The Toyota Series Presented by A.R.E. Northern Division event on the St. Lawrence River went about like many expected – Lake Ontario was a big player. Despite the river fishing great, with a ton of 20-pound bags hitting the scale, the top three pros all made the run to the lake for at least some of their fish, and four of the Top 10 fished in the lake on at least the first two days.
Running more than 100 miles before making a cast, the Johnston brothers and Justin Atkins set the pace. The three of them all weighed over 70 pounds (Chris Johnston won with 77-15) and Brent Anderson won the river tournament a full 6 pounds behind Atkins in fourth place.
There might come a time when the Johnston brothers aren’t the best in the business around the 1000 Islands region, but it sure doesn’t seem like it will be anytime soon. Putting up 71-10 on the week, Cory Johnston spent most of his time in Lake Ontario.
“The first two days, I caught a lot more fish in the river,” says Cory Johnston. “The last day, I put all my eggs in one basket and went to the lake for the most part. I probably caught four of the five I weighed-in in the lake.”
Fishing deep for the most part, he caught most of his fish on a drop-shot with a prototype worm.
“I had a mixture of a lot of different things,” he says. “Mostly isolated cover, a spot where you could pull up and make a few casts and have to move. I fished about five areas [on Day 3], and there were different spots in those areas.”
Historically, the Johnston bros have specialized in finding new ways to come close in Toyota Series and Costa FLW Series events on the 1000 Islands, but this time one of them closed it out.
“Top 10s are great, but anytime you come to this river you want to win,” says Cory Johnston. “If I can’t win, then I want Chris to win. It’s good to see him win.”
Running out to the lake every day, Justin Atkins won the non-Johnston tournament handily. Coming off a stellar finish in the B.A.S.S. Elite Series event out of Waddington, Atkins put the pedal down again.
Fishing in 15- to 20-feet around rock, Atkins didn’t really get too deep on the lake, and really only let up at all on Day 2 when it was the windiest.
“There’s so many fish in that lake, you can do whatever you want to do,” he says. “But I was comfortable fishing for them in that 15- to 20-foot range. I knew I wouldn’t have much time there, so I wanted to do something I was comfortable with.
“I found a lot of the places when it was slick and sunny and the fish like to get up there and roam,” explains Atkins. “Essentially in the tournament, I just went to areas and tried to relocate them. They wouldn’t be exactly where I caught them in practice, they’d be 100 yards one way or another. When you found one and it was a good one, other good ones would be with it, it seems like they run in size out there. If you find a few on ActiveTarget, you need to catch a few, [hit Anchor Mode] and make good work of it.”
A drop-shot with a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worm did basically all the work for Atkins. For his tackle, he used a 7-foot, medium-action Abu Garcia Fantasista Premier, an Abu Garcia MGXtreme, 8-pound Berkley X5 braid, an 8-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluoro leader, a Berkley Fusion19 hook and a 3/8-ounce tungsten weight. He also says that forward-facing sonar is imperative.
“Lowrance ActiveTarget is critical,” he says. “You can be out there in a lot of fish, and if you’re not looking for them, you’ll make a lot of casts without throwing right on them. It seems like you need to throw it right on them, and for that bait to fall down there pretty quick. It gets them excited and they’ll rush down there and get it off the bottom.”
Drifting deep shoals within a few miles of Massena, Brent Anderson put up more than 20 pounds a day with ease and caught piles of fish. Having basically spent the summer along the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario, the Tennessee pro was more than comfortable with the deep smallies by the time the derby rolled around.
“I’ve been here longer than a lot of these guys. I was doing a little bit of fun fishing, and a little bit of thinking about the tournament,” says Anderson. “I was just looking for shoals and high spots in the current. I never really narrowed down anything. The biggest key for me was understanding how bass use current – it’s the Tennessee River on steroids. By my second day here, I could look on a map and tell you where I was going to catch them, then it came down to if you were catching 2- and 3-pounders or 4- and 5-pounders.”
Armed with about 80 places that had fish and 30 or so that had big fish by tournament time, Anderson was ready to rock. He says his bait of choice was a Z-Man Finesse TRD which he used on either 1/6-ounce Z-Man Ned LockZ HD Jig Head or 3/16-ounce homemade football head, going with the football head on rockier stretches.
“It was always a controlled drift, with the bait as vertical as possible – that was a big deal,” says Anderson. “As I would drift, I would absolutely see fish on ActiveTarget, but with the swift current and small bait I couldn’t throw to them. But, 75 percent of the time, if I saw one under me on ActiveTarget, 10 seconds later I’d have one. I don’t think I [caught more because of] ActiveTarget, but it gave me a lot of advance notice.”
Anderson says one key to his ability to fish so well with a light Ned rig deep was a prototype Ned rig rod from Redemption Rods.
“The first day of the tournament I used it, and I never lost a fish and I caught like 60,” he says. “I’d been losing like 10 a day, just them pulling off, jumping off, it’s a sweet little rod for what I was doing – trying to feel that tiny bait in 3 mph current 35 feet deep.”
Anderson doesn’t regret not running to the lake at all, and with about 22 pounds and 15 fish over 4 pounds in the boat by 10 o’clock on the final day, he had one of the most enjoyable tournaments he’s had in a while.
“I made up my mind that was what was going to do, and I would get as good at it as I could,” says Anderson. “It ended up winning the river tournament.”
A local to the St. Lawrence, Jonathan Robla stayed in the river, fishing near Waddington and Ogdensburg most of the time. Though he didn’t end up making a push for the win, he lost enough fish that it could have been interesting.
“I thought I could catch low-20s quick in the river,” says Robla. “I thought, if I worked hard enough every day, I could get that 6-pound bite that I needed to get a 24- or 25-pound bag. I did get that bite every day, I got those key fish, but I didn’t get them in the boat.”
Drifting pretty deep with a drop-shot, a tube and a jig, Robla says that his fish were eating crayfish, not gobies.
“I was trying to find 20- to 30-foot flats that had big boulders on them that were close to deep water,” he says. “They were mainly feeding on crayfish, they were spitting them up. So, I knew that was what I had to do, and that would get me my big bites. I’d pop my tube or jig over top of them and they’d chase it up. I’d let it go back down, and there they were, almost every time.
“Current played a big factor, I really needed the current,” he says. “Flat current was really tough – they were there, but not feeding. There’s not as much current toward Massena, it seems like they’re more finicky and harder to get to bite. Strong current – I had to have it.”
For his tube, Robla went with an X Zone Lures X-Tube with a 3/8-ounce head, and he also used a jig in the same situations. For both, he went with a baitcaster and 17-pound Seaguar AbrazX. He also drifted a drop-shot with a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worm, using a 3/8-ounce weight most of the time and a 5/8-ounce when he was targeting certain deep boulders he wanted to fish more slowly.
Fishing in the Clayton and Alexandria Bay area, Brent Crow drop-shotted all week.
Targeting the up-current side of shoals and rock piles on flats, Crow fished from 25 to 40 feet but spent the most time in about 35 feet. Curiously, he wasn’t drifting, using instead the milder current in the area to sit on SpotLock.
“I saw most of the fish I weighed on Garmin LiveScope, that was a big key,” says Crow. “Most of the time, I’d see them 20 or 30 feet out. With the current, that doesn’t mean you cast right on them, and with the wind blowing you have to play the wind and the current. The most important thing is bait presentation, if you get it in front of them they eat it for the most part.”
Throwing a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worm in either goby or natural shad, Cook used a 7-foot, medium-action Abu Garcia Fantasista Premier, an Abu Garcia MGXtreme, 8-pound Berkley X5 braid, an 8-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluoro leader, a Berkley Fusion19 hook and a 1/2-ounce tungsten weight.
As with Anderson, being comfortable around current was a big key for Crow.
“I do a lot of live bait fishing at Pickwick in the fall in the current,” he says. “That has helped me so much here. It’s the same principle, except it’s deeper. And you don’t have live bait, but you don’t need it here.”
Charlie Hartley is as big a fan of smallmouths as anyone, and this week he got all he could ask for fishing in the Ogdensburg area.
“I had never fished that section of the river, and I have so much history on the river, and it’s so hard for me to break away from history,” he says. “But, I know from tournament results the Ogdensburg area puts out some heavy bags, it’s just not very attractive on the map, which is why I’ve never fished it. I took one of the practice days to purposely take that 10-mile section of the river that I think I’ve never done anything but run through and try to fish, and right off I caught some quality fish.”
Ending up with about six areas to fish, four of which turned out to be really good, Hartley was fishing in 20 to 25 feet most of the time. Drifting with the current, he targeted the most vertical breaks he could find.
“When I’d get close to that drop, I could see the bottom, and if I swung the bow around just the length of the boat it was 30 feet deep,” he says. “Those fish seemed to use the vertical wall to move up and down – I could see them on my forward-facing sonar – they looked like Pac-Man running up and down the face of that wall.”
As one does, Hatley stuck with drop-shot, using both a Strike King Z-Too and Baby Z-Too. He rolled with a 7-foot, heavy Falcon BuCoo SR, braid, a 10-pound Seaguar InvizX leader, a ½-ounce WOO! drop-shot weight and either a No. 2 or 1 Owner Mosquito Hook.
“I don’t finesse drop-shot when I’m in the current or the Great Lakes,” he says. “I use pretty heavy stuff – a 10-pound leader, most people think is pretty heavy, and I use a heavy wire hook. Between the current and the depth, here and on Lake Erie, you don’t need light line and you don’t need a sissy rod. Though, I will admit, in that heavy current, if you pull those fish against the current you can literally open up a hook. So, I had to really back off once I saw that on the first fish or two.”
A 1000 Islands local from Gouverneur, N.Y., Jesse Spellicy fished mostly by the seat of his pants to earn his third Top 10 in four events with MLF.
“I haven’t spent a lot of time on the river yet this year, and I had about 6 hours to practice,” he says. “I went out Sunday from about 6 in the morning until noon, then I had some other stuff going on and I worked all week. I think local knowledge helped, I knew an area where there wasn’t as much pressure, it’s been getting pounded, and I had an idea where I knew to start looking.”
Fishing shoals in 25 to 35 feet in the Clayton area, Spellicy used a drop-shot with a Bass Snax Custom Baits River Darter in green pumpkin and Bell’s beatdown.
“Every day I caught fish off different shoals,” he says. “I was just running new stuff every day. I don’t have forward-facing sonar, I have Humminbird MEGA 360, and I’d use that to drift over the shoals.”
Fishing in the Clayton area, Scott Cooke drifted shoals with a tube for most of his fish.
“The edge of the lake was my boundary point,” says Cook. “My first day of practice I put out of Clayton, and I had just under 25 pounds that day. I kinda knew I would be concentrating in and around that area. It seemed like every 20 miles west you went, the fish just kept getting bigger. I would have loved to have gone on the lake because I know what it has, but I didn’t venture that far out.”
Cooke used a Snack Daddy Lures Elite Tube on a ½-ounce head in a discontinued cinnamon color. For his tackle, Cooke used a Lew’s baitcaster, a Cashion rod, 30-pound braid and a 15-pound Seaguar InvizX leader.
“Big fish just seemed to like that big tube,” says Cooke. “My co-anglers each day caught some good ones, but I think I generally outperformed them on the big fish with the tube. I mixed it up, but I learned a few years back, those bigger smallmouth like that tube dead, just letting the current take it, more controlling the boat than the bait.”
Going with slightly heavier-than-normal tackle was about efficiency for Cooke.
“We deal with a lot of sheepshead on Erie,” he says. “It’s about efficiency, for every sheepshead you hook, you’re taking 2 to 3 minutes out of your day. That got me used to it, I’m confident I can use that bait and keep the fish on. In that current, I’m not making casts, I’m fishing below the boat for the most part, so I like the heavier line.”
Using Lowrance ActiveTarget to stay on the fish, Cooke liked the ease of use of the slower current around Clayton. Though he had a few shallow areas, he says most of his weight came from 25 to 40 feet.
The first two days, Marty Robinson made the run to the lake. On Day 3, when he encountered a rough stretch of river, he decided to park it near Waddington and save himself the beating.
“The forecast was for some pretty good weather, and we had some good weather in practice,” says Robinson. “I decided to go out there and spend some time in the lake one day, and I found a couple groups of fish.”
Those fish Robinson found were surprisingly shallow, as he says he caught most of them in 6 to 10 feet along breaks. Using everything from a drop-shot and a Ned to a spinnerbait and a Carolina rig, Robinson caught over 20 pounds each of the first two days.