2018 Bassmaster Elite Series
La Crosse, Wisconsin
13th Place |15 fish, 48-08
I have a solid history on the Upper Mississippi out of La Crosse, including an Elite Series victory the last time we visited. Unfortunately, reliance on some of that history may have bitten me in this one. I might’ve overthought the changing conditions.
With a lot of rain upstream and the river projected to rise each day during the tournament, I presumed that smallmouths would be the way to go. I didn’t think the water would muddy up too much down where we were fishing, but the stronger current would likely make some of the largemouths inaccessible and position the smallmouths in predictable places.
Working under that assumption, I spent two-thirds of my practice chasing brown bass and the fishing was quite good. I would catch over 50 of them a day, with a handful in the 3-pound class. It’s easy to guesstimate incorrectly when eyeballing those bass, so I weighed them and was convinced that 13 or 14 pounds would be easily achievable. Based on past tournament results, that would easily put me in the money, if not in the top 12.
I spent half a day of practice in Pools 7 and 9, and the rest in Pool 8. It was the first time I’ve practiced in each of them and it turned out to be a mistake. I spread myself a little thin and by the time the tournament started I had committed to Pool 8, which seemed less flooded than 9. I planned to chase smallmouths, paying almost no attention to largemouths, and I expected to have the opportunity to cull repeatedly throughout the day.
I started off the tournament fishing close to take-off, below the dam, throwing crankbaits and topwaters on main river rocks. At my second or third spot I fired my lure into an eddy and caught a short, then a 2-pounder, and then a big pike. Working my way down, at my next place I added another keeper about the same size as the first. I was only 20 minutes into my fishing day and I had two decent fish, but after that I had a dry spell that lasted at least 90 minutes. Finally, I caught two more bare keepers on a swimbait and a topwater at the mouth of the Black River. I moved inside the mouth of the river to a bridge and landed number five, a 1 ¾ pound largemouth. It was 10 o’clock and I had a small limit.
Next I headed to a stretch of bank that looked prime, but hadn’t produced anything during practice, and quickly culled with another 2-pounder. Working up to a barge tie-up with a metal wall, I started throwing my swimbait, and saw something odd in front of the boat. It was a decent smallmouth sucking on algae like a carp, just 6 inches under the surface. I put my lure in front of it, and while the fish moved off it didn’t act spooky. I felt like it was catchable so I circled back around, lined up my cast and threw a topwater right down the wall. Almost immediately a 3 ¼ pounder smoked it and enabled me to cull. I knew that wasn’t the fish that I had seen previously, so I got lined up once again, made another cast and one about 2 ½ pounds missed it. I couldn’t get that one to bite again but I was glad to add a quality fish there.
At that point, with limited time remaining, I moved into a small backwater and caught a couple of largemouths that didn’t help. I came back out to try to get rid of my smallest fish, and I ended up culling once more, up to a final weight of 11-11. Overall, I was disappointed. On a day when I had expected to catch a bunch of keepers, I didn’t catch all that many, and only one of them was over 2 ½ pounds. It turned out that many of the other anglers who’d been fishing that area had struggled as well. The smallmouth bite that I’d depended on just didn’t turn out to be that strong.
I was tied for 83rd, just over 2 pounds out of the top 50. The rest of the field absolutely wrecked them, with lots of bags over 16 pounds and a projected cut weight higher than ever before. I needed 16 pounds the next day to have a chance, and that meant doing something different. I had to focus on largemouths. I’d never done well in Pool 7, but I felt that was my best bet to make up some ground, so I locked up in the morning. Despite the change of scenery, I decided to start with smallmouths just to get two or three fish in the livewell and settle my nerves. After a few shorts, I finally caught a keeper about 1 ¾ pounds, but that was it. At 7:45 I decided to cut my losses and head up to Lake Onalaska.
Once in Onalaska, I started in a chute leading into a little backwater with clean water coming out of it. It featured an obvious little corner point and when I pitched my worm up there a short fish grabbed it. Coming around the corner I spied a perfect little mat of duck weed, and my first flip with a BPS Bull Hog produced a 4-pounder. It was only 9 am, and I was relieved, because even though I only had two in the boat the hardest task was out of the way – I had my kicker. Now I just needed to relax and catch some decent keepers to put with it.
On the next corner, I caught twin 2 ½ pounders in a matter of three casts. I only had four fish, but they weighed more than my five from the prior day. Fish number five came shortly thereafter on a frog, allowing me to cull the smallmouth I’d caught early in the morning. That poor little smallmouth got released in the heavy vegetation far from home and was probably lost. I quickly culled twice more, once with a solid 3-pounder, and by 10:30 I had over 14 pounds. That left me with a lot of time to get the one more good bite I felt I’d need to make the cut. I settled down and fished slowly, which allowed me to dial in the bite precisely. On one stretch, every corner had a good fish and they were all over 2 ½ pounds.
I worked my way down to the next island and fished through the best-looking stretch fairly quickly. I finally got bit at the end, a nice 3-pounder that allowed me to cull again. I knew that there had to be other quality fish in that vicinity, so I turned around and fished it again. At the upriver point I skipped my frog and a 4 ½-pounder absolutely smoked it. With that bite I went from over 16 pounds to 17 ½ on my scale, and at the official scales they ended up weighing 18-02. I went from borderline to well inside the cut in 18th place. It produced a tremendous sense of accomplishment – it’s such a good feeling to salvage your tournament by taking a risk, and it’s particularly fun with you can catch them on the frog.
Heading into Day Three I had my sights set on making the top 12. I was only 8 ounces outside of the cut weight and after a year of near misses I felt like it was my time. I had a lot of confidence in my area and knew exactly where I wanted to start. It was smooth sailing to get there, and when I arrived on the corner just outside from where I’d caught the 4 pounder the day before, I quickly caught one around 2 ½ on a swim jig. The water was exceptionally clear, so I’d tied a fluorocarbon leader to my braided main line, and I must’ve tied a poor knot because it broke on the next strike. After rigging up again, I added a second keeper to my livewell.
I arrived at the mat where I’d caught the 4-pounder the day before and flipped one around 2 ¾ pounds out of it. That gave me three fish, but I had a bit of a dilemma with my next one. I had hooked it in the tongue with my frog, and that is often a bad, bad deal. It started gushing blood, and even though I tried to treat it I couldn’t stop the bleeding. The fish was almost 3 pounds, so doing the math in my head I realized I’d be left with a 2-10 if I got a dead fish penalty. I was on the fence, but I’d culled out several 2-10 bass the day before, so once I realized that the fish was unlikely to make it, I put it back. It would’ve been number four and all I could do was hope that it wouldn’t cost me.
After releasing the injured bass, I caught one around 3 ½ pounds on a frog, which led me to believe I’d made a good decision. After missing my next bite, I caught my fifth fish, then went on a streak of missing and losing a bunch of fish. It got kind of ugly for a while. I was hooking them on the bottom of the mouth. I went back to flipping and things didn’t get much better – the next three bass that bite stole my bait off the hook.
I knew that I needed to get a fresh start, so I moved to some new water and things remained about the same. I hooked one around 2 ½ or 3 pounds and it came off halfway to the boat. Finally, I managed to cull again with a flipping fish. It was a solid 2 ¾ pounder, so I’m pretty sure that the one I released didn’t hurt me, but I’ll never know for sure.
Heading into weigh-in, I was pretty sure that 16 pounds would get me to Sunday and 15 would get me close. My 14-11 left me short by an ounce, though. It was the fourth time this season that I’ve been the first or second man out of the cut, and while it hurts a bit, at this point it’s become ludicrous enough that I could joke about it on stage. After they tallied up my total of 44-08, Jennie said that if someone came in with 44-09 we could leave. That happened when Cliff Pace weighed in, and it proved to be dead on.
Obviously, looking back on this one it would be easy to blame my poor first day performance for my failure to make the cut, but I really don’t regret it. After the practice I had, targeting those smallmouths was the right thing to do. If I’d managed to land 13 or 14 pounds that day, I probably would’ve stayed with it, but the small limit led me to scrap my plans and look for something else. I had to screw up pretty badly to make that kind of comeback.
The Terminator Walking Frog Jr. in smoke silver shad was my primary tool for big fish, producing four of my weigh fish on Day Two and two or three on Day Three. I fished in on a 7’3” medium-heavy Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris CarbonLite 2.0 rod paired with a Johnny Morris Platinum reel (6.8:1 gear ratio). I was fishing it over thick mats of duck weed and skipping it up under overhanging trees and my 50-lb. test BPS Hyper Braid never failed me.
The lure that produced my biggest fish of the week was a Bass Pro Shops Bull Hog creature bait in Sooner Run with the tips dyed orange. I rigged it up on a 4/0 VMC Heavy Duty EWG worm hook with a ½ ounce Swagger Tackle tungsten weight. I flipped it on a 7’6” heavy-action Johnny Morris Platinum Rod and a Johnny Morris Platinum reel (8.3:1) spooled up with 20 lb. test Bass Pro Shops XPS Fluorocarbon.
Despite the multiple near misses to the final cut, I feel like I’m fishing well. I’ve had my moments of glory, I just haven’t been able to put everything together to make the 12 cuts. Everybody loses fish, and it always seems like when you need them the most that’s when it’s hardest to get it done. It just goes to show that when it’s your time, it’s your time. This season hasn’t been as good as it could have been, but it has still been pretty solid.
Next up is Lake Oahe in South Dakota. I’ve never been there before, and I don’t know much about it except it has lots of smallmouths and lots of walleyes. I expect the fishing to be good, but even if it’s not we should have a pretty good eating experience with the Fry Daddy. It’s a big lake, and the wind could be a factor, but I’m excited for a new challenge and anxious for another shot at a top 12.