By Jonathan Manteuffel
Special to BassFan
The top-10 finishers at the Bassmaster Elite Series event at the St. Lawrence River had to scramble to make the 3-hour drive Sunday night from Clayton, N.Y. to Plattsburg, as practice for Lake Champlain started Monday. Champlain marks the fourth Elite event of the season after the Cayuga Lake tournament was postponed and set to be rescheduled later in the year.
Unfortunately for BassFans everywhere, and contestants and sponsors alike (not to mention the host localities), the throngs of spectators will be conspicuously absent, just as at the St. Lawrence. The State of New York recently released guidelines for professional sports competitions that include diagnostic testing and protocols for daily health screenings for all athletes and staff, along with a host of other safety and social-distancing measures. Under these guidelines, no fans or spectators are allowed to attend events – even those held at outdoor venues.
The bass won't notice the difference, though, and the Elites will pursue them with coverage via live Internet streams and ESPN3, with the addition of being televised live on ESPN2, and in traditional reporting media.
The storied fishery that straddles the New York/Vermont border has hosted seven top-level events in the last decade (six on the FLW Tour, one on the Elite Series), and it will host its eighth this week as the Elites take to the water. The last time the Elites were here in 2017 it was a very different field of anglers. Aaron Martens pulled off a heroic leap from 19th to take the win in a weather-shortened 3-day event. He and many others are now fishing the Bass Pro Tour. However, Brandon Palaniuk who finished 3rd, will be competing this week, having sampled and then left the BPT. Others in the 2017 top 10 who are competing this year are Kelley Jaye and Brandon Lester.
There’s no telling which lure, pattern or depth will prevail, but most often it’s the largemouth down south in the Ticonderoga area that carry the tournament. An alternative is to round up a 15- to 17-pound sack of smallmouths, then hunt for a largemouth kicker. The weather will continue to influence both the bite and the ability to make the long run south, notorious for beating up both anglers and equipment.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself and an in-depth map courtesy of Navionics:
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Lake Champlain
> Type of Water: Natural lake
> Surface Acres (full pool): 278,400 (435 square miles)
> Primary structure/cover: Grass, rocks, flats, drops, docks
> Primary forage: Alewives, rainbow smelt, shiners, perch/bluegill, crayfish
> Average depth: 68 feet (deepest spot is 400 feet)
> Species: Smallmouths and largemouths
> Minimum length: 12" for both species
> Reputation: Good numbers of smallmouths, somewhat fewer but often bigger largemouths
> Weather: Several degrees above average, cooling slightly into the weekend; slight chance of scattered thunderstorms
> Water temperature: 70 degrees in the main lake, warmer in the shallows
> Water visibility: Lightly stained
> Water level: Roughly 2 feet low
> Fish in: All depths
> Fish phase: Post-spawn/summer
> Primary patterns: Crankbaits, topwaters, swimbaits, dropshots, Ned rigs, shaky-heads, worms, jigs (bladed and conventional), flipping, maybe a spybait
> Winning weight: 82 pounds (4 days)
> Cut weight (Top 40 after 2 days): 31 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2.5
> Biggest decision: Stay north or make the long run down to Ticonderoga to target largemouth
> Wildcard: Schooling smallmouth and a giant largemouth bite in the grass
Mick Maynard, who runs Lake Champlain Angler Fishing Charters and Guide Service, said the fishing is hot – as in water temperature-hot.
“The water’s in the upper 70s in the main lake,” he said. “Down south and way up north it’s even hotter. We hit a lake record high temperature this year already and had a few algae blooms. We also had light snowfall this past winter and not a lot of rain, so the lake is about 2 feet low and conditions are tough.
“There’s a lot of grass with algae on it and some spotty algae blooms,” he said. “Those are things you want to avoid, since it eats up oxygen and the smallmouth get sluggish. The largemouths aren’t as affected, but they all like the cleaner grass.”
Veteran John Crews said the quality bites are widely scattered at Champlain this week.
He observed that while some smallmouths are hitting topwater walking baits shallow in the early morning, many have moved deeper. Some are already on rockpiles in 30 to 40 feet of water, requiring a dropshot approach.
“The largemouths aren’t affected by the warm water so much, so it’s standard operating procedure for them,” he added.
Still, he expects that if the Elites don’t have a 20-pound average over the first 3 days they won’t make the final round.
“You’ll need probably 78 to 84 pounds to be in contention to win,” he said.
Most of the standard fare for Champlain will be in play, from topwaters to dropshots to pitching jigs in the grass. “If we get a good wind you might see guys dragging a Carolina rig in deeper water” if they can find a good drift over scattered grass and rocks, he noted.
“From my perspective I’m glad to see (the Elites) coming here,” Maynard said. “They’ve canceled a lot of smaller tournaments this year (due to COVID-19 concerns). The local guys are jonesing for some tournaments so we’re happy to have them. The local economy could use the shot in the arm, too, as long as we do it safely.”
Fish are Scattered
Elite Series veteran John Crews said found respectable-sized fish during practice, but had to work for them.
“They’re one here and one there,” he said. “By the end of the day you can have a decent bag. They’re good fish when you catch them. There are a lot of 3-pounders but not as many 4’s.
"I’m guessing the fish weighed in will be about 50-50 smallmouths and largemouths, although the smallies do scatter when it’s hot and allow largemouths to play more.”
Crews believes it will take around 80 pounds over four days to be near the winning mark.
A Few to Watch
In no particular order, BassFan notes a few anglers to watch at this event.
Clark Wendlandt – The three-time FLW AOY just took the lead in the Elite Series points race this past weekend. He has two prior Top-10s on Champlain with FLW (2007, 2009), so he knows his way around the fishery. The last two times he was here with the Bassmaster Tour (1997, 1999) he placed 18th both times. Better this year?
Brandon Lester – Holding down 19th place in the AOY standings, he proved his prowess at this fishery in 2017 and has only improved his game since then.
Jamie Hartman – No question the New York native is a heavy favorite. After overcoming back issues 2 years ago, he had a breakthrough season in 2019 with two wins. He placed 38th here in his rookie season in 2017. He returns to Champlain just having finished 27th at the St. Lawrence and pegged at 3rd on the AOY list.
Brandon Palaniuk – Hailing from Idaho, he has proven to be at home on waters north to south, and he solved the Champlain puzzle the last time he was here. Look for him to do well again.
Paul Mueller – The Connecticut native is of course at home on northern fisheries, including Champlain, where he finished 34th in 2017. He nearly won at the St. Lawrence and sitting just inside the Top 20 in the AOY race, momentum is on his side.
Drew Benton – He loves to fish vegetation and Champlain offers plenty if he can get down south. His 20th-place finish here in 2017 implies good things to come for him this week. He’s fishing well and is currently inside the top 10 in the AOY race.
> Anglers will launch at 6:45 a.m. EDT all 4 days from the Plattsburg City Marina. Weigh-ins will get under way at 3 p.m. in the same location. Under guidelines from the State of New York, no in-person attendance of events is allowed. Fans can take in the action on Bassmaster LIVE at www.Bassmaster.com and ESPN3 beginning at 8 a.m. Coverage will also be broadcast on ESPN2 (check local listings for details).
> Thurs., July 30 – Showers and possibly a thunderstorm – 82°/64°
- Wind: From the W at 5 to 9 mph
> Fri., July 31 – Chance of showers, mostly sunny – 78°/66°
- Wind: From the NW at 5 to 7 mph
> Sat., August 1 – Mostly sunny – 82°/67°
- Wind: From the E at 5 mph
> Sun., August 2 – P.M. showers, mostly cloudy – 77°/69°
- Wind: From the S at 5 to 10 mph
> Mark Menendez didn’t compete at the Lake Eufaula event in June, fearing he’d suffered a ruptured disk in his back. His doctor at The Orthopedic Center in Huntsville, Ala. told him his L3 and L4 vertebrae and hip are irritated and he might have a pinched nerve. Rest and physical therapy for 4 to 6 weeks were prescribed, but that didn't alleviate the problem. He took a medical hardship waiver for the rest of the 2020 season prior to the start of the St. Lawrence River tournament.
> AOY leader Clark Wendlandt has a remarkable record with B.A.S.S. at the St. Lawrence River. He fished the Bassmaster Tour from 1992-2002, then returned in 2019 after years on the FLW Tour. In his four appearances with B.A.S.S. there, his lowest finish was 9th and highest was 2nd (1992-9th, 1995-8th, 1997-2nd, 2020-8th).