During the long drive north to Lake Michigan, my thoughts drifted to last year’s Angler of the Year (AOY) Championship — an outcome of which I’m still quite bitter.
Until that event, I was well inside the cut for the Bassmasters Classic. But after an average performance at Escanaba, I managed to fall out … missing the cut by a mere seven points.
This year would be different, however, as I had already accumulated enough points to guarantee a spot in the 2016 Classic. I was loose and ready to have some fun.
Arriving at Howie’s Tackle Shop at the edge of Sturgeon Bay, I purchased a license then checked into my room upstairs. Above the store, they offer lodging to anglers on a budget, and I wanted to keep the cost down on this final trip of the season. Besides, it’s a clean little hotel with great parking and good food nearby — all the basic necessities of any angler on the road.
After a trip to the grocery store, I settled in and began to prepare my tackle for the week-long event. My lure selection included a tube, drop shot, jerkbait, topwater, spinnerbait and small swimbait — the same basic line-up I had used successfully throughout the northern swing.
My hope was that the smallmouth would be shallow and aggressive, fattening up for winter. And I would soon learn that they were … except for the “aggressive” part.
On day-1 of practice, I ran to a point south of Sturgeon Bay — a place that had produced quality fish for me during the 2012 Elite event out of Green Bay. In that derby, I used a tube and drop shot along main lake drop-offs.
Instead of probing the bottom this time, however, I began with a Rapala SkitterWalk, fan-casting across the shallows. Ten minutes in, I noticed a pack of smallmouth corralling baitfish near the shoreline. They were nice size fish too, but they spooked once I got within range.
As I progressed down the bank, I found another small school chasing what appeared to be swarms of 2-inch shad. Switching to a Hildebrandt Drum Roller swimbait in the silver shad color, I got one of them to bite — a 4-pounder, fat and scrappy. At that point, I thought I had figured something out.
The rest of the day, I searched the shallows, plucking a fish here and there, then marking those areas on my Raymarine GPS. By day’s end my best five fish weighed well over 17 pounds.
On day-2, I headed north toward Egg Harbor where I found riprap barriers protecting small marinas, and with them, scores of juvenile smallmouth. They were easy, too. Just not the size to matter.
Outside the harbor, I discovered a narrow shoal running parallel to the shoreline. The top of it was about two feet deep, then it dropped to a 4-foot swale toward the bank. Almost immediately, I hooked up with a couple of nice smallies by burning a Hildebrandt Tin Roller, tandem-willow spinnerbait.
I worked my way north and located a similar area also holding fish, but nothing else. There were too many other competitors, so I headed out into the lake to a chain of small islands and shoals.
Rotating through my same selection of baits, I spent the rest of the day working from shallow to deep and back again. Unfortunately, it appeared as though those areas were barren of fish. I never had a single bite. By sunset, all I had to show for the effort were the two small areas north of Egg Harbor.
On day-3, I decided to work my way south again, far beyond Little Sturgeon Bay. I wanted to distance myself from the crowd. The wind was blowing hard and it took nearly an hour to run less than 30 miles. When I arrived, I could see the water was thick with green algae. I tried the area anyway, but eventually lost confidence and headed back north.
I spent the rest of the day hopping from spot to spot, trying anything that showed promise. And other than a fish here or there, I found nothing of any significance.
The next morning, I launched at the city park and proceeded to boat check. Soon they played the National Anthem and take-off was underway.
When my number was called I struggled with which direction to go. Should I turn north and compete with the crowd, or turn south where there were fewer fish? I elected to go south, to one of the areas where I had located the smallmouth schooling on shad.
The wind was blowing, but not hard. I started with the Tin Roller tandem-willow spinnerbait, making long casts across the flat. Once or twice, I could see something tracking the bait, but I never made a connection. I switched to the Drum Roller swimbait and several times I felt slight bumps on the end of my line — the fish were nipping at the lure without fully committing to it. I tried follow-up lures, but those only spooked them away.
The minutes turned to hours and I had nothing in the box. When the sun got high, I could see quality smallmouth flanking tightly packed schools of shad. It was so frustrating: below me, in plain view, we enough 4-pound fish to easily win the tournament. Yet, I couldn’t make them react to anything I threw.
Finally, around noon, I coaxed one into eating a Shad Shape Worm. But the battle was brief, as the fish jumped and threw the lure.
Another hour passed when I finally hooked and landed my first fish — a 4½-pounder. Unfortunately, it would be my last keeper bite of the day.
Day-2 came quick and without any better place to go, I headed back to the same banks where I had fished the day prior. I concentrated on the areas where I had seen the shad pods, trusting the smallmouth were still with them. But like the day before, the fish were more interested in live bait than lures. By weigh-in, I had managed only two fish — one 4-pounder, the other 3 ½.
On day-3, BASS suspended competition so that we could attend the festivities at the waterfront park next to weigh-in. It was all pre-scheduled, and to be honest, I was glad for the break. I was tired and frustrated, and a bit under the weather.
Most of my time was spent working sponsor booths, talking to the fans and doing interviews with media. By day’s end, I was bushed and ready for dinner and bed.
The next morning, came quickly. I decided to return to the same spots, hoping the day off might make the fish more aggressive. That hope, however, was quickly dashed, as I spent eight hours looking at fish I couldn’t catch. It was an exercise in futility. By weigh-in, I had only one 4-pounder.
While waiting for my turn on stage, I spoke with several competitors who had done well fishing shallow. Curious as to why they were more successful, I asked — only to learn that they never saw any baitfish. That was the difference, as simple as it may seem.
My fish were so focused on the shad, they had zero interest in chasing artificials. It was a hard lesson, but at least I learned why I had struggled throughout the event.
With the AOY Championship in the books, it was time to call it quits. I packed up and started the ling drive back to Florida, reflecting on the many events that took place throughout the season. It had been one of my best, yet I was glad it was over.
Next up is the Bassmaster Classic!