Beatin' the Bank with Bernie Schultz: 2018 St. Lawrence River BASS Elite

The St. Lawrence River is, by far, my favorite stop on the Bassmaster Elite Series. It has provided many successes in my career, and I fully expected this trip to be no different.

Having nearly 60 linear miles of river designated as our tournament waters, we had more than enough habitat for a 108-man field to explore. Included in that are countless bays, islands, shoals, channels and flats — all of which have the potential for holding quality smallmouth and largemouth bass.

Vast and majestic, the St. Lawrence River is as beautiful as it is productive.

Vast and majestic, the St. Lawrence River is as beautiful as it is productive.

In an effort to avoid the crowd, I decided to begin my search in more distant parts of the river.

Practice Begins

Like last year, I started near the town of Clayton — where BASS held its events in the 1990s. It’s the part of the river I know best.

My first stops were to main-river shoals, casting topwaters and swimbaits to their shallower sections. In a few key spots, I found fish. Although unaggressive, they did reveal themselves. I recorded the exact coordinates on my Raymarine GPS and then kept moving. By day’s end, I had found several schools of trophy-sized smallmouth, most of which were holding in 6 to 8 feet of water.

On Day 2, I accessed the river at Chippewa Bay, where I resumed the same routine. Moving from shoal to shoal, I soon learned the shallow bite was virtually nonexistent in that part of the river.

I tried moving to a sandier bottom, but found only small fish in very few numbers. By afternoon, I aborted that entirely and began pursuing largemouth … finding plenty, just not of the size needed to compete.

My St. Lawrence lure selection included a Hildebrandt Swimbait, Rapala Shadow Rap and Skitter V, Yamamoto 4" Senko and 3" Shad-Shape Worm (both rigged with VMC components).

My St. Lawrence lure selection included a Hildebrandt Swimbait, Rapala Shadow Rap and Skitter V, Yamamoto 4" Senko and 3" Shad-Shape Worm (both rigged with VMC components).

On Day 3 of practice, I accessed the river near our official take-off site — at the town of Waddington.

It was dark and gloomy, with high winds — normally unfavorable conditions for shallow-water smallmouth. Yet, I persevered, hoping to find something meaningful close by.

At 3pm, with no significant findings, I knew I was fully committed to the areas near Clayton.

Competition Time

The first morning of take-off, I sat and watched as the field slowly dwindled to the last flight. Finally, my number was called. And, after a quick pass through check-out, I sped away to my starting spot near Clayton.

Forty-five minutes later, as I approached the narrows to Alexandria Bay, I noticed a patrol boat ahead of me. As I backed off the throttle, its lights began to flash. I looked to my Marshal and asked if he knew where the speed zone began. He said just ahead, which is where I believed it to be.

Unfortunately, that was not the case. And after nearly an hour detainment, I was eventually cited for speeding then allowed to continue on my way … not the way I wanted to start the day, especially since the speed zone was not designated with any type of warning.

When we arrived at my first stop, the conditions looked perfect. But after thoroughly fishing the shallowest part of the shoal, it yielded nothing. I then backed off to probe deeper. Still nothing. Rather than kill any more time there, I pulled the MotorGuide and headed for the next two stops on my route.

There again, after a thorough effort, nothing.

By this time, I’m beginning to wonder what’s happening. These were dependable places, yet they showed no signs of life.

On my fourth stop, I decided to work gradually into the area, rather than land directly on the sweet spot. It was good decision.

While working my way toward the target area, I noticed a large smallmouth tracking my swimbait. The next cast yielded a 4-pounder, which was accompanied by others of the same class. Seeing that, I immediately dropped the Power-Poles.

Over the next two hours, I connected with numerous big smallmouth, only to have most of them escape … including two better than 4 pounds and one over five. Disgusted, I pulled the trolling motor and began working my way back toward Waddington — catching a few more fish of no real consequence.

At the scales, I recorded a weight of just under 18 pounds — two pounds short of the cut. To make that up, I knew I would need at least 22 pounds on Day 2.

One Last Shot

The next morning, I raced directly to that same spot … hoping I could improve my percentages. Quickly, I boated a 5-pound smallmouth. Then another about 3½. That’s when the lull came.

Over the next 3 hours, I saw fish I could not catch.

Concerned for time, I pulled the trolling motor and ran to another stop where I knew I could fill out my limit. Plowing through big swells and boat wakes, the trek was backbreaking.

Sadly, this pair never made it to the scales.

Sadly, this pair never made it to the scales.

As I reached the unmarked speed zone at Alex Bay, an alarm sounded on the engine. At first, I thought it was a temperature warning. But after coming off pad and reversing thrust, I could see that the motor was pissing freely and running cool. The alarm stopped, so I tried accelerating, but, again, the engine faltered.

Thinking it might be a fuel issue, I raised the rear compartment lid to pump the bulb. It was firm and free-flowing with fuel. Again, I tried to plane off, but the engine went into “guardian” mode.

Anxious and confused, I made a quick call to Jay Andersen, Mercury’s service tech, hoping he could help. Jay asked for info from my SmartCraft gauge — a system that monitors engine performance. All indications were that it was an oil issue, but because the main reservoir was more than half-full, I dismissed it. 

Twenty minutes later, having no way to plane the boat, I knew there was zero chance of making it to weigh-in on time. I then told Jay I would call for a trailer and come directly to the service yard. We hung up and I began the long idle toward the closest ramp.

Along the way, I recognized a deep-water shoal that I had fished years earlier and decided to try it. A few minutes later, I boated a 4-pound largemouth and 2½-pound brownie, which completed my limit.

It was salt in the wounds, however, as I would never get the chance to cross the stage with those fish.

When I finally reached the service yard, Jay immediately identified the problem: The small reservoir beneath the engine cowl was low, which activated a sensor and put the engine in protective mode. The system did precisely as it was designed to do. The mistake was all mine.

Losing can be a lonely proposition.

Losing can be a lonely proposition.

The day before, I let the main oil reservoir get too low before adding more oil, and that allowed air to seep into the line. It was a rookie mistake, for which there is no excuse. And worse, it could have easily been remedied on the water.

Frustrated by my ignorance, I packed my gear and started the long drive home — kicking myself all the way for such a poor performance on a body of water I normally excel on.