By Todd Ceisner
The St. Lawrence River was a different animal this time around.
The same scenic beauty and splendor that comes with fishing in the shadows of castles and around hundreds – a thousand, actually – islands that grabbed the Elite Series competitors’ attention in 2013 was still there.
The biggest difference lied with the brown- and green-hued characters that swim in those waters. With the northeast in the midst of a cooler-than-normal summer, the bass were not as far along as many expected. Some smallmouth were spotted on beds in practice, while still more were in their post-spawn holding pattern before moving to deeper water.
Of the Top 5 finishers, only runner-up Alton Jones spent a considerable amount of time in deeper water with a dropshot. The rest focused on 10 feet or less, whether it was for smallmouth or largemouth.
The weights retreated as the tournament wore on and were down a bit from the 2013 event, likely a product of Lake Ontario being off limits last week.
Here’s a rundown of how those who finished in Edwin Evers’ wake caught their fish.
2nd: Alton Jones
> Day 1: 5, 21-04
> Day 2: 5, 17-06
> Day 3: 5, 18-14
> Day 4: 5, 16-07
> Total = 20, 73-15
During the summer of 2014, prior to the release of the 2015 Elite Series schedule, Alton Jones and his son, Alton, Jr., made a trip to the St. Lawrence River for some fun fishing. As it turned out, the experience came in handy for the elder Jones last week.
Jones said he caught the bulk of his weight off some of the spots he and his son fished and the trip served a valuable learning tool.
“I learned the river a lot better and how it fishes and how to attack current and where to push the panic button and be able find largemouth, even on day 4 when they hadn’t been picked over,” Jones said. “We were here just having fun, no pressure.”
Jones established a couple patterns right away in practice. He targeted deeper areas that had a combination of grass and rock with a dropshot rig.
“If there was an eddy in the current and that intersected the grass and rock, if you could find those three coming together, that’s dynamite for smallmouth on a big river,” he said.
When he went shallow, he went down the inside weed line until he found some rock or a point.
“The fish were on those shallow rocks on the inside weed line,” he said. “I fished without hooks in practice because I felt like if I caught one shallow, I wouldn’t have caught them in the tournament.
“When I’d get a bite up shallow, I’d ease up and see them. You didn’t have to fish for them. They weren’t bedding. They were just up there gorging on gobies. When the gobies leave the shallow water, the bass will leave with them.”
With his smallmouth areas starting to fade on the final day, he targeted largemouth in order to get a limit.
“That was an inside weed line in a backwater,” he said. “It was mostly sand, but every 400 to 500 yards there’d be piles of rocks the size of a truck hood. I had seven or eight of those and there were fish on all of them.”
> Dropshot gear: 6’9” medium-heavy Kistler Helium 2 spinning rod, unnamed spinning reel, 15-pound unnamed braided main line, 8-pound Silver Thread fluorocarbon line (5-foot leader), 1/0 Gamakatsu EWG worm hook, Texas-rigged YUM Warning Shot (green-pumpkin), 1/8-, 3/16- and 1/4-oz. unnamed dropshot weights.
> Jones tried to stay as light as he could with the weight depending on the conditions – he used 1/8 oz. when shallow, 3/16 out deep and 1/4 when the wind kicked up. He wanted the most natural fall possible on his bait.
> Tube gear: Same rod, same reel, 8-pound Silver Thread fluorocarbon line, 3/16- and 1/4-oz. unnamed tube jigs, YUM tube (green-pumpkin).
> He said the key to keeping the smallmouth buttoned up was playing them out. The fish he lost seemed to throw the hook the first time they jumped.
> Main factor in his success – “Establishing that pattern early on in practice so I could build on it. Then I could spend all 3 days doing the right thing instead of figuring it out.”
> Performance edge – “My Lowrance electronics were key this week with being able to spot little divots in the rock where the fish were hiding.”
Greg Hackney used mainly largemouth to notch his best finish of the season.
3rd: Greg Hackney
> Day 1: 5, 18-15
> Day 2: 5, 18-08
> Day 3: 5, 16-04
> Day 4: 5, 19-00
> Total = 20, 72-11
Want to know the reason why Greg Hackney fished for largemouth this time around at the St. Lawrence River? Because he didn’t do it the last time he was there.
“It was one of those deals where the smallmouth fishing wasn’t as good as the last time and I never fished for largemouth the first time,” he said. “How I ended up on largemouth was I wanted to break the monotony.”
He said largemouth were pretty catchable out of the current and around grass, but the above-average fish were in specific areas.
“I concentrated on one primary area,” he said. “It was the only place that seemed to have quality. I could catch largemouth everywhere and weigh 10 pounds, but the really good ones were not everywhere. It’s not like you could go into a backwater pocket and catch a good one.”
His largemouth quest started around 11 a.m. on the first day of practice. He’d been fishing for smallmouth but saw an area that looked like it would hold some green fish.
“It was really easy to get bit,” he said. “They weren’t big, but I kept fishing and occasionally I’d catch a better one. I fished for largemouth until the end of the day.”
He went back to smallmouth on the second day and ultimately started the tournament fishing for largemouth before spending the last 2 hours chasing smallmouth upgrades once he had a decent limit. He weighed mixed bags on days 1 and 2, but had all largemouth on the final 2 days.
His primary largemouth tactics were a hollow-body topwater frog and flipping a Strike King creature bait. He focused most of his attention around a depression on the flat covered with milfoil. While others were catching 6 to 10 fish a day, Hackney was wearing them out.
“I put a hurt on those largemouth on Saturday. I must’ve caught 100,” he said. “I caught a big one before I was going to fish for smallmouth, then another. I didn’t think I’d make the 12-cut. I figured I’d need 18 to make it.”
It turned out 16-04 was enough to get him into 11th.
The frog bite tailed off on the final day, so he flipped the grass and came out with a day-best 19-00 to jump eight spots.
“I knew from Saturday it would be slow in the morning so I went flipping,” he said. “My fourth fish was a 5-pounder so I kept at it. I didn’t catch a lot of them flipping, but the average size was better. I had to go through more fish with the frog to get better fish. I caught so many I couldn’t get them to come up on day 4.”
> Topwater gear: 7’3” medium-heavy Quantum Smoke PT casting rod, Quantum EXO PT 200 casting reel (7.3:1 gear ratio), 65-pound Gamma Torque braided line, Strike King Poppin’ Perch (stump jumper), Strike King KVD Sexy Frog (stump jumper).
> Hackney thinks the fish were keying on the yellow belly of the Poppin’ Perch and frog. “It looks like a perch or bluegill,” he said.
> The Poppin' Perch isn’t yet available to the public, but Hackney likes the different action it offers on the surface. “It’s very erratic,” he said. “It’s the best open-water frog style bait ever made action-wise. It is crazy. It walks and skips and is super erratic.”
> He tried a white version of the Poppin’ Perch, but it was obvious the fish were color-oriented.
> Flipping gear: 7’11” heavy-action Quantum Tour Tactical Greg Hackney casting rod, Quantum EXO PT 100 casting reel (7.3:1 gear ratio), same line, 1 1/4-oz. Strike King tungsten flipping weight, 6/0 Strike King Hack Attack Heavy Cover flipping hook, 4” Strike King KVD Perfect Plastics Rodent (black blue flake).
> Main factor in his success – “Just keeping an open mind was the biggest thing, and not doing the norm.”
> Performance edge – “I won the boat race every day. That Phoenix, I truly believe, is the best riding boat. All of my marshals say that and the Mercury is the fastest motor on it. I feel like it gives me an advantage. I’m not beat up and I get to have extra fishing time. I get to fish longer because I get there quicker.”
Brandon Card stuck to largemouth most of the week and logged his career-best finish.
4th: Brandon Card
> Day 1: 5, 19-08
> Day 2: 5, 19-03
> Day 3: 5, 16-12
> Day 4: 5, 16-15
> Total = 20, 72-06
The fish that carried Brandon Card to the best finish of his Elite Series career were in the same spot 2 years ago. He just opted to not fish for them.
“I just didn’t go to them like an idiot,” he said. “I thought I had to have smallmouth to do well. I found them in practice and it was a whack-fest, but I didn’t catch any decent fish in there.”
After seeing John Murray record a Top-12 finish in 2013 on largemouth, he knew he had to give it more attention this time around.
“When I saw Waddington on the schedule, I knew I could go back in there,” he said.
He tried to tap into the shallow smallmouth pattern that a lot of his competitors did well on, but “it was so random,” he said. “It was one fish per shoal and I couldn’t build a tournament around that.”
When he decided to target largemouth with a topwater frog and by punching, his friends laughed at him.
“I did, too,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I could catch a bunch of fish and have fun, but I didn’t think I could get a Top 5. My favorite way to catch them is on a frog. I just love it.”
He fished the same area as Hackney and while Hackney seemed content to hammer away at a specific smaller portion, Card moved around some.
“It got pounded on,” Card said. “It’s not like Greg and I had a secret spot.”
He did most of his punching in the morning when it seemed like the fish weren’t as active, especially after a couple cooler nights.
His best fish on the final day came punching a creature bait through matted grass.
“It was a blast being able to fish shallow there,” he added.
He did weigh in two smallmouth during the tournament, a 4 1/2-pounder on day 1 and a 3-pounder on day 4. Both came on a small, paddletail swimbait.
> Punching gear: 7’11” heavy-action Abu Garcia Veritas casting rod, same reel, same line, 3/4- to 1 1/2-oz. unnamed tungsten punching weights, 4/0 Gamakatsu Heavy Cover Flipping hook, unnamed creature bait (dark colors).
> Main factor in his success – “Thinking outside the box and doing something different and trusting my instincts and what I saw in that bay and how it looked. I practiced in there for only 2 hours, but I knew what I was looking at. There was so much habitat and potential in there. It’s so cool to look at something and just know. I didn’t need to catch a 4 to know there were 4s in there.”
> Performance edge – “My Suzuki motor. That four-stroke worked great and I was making a pretty long run. It got pretty rough out there, but it got me there and back.”
Skeet Reese recorded his second Top-5 of the year at the St. Lawrence River.
5th: Skeet Reese
> Day 1: 5, 20-08
> Day 2: 5, 19-13
> Day 3: 5, 15-09
> Day 4: 5, 16-07
> Total = 20, 72-05
Skeet Reese was looking to stop his descent down the AOY standings after missing the cut in the previous two tournaments. He achieved that with his second Top-5 finish of the season, which put him back up to 10th in points.
Reese said he found his key area on the afternoon of the second day of practice. It was a large flat with a mix of sand and grass that he’d never fished before. He was surprised at how many fish were holding in the area.
“I think there were a lot more fish up spawning that most expected,” he said. I’m sure some of these fish live on these flats, but during the tournament, I noticed that when a fish would come out they’d come out in pairs.”
He thinks the spot could’ve carried him to his second win of the year.
“I wondered if it had the potential of winning,” he said. “I think the winning fish were there. I don’t think I performed to the best of my ability. I lost a few big ones and probably didn’t adapt to different techniques as well as I should have.”
Reese did most of his damage with a jerkbait, but had a dropshot ready when the fish got finicky.
“Once I figured out a pattern, I started running around more and more,” he added.
> Jerkbait gear: 6’8” Wright & McGill Skeet Reese Pro Victory Carbon casting rod, Wright & McGill Skeet Reese Pro Victory Carbon casting reel (6.4:1 ratio), 10-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line, Lucky Craft Pointer 78SP (Skeet’s Magic, pro blue, perch, ghost minnow).
> Reese upsized the stock hooks to No. 4 Lazer TroKar trebles.
> He said the Skeet’s Magic color worked best in overcast conditions on day 1. As the sun came up, he rotated through the other three patterns.
> Dropshot gear: 7’ medium-action Wright & McGill Skeet Reese Pro Victory Carbon spinning rod, Wright & McGill Skeet Reese Pro Victory Carbon 2000 spinning reel, 10-pound Berkley Trilene Nanofil unifilament line (main), 8-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line (leader), 1/0 Lazer TroKar dropshot hook, Berkley PowerBait Twitchtail Minnow.
> Main factor in his success – “I felt like I was pretty confident there were plenty of fish up shallow instead of spending time out deep trying to find deep fish. I spent a lot of time looking shallow and was persistent in trying to find a combination of cover and fish.”
> Performance edge – “The double trigger on my jerkbait/topwater rod. I’ve been throwing a jerkbait for 20 years and with any other rod, after a full day of jerkbaiting, my hand would hurt like hell and my forearm would be cramped. With the double trigger, my hand never hurts. It’s made me that much more efficient. I had no idea it could change the entire performance of a rod.”
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