By Sean Ostruszka
Special to BassFan
Lake Champlain has decades of tournament history at the major level. Yet, there may never have been a tournament like this one.
With the lake’s water level up 2 feet and its famed smallmouth in a bit of a funk, the under-appreciated largemouth of the fishery took center stage in a big way.
Of the 48 fish weighed in by the top 10 the final day, only 13 were smallmouth, and only two anglers in the top 10 solely targeted brown fish. Of the rest, the majority were making the hour-long run down to Ticonderoga, including winner Casey Scanlon. Though, once they got there, almost all had different ways of catching Champlain’s green fish.
2nd: Eric Jackson
> Day 1: 5, 17-06
> Day 2: 5, 18-08
> Day 3: 5, 19-15
> Day 4: 5, 18-10
> Total = 20, 74-07
Most pros had fun this past week, but none may have had more than Eric Jackson.
In four years on the FLW Tour, the freestyle kayaking legend had never fished a weekend (his best finish was 55th). So come Sunday, the affable pro had no shortage of entertaining words for the camera while on live coverage.
Then again, when you have a lone spot like his that was producing as it was, it makes it that much easier to have fun.
Down in Ticonderoga, Jackson figured out bass were pulling out of St. George Lake as the water dropped, and there was one exit – a creek channel with loads of cover, including one “amazing” bridge.
“That bridge actually had four areas on it,” Jackson said. “It had two bridge abutment sections that produced fish, and I had an eddy line that had a hump with a little bit of grass on top that produced fish. And then I also had a couple trees against the shore right below the bridge that produced fish.”
Initially, Jackson plucked off the escapes by aggressively swimming a sexy shad Strike King Tour Grade Swim Jig with a white Strike King Rage Menace Grub trailer in any thick cover he could find. Yet, he started getting fewer bites on the jig as the tournament went on, as he figured the alewives that were up in the small pond had all left.
Fortunately, plenty of bass were still lagging behind, and they were very willing to eat a Strike King Ocho rigged weightless Texas-style on a Trokar 3/0 worm hook. He’d actually cast it and let the current from the out-flowing water in the channel drift it into prime feeding position.
“I’d cast it out, and you’d feel it sink and drift until it hit a patch of grass, and then it would just be game on,” Jackson said.
> Swim-jig gear: 6’9” Cashion Kayak Series jig/worm casting rod, Lew’s casting reel, 50-pound TUF Line braided line, Strike King Tour Grade Swim Jig (sexy shad), Strike King Rage Menace Grub (white) trailer.
> Worm gear: 7’2” medium-heavy Cashion Elite casting rod, Lew’s casting reel, 20-pound fluorocarbon line, 3/0 Trokar worm hook, Strike King Ocho (green-pumpkin)
> Main factor in his success – “Having my place all to myself. A couple locals tried to fish it over the weekend, but they weren’t fishing it right, fortunately.”
Staying in the northern part of the lake proved to be the right decision for Bryan Thrift.
3rd: Bryan Thrift
> Day 1: 5, 18-09
> Day 2: 5, 17-06
> Day 3: 5, 19-07
> Day 4: 5, 18-09
> Total = 20, 73-15
What makes Bryan Thrift one of the best in the sport is sometimes the littlest things; things like knowing himself so well.
For instance, he badly wanted to make the run down to Ticonderoga because he figured the conditions set up so well to fish for largemouth. Yet, he also knew that’s not his style.
“Historically, every time I make a long run I bomb,” Thrift said. “I tend to panic and get stressed out and fish too fast because I don’t feel I have enough time.”
Thus, Thrift opted to stay up north to originally target smallmouth bouncing between Plattsburgh and Missisquoi Bay. He got quite the surprise on his starting spot come day 2.
“I had a big grass flat in about 7 feet of water that I could catch smallmouth on topwater,” Thrift said. “It was loaded with perch, which is why I think it was so good. But it was only good for the first 30 minutes and then it would die.
“The first day I caught all smallmouth, but day 2, all I caught was largemouth there. From then on, I only caught largemouth on that spot. I have no idea why.”
Regardless, Thrift put on a show on topwaters each of the four mornings (you can watch the videos on FLWfishing.com) before moving to Plan B, which was to again target smallmouth.
“Basically, I just ran around throwing at anything I thought a spawning smallmouth would like in 6-10 feet of water with a swimbait,” Thrift said. “Originally, I didn’t think they were spawning, but eventually I realized they probably were because I couldn’t go back to the same spot and get bit again.”
The plan worked to perfection, and had the weather gotten nasty any one day to not allow the long run to Ticonderoga, Thrift might’ve been hoisting his seventh Tour trophy.
> Topwater gear: 7’2” Fitzgerald Bryan Thrift Series Frog Rod casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo STX casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 15-pound P-Line Original monofilament line, unnamed walking bait (white/chartreuse).
> He also dragged a Texas-rigged 5-inch Damiki Stinger (watermelon candy) to catch a few more from the grass patch each day once the topwater bite died.
> Swimbait gear: 7’ medium-heavy Fitzgerald Stunner Series casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo Al-F casting reel, 8-pound P-Line Tactical fluorocarbon line, 1/4-ounce swimbait head, 4" Damiki Armor Shad (Tennessee shad and American shad).
> Main factor in his success – “Probably the weather. Having calm conditions allowed me to run around like I like. If I wanted to make a 15-20 mile run, I could.”
An aggressive approach paid off for Christopher Brasher.
4th: Christopher Brasher
> Day 1: 5, 17-10
> Day 2: 5, 18-05
> Day 3: 5, 18-12
> Day 4: 5, 19-04
> Total = 20, 73-15
Christopher Brasher came into Champlain on the bubble to make the FLW Cup. Yet, any time he’s tried to be conservative in that position in the past, he’d missed the Cup. Thus, this time he wanted to try something different.
“I figured I’d let it go and try to fish for the biggest bag I could,” Brasher said. “It worked out.”
Down in Ticonderoga, Brasher located a creek with clear water running out of it, that was then mixing with the dirty water, creating a distinct mud line the bass were using to corral bait against. Throw in the fact that there was a ledge right near the mouth of the creek where it dropped from 2 to 7 feet, with some grass right on the lip, and Brasher had himself a spot he could camp on all four days.
“Basically, those fish were moving around depending on where the wind was and wherever that mud line was,” Brasher said. “I had to keep finding them each day, except the last two days they came up schooling and gave themselves away.
“That final day just got stupid. I was catching so many I just couldn’t leave. I probably caught 60 fish. I kept thinking I should leave to try for a bigger fish, but then I’d catch another upgrade. Plus, I was just having so much fun.”
> Crankbait gear: Lew’s casting rod, Lew’s casting reel, 17-pound fluorocarbon line, 6th Sense Crush 50X (copper green shad).
> Swim-jig gear: Same rod, reel and line; 1/2-ounce Black Angel swim jig (black/blue) with Zoom Z-Craw Jr. trailer (black-and-blue).
> He also tossed a 6th Sense Dogma first thing in the morning when the fish came up schooling and a used a wacky-rig the final day.
> Main factor in his success – “Practicing and committing to fishing in Ticonderoga. There was zero chance of me fishing up north after practice. I knew it’d be won down there.”
Hensley Powell spent the entire tournament in one small area.
5th: Hensley Powell
> Day 1: 5, 19-14
> Day 2: 5, 18-04
> Day 3: 5, 16-02
> Day 4: 5, 19-08
> Total = 20, 73-12
It’s one thing to camp in an area for four days, a whole other to camp on a spot so small you could spot-lock and never leave. Yet, that’s exactly what Hensley Powell did.
“The second day of practice I went down to Ticonderoga, but it wasn’t all that great,” Powell said. “Then I noticed some alewives follow in my ChatterBait. I figured they were spawning, so I started trying different retrieves with it.”
The best retrieve ended up being letting the vibrating jig sink to the bottom, quickly reeling it up a foot off the bottom (not using his rod to rip it, as he said that resulted in too many lost fish), and then letting it fall back down again, with the bass always eating it on the fall.
“Once I figured that out, I had like 20 pounds in an hour,” Powell said.
From there, it just became a matter of finding the best area, or in his case, tiny spot. Powell found some prime alewife-spawning activity on a tiny cut just south of Fort Ticonderoga, outside the creek that Jackson was fishing.
Yet, while Jackson and most everyone was solely catching largemouth, Powell’s spot allowed him to cast toward shore and catch largemouth or cast out in 9-12 feet of water and catch smallmouth that would come up schooling.
Powell’s only regret in the event came on day 3.
“I left Ticonderoga early Saturday with two small ones in my livewell because I had two big smallmouths up north on beds I had been saving,” Powell said. “Well, I ran all the way up and there was a boat sitting on the two smallmouths, so I wasn’t able to cull those two little ones.”
> Vibrating-jig gear: 6’6” Cashion casting rod, Lew’s casting reel, 15-pound Vision fluorocarbon line, 3/8-ounce Z-Man Evergreen ChatterBait Jack Hammer (white/chartreuse), Zoom Swimmin’ Fluke Jr. trailer (white ice).
> Worm gear: Cashion casting rod, Lew’s casting reel, 15-pound Vision fluorocarbon line, 3/0 hook, 5-inch Trixster Custom Baits stick bait (green-pumpkin).
> Main factor in his success – “Identifying the alewife spawn and figuring out the right retrieve. I saw it in practice, but I never saw it the first three days of the tournament. The final morning I saw it again, and I caught three good ones on my first three casts.”