't catch them super-deep, but they seemed to be one step deeper overall than where I'd caught them in the July tournaments.
"They were generally on similar stuff – a lot of the same shoals and stuff like that. I found them everywhere from 20 to 45 feet. I'm not trying to be vague with that, but they were on such a wide variety of places."
He ended up with 30 to 40 places that he felt had the potential to surrender the 4-pound-plus fish that he'd need.
"They were probably all within about 15 miles. When you consider the size of that river (which runs for more than 100 miles between Lake Ontario and the Atlantic Ocean), you could say they were in close proximity."
Those places had to produce – or else.
"After the first half-day of practice and talking to a couple buddies, I knew the weights were going to be pretty incredible. They were big last year and the fishing then was relatively tough – the fish were spread out and it was hard to get numbers. I was getting two to three times as many bites this time and I was wondering how anybody wasn't going to have 20 pounds this week.
"I was afraid it was going to be really hard to get any separation because it was so easy to get bit in practice."
> Day 1: 5, 25-11
> Day 2: 5, 22-14
> Day 3: 5, 23-09
> Day 4: 5, 23-01
> Total = 20, 95-03
Bertrand was one of seven competitors to weigh 25 pounds or more on the first day. That initial bag put him in 4th place and he climbed on rung each day to eventually end up on top.
He was remarkably consistent over the final 3 days as his weights varied by just a little over half a pound. After 3 days, he trailed leader David Walker by 3 ounces.
The third day had started somewhat slowly for him and he wanted to make things happen quicker on the final day if possible. He focused on his big-fish locales and boxed a 5-pounder at 8 o'clock, but didn't add anything of note over the next hour or more.
He went to a stretch that looked promising in practice but hadn't given anything during the tournament and quickly caught three that were in the 4-pound class. Another spot kicked out an additional 4 and he started to feel pretty confident.
"I had some solids at that point and I was feeling pretty good to go," he said. "What I needed then was one or two giants. I went to some spots that I knew weren't full of fish, but where I thought I had an opportunity to catch a 5 1/2 or a 6, but I only caught little ones.
"At noon I finally caught one that was close to 6 and that was the defining moment. It energized me because that's what I'd been looking for. I might've made one more small cull after that, but I'm not sure."
Bertrand never caught a legitimate 6-pounder, but he never weighed a fish that was more than an ounce or 2 under 4. He boated an average of 15 to 20 keepers per day.
He made drifts that were both long and short, depending on the structure below. Some of the shoals he fished were 500 yards from one end to the other.
"The biggest thing for me was just trying to keep the bait looking like a natural presentation," he said. "I wanted it moving at the same speed as the boat and I didn't want too much of a bow in my line or else I wouldn't have a good feel for the bait.
The Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worm was Bertrand's primary dropshot offering during the first 3 days of the tournament.
"The last day it got real tricky when the wind kicked up a bunch and sped the current up. I kept the trolling motor on 60 to 70 percent to slow the boat down enough to keep the bait moving at the speed of the current."
A Berkley Max Scent Flat Worm (set to hit retail shelves in September) was his primary bait for the first 3 days. He switched to a Berkley Gulp! Minnow on the final day because it sliced through the water a bit easier under the windy, heavy-current conditions.
Winning Gear Notes
> Dropshot gear: 7' medium-heavy Abu Garcia Fantasista Premier rod, size 30 Abu Garcia Revo Premier or Revo MGX spinning reel, 8-pound Berkley NanoFil unifilament line (main line), 8-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon (10' leader), size 1 Berkley Fusion 19 Drop Shot Hook, Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worm (green-pumpkin) or Berkley Gulp! Minnow (emerald shiner), 1/2-ounce Bass Pro Shops XPS round tungsten weight.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – "Just knowing that it was going to come together at some point in the day and not panicking."
> Performance edge – "That can be a tough place on your equipment, but my Nitro/Mercury allowed me to make those 35 to 50. Electronics were also a big factor – Garmin has just incredible mapping on that place. Then the Max Scent and Gulp! baits are just so effective for smallmouth. All that stuff combined made me feel like I had the perfect setup all the way across."
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