By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Kevin VanDam weighed just over 90 pounds of smallmouth bass over 4 days en route to winning last year's Bassmaster Elite Series event on the St. Lawrence River. There's a strong possibility that this year's total will exceed that once-astounding number.
There's little doubt that bags of bronzebacks weighing in excess of 25 pounds will be brought to the scale this week in Waddington, N.Y., which sits on Upstate New York's border with Canada. Some sizable largemouths will show up here and there, as well, but the ever-growing smallmouths will rule the day – all 4 of them.
"I think people are going to see one of the biggest smallmouths ever weighed in (at a pro event)," said Jacob Powroznik, who'll be one of the 107 anglers competing in the circuit's regular-season finale. "Maybe not 8 pounds, but 7-something."
Fishing conditions are close to ideal. The weather has been warm and the bass are biting, both close to the shore and down to depths of 50 feet or more. It'll probably take a daily average of at least 17 pounds to get paid (top 50 after 2 days).
The field for the 50-man Angler of the Year Championship, which will take place next month at Georgia's Chatuge Lake, will be set following the conclusion of the derby. Past Classic champions Edwin Evers (currently 42nd in the points race), Randy Howell (50th), Boyd Duckett (53rd), Chris Lane (58th) and Alton Jones (64th) are among the competitors with extra incentive this week. To see the points standings, click here.
Before getting deeper into the bite, here's some info on the fishery itself:
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: St. Lawrence River
> Type of water: Primary drainage for the Great Lakes Basin
> Surface acres: N/A (competitors will have access to approximately 100 miles of the river)
> Primary structure/cover: Humps, points, rock piles, weed beds, sandbars, reeds, mats
> Primary forage: Gobies dominate, but crayfish and various minnows are also available
> Species: Smallmouths and largemouths
> Length limit: 12 inches
> Reputation: A previously untapped bass fishery with prolific numbers of both smallmouths and largemouths weighing 3 pounds or more
> Weather: Pleasant and stable
> Water temp: Low 70s
> Water visibility/color: Tinted to extremely clear, depending on location
> Water level: Normal
> Fish in: 2 to 50 feet
> Fish phase: Summer
> Primary patterns: Dropshots, tubes, flipping, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, jerkbaits, spybaits, jigs, swimbaits, topwaters, plastics
> Winning weight: 88 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 12 after 3 days): 54 pounds
> Check weight (Top 50 after 2 days): 34 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 4 for the St. Lawrence River
> Biggest factors: Finding consistent quality. The river is full of bass, but big ones can be scattered
> Biggest decision: Deep or shallow – either could be the ticket to victory
> Wildcard: Largemouths – there are some big ones out there.
To get a closer look at how the St. Lawrence lays out, check out the map below, courtesy of Navionics:
Is 100 Pounds Possible?
Canadian tournament competitor/TV host Bob Izumi, who's won five boats and numerous trophies and plaques at the St. Lawrence, said the big crowds that always turn out for the weigh-ins in Waddington will again see a bunch of big, brown fish.
"The water's a little lower than it was last year, but there's still shallow and deep fish to be had," he said. "There's no question that guys can catch big bags fishing both. The wild thing about that place is you can get big ones in 4 feet or 50 feet and that's at the same time and even potentially on the same stretch.
"It could be won all shallow or all deep, but it'd be nice to have both available. If I were competing this week I'd be practicing both because I know the potential either way. In my opinion, a guy who can mix it up stands a better chance of winning of 4 days than the guy who does the same things 4 days in a row."
Jacob Powroznik thinks a smallmouth weighing in excess of 7 pounds will come to the scale this week.
He expects the winning total to again land in the high 80s to low 90s.
"A hundred pounds could happen, but even though the fishing's really good, it's highly unlikely. There will be some one-day weights in the mid-20s, but the odds of averaging that over 4 days aren't really in the guys' favor.
"There'd be a better chance of it happening later in the fall, but right now there are too many variables."
Sun Will be a Big Factor
Izumi said the deep-water action should be pretty consistent regardless of what the sky looks like, but the near-shore bite could vary. The WeatherChannel.com forecast for Thursday through Sunday shows a mix of clouds and sunshine.
"If you've got sun, the shallow fishing is five times better than it is when it's overcast," he said. "The sun brings those fish up and keeps them there and keeps them active.
"I've seen it work like a light switch, both on that river and in the Great Lakes. You start off in the morning and it's kind of cloudy and there's not much happening up shallow, so you go do other stuff. Then it gets sunny after lunch and it's game on. The fish just seem to magically appear and you can catch a big limit in an hour."
He added that the warm weather the region has experienced recently hasn't taken any of the feistiness out of the smallmouths.
"I had one over 6 pounds (in a recent tournament at 1000 Islands) jump over 3 feet out of the water and friends have told me about 6s jumping 6 feet. The hot weather just seems to have them super-charged – they're pulling and bull-dogging and fighting.
"Those guys are going to have a lot of fun and it's going to create some great footage for Bassmaster. The fights are long because those fish just don't give up."
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll compete this week.
"Fishing's been really good; I'd say the only bad thing is I haven't been getting a lot of the big bites. If you get five good ones, you're going to have 20 to 25 pounds, but it's tough to find a group of them. I'll catch quite a few small ones, and then a 6-pounder.
"I had 22 pounds the first (practice) day, but I had two 6-pounders. The next day I had like 19 pounds.
"It's going to come down to whoever has that fortunate day, and probably 50 guys are going to have it. Everybody else will have 17 pounds."
"I feel like I've gotten myself around some of the good ones. The smallmouth here are as big as I've ever seen them. It's going to be pretty unbelievable what a few guys catch and hopefully I'm one of the guys who gets the five right bites and puts it all together.
"I think people are going to be pretty spread out because the big ones are scattered and you can't pull up to an area and know you're going to load up there. You don't have the feeling that a number of guys are going to find the same schools.
"I've fished some shallow and I've fished out a little bit with a mixture of a lot of different baits. Maybe I'll be shocked and the quality won't show up like it appears it's going to, but I think it's going to be pretty impressive."
"I think it's going to take a little more weight to get a check than it did last time and the weights at the top are going to be really big. They're in their summer pattern and they're starting to feed up heavy and they're more predictable this year.
"I think it's going to take 97 to 100 pounds to win. There's no doubt in my mind that somebody can catch 25 pounds a day.
"I think it's going to be won deep the whole way. I know a few shallow places here that I've been to and I haven't even seen a fish. If you get out deep, you catch them from 12 inches to 6 pounds."
"The fish are a lot fatter this year than last year – those 2-pounders from last year all seem to be 2 1/2s now. They're not stacked up everywhere; it can be random, but quite a few of the bites are quality fish.
Angler of the Year contender Josh Bertrand has a strong track record at the St. Lawrence.
"You can pick your poison where you want to fish. I've caught quality fish from shallow humps that are 6 to 8 feet deep on the top and I've fished out to 50 feet and caught them there. I haven't gone deeper, but there could be good ones there as well. It seems to me that the deeper you go, the fish get a little smaller.
"It's going to take some big weights to get a check – the quality is there. Finding one of those mega-schools might be the difference."
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. Kevin VanDam – He won last year's St. Lawrence event by an 8-pound margin and the same type of performance certainly isn't out of the question. He may not be as consistent from tournament to tournament as he once was, but he's still entirely capable of dominating any derby, particularly when brown fish are the quarry.
2. Seth Feider – He's hanging right around the eventual Classic cutoff (No. 37 in the points), so a good finish would give him some breathing room. He's always a threat on smallmouth fisheries and has fared well at this one on previous visits.
3. Clifford Pirch – He's finished among the top 30 all three times the circuit has visited the St. Lawrence, including a 4th-place showing in 2013. He's fished superbly on the northern swing and there's no reason to think he won't stay hot.
4. Bernie Schultz – The veteran from Florida has endured a nightmarish season, but he hasn't finished lower than 15th in his three outings at the St. Lawrence. This is his final chance to salvage something from the campaign.
5. Josh Bertrand – One of four anglers in serious contention for the AOY, he's posted finishes of 8th, 11th and 16th at this venue. He says it's his favorite place to fish and it's certainly treated him well.
6. Brandon Palaniuk – The reigning AOY and 2013 St. Lawrence winner has had another solid season (he's 20th in the points), but has logged only one finish inside the top 20 (7th at the Sabine River). The Idahoan is a smallmouth wizard and it'd be no surprise to see him cop a second blue trophy from this venue.
7. Mike Iaconelli – He's had a very consistent campaign, but it's been devoid any real highlights to this point (an 18th-place finish is his best to date). A strong showing would just about secure his 18th straight Classic berth.
8. Chad Pipkens – He's another guy who's been steady all year and his position in the points (24th) is better than his best finish (25th). He's always been very strong in the North and has made money on every visit to the St. Lawrence, including a 10th-place showing in 2013.
9. Aaron Martens – He always does well at this venue (as he does just about everywhere else) and will be looking to avenge an 88th-place finish at Oahe that knocked him out of AOY contention. He's dangerous.
10. Keith Combs – He's at his best in big-weight tournaments, regardless of the bass species, and this will undoubtedly be one of those. At No. 60 in the points, he needs a good one to get into the AOY Championship derby.
Take-offs will occur daily at 6:15 a.m. ET out of Whittaker Park Boat Launch in Waddington. Weigh-ins will take place at the same location beginning at 3 p.m.
> Thurs., Aug. 23 – Partly Cloudy - 78°/58°
- Wind: From the W at 8 mph
> Fri., Aug. 24 – Mostly Sunny - 83°/61°
- Wind: From the SW at 9 mph
> Sat., Aug. 25 – Partly Cloudy - 82°/65°
- Wind: From the SSW at 9 mph
> Sun., Aug. 26 – Partly Cloudy - 81°/67°
- Wind: From the SW at 11 mph