By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

For many years, Takahiro Omori’s tournament preparation routine consisted of him spending days, sometimes weeks, at a fishery prior to it going off limits. After coming to the United States from Japan in 1992, Omori found the approach helpful in learning the seasonal patterns of bass and the nuances of the lakes or rivers on the FLW Tour or Bassmaster Elite Series schedule.

“Once I got here, me and [fellow Japanese angler] Shin (Fukae) spent more time pre-fishing (than anyone),” Omori said recently at a media outing on the Mississippi River near Winona, Minn. “We had no family obligations. It was all about fishing.”

It was hard to argue with the effectiveness of his approach. He qualified for the Bassmaster Classic 12 times and the Forrest Wood Cup seven times while posting eight victories between the two organizations, including the 2004 Classic.

This year, however, everything changed.

Not only did he depart the Elite Series for the Bass Pro Tour, he also scrapped his pre-tournament scouting trips. The way in which the BPT schedule was announced prevented him from visiting any of the future venues ahead of time. Some might’ve thought the change would’ve thrown Omori for a loop, but he actually enjoyed it.

The end result – a 25th-place finish in points and a berth in this week’s Redcrest championship – has him thinking his scouting trips might be a thing of the past.

“That was the biggest difference about this season – I never pre-fished,” Omori said.

Not devoting all the extra time to travel and fishing allowed him to focus more on sponsor obligations and to simplify his prep work at home.

“Fishing tournaments is so much about the mental side,” he said. “This year, I have a basic set up for my tackle for how I like to fish.”

A known shallow-water power-fisherman, Omori said he’s pared down his tackle to feature baits and colors that he trusts as opposed to a mix of things that work and things that might work.

“I’m trying to simplify,” he added. “After fishing for so many years, I’ve accumulated so much stuff at my house and the biggest challenge is how to narrow it down to what I travel with.”

The best stuff, he says, stay in his boat, with backup items stored in his truck camper. The rest stays at home in Texas.

“I can only put so much stuff in my boat and camper,” he said. “I’m trying to only buy or order what I need. I’m trying to simplify using all my knowledge and experience. I don’t want to have too many choices when tournament day comes. It just wastes time.”

Expect Omori to be a factor at the Mississippi River this week. He’s logged two top-10 finishes there during his Elite Series days and also competed in the 2016 MLF Summit Cup in La Crosse, which was filmed the previous fall.

His pathway to Redcrest wasn’t a smooth trip, though. On multiple occasions in his career, he went into the final event of the season hovering around the qualification cut line for either the Classic or Cup. More often than not, he garnered the finish and points necessary to finish above the line. Omori is basically fishing's equivalent to the high school student who waits until the night before an exam to study, then shows up on test day and scores a passing grade. This season was no different.

He started the final BPT event at Lake Winnebago in 29th place in points. An 18th-place showing bumped him up to 25th and punched his Redcrest ticket.

“I’m more proud of this one than any of the others,” Omori said. “In my mind, this it the most talented group to fish against. Every day feels like the Classic against these guys.”

Back for More

The venue for the inaugural Bass Pro Tour Redcrest championship will not be new to Omori or any of the other 29 qualifiers.

MLF/Phoenix Moore
Photo: MLF/Phoenix Moore

Dustin Connell thinks smallmouth will carry him through the early portion of the tournament.

In fact, most in the field have competed on the upper Mississippi River near La Crosse, Wis., multiple times with the most recent stop coming with the Bassmaster Elite Series last June. Todd Faircloth and Ott DeFoe are two competitors with wins to their credit on this part of the river.

While the general venue will be familiar, it might take a little time for some to get reacquainted with the river. Pool 8 will be the water used for the first four days (Shotgun, Elimination and Sudden Death rounds) while Pool 7 will be the scene of the Championship Round on Sunday.

The full field will compete Wednesday and Thursday, with the top 20 based on cumulative two-day weights advancing to the next stage. The 20 remaining anglers will be broken into two groups of 10 for the Knockout Round with one group fishing Friday and the other group fishing Saturday. The top 5 finishers in each group will advance to the Championship Round when the Redcrest champion will be determined by a one-day shootout on Pool 7. The winner will pocket $300,000.

Competitors were allowed two days to practice on Pool 8. Pool 7 was off limits during the practice session, but anglers advancing to the Knockout Round will have the option of doing a ride-through on their day off.

The upper Mississippi saw its share of heavy rains this past spring and there were times when the river was as much as 2 1/2 feet above flood stage in late April. While the water eventually came down, it had a lasting impact on the fishing.

“Absolutely, it was the culprit for a lot of things,” said Cade Laufenberg, a Goodview, Minn., native and a two-time BFL winner at La Crosse. “It rearranged the spawn and fish didn’t spawn until late. I was seeing see fry in mid-July, which is unheard of. They weren’t grouped up. You’d find one nice one and nothing with it.”

The water level has since stabilized, and the fishing is starting to improve with certain areas being more consistent than others.

“Now with the water out of the trees it’s funneling the fish to the main channel and bigger back channels,” Laufenberg added. “It’s easy to find ‘em because they want to be in the current and near the deep, stable water.

“This is the time of year to be junk-fishing. You can catch a 3-pound largemouth on just about anything. The smallmouth are a little more refined than that. They’ve been getting on sand and wing dams pretty good lately. It’s a deal where you can cruise up and down the river and flip a jig at a laydown, then go crank rip-rap. Whatever your strengths are you can do whatever here.”

Before getting deeper into the bite, here's a look at the fishery itself.

BassFan Lake Profile

> Name: Mississippi River (pools 7 & 8)
> Type of water: Floodplain river with numerous locks and dams
> Surface acres: Unavailable
> Primary structure/cover: Deadfall timber, brush, grass, weeds, lily pads, rip-rap
> Primary forage: Crawfish, shad, bluegill
> Average depth: 5 feet
> Species: Largemouth are predominant, but quite a few smallmouth live here
> Reputation: A good numbers fishery where the larger specimens often gang up in specific places
> Weather: Cooler mornings, but pleasant and mostly rain-free through the weekend
> Water temp: Mid 70s
> Water visibility/color: Somewhat tinted to heavily stained
> Water level: Normal pool
> Fish in: 10 feet or shallower
> Fish phase: Post-spawn/summer
> Primary patterns: Flipping, spinnerbaits, vibrating jigs, frogs, swim jigs, plastics, shallow crankbaits, topwaters
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for the Mississippi River
> Biggest factors: Finding big groups of fish
> Biggest decision: When to pick up and move
> Wildcard: A 4-pounder – they're not as common here as other places, thus magnifying their importance

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:

Now a Numbers Game

In multi-day, five-fish limit events out of La Crosse, weights have been pretty consistent across the years. It took between 61 and 66 pounds to win the five Elite Series and FLW Tour events. At the Bassmaster Central Open, held Aug. 1-3, it took 43-03 to win over three days, which falls right in line with what the three-day leader totals have been in the four-day derbies.

It’s not a big-fish fishery, but numbers wise, it should stand up to other venues the BPT has visited this season.

“This has the potential to show the true numbers of this fishery,” Laufenberg said. “The (recent Bassmaster) Open made it look like it’s tough, especially for big ones, but the fishing is really good for getting bites. I’ve been catching 40 to 50 a day just plunking around.”

But are there truly any secrets left that remain undiscovered that could be brought into the light this week?

“There are some small deals that guys haven’t found before and other stuff that’s obvious that gets overlooked,” Laufenberg said. “There are definitely some community areas that will get attention.”

He pointed to the Black River as a stretch of Pool 8 that should see plenty of fishing pressure, but he thinks the bulk of fish will be caught on the main artery.

MLF/Garrick Dixon
Photo: MLF/Garrick Dixon

Jacob Powroznik has proven he has what it takes to excel in the grass-infested waters of the upper Mississippi.

“The main channel will be where it’s gonna happen,” he added. “Especially in this style where every 1-pounder counts. You can find a school of 14- to 15-inchers where you can catch them every cast. In the Open, I had a place where they weren’t helping me but it was literally every cast.”

Anything that puts a dent in the current is likely to have a group of fish on it, he said.

Sunday Segment

The main difference between Pool 8 and Pool 7 to the north is the presence of Lake Onalaska in Pool 7. It’s an expansive backwater featuring several cuts leading to the main channel and it’s a magnet for bass.

“It’s like its own separate fishery,” Laufenberg said. “Those fish don’t leave. They’re residential and they behave differently. You can win there if you get on a group of fish that lives there, but you have to find a mix of clean water and grass and flow and bait fish. It’s hard to find, though. I struggle at it, but the river might fish better anyway.”

Largemouth typically weigh more around La Crosse, but smallmouth in the 14- to 15-inch range are extremely plentiful and eager to bite. One factor to watch this week is the forage the bass are keying on.

“In June and July, the shad aren’t that big, but now they’re showing up on points and wing dams,” Laufenberg said. “The fish typically go from crayfish and bluegills to shad now.”

Field Notes

Below are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll compete this week.

Cody Meyer
“I tried fishing the main river to avoid sand bars and hitting stuff, but I didn’t get many bites, so when I went to the sand bars I spent half my days getting off the sand bars. By Monday afternoon, I was having to be towed out by some locals.

“I just don’t have the experience here that other guys do. I’ve been here once and I don’t really know it. If you go off what your map says, it’s not accurate. When I came last time, I caught a lot of fish every day, something like 30 to 50 a day, but some of that was pool 9. I just don’t see that right now. I think I’ve missed the boat. You’ll pull up and think you’re going to catch one after another, but I’ve caught one and then it’s another 45 minutes before you get another. Going off history here, someone will catch 50 fish, but that’s not the case for me.”

Mark Rose
“The water is much lower than it was when we were here last. There’s a transition going on with the fish and the river. The river is transitioning from being high and the fish are transitioning from having to move with the water falling and with fall coming. There are a lot of moving parts, but it’s still the upper Mississippi and it’s going to be good.

“There’s a lot of local fishing pressure out there. I’m not complaining, but it’s going to be another obstacle we have to deal with. It’s going to be an interesting tournament. I think any guys who found a group of fish – and they’re starting to group up – to themselves are going to shine this week. There are good numbers up here, but the bad thing is they’re being hit hard. A 40-fish school is out there, but there are also people working on them every day.

“I’ve got some places to hit on the river and stuff to fish offshore. I have a lot going on. I’m going to be on the move. I think there will be more largemouth weighed, but smallmouth will definitely be a factor.”

Dustin Connell
“I think it’s going to be a good tournament, but it’s not as easy as you think it might be. I don’t see someone catching them every five minutes. We only have 30 boats, but I don’t see it being bam, bam, bam. If that happens, it’ll be guys smallmouth fishing.

“I don’t know if you can strictly largemouth fish or smallmouth fish and do well. You’re going to need to mix it up. There will be a ton of fish caught and some big ones. I’m going to guess the majority of the field will be largemouth fishing. For me, smallmouth is the best thing going. I can get more bites that way and I’d rather get more bites than fish for quality. I can get two smallmouth bites quicker than one largemouth bite.

“The biggest thing will be fishing pressure because this place gets lit up by locals. I don’t think anyone knows how this is going to be won yet.”

Jordan Lee
“It doesn’t remind me of anything or any other time I’ve been here. It’s always different. It’s just the way it is here. It’s much lower than last year, which means there is not as much current and it’s harder to get around. You have to be careful because if you run like you always do you’ll end up beached.

“I’m going to have to fish different this week. In a normal tournament, you have to go after quality bites because that’s what separates you. You definitely have to fish differently. I tried to practice like that, but it’s hard because if you fish for numbers, you’ll catch ones under a pound. If you fish for smaller fish it almost hurts you.

“Getting around groups of fish will be the key. I found a few spots with smallmouth where you could catch more than one off a spot. To me, 20 to 25 fish would be a good day. If it’s going to be me (who wins), I’ll have to play the game. That’s the key to this. You have to play the format and think that way and just change the plan as it goes.”

Keep An Eye On

Here are a few competitors whom BassFan feels have a chance to fare well under the present conditions.

> Jacob Powroznik – The runner-up to Ish Monroe in last year’s Elite Series stop in La Crosse, he’s proven adept at generating bites in the MLF format.

> Michael Neal – He’s spent the last couple weeks preparing on other pools along the upper Mississippi. He had a dynamite season and is still seeking the first big win of his career. Could this be the week?

> Aaron Martens – Has a strong track record at La Crosse with three top-10s in Elite Series events there. Would like nothing more than to finally crack the championship event winner’s circle in the inaugural Redcrest.

> Wesley Strader – Finished sixth and 12th in his two previous tournaments at La Crosse. Enjoyed a Strader-esque season, in terms of consistency, with six money finishes in eight starts.

> Jacob Wheeler – It's probably a dead heat between Wheeler and Bryan Thrift for the title of top angler in the game right now. A win this week would turn a highly successful season into a magical one

Competition/Post-Game Info

> Competition all five days will begin at 7 a.m. CT. Each day will be comprised of three 2 1/2-hour periods with competition ending at 3 p.m.

> The Post-Game Show will be held Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, beginning at 4 p.m. CT, at the Onalaska Omni Center (255 Riders Club Rd, Onalaska).

> The MLF Midway will run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday at the Onalaska Omni Center.

Weather Forecast

> Wed., Aug. 21 – Partly Cloudy – 78°/54°
- Wind: From the NNW at 5 to 10 mph

> Thur., Aug. 22 – Mostly Sunny – 78°/55°
- Wind: From the NNE at 5 to 10 mph

> Fri., Aug. 23 – Mix of Clouds and Sun – 78°/56°
- Wind: From the ESE at 5 to 10 mph

> Sat., Aug. 24 – Partly Cloudy – 80°/62°
- Wind: From the SSE at 10 to 15 mph

> Sun., Aug. 25 – Partly Cloudy – 81°/69°
- Wind: From the SSE at 10 to 20 mph