The two most recent Costa FLW Series events on Lake Champlain have been dominated by spawning smallmouths. In 2017, Ron Nelson won with a combo of spawning smallies and cruising largemouths. This year, though he tried to add largemouths, Nelson came away with the win with only smallmouths. He weighed in 60 pounds over three days.
Both years, the smallmouth spawn has been somewhat extended. In 2017 it was put down to a cold spring. This year a variety of factors may have impacted it. The two likeliest are that the water dropping fairly quickly dissuaded the main bulk of smallies from spawning when they normally would have, and that the weather was extremely inconsistent and cooler than usual.
Champlain kicked out absolutely stupendous weights this time around. It took 5 pounds, 7 ounces more to win this year than it did last year, and 19 pounds per day to make the top 10 cut. Averaging exactly 15 pounds per day was enough to land Alex Davis in 110th, and it took more than 16 1/2 pounds per day to get paid. All that came with minimal involvement from largemouths or the Ticonderoga waters in the southern end.
2. Carnright needs one more fish
Brett Carnright has played the smallmouth spawn masterfully the last two years for a pair of top-10 finishes. This year, he led the first two days before weighing 18-9 on the final day for a 59-8 total that was just shy of Nelson’s winning weight.
Carnright caught one spawner from the Inland Sea and a few from the main lake around Isle La Motte, but most of his fish came north of Isle La Motte around the Rouses Point section of the lake. Those fish were the key to his lead the first few days, and he was catching them off beds in 12 feet of water.
“I was fishing deep, but definitely farther off the bank than anyone else,” says Carnright. “I didn’t see anybody as far off the bank as I was. I was fishing mainly flats, rather than steeper banks.”
As evidence of how alone he was, Carnright never lost a bedding fish to another competitor. Every bed he marked in practice to fish in the tournament still had one on it when he rolled up.
He found his fish first by graphing and then by using a Flogger, or bathyscope.
“I was looking for boulders that were pretty big,” says the Plattsburgh, N.Y., angler. “I found some fish on basketball-sized rocks, all the way up to rocks the size of a truck. I never really found fish with my eyes. I found them with my Lowrance electronics and then using the Flogger.”
Carnright says the area he fished was fairly dirty in practice, but it cleared up a lot during the tournament. That made the fishing a lot easier, especially on day two when it was slick calm. That also allowed him to find some new fish just by looking after he limited out on day two. By then, he had a pretty dialed zone to look at.
“I found a lot of beds in 7 to 8 feet of water, and I found fish as deep at 16 feet on beds,” says Carnright. “It seemed like 12 feet deep was where I found pretty much every single one of my 4-pound-class fish.”
His primary bait was the same thing he used last year: a pearl white Berkley PowerBait Pro Twitchtail Minnow on a drop-shot with a 3/8-ounce weight.
3. Another Champlain top 10 for Felix
Austin Felix is building quite a June resume on Champlain. In the 2016 FLW Tour event he locked up a top 10 with spawning smallies. This year he competed for the win with smallmouths on the bed and totaled up 59-1 on the week.
“Day two was probably the biggest help,” says Felix. “I had four big ones marked from practice that I caught. Yesterday [Friday] it got so slick calm that I found two 4-pounders I caught yesterday and everything I caught today. It was relatively breezy all of practice, enough that it was hard to see deeper than about 8 feet. Then yesterday when it was slick calm I pulled out to that 10- to 12-foot range.”
Felix primarily fished the main lake north of Plattsburgh, which is where the bulk of the top 10 ended up fishing. His baits of choice were a green pumpkin 3-inch Keitech Shad Impact on a drop-shot rig, a Ned rig and a tube.
4. Big day three boosts Chris Johnston
Chris Johnston wrangled up a 5-pound smallmouth on the final day and weighed 19-12 to rocket up from eighth to fourth. Like everyone else, he concentrated almost entirely on spawning smallies.
“It’s no secret that there’s a lot of fish on beds,” says Johnston. “I came down a week before practice for a couple days and had some really nice days. And that’s when you get a chance to go find fish in 10 or 12 feet of water. I figured I had enough fish for two days, but I thought I would run out over three days. Today [Saturday] I went back to my area and caught a few 3-pounders I had left and then just started looking around, and I found a lot of new, fresh fish.”
Johnston fished all over the lake, running a Ranger 522D on day one and his regular boat on days two and three. On day one he stuck around Plattsburgh and north of there. On days two and three he went almost to the Crown Point Bridge.
Johnston caught 19-12 on days two and three, but only 18 and change on day one. His plan that day was to catch 18 pounds of smallmouths and then cull with a largemouth or two, but like so many others, the largemouth bite didn’t materialize for him. He did his smallmouth work mostly with a Jackall Crosstail Shad on a drop-shot or a small tube.
5. Adams does it again
Of the locals in the top 10, Chris Adams, Brett Carnright and Ryan Latinville all made it last year as well. Adams finished second with 53-5 in 2017. This year 57-3 was only good for fifth.
Running south from Plattsburgh, Adams targeted spawning smallmouths each day. On day one he was roughed up by the big north winds, but he rebounded nicely on day two to make the cut.
“Practice was OK,” says Adams of his bed-hunting period. “I was hampered by the wind one day and storms and stuff, but I planned my day-one bag to be about 21 1/2. But, I obviously didn’t get that. I think I executed well based on what I had, but I didn’t have two 20-pound bags lined up.”
Adams says he caught perhaps 30 fish on day three and a lot of new ones, but never ran into the real big ones he needed to make a charge at the lead. He used a number of bed baits on the week, but his bread and butter was a 4-inch Keitech Swing Impact on a jighead.
6. No largemouths for Latinville
Last year Ryan Latinville picked up a handful of largemouths en route to his top 10, but this year he was totally on the smallmouth grind. It paid off with 57 pounds even and sixth place. Like last year, he and his cousin, Brett Carnright, worked together, but they ended up on somewhat different patterns.
“I had a good practice. Haus [Carnright’s nickname] and I worked together, and I figured I had a bag that could potentially win this thing, but after day one and two when they caught 20 pounds a day I knew I couldn’t,” says Carnright. “I was looking in 6 to 8 feet of water for my biggest fish. And rock or sand mixed with pea gravel seemed to be the best.”
Latinville caught just a handful of fish the first couple days, but caught 10 on the final day. He fished north of Plattsburgh the entire time. Latinville used a bathyscope a lot when he was fishing, and would often Spot-Lock with his Minn Kota trolling motor almost on top of the bed and look through the Flogger as he fished for the bass.
“Everybody thinks the Flogger finds them,” says Latinville. “The Flogger doesn’t find them. I use the Flogger just to tell me how big they are. It saves time to not have to catch them to check them. Maybe on a rough day I use it when I can’t see, but that’s it.”
7. Judd keeps rolling
Coming off a win in the T-H Marine FLW Bass Fishing League (BFL) event on Champlain the Saturday prior to the Costa, JJ Judd worked up 56-11 to notch his first Costa FLW Series top 10.
“I had a tournament the week before the BFL, and I caught my biggest ones for that,” says Judd. “Then I caught my biggest ones in the BFL and my biggest ones in the Costa. I didn’t save anything for anything.”
Judd caught a couple of fish in the Inland Sea on the final day, but mostly concentrated on finding fish in the main lake around and north of Plattsburgh.
“My strategy this week was to concentrate on shoreline where the deep water was tight to the banks,” says Judd, who was looking for a water temperature in the range of 59 to 62 degrees. “I was looking for banks where, when the wind blows out of the south, it pushes that cold basin water up against the bank.”
Judd mostly caught his fish in 8 to 10 feet, but caught a few quite shallow as well and says the really shallow fish got overlooked to an extent. For baits, he threw white, chartreuse and green pumpkin Bass Pro Shops Tender Tubes. Notably, Judd says he’s doesn’t use a Flogger at all.
8. Cory Johnston actually catches largemouths
Going into the final day, it kind of looked like Cory Johnston had the best shot at a win. Classically, you need to mix in some largemouths on Champlain, and he’d managed to do that each of the first two days, including catching a 5-10 on day one. Unfortunately, he stumbled pretty hard and dropped to eighth with 55-11 total.
“I’d go catch my weight in smallmouths every morning when I had plenty of bed fish to go to,” says Johnston. “Then I’d go in shallow when the sun got up, and I was able to sight-fish the largemouths and pick them off. They weren’t spawning, but they were in chasing bluegills and whatnot. If you could see them, you could catch them. They’d get in the thicker clumps of the grass and think they were hiding.”
Fishing a jig and a wacky rig was Johnston’s ticket for largemouths, but the nasty weather on the final day hampered that pattern. Instead of making multiple culls, he only added one green one to his limit. He fished north of Plattsburgh every day, and dabbled in the Inland Sea and the main lake.
9. Wood uses two baits
Northern Division stalwart Joseph Wood put together two great days and one decent day of smallmouth sight-fishing for a 54-7 total.
“I had five days of practice and probably 100 fish 3 pounds or better that I found,” says Wood. “I couldn’t get to all 100 in the tournament.”
Wood fished north of Plattsburgh the first days and added the Inland Sea into his game plan on day three once he was struggling. Incredibly, Wood made it through the whole derby with just two Z-Man Trick ShotZ in the shiner color. He only lost one and rigged them on a drop-shot the whole time.
10. Ignorance is bliss for Dortch
Making his first trek to Champlain, Bradley Dortch blasted ’em on days one and two before putting together a pretty bad day three.
“I was fishing south of Burlington, all the way to Button Bay,” says Dortch. “Pretty much everything was spawning or cruising. I didn’t know any better. This is the first time I’ve been here, and I started practice Sunday and then a buddy of mine [Powell Kemp] met me after that, and he’s fished here a lot. He said, ‘I just want to let you know you’re probably in the worst section of the lake. Nothing ever gets won out of there.’ But, I’d already seen some big ones cruising around, so I told him I’d take my chances.”
Dortch targeted spawners on the transitions between rock and sand in the backs of bays on the first day, usually in about 4 feet of water. On day two with the slick conditions, Dortch sight-fished deeper around bluff banks in about 8 feet of water. For baits, he used an Area 51 Pilot Fish on a drop-shot for spawners and targeted cruisers with a Table Rock-colored Jenko Fishing Pursues 110 suspending jerkbait.
“Before coming here I’d probably caught 15 total smallmouths in my life, and 10 of those were at Cumberland this year,” says the Alabama pro. “That’s why I paid my money. I figured I’d get thumped like a drum, but I wanted to come up here and learn. I had a blast. This lake is amazing. If it didn’t get so cold up here I’d probably move.”