When smallmouth are involved, especially the giants like swim in the St. Lawrence River, anything can happen. This week, it did.
From several mega bags over 24 pounds to Joey Cifuentes amassing a near 7-pound lead going into the final day to Cody Pike catching his best bag the final day to overtake a faltering Cifuentes, the Savage Arms Stop 6 Presented by Abu Garcia on the St. Lawrence River was a fitting end to a great season.
And as mentioned, there were plenty of giant smallmouth caught this week both near takeoff and 90 miles away, both deep and shallow.
He’s lives more than 15 hours away, but Matthew Stefan definitely had some familiarity with his surroundings this week on the St. Lawrence.
“It’s amazing to me just how much this place sets up like back home [in Wisconsin],” says Stefan. “I’ve been able to break this fishery down the same way as the Mississippi River or the Wisconsin River, but instead of being in 2 feet of water the fish are deeper. But they’re setting up the same way.”
While other top anglers made runs in excess of 60 miles at least, Stefan stayed closer to takeoff and fished sloping breaks and points that created current seams. Sometimes the fish were up on top in 15 feet of water and sometimes they were at the base in 40 feet. Either way, he was weeding through plenty of fish on various colors of Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worms on a ½-ounce or 5/16-ounce drop-shot depending on the current.
That pattern allowed him to accomplished his main goal – finish in the top 50 to qualify for the Tackle Warehouse TITLE. However, he felt the seams started to dry up the final two days. Throw in some weaker current, and Stefan made the move to some shallow, 3-foot flats a little on Day 3 and most of Day 4, where he was able to catch fish on a Ned rig.
For three days, things could not have gone better for Joey Cifuentes.
In practice, he’d used an underwater camera in the clear water to actually look at fish on various offshore humps. Doing so, he found multiple deep humps near Frontenac and Clayton that came up 25-30 feet and were loaded with better quality fish.
The fruits of those finds spoke for themselves, as he cracked two 24-pound bags in three days and had a near 7-pound lead going into the final day. His main tool was a 3/8-ounce drop-shot armed with a No. 2 Berkley Fusion19 hook tipped with various colors of Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worms. He threw it on a 7-foot, medium-heavy Abu Garcia Veracity spinning rod and Abu Garcia Revo X spinning reel spooled with 10-pound Berkley X5 braid to an 8-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon leader.
He’d also mixed in a secondary pattern tossing a custom-made 3/32-ounce hair jig around shallow flats that had produced some key fish.
Unfortunately, Sunday was “the most sickening” day of fishing of his life because of the lead he lost and the fact that despite trying everything, he simply never got any bigger bites.
“I checked everything I had, and it just didn’t work out,” says Cifuentes. “[The last day], the current was so weird. It didn’t feel right deep, and I should’ve went shallow, I guess. But at the same time, I couldn’t abandon my deep bite, and I just only caught small ones. That’s all there is to it.”
To make matters worse, Cifuentes’ fall to third put him literally one point out of qualifying for the TITLE.
If you need to know what Scott Dobson did this week, just look at just about every other tournament he’s fished here on the St. Lawrence.
Few anglers risked as much as the Michigan pro, as Dobson made the 90-mile run to fish the same shallow flats near Wolfe Island where he won a Toyota Series event back in 2016 and finished second in 2019. Why?
“Something about that area; there are just more big fish shallow,” says Dobson. “Up [near takeoff] you might see one or two. Down there, there are five, six, seven. That creates more competition. So, it makes it easier to get one to fire, and then the others go, too.”
While it looks random, Dobson precisely looked for weed seams and “blue diamonds” (bare patches of sand) to fire a multitude of baits. Depending on the conditions, he cycled through various jerkbaits like the Megabass Vision 110 or Lucky Craft Pointer, or a Duo Realis Spinbait to try and cover water or get a fish to follow his lure. If one did or he saw one cruising, he’d immediately pitch a Ned rig with a Z-Man Finesse TRD or a 3/8-ounce drop-shot tipped with a Berkley Gulp! 3-inch minnow (watermelon pearl).
While Day 3 doomed his chances of the win, he still accomplished his key goal of finishing in the top four so he could qualify for the Bass Pro Tour event on his home waters of Lake St. Clair.
“That’s all I wanted [on Day 4], and I got it,” says Dobson.
All Jon Canada can wonder is what if – what if he was able to fish his main spot either of the final two days.
Prior to the event, Canada spent a week or two on the fishery and found boulders near Alexandria Bay that had more current than others. However, he also realized something unique about them.
“Everyone wants to spot fish and drift their lure straight under the boat, but those fish were feeling the pressure from the boat,” says Canada. “So, I would get back off and cast to the boulder.”
Where it really gets interesting is Canada also downsized his drop-shot weight to a 3/8-ounce and ¼-ounce. Why? So he could make repeated casts to get the lure placed just right to let the current slowly take it by the boulder.
“And if I got the right cast and got it close, my line would just tighten up every time,” says Canada, who utilized a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worm or a prototype, larger-sized Reaction Innovations Shiver Shot on a No. 1 Owner Mosquito Light hook with braid and a P-Line leader.
Sure enough, he had his area so dialed in that on Day 2, he had 21 pounds and was done fishing by 9 a.m. Unfortunately, when he left it, he never would get to fish it right again. His boat broke down on Day 3 and he ended up fishing the rest of the day in the same boat with fellow pro Erik Luzak. And Day 4 didn’t go much better.
“I pulled up on my best place I’d been catching them on, and there was a guide boat on it,” says Canada. “So I just scrapped everything. I didn’t even get to catch a fish off the place I caught all my fish the first two days.”
It’s kind of staggering how well John Cox can perform when he has no pattern. And truly, he barely had any semblance of a pattern this week.
Sure, his Day 1-leading bag looked like he had everything figured out, but in reality, he says he never did. All he knew was he had some fish shallow, and really, that’s all someone like him needs.
“I had three little points and two sandbars where I saw quite a few swimming around in practice,” says Cox of his areas near takeoff. “So during the event I’d either catch them when I saw them cruising around or on the edges of where I saw them up shallow.
“At first I thought they were wanting to spawn, but more I think they were just deep fish who had come up to eat something and then go back out. I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure it out.”
Regardless of his pattern, all his fish came on a buffet of Berkley PowerBait MaxScent offerings.
“I used the Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Lil’ Trooper, Hit Worm, Flat Worm, and the Flatnose Minnow. And I used them on everything from a jig head to a drop-shot to weightless,” says Cox. “I was always switching, though I learned I really had to slow down as the event went along.”
One change he made this week was switching from his typical 7-foot, medium Abu Garcia Fantasista Premier spinning rod to a 7-6 model with the jighead to make longer casts to the wary shallow fish.
Skeet Reese had one goal when he flew back from Italy for this event: to win Angler of the Year. And a Top 10 should’ve secured it. Unfortunately for Reese, Michael Neal cut him no slack and finished 11th to shut the door on his chances.
That said, his Top 10 this week gave him back-to-back top finishes on the St. Lawrence in a month after finishing third at the Bass Pro Tour event here at the end of June. Even more impressive is he caught his fish in both tournaments in the exact same area in Eel Bay on the exact same lures.
Fishing a massive, shallow sand flat, Reese used a 1-2 punch of a Lucky Craft Pointer 78 DD in Table Rock shad to cover water, and a wacky-rigged 4-inch Berkley PowerBait MaxScent The General in green pumpkin to pitch to fish he saw follow the jerkbait or just cruising around. On The General, he’d pitch it weightless if it was calm or he’d rig it wacky-style on a drop-shot if it was windier, with both rigs tied on a 12-pound Berkley Nanofil mainline with an 8-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon leader.
While he had some solid bags the first two days, Day 3 is when he made his move with a 24-pound bag on the lone sunny day of the event.
“These smallmouth love sun, and the calmer water, I was able to fish more efficiently [on Day 3],” says Reese. “It’s funny. I fished all the same stuff the last couple of days and never caught a 4-pounder. So on Day 3, to catch 24 pounds is like, ‘OK?!’”
To say Ron Nelson was all over the place this week is an understatement.
With vast history and knowledge of the fishery and smallmouth, in general, Nelson sampled just about anything and everything from near Massena all the way to the mouth of Lake Ontario more than 90 miles away. And his tactics were equally as all over.
He spent plenty of time with a flogger catching fish still on beds on a specific pair of islands near Clayton, but he also fished deep drops, shallow flats, isolated rocks and anything that looked good. The reason is nothing came easy. On Day 2, alone he only caught five keepers and never had a truly stellar day despite what he brought to the scales.
“It just wasn’t easy throughout the entire tournament,” says Nelson.
As for presentations, he did damage with a ton of lures, but his two main ones were an Outkast Tackle Feider Fly hair jig and a Gajo Baits Spirit Shad on a drop-shot.
“I just don’t know,” says Nelson. “I really thought this tournament would be a deep tournament, but I never found any mega schools. So I had to try a little bit of everything.”
Smallmouth events usually mean light line and spinning gear. Justin Cooper decided that wasn’t for him.
“I fished my strength,” says Cooper. “I drug a Carolina rig with 16-pound line and manhandled ‘em. I caught them on a big boy rod. That’s how I like to do it.”
His bait of choice was a V&M J-Bug (green pumpkin) on a 3/0 Owner Rig-N-Hook behind a ¾-ounce Rougarou Tackle tungsten weight on 16-pound Sunline Shooter. Of course, with all the zebra mussels in the St. Lawrence, he donated quite a few of those sinkers.
“Almost all my sinkers I brought are gone,” says Cooper. “I had to teach myself to re-tie after every drift.”
As for where he was fishing, he had more than a dozen spots from Morristown to Chippewa Bay that had scattered rock the size of “basketballs to big beach balls” on points or flats in 25-35 feet. While the fish bit his Carolina rig all day, he said from noon to 2 p.m. is when he did most of his damage and got his bigger bites.
Look, smallmouth get off about as well as any fish out there. It’s just a fact you’re going to lose some. Unfortunately, that became a morning ritual for Aaron Britt all week.
“It was unbelievable,” says Britt. “I lost my first three fish each morning and then caught a big one.”
At least he caught that big one every morning to kick things in the right direction, as he started out fishing shoals near Chippewa Bay the first two days, but as the week went on he stayed closer and closer to takeoff looking for deeper, 18-24-foot shoals and current breaks, as he feels the fish got deeper with the pressure.
Regardless of location, he caught most his fish on a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce Wicked Weights tungsten weight drop-shot tipped with a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worm. He threw it on a his signature 7-foot, 4-inch iRod Genesis spinning rod rigged with 20-pound Seaguar Smackdown Braid to an 8-pound Seaguar Tatsu leader.