2015 Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year Championship
Door County, Wisconsin
7th Place / 15 fish, 45-04
We’d all heard stories about how awesome the Sturgeon Bay fishery can be. We’d come close to it a few years back when we fished Green Bay, but the off-limits line was drawn so that we couldn’t access Sturgeon Bay. Nevertheless, it was clear that the fishing got better as you got closer to the line. That was a June tournament and this would be in September, so it wasn’t apples-to-apples, but many of us still presumed that it would take 18-20 pounds a day just to be in the hunt and 22 to 25 pounds a day to compete for the trophy.
Heading into this reduced-field event I was in 43rd place and would have to move up at least three or four spots to make the Classic, but I didn’t feel a lot of pressure. My whole season was coming down to this one week and I was remarkably at peace with that situation.
Wind was going to be a defining factor in this tournament and throughout practice it blew hard enough that it was difficult to drive around. On the first day of practice I drove about 20 minutes north to Ephraim, Wisconsin and launched in a big bay. I caught a few in there, including one about 3 pounds, but assumed that was not good enough. I found one dropoff where the water fell from 5 feet to 20 feet real quick and caught a 2 ½ and a 3 ½ there on back to back casts, then managed to scratch out three other random isolated fish all day. Near the end of the day I loaded up and went back to Sturgeon Bay and caught a couple more on a swimbait and a spinnerbait, but that was it. I would’ve had five keepers for about 12 pounds and I felt terrible about it. I’d fished from 5 feet out to over 30 feet and couldn’t get anything going. The only saving grace was that one spot where I’d caught two in two casts and felt like there were more there.
On the second day of practice I launched in Sturgeon Bay and after fishing around without much success I fished my way out to Little Sturgeon Bay where all I could manage were a few random fish. One was in 8 feet, another was all the way out in 25. That didn’t give me much of a clue and it was pretty much a lost day. The final day the wind was howling so I drove back up to Ephraim. I liked the way that area set up the best of anything I’d seen but I could only manage a few keepers once again. One of them was a 3 pounder that ate a jerkbait.
On the first day there I’d seen a couple of locals bass fishing out of a big Nitro walleye boat in between a couple of islands and I made a mental note of it. With nothing to lose on that final day, I headed into that area and started graphing around at the 20 foot mark. As I drifted into the 18 foot range, I graphed a fish, dropped down and caught a solid 2 ½ or 3 pounder. When I got into 12 feet of water I caught one on a swimbait. That was two fish in a 100 yard stretch, and while I wasn’t setting the world on fire it was the second best area I’d found.
The first day of the tournament started off pretty rough and it took me 40 minutes to run the 25 miles to my starting spot. It was fishable, but with the wind blowing it was hard to be effective. I started on the point where I’d caught two fish the first day of practice, but never got a bite there. A little bit off of the point there was a buoy, so I moved over to investigate and learned that there was a shipwreck underneath me. I could see it on my Humminbird 360. I made a drop and quickly caught a 14 ½” keeper. I stayed a while more and caught probably 12 or 15 short fish, all dropping or pitching my dropshot into 30-plus feet of water. Finally I caught a second keeper before landing four or five more shorts. I’d spent over an hour there to catch two keepers, and while that wasn’t terrible given my practice, I also knew that they were just plain keepers – five of them would only add up to about 8 pounds. The decision was easy to make a move.
After a few unproductive stops, at 11:30 I moved to the area between the islands, the only other place where I’d caught multiple fish in a confined area. Pretty quickly I marked one on my electronics, made a drop and caught a 2 ½ pounder. Twenty minutes later I caught another one. Thirty minutes after that I caught another. It seemed like 50% of the fish I dropped on I’d catch. Over the course of my time on that spot I caught four keepers to add to the two I’d caught earlier, but these fish were all at least 2 pounds, which brought me up to my weight of 11-11 for the day. I was pretty disappointed, even though I’d executed pretty well with limited options.
Jenny flew up that night to surprise me for my 30th birthday, so I didn’t have much time to think about the standings. When she told me that I was in 25th, right in the middle of the pack, I was pretty surprised.
My “secondary” spot had been my best producer on Day One, so that’s where I started the second day. I felt like I’d gotten there at the tail end of the bite, so by getting there early I could maximize its productivity. It was the edge of a flat which topped out at 12 to 14 feet with two little points. I’d be able to bounce back and forth between those points and the wind was cooperating. It didn’t take long to catch a couple of keepers and by 10:30 I’d caught seven fish with my best five weighing about 13 or 14 pounds. At that point I made the decision to save those fish for the third day and try to find something else to build on.
At my next stop I caught a couple of fish. One that ate a marabou jig helped me cull again by a few ounces. I knew another place on the outside of a ridge where I’d gotten a bite on a swimbait in practice. It had broken my line, so it might have been a walleye or a pike, but it felt like a bass bite. When I got there the water had gotten still and it was very clear. When it’s like that, it’s tough to get on top of those smallmouths in less than 20 feet of water because they tend to spook. You need at least 30 feet of depth under those conditions for the dropshot. I picked up my nail-weighted wacky rig and got to work, catching four more keepers, including a 3 ½ pounder that helped me up to my final weight of 15 pounds. On a day when lots of people really struggled, the 12 or 13 keepers that I landed was considered exceptionally good, so I was pretty happy, especially because I’d moved up to 18th place.
B.A.S.S. had built Saturday into the schedule as an off day and that turned out to be very fortunate because it was the worst day that week from a weather perspective. The wind blew hard from the north and there’s no way we could’ve fished. Things had calmed down when we returned to the water on Sunday, and my nerves were virtually nonexistent – I hadn’t looked at the points but I felt like 10 pounds would get me into the Classic.
The action wasn’t as quick as it had been on Friday, but I had three keepers by 9:30 and one was 3 pounds and another was 4 pounds. When I’d see a yellow line on my Humminbird I knew it was a fish and I’d drop down and catch him. That morning the wind picked up and changed direction. Something told me to pick up a swimbait. On my first cast I caught one around 2 ½ pounds. That third fish put me around 10 pounds and I felt that I was probably in. With two more fish I’d definitely be in, but I couldn’t count my chickens yet.
I bounced around for a while with nothing to show for it, and about 1 o’clock I noticed that the wind was really building up. We’d be heading back directly into the waves and I made the decision to head back closer to the weigh-in. It was a good thing I did, because what had previously taken less than 40 minutes took an hour this time.
I stopped out in front of the no wake zone. The main bridge there had 12 boats on it, so I definitely wasn’t going to move in there among them. In practice I’d found something not too far away, though. I hadn’t caught anything there, but I felt that it had great potential so I idled over. On about my fifth cast I caught a 4 pounder. Most of the time when you catch a critical fish in a situation like that your marshal gives you a high five or a fist bump, but this time he slapped me on the rear end like a football player. Catching that fish was a pretty special moment and seemed especially clutch because it happened 45 minutes before the final check in.
After 20 more minutes with no more fish, I idled over to the next bridge, which had far fewer boats on it. From across the channel I watched Chris Lane fight a good fish in and then cull. His trolling motor was already up and after he culled he just idled away toward the nearby check-in boat. I asked him what he was doing and he shot back a big grin and gave me a thumbs up sign. That was my invitation. I put the trolling motor on high because there was only a little over 10 minutes left. When I got to that piling I made a couple of casts and one picked it up. It took a while to get him in because it was a 4 ½ pounder, bringing me up to 18-09 for the day. With less than 10 minutes to go, and 100% convinced that I was in the Classic, I figured there was no reason to even make another cast. It was the perfect way to end my Elite Series season and I’m sure that’s what Chris figured too. It was nice of him to leave it for me.
That fish pushed me up into 7th place in the tournament, and 30th overall for the year, well inside the Classic cut. It was a cool week and I’m proud of the fact that I improved every day. I’m also proud of how much I was at peace about what has happening. I prayed on it and if God’s will was for me to fish the Classic, I knew that’s how it would end up. If He wanted me to work a booth at the Classic I’d be fine with that, too.
Most of my fish all week were caught on a dropshot and I’m convinced that the setup I fish made a huge difference. I frequently hear people complaining about losing fish on the dropshot, and while of course I miss a few I feel like every fish that was solidly hooked made it into the boat.
The foundation of the system is a 6’10” medium-light Fenwick World Class Series rod. It’s just soft enough that it doesn’t pull the hook out of their mouth. I pair it with a size 35 Pflueger Patriarch XT spooled with 10 lb. Nanofil and an 8 lb. Trilene XL fluorocarbon leader. I absolutely love the Nanofil. It’s so much smoother and smaller than regular braid and it cuts through the water like a knife, especially in waves. In this tournament I was using a super-sharp #1 VMC Sure Set dropshot hook and a ¼ ounce Reins Tungsten sinker with a 3” Berkley Twitch Tail Minnow (green pumpkin). That combination is one of my best money-winners over the course of the year.
This was my first year running the Nitro Z21. I had it before it was released to the general public and I’ve put it through its paces on some really rough water over the course of this season and it has passed every test with flying colors. That’s my office and I depend on it to get me there and back safely and comfortably every day. This season came down to the final day and if my boat hadn’t performed flawlessly on any given day of competition I wouldn’t be headed to another Classic.