By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

The Bass Pro Tour season finale at Lake Winnebago last week offered up the first chance for anglers to target northern smallmouth. The problem was the weather conditions rendered much of the lake unfishable and forced virtually the whole field in shallow, wind-protected bays along with manmade canals where largemouth became the predominant species.

Hard cover like docks, riprap and wood along with shade lines were the popular targets. The same could be said for the Knockout Round, which played at Lake Butte des Morts, which is adjacent to Winnebago and connected via the Fox River.

When the action shifted to Green Lake for the Championship Round, the smallmouth finally took center stage in the ultra-clear water. Jerkbaits, dropshots and Ned rigs were the popular fare amongst the 10 finalists while fourth-place finisher Casey Ashley claimed his best finish of the season with a run of largemouth late in the day.

Here’s a recap of how the rest of the top five finishers picked apart the various fisheries last week:

2nd: Bobby Lane

> Shotgun Round (Group B): 27, 43-08 (fourth place)
> Elimination Round: 14, 24-13 (41, 68-05; ninth place)
> Knockout Round: 22, 42-10 (second place)
> Championship Round: 43, 68-12
> Totals: 106, 179-11

Bobby Lane opted to focus both days of practice at Lake Winnebago, knowing two decent days to start the tournament would lay the foundation for him earning a berth in the final MLF Cup event.

“I spent all of my time on ‘Bago because I’ve been doing this long enough to where I’m comfortable on new lakes without any practice,” he said, acknowledging he’d be going into the Knockout Round blind if he made it take far.

“I had to get there first before I could do anything,” he added.

With Winnebago a windy, muddy mess, he opted to seek out shallow, protected bays. He found one with some matted coontail and had one bite there. When he returned for the Group B Shotgun Round, the water had cleaned up and the fish didn’t seem interested in a vibrating jig so he switched to flipping a creature bait under a heavy weight.

“After I caught the first one, I spent the next 45 minutes just blasting them,” he said. “I went from 15th to first in 45 minutes. It seemed like all of those fish sucked in there and the plan just came together. It was cool, too, because other boats were around and nobody was catching them.”

The flipping bite wasn’t as productive during the Elimination Round so Lane had to explore other options in the area.

“I think they just hunker down, much like they do at Okeechobee,” he said. “They just sit and wait because they know in a day or two (the water) will clean up and they’ll go back to feeding. When I found it they were fresh.”

The water was still muddy by the Elimination Round and he was able to catch a few on a vibrating jig to get himself into position to make the Knockout Round.

“I just stayed in that bay and went fishing and put my head down,” he said. “I cruised through that round and relaxed from noon on because this format wears you down physically and mentally so you take any chance you can get to ease up.”

From there, it was on to Butte des Morts, where he finished second by primarily throwing a vibrating jig and a frog in the morning before catching his better fish in the afternoon pitching a jig around metal docks.

“I just flew by the seat of my pants,” he said. “Toward the end of the day, the creek I was in got muddy so I headed out to the main lake.”

The jig bite was a little slower, but it produced bigger fish. His first bite doing it was a 3 1/2-pound smallmouth. His next two fish were a 3-09 and a 3-04.

“That got me going,” he said.

He moved to another section of lake with another stretch of metal docks and finished with another flurry of smallmouth ranging from 2 to 3 1/2 pounds.

“They knocked the fire out of that jig and it made me feel good to make the championship round,” he added.

It didn’t Lane long to recognize how different Green Lake was from the venues used during the first three rounds.

“There was no comparison at all,” he said. “The water was crystal clear. You could see 20 feet. Smallmouth were still on beds. It was a perfect scenario for PowerBait Maxscent and I’m sure glad I loaded the boat with it because I went through a pile of them.”

Lane started the final day on the same shoal as Jacob Wheeler and Brandon Coulter. While Wheeler seized the early lead, Lane caught several smallmouth sight-fishing with a dropshot.

“I didn’t want go throw a frog in the back of a creek,” he said. “I felt like if the smallmouth were there, they’d dominate.”

He was right.

To start the second period, Lane and Pace landed on the same spot, but Pace was throwing a jerkbait while Lane continued with his vertical presentations. Before long, Lane opted to move on.

“I ran across the way and found something identical because I felt the only way to win was to find fresh fish somewhere similar to what we’d been fishing,” he said. “The water 6 to 10 feet and as long as there were rocks there you could catch them.”

Lane feels that had the weather not turned bad and caused a 75-minute delay, the outcome might’ve swung in his favor.

“If the wind had not blown and (Pace) didn’t kill them on a jerkbait, I think I would’ve been holding the trophy. The spot I found was good enough to win. When it slicked off, it got stupid for a while.”

> Flipping gear: 7’6” heavy-action Abu Garcia Fantasista Premier casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo Rocket casting reel, 50-pound Spiderwire Ultracast Ultimate Braid line, 3/4-, 1-, 1.5-oz. Flat-Out Tungsten flipping weight, 4/0 Berkley Fusion 19 Heavy Cover flipping hook, Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Creature Hawg (black blue fleck).

> Jig gear: 7’ medium-heavy Abu Garcia Villain 2.0 casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo ALX casting reel, 15-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. homemade casting jig (black/blue), 3.25” Berkley PowerBait Craw Fatty trailer (black blue fleck)

> Dropshot gear: 7’ medium-action Abu Garcia Veracity spinning rod, Abu Garcia Revo MGXtreme spinning reel, 10-pound Spiderwire Ultracast Ultimate Braid line, 10-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon line (leader), size 1 Berkley Fusion 19 dropshot hook, 4” Berkley PowerBait MaxScent The General (green-pumpkin), 5/16-oz. Flat Out Tungsten dropshot weight.

MLF/Garrick Dixon
Photo: MLF/Garrick Dixon

Brent Ehrler bounced back from a so-so Shotgun Round to record a season-best finish.

3rd: Brent Ehrler

> Shotgun Round (Group A): 16, 28-05 (21st place)
> Elimination Round: 21, 32-12 (37, 61-01; ninth place)
> Knockout Round: 22, 42-10 (second place)
> Championship Round: 43, 68-12
> Totals: 106, 179-11

Brent Ehrler arrived in Wisconsin thinking the smallmouth factor at Lake Winnebago would be much greater than it ultimately proved to be. He split his practice between Winnebago and the alternate lakes (Poygan/Winneconne) as he figured competition would be moved due to poor weather at some point.

Overall, though, he was surprised at how many fish were caught at Winnebago and despite only getting eight meaningful hours to practice there, he was able to muster enough weight to advance through to the Knockout Round.

“I didn’t think fishing would be as good as it was,” he said. “My practice wasn’t good and the smallmouth were non-existent. The water was dirty and the wind was terrible. I really pushed the smallmouth thing because I was thinking that’s what needed to be done. I didn’t catch anything that way.”

As a result, he switched his focus to largemouth and narrowed his search areas to bays that were fishable (cleaner water and protected from wind) and dug-out canals.

He found himself mid pack after the Shotgun Round, during which he caught most of his fish on a vibrating jig around hard cover and shade lines.

“Everything had to be bank related,” he said. “I caught nothing away from the bank, even in the sparse grass. A good bulk of the fish were fry guarders and I think they were also on the bream bed deal from the way they were hitting the vibrating jig.”

He started the Elimination Round two pounds below the top-20 cut line and he started that day where he’d finished the Shotgun Round.

“I felt like there was a good group of fish there,” he said. “A bunch of guys were in there and they caught them, too, but I wanted to start there to see what I could catch knowing it had been beat up.”

He wound up never leaving. The calmer conditions prompted him to go with slower, finesse presentations like a wacky-rigged Senko and a dropshot. He was losing ground on the Scoretracker and felt a move would benefit him, but he began noticing bass coming to the surface or hanging just below the surface. He switched to a skinnier worm and rigged up a Neko rig and caught just about every fish he threw at.

“It was like a light switch,” he said. “Everyting in that canal was just right and they’d swim over and get it about every time. I kept seeing them and that’s what made me stay. They were all biters. If I’d have left, I maybe don’t make the cut.”

At Butte des Morts, he tried to apply the same game plan – look for bank-related largemouth and identify cover around which he could throw a Senko, a vibrating jig, a swim jig or pitch soft plastics.

“I didn’t find any clear water and caught a couple on the vibrating jig in the morning,” he said. “I also skipped a Senko round docks and that’s what clued me in that they were shallower than they were on ‘Bago.”

As the morning wore on, he relied more on a frog in areas with matted vegetation.

After that he got into an area where the water flowing out of a canal was much cooler than the water on the main lake. He kept his frog in his hand and wound up climbing all the way to the lead.

“The farther away I got from it, the worse the shallower it got and worse the fishing got,” he said. “Within 100 yards of that canal, I caught five 3-pounder and there was a key tree that I caught two off of. The key was that stretch of cooler water.”

To prepare for Green Lake, he relied on what he could find online and what he could determine from looking at Lakemaster mapping of the lake.

“I saw it was a deep, clear lake and the DNR stats indicated that smallmouth were common and largemouth were present,” he said. “That told me smallmouth would be more prevalent, so I decided to fish for smallmouth once I saw the water clarity.”

He caught a few early on a spinnerbait and a swimbait and also casting to light spots (beds) with a dropshot.

“It took me a big to figure it out,” he said. “I fished how I thought I could catch them and really struggled. Had I had a day of practice I think it could’ve been a lot of fun. I only found one good spot during the day and I lit them up. I needed another spot to rotate through aside from that.”

His most productive offering was a jerkbait in eight feet of water.

“There was a big group of them in one with a patch of rock right there,” he said.

He also mixed in a Neko rig and a dropshot when the reaction bites slowed down.

> Vibrating jig gear: 7’4” medium-heavy Daiwa Tatula Elite Glass crankbait rod, Daiwa Steez A casting reel, 20-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 3/8-oz. Evergreen Z-Man Jackhammer Chatterbait (green-pumpkin), Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Zako trailer (green-pumpkin).

> Senko gear: 7’1” medium-action Daiwa Tatula Elite spinning rod, Daiwa Tatula LT spinning reel, 12-pound Sunline SX1 braided line, 8-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line (leader), size 2 Gamakatsu G Finesse Stinger weedless hook, 5” Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Senko (green-pumpkin).

> Neko rig gear: Same rod, reel, line, same hook as Senko, Daiwa Neko worm (green-pumpkin).

> Frog gear: 7’4” heavy-action Daiwa Tatula Elite casting rod, Daiwa Tatula 100 casting reel, 50-pound Sunline Xplasma Asegai braided line, SPRO Bronzeye 65 (midnight walker, putty black).

> Jerkbait gear: 6’9” medium-light Daiwa Tatula Elite casting rod, same reel as frog, 10-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, Lucky Craft Lightning Pointer (flake flake gill).

> Ehrler replaced the jerkbait hooks with #4 Gamakatsu TGW Finesse MH trebles.

MLF/Garrick Dixon
Photo: MLF/Garrick Dixon

Casey Ashley qualified for his seventh Knockout Round (and first Championship Round) at Lake Winnebago.

4th: Casey Ashley

> Shotgun Round (Group A): 24, 38-02 (10th place)
> Elimination Round: 9, 15-08 (33, 53-10; 18th place)
> Knockout Round: 21, 39-12 (fourth place)
> Championship Round: 26, 55-12
> Totals: 80, 149-02

Casey Ashley has never been a fan of northern smallmouth, so the conditions he encountered at Lake Winnebago suited him just fine. The wind and dirty water kept him and others from venturing offshore in search of the brown species.

“It did that for everybody and it made it crowded and fish small,” he said.

He managed two dozen fish during the Group A Shotgun Round and was in 10th with 38-02, but action slowed way down for him in the Elimination Round, when he boated just nine fish. Still, his two-day total of all largemouth was enough to push him forward to the Knockout Round, his seventh straight money finish. He caught the vast majority of his fish on a swim jig.

“I snuck through Winnebago and it got tough on the second day,” he said. “I think it did for a lot of guys because we don’t know who’s fishing the same stuff from the other group.

“Northern largemouth and me, I don’t know, I just like ‘em,” he added. “You get around them and they bite. It’s not the south where you have to downsize and go with finesse stuff to catch them. That set up for me just fine.”

In the Knockout Round at Butte des Morts, he followed the same program targeting largemouth with a swim jig. Only this time, he caught a few bonus smallmouth where he figured there’d only be largemouth.

“We were all fishing fresh stuff and it was more about covering water,” he said. “You had to fish fast until you got around them.”

For the final round at Green Lake, he forced himself to fish for smallmouth and he found a pod them shallow, catching a number of them with a dropshot using a Zoom Z Drop.

“It was fast and furious and I don’t know if they moved deep or left, but I spent a lot of time after that trying to find more spots like it,” he said, referring to areas that had a mix of isolated rock and grass.

He eventually picked his swim jig back up and tapped into some largemouth by targeting shallow wood and shade lines. He caught 17 fish for 35-02 in the third period to move into the top 5. He was one of three anglers to average more than two pounds per fish in the Championship Round.

“I should’ve been throwing that the whole time,” he said “I was just covering water. It was never just one spot. The bad thing was I waited so long to figure it out that I didn’t have time to go look for more places.”

> Swim jig gear: 7’2” medium-heavy Quantum Special Issue casting rod, Quantum Smoke S3 casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 17-pound Hi-Seas 100% fluorocarbon line, 3/8-oz. Greenfish Tackle Swim Jig (black/blue, green-pumpkin orange), Zoom Z-Craw Jr. trailer (black sapphire, green-pumpkin).

MLF/Garrick Dixon
Photo: MLF/Garrick Dixon

Brandon Coulter overcame a slow start to the Knockout Round to make his first Championship Round and earn a season-high fifth-place finish.

5th: Brandon Coulter

> Shotgun Round (Group A): 33, 48-04 (third place)
> Elimination Round: 18, 29-05 (51, 77-09; fifth place)
> Knockout Round: 20, 36-09 (fifth place)
> Championship Round: 24, 43-06
> Totals: 95, 157-08

It didn’t take Brandon Coulter long to figure out his best chance at success at Lake Winnebago likely resided around the bank.

“I tried to fish deepm but it was a weird place to fish deep with it being so flat and the weather stunk, so I went shallow,” he said. “The key was covering water and picking everything apart. I started to developed patterns by doing that. I picked over key areas and was able to pick up key fish.”

Over the first two days at Winnebago, he relied heavily on a wacky-rigged soft-plastic stickbait and a Ned rig using a chartreuse-tinted jig head to mimic a bluegill, of which there were many in the areas he fished.

The Knockout Round did not start well for Coulter, who was 31st after period one with four pounds. In the second period, he came upon a 40-yard stretch littered with beds and caught a dozen fish all on a wacky rig.

“They were all one-casters, too,” he said. “It was so easy.”

He tallied 27-01 that period alone to move into fourth place. He caught three for 5-08 in the third, but only slipped one spot to clinch a berth in his first Championship Round.

At Green Lake, he initially targeted some deeper shoals, but got drawn in to the bank where he caught a few on a frog.

“I kept giving myself bad info and that forced me shallow,” he said. “I’d go out and see something and go back in. Then I’d skip a ChatterBait around and catch three.”

With 90 minutes to go, he was ninth out of the 10 finalists and he finally committed to finding something different offshore.

“I finally went out and idled and came upon these nothing banks with some grass and some rough, gravel places in 9 to 12 feet of water,” he said.

It proved to be the right mix as he made up four spots in the last hour on a Ned rig, utilizing the SideScan on his electronics to pinpoint where he needed to be casting.

“Had I figured that out earlier, who knows what would’ve happened,” he said.

> Wacky rig gear: 7’1” medium-action 13 Fishing Envy spinning rod, 13 Fishing Prototype X spinning reel, 14-pound unnamed braided line, 6-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon line (leader), unnamed circle hook, 4” and 5” Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Senko (mowed grass, green-pumpkin, purple/copper, black blue flake blue tip).

> To extend the life of his baits, he cut small strips of electrical tape and wrapped them around the worm before inserting the hook through the worm. That way, the hook point was perpendicular to the worm and the tape didn’t allow the hook to tear through the plastic with every fish catch.

> Ned rig gear: Same rod, same reel, same line, unnamed finesse jighead, 2.75” Z-Man TRD finesse worm (Canada craw, green-pumpkin).