BAY CITY, Mich. – The start of a new tournament always brings with it an air of mystery. Given that Minn Kota Stage Seven Presented by Suzuki marks the first national event on Saginaw Bay and the Saginaw River for the entire Bass Pro Tour field, Tuesday arrived with extra intrigue.
As the 40 anglers in Group A took the water for their first day of qualifying, the primary unknown was how many would target the plentiful largemouth population on the Lake Huron fishery versus chasing the bigger but more elusive smallmouth.
Despite the uncertainty entering the event, the pre-tournament dock talk proved to be pretty accurate. The vast majority of Group A filled their five-fish limits with largemouth, but the heaviest bags were comprised of brown fish.
Each of the top four anglers on SCORETRACKER® and five of the top seven caught all smallmouth. That includes Greg Vinson, whose 22-pound, 6-ounce catch leads the group by more than 4 pounds. In all, 148 of the 193 keeper bass caught by Group A — more than 75% — were largemouth. Yet smallmouth represented 13 of the 16 fish that weighed 4 pounds or more. The average keeper largemouth weighed a hair under 2-12, while smallmouth averaged about 3-6.
It’s obvious that targeting smallmouth is more likely to produce a quality bite — no surprise on a Great Lakes fishery. But what remains unclear after the first day of competition is whether or not the smallmouth pattern can hold up throughout the six-day event.
Despite the massive playing field of more than 1,100 square miles, several of the smallmouth anglers spent Tuesday morning fishing within casting distance of one another. Second-place Jacob Wheeler, third-place Dakota Ebare and seventh-place Zack Birge caught most of their weight out of the same school of smallmouth. All three remarked on the MLFNOW! live stream that they expect fishing pressure to dissolve the school during the coming days.
Aside from that school and the group that Vinson had to himself, Saginaw Bay’s smallmouth seemed to be few and far between. Several anglers remarked that they came up empty despite searching for smallmouth for hours during practice. And a few of the competitors who dedicated themselves to chasing brown fish on Tuesday struggled, illustrating the risk of doing so. Despite the fact that both Edwin Evers and Dave Lefebre each caught coveted 4-pounders, Evers finds himself in 31st place, and Lefebre is in 39th.
“These smallmouth are hard to find,” Wheeler said. “Like, they’re probably some of the hardest smallmouth to find on a Great Lakes body of water I’ve ever seen. But if you do find them, they are the better-than-average size.”
Making them even more difficult to find and target in coming days could be the weather. Tuesday brought pristine conditions, with the light breeze causing only a slight ripple. If that wind picks up, and especially if it blows out of the north or northeast, the open-water areas where anglers are targeting smallmouth could become unfishable.
That begs the question: Could we see a mixed bag, with anglers either catching a limit of largemouth and then pursuing a smallmouth kicker or catching a smallmouth or two early before heading shallow to pursue green fish? The one-day sample size suggests that will be easier said than done. The only angler to have multiple largemouth and smallmouth in his Day 1 limit was Justin Lucas, who bolstered his largemouth stringer with smallmouth of 3-12 and 4-10 during the third period. Lucas currently finds himself in ninth place with 16-2.
Time will tell whether there are enough smallmouth in Saginaw Bay to sustain a winning week — and whether anglers can consistently find them.
With Stage Seven representing the final BPT event of the season, storylines abound. Some anglers are chasing the Bally Bet Angler of the Year title, while others are looking to secure their spots in REDCREST 2024 and General Tire Heavy Hitters or maintain their status on the Bass Pro Tour.
Kevin VanDam doesn’t really fall into any of those categories. Yet, as so often has been the case during his career, all eyes will be on the legend this week because this is VanDam’s final regular-season tournament before he retires.
In typical VanDam fashion, he appears poised to rise to the moment.
VanDam sacked up 17-11 on Tuesday, which has him in fourth place in Group A. At one point during the first period, his name sat atop SCORETRACKER®.
VanDam filled his limit with all smallmouth, although he caught them differently than most of the other anglers targeting brown fish — by power fishing, of course. Four of his five keepers were fooled by a bladed jig.
Even though he hails from nearby Kalamazoo, Michigan, VanDam said he, like the rest of the field, entered this week with almost no experience on Saginaw Bay, so he was pleased by his solid start. He doesn’t plan to think about his impending retirement until the end of the event, and he’s hoping to put that off as many days as possible.
“I don’t have a lot of history here, so I was really unsure how it was going to go,” VanDam said. “All in all, though, had a pretty solid day. Got off to a good start in the first period, caught a limit, and that really set it up to where I could really practice for the rest of the day. … I’d love to have a phenomenal week here. I know I’ve got my work cut out for me. I mean, this is a tough, tough field. But I just want to enjoy this week, this last event on the Bass Pro Tour for me.”
Speaking of storylines, Stage Seven will decide which of four competitors will win the closest Bally Bet Angler of the Year race in Bass Pro Tour history. Wheeler, Ott DeFoe and Matt Becker all entered the event within 10 points of leader Alton Jones Jr.
So far, so good for Wheeler and DeFoe. As the old fishing axiom goes, neither angler could position himself to win the AOY trophy and accompanying $100,000 prize on Day 1, but losing it was possible. Both put themselves in solid standing to qualify for the Knockout Round, albeit in drastically different ways. Wheeler’s 18-2 bag was all smallmouth caught on a spinning rod, while DeFoe boated 15-10 of largemouth by frogging and flipping shallow grass. He currently sits 10th.
Jones and Becker will look to follow suit on Wednesday.