When the pros launch their boats at the Mississippi River to wrap up the season, the focus will certainly be on winning for much of the field. Still, a lot of the anglers within perhaps the Top 20 in the points standings will be looking to stand pat or move up for one of eight coveted Bass Pro Tour invitations on the line when the season concludes. With so much at stake, the Mississippi offers good fishing to finish the season, but it also gives anglers plenty of chances to make big mistakes.
La Crosse, Wisconsin
July 25-27, 2023
Hosted by Explore La Crosse
The Mississippi River is the second-longest river in the US, and certainly first when it comes to fame. While bass can be found throughout the 2,300 miles the Mighty Miss spans, the tournament waters for this competition consist of Pools 7, 8 and 9, with takeoff occurring in Pool 8. These three impoundments of the second-largest drainage system in North America provide a lot of cover for bass to live in. Vast swaths of vegetation, wing dams, rock jetties, backwater pools and shallow laydowns can be found throughout the river.
Straddling the border between Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, the river supports healthy populations of largemouth and smallmouth bass. Anglers shouldn’t struggle to catch limits of 2- to 3-pound largemouths. However, it’s the bigger bass in the 5-pound class that cash checks. While smallmouths may not receive as much attention due to the fact that they can be tougher to target than their green cousins, they’re just as much a player and shouldn’t be overlooked.
With the BFL Great Lakes Division essentially living on the Upper Mississippi, there isn’t much of a mystery when it comes to what to expect for weights. In the summer on the river, when five-fish limits are in play, 15 pounds is nearly always good, and 17 pounds almost guarantees you’re in the conversation for a win.
In 2021, Jimmy Washam won the TITLE with 17-15 on the final day, and Bobby Lane finished second with 16-12. That event was held in late august with falling and then stabilizing water conditions, and early in the event, 13 or 14 pounds was really excellent – Adrian Avena topped Group B in qualifying with 29-6 (10) and Miles Burghoff lead Group A with just 26-8 over two days.
As for the techniques on display in the TITLE, it had everything one has come to expect from the river. A good frog bite carried Mitch Crane, topwaters produced, Lane prowled the braided water around Goose Island and Avena banked on the current. The only disappointment was a lack of smallmouth, as the main-river bite for them seemed to be very hit or miss.
The book has mostly been written on how to fish the Mississippi, but it doesn’t mean it’s an easy thing to do. Though there are big populations of bass, the Big Muddy changes dramatically from year to year. One of the most wily river rats in the field, Matt Stefan is an expert at mining the flowages of the upper Midwest and is always a favorite in La Crosse.
“We had extremely low water last year, the whole second half of the year,” Stefan said. “That’s allowed a lot of the grass and rice to grow in new areas. So, I think you’re going to see some differences in vegetation growth. Areas have definitely grown thicker, which could prevent some of us from getting to fish in some areas. And it could help some anglers find things that are overlooked.”
Still, outside of new vegetation, Stefan reckons things won’t be far from the norm.
“That time of year you’re going to have a frog bite,” he said. “You’re gonna have a main-channel wing dam and sand drop bite, cut banks, a topwater bite. Some guys fishing in the Black River more offshore, it’s going to be typical Mississippi River, you’re going to need to find that better pod of fish.”
Stefan said that by late July, the fish will have moved to their summer haunts pretty solidly and won’t be thinking about a fall migration.
“They’re really grouped up in the spring, and they’re really grouped up in the fall,” said the Wisconsin pro. “June is a big transition month on the river; smallmouth going out to the main river, largemouth moving out from backwater to more current. By about the Fourth of July, they’re set up pretty good in their summer patterns. It’s going to be primarily current-related stuff, the backwaters will not have many fish. The largemouth will move out to the big grass flats and sand flats in the lower ends of the pools, and they’ll start setting up on eddies and wing dams in front of the spawning areas.”
With Stefan figuring on largemouth or a mixed bag to win, he expects some of the locals to have more than a puncher’s chance.
“Mike Brueggen will have 50 pounds,” Stefan said. “Or Tom Monsoor, the last couple years he’s really been on them on the river. I think 50 pounds will win for sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s 45. When you get 150 boats out there, you can beat on them for sure.”