The bag is more mixed than ever on Champlain - Major League Fishing

The bag is more mixed than ever on Champlain

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Perfect weather greeted the Northern Division anglers on Champlain. Photo by Charles Waldorf.
June 22, 2023 • Jody White • Toyota Series

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. – A nearly perennial stop for the Northern Division Presented by Rabid Baits, Lake Champlain is one of the best tournament lakes in the country. Big, with plenty of options, the Toyota Series Presented by Phoenix Boats anglers can spread out over miles of water in search of about a dozen interesting non-bass species, plus the world-class smallmouth and largemouth.

This year, the event parallels the 2017 and 2018 events by timeframe, but nobody is 100% sure about what to expect this time around.

Compare and contrast

The 2017 and 2018 June events on Champlain both were heavy on spawning smallmouth, with Ron Nelson winning both years. In 2017, he mixed spawning smallmouth and some spawning and cruising largemouth. In 2018, he caught exclusively brown fish and averaged 20 pounds per day.

On Champlain, one of the biggest factors in the smallmouth spawn and the behavior of fish in and around beds is the water temperature and the fluctuations therein. There isn’t a perfect way to know what the temperature is all around the lake at any given time, but the USGS gauge in Burlington can provide an interesting reference point. In 2017, the temperature from June 16 to July 1 never touched 70 degrees and dropped into the upper 50s twice, with it mostly staying in the low 60s. That sort of fluctuation is a perfect example of how water can move on Champlain, and how wind-driven currents can bring cold water from the depths into oddball places.

In 2018, when Nelson won with all smallmouth, things were generally more stable with the water staying above 60 degrees from June 18 onward, and sticking mostly in the mid-60s. This year, things are notably colder, with the temperature barely getting over 65 on June 15, and then fluctuating in the low 60s and upper 50s since then.

Obviously, what’s to come is a mystery – there will definitely be plenty of spawning smallmouth brought to the scale, but the timeframe is such that there are other options open as well. Plus, we’re firmly in the LiveScope era, so expecting historical patterns to hold is sometimes asking a bit much.

Alec Morrison is a local and pre-tournament favorite. Photo by Charles Waldorf

Asking the anglers

The options on the table this week should be pretty broad, and anglers have reported everything under the sun in practice. Some folks are catching postspawn fish with ease, at least one angler is locked in to a run to Ticonderoga, and it sounds like nearly everyone has at least tried their hand at spawning smallmouth.

“There are a lotta spawners, and a lot of postspawners cruising around shallow,” said New York native Alec Morrison, who just put up the largest winning margin in Toyota Series history at Sam Rayburn. “There’s a good topwater bite, a good swimbait bite, people will be catching a lot of numbers for sure. It’s just going to be harder to get those 4-plusses.”

Morrison has been dabbling in a lot of things, due to a reluctance to commit to a spawning bite. Still, he said he hasn’t quite figured out a largemouth bite.

“I’ve been sucking for largemouth,” he said. “I’ve caught some in some milfoil, but in some areas the grass isn’t looking too good this year. But, in other areas where it hasn’t been all that good, it’s really looking pretty good. So, it’s put me in some different areas, but I haven’t had all that much luck.”

Always a contender in the north, 2022 New York BASS Nation Angler of the Year AJ Slegona is one of the best when it comes to tracking down spawning smallmouth.

“The spawn is in full swing, but I’m not finding as many big ones as usual,” Slegona said.

According to Slegona, the spawn isn’t tracking where he expected it to.

“It’s weird, they’re still spawning like crazy all the way up to Rouses Point. Down lake, I’m finding a lot of males, it almost seems like it’s a week behind,” he said. “I think with the LiveScope stuff, there are some guys that are going to figure it out catching prespawners.”  

Noted smallmouth sight-fishing expert Austin Felix is also a little down on the state of the smallmouth bite.  

“They’re still spawning, but I got a cold real bad when I left,” Felix said. “I haven’t had enough time, and I haven’t found any big ones. There are a lot of fish up, but the average size seems a little bit down. But, there seem to be a lot more people doing it this year.

“I’ve stayed in New York and basically ran the same stuff I always did,” he said. “I haven’t had the time to expand. I picked the best areas from the past, and the biggest fish I’ve found are 3 1/2-pounders, which isn’t gonna do it. I’ve looked at the mooring chain stuff, and they seem like zombies, I can’t get any of them to bite. They’ll follow a spybait occasionally, but mostly they ignore it and then you cruise up and they’re just sitting on the chain.”

What to expect at weigh-in

Champlain is a big lake, and a lack of success for some doesn’t mean everyone will be struggling. There have been some notably big weights in recent weeks on Champlain, despite mixed results down the leaderboards. Plus, the field is loaded, with past winners like Bryan LaBelle and Nelson fishing, and plenty of other super-talented anglers.

Local Brett Carnright predicts good things, despite a bit of a tougher practice than he wanted.

“I think the majority of the field will stay up on the north end of the lake, and I predict that the winner of this one will have exactly 59 pounds, 2 ounces,” Carnright joked. “It’s always a fun time fishing on Lake Champlain. If you can catch 19½ pounds a day, that will put you right there at the end.”

Slegona figures on about 60 1/2 pounds to win, and says that the winner will have at least some largemouth.

While Felix may not have them dialed like he wants, he knows folks that do.

“I’m staying with Shayne McFarlin, he found some big ones yesterday,” Felix said. “If he gets the five he wants, he’ll have 20 pounds.”

For his part, Morrison is high on Champlain, which might not bode well for the rest of the field.

“I still think like 61 ½ to win, it’s that good, and there’s too many people,” he said. “There’s sandbagging, there’s no way it’s as tough as some people say.”