The most recent FLW Tour event was the first to be held on the Mississippi River in La Crosse, Wis., giving anglers a clean slate to work from in terms of prior tournament knowledge and history. The number of FLW Tour pros who had sampled Pools 7, 8 and 9 in May prior to the tournament was low.
The playing field in La Crosse was then again leveled by copious amounts of rain, high water, muddy currents and falling surface temperatures. What was supposed to be a spawn-fest turned into a grinder where just surviving the influx of mud along the river was the goal.
Bryan Schmitt of Deale, Md., won the event by fishing grass in Pool 8 where a new crop of fresh prespawn bass was holding up for the next mating opportunity. Schmitt was really the only one in the top 10 who committed to grass exclusively for four days.
Behind him, the other nine competitors found success on a variety of target areas, including wing dams, flooded bushes and trees, and current breaks.
2. Weaver “wings it” for second
Joshua Weaver of Macon, Ga., spent four days camped on a single wing dam in Pool 8 to catch 58 pounds, 11 ounces and finish second.
“I fished a lot of wing dams during practice, and most of them were trashed with muddy water by tournament time,” Weaver says. “But for some reason the water on this one wing dam never got muddy like the rest of them. It stayed pretty much the same color as it was in practice, and it was stacked with fish.”
Weaver says that the fish bit in flurries. He would go awhile without a bite and then catch four or five in a row. Each day the wing dam produced a kicker fish of some 4 to 5 pounds that helped him make up ground in the livewell.
“I think what made that one wing dam so special was that it was positioned near a backwater, and it received some of that warmer, clearer backwater instead of that colder, pure mud coming down the river,” Weaver adds.
3. Morgan masters the woods for third
Andy Morgan of Dayton, Tenn., threatened to win the Mississippi River tournament when he led the event after day two. However, he eventually fell to third with a total of 58 pounds, 10 ounces.
Despite not winning, Morgan will be the first to say he had a fun week in La Crosse, fishing the way he loves to fish, which is pitching to flooded bushes and trees. He spent the tournament in a backwater slough in Pool 9.
“What was so fun about it was the number of smallmouths that were bedding that far back in the woods,” Morgan says. “I’d pitch over there to the base of a tree, my line would go tong and then I’d be battling a 3-pound smallmouth in the woods. In all my life, I have never seen smallmouths up in flooded cover like that. It was crazy.”
Morgan believes the smallmouths moved in with the largemouths in the flooded woods because they needed to find hard bottom content for spawning.
“Some of those places were hard, gravely bars in those backwaters, and I’m sure that those smallmouths were seeking them out to spawn on,” Morgan adds. “Even though I weighed in mixed bags, it did seem like the smallmouths would be in one particular section of the slough and the largemouths would use another section.”
4. Auten churns in backwaters
Todd Auten spent most of his week in a flooded backwater in Pool 8 to record a fourth-place finish with a total of 58 pounds.
Auten ground through a series of lures that included a vibrating jig with a Zoom Z Craw trailer, a 1/2-ounce Stan Sloan’s Zorro Bait Co. Booza Bug with a Zoom Speed Craw trailer, a 1/2-ounce Zorro spinnerbait and a Zoom Z-Nail worm rigged weightless.
The slough featured a variety of targets, including flooded trees, laydowns and grass.
“The thing that suited me the most about that area was the water color,” Auten says. “It wasn’t too muddy, and it wasn’t too clear. It seemed like if I got in too clear of water all I caught were pike.”
5. Nixon rises to fifth in Pool 9
Each day of the event, Larry Nixon of Bee Branch, Ark., scratched and clawed his way up through the standings with limits of roughly 14 pounds. Nixon’s consistency came from a large main-river eddy located in the top of Pool 9. There, he caught mixed species on a variety of baits, including a 1/2-ounce War Eagle spinnerbait, a 1.5 square-bill crankbait, a shaky head and a Ned rig.
Nixon backed his eddy pattern up with a flooded backwater where he pitched a Yamamoto Flappin' Hog Texas-rigged with a 5/16-ounce weight.
6. Strader stays in the woods for sixth
Wesley Strader of Spring City, Tenn., also moved up each day in the standings, starting the event in 34th, then jumping up to eighth before gaining a spot per day until he settled into sixth at the checkered flag with a total of 56 pounds, 14 ounces.
Strader did most of his damage in a backwater in Pool 9 by pitching a 1/2-ounce jig teamed with a Zoom Big Salty Chunk to flooded trees and bushes.
He also caught a few weigh fish on a ChatterBait and a spinnerbait.
“Most of that flooded stuff was too junky to cast moving baits around, so I mostly had to pitch,” he says. “Every now and then I could find a clean lane or open area where I could cast a ChatterBait or spinnerbait and get bit.”
7. Spawning smallmouths deliver for Felix
Austin Felix of Eden Prairie, Minn., plied the currents of the Mississippi for bedding smallmouths for a seventh-place finish with 56 pounds, 8 ounces.
Felix’s strategy going into the event was to ride the wave of spawning smallmouths for as long as he could to make the top 10 and then light up the largemouths in obscure flooded backwaters for a grand finale.
The smallmouths held up their end of the bargain, getting him into the top 10, but the big largemouth finale on the final day did not happen.
For the first three days, Felix targeted spawning smallmouths along banks in Pool 9 in areas he called “off current, but near current.” The banks were near current, but featured plenty of rocks and laydowns to break the flow enough for smallmouths to spawn.
His primary lures for the week included a 4-inch Extreme Bass Tackle Tube Texas-rigged with a 5/16-ounce weight and 3.8 Keitech Swing Impact FAT rigged on a 1/16-ounce belly-weighted hook.
8. Marked beds get Stefan to eighth
Matt Stefan of Junction City, Wis., led the tournament after day one with the heaviest limit of the event – 18 pounds even – but fell to eighth place by the final day with 55 pounds, 10 ounces.
During the practice period, Stefan scoured the riverbanks, looking for smallmouth beds. Although he could not necessarily see the beds with his eyes, he used a topwater to tease the fish to the surface to reveal their locations; then he marked the spots. In the tournament, Stefan returned to the marks with a Texas-rigged Yamamoto Senko (black and blue laminate) with a 3/16-ounce weight and pitched to the marks. When the Senko got close enough to the bed, a smallmouth let him know it.
Stefan had planned to keep returning to the bedding areas throughout the tournament, as smallmouths are notorious for hijacking unused beds. But cold, muddy water put a temporary freeze on the replenishment program, and Stefan had to go grinding to finish the event.
9. Dudley grabs ninth
David Dudley of Lynchburg, Va., finished ninth with a total of 54 pounds, 10 ounces.
For the first two days of the event, Dudley fished one spot in grass in the Stoddard area. Once the area played out, he junked his way up and down the river, throwing his own 3/16-ounce Perfection Lures Sure Hook Up Shaky Head and a wacky rig on a Favorite USA Summit spinning rod.
10. Atkins rounds out top the 10
For the second time in his rookie season on the FLW Tour, Justin Atkins of Florence, Ala., scored a top 10. He finished with 53 pounds, 3 ounces.
Atkins started the tournament in grass, fishing a wacky-rigged Yamamoto Senko and a Reaction Innovations Skinny Dipper. But when the currents of the Mississippi washed mud through his primary area, Atkins had to scramble around into backwaters where he pitched a Reaction Innovations Sweet Beaver Texas-rigged with a 3/8-ounce weight on 25-pound-test Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon.
“Once my best grass area washed out, I just started running backwaters until I could find warmer water,” Atkins says. “That main river water was cold. If I could find something out of the current that was few degrees warmer, that was the ticket.”