LA CROSSE, Wis. – This week, the Tackle Warehouse Invitationals anglers make their way to the Upper Mississippi pools 7,8, and 9 for Mercury Stop 6, the last event of the season. The pros will be met with challenging conditions as they jockey for the last remaining points to decide Angler of the Year, Polaris Rookie of the Year, and the eight Bass Pro Tour spots up for grabs at the end of the week.
Pools 7,8, and 9 offer a broad variety of cover and structure for both largemouth and smallmouth alike to inhabit. Current water conditions are lower than normal, even for this time of the year, and that means a limited playing field for the anglers to expand on. The vast array of sloughs, ditches and drains that make up the backwater systems of these pools has been drastically condensed, as fishable backwaters have been a struggle to find. Wing dams and main river structure will be essential this week as anglers work to assemble the Upper Mississippi puzzle this time around.
“My practice was okay,” said Invitationals rookie Andrew Behnke. “I found some fish, but I know how this place is and how much it can change so quickly. This is definitely the lowest I’ve ever seen it, and the least amount of current I’ve seen here.”
Behnke, who cut his teeth fishing the Phoenix Bass Fishing League Great Lakes Division that rolls through La Crosse yearly, explained that the lack of flow means fish aren’t setting up in relation to current as much as they have on previous trips to these pools. That being said, there are still groups of fish to be found if an angler gets into the right area.
“They’re not really relating to current breaks as much as past trips here,” he said. “They’re spread out chasing shad, but it seems like if you land on one or two of them you’ll find a bunch in the area. I’m seeing a ton of baitfish activity, a ton of schooling activity. It’s all over the place, Around the main river channel, around sandy banks and near islands. They’re just all over the place.”
Behnke recognizes that classic Mississippi River tactics such as frogging and flipping could play a factor as they often do in La Crosse, but feels like an angler’s best bet to succeed will be by taking advantage of the bait activity going on throughout the river system.
“I’ve honestly maybe only had 10 frog bites all of practice,” he said. “And they were little, I think you’re going to see some different techniques in play for guys this week.
Ron Nelson hopes to wrap up his run at Angler of the Year this season and claim the title for the second time. Like Behnke, Nelson recognizes that this is a different Upper Mississippi River than previous visits and that the shad are going to be a larger factor this week than in the past.
“It’s almost like a fall time bite already,” said Nelson. “The bait is all grouped up and the shad are really big already, so the fish are roaming in groups chasing bait. It’s smallies and largemouth mixed together too. Those fish will come up on top busting, so anyone driving by can see them going and stop and fish them. A lot of stuff will get shared and divided up amongst anglers.”
Nelson is undoubtedly factoring his points lead into the amount of risk he’s willing to take this week on the Mississippi, knowing that these backwater and lock-and-dam systems can be treacherous when it comes to planning a tournament day.
“I likely won’t risk it too much,” said Nelson. “If you get stuck in a backwater or miss a lock you very easily could just not make it in. So, I’ll probably stay in Pool 8. I don’t fish in Pool 9, I never have, and I won’t this week. In my mind, I don’t care if it’s Angler of the Year on the line or not, nothing good happens if you get locked out. So, I’m taking that into consideration.”
The Polaris Rookie of the Year race also will be decided this week in La Crosse. Currently, Marshall Robinson holds a 12-point lead over Brock Reinkemeyer and 20 points over Drew Gill for the rookie title. With how La Crosse is fishing this week, expect there to be a lot of shuffling in the group of rookies as past experiences (or the lack of experience) could play a major role in how the race shakes out by the end of the week.