In Pursuit Of What Is Elusive But Attainable
January 27, 2010
There’s one thing no tournament angler can deny; tournament bass fishing is a sport of ups and downs. Sometimes the ups and downs happen over the course of a season, sometimes it’s over the course of a day, but no other sport can give you the highs and lows quite like fishing for bass.
I’ve qualified as a boater the last three years for the TBF Eastern Divisional. The first year was on Great Lake Sacandaga in upper New York State. Most of us had never been there, so no one really knew what to expect. I certainly had no expectations and was surprised to be leading the event after day one. I wound up finishing fourth overall and first for Massachusetts, earning my first trip to the TBF Nationals. I caught all my fish in that tournament on a four inch Senko, just rotating between three spots.
My second Divisional was on my home lake, Lake Winnipesaukee, so of course the pressure was on. I wound up finishing second overall and first for Massachusetts, earning a berth at the TBF Nationals on Bull Shoals. Given that I fish that lake 20 to 30 days a year, anything less than a top finish would have been very disappointing. The bite was tough, and I was very glad when that event was over!
My third Divisional last year was totally different. The event was held on Lake Champlain at Ticonderoga, known for it’s largemouth bite. In addition, Ticonderoga is famous for the power bite – frogs over the top, pitching jigs, and cranking offshore structure. I am primarily a finesse fisherman and focus on smallmouth. On top of all this, I had never been there before, and many of the other anglers competing fished it regularly. Needless to say, my expectations were low. Realistically, I hoped to be competitive and help my team.
I figured my only chance was to run 20-30 miles north and look for some brown fish. I reasoned they might bite all three days, and a steady diet of 15 lbs a day could get the job done. I spent the first practice day up north without much to show for it. I found a few spots, but they were all pretty obvious and didn’t have what I usually look for in the northern part of Champlain; solid grass, ample bait, and plentiful fish.
My second practice day was more of the same. I caught a few fish but nothing great, so I decided to run 25 miles south to check out a largemouth spot. A friend had told me about a bay south of the Ticonderoga ramp that had good largemouth in it, but he cautioned me about my preference for finesse fishing. “These fish are big, so leave your finesse stuff at home.” He fishes the area with jigs and chatterbaits and suggested I use heavy braid to put the wood to the 3- to 5-pound largemouth.
I found the bay and it looked decent. The grass was beginning to die as it was mid-September, but there were healthy clumps on the deeper edge. I threw a 7X Kut Tail on a baitcaster but didn’t get much. I went through a few baits with no success, and then tried my old stand-by: a 5-inch Kut Tail on 6-pound test with a 1/32 nose weight. Within a few minutes I had a 2.14 largemouth. I checked the next bay, which looked similar, and right away I caught a 4.7 largemouth. I began to realize why no one chases brown fish at Ticonderoga!
The final practice day I went north again for smallmouth with little success. I had a few two-pounders, but nothing better than that. I spent the second half of the practice day south in a third bay next to the first two with the same result as the previous practice day. The smallmouth were officially fired, and my motto became, “Go green or go home.”
Tournament Day One
It was cold in the morning so I decided to start fishing a couple of deep points I had, since my largemouth had come in the afternoon when it was warmer. I had four fish in the first few hours, with one about 2.8, but my goal was modest. I just wanted to catch 11 to 12 lbs a day and help my team.
Around eleven I headed for my three small bays. I got a few fish in the first bay, finished out my limit, and had my 11 pounds. I went to the second bay, where I had caught the 4.7, and got a three right away. I was casting the 5-inch Kut Tail to the edge of the grass in about three to four feet of water. When I felt it catch the grass I would give it a gentle tug so it fell into the next pocket. The grass was in clumps with big gaps between clumps. By one I had around 17 pounds, including a five, so I decided to leave the spot and let it rest. I finished day one in third place out of the 96 competitors. Needless to say, I was doing a lot better than I expected.
Tournament Day Two
My big debate was whether to start on the shallow largemouth or wait until it got a little warmer. I always figure “start on your best fish” so using that theory, I went right to the shallow largemouth. This turned out to be a good plan. Even though there was another boat on my best spot (he’d seen me nailing them the previous day) I quickly had a limit, and by 10:30 I had close to 15 pounds. I didn’t want to burn the spot out, so l left to go cover some spots my non-boater wanted to fish.
My 14-09 for day two put me in second place overall, with a three pound lead over the second place angler for Massachusetts, my friend, Ed Soule. I figured all I needed for the third day would be 12 pounds, since Ed was a non-boater, and there were very few bags coming in over 15 pounds. The one wild card was the weather – the forecast was calling for 20 to 30 mile per hour winds!
Tournament Day Three
The wind was a big factor in my plan for Day Three. I decided to start on my best spot, even though it would be windy. I did my best, but there was no way to fish in the wind, even with a power bait, let alone a small worm like the 5-inch Kut Tail. In addition, the wind had muddied up the water to the color of chocolate milk.
A few weeks earlier I had bombed on the second day of a Stren and this was fresh in my mind. I methodically tried to fish in the wind with no luck, and with no options left, I basically went fishing.
I found a small bay under a railroad trestle that looked good, but it was barren. I switched to a small cove that looked nice, but again, nothing. I had never been south at Ticonderoga before, but I knew it would be out of the wind and should be good for at least a small limit.
The south part of Ticonderoga turns into a river, and there are large concrete channel markers on the edges. I pulled up to the first one and lost a two-pound fish but my non-boater got a solid keeper. Losing a good fish hurt, but at least I had hope. I hit the next channel market and caught a three-pound largemouth and 13-inch largemouth.
At the next marker I got two more and started to feel the tightness in my chest ease. The fourth channel marker gave me two more fish, and I culled the small one. I knew the markers went all the way down for fifteen more miles and I started to feel good – I had an 11-pound limit, I’d caught six keepers in 30 minutes, and I had 15 more markers to fish.
It became apparent which markers we wanted to hit – some had deep water all around them and were no good, and some were shallow all around and no good. The best ones had shallow water on one side and deep water on the other. If they were on a channel bend it was even better.
I hit every marker I could, and caught two to three fish off each one. I dialed in which part of the markers was the best, and which color Kut Tail was the best (301 was hands-down the best color).
Once I got to the end at the lock, I turned around and started hitting the markers I got fish on earlier on the way back. Each one gave me at least one more fish, and I culled until I had all 3-pound class fish.
We raced back to the ramp with fifteen minutes to spare. I heard that Matt Applebaum, in first after Day Two, had only brought in three fish and that overall, the weights were low for Day Three.
Winning this event wasn’t even on my radar, but as they say, when it’s your time, it’s your time. It turned out that about the only time a finesse bite works on Ticonderoga is in the fall, when the grass starts to die, and the fish are transitioning to hard structure, like the channel markers.
My win gets me a third consecutive boater slot at the TBF Nationals in Knoxville Tennessee, and a chance to qualify for the BFL All American. More important, it’s a big win for me, and on a lake I had no experience on.
There’s a saying, “The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.” For me, truer words were never spoken.