September 12, 2012
Rolling into Green Bay, Wisconsin, my mind was set on making back-to-back money finishes. This event would cap a five-week road trip and I wanted to return home with a lot more than just a bunch of miles on the odometer.
Prior to our arrival, BASS informed us that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had imposed a boundary—they claimed transporting fish beyond that line could prove detrimental to the fishery. Although several appeals were made, the DNR was dead set in their decision.
As a result, Sturgeon Bay, one of the most productive and renowned fisheries in the entire Great Lakes system, was declared off limits. The best of what remained were a series of smaller bays to its south, including Riley's, Sand, and Little Sturgeon. Nearly everyone in the field knew these waters would become overcrowded as a result, so we all prepared ourselves for a long week of battle.
As Zell Rowland and I pulled into the driveway of our hotel, we immediately realized parking would be a problem. Although the reservationist assured us that there would be plenty of room for our trucks and boats, that wasn't the case. And worse, there weren't enough electrical outlets to go around. These days, it seems everything related to tournament fishing has become competitive—even finding a suitable parking space.
After going back and forth with the front desk, we decided to find another place to stay. That's when local Elite Series pro, Travis Manson stepped in. With his help we were able to relocate to a hotel on the outskirts of town. Although further from the launch site, this access would actually be quicker by avoiding downtown commuter traffic. So we set up camp there, hoping the rest of the week would go smoother.
Going Green? Not!
Although Lake Michigan supports a healthy population of both largemouth and smallmouth bass, Zell and I were focused on smallmouth from the start. We heard about the lake's reputation for big brownies and we wanted to experience them for ourselves. So, together, we trailered north to Little Sturgeon Bay to begin our search.
Driving over the skyway bridge from the western shore, I could see our official launch site at the mouth of the Fox River below. To the north, the channel cut through a massive shallow flat leading to the open waters of
Driving for nearly an hour up the eastern shore of the bay, Zell and I finally reached our destination—a small park inside Little Sturgeon Bay. Immediately, we noticed the wind was beginning to gust from the northwest. From that direction, we knew we'd be limited on the amount of water we could explore. Watching as Zell rounded the point into four-footers, I decided to stay close and probe the rockpiles and grassbeds adjacent to the boat ramp.
Fishing was tough. Nearly two hours passed before I caught my first fish—a decent smallmouth that fell victim to a tube-jig. Minutes later I caught another of average size. Where were the giants this lake is noted for?
Zell called me, asking if I was catching anything worthwhile. When I gave him the report, he suggested I try the next bay over where he had connected with better-size fish. So I did.
Another hour passed, and neither of us had caught anything worth bragging about. With the wind starting to slack off, I suggested we try some offshore structure. For the next two hours we probed several shoals and humps, none of which produced a single fish.
By afternoon the sun was beginning to bake. The surface temp rose nearly eight degrees, so we decided to go back shallow. To our surprise, we found numbers of 2 1/2 to 4-pound smallmouth swimming through patchy bottom in less than four feet of water. Things were suddenly looking up. Evidently the warmer water had brought them up shallow to sun.
In minutes I figured out that a super-long cast with a tube would produce quick results, so I bent the barb over and fished my way toward Zell, who was fishing nearly a mile to the east. When I reached his location, he also reported having lots of bites. We exchanged rigging details and headed back to the ramp. It was getting dark and we had a very long ride home.
Day-two of practice was much slower. We ventured up the western shore, trying topwaters, jerkbaits, drop-shots and tubes. Although we caught several fish on topwaters (Zell using his signature Pop-R, me, a SkitterWalk), the area didn’t offer what we wanted. By , we decided to bail out and trailer back to the
Once back in the water, I raced north out of the river to try a series of shallow shoals along the bay's eastern shore. The first few stops looked promising, but nothing panned out. By I had worked north approximately 15 miles from the rivermouth. Finally, on a small isolated shoal, I saw a 5-pound smallmouth swimming with some carp. I punched the numbers and was about to head to the next shoal when my phone rang. It was Zell calling, saying he found good numbers of fish in the river and that I should check it out. I couldn’t resist.
By 8:30pm, we were both wore out, but the day proved productive. Together we figured out solid patterns in the
On day-three, I returned to the river to expand on what I learned previously. Zell opted to stay in and work on his tackle. Around lunchtime I stumbled into a couple of key spots. Both were high current areas holding quality smallmouth and a few largemouth. Using a shallow-running Rapala prototype crankbait, I made them bite almost at will. My confidence soared. And with that discovery, I decided to head back to get my equipment ready for actual competition.
Let The Race Begin
Waiting for the starter to call my number, I watched as Old Betsy waived in the breeze. The wind had already started blowing from the north. Even still, a string of tournament boats raced north toward the open waters of
Thirty minutes later my number was called and I joined the fleet. Passing the last channel marker, I began to second-guess my decision. The waves were building fast and I had nearly an hour long run. Halfway to Little Sturgeon I noticed several boats turning back. I too, wanted to give up, but something told me to keep going.
Flanking me was Mark Menendez in his Tackle Warehouse Skeeter. As we neared the mouth of Little Sturgeon, it appeared as though he and I were headed to the same shoreline.
As fate would have it, we came off pad within yards of each other. Mark had obviously found the same fish. But because we're friends, I knew there wouldn’t be any problems. I asked him where he was headed and I fished away from him. I knew the fish were spread out, so any direction was fine by me.
In minutes we were both catching them. Mark boated a couple of stud smallmouth, while my two were two pounds apiece.
Soon, though, things improved. I hooked up with a couple of better fish and was back in the race. Unfortunately, as quickly as I put my fourth fish in the box, the bite died. I told Mark good luck and then left for
Completely shielded from the wind with a high sun to my back, I began sight-fishing for cruising smallmouth. The fish were just beginning to show up. In the next two hours I caught and culled numerous 3-pound fish using the tube. With a solid catch in the box, I raced south to weigh-in, fully content with my effort.
On day-two, we returned to the mouth of Little Sturgeon—Mark fishing in his direction, me in mine. Quickly, I boated several solid fish, one of which was well over four pounds. Soon after, another big smallie came aboard. But like the day before, the bite quickly died. So I left there and fished a shallow bank inside Riley's Bay. By early afternoon I had put together a solid stringer of smallmouth and decided to try the shoal where I saw the 5-pounder in practice.
Stopping abruptly on the tip of the small reef, I began by casting a tube to an edge where rock met sand. I scanned the rocks hoping to see the big smallmouth. The shoal was no more than 35 yards long and laid perpendicular to the shoreline. The light was perfect, but all I saw were drum.
Once reaching the shallow end, I turned the boat and sped the trolling motor toward open water. With one final Hail Mary, I sent the tube flying to the spot where I remembered seeing the big fish.
Lifting the rod to retrieve the lure, I suddenly felt tension on the other end. Instinctively I jerked and a giant smallmouth broke the surface. Both my partner and I gasped. The fish remained airborne and out of control. With it was another fish of the same size. I had only minutes to make weigh-in and no time to spare.
Repeatedly, the fish cleared the surface. My partner reminded me of the clock, but I stayed focused on the fish. Again it jumped completely out of the water. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, I pulled the fish boatside and lifted a fat 5-pounder into the boat. With high-fives, my partner and I celebrated the catch. Quickly I grabbed a 2-pounder from the livewell and released it. All I had to do now was make weigh-in. I was 15 miles from $10,000 and I had to get there on time!
With 40 seconds to spare, we entered the check-in area. I tied the boat off and headed for the bag line. That's when I was told the weights were down from day-one. I knew then that my catch would lift me high in the standings. I was stoked—for the second straight week I was solidly in the money.
Fishing The Finals
Knowing half the field was on their way home, I decided to change my weekend game plan. I wanted to start on the shoal where I caught the 5-pounder, then backtrack to the river and work the patterns I developed there.
Unfortunately, when I arrived at the small shoal, no fish were in view—not even a drum. So I pulled the trolling motor and raced back to the
My first stop was on a row of pilings along a riprap wall. In just a few casts, I boated a small keeper largemouth—minutes later, a 2 1/2-pound smallmouth. Then the lull began. I retraced my practice path, stopping from spot to spot, catching only a couple of non-keepers and a catfish.
Around 11am, things changed. While cranking an old wreck, I hooked up with a 3-pound smallmouth. Ten yards later, another one. Things were looking up. I thought if I could catch a couple more over three, I might get to fish on Sunday.
I ran to a small slipstream channel near the dam. Water was gushing through, making boat control a constant battle. Finally in position, I dropped the Power-Pole and fired the prototype crankbait into the whitewater below the rocks. My rod loaded instantly with another 2 1/2-pounder. With that one in the box, I continued to pound the area.
The minutes ticked away. Finally, at , I told my marshal we had to leave—that we needed enough time to get through the idle zones near check-in. So I turned the boat and drifted downstream, cranking as I went. Suddenly, just before giving up, my rod loaded once more with a quality smallmouth. I culled the small largemouth and raced to weigh-in, wondering if I had enough.
Any Given Sunday
As it turned out, I did have enough. For the first time in a year, I would be fishing on Sunday.
After weigh-in, Bassmaster TV producers announced they were taking the top-12 to Lambeau Field—home of the Green Bay Packers. They planned to conduct interviews there, to add impact for the show's viewers. Being a huge Aaron Rodgers fan, I couldn’t wait to get there.
As we exited the tunnel onto the sidelines inside the stadium, I felt a huge rush of adrenalin. It reminded me of the weigh-in ceremonies at Soldier Field during the 2000 Bassmaster Classic in
There's something about big arenas that bring out the competitive spirit. And after two years of struggling in the Elite Series, standing on Lambeau Field in the middle of "
On the final morning, as my boat number was called, emcee Dave Mercer rattled off some of my achievements to the attending crowd of spectators. He does that for each of the top-12 competitors as they leave the dock. It's a good feeling and it helps jumpstart the day.
I decided to remain in the Fox River and let the chips fall where they may. I was the last man to make the cut, with a huge deficit to make up, and the chances of doing that were pretty slim. Nonetheless, I started the day by retracing my steps from day-3. By day's end I had put together nearly 15-pounds of fish and moved up four places in the standings. I was satisfied. I fished as cleanly as I know how, making virtually no mistakes over the course of the four-day event.
Finally, after a 5 week road trip, I was headed home to see my family. We had nearly three more weeks until the final event on Lake Oneida in New York, and I needed the rest.