2016 Elite Series – Angler of the Year Championship
Mille Lacs Lake
Mille Lacs, MN
14th Place /15 fish, 63-02
I’d only been to Mille Lacs once before this Angler of the Year Championship. That was for a Rapala media event and it was late June, when the fish were spawning or barely post-spawn. What struck me then, and was reemphasized again this week, is that the lake is loaded with 4 pound smallmouths and there is no shortage of 5 pounders, either. It’s an amazing place and I was excited to get back.
After winning in La Crosse, I took my time getting to Mille Lacs and then spent a few hours Monday morning reorganizing my fishing tackle. I didn’t get onto the water until 1 or 2 o’clock. It was cloudy and there wasn’t much wind, so I started off throwing a topwater and a jerkbait, but the bite definitely wasn’t on fire for me. It took me a few hours to catch a single 2 pounder.
It quickly became clear that I wasn’t on the right path, so I went out deep and started using my side-imaging to look for likely spots. I found a big rock in 18 feet of water, got on top of it, made a few drops and caught a legitimate 6 pounder. Then I dropped again and got another bite, but I wisely shook that fish off. There was no reason to stick any more bass that I might need during the tournament.
While the wind was supposed to blow out of the south during the tournament, it was coming out of the north on the second day of practice. Planning ahead, I knew that I didn’t want to fish the unprotected north end so I stayed on the south end again and built on my isolated rock patterns. I marked a few good rocks and caught a 4 pounder on one and another fish close to five on the next one. I spent the rest of the second day and all of the third day idling around, marking rocks. The 16 to 18 foot range seemed to be best, and they were better if they were out on some sort of flat rather than directly on the depth change. Using my Humminbird Onix, I had approximately 70 waypoints ready to go by the time the tournament started.
On Day One I ran to the south side of the lake to one of my best rocks and quickly caught a 2 ½ pound smallmouth. Then I added one almost 5 pounds and another about 4, all on a dropshot on isolated rocks. I probably hit 50 of my 70 waypoints that day, eliminating many of them from the rotation in the process. I also found a few more and eventually finished off my limit running from rock to rock to rock.
With my Humminbird 360 and my new Ultrex trolling motor, it was possible to sit 50 feet away and hit my target every time, but in this case the fish bit better if I got right on top of the rock and dropped it straight down. Sometimes, but not every time, I ‘d see the fish, and often as the bait fell off the side of the rock it would get hammered before it hit the bottom. By the end of the day I had two big smallmouths in the 5 pound class and three between 3 and 3 ½ pounds. I knew it was a decent bag and figured there’d be about a dozen 20 pound limits. I was 10 off, and found myself in the middle of the pack.
I went out on the second day with the same game plan, intending to hit many of the same rocks. I did find a new one early and caught a 4 ½ and another close to 4 from it. Once again, as the day got late I had two good ones and three small ones. On the first day I’d spent some time throwing a Rapala Shadow Rap and caught several fish, including one good one, on it, but Day Two was slicker and when I tried it out it just wasn’t happening.
At 1:30 I went deep again to the rocks where I’d culled late on the first day and quickly caught three really small fish. I knew that I needed to make a change, so in the last 90 minutes I pulled out a Neko Rig and that seemed to do the trick. I caught a 4 ½ pretty quickly, then another close to 5 and a third one about 4. Those culls pulled me up to 21-15 for the day.
After an off day on Saturday we returned to the water for the final day of the season on Sunday. Andy needed a good day to make the Classic, so I clued him in on a few places and I just went fishing. Early on I fished a point that looked promising on my Lakemaster chip and caught a 4 pounder and another about 3 ¼ on the Shadow Rap. After that, went back to my deep rocks and once again the same ones produced. I don’t know whether it was because of their location or their size, but once you found a good one it typically replenished. I finished out my limit pretty quickly, including a couple of 3 ½ pounders, but I couldn’t find the 4 or 5 pounders I needed to be competitive.
Once again, I decided to go looking for new water. I pulled up off the side of one reef and started idling. Pretty quickly I found two big boulders out in that magical 18 to 19 foot range and several more up on a nearby point. I culled a few times out on the point, and one of the new fish was a 4 pounder. Then I got out on the big rocks, which were 5 or 6 feet tall and 8 or 10 feet across. There was one directly in front of me and another maybe 15 feet to my right. Sitting there I culled three times with the dropshot, then went back to the point and culled again. I probably released a 17 to 20 pound limit on my way to 21-07 for the day, and 14th place overall.
It was a really fun way to end the year. In fact, while I was very much ready to go home and see my family, if they’d been there with me I definitely would’ve been happy to stay a few days and tug on a few more. Last year I ended the season with a 20 pound bag on Sturgeon Bay, and this year I ended it with over 21. It is an amazing fishery and I hope that they protect it.
Most of the fish I weighed in came on a dropshotted 3-inch Berkley Twitchtail Minnow (green pumpkin) with a ¼ ounce weight. I fished it on the new #2 VMC Neko Rig hook, which is one of the most amazing pieces of tackle I’ve ever tried. Since getting them, I’ve caught literally hundreds of fish and I can only think of two that I’ve lost. My dropshot tackle consists of a 7’ medium action Fenwick Aetos spinning rod paired with a Pflueger Patriarch XT reel spooled with 10 lb. Berkley Nanofil (green) and a leader of 8 lb. Trilene 100% fluorocarbon.
I fished the Shadow Rap Deep (Elite Blue) on a 6’6” medium action Fenwick Elite Tech baitcasting rod paired with a Pflueger Patriarch reel (7.1:1) spooled up with 10 lb. test Berkley 100% Fluorocarbon. I swapped out the trebles for a new VMC version that will probably be introduced at the 2017 Bassmaster Classic.
All of my electronics and gear played a huge role in my success at Mille Lacs. My Ultrex trolling motor was just as big for me as it was at La Crosse, and with my Onix graph I spent hours behind the steering wheel looking for the right situations. Once I was on the trolling motor, my Humminbird 360 gave me the confidence to line up precisely and make exactly the right cast every time to specific spots. If you didn’t hit the exact target, you weren’t going to get bit, so my complete package of technology worked together as a system from start to finish.
I went into this final event in 11th place and my goal was to move up to 10th. I hadn’t finished in the top ten in the points in a few years, and I was blessed to not only meet that goal but exceed it by finishing in 9th. I loved ending the year on such a good note. My sponsors, my family and the factory support teams do so much to make sure that I’m able to compete, and I’m proud that I represented them well.