MASSENA, N.Y. – Few places produce giant bags of smallmouth like the St. Lawrence River, and in case anyone needed a reminder, just look at the past week of the Tackle Warehouse TITLE Presented by Mercury.
It took nearly 20 pounds a day to advance past the Qualifying Rounds, 21 pounds to get out of the Knockout Round, and even with ugly conditions the final day, there were still six bags over 20 pounds, with Spencer Shuffield’s 22-12 taking home the belt.
No surprise, drop-shots, Ned rigs and Carolina rigs were the main offerings, but the pros in the top spread out along more than 90 miles of the river this week to catch their fish.
“I blew it.”
That’s all Dakota Ebare could think when he got off the water on Sunday, and it’s hard to fault him. Losing by 12 ounces when you lost two 5-pounders is a tough pill to swallow, but it’s what happened to him the final day.
Fishing the Canadian side down near Clayton, Ebare quietly put himself in contention through the Qualifying and Knockout rounds by fishing “subtle stuff” most anglers would overlook. Though, his offering of choice was typical – a Strike King 3X ElazTech Baby Z-Too (shad colors) on a No. 1 Owner Mosquito “Light” Hook above a 5/8-ounce WOO! Tungsten weight. He threw the rig on a 6-foot, 9-inch Hammer spinning rod and used a Lew’s Custom Lite spinning reel spooled with 10-pound Seaguar Smackdown. He originally started the tournament with an 8-pound test Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon leader but switched to 6-pound as the week went on, which he said made a big difference in the number of bites.
Come the final day, he sure got the right bites, but things simply never aligned.
“I lost a 5-pounder right before the weather hit,” Ebare said. “It started blowing so hard I couldn’t hardly do anything. So, I put on a football jig so I could feel it down there. Well, I get hooked up and it comes up and gets off. It was another 5-pounder. Either would’ve helped since I weighed in a 3 ½-pounder.”
While a great finish, this marked the fifth top-three finish of the season for Ebare between Pro Circuit, Toyota Series and Bass Pro Tour events. Obviously, he’s happy to have such success, but he admits it’s hard to be so close without yet getting that signature win.
“I’m frustrated right now, but I’ll look back in hindsight and be alright,” Ebare said. “One day it’s going to click. Eventually all these really close calls will pay off. It’s making me a better angler.”
The pressure of a championship can wear on even the most veteran angler, let alone a young one like Jacob Wall. That’s why he decided to adjust his mindset.
“I came into this tournament with the mindset to go have fun,” Wall said. “If I put pressure on myself, that never works out.
“I fished new spots every day of the tournament. I just ran around based on what felt right and had a blast.”
While the majority of the top anglers made runs of at least 60 miles and upwards of 90, Wall started the event right near takeoff fishing “hard spots” – barge ties, sea walls, etc. – with a drop-shot. He used a 7-foot, 2-inch medium Phenix M1 rod and his drop-shot lure of choice was a Strike King Half Shell (green pumpkin purple).
However, come the Knockout Round, his gut told him it was time to adjust, as he then ran roughly 25 miles to the Ogdensburg area where he began drifting shoals anywhere from 25 to 45 feet of water with a Carolina-rigged Zoom UltraVibe Speed Craw.
“I just had fun,” Wall said. “I mean, the last day with 45 minutes left, I caught my biggest fish on a place I’d drifted all four days, and it was my only bite there. So, it was another great decision.
“Honestly, it was a great season, and I can’t wait to get out on the Bass Pro Tour next year.”
Kurt Mitchell’s finish looks stellar, but to say it was a frustrating roller coaster at times is an understatement. Then again, that frustration also helped get him to the Championship Round.
Fishing down near Chippewa, he was fishing the front side of shoals in 20-50 feet, with a handful being his better ones. The first day of the Qualifying Round, he had one particular shoal with a buoy marker that produced three big bites. However, come the second day, the fish all turned to little ones. In fact, he barely could catch one over 3 pounds the entire second day, he said.
Come the third day, that buoy marker shoal was empty, which “pissed him off” and ultimately turned around his day.
“I decided I was going to figure out where they went,” Mitchell said. “I started searching that shoal the buoy was on, and sure enough, there were three little depressions in that shoal maybe 200 yards away, the area inside the area, and that’s where I caught them.”
The result was “one of those days,” as he used an Impulse rod rigged with Megabass Spark Shad on a drop-shot to win the Knockout Round with the largest bag of the event.
But guess what happened the fourth day with the crummy conditions?
“The fish got smaller again,” Mitchell said. “That’s smallmouth for you.”
Having a lot of options can be a good thing. Too many, though, can actually be a detriment, as Martin Villa found out.
Hanging on the Canadian side around Eel Bay, the rookie was drifting a large area of humps and shoals in amongst the islands there. The only issue with that, he said, was trying to hit it all.
“I didn’t even hit half what I wanted every day,” Villa said. “It’s not that I didn’t have stuff to fish. It’s whether or not I had the time.”
The long run down meant he only had a few hours to get his “100 packs” of f Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worms in the water, which he did with plenty of efficiency. His setup included a 7-foot, 2-inch Douglas XMatrix rod spooled with braid tied to an 8-pound-test Gamma Touch fluorocarbon leader. A No. 1 Gamakatsu Drop/Split Shot Hook and ½-ounce WOO! Tungsten weight completed the presentation.
In practice, he found a key area of humps that produced a 27-pound bag, and those were the ones he focused on most throughout the event. However, both during the Knockout Round and in the Championship Round, he wishes he’d expanded to new water sooner.
“The mistake I made was I didn’t go fish new water sooner each day, because as soon as I did, I’d catch big ones,” Villa said. “It’s hard to leave areas where you know there’s fish when you only have four hours, though.”
Watching the live leaderboard on majorleaguefishing.com, Josh Bragg’s name tended to be at the bottom every single day … until it suddenly wasn’t. That’s because when Bragg found his fish down near Clayton, he sacked them up quick.
“Those smallmouth seemed move around a lot,” Bragg said. “I had one spot that had 100 fish on it one day, and the next, gone. I had to bounce around a lot, but when I found them, I could catch them really quick.”
What he bounced to and from were steep shoals in 30 to 50 feet of water that he said had more current on them than most.
There, he deployed a Megabass Hazedong Shad (shad colors) on a drop-shot or a 3/8-ounce Ned rig with a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Lil’ General on it, targeting fish setting up on the deep sides of shoals.
Three Top 10s, two top 20s, the Polaris Rookie of the Year title, winning his group in the Qualifying Round of the TITLE – yeah, this year was a pretty banner start to Nick Hatfield’s career.
And had the weather been better the final day, he feels there was a good chance it would’ve ended with him holding the TITLE belt.
The Tennessee pro was making the longest run of anyone in the Top 10, more than 90 miles up the Canadian side to an area where he had found roughly a dozen boulders strewn across a massive shoal. And on each one was anywhere from a couple to a pile of giant smallmouth.
Thus, all he had to do is roam around watching his Garmin Panoptix LiveScope for those isolated rocks. When he saw one, he’d pitch at it with a drop-shot on a Doomsday Tackle Co. rod. His setup consisted of an 8-pound-test Sunline fluorocarbon leader, an Angler Tungsten weight, No. 2 Hayabusa DSR132HD hook and a slew of various goby-colored baits, including a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worm and Megabass Hazedong Shad.
When he found the right boulder, Hatfield put on quite a show the first two days. Case in point, he caught a 6 1/4-pounder, 5 ¾-pounder and then lost another big one in three drops to start his second day to help him win his group.
Unfortunately, come the Championship Round, the storms and clouds allowed the fish to roam around more from those boulders and killing his pattern.
“It’s still surreal to be here and doing this, and I’ll take the Top 10,” Hatfield said. “But now I’m ready for a win.”
Three straight championships. Three straight Top 10s, including a win. Not a bad streak to be on for Bobby Lane.
While not known as a smallmouth expert, the 2022 REDCREST Champion has been doing this long enough to know how to maximize his practice. And that’s exactly how he kept his Top-10 streak alive.
“The way I practiced this week was when I got my first big bite, I remembered the depth I was in and what the rock looked like,” Lane said. “There’s all different kinds of rock out here, but if you could figure out which ones the big ones were on, that was the ticket.”
Turns out, there were on ones in 32 feet of water down near the Chippewa area, and they were more than willing to eat his Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worms, switching between green pumpkin when it was sunny and brown back when it was cloudy. He rigged the lures with a ½-ounce Flat Out Tungsten weight on 8-pound-test SpiderWire DuraBraid to a 6-pound-test Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon leader. And a big key, he said, was his new 7-foot Abu Garcia Zenon rod.
“It’s so sensitive,” Lane said. “You could detect the weight going over the rock and then when the fish picked it up. It really made a difference.”
Seeing Matt Becker in the top 10 of a smallmouth derby is pretty par for the course. He’s one of the best at chasing brown fish on the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit. Then again, you might not have known that based on his practice.
“I had a tough practice,” Becker said. “I wasn’t on much at all. I ended up finding three drifts, and I milked them all week.”
The drifts were over what Becker called “slate rock” with depressions. Some days they were on the front of the depression, and some days on the back. But what never changed were those three drifts and his offering. He rigged up a drop-shot on a 7-foot, 2-inch medium-heavy Favorite Hex rod and Favorite reel spooled with 15-pound-test Seaguar Smackdown to an 8-pound-test Seaguar Tatsu leader. A ½-ounce Epic Tungsten weight was below a No. 2 Trokar TK150 holding a Megabass Hazedong Shad (green pumpkin shad).
“I’m pumped about this week,” Becker said. “I had such a horrible practice, to scratch and claw and stumble into the Top 10 is awesome.”
Someone always seems to make the Top 10 fishing the islands around the American Narrows. In this derby, it was Kyle Cortiana.
The intense current creates rolling sand dunes that can undulate from 20 to 60 feet, creating numerous current seams for smallmouth to tuck into. And for three days, the Oklahoma pro plucked out plenty of them using a 7-foot, 3-inch medium-light Kistler Chromium rod rigged up with a YUM FF Sonar Minnow or YUM Warning Shot (shad colors) on a drop-shot.
The ultimate goal was to make the Championship Round, where Cortiana said he had been saving a place down near Kingston. And sure enough, everything went according to plan … until it didn’t.
“I started out in the Narrows [the final day], but I wish I wouldn’t have,” Cortiana said. “I eventually went down to that spot I’d been saving and immediately caught a 5-pounder and I could see 50 more fish down there. But then I lost one that would’ve gone 5 pounds and buggered them all up. There’s no telling what I could’ve caught had that not happened.”