By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
The St. Lawrence River out of Waddington, N.Y. has become an annual stop on the Bassmaster Elite Series and bag weights have steadily climbed since 2015, when Edwin Evers prevailed with a four-day total of 77-10. Kevin VanDam topped the 90-pound mark en route to victory in 2017 and Josh Bertrand scaled 95 pounds last year.
There was hope that the 100-pound threshold would be surpassed this time around – an unthinkable number just a few years ago for any primarily smallmouth fishery. But according to some of the 75 pros who'll compete this week, the bite is tougher than it's was on the previous two visits.
Bronzebacks are still abundant and relatively easy to catch, but the 4- to 6-pound difference-makers showed up less frequently during the three-day practice period that concluded on Tuesday. The general feeling is that there won't be as many 20-pound bags caught as there were last year and the year before and the winning total might drift back toward Evers' mark from four years ago from the eye-popping number that Bertrand posted 12 months back.
Anglers who made a pre-practice visit before the lake went off-limits and when the smallmouth were spawning know that the river still harbors lots of giants – they saw them with their own eyes. Factors making them tougher to locate presently could include a later-than-normal spring warm-up and fluctuating water levels – the river has been running high for months and is only now dropping into a more normal state.
Before delving deeper into the bite, he's the lowdown 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: A mix of sun and clouds for the first two days followed by a chance of weekend thunderstorms. Temperatures will top out in the high 70s/low 80s with light to moderate wind
> Water temp: Mid 70s
> Water visibility/color: Tinted to extremely clear, depending on location
> Water level: About a foot high and dropping
> Fish in: 2 to 50 feet
> Fish phase: Summer
> Primary patterns: Dropshots, tubes, flipping, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, jerkbaits, spybaits, jigs, swimbaits, topwaters, plastics
> Winning weight: 84 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 10 after 3 days): 50 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2 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:
Just a Bit Behind
Dean Meckes, who's operated a guide service on the St. Lawrence for the past 12 years, said the river is finally rounding into form after a period of extreme high water that peaked in early July.
"Things have been a little on the late side with the high water and the cooler spring," he said. "There are fish starting to group up a little bit in the deeper areas.
"The water's still a couple feet high for this time of year and that's a big deal because we don't normally have the fluctuation that a lake or reservoir does. I think it's delayed things some and made for a little longer transition out to the deeper spots. There's still some shallow fish – I've talked to guys who've caught big ones in less than 10 feet, but every day more and more are setting up out in 25 to 30 feet."
The most prevalent patterns will consist of standard smallmouth fare – dropshots, tubes, small swimbaits, finesse rigs, etc.
Seth Feider is an angler to contend with wherever smallmouth swim.
"Anybody could get on the right pattern or a stretch that's holding bigger fish. I expect somebody to really pound them on the first day and catch 25 or 26 pounds."
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll compete this week.
"It's been a decent practice. I haven't had any real big days, but I've caught several 4- and 5-pounders. I think it's going to be a good tournament.
"Last year a lot of guys were condensed on one stretch, but that didn't hold up. This year I haven't found an area that's holding a tremendous amount of quality. I'll be moving and running the whole river – I'll have a milk run starting about 40 miles from the ramp and I'll work my way back.
"I have intentions of fishing 15 to 20 different places every day, but hopefully I won't have to. I'd like to just get on the right place and stay there."
"It's definitely interesting. It seems like the weights are still there and it's going to be a tournament where, to do well, you're going to need 20 pounds or better per day, but it's one of those deals where that's not as easy to achieve as it has been in the past. The bigger fish are fewer and farther between.
"There's a lot of little fish biting – you can catch 50 a day, easy – but they're not going to do you any good. The bigger fish you're targeting, it's just been one or two here or there for me, anyway. I'm not running into as many 4- to 6-pounders.
"I'm going to have to keep myself from getting overanxious; if I make myself get in a hurry, that's not a good thing."
"It's not even close to what it's been in years past. I'm just not seeing the fish up shallow that I'm accustomed to seeing and the deep bite for me has been all small fish.
"Shallow places that always have them are just barren and I might have to do a lot more deep fishing. I'll probably start off deep and see if I can get something in the boat and then go shallow and try to improve my stringer as the day goes on.
"It's not the same St. Lawrence I'm familiar with at all and I'm not a guy to watch this week."
"It's gone okay – I've had good days and bad days and I don't know what to expect because I haven't fished here before. There's a lot more little ones than I thought there'd be – it hasn't really been a 4-pound bonanza – but I've caught a few nice ones.
"I came and pre-fished during the spawn and there were big ones everywhere, but not it seems like they're not here. Still, I'd say I'm guardedly optimistic just because I didn't stay in some of my best areas for a really long time."
"It's different that it's been before. There's still going to be some mega-bags caught, but there aren't as many 3- to 5-pounders. There's a huge population of small ones that hasn't been here in the past – the 1 1/4- to 2-pounders are everywhere. You could catch 70 to 80 of them without even really trying.
"I've found places where you catch 20 little ones in a row and places where you catch five or six little ones, and then a giant. I had one that was just under 7 pounds and then the next four were under 1 1/2.
"There doesn't seem to be the big school of giants; they're mixed in with the smaller fish and you've got to be fortunate to get a few of those big bites and get them in the boat."
A Few to Keep an Eye On
Here are a few anglers whom BassFan feels have a chance to fare well under the present conditions.
Chris and Cory Johnston – The brothers from Ontario, Canada do most of their purse-pillaging downstream on Lake Ontario, which is off-limits this week. Nonetheless, they have strong familiarity with the river and it'll be a big surprise if at least one of them is not in contention throughout.
Seth Feider – He's a smallmouth ace and he's on a nice roll, having just missed the top 10 in each of the past two events. Being in the thick of the Angler of the Year race (he's currently 8th) provides added incentive.
Keith Combs – His track record at the St. Lawrence is excellent and practice was better for him than most. His season has been sort of a mixed bag, but he stands a good chance at claiming his third single-digit finish.
Rick Morris – His 6th-place showing at the St. Lawrence last year is his only finish higher than 42nd in the two years he's been back on the Elites following a three-year hiatus. He could use another good one.
Anglers will take off at 9 a.m. ET each competition day from Whittaker Park Boat Launch in Waddington. Weigh-ins will get under way at 5 p.m. in the same location.
> Thurs., Aug. 15 – Mostly Sunny – 78°/56°
- Wind: From the NE at 5 mph
> Fri., Aug. 16 – Partly Cloudy – 77°/62°
- Wind: From the E at 5 mph
> Sat., Aug. 17 – Isolated Thunderstorms – 80°/63°
- Wind: From the SW at 6 mph
> Sun., Aug. 18 – Isolated Thunderstorms – 83°/68°
- Wind: From the SSW at 6 mph