By Bernie Schultz
Of all the events listed on this year’s Bassmaster Elite Series schedule, I was most optimistic about this one.
That may come as a shock to some of you since my favorite fishery — the St. Lawrence River — is also on the schedule. And you know how much I like that place.
The reason I wanted Hartwell was the timing. It fell dead on the spawn, and I love to sight fish. And with more than 56,000 surface acres, I knew I’d find somewhere to fish by myself.
As the tournament progressed, things played out as planned ... at least some of them, anyway.
On day 1 of practice, I headed straight to Beaverdam Creek — a sizeable feeder stream located at the confluence of the Seneca and Tugaloo rivers, in the upper end of the reservoir.
My first stop was on a familiar stretch of bank — a spot that had produced for me years earlier. Seeing a high waterline, I began by throwing a chatter-style bait to submerged clumps of terrestrial grass known as dog fennel. After an hour of no action, I moved tighter — targeting the void between the submerged grassline and actual shoreline. That’s when things picked up.
Casting a wacky-rig, 5-inch Senko, I was able to shake off some quality bites. The fish I raised to the surface appeared to weigh between 2 1/2 and 4 pounds.
I spent most of the day detailing that single, large creek — dialing in several key areas holding quality fish. With a number of waypoints saved, I called it a day.
On day 2, I committed to the Tugaloo.
Early in the morning, I happened onto a windy point loaded with feeding spotted bass. The action was quick and easy. Using my Garmin Panoptix, I stayed with the school — alternating between a Rapala Shadow Rap and Ned-rig, 4-inch Senko. Satisfied with that, I moved further upriver to look for more bedding fish. And though I found some, they were fewer in numbers and noticeably smaller.
Day 3, I headed to a major creek near the dam. Visibility was perfect for scanning the shallows, so I made the most of it. And by day’s end, I had marked more than 30 active beds — many with better-than-average fish.
Another plus was that I saw only one other boat in the area all day. I felt I was well prepared for what was ahead.
Having a relatively late draw in the take-off order and knowing a number of other competitors would start in Beaverdam Creek, I opted to run south and take my chances there. It proved to be a good move.
The morning began with a couple of lost fish, but as the hours passed, I put together a solid stringer of largemouth … including one weighing four pounds. I caught all of them using watermelon-green pumpkin Senkos — either a 4-inch rigged Texas-style with a 1/32-ounce VMC tungsten weight or a 5-inch rigged wacky style.
Back at weigh in, I learned that most of the field had fared well. The leader brought in nearly 20 pounds and the top 35 cut was at 14. I had 13 pounds, 12 ounces, so I knew I had to pick up the pace in order to fish on the weekend.
Competition Day 2
The next morning we awoke to steady rain. Seeing those conditions and believing sight fishing would be nearly impossible, I decided to gamble on a topwater bite. For the first three hours, I alternated a Rapala SkitterPop, a Hildebrandt SqueakEasy buzzbait and small-size Whopper Plopper.
I started on flooded terrestrial grass in protected pockets, then moved to points — both primary and secondary. I even tried riprap and natural rock. Unfortunately, I was never able to make anything work. With time ticking and an early check-in pending, I went into survival mode — falling back on the sight-fishing pattern.
Because light levels were so low, I was apprehensive at first. But as I began scanning the bank, I realized visibility was actually quite good. That frustrated me; knowing I could have been looking at fish the past three hours, instead of casting aimlessly with topwaters.
In minutes, I was catching fish. None were the size I needed to advance, but I was saving valuable points. By weigh-in, I had salvaged what could have been a disastrous day.
As it turned out, local angler Brandon Cobb won the event by sight fishing up the Seneca River — the only part of the reservoir I failed to scout. While regrettable, the simple fact is we can’t cover it all. On a reservoir this size, you make your best guess and go with it. Sometimes it pays, other times you get burned.
In the end, my meager 10-pound limit kept me from falling completely out of the points race. I’m behind, but definitely not out. I just need to get things headed in a more positive direction, and soon.