Driving along the Mississippi River toward La Crosse, Wisconsin, I was captivated by the scenery. High rock bluffs jutting from green rolling hills, and below them meandering channels passing through flooded grass flats and backwater ponds.
To a southerner, the Mighty Mississippi appears much different here. Although somewhat stained, the main body of current is much cleaner than the muddy river we're familiar with. Though vastly different, it's nonetheless inviting.
Prior to the 30-day off limits I called my friend Rick Billings to learn more about the river. Rick is very familiar with the
He helped me acquire maps, then gave me basic information on how each pool fished—nothing specific, just general areas to try and what to avoid when navigating the more treacherous backwaters. He also gave me an idea of the weight it takes to win tournaments there. With that in mind, I studied the maps and Google Earth, which provided incredible detail of expansive grassbeds and backwater sloughs.
The more the river revealed itself, the more appealing it became.
Finding Fish Fast
BASS chose La Crosse to host this event for good reason. The town is situated on the river's eastern bank, just below the dam separating Pool 7 from Pool 8. At this juncture the basin is broad with vast, shallow flats and protected backwaters. Even in severe weather the anglers would be able to fish.
Along with Pools 7 and 8, we were allowed to lock south into Pool 9, giving the field plenty of room to spread out. Each pool is sculpted with riprap, spillways, docks, wing dams and other manmade structures, most of which hold schools of largemouth and smallmouth. What caught my eye most, however, were the expansive fields of matted vegetation. I knew at first glance they would hold fish, and potentially, the winning fish.
I decided to sample each section of the river, beginning with the upper end of Pool 7 first. I trailered north along the highway following the eastern shore, scanning the river below as if I were airborne. From this elevation I could see nearly everything, some of which I made a mental note of so I could return once the boat was launched.
Accessing the river just below the lock, I could see the current was swift. Recent rainfall to the north had elevated the river pushing its way south. I started on several rocky banks below the tailrace, probing them with a shallow-running crankbait. The first point gave up several smallmouth, but none the size I was looking for. From there I moved to several island points, cranking the bait with the current off ledges and fallen trees.
After a couple of hours of that, I decided it was time to try a frog over matted grass. That's when things got interesting.
The first backwater pond I came to looked perfect. It featured a small secondary channel bordered by shallow, weedy flats. Around the pond's perimeter were fields of coarse cane and lily pads. Toward the middle was a stand of bulrush and a small field of matted milfoil. Two casts with a frog toward the center of the mat yielded two big blow ups. I immediately moved away so others in the area wouldn’t notice.
From there I flipped the edge of the bulrush. Again, I got a couple of quick bites, both of which felt solid. I quickly moved to the opposite side of the reed stand and returned to pitching. As quickly as I got the bait in the water, a fish would take it. Again, I moved away to avoid detection.
Other sections of the pond held fish also, but none looked as appealing as the matted area near the center. I knew full well I would return to this locale on tournament day.
Day 2 of practice was also productive, but the fish I found were mostly scattered—except for in one area; a spillway below the Pool 7 dam. By cranking a DT-6 in the Helsinki Shad color, I quickly caught numerous smallmouth and largemouth, two of which were better than three pounds—the size needed to help me excel in this event.
Because the area was near take-off, I knew others would also find it, and that it would come down to a boat race. But because the spillway was located at the head of a small backwater featuring several access points, I decided to spend some time figuring out the quickest route. That way, if I did get a decent draw, I'd at least have a chance of staking claim to some part of it.
On the final day of practice I drove south to Pool 9. I wanted to check a couple of backwater areas that looked similar to the one I found in Pool 7. I ran from pond to pond searching for bulrush and matted grass. Finally, on the
By noon I was disgusted with Pool 9, so I trailered back north to the take-off pool. I wanted to fish a field of matted grass I noticed from the road. The decision proved to be a wise choice.
The entire area looked good, but I soon learned that most of it was too shallow. Farther to the south I found an isolated mat sandwiched by two small streams. The water was clear and moving at a good rate. I knew it had to hold fish.
In less than 30 minutes I had at least a dozen strikes on a Bronzeye Frog. Most appeared small, but a few felt heavy. I marked the spot and moved further downstream to another area of matted grass. There, I ran into Terry Scroggins and Cliff Prince. They, too, were froggin'. I spoke with Terry and he said his practice went well and that he planned to fish the take-off pool to avoid lost time in the locks. Although his logic made sense, I couldn’t help but think about the bulrush and matted milfoil bed in Pool 7—I believed they held my best chances for success.
Having studied the lock schedule, I knew I'd have time to make a quick stop at the spillway before locking through. When my number was called, I raced directly to the shortcut I mapped out in practice—it paid off handsomely. Rounding the final turn to the spillway area, I could see a string of competitor boats over my shoulder—plowing their way single file through the idle zone I had just avoided. I was the first to arrive at the spillway.
With the boat snug to the lip of the dam wall, I cranked parallel along the drop off, banging the DT-6 against submerged rocks beneath the waterfall. In minutes, I had my first fish—a 2 3/4-pound largemouth. While placing that fish in the livewell, two other boats showed up. One passed me by, the other fell in behind me. I was immediately boxed in.
The minutes ticked away and soon it was time to head for the lock. Although I knew I could catch more fish at the spillway, I also knew I couldn’t win there—especially sharing it with other competitors.
Entering the lock, I could see at least 25 other competitor boats. The lockmaster positioned each one of us in single file, giving orders that we should exit the lock in the same fashion. I thought right then I was in trouble—wondering who in the gang ahead of me would race to the small pond of reeds and matted milfoil.
Twenty minutes later, the lock doors opened and the race was on. I fell in behind a string of boats throwing roostertails. One by one, they peeled off into random backwaters. Rounding the final bend to my destination, I could see several boats ahead of me. When I reached the matted milfoil bed, I found Marty Robinson making his first cast with a frog. I was disappointed, but at least I had the bulrushes to myself.
Using a Yamamoto Fat Baby Craw on 15-pound fluorocarbon, I pitched methodically to the reed edge, expecting a bite on every cast. But after advancing several boat lengths, I sensed something was wrong. The stretch that had produced those quick bites in practice now appeared to be void of fish. Where were they? Had the abrupt noise of approaching outboards scared them off?
I slowed way down, dead-sticking each presentation. Nearby, I could see Marty. His frog was getting blown out of the water on every other cast. Watching the action was sickening. Yeah, I could have crowded him from the opposite side of the mat, but then our casts would be crossing each other, and that wouldn’t be right. I had no choice but to wait him out.
Behind me were Kevin Van Dam and Scott Rook. They were swimming jigs in thin, scattered milfoil. Scott was catching them too. It's unbearable fishing near other anglers who are loading the boat. It kills my concentration.
Finally, after about an hour, Marty moved off the mat of milfoil. Having only one fish in the livewell, I seized the opportunity. Though I didn't think the spot would have much more to offer, I had to try it. I thought, maybe, if I fished slow enough, I could coax a few fish that Marty was unable to catch. Tha logic paid off, big time!
The milfoil bed was no larger than a house trailer. With a long cast I could reach its opposite end. Almost immediately I connected with a 3-pounder. Soon after, another 3-pounder. I wondered why Marty ever left. I figured he must have a good stringer if they were still biting for me.
Within an hour I had a solid limit. I spent the next two hours camped on the mat, mostly defending it from any would-be intruders. Finally, it was time to head for the locks.
Back at weigh-in, my stringer tipped the scales at nearly 15-pounds. It was a great start. Looking at the leader board, I noticed Marty had weighed in 11 pounds, which was well off the pace. Knowing the type of guy he is, I called him to ask if he would yield the spot to me. As expected, he obliged.
While on the phone, he asked me how I was able to catch the better fish. I told him by fishing ultra slow. He said all he caught were carbon-copy 2-pounders, and figured it was useless to stay and beat on them. I could see his reasoning, but boy am I glad he left.
More Of The Same, Please
Day 2 went pretty much like Day 1. I started on the spillway, then proceeded to the lock. From there I raced to the small milfoil bed in the backwater pond. Fishing was much slower, but by I put together enough fish to secure a money finish. I told my marshal we were heading back early—I wanted to try another grassbed in the take-off pool. In doing so, I felt I'd eliminate any chance of getting stuck in the lock—something that has cost me thousands of dollars in past events.
Back in Pool 8, I ran about 15 minutes south of La Crosse. On final approach I could see my target area was vacant. That put a smile on my face. In minutes I was culling 2-pound fish. It was fun watching them blow up on the frog. My marshal enjoyed the action as much as I did. By weigh-in time I had amassed more than thirty strikes, and though my 5-fish total wasn't as strong on Day 2, I knew I was guaranteed a check for $10K.
Driving back to the motel, a vague, yet familiar feeling came over me—a feeling of deep satisfaction. I used to experience the feeling frequently in tournaments, but the last two seasons have robbed me of that. The tour had become an unbearable grind. I struggled in every event, rarely finding my way to the money. Finally, after a long wait, I'd be fishing on the weekend.
Last Day Logic
While waiting for take-off to begin, the tournament director announced that there was heavy barge traffic in the area, and that there would be no guarantees on the locking schedule. That announcement spooked me. I've been burned by locks three times before and didn't want to risk it today. Besides, I knew I had the grass mats south of take-off, and those held plenty of fish. So as my number was called, I chose to remain in the take-off pool and start once more at the spillway.
When I arrived, an angler I couldn't identify was already sitting on the best section—my little shortcut had been discovered. At the other end was Davy Hite. With the better areas taken, I decided to leave and try a place Zell Rowland told me about—a schoolie hole nearby that he claimed held big fish.
By the time I was set up, a light rain began to fall and fish started blowing up around me. I threw a HeadBanger buzzbait, racing it through the patchy grass just over their heads. Quickly, a small keeper struck the buzzer and made it to my livewell. Minutes later, another bass short-striked the bait. I followed-up with a Senko and reeled in another scrappy keeper.
By then larger fish were busting in the thicker grass. I grabbed the frog and fired it in their direction. No takers. Again, they blew up—still no takers. I picked up the Texas-rigged Fat Baby Craw and pitched to the same area, but no luck.
Soon the rain stopped and so did the schooling. Somehow I failed to capitalize on the brief feeding frenzy. Still determined, I worked the area slowly with soft-plastics. Nothing. So I pulled the trolling and headed south to the grassbed that had yielded so many strikes the day prior.
When I arrived, everything looked the same. There wasn't a boat in sight. I began hopping the frog across the better part of the grassbed, expecting a repeat performance from Day 2. Unfortunately, things had changed. The fish were still there, but the strikes were passive. Repeatedly they blew up the frog, rarely connecting. Of those that did, none were large enough to weigh.
The minutes turned to hours, and before I knew it the time was gone. Although this day turned out to be a bust, I still felt good about the event overall. And with this one in the books, it was time to look ahead.