By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Fishing at Lake Champlain is somewhat akin to eating pizza. When it's great, it's almost unbeatable. When it's mediocre, well, it's still pretty good.
The FLW Tour will wrap up its regular season this week on the renowned venue that straddles the border separating New York and Vermont. It's hard to believe that it's been 4 years since the circuit staged an early-summer derby at Champlain – the last one occurred during the period when David Dudley was winning everything in sight.
This week, Andy Morgan will attempt to join Dudley and Clark Wendlandt as the only three-time winners of the Tour's Angler of the Year (AOY) award. Morgan, who finished 4th in the 2012 event, comes in with a 7-point advantage over 2nd-place Jeff Sprague, with Canadian Jeff Gustafson 23 points back.
Champlain likely won't be as generous as it's been on past visits, as the annual bass reproduction process is in its final throes and many of the fish (both largemouths and smallmouths) seem to be in their post-spawn funk. Nonetheless, a lot of them will be susceptible to tried-and-true Champlain tactics and the overall weights likely won't be much lower than the traditional benchmarks.
Before getting deeper into the bite, here's some intel on the fishery itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: 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: Sunny to partly cloudy with daytime highs ranging from 75 to 90. Winds are expected to be moderate by Champlain standards
> Water temp: Mid 60s to mid 70s, depending upon location
> Water visibility/color: More than 10 feet in the north, considerably less down south
> Water level: About 3 feet low
> Fish in: 0 to 20 feet
> Fish phase: Mostly post-spawn, with some still on the beds
> Primary patterns: Flipping, frogs, cranking, jigs (bladed and conventional), plastics, spinnerbaits, dropshotting, tubes, some sight-fishing
> Winning weight: 76 pounds (4 days)
> Cut weight (Top 10 after 3 days): 48 pounds
> Check weight: (Top 50 after 2 days): 30 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Champlain
> Biggest factors: Variable wind and weather – long runs to Ticonderoga can be productive, but they're risky
> Biggest decision: Which species to target – smallmouths or largemouths
> Wildcard: Kicker fish, weather
Here's a look at how Champlain lays out, courtesy of Navionics:
If Morgan fishes like he did on his previous visit to Champlain, no one will be able to prevent him from claiming his third AOY in the past 4 seasons. Other than that 2012 showing, though, his record at the venue hasn't been stellar, as his four other appearances since 2002 have resulted in placements ranging from 52nd to 103rd.
Sprague is the lone competitor within 10 points of him, but the next six (Gustafson, Jacob Wheeler, Stetson Blaylock, Michael Neal, John Cox and Chris Johnston) are all within 32, so a slip-up by Morgan would open the door for someone to claim their first points crown.
Morgan made it clear that he won't be fishing conservatively.
"I'm going to be fishing to make the cut, like I always do," he said. "I said after Kentucky Lake that whoever wins the Angler of the Year will more than likely make the cut at Champlain.
Jeff Sprague is the only angler within 10 points of Morgan in the points race.
"You get on these big natural lakes up north and there's always a lot of change (on the points list) because everybody's going to catch them, and you really don't know what to expect outside of that. Fifteen pounds a day isn't great, but 17 is, and there's a lot of places (in the standings) separated by that fine line."
There will also be a scramble to get into the Top 36 on the points list, as that could be the cutoff for next month's Forrest Wood Cup at Alabama's Lake Wheeler. Reigning AOY Scott Martin, who's currently 12th, could be the only double-qualifier, although 2015 Cup champion Brad Knight (47th) could open up another spot with a strong Champlain showing.
Here's a look at the anglers and their point totals in the 30th through 45th positions:
30. Brandon McMillan -- 736
31. Brandon Cobb -- 735
32: David Dudley -- 726
33. Troy Morrow -- 719
34. Clark Reehm -- 716
35. Bryan Schmitt -- 713
36. Jim Tutt -- 711
37. Chris Whitson -- 706
38. (tie) Terry Bolton -- 701
38. (tie) Jason Reyes -- 701
38. (tie) Jimmy Reese -- 701
38. (tie) Bradley Hallman -- 701
42. Michael Wooley -- 696
43. Tony Davis -- 694
44. Larry Nixon -- 689
45. Jim Dillard -- 686
Pick a Species
Tour-level competitors at Champlain always face the daunting question of whether to remain in the north or central part of the lake and fish for either smallmouths or largmouths, or make the long, sometimes-brutal run south to Ticonderoga, which is home to a strong population of heftier largemouths.
"I've seen it won both ways," said former Tour pro and part-time Champlain guide Pete Gluszek. "You might see 25 to 30 percent of the field go south, but that changes year to year. The majority will stay in the north.
"It's a long boat ride (from the launch in Plattsburgh, N.Y. to Ticonderoga) and it can be a 2 1/2-hour ordeal if it gets rough."
Randy Savage of Bronzeback Guide Service figures the winning fish will come from Ti, but a high finish could be achieved from just about anywhere on the lake.
"This time of year the south's pretty hard to beat – it's early in the season and the stuff down there hasn't been beaten up," he said. "A month down the road and it would be more of a toss-up."
Spawn Still Hanging On
Savage said the spawn has run a bit behind schedules this year, but the recent warm weather has helped it along. The largemouths at Ticonderoga have likely completed the process, but there are some smallmouths still on the beds farther north.
This past week's full moon might've pushed the final wave of fish into the shallows and it's possible that sight-fishing will play a limited role in the event.
Barring strong winds, spying bed-fish shouldn't be too big of a problem.
"The north end is clearer than normal," Savage said. "We had no south wind earlier in the year – it was all north-northwest – and there's very little weed growth this year for some reason."
Reigning AOY Scott Martin has compiled a stellar record at Champlain.
Added Gluszek: "Sight-fishing for smallmouths is super-easy compared to largemouths. Smallmouths on the beds are super-aggressive – you just get something near them and they'll bit it. But it can sometimes be a challenge to find them.
"I've had experiences there when it gets slick and all of sudden there are 4-pounders everywhere that you couldn't see even with a light wind. I think that's going to be a factor."
Following are practice notes from some anglers who'll compete this week.
"Practice was spotty for me, at best. I'll probably make the boat ride (to Ticonderoga) – I just feel confident down there and I can fish the way I like to fish. I could go down there and catch 12 pounds or 20; I just have to hope I run into a couple of good ones. They don't seem to be wadded up like they have been in the past, so I'll have to keep my head down and make my time count.
"It's not close to as good as it was last summer (when he won the Costa Northern FLW Series event at Champlain). The water's a lot lower this time – I'd say 2 to 3 feet. Last year they were up against the trees and in the mats against the trees, and now a lot of those places are beaches.
"I could go down there and not catch them real easy."
"I'm not catching them very good at all. The lake isn't what it has been in the past, and I think that's due to a combination of a couple of things. The fish are primarily post-spawn, but not all the way into summer, and just a couple weeks would make a big difference for that.
Also, the grass isn't really developed. In a couple weeks you'd have more defined grasslines and better mats, and that would allow the fish to group up.
"I'd be real surprised if the weights aren't down a little bit – it's pretty tough fishing for up here. There's going to be a lot of 12- to 13-pound limits."
"It's been fun, but from what I can tell compared to the last time I was here in 2012, it's not nearly as good. The smallmouth are in all stages and the post-spawn fish are real thing, so weights might be off a little bit for guys targeting smallmouths. It's been hard for me to catch the largemouths.
"The Top 10 usually takes 17 1/2 or 18 pounds a day, so that's what I'm shooting for. Obviously, catching that won't be easy."
"It's been all right, but they're not everywhere. I've key specifically on smallmouths. I've checked a couple of largemouth spots from the past and haven't done real well. The water temperature is still in the low 60s in some places and the weeds aren't that good yet. You can find it if you're looking in the backs of bays and that kine of thing, but the main lake is further behind.
"In the past I've felt like I could catch them all over the lake, but I've definitely had some lulls this time. When I do find a group, I can sit there and catch them for awhile. I've got a decent number of spots from the mid-lake all the way up to the Canadian border and I'm not sure what I'm going to start on because they all seem to be the same size class of fish – 2 1/2 to 3-pounders. I'll have to weed through quite a few of them to get a good bag.
"There's definitely some still on beds, but with the wind conditions, I haven't done much looking. From what I hear it's a lot of smaller ones and I don't think they'll be a huge player. You might be able to get a decent bag the first day, but not for 4 days."
"From what I've seen it's typical Champlain, with the top weights being down maybe a pound this time. A lot of guys are going to be in that 14- to 16-pound range and you need a couple of 4-pounders to elevate yourself above everybody else. There'll be a few lucky 5-pound bites for guys who are in the right areas to get them.
"The first day I went down to Ticonderoga with (Tour co-angler and travel partner Gary Haraguchi) in the boat and we might've had 15 to 16 pounds between us – it wasn't that good. The last 2 days we stayed in the north and central parts and saw the potential for 17 a day, and who knows what we shook off.
"There's still some spawning, but not very many."
Top 10 to Watch
With the above in mind and more, here are BassFan's recommendations for the Top 10 to watch in this event.
1. Scott Martin – With two victories and two other Top-5 finishes in his last five early-summer events at Champlain, his record at the venue is just too good to ignore. He loves the lake, and it's loved him back over the years.
2. Jeff Gustafson – The Canadian has had a superb season and he's well-versed in Champlain-style fishing. He has a real shot at becoming the first angler from his country to capture a tour-level AOY.
3. John Cox – His 90th-place finish at Kentucky Lake earlier this month was by far his worst showing in more than 2 calendar years and was a serious hindrance to his AOY hopes (he dropped from 2nd to 7th on the list). His shallow-water approach should be effective in the southern part of the lake, though, so look for him to have a bounce-back event.
4. Andy Morgan – Champlain wasn't kind to him early in his career, but he figured things out en route to a 4th-place finish in 2012. He may or may not wrap up his third AOY, but he certainly won't got down without a fight.
5. Glenn Browne – The winner of last year's FLW Series derby at Champlain can sew up a Cup berth with another good finish in his first year back on the circuit following a 2-year hiatus. The conditions this week should be to his liking.
6. Chris Johnston – The rookie from Ontario will be looking to wrap up a superb debut season with yet another strong finish. At No. 8 in the points, he has a shot at overtaking Gustafson for top-Canadian honors and isn't out of the AOY picture if some guys in front of him falter.
7. Scott Martin – He's finished among the Top 25 in both of his previous Tour appearances at Champlain and the setup favors his power-fishing approach. He comes in hot, having fared no worse that 23rd in any of the past four tournaments.
8. Scott Canterbury – He's sizzled since a bomb at Okeechobee to begin the season and has climbed all the way to No. 14 in the points. He turned in a Top 10 at Champlain in 2012 and another one seems quite likely considering the way he's been fishing.
9. Clark Wendlandt – He had a mediocre finish (74th) on his previous visit to Champlain, but the lake has been a cash cow for him over the course of his long career. He won't win his fourth AOY this year, but should easily nail down his 17th Cup berth.
10. Jamie Horton – The Alabamian has three Top-20s (including a 4th and a 3rd) in his first year on the Tour and would be in serious AOY contention if not for a couple of finishes in the 70s. This one could go either way for him, but there's certainly a decent chance that he'll be around for the weekend once again.
Anglers will take off from the Plattsburgh City Marina (5 Dock St., Plattsburgh, N.Y.) at 6:30 a.m. EDT each day of competition. Thursday's and Friday’s weigh-ins will be held at the City Marina beginning at 3 p.m. Saturday's and Sunday’s final weigh-ins will be held at the Crete Memorial Civic Center (4 Beach Road) beginning at 4 p.m.
> Jay Yelas will primarily target largemouths, but he has a gut feeling that this event will be won with smallmouths. To read his practice summary, click here to visit Pro View Reports.
> Thurs., June 23 – Partly Cloudy - 75°/52°
- Wind: From the E at 6 mph
> Fri., June 24 – Sunny - 80°/56°
- Wind: From the ENE at 6 mph
> Sat., June 25 – Mostly Sunny - 86°/61°
- Wind: From the SE at 6 mph
> Sun., June 26 – Mostly Sunny - 90°/65°
- Wind: From the SSE at 9 mph