Beatin' the Bank with Bernie Schultz - 2019 St. Lawrence River B.A.S.S. Elite

Arguably the best smallmouth fishery on the planet, the St. Lawrence River has remained a favorite since my first visit in the late 1980s. I’ve won a lot of money there, and two trophies. So, when it appeared on this year’s schedule, I had high expectations.

Our tournament waters stretched from the mouth of Lake Ontario at Cape Vincent to the dam at Massena -- nearly 100 miles.

Our tournament waters stretched from the mouth of Lake Ontario at Cape Vincent to the dam at Massena -- nearly 100 miles.

Our event was scheduled for Waddington, New York — some 80 miles from Lake Ontario. Because of high water, it looked like the entire field would have to lock through in order to reach the upper parts of the river. But with each passing day, water levels fell and it was eventually announced that we could run through the flood gates.

Here is my account of how the event unfolded.

Practice Begins

On day 1 of practice, I accessed the river in the town of Clayton. My first stops were to familiar rock shoals and sand flats. Working a variety of lures, including topwaters, reaction baits and various bottom-probing soft plastics, I scoured the more likely spots in each location.

Quickly, I noticed things were different from previous years. High water had definitely made an impact. Although conventional wisdom would suggest an increase in the numbers of shallow fish, that wasn’t the case. I saw only a handful of quality fish in places that usually hold large schools. It was concerning, but in some ways a relief. At that time, I thought locking would be the only way to gain access to that part of the river. And that meant a loss of more than an hour of fishing time each way. Having located few fish at this end of the boundary, it eliminated those concerns.

I finished the day near Chippewa Bay, scouting deeper shoals for smallmouth with only modest success.

On day 2, I focused on the midsection of the river from Ogdensburg to Brockville. That’s when I found large groups of smallmouth holding in 20 to 30 feet of water. Each school responded well to a drop-shot rigged Shad Shape Worm in the goby pattern.

These are among my favorite lures for the St. Lawrence. (Top to bottom) they are a Rapala Skitter V and Shadow Rap, 4-inch Senko with 3/16-ounce VMC Half Moon Jig, Hildebrandt Drum Roller swimbait, and 3-inch Yamamoto Shad Shape Worm tied to a VMC Octopus Hook with 1/2-ounce VMC Tungsten Cylinder Weight.

These are among my favorite lures for the St. Lawrence. (Top to bottom) they are a Rapala Skitter V and Shadow Rap, 4-inch Senko with 3/16-ounce VMC Half Moon Jig, Hildebrandt Drum Roller swimbait, and 3-inch Yamamoto Shad Shape Worm tied to a VMC Octopus Hook with 1/2-ounce VMC Tungsten Cylinder Weight.

It was easy. Nearly every drop yielded a bite, and though most of the fish were small in size, it gave me considerable confidence. By culling, I figured I’d gain the weight necessary to be competitive … an assumption I would later regret.

On day 3, I moved to the take-off pool at Waddington. I started by making a series of drifts in swift water, just below the flood gates. My first few drifts yielded some quality bites and though the fishing was tedious, it was also steady.

From there, I ventured to the other end of the pool to scout some shallow areas. That’s when I found a school of hefty three pounders swimming on shallow sand. Things were looking up.

Thinking I had a decent game plan figured out, I trailered the boat and headed to registration.

Tournament Time

As luck would have it, I drew out boat number 13 in the take-off order.

When my number was called, I raced directly to the lock and began making a series of drifts on the southern corner. I connected with fish immediately, but they were barely more than a pound apiece, so I threw them back. Attempting to weigh anything of that size would mean certain death.

Two hours later, with nothing to show for the effort, I gave up and passed through the flood gates on my way to Brockville.

My first stop was to a deep school of smallmouth that I found in practice. And for the next hour, it was a bite every cast. Unfortunately, the size wasn’t there either. With the clock ticking down, I pulled the trolling motor and headed west to two other waypoints, hoping they would save my day.

Again, I caught fish at will. But they, too, were small. Frustrated and running out of time, I pulled the trolling motor and raced back to the take-off pool to try the shallow fish I had located on day 3 of practice.

Nearly an hour later, I reached the desired location and began casting a Ned-rigged 3-inch Senko. In minutes I was catching and culling. But the fish were only ounces better than the ones they replaced. Where were the better fish?

Having only minutes left to make something happen, I made my last stop on a nearby shoal where I found three large smallies sitting on the edge in two feet of water. My first cast yielded a strike from the smallest of the three, and when I finally got it aboard, it weighed well over three pounds.

After a quick cull, I fired another cast to the same location, only to observe the largest fish in the pack performing pirouettes around my bait. It was easily five pounds, but I couldn’t make it bite.

A strong second-day effort kept my AOY Championship hopes alive.

A strong second-day effort kept my AOY Championship hopes alive.

With time gone, I was forced to pull the trolling motor and head to check-in, knowing full well I would be at the bottom of the standings. I decided right then and there, I would abandon everything and start from scratch on day 2. If I was going to get beat, I would at least try to have some fun in the process.

The next morning, I ran to Alexandria Bay and started on a series of shallow shoals. My first fish weighed three pounds, the next weighed four. Two hours later I had a limit weighing approximately 13 pounds. That’s when things heated up.

Accessing a small rock slab adjacent to deep water, I found several big smallmouth holding in the current. The first bit a Shad Shape Worm and when I got my hands on her, she weighed just under six pounds. The second weighed just over five. I was on my way to a miraculous comeback, if I could only keep it going.

Unfortunately, I failed to make the remaining fish bite. Knowing I was close, I pushed the limits on time. I was at risk of not making it back on time, but I kept trying. 

Finally, I pulled the rolling motor and began the long run back. Arriving at check-in with less than 40 seconds to spare, I bagged my fish and entered the weigh-in line. When my fish hit the scales, they weighed just under 20 pounds. It was a valiant effort, but I was still well short of the cut.

Weak and weary, I trailered the boat and headed to the hotel, wondering where I went wrong.