LA CROSSE, Wis. – A brief stint of rising water before the start of the Tackle Warehouse TITLE Presented by Mercury on the Mississippi River led to the anglers dealing with falling water during the official practice, and because of it, the fishing was a bit off. As the tournament wore on, the river stabilized, and the Top 10 anglers dialed the river in more and more.
It’s no surprise that Pool 8 was the top producer, however, Pools 7 and 9 were both represented in the Championship Round, with the common thread between them being bait and current.
TITLE champion Jimmy Washam hung in the Black River targeting shallow eelgrass loaded with shad for his first few days of competition before running to the southern end of Pool 8 to capitalize on a closing dam at the mouth of a backwater he had some good bites in during practice. The closing dam was loaded with big shad, and in turn, plenty of 3-plus-pounders, which were gold on the river.
The rest of the top pros hung near sand drops, cut banks or emergent grass to catch both smallmouth and largemouth on their way to a solid finish to wrap the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit Presented by Bad Boy Mowers season.
Bobby Lane has had a phenomenal season on both the Bass Pro Tour and the Pro Circuit. With multiple close calls when it comes to grabbing a W, the pattern he found in the channels around Goose Island seemed like it might be the right one to finally slide into the winner’s circle in 2021.
Dropping 16 pounds, 12 ounces on the scale on the final day, Lane ultimately fell short, though he can’t complain about another great finish and a $50,000 payday.
The biggest key to Lane’s success on the river was targeting sand drops, which as the name implies, is simply a sand bar that can be inches of water deep on top and several feet deep on the downstream side with current rolling over it. Despite having been the Mighty Miss several times before in his career, Lane admits he never really got a chance to exploit sand drops until last week.
“I’ve never fished sand drops in my life. I mean, I have, but I’ve always heard about it up here and never got to catch much off of them,” Lane said. “One day in practice it was really, really clear out. Bright, bluebird skies and the water was clean and you could see where the sand met the drop and I would throw a Berkley Choppo up there and they were throttling it in practice. I cut the hooks and started running around and finding as many as I could and wound up finding three.
“These sand drops are 100 to 200 yards long and when the waters up those smallmouth get up on top of the sand. In practice, I could literally see them swimming around. Then the water dropped, and I started catching them on the back of the drop. And I think that was one thing that helped me as the event went on, the more the water dropped and got stable, they set up on them better.”
For the sand drops and nearby cut banks, Lane tossed either a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent The General, Berkley Choppo, Berkley Cane Walker or a Z-Man Evergreen ChatterBait JackHammer Stealth Blade with a Berkley PowerBait Grass Pig Jr. trailer. He threw almost everything on 30- to 50-pound SpiderWire Ultracast braid with a 20-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon leader, except for the ChatterBait, which he threw on 15-pound fluoro.
With the water levels lower than they’ve been in past MLF events on the river, navigating the back channels around Goose Island wasn’t as easy as usual. It meant having the right equipment for the job, whether it was to help catch fish, or avoid getting stuck on a sand bar.
“Realistically, my Bob’s Jac™ Plate, Power-Poles, my Phoenix and Yamaha helped me float shallow in the areas I needed to fish,” Lane said. “Using my Google mapping on my Lowrance, I knew where I was and knew where I could move around in Goose with the water being where it was.”
Zack Birge has called the Mississippi River around La Crosse his “favorite place in the whole country” before and it didn’t disappoint at the TITLE.
Focusing his efforts early and late in the day just downstream of the Pettibone Boat Club, Birge had no issues catching fish on a sand flat with grass and loads of bait on it. Throwing a weightless white pearl shad Googan Baits Dart on his signature 7-foot, 1-inch, medium-action Favorite Rush spinning rod spooled with straight 15-pound Yo-Zuri SuperBraid did the trick day in and day out.
“The old glory hole never let me down,” Birge said of his usual spot. “But I had to just keep running new water every day of the event and got bit every day in different places doing a little different stuff.
“I caught my biggest fish on a ChatterBait in an area on Day 2 and then never got a bite there on Day 3. So, I just had to keep covering water.”
After leaving his starting area, Birge explored the numerous sand drops around the Goose Island area.
“It was more the sand drops where there’d be a point and the sand would rise up in front of it and fall off in a hole right before a clay point,” he said. “Most of those holes had fish in them. It wasn’t like the tailing edge was the spot, but the leading edge right where the current rolls up, boils up and parts ways, that played a bigger role for me.”
After winning the Knockout Round with 15-15, Mitch Crane was worried that he may have won the wrong round. A cooler morning on the Championship Round may have delayed his frog bite and as a result, he brought 13-5 to the scale for a fourth-place finish.
Despite this year’s finish not being what he wanted, Crane certainly has something going on the Mississippi River, and more specifically in Pool 7. In last year’s Pro Circuit Super Tournament, the Mississippi pro banked a top-50 finish in the upper pool and this year was no different.
“Last year, I had a deeper hole on a bar with just duckweed around it,” Crane said of his 2020 location. “This year, there was too much duckweed in that area and they weren’t concentrated. It was a totally different area this year.”
His main area this year was a combination of the right ingredients. Roughly about a ½-mile long, Crane’s spot had a little deeper water in it with clear water, an open canopy and lily pads. Plus, there was an abundance of bait, which isn’t hard to come across on the river this time of year.
Putting up some of the best weights throughout the Qualifying Rounds and in the Knockout Round, Crane seemed poised to make a series run at the TITLE thanks to his area in Pool 7. Unfortunately, things just didn’t pan out.
“I like Pool 7 because I usually have it to myself and I know the Lake Onalaska pretty well and the average size fish there is just better,” said Crane. “The average size is 2 ½ pounds, but my problem was I wasn’t around a bunch of 4-pounders. I caught one 4-pounder all week, but I was around a bunch of 2 3/4- to 3-pounders.
“The water dropped a little more [Sunday] and the cold morning killed me,” Crane added. “They didn’t start biting until about 11:30 and by then I was able to get what I got, but two of my groups didn’t fire. I pulled back up to them in the last 10 minutes and they were biting every cast, but I had to leave to make the lock.”
Crane did his damage with either a LIVETARGET 65T Hollow Body Frog or a piranha-colored SPRO Bronzeye Frog. His primary frog rod was a 7-foot, 4-inch, heavy Daiwa Tatula Elite frog rod paired with a Lew’s BB1 Pro reel spooled with 50-pound Sufix 832 braid, though he also had some 7-foot, 3-inch, medium-heavy Muddy River Rod with the same reel and line.
Targeting smallmouth and largemouth throughout the lower end of Pool 8, Skeet Reese had to evolve a little more each day throughout the event.
“The key thing was trying to find clean grass lines that were a little deeper in 4 to 6 feet of water,” Reese said. “But you had to have a nice, clean sand bottom on the edge of it. If you started getting some clumpy stuff, that was usually a little bit better. The fish were positioned in a little bit of current and there was some type of drain or flowthrough in my areas.
“The bite disappeared as the current started dropping down, so I had some really good schools of smallmouth in practice, but as the water dropped, the fish moved and I was never able to find them again.”
With his main spots drying up as the event went on, Reese started making small moves within areas that held current and clean grass lines to target largemouth in the nearby matted vegetation.
“You could slide 50 feet over and catch a largemouth and move back out and catch smallmouth,” Reese said. “They were using the same areas, it was just a matter of how you wanted to fish for them.”
To be able to target either species, a Lethal Weapon swim jig, a white buzzbait with a 4-inch Berkley PowerBait The Deal trailer (silver flash), a Snag Proof frog and a Berkley PowerBait Ca$h Out Worm on a Ned rig were staples on his deck throughout the event.
“It’s not a tournament I ever thought I’d throw a Ned rig, but when it got slick and calm they bit it. [Sunday] I caught my biggest one on it in some current, then went in 6 inches of water to a mat and caught a smallmouth on a frog, so I’m still lost.”
Hanging around the upper end of Pool 8, Joshua Weaver didn’t overcomplicate things.
Quickly noticing the abundance of bait around eelgrass and coontail, Weaver knew if he could cover some water with shad-imitating baits he could connect with some good fish.
“Day 1 to [the Championship Round] was completely different,” Weaver said of his week. “Day 1, I threw a ChatterBait a lot and caught most of my fish on it. Day 2, I still threw the ChatterBait, but I started seeing the topwater pattern start getting better and better. I got like 50 bites and missed like all of them, but three.
“In the Knockout Round, I landed like 80 percent of them and had 14 1/2 pounds. [Sunday] I should have had the biggest bag I had all week. Earlier they were just blowing up on it, but I actually hooked four over 3 ½ and lost every one of them. It was not a fun morning to be in the boat with me, but anytime you can get 13 up here is a respectable bag.”
A Heddon Super Spook Jr. was his main choice for working grass lines, but when the fish would push into the grass a white SPRO Bronzeye frog did the trick. For the Spook, a 7-foot, 2-inch, medium-heavy Favorite Hex with a 7:3.1 Favorite Soleus XCS reel spooled with 40-pound braid was the deal. When it came time to frog, a 7-foot, 3-inch, heavy Favorite Rush got the nod.
With his junior year under his belt on the Pro Circuit, Weaver is almost ready to put the boat away for the year.
“Now I’m going to be in full hunting mode, so I already told my wife I was going to be deer hunting and dove hunting when those open up in a week or so,” Weaver said. “But this was a great way to end the season. I got one more tournament coming up, which is the Toyota Series Championship on Pickwick, so we didn’t get the win at the TITLE, but maybe we’ll get it down there.”
For some pros in the TITLE, getting keeper bites wasn’t the easiest task. For Miles Burghoff, who won the Qualifying Round for Group A to get an automatic bid into the Championship Round, it was a piece of cake.
The lone angler in the Top 10 running down to Pool 9, Burghoff had several sand drops near Minnesota Slough that held an untold number of largemouth of all sizes, including one that hit the scale at 5-11.
“That area was just loaded with fish,” Burghoff said of his spots in Pool 9. “It was the only place I could find a consistent bite. It really had to do with the low water. With the falling water, you have all those really shallow backwaters and the water falls that much all those fish condense into one area and it really treated me well. I caught a ton of fish.
“But finding those sand drops and anything that went from really, really shallow, 6 inches or less, to 1 ½ to 2 feet of water helped condense the water enough to where there was a trickle of current and that’s where they were.”
The bread and butter for Burghoff on the sand drops was a ½-ounce Z-Man Evergreen ChatterBait JackHammer (chartreuse white) with a pearl Z-Man DieZel MinnowZ trailer thrown on 17-pound-test Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon, strung through a 7-foot, 3-inch, medium-heavy Fitzgerald Vursa rod with a 7.2:1 Fitzgerald VLD 10 reel. Occasionally, the Tennessee pro mixed in a 2.75-inch Z-Man Leap FrogZ (old school frog color) and a 3/16-ounce Z-Man Shaky HeadZ with either a Z-Man ZinkerZ, Big TRD or FattyZ to entice fish when they got used to the ChatterBait.
Jimmy Reese posted his best finish in his TITLE career thanks to a single weed line at the mouth of the Black River or Pool 8.
“I had a weed line and I had to figure it out each day,” Reese said. “It changed every day. I ended up throwing a Neko rig in the morning on the edge just to catch fish and then I noticed the bait would go up shallower throughout the day and about 10 o’clock things got pretty active on the weed line and even inside the weed line. So, I was really waiting for that each day and the bite just kept getting a little later each day.
“My biggest fish came in the last 10 minutes, or basically the last cast, on three of the days. So, the afternoon was better, but I just kept running out of time.”
To get the day started, Reese fished a Neko-rigged Yamamoto Senko (green pumpkin red and black flake) thrown on a 7-foot, 2-inch, medium Douglas DXS XMartix rod with a 12-pound Yo-Zuri Top Knot 100% Fluorocarbon leader and a 30-pound Yo-Zuri SuperBraid main line. As the fish moved shallower, Reese switched to a white frog and buzzbait, which he threw on 65- pound Yo-Zuri SuperBraid and a Douglas LRS rod.
Even though he was ultimately catching a lot of his fish shallow, Reese said that paying attention to his Lowrance was crucial to getting some good bites.
“I looked at my ActiveTarget and I could see the inside and outside points in the grass and knew where I could make a cast to get bit. I caught a few fish looking at them on ActiveTarget but knowing where those points underwater were in front of me was huge.”
Justin Lucas bounced around from the Black River to a bit south of the town of La Crosse to secure his Top 10 in the TITLE.
“Most of where I caught my fish was on the edge of eelgrass and then some docks,” Lucas said. “Everything was under 6 feet I’d say. I caught mostly largemouth, but I did weigh some smallmouth that I caught on topwaters.”
Because he was covering water, a Berkley J-Walker or Cane Walker lead the charge for Lucas, though a drop-shot with a 6-inch worm also helped convince reluctant bass to bite. His topwater setup was a 7-foot, 4-inch, medium-heavy prototype Abu Garcia topwater rod with an 8.0:1 Abu Garcia REVO STX reel spooled with 30-pound Berkley X9 braid and a 17-pound monofilament leader. When it came time to drop-shot, a 7-foot, medium-heavy rod with a Abu Garcia REVO Premier 30 spooled with 6-pound Berkley X5 braid tied to 8-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluoro with a 3/16-ounce weight.
Rounding out the Top 10, Adrian Avena battled the most fishing pressure of anyone on the final day and likely throughout the entire event.
Spending the majority of his time up in one of the biggest community holes on the river, Avena hunkered in below the spillway that splits Pools 7 and 8.
“I caught my fish a couple of different ways, but I was really trying to target schooling fish,” Avena said. “I had my best practice day in [Pool] 9, but that was more of a smallmouth, current related pattern and I never did go there. I ended up finding that area in the Black River that had a lot of bait in it and those fish were keying on small shad, you know, 2 ½- to 3-inch shad, and everything I was throwing was all shad-related.”
Though he threw some swimbaits and soft plastic jerkbaits, a Berkley Choppo, Cane Walker and Drift Walker were hard to beat. For his topwaters, Avena ran Abu Garcia REVO Rocket reels spooled with 40-pound Berkley X5 braid.