MASSENA, N.Y. – The second stop of the Northern Division Presented by Rabid Baits, the St. Lawrence River is always a winner for Toyota Series Presented by Phoenix Boats anglers. Flowing out of Lake Ontario and across the top of New York, the place really is a smallmouth Mecca, and the fishing is good even when it’s tough. This week, with 199 pros and Strike King co-anglers in the field, you can expect a lot out of the fabled river.
MLF has been running tournaments out of Massena, New York, on the St. Lawrence for a while now, but it’s still worth understanding the layout a little. Due to the nature of the river, different outcomes become more or less likely depending on where takeoff is and what parts of the fishery are open to competitors.
Flowing out of Lake Ontario, the 1000 Islands region of the river is at the far west end, near Clayton, Kingston, Gananoque and Grindstone Island. Flowing northeast, the next unofficial section of the river is around Chippewa Bay, Alexandria (A) Bay or Mallorytown – similar to the area near the mouth, this part of the river has tons of small islands, and is broader than the more straight-line portions. Continuing northeast, the river really turns into a river around Ogdensburg and Waddington, with fewer little islands and outcroppings and more straight flow.
Over the years, BASS has frequently run tournaments out of Waddington, which is about 15 miles west of Massena. To get to the Chippewa Bay area from Massena, it’s a crisp 55 miles or so. To get to the area around Clayton, it’s at least a 70-mile run, and an angler could make it 90 miles easily if they decided to run as far west as tournament limits allow.
From the sounds of it, we’ll see plenty of big smallmouth limits this week. Though you can find anglers that downplay the fishing, almost everyone ends up with a 6-pounder or 22 pounds by the end of the story. The time crunch on tournament day will back down some of the practice success, but the excellence of the river is still hard to comprehend.
Brett Carnright, the winner of the first Northern Division event at Champlain, has seen some practice success and is planning on burning a lot of gas.
“It’s definitely not easy, but it seems like when you get around the right stuff, the right depth and bottom composition, you can catch some quality fish,” said the New York native. “There have been times in practice when I’ve gone hours without a bite, and times when I’ve caught three or four 3- to 5-pound fish in 30 minutes. It’s definitely not like they’re everywhere.”
In his mind, the long run will be worth it and popular, and he reckons that deep will be the way to go.
“I would say eight out of the Top 10 will make a 60-mile-plus run. I think it’s better quality, and maybe just a better population of quality fish, right now, it seems,” he said. “I personally have only spent maybe an hour up shallow all practice. The weather hasn’t been the best for it. But, it seems like the deeper bite has been better, I don’t really plan on fishing shallow in the tournament, I think with the conditions we’re going to have the shallow bite won’t play as much.”
Last year’s winner, Spike Stoker expects good things again.
“It’s fishing good, from one end to the other,” he said. “I think you could probably do good from Massena all the way to the lake. I don’t think you have to make a run if you don’t want to. I still haven’t decided where to start. There are so many fish, you catch them everywhere you go.
“I can tell you, where I caught them last year sucks,” he added. “There’s fish there, but not 5- and 6-pounders like there were last year. But, it’s going to be fun, I’m going to get to catch a lot of fish. That mid-area is good, where I caught them last year, and even farther toward Massena. You can go out toward the lake, but in that mid-area, it’s just easy. In that area, you could catch 100 if you wanted to. I can catch 17, 18, 19 pounds down at Massena so easy. In the middle area, I can catch 20, but it takes time to get that. I think you’ll see a mix all the way, and the Top 10 will be like last year, some will run a long ways, and some won’t run 10 miles.”
In the last few years, Brent Anderson has established himself as a river expert, guiding on the St. Lawrence and contending in just about every event there. In the recent BASS Open out of Waddington, Anderson weighed 63-11 and finished sixth – easily the best of the crew not running far west.
“Everybody seems to be pretty spread out,” said Anderson of practice. “There’s a bunch of boats in Ogdensburg, a bunch of boats in Massena and Waddington, and a bunch of boats in Brockville. But, that was the case in the Open, and then the only two boats I saw anywhere near where I wanted to fish were locals on Saturday. But, I don’t know if these dudes are catching them. I’m really getting TVA vibes, because once those community holes got too pressured, they’d move to the side. It’s almost like they’ll move from the great-looking place to the nothing-looking place.”
Still, even with fish moving, Anderson has managed to stay on them.
“It’s way harder to catch them than it was the first year I came here, and they’re not on the places where they were the last two years,” he said. “I don’t feel terrible about it, but, I didn’t feel good about the Open. I was hoping I’d catch 19 a day. I’ll be disappointed if I don’t have 21 pounds a day, but I say that every year. I caught more 5-pounders in that Open in those three days than I’ve caught since.”
In 2021, Chris Johnston earned one of the most impressive smallmouth wins of all-time. Then, he ran to Lake Ontario from Massena, going well over 100 miles one-way, and came back with over a 25-pound average. Weighing 77-15 for the win, Chris beat second place Cory Johnston by about 6 pounds, third place by more than 7 pounds and had a 13-pound edge over fourth. Notably, Anderson finished fourth, and was the highest finisher in that event to actually fish in the river – sacking up a 64-7 total on the week.
This week, with the lake off limits, the potential for sky-high weights still exists – 69 pounds is a common winning estimate, but there’s also a good chance we see more reserved results. In 2022, Stoker won fishing around the Chippewa Bay area with 64-12. In 2019, Wayne Vaughan won with 63-15, and 22 pounds was a really good bag in the 2022 TITLE event.
Carnright said the winning weight will be exactly 69-15.
“That would be 23 ¼ a day, and the Johnstons aren’t here,” he said. “The fish seem pretty spread out, I might catch a big one and see a few big ones with it, but then they usually scatter. So, you have to have a rotation, and it might be hard to put together a 15-bass tournament that is over 70 pounds doing that. If there was a place I could catch four or five big ones on a certain stretch it might be easier, but with the time restriction out of Massena, your timing needs to be about perfect every day to catch over 70.”
Stoker thinks Day 2 will tell a lot – with north winds in the forecast, fishing in the current will be more difficult.
“On my phone, it’s showing the second day to be northwest at 10 to 15, if that holds up, whoever catches them good the second day, that’s the one that’s going to win, that northwest wind is a killer for me,” he said. “It could take what it took last year, or it could take 75 pounds. If you are consistently around 22 or 23 a day, I think you’ll win. When you’ve got four boats drifting the same area, it splits the fish up.”
Anderson thinks that upper-60s or low-70s mark is the target as well.
“I think 23 a day is doable, in the current,” he said. “I don’t know that I can do that, but I’ve seen that. But, obviously, from 1000 Islands up is a wild card, because I don’t ever go there. I always have such high expectations of what’s going to get caught on the long run. I feel like the target weight is 25 a day, and the last two years, it hasn’t taken that. I think it’s 70 pounds, 23 or so a day, that’s probably the mark.
“I’m treating it like a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “One day I’m going to win, fishing close. I feel like eventually someone won’t win running 80 miles three days in a row. I keep thinking it will line up one day.”