BAY CITY, Mich. – From the very beginning, all the prognostication pointed to smallmouth holding the keys to victory at Minn Kota Stage Seven Presented by Suzuki on Saginaw Bay. Sure enough, eventual winner (and Bally Bet Angler of the Year) Matt Becker made hay with the smallmouth bite for his first Bass Pro Tour victory, despite there being massively greater numbers of largemouth available to anglers in the bay.
The rest of the Top 10 finishers, however, were relatively evenly split between the two species, and there were vastly more largemouth caught throughout the week. The tactics and lures at play ran the gamut – everything from frogs and buzzbaits to vibrating jibs, drop-shots and various other finesse presentations.
Here’s a complete look at how the top anglers caught their fish in the BPT season finale.
Capping off an amazing first year on the Bass Pro Tour, Becker notched the win with the event’s best bag on the final day. That 22-pound, 11-ounce total was more than enough to claim the victory.
Becker arrived at Saginaw Bay with smallmouth on his mind and spent most of his practice time searching for them. He ended the first day with a subpar finish, though, switching gears to largemouth the second day in hopes of advancing.
“I only spent two hours of my practice time for largemouth and found one little area,” Becker said. “I was able to catch enough on a swim jig and flipping a Yamamoto Flappin’ Hog to survive.”
After making the Knockout Round, he went back to the smallmouth in an area near the Charity Islands. From there, it was all about the drop-shot with a Yamamoto Shad Shape worm in “Becker’s juice” (a color of his design). He described his winning area during the Championship Round as a long flat and was further offshore than where he fished the day before during the Knockout Round.
“It was a group of 10 or 15 smallmouth swimming around in 18 to 20 feet of water – I have no idea why they were there,” he said. “There were no contours or structure to keep them there. I’d catch one or two and make a drift away and come back and catch another one or two.”
After taking a big lead in the Knockout Round, Kevin VanDam‘s smallmouth pattern fizzled with the changing wind directions. Up to that point, VanDam had cruised, catching his weight early in each of his first three days of fishing.
Fishing offshore rock in less than 10 feet of water, the Thunder Cricket was his primary tool, but he used a drop-shot rig as a cleanup bait. For that, it was a Strike King Baby Z-Too in the deal color.
If there were a largemouth-only division, Jesse Wiggins would have won it. He stuck with the green fish all week and weighed over 17 pounds each of the last two days, keeping it simple by relying on three different lures.
“I had a bunch of rods on my deck every day but only weighed fish on three baits,” he said. “I was flipping a green pumpkin [Jackall] Cover Craw on a 3/8-ounce Titan Tungsten weight, fishing a green pumpkin Jackall B Crawl Swimmer swim jig with a craw trailer and a black Jackall Firecracker buzzbait on the last day.”
Fishing the Wigwam Bay area, Wiggins focused on grass flats with a deeper edge that dropped into 3 feet of water.
“The other key was bluegill,” he said. “When you saw them swimming around, you better have your hammer cocked – because you were about to get bit.”
Texas pro Todd Faircloth was one of the few who figured out both the largemouth and smallmouth bites, weighing a fairly even mix of both species.
“I came here looking for largemouth since smallmouth have burned me so many times over my career in northern tournaments,” he said. “I practiced for largemouth and ended up finding an area with both largemouth and smallmouth.”
He found an area on the northwest part of Saginaw Bay with a mix of grass and rock between 2 and 5 feet deep.
“I was catching them with a drop-shot and a KVD magic-colored Strike King Dream Shot in there,” he said. “I was fishing the edges with a 3/8-ounce green pumpkin Strike King Thunder Cricket with a matching Strike King Blade Minnow.”
On the last day, the water rose, and he adjusted his plan.
“It came up a bunch and got really windy, and I started flipping reeds with a Strike King Ocho,” he said. “This is a good fishery; you get a lot of bites. The hard part is trying to find those 3-plus-pound fish you need to do well in tournaments here, and thankfully, I got a few of them each day.”
After a tough finish on St. Clair that dashed his Angler of the Year hopes, Dakota Ebare focused solely on the win and figured smallmouth would be the way to do it.
“It was a great week, and I’m thankful to end on a good note after my trouble at St. Clair,” he said. “I had one thing in mind and that was smallmouth, and that’s all I dedicated my practice to. I looked for the win and didn’t get it, but I had a good week.”
Ebare found an area with plenty of baitfish and smallmouth activity and fished it all week with a Strike King Baby Z-Too in Arkansas shiner on a drop-shot.
“I had seven Lew’s spinning rods rigged up and all had a drop-shot tied on them,” he said. “The key was the area because there is so much dead water in this place. I caught them from 6 to 24 feet deep, but the whole area had bait and tons of life.”
Ott DeFoe capped off an excellent season with another Top 10, doing it his signature style of fishing shallow and away from the crowds. He targeted small residential canals, primarily with a Terminator Walking Frog Jr. in Carolina pumpkin.
“The frog was No. 1 for sure, but I did catch some on a buzzbait,” he said. “I was focusing on the canals with thin mats of scum on top.”
Fishing the east side of the bay, DeFoe said making precise casts was the key to getting bites.
“You had to get the frog as close to the hard cover as possible,” he explained. “It could be a dock, piece of wood or seawall – but you had to put the bait right next to it.”
After an uncharacteristically slow start to the year, Mark Daniels Jr. needed an excellent finish at Saginaw Bay to make REDCREST – and delivered. Focusing on largemouth on the west side of the bay near Au Grais, he had an effective one-two punch all week.
“I started each morning with a swim jig and used it when I wanted to cover water,” he said. “When I got some bites in an area, I’d Power-Pole down and pick apart the cover with a Googan Baits Bandito Bug in blue baby on a 5/8- and 3/4-ounce weight. That was it. Just those two baits.”
He alternated between two swim jigs, a black-and-blue and a bream-colored skirt; for both, he used a green pumpkin trailer. This was key to matching the bluegill in the area.
“The key was areas with sparse tules and clear water,” he said. “I wasn’t fishing the chalky-looking water that was everywhere – it was better in the clear water where the grass had filtered it out. There were also a lot of bluegill in those zones.”
While he fell short of his goal of a third-straight AOY, Jacob Wheeler had another fantastic season. At Saginaw Bay, he was laser-focused on the smallmouth bite and used a drop-shot with a Rapala CrushCity B.L.T. in green pumpkin magic and green pumpkin watermelon and a Rapala PXR Mavrik 110 jerkbait in hot blue frost.
“It all came down to the shallower rock less than 12 feet deep,” he said. “I figured out in pre-practice that most of the fish were shallower. You wouldn’t get near as many bites in the deeper rock.”
For the first two days and the Championship Round, the drop-shot was his top producer, and he rigged his bait on a Size 12 VMC Redline Finesse Neko hook with a 3/8-ounce VMC Tungsten Teardrop Drop Shot.
While the drop-shot was his best producer, the jerkbait hooked his two biggest bass during the Knockout Round.
“The wind current was running hard, and I caught those two bigger fish a lot shallower in 4 to 5 feet of water,” he added.
Between his REDCREST win and a $100,000 Heavy Hitters bass, Bryan Thrift was the most profitable angler on the Bass Pro Tour this season. His finish at Saginaw Bay helped him creep toward half a million dollars in earnings this year, and he did it on the strength of largemouth in the grass.
“I was fishing the west side of the bay and keying on grass edges,” he said. “It was really good for me the first three days, but the last day was so windy it dirtied it up and made it hard to get a bite. It was all largemouth for me all week, but I did catch one smallmouth on the last day.”
Thrift employed a 1/2-ounce Z-Man/Evergreen ChatterBait Jack Hammer in Brett’s bluegill with a green pumpkin baitfish trailer to catch his fish. The other key bait was a Damiki BTC 60 squarebill in both mossy shad and threadfin flash.
Cody Meyer is a noted smallmouth specialist, but he never got that program going throughout the week and switched to largemouth instead, riding them to a Championship Round appearance.
“I looked for smallmouth but never found them,” he said. “I ended up fishing for largemouth every day of the tournament. I fished both sides of the bay – they were both good. I picked a different side each day and chose the side that wouldn’t be as windy that day.”
To catch his fish, he utilized a SPRO frog in the morning, flipped a 4-inch green pumpkin Yamamoto Yam Craw later in the day, and mixed in an Evergreen Grass Ripper swim jig with a Yamamoto Zako paddle tail trailer.
“The frog was the deal in the morning, fishing the bamboo-looking grass,” Meyer explained. “When the sun got up, the shade pockets were perfect for flipping. I was looking for water just a little bit deeper – those 2-foot stretches around even shallower water.”