Scott Martin of Clewiston, Fla., won the Walmart FLW Tour presented by General Tire on Lake Champlain by blending a largemouth pattern with bedding smallmouths. Fishing for both species during the week allowed him to gamble on the quality of largemouths while being able to fall back on the consistency of smallmouths.
Not surprisingly, largemouths were a critical part of climbing into the top 10 at Lake Champlain. A few pros did make it to the final day fishing solely for smallmouths, but it was those who could reach the 19- to 22-pound mark with the help of green kickers once or twice during the week who mostly filled the top slots.
2. Meninger taps Ticonderoga for second
Jason Meninger of Gainesville, Ga., was mathematically out of the Forrest Wood Cup going into the final Tour event on Lake Champlain. Knowing he had nothing to lose points wise, he gambled heavily on the largemouths in Ticonderoga and nearly made it pay off with a Tour win, finishing runner-up.
Each day, Meninger hauled back weights of 19-2, 17-7, 19-6 and 17-11 to come within one pound of nipping Martin at the finish line with a total of 73 pounds, 10 ounces.
While Ticonderoga is typically considered a power-fishing area where frogs, vibrating jigs, punching and squarebills usually do the damage, Meninger took a “power finesse” approach to Ti in the form of light line and little worms.
“I think what spooked guys from Ti this year was the intense fishing pressure it received during practice,” Meninger says. “There were a couple of big tournaments going on down there during our practice and every good stretch had boats on it. Plus, the grass was a little messed up this year – it wasn’t the real pretty matted grass guys are used to. I think FLW guys sampled Ti during practice and scratched it off the list because they just couldn’t hop around and get bit quickly like they could in years past.”
With that in mind, Meninger went to Ticonderoga with a grinder’s mentality and a more “finesse” approach. He spent much of the week throwing a wacky-rigged straight-tail worm with a nail weight tied to 8-pound test leader in areas that are far more suitable for big baits and braided line.
He backed the wacky rig up with lightly-weighted (1/8- and 3/16-ounce) Texas-rigged 7-inch Z-Man Finesse WormZ.
Instead of trying to fish fast through multiple areas, Meninger picked one key stretch that featured grass, small jetties, pilings and rock in the grass that created large voids in the vegetation. When the wind was calm and the water slick, he opted for the wacky-rig. When the breeze picked up, he would lean more towards the Texas rigs.
“I rotated between the wacky rig on 8-pound leader, a Texas rig with 16-pound test and a creature bait on 20-pound test, depending on the wind and the cover,” Meninger says. “I intentionally fished one 200-yard long area over and over methodically, picking every thing apart with those smaller baits.”
3. Fukae went large the final day for third
After catching weights of 16-6, 18-11 and 17-5 the first three days, Shin Fukae of Palestine, Texas, brought in his biggest bag of the week on the final day – 19-10 – to cross the finish line in third place with a total of 72 pounds.
Fukae started his week fishing for bedding smallmouth in the Inland Sea. His smallmouth were enough to get him into the top-20. But on day three, when his hefty smallmouth started to dwindle, he switched up and moved to shallow milfoil to check on the largemouth bite and discovered a mother lode of green fish. He committed to the largemouths on the final day, resulting in his best catch of the week.
Much of Fukae’s smallmouth bed fishing was done with a 4-inch Yamamoto Senko (green pumpkin magic) fished on either a drop-shot or a shaky head. Once he moved shallow for the largemouth, he switched to a 3-1/2 inch Yamamoto Swimming Senko on a drop-shot rig fished on casting tackle with 12-pound test line. He also flipped a Yamamoto Flappin’ Hog on a 3/8-ounce weight.
“I did not know the largemouth in that area were so big until day three,” Fukae says. “I wish I had gone there on days one and two to help my limits.”
4. Dudley fishes history for fourth
David Dudley of Lynchburg, Va., finished the week in fourth place with daily catches of 19-13, 18-9, 17-3 and 15-7.
Dudley tried to rekindle some magic from his 2012 win on Champlain by fishing the same areas in Missisquoi that were productive in 2012. This time, however, Missisquoi did not quite have enough oomph to get him into the winner’s circle. As a result, Dudley had to drop back on some bedding smallmouths to fill in the gaps left by Missisquoi largemouths.
When targeting the offshore Missisquoi reefs in 3 to 6 feet of water, Dudley used a vibrating jig and a drop-shot. When the reef fizzled, he moved to the bank to skip a wacky rig to rocks, docks and laydowns. As for his bedding smallmouths on the New York side, a simple green pumpkin craw pitched on a ¼-ounce weight did the trick.
5. Johnston mixes it up for fifth
Chris Johnston of Peterborough, Ontario ended his rookie season on a high note – a real high note – finishing 5th in the final event on Champlain to claim the Walmart FLW Tour Rookie of the Year title and finish runner-up in the AOY standings.
Johnston caught 21-2 on the first day and backed it up with weights of 17-7, 15-4 and 16-2 for a total of 69-15.
On the first two days, Johnston caught bedding smallmouth in the mornings and then hunted lunker largemouth in the afternoons for upgrades. On the final day he made the long run to Ticonderoga to focus on largemouths.
His smallmouth lures included a wacky-rigged Yamamoto Senko and a small Keitech Swing Impact FAT swimbait on a light lead head. When targeting shallower largemouths in grass he favored a Punisher Mini Jig in sizes of 9/16-ounce and ¾-ounce when punching through thicker grass.
6. Felix sticks with smallies for sixth
FLW Tour rookie Austin Felix of Eden Prairie, Minn., scored his first Tour top 10 at Champlain with daily weights of 18-2, 18-4, 17-5 and 14-15 for total of 68-10 for the week.
Felix was one of the few pros who cracked the top 10 with an all-smallmouth game plan. He mostly bed fished along a 6-mile shoreline in the main lake and carefully managed his areas each day.
“Each day I would use up about 2 miles of shoreline and then scout the next two miles for the following day, marking new fish,” Felix says. “That worked pretty well until the last day when the wind blew and I couldn’t really find any new ones.”
For tackle, Felix kept it simple, drop-shotting a Keitech Easy Shiner swimbait in bright and natural colors to nab the spawners.
7. Schmitt ran south for seventh
Bryan Schmitt of Deale, Md., rolled the dice on the long ride to Ticonderoga for largemouth and it paid off with a seventh place finish with daily weights of 17-7, 21-5, 17-11 and 11-15.
The grass in Ticonderoga reminded Schmitt of the grass on the Potomac River where he fishes quite a bit and that’s why he committed to it. Once he got down there on day one and realized how few other competitors had made the run, he felt even better about his decision.
“I just love it down there,” Schmitt says. “The grass sets up just the way it does on the Potomac with holes, pockets and gaps. It’s some good looking stuff.”
Schmitt rotated through several lures during the week. When it was calm and slick he would lean towards frogging and flipping. When the wind blew, he favored a swim jig and a vibrating jig.
He frogged with a SPRO Bronzeye Poppin' Frog (tropical white) and pitched in the grass with a Riot Baits Fuzzy Beaver (black/blue), both on 50-pound test P-Line TCB braid. His swimming baits were a ½-ounce swimjig (white) on 15-pound test fluorocarbon and a ½-ounce Riot Baits Recon (black/blue), which is a prototype vibrating jig, tied to 50-pound braid.
8. Meyer takes eighth with all smallies
Cody Meyer of Auburn, Calif., stuck strictly to smallmouths to check in weights of 18-14, 18-3, 15-0 and 15-15 to finish eighth with a total of 68-0.
The first two days Meyer picked on bedding fish exclusively, but on days three and four he ran out of bedding fish, especially on a much windier day four when visibility was reduced.
“On the last two days I had to just fish for them on places that had scattered rock,” Meyer says. “When I couldn’t see the bedders anymore my quality went down substantially. It’s just so hard to upgrade with smallies here unless you can see them and pick the right ones to catch.”
Meyer’s smallmouth tackle included a Strike King Dream Shot on a drop-shot and a Strike King Bitsy Tube on a ¼-ounce head, both in green pumpkin and KVD magic.
9. Strader plays it safe for ninth
Coming into Champlain, Wesley Strader of Spring City, Tenn., was in 18th place for the Forrest Wood Cup so he played it safe, banking on the consistency of smallmouths in the final event to finish ninth. His scorecard for the week was 18-0, 16-8, 16-9 and 14-2 for a total of 65-3.
Once Strader had the Cup made after day two, he gambled a little more on days three and four, fishing for largemouths.
“I figured if I could catch 18 pounds a day the first two days, I’d be locked in (the Cup),” Strader says. “So I spent my practice marking as many beds as I could find. By the time the tournament started I had 50 or 60 fish marked and I just hopped bed to bed, picking them off with a Zoom Z Craw Jr. (tilapia) and throwing a W Dawg by PH Custom Lures as search bait.”
When he moved up shallow to fish for largemouths, Strader punched milfoil with a Zoom Z Hog (California 420) teamed with a 1-ounce Reins tungsten weight.
“I like it when I can use the same Powell Max 3D 795 flipping stick all week for smallmouth and largemouth,” Strader says. “I used one with 20-pound test Gamma Edge fluorocarbon for the smallies and one with 60-pound test Gamma Torque for the largemouths.”
10. Blaylock finishes 10th for “moral victory”
After checking in weights of 18-3, 18-4, 15-5 and 11-13 for a total of 63-9, Stetson Blaylock of Benton, Ark., called his 10th place finish at Champlain a moral victory.
“This is the first time I’ve ever cashed a check on this lake, so I’m happy to get the Champlain monkey off my back,” Blaylock says. “This place has been a thorn in my side ever since I fished it as a co-angler. It’s just so big and vast and every bank is loaded with 2-pounders. You can catch 12 pounds almost anywhere but it won’t do you any good at weigh-in.”
Blaylock pulled the Champlain thorn from his side this week by covering miles of water looking for the right grade of fish.
“I was planning on fishing out in that 12- to 14-foot range until I got up on the bank and saw how many were still cruising around and spawning up shallow,” Blaylock says. “From that point on, I just stayed on the trolling motor looking, covering miles of points, bars and flats until I would find a group of better ones.”
While burning down the flats, Blaylock threw a Livingston Lures Walking Boss topwater to cover water. When he spied a sizeable fish on bed he tempted it by rigging a 5-inch Yamamoto Senko wacky-style on a drop-shot or with a Yamamoto Shad Shape Worm on a drop-shot.