2016 Elite Series
Upper Mississippi River
La Crosse, Wisconsin
1st Place / 20 fish, 63-10
Prior to this year I’ve had several good finishes in B.A.S.S. competition in La Crosse, plus a solid event in an MLF tournament there at this same time last year. It’s a place where I feel very comfortable. I love river systems, because it’s the type of fishing I grew up on, and it’s what I continue to do for fun when I’m at home. It’s all about understanding current and how the changes in conditions affect the fish. At some point during any given week, you can expect that the water will go up or down, or go from clean to dirty, and the key is understanding how to adjust to those changes.
In the past I’ve always fished Pools 7 and 8 in Elite competition, but I decided going into this one that I wasn’t going to spend any time in 7. In last year’s MLF tournament we fished in Pool 9, and I really liked it. There seemed to be a higher number of 2 ¾ pound and larger fish, so that was extremely tempting. Just before practice started, I attended a Rapala media event on Pool 4 and that gave me a pretty good idea of what was going on. I wanted to key in on the smallmouths because you almost always need to rely upon them to win.
I spent the first day of practice in Pool 8, where La Crosse is located, hitting places I’d fished before and some other stuff that just looked good. My first fish was a smallmouth a little over 3 pounds that crushed a topwater on a little sandy point, exactly the same type of place I’d been fishing in Pool 4. After that it was just one here, one there, and I wasn’t very impressed.
I changed over to fishing for largemouths around riprap, island heads and undercut banks and caught plenty of them in the 2 to 2 ¼ pound range, with the occasional 2 ½ pounder. I added a few more smallmouths from the sand, but nothing big. Then I ran to the far end of the pool, where it turns into a big flat with grassy ditches running off the channel. I could see some of those ditches on my Lakemaster chip, so I plowed through the grass on the trolling motor to investigate.
I found some good looking mats and started flipping. Pretty quickly I caught a 12-incher, pitched back in the same hole and caught another keeper, and then a third one around 2 pounds. I moved maybe 100 feet and caught one around 3 ½. Then I went a little further, made three pitches, and had a 3 ½ pounder chase it out. There were other boats in the area, but none fishing that particular stretch, so I marked it and moved on.
On the second day of practice I focused on Pool 9, and once again my first fish was a good smallmouth on a topwater. Then I moved to where I’d done well in MLF, a spot the size of my boat that produced 25 pounds of keepers. Unfortunately, the water was higher this time and it didn’t produce. I started fishing little current breaks with a white Chatterbait and caught a 2 ½, then another, then another. I could literally call my shots, but I never caught one that hit the 3 pound mark. I moved a little bit further and started cranking a jetty and did manage to catch a smallmouth that was over 3 pounds. That led me to believe that I could catch 12 or 13 pounds of largemouths out of the grass pretty quickly and then go hunting for a few bigger smallmouths. There weren’t many boats in Pool 9 and I felt good about my chances, especially after spending the last few hours back in Pool 8 and not accomplishing anything noteworthy.
My third day of practice was the one that sealed the deal, but at the time I felt like it screwed me up mentally. I headed to the Onalaska Spillway first thing and quickly caught a 2 ½ pounder on a swimbait. Five casts later I caught another over 3 pounds. My plan had been to go down to Pool 9 and then hit the grass in the lower end of 8 on the way back, but this was low hanging fruit. Even if the spillway only lasted one day, I felt like it had 14 pound potential.
We took off on the first day of competition in the order of the AOY standings, so I had a good number and headed straight for the spillway. During practice there had been a little bit of water coming over the whole spillway, with gaps at either end with heavier current. The two fish I caught had been along the spillway itself.
Once I arrived, I caught a smallmouth of about a pound and a half pretty quickly. There wasn’t any water coming across the middle of the spillway — I’m still not sure why – so I moved to the right gap and five minutes later caught one around 3 ¾. Jason Williamson started on the other side, but he left pretty quickly, so I made my way in that direction slowly and steadily, picking it apart. I had one around 2 ½ eat a topwater bait, but it came off. Fortunately, when I reached the other side I caught a 3 pounder to calm my nerves, but then I lost its twin at the boat. My fourth fish was a 4 pounder, which is a huge boost in a tournament like this one.
After a couple more hours I culled out my little smallmouth and got ready to leave. The only other angler who’d joined me was Tommy Biffle, but by that time the bite had shut off. I’m still not sure why. I left before 9 am with a good bag and room to improve it. I stopped on a few smallmouth points but didn’t land anything that helped. I ran down to my mats at the bottom of the pool and started flipping. Pretty quickly I caught a 3 pounder, another almost 3, and one around 3 ¾. At that point, my smallest fish was a 3 pounder from the spillway. There was no reason to burn more of them in case I needed them later in the week. As I prepared to leave I heard a boat headed straight for me. It was Brandon Card. We compared notes and he said that he was going to catch a few, cull and leave. We were both worried, but we worked it out. To my knowledge, we were the only two who fished that area. Only one side of the ditch, and only one 150 foot section of the ditch, had any fish that were biting. The rest of it looked good, but didn’t produce.
I spent the rest of the day practicing, including one spot where I caught several fish on a Terminator Popping Frog, but they didn’t help me and at the end of the day I had 17-07. That put me in 2nd place, just 3 ounces behind Casey Ashley.
On Day Two I ran straight to the spillway and Tommy Biffle joined me there. My first fish was a 3 pounder, then I added a 2 ½ and by the time I left around 10 am I had 12 or 13 pounds in the livewell. The weather was brutal that day with heavy rain and close lightning. I hid under a bridge for a while and probably should have remained there longer.
When I finally made it down to my grass spot I saw that the wind had messed up my mat. I whiffed on one really good flipping bite, but then moved outside with a green pumpkin Chatterbait and culled for the first time in a couple of hours. Then I fished my way back up and I have to admit that the conditions caused me to be pretty out of it mentally until about 1pm.
At 2:30 the weather broke and as I brought my swimbait past a current-swept point I caught a good fish that allowed me to cull up a few ounces. Finally at 2:45 I made my way to the spillway, hoping that the new sun would make the fish bite better. Pretty quickly I landed a 3 pounder which allowed for a good cull. I had a pm check-in and it was a 14 minute ride back to the dock. I wanted to leave at 3:40 to be safe. At 3:20, my rod loaded up and it was a 6 pound 1 ounce monster that I named the “Mississippi Queen.” I’d figured out something important. All along I’d been retrieving my swimbait a little bit faster than the current. When I slowed it down a little, that’s when I caught the big fish. When you think about it, it makes sense. It’s what an injured shad would do, rolling with the current, tumbling whichever way the water took it.
On that second day Seth Feider brought it a monster bag of smallmouths, but my 17-11 pushed me into the lead. Even though he’d crushed them, I felt pretty good about my chances because he said he needed clouds to do well and we weren’t supposed to have any the rest of the tournament. I knew that the sun would be better for my grass fish, but other than that the conditions really didn’t affect me much.
Day Three was pretty much a carbon copy of the prior day. I started off with a 3 ½ pounder from the spillway and when I left a few hours later I had somewhere in the range of 13 pounds. As I fished my way down to the grass mats, I passed Brandon Card going the other way, so I expected that I’d have it all to myself.
At about noon, I boated a couple of 3 pounders flipping and then added another one close to that weight. I headed back to the spillway where I culled once more by about half a pound, up to my total of 16-07. Even though it had been sunny, Seth still caught a quality bag, but I actually improved my lead to 2 pounds 10 ounces.
I’ve previously led after Day One of an Elite Series tournament, but other than the All Star event I won a few years ago I’d never led after that. In La Crosse I didn’t have enough of a lead to coast – I had to perform, and my plan was go out and hit the two spots I’d fished on Days Two and Three with the same two baits.
I started on the spillway and immediately it was obvious that it was “off.” I’m not sure if it’s because it was the first “cold” morning or possibly because it was the second day after the front, but all I caught over two hours were two little walleye. I knew that there still had to be some fish there, but they wouldn’t bite.
I’ll admit it. When I left after a few hours I was a bit rattled. I caught a few non-keepers, but they didn’t help. Then I stopped near the takeoff site. There had been so many 2 to 2 ½ pounders released there that a limit of them would be ok. Gerald Swindle pulled up and told me that he knew how I could catch 9 or 10 pounds of smallmouth. They wouldn’t win me the tournament, but they could get me back on the right track. He pointed me to a particular wall and told me which topwater bait to throw, but even then I still couldn’t get a bite. I moved on to some riprap with current flowing around it and after 5 or 10 minutes finally caught one a little over 2 pounds. James Overstreet told me that he’d never seen someone celebrate so much for a 2 pounder. Then I added a small keeper and things were looking up even though I hoped that I wouldn’t have to weigh either of them. I hit several other places, including my frog spot from practice, but none of them paid off.
At about 10:30 I got to my flipping water. It was earlier than I’d wanted to arrive, but I was getting desperate. Pretty quickly I landed a 2 pounder for keeper number three. Then I had another good bite but I jerked too quickly and missed him. Keeper number four was another one that was barely legal. I had a few more bites but they wouldn’t hold onto the bait and I left with four in the livewell, all small.
At around 12:30 I headed back to the spillway, committed to spending the rest of my time there throwing the swimbait. That was how I got to that point and how I was going to finish it. I started on the right side and quickly caught a 2 ½ pounder, my best fish of the day so far. That confirmed that I’d made the right decision. Then I moved to the left side and culled with a 2 ¼ pounder and a 3 pounder. With no one else fishing the area, I was able to fish one side and then move to the other to let it rest. With the water rising, I was able to move to the far left corner, which had been dry ground on Day One, and that’s where I caught my three best fish.
I culled with my second biggest fish of the day with five minutes to go but I still thought I had blown it. I figured all Seth needed was 14 or 15 pounds to beat me. It was not a good feeling. Jennie had flown in and she’d been watching Bass Trakk all day and they had Seth in the lead. Davy Hite interviewed me for First Look and he said he honestly couldn’t tell who’d won. I was almost sick.
When I heard Dave Mercer announce Seth’s weight, I quickly did the math in my head and figured out that I needed 10-14 to win. I was pretty sure that I had at least 11, but I wasn’t comfortable by any means. When Trip hit the button and it read 12-01, I was as shocked as anyone. I gave Seth a big hug and then I went a little nuts. While I’m not a negative person, I’d spent the whole day thinking I was losing my chance and suddenly my fortunes had been shifted.
This victory is huge for my career. Although I’d won the All Star event against 11 of the best anglers in the world, it solidifies my standing among my peers to win against a full field of all of those guys who I respect so much.
Every fish I weighed in this event came either on the swimbait or flipping. I fished the swimbait on a 7’ medium-heavy Fenwick Elite Tech rod paired with a Pflueger Supreme XT reel (7.1:1) spooled with 15 lb. Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon. It was a solid body boot tail bait, white with a blue back in low light and translucent with a gray back and silver flake in bright conditions. I’ve been rigging it a special way since 2012 and I’m sure that was the key, since you still lose a high percentage of the fish. I’d been threading my line through the bait and then tying on a barrel swivel attached to a split ring with a VMC treble. I needed both pieces of hardware because if you pull on the hook during the cast it messes the whole bait up. Mark Zona showed me how to rig it with a couple of rivets – one on the nose and one on the back of the bait – to achieve the same effect, but even better. With those rivets there, not only does it swim correctly, but you can often catch 10 or 15 fish on a single bait. Here’s a link to an article about it.
My flipping rod was a 7’8” heavy action Fenwick World Class, paired with a Pflueger Patriarch (7.9:1) and spooled with 65 pound Trilene braid. I rigged a black/blue creature bait on a 4/0 VMC heavy duty hook and punched it through with a 1.5 ounce tungsten weight. On the first two days I was tying it on with a Uni Knot, but I lost several fish and even the ones that I caught were barely hooked. I’ve never snelled my hook but I went back that night and asked Andy Montgomery a solution. He offered up a knot that gives the same effect as the snell, but is much easier to tie. After that, every fish seemed to be hooked solidly.
The other piece of equipment that made a tremendous difference in this event was the new Ultrex trolling motor. Especially at the spillway, there was often one precise cast that would get bit. If you were off a little, or your lure tumbled the wrong way, they wouldn’t eat it. Without the Ultrex, I probably would’ve made 5 or 10 casts and then moved. This allowed me to stay in place and fire over and over again, waiting for that bite. It reduced fatigue and allowed me to be methodical. My boat, motor and all of my equipment performed flawlessly in this event. Of course that’s critical every time out, but the opportunities to win in this sport are so few and far between that it’s an especially big deal not to have them taken away by mechanical gremlins. I feel very fortunate.