By Todd Ceisner
There was no denying where the best fishing was last week during the Lake Champlain Northern Rayovac Series. It was some 70 miles south of Plattsburgh, N.Y., where the 142-boat field took off from.
The top 3 finishers all pulled the majority of their weigh-in fish from the water around Ticonderoga, where the grass isn't as plentiful or lush as it has been in years past. Still, there were plenty of post-spawn largemouth to be had.
With the fish in a major transition phase right now coming off a later spawn, it'll be worth watching how the areas that produced last week hold up next week when the Bassmaster Northern Open rolls into Plattsburgh.
For now, here's a rundown of how runner-up Chris Johnston and third-place finisher Dave Lefebre did their damage at Champlain.
2nd: Chris Johnston
> Day 1: 5, 17-07
> Day 2: 5, 20-03
> Day 3: 5, 19-01
> Total = 15, 56-11
Johnston hails from Peterborough, Ontario, which is about a 6-hour drive from Champlain. He says one of the misnomers about Canadian anglers is that they like to fish for more than just smallmouth bass.
"We flip a lot of milfoil, too, and that's all I did at Champlain," he said. "Ticonderoga has about 10 miles of good milfoil, but you had to find the good stretches and spots within the spots. You had to get on those and I had four or five of those."
While the smallmouth typically play a role at Champlain, the vast majority of the top 10 finishers, Johnston included, spent most of their time down south in the largemouth waters around Ticonderoga.
"The smallies up north weren't set up good yet," Johnston added. "I think they'll play a factor next week (at the B.A.S.S. Open), but the largemouth down south were set up in their summer pattern. The smallies for me and lot of guys were scattered. You'd catch the odd one here and there. The other thing is Ti always seems to fish better in the early summer where up north gets better later on."
His better fish fell for a flipping jig in 4 to 6 feet of water and he also caught some keepers on a Z-Man ChatterBait and a Senko. He caught 17-07 on day 1 and was in 17th place before sticking 20-03 on day 2 to move into 3rd.
Day 2 was his best numbers day by far as he swung 30 fish into the boat.
"The last day it did get tough in the afternoon," he said. "There was a lot of local tournament fishing pressure in the area. I had a 4-pounder and figured I needed another one to get to 20 pounds to have a shot at winning. I switched to a Senko and caught a bunch more fish, but I never got that 4."
His 19-01 stringer on Saturday was enough to slide up to 2nd, his best finish in 17 career Northern Rayovacs.
"Going into the tournament, if I'd have known I was going to finish 2nd, I'd have been thrilled," he said. "Once you come that close, you get a little disappointed, especially after Dave didn't catch them. I was happy with 2nd. I have no complaints, but I've had a few seconds before and have been leading before entering the last day. It's starting to get old."
> Jig gear: 7'5" heavy-action G. Loomis GLX jig & worm casting rod, Shimano Core Mg casting reel (7.1:1 ratio), 65-pound PowerPro braided line, 9/16-oz. homemade flipping jig (black/blue), Zoom Salty Chunk trailer (black/blue).
> Main factor in his success – "The biggest thing was finding the right zones. Where I did find them there was something noticeably different. I also caught a few isolated fish on hard structure. I caught one there each day, but unfortunately on day 3 the locals were hammering it."
> Performance edge – "Running my Ranger going down there, you have to have lot of confidence in your equipment to get down there and back and I have total confidence in that boat. My Power-Poles also helped in that milfoil. The areas I was fishing were really small and I put the poles down and be able to catch two or three instead of just one and blowing over it."
Local anglers moved in on Dave Lefebre's best spots on the final day, dampening his chance at a win.
3rd: Dave Lefebre
> Day 1: 5, 21-08
> Day 2: 5, 19-13
> Day 3: 5, 14-12
> Total = 15, 56-01
Dave Lefebre did all he could over the first 2 days to put himself in position to capture the win. The problem was local tournament anglers, who'd been astute spectators of his last Thursday and Friday, beat him to his spots on the final day, forcing him to scramble around in hopes to maintain his lead.
His backup areas didn't quite compare to the sweet spots he'd located that he determined were part of a migratory route for post-spawn largemouth down near Ticonderoga.
"Those fish were way behind schedule," he said. "In practice, I followed these fish out from where I was catching them. They are in a mega transition right now. I found a creek that was loaded and all of them were on their migratory route out to the lake. There was an incredible number of big, giant fish coming out of there. The key was sitting on that transition and picking them off all day."
He opened the event in the lead with 21 1/2 pounds, which turned out to be a blessing and a curse. He caught 19-13 on day 2 to carry a 3 1/2-pound cushion into Saturday.
"Truthfully, it was all about leading on day 1," he said. "There was a 100-boat tournament down there Saturday and the guys who were out practicing saw me and where I was. Leading it on day 1 made those guys follow me on Friday. I felt like Kevin VanDam out there. It was crazy. I had more spectators on me than at a Tour event. I felt like I was leading the Forrest Wood Cup in Pittsburgh."
Despite tournament director Ron Lappin allowing the 10 finalists to blast off earlier than scheduled on the final day, Lefebre said the boats in the local derby launched at 5, which gave them a 2-hour head start on fishing.
"I had two really key deals going on and it was a funnel out of a spawning creek," he said. "Both had deep water up against the bank and both were exactly the same. When I got down there, there were three boats on one and two on the other.
"I gave away a lot of good stuff not to win this tournament."
There was very little room for him to squeeze in and fish – he said one area was about 25 yard long and the other about 50.
"I caught 40 fish that were around 3 3/4 pounds or better on day 1 and left them," he added. "It was insane how many fish were there and I hadn't even leaned on them yet."
Still, he had a chance to close it out on the final day, but he was plagued by several break offs, the product of abrasive zebra mussels.
"I had a smallmouth place I felt I could catch 17," he said. "I could've gone a mile from the ramp and caught 16 1/2 pounds, but I didn't think that would be enough. On my way back in, I hit the spot near the ramp and culled two largemouths with a 4 and a 3. I knew they were there. I just didn't think it was enough to win. If I'd have had a 5-pound cushion I'd definitely would've gone there.
"It just wasn't meant to be. I hadn't broke a fish off all week. It just doesn’t happen to me, but those zebra mussels cut me off several times. I had a big fish place in the morning that I'd hit every day as soon as the bite died around 9:30 or 10. I'd throw a big 6-inch swimbait around there and on Saturday I lost a 5-pounder. All I needed was a 3 1/2 pounder to win."
He said the presence of rock with sparse grass mixed in were key elements to the places that carried him to the top of the leaderboard.
"There were a few strands of grass and I knew them all by name," he said. "There were a couple places where it was matted around the edges and that's why I had a 1-ounce jig tied up. There were only three little flips I made with that big jig.
"That water was clearing significantly every day and I was catching them around two strands of milfoils and even some off single strands. There was a channel that swung up against the bank and that had less to do with grass. That was their migratory route and there were a couple of points on that channel that were more the key."
> Jig gear: 7'9" medium-heavy Dobyns Extreme casting rod, 13 Fishing Concept E casting reel, 20-pound Sufix Invisiline Castable Fluorocarbon line, 1/4-, 1/2-, and 1-oz. Terminator Pro Series jigs (pumpkin green), 5" Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Pro Double Tail trailer (green-pumpkin).
> Lefebre typically likes a smaller, slimmer jig profile, but the 60-strand skirt of the Terminator jig, combined with the 5" trailer made for a bulkier presentation and slower fall rate, which he says was crucial to attracting bites. "With that trailer, it fell like a Senko and once they'd pick it up, I had all day to set the hook," he said.
> Main factor in his success – "There were two things. One, I spent 3 days down there, something I'd never done before. Being able to follow those fish out and understand that area and know where they were wanting to go was important. Not until the first day when I started where I thought they were headed – they were already there – did I understand that they were late. There were some scattered fish still on beds. figuring that out early on and
> Performance edge – "That Terminator jig and being able to have a lot of confidence in the area and fishing super slow. The real slow fall on that jig was the key. I usually trim my skirts and trailers and pull out strands, but I was using everything as big as I could get it and the fish were keying on it."
> Lefebre and Johnston are now 1-2 in the Rayovac Series Northern Division points standings with one event remaining on the schedule (James River, Aug. 21-23).
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