The season finale of the 2018 Costa FLW Series Northern Division at the 1000 Islands promises to be another banger of a tournament. Presented by Navionics and hosted by the Clayton Chamber of Commerce, the tournament is scheduled for Sept. 6-8, which is the latest in the year FLW has visited the 1000 Islands area. All indications are that it’s likely to be the best stop yet.
Though there are some largemouths to be caught if you want to, the focus of this event will be on the huge and plentiful smallmouths in the eastern end of Lake Ontario and the western end of the St. Lawrence River on the New York and Ontario border. Taking out of Clayton, N.Y., the anglers will have the option of running west into Lake Ontario, sticking around near Clayton or heading down the St. Lawrence River to the northeast.
In 2017 the lake was the place to be, and about 90 percent of the fish caught on the final day came from far out in Ontario. It’s only about a 16-mile run to get to the mouth of the river from Clayton, but to get out to Galloo Island in New York or Main Duck Island in Canada it’s 30-plus miles. That’s a haul in rough water, and you’re leaving a lot of bass in your wake to do it.
In the river, there are actually more than 1,000 islands, and almost limitless places to look for a bass. From grassy bays with largemouths to sharp breaks, rock piles, and deep and shallow flats loaded with smallies, you can really pick your poison. Though you can easily burn a lot of trolling motor battery in the river, making it back in one piece and on time is much more of a guarantee.
Going into any tournament at the 1000 Islands, the main topics of concern outside of the weather are if the fish will be shallow or deep and where they’ll be caught. Matt Becker won out deep in the lake last July, but September can be a different ballgame.
“In the river they get really spread out, and then all of a sudden, right around the second week of August, they really start to group real well, and that’s when the river starts to play a big factor,” says Chris O’Brien, who finished in the top 10 last July and mostly fished in the lake. “It’ll play a big factor in our event, because the fish in the river group even tighter than the lake fish do because the current is more consistent in the river.”
O’Brien figures that most of the fishing will be deep and fairly vertical, but says a couple fronts pushing through or some cold weather could move fish shallow. The current weather forecast suggests that most of the fish will stay deep, and that’s not a bad thing at all.
“Typically, when you’re idling to find them, guys rely on that for a more consistent bite,” says O’Brien. “When you find them shallow it’s easy to think they are roaming. Whereas when you drive over a ledge or a rock pile and see them stacked up and you can drive over them two or three times throughout practice, it’s a confidence thing. That mega bag might be shallow, but you know you can go out deep and maintain 22 or 23 pounds.”
Cal Climpson has made the top 10 the last two years at the 1000 Islands, and he says September can be a bit of a tricky month. He also notes that the water color on the lake is more stained than usual due to recent rains and an algae bloom, and that in the last two weeks the water temperature has dropped about 5 degrees.
“They’re starting to scatter. A few weeks ago they were all really loaded out in 35 to 40 feet, but I found a bunch in 25 feet [Thursday] and could only get a few to bite,” says the Canadian angler. “In September I find you can usually catch them in 40 feet to 5 feet. I think they’re starting to move; even some of the leaves are changing around here.”
Climpson has swung and missed shallow before in the river, but he says it might be a strong strategy this year.
“There seem to be more consistent shallow fish in the river year ’round, and in the fall it gets even better than in the summer,” says Climpson. “It’s all weather dependent this time of year. If you told me someone won it in 40 feet out on Main Duck or in 5 feet on a spinnerbait in the river I would believe it.”
The baits and techniques in play this week at the 1000 Islands are likely to be decently well-known. Deep smallmouths up north are awfully susceptible to a tube or a drop-shot with a small swimbait, a goby or some other little soft plastic. A few weeks ago the Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worm on a drop-shot was a killer in the Bassmaster Elite Series event on the St. Lawrence River, and it’s a potent reminder that smallies love baits with a little extra scent and taste. For shallow smallmouths, expect a jerkbait, umbrella rig, spy bait, small swimbait or hair jig to play.
The potential for giant weights is always there at the 1000 Islands. In the recent Elite Series event, Matt Lee weighed 27-12 to take the lead on day one. In the 2016 Costa FLW Series event, Chris Johnston blasted his way back into contention with 26-7 on day two. Though estimates vary, there’s a very good chance the winner has close to or more than 70 pounds for three days.
“I think 23 pounds a day will win,” says Climpson, taking the low end. “I’ll be shocked if it takes 25 pounds a day. The Elites just had huge bags in the river, but you saw the production drop off on day two. They are equal size everywhere now, but I still feel like there are a higher number of bigger fish in the lake, and it won’t be just perfect now. I’d take 23 pounds a day for sure.”
On the high side, O’Brien is looking for some rockin’ bags.
“I gotta say that somebody is going to hit 75 pounds to win it,” says the New York angler. “I think it’s very doable. The Elite Series didn’t get quite to that 25-pound average, but there’s so much more water where guys can spread out around Clayton. And, I don’t think it’s out of the question for someone to hit 28 pounds one day. The bags up here just keep getting bigger and bigger every year.”
Either Cory or Chris Johnston has taken home the Strike King Angler of the Year title each of the last three years in the Northern Division, but it looks like it’s going to be hard for the Johnston brothers to run their streak to four years. In first place after two events, Austin Felix of Eden Prairie, Minn., has banked a pair of top-10 finishes and 493 points. In second, with 488 points, perennial hammer Ron Nelson won on Lake Champlain and finished 13th on Lake Erie. If Felix can’t work his smallmouth magic again and Nelson falters, there’s a stout crop waiting to pick up the slack.
1. Austin Felix – 493 points
2. Ron Nelson – 488
3. Charles Sim – 486
4. Chris Johnston – 480
5. Bradley Dortch – 480
6. Neil Farlow – 478
7. Joseph Wood – 474
8. Cory Johnston – 472
9. Ben Wright – 462
10. Chris O’Brien – 458
Format: All boaters and co-anglers will compete for two days. The top 10 boaters and co-anglers based on cumulative weight after two days of competition will advance to the third and final round, with the winner in each division determined by the heaviest cumulative three-day weight.
Takeoff Time: 6:30 a.m. ET
Takeoff Location: Clayton Harbor Municipal Harbor, 301 Webb Street, Clayton, N.Y.
Weigh-In Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
Weigh-In Location: Clayton Harbor Municipal Harbor