By Todd Ceisner
The upper Mississippi River near La Crosse, Wis., proved to be worthy playing field for the Bass Pro Tour Redcrest. While many in the field had previous experience there, the constantly-changing nature of the river made for an array of new challenges. Water levels last week were much lower than some remember them being during past visits, but that worked to the competitors’ advantage in a way.
Rather than the fish having more places to hide and cover to use during high-water periods, the current conditions put them in much more predictable locations. The other key was locating groups or schools of fish. Those who stayed alive the longest in the tournament were the ones who had multiple areas with concentrations of bass and the ability to alternate back and forth or offer different presentations was critical.
Proximity to current, deeper water and baitfish were three key elements to an area’s productivity. Here’s a rundown of how the rest of the top five finishers approached Redcrest.
2nd: Greg Hackney
> Shotgun Round: 24, 39-11
> Elimination Round: 26, 43-03 (50, 82-14; ninth place)
> Knockout Round 2: 42, 71-11 (first place)
> Championship Round: 22, 40-07
> Totals: 114, 195-00
Greg Hackney said he had to modify his mindset for Redcrest compared to previous trips to the upper Mississippi River. It didn’t take him all that long to get that done.
“Every time I’ve been here before, I’ve always caught individual fish because we were fishing for five,” he said. “I spent all practice fishing for schools, and I found four or five different places that I felt brought 15 bass to the plate. It got better each day and I felt like I got better, too.”
What was unique about how Hackney fished Redcrest was that he had a crankbait in his hand most of the time on Pool 8. He located schools in shallow water and also deeper.
“I didn’t bring a bunch of plugs, but I graphed them and they got deeper each day,” he said. “I had schools in three feet and my best two places they were in 12 to 15 feet.”
After posting a solid showing in the Shotgun Round, he got more clued in during the Ellimination Round, when he finished ninth to sew up a spot in the Knockout Round.
“That’s when I figured out the 5XD and that helped my chances to make the top 10,” he said. “I figured out the lineups and angles and having the day off (between the Elimination Round and Knockout Round) was perfect. It allowed those schools to bunch back up.”
He was able to be efficient during the second Knockout Round as he piled up 71-11.
“I went to the sweet spots each time,” he said. “I didn’t have to fish in between.”
In the Championship Round, he chose to fish an area that he recalled having a strong population of bass from his previous visits to the area. He just couldn’t keep pace with Evers.
“Even Sunday, I felt like I was getting better,” he said. “The more days you spend on the water, between the two days’ of practice and four days’ of the tournament, the better you get. The days on the water helped. I felt like I moved well and made good decisions. It just wasn’t in my cards (to win).”
> Cranking gear: 7’ medium-action Lew’s Custom Pro Hack Attack Speed Stick cranking rod, Lew’s BB1 Pro Speed Spool Series casting reel (6.8:1 ratio), 14-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, Strike King KVD 1.5 square-bill crankbait (black back chartreuse), Strike King Pro Model 5XD crankbait (chartreuse perch).
> He favored the chartreuse perch color for deeper water due to the tannic hue of the water where he was fishing.
> When the crankbait bite tailed off, he followed up with a Texas-rigged Strike King Rage Cut-R Worm (junebug).
> In the Championship Round, he relied on a 3/8-oz. Strike King Hack Attack Heavy Cover swim jig (black/blue and white) tipped with a matching Strike King Rage Rage Craw in the morning. In the afternoon, when conditions got cloudy and warm, he went with a 3/8-oz. Strike King Hack Attack Select Buzzbait (black and white) with a Rage Craw threaded on as a trailer.
Greg Vinson had numerous areas on Pool 8 that he could rotate through.
3rd: Greg Vinson
> Shotgun Round: 31, 48-07
> Elimination Round: 29, 50-04 (60, 98-11; second place)
> Knockout Round 1: 40, 63-10 (first place)
> Championship Round: 20, 29-06
> Totals: 120, 191-11
Reaction baits were the central player for Greg Vinson’s impressive showing last week. He located several areas holding a concentration of fish and played the strategy game to perfection, meaning he made sure to not be seen doing the same thing in similar places too often.
“Day one of practice was unbelievable,” he said. “I got dialed into what I was looking for and credit my Garmin mapping. Once I got bites on two or three places, I picked up on the consistency and it got predictable. I knew it would be important to protect that, especially during early rounds. I knew not to run straight to places with similar features.”
He said he experienced some “scary moments” during the Elimination and Knockout rounds related to when he pulled off certain areas, but it wound up paying off for him.
“I felt like I was laying off some early on and trying to protect them,” he said. “There were a bunch of anglers up in the grass and I was out on the edges. It’s what you do in Wisconsin. You swim a jig, frog or flip. There were a lot of fish on the outer edges (of grass) with the lower water.”
And that’s where Vinson did the bulk of his damage. Areas with submerged eelgrass and coontail were the best producers. He also fished hard cover and riprap near bridges and causeways.
“They’d school in the grass chasing bait, but from what I could tell, they were staging and then run in and feed on shad,” he said. “It was all about the baitfish. Some of those places were stocked full of shad. If you could find the shad you’d find the fish close by.”
His approach to the schooling fish took some thought and planning.
“They’d move into the holes in the grass and over time I figured those fish would sit there and move into the holes waiting for shad to come by,” he said. “It was frustrating throwing treble hooks into the eelgrass. I tried jigs, frogs and plastics and they would nip at it, but they’ve seen those so many times. With the topwater, they would crush it after a few pops.”
In the Championship Round on Pool 7, he saw plenty of areas that had the potential to hold fish based on how fished in Pool 8, but he opted to fish near the tail race below the dam separating pools 6 and 7.
“I fished wing dams and current breaks,” he said. “I caught them in groups of three or four, but I needed groups of 20. I made a good move, though, that was worth $18,000. I don’t anybody that wouldn’t be proud of that.”
> Jerkbait gear: 7’2” medium-action homemade MHX casting rod, Shimano Chronarch G casting reel, 15-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, unnamed 110-size jerkbait (white).
> Vinson swapped the hooks on his jerkbait for #5 Owner STX trebles.
> He opted for bigger line than normal because he wanted to keep the bait up higher in the water column, allowing the fish to come get the bait above the submerged grass.
> Topwater gear: 7’6” heavy-action homemade MHX cranking rod, Shimano Metanium MGL casting reel (6.3:1 ratio), 40-pound Seaguar Smackdown braided line, Strike King Sexy Dawg (bone).
> He opted for braid for added confidence when hauling bass back to the boat through and over the grass. The big rod also allowed him to make long casts, when necessary, to reach school fish.
Zack Birge was all-in on a frog bite during Redcrest.
4th: Zack Birge
> Shotgun Round: 50, 81-15
> Elimination Round: 19, 35-02 (69, 117-01; first place)
> Knockout Round 2: 34, 59-05 (second place)
> Championship Round: 19, 28-07
> Totals: 122, 204-13
Unlike many of the other competitors in the Redcrest field, Zack Birge had only competed on the upper Mississippi River once before. But that one time, during the FLW Tour season in 2017, helped him decode which areas on Pool 8 would be most productive during the early rounds of competition last week.
His march through the Shotgun and Elimination rounds was a tour de force built around frog fishing, which some believed would be the main pathway to victory this week. As it turns out, reaction baits trumped a frog, but Birge certainly held his own.
“I went back to some history from the previous time I’d been there,” he said. “I located I feel the same fish and figured out how they migrated toward the main channel.”
He said the water last week was substantially lower compared to its level during the FLW Tour stop, but that allowed him to narrow his focus to a few particular areas. He located three areas near Goose Island that featured a mix of current and “small places” he could pick over.
“That’s where I like to stay,” he said. “I feel comfortable there. I think the current was a big player. I felt like I had to be close to the main source of current in an area and then looked for nooks and crannies that were close by.”
He was dominant during the first two rounds despite sharing one of his key areas with two other anglers who also made the Championship Round (Michael Neal and Brandon Palaniuk).
“I had three areas I knew I could catch them in and my starting spot on day one, I knew if I got there first, I could catch like six real quick,” he said. “That’s exactly what happened.”
That set the tone for an 80-pound day that gave him some breathing room heading into the Elimination Round the following day.
“I didn’t get to go to the other areas that day because I didn’t need to,” he said. “I knew I was around them.”
Duckweed was dominant feature of the areas he threw his frog, a Deps Buster K model that is built with an internal rattle and weight-transfer system that allows the frog to sit more tail down in the water than float on the surface. His retrieve was more of a reel-pull-and-stop cadence than the traditional walk-the-dog retrieve.
“I felt like I had to be around (duckweed) to enhance my chances of getting bit,” he said.
He moved around more during the Knockout Round, but finally got settled in and wound up finishing second in his group, again relying on the frog.
He said the ride around at Pool 7 prior to the Championship Round was helpful, but confusing at the same time.
“I didn’t really get enough accomplished,” he said. “Everything looked fishy. It was kind of overwhelming. I had to start from scratch (Sunday) to get settled in. It took into the second period to get something going to where I was comfortable.”
Again, it was frog-first mentality that helped him sew up a top-five finish.
“I fished a cut with the same type of set up, just without the duckweed,” he said. “It was mostly overhanging bushes with some grass and duckweed mixed in.”
> Frog gear: 7’3” heavy-action prototype Favorite Fishing Pro Series casting rod, Shimano Bantam MGL casting reel (8.1: ratio), 30-pound Yo-Zuri Super Braid braided line, Deps Buster K frog (swampster).
Fred Roumbanis mixed a frog with a soft-plastic stickbait to do the bulk of his damage on Pools 7 and 8.
5th: Fred Roumbanis
> Shotgun Round: 35, 61-03
> Elimination Round: 9, 15-05 (44, 76-08; 16th place)
> Knockout Round 2: 34, 55-04 (third place)
> Championship Round: 11, 23-06
> Totals: 89, 155-02
It’s no secret that throwing a frog is one of Fred Roumbanis’ favorite techniques and Pool 8 fell right into his wheelhouse.
“I felt like good (in practice) and I found a frog bite and a finesse bite,” he said. “I thought I would catch them on finesse stuff around docks, but I never did. I was throwing a jig with a (Gene Larew) Biffle Bug on the back side of wing dams and getting bit pretty easily in practice, but that didn’t happen on day 1.”
And that that was just fine with him because it allowed him to exploit his backup areas, which was frog central. He zeroed in on areas with pepper grass and when the frog bite would slow down, he threw a weightless Texas-rigged Larew Salt Flick’R.
He had such a big cushion on 21st place going into the Elimination Round, he bided his time around his frogging areas and had to readjust as the water had fallen a good bit overnight.
“The first day, they’d come straight up and hit it. It was a textbook frog bite,” he said. “The next day, they were lunging sideways for it and it was like they’d get stuck in the grass and couldn’t turn around.”
As a result, he relied more on the Salt Flick’r to move into the Knockout Round.
“Even 16th (place), I was solid so I didn’t burn up those (frog) fish,” he said.
In the Knockout Round, he started with the Salt Flick’r and caught three two-pounders to get things going. Once boat traffic picked up where he was, he made a move to his frog fish and picked around the grass edges with the Salt Flick’r.
For the Championship Round at Pool 7, he was on quality fish – more than half of his fish weighed two pounds or more – but he couldn’t keep pace with Edwin Evers.
“I got in an area that had a combination of eelgrass and milfoil and caught one on a swim jig, then a frog, then the Salt Flick’r,” he said. “Everything I caught was good quality, but I was not catching them fast enough as Edwin. I spent a while hunting for nothing and went back to where I started. If I’d have stayed maybe I would’ve contended for second. You never know. I had a good week. I fished flawlessly.”
> Frog gear: 7’3” heavy-action Dobyns Champion XP Series casting rod, Sixgill Fishing Products Wraith casting reel (8.1:1 ratio), 50-pound Cortland Master Braid braided line, Stanford Baits Boom Boom Hollow Body Frog (dawg, Kelly, dirty bird).
> Flipping/pitching gear: 7’3” medium-action Dobyns Champion XP Series spinning rod, Sixgill Fishing Products Banshee spinning reel, 8-pound Cortland fluorocarbon line (leader), 3/0 Hayabusa FPP Straight worm hook, Gene Larew Salt Flick’r (green-pumpkin candy).
> Roumbanis fished the Salt Flick’r mostly after removing the two small appendages from the side and would cast it up into “inches of water, then reel it and kill it,” he said.
> Roumbanis also punched a Gene Larew Jacob Wheeler Hammer Craw (Sooner run) with the pinchers dipped in chartreuse dye.
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