And before you can take a breath, we are on to the next stop of this condensed stretch of the 2020 Bassmaster Elite Series season. Last week, the St. Lawrence River certainly did not disappoint.
We saw someone come incredibly close to breaking the century club with smallmouth bass — an accolade that has been sought after for decades. There were nine bags of more than 24-pounds, and among them were a pair of 27-pound bags by our would-be winner: Chris Johnston and runner-up Paul Mueller. Altogether, it was an amazing event.
I am excited to move a few hours away to Lake Champlain where there is a chance at monster mixed bags. Historically, it has taken both smallmouth and largemouth to get the job done. It seems nearly impossible to win on one species or another.
B.A.S.S. does have a fair bit of tournament history here, but it seems like in the last decade or so, this fishery has changed drastically. Like the Great Lakes, Champlain has a myriad of different types of cover and structure that will likely spread the field out. There are rocky shoals and deep haunches for smallmouth to get into as well as lush grass beds that give big largemouth a home. However, unlike some of the neighboring smallmouth factories, largemouth get big here — real big — and almost always play a role.
The weather is looking like it will be fairly favorable, so I would bet the guys will be able to move in and out of their key areas to put together bags.
My goal in this event is to focus on anglers who will spend most of their efforts on largemouth. I may not pick the winner for this event, but I am hoping to have everyone fishing on Saturday and two or three in the Top 10 going into Sunday.
BUCKET A: WENDLANDT
This has been a stellar year for the veteran pro angler. Clark Wendlandt is currently leading the Bassmaster Angler of the Year field after an awesome showing at the St. Lawrence River. He is on a tear finishing in the Top 10 three times out of the last four events with a 16th in the mix for the fourth. He has a ton of experience on this body of water. During his time with the FLW Tour, he competed here six times and has five top-30 finishes. Given the size of the fields he was up against, that makes for an impressive resume. His momentum, confidence, experience and ability to be versatile has him on my roster.
Also considered: Jamie Hartman
The New York native seems to do well here any time we make our way up to his home state. Last year, he had a disappointing (in his words) 20th-place finish on the St. Lawrence River, but he “redeemed” that by winning the event at Cayuga. He didn’t do great here in 2017, finishing middle of the pack, but he definitely has the know-how to flip up a few giants and snag a few big smallies on a drop shot.
BUCKET B: FEIDER
It’s tough to bet against this guy when you come up here. Seth Feider exploded onto the scene back in 2016 when he showed us all you can average 25 pounds of smallmouth in a three-day event, but if you asked him, he would tell you his true love is flipping shallow grass. He has proven that he understands how to do that in New York specifically. In more than 10 events in that part of the country, he has finished in the teens or better during his professional career. He finished second here in 2017 and has a fifth and 17th on neighboring Cayuga Lake, which fishes very similarly. He wrapped up the St. Lawrence River in 18th and has some great momentum coming into this event.
Also considered: Brandon Lester
If Lester were in any other bucket, I would probably pick him for this event. He excels at every type of fishing that will dominate here. He finished sixth here in 2017 and has a pair of good finishes on Cayuga for some bonus props. If you’re looking for an undervalued angler, he is your guy.
BUCKET C: COX
With the majority of the field dividing their attention between both species of bass, I’m going to bet the farm that John Cox doesn’t leave the grass. His biggest strength is reading shallow vegetation and finding areas that are incredibly productive. He has a number of strong finishes here with the FLW Tour with several top-30 finishes. He will live and die by the green fish, and there are some giants that live here. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him snatch that 40-point Big Bass bonus. I don’t think he will win it, but I’m banking on a solid Day 3 showing and possibly even a run on Championship Sunday.
Also considered: Chris Johnston
We nearly saw history made at the last stop on the St. Lawrence River, narrowly missing the 100-pound mark for a four-day smallmouth event. However, Chris did manage to set a new Elite Series record finishing the event with more than 97 pounds of smallmouth. On his way out, he said he was excited to put a jig to work this week on Champlain. He has a few good finishes here including a fifth place with the FLW Tour. He will be tough to beat if he can keep some of that momentum he drummed up last week.
BUCKET D: SCHMITT
Bryan Schmitt hasn’t had the start he wanted on the Elite Series, however, he is about to be smack in the middle of his element. His history is hard to ignore, and just like we saw Chris win last week after a rough start, this will likely be Bryan’s best chance to turn it around. He has more tournament experience here in recent years than most, and in his last three trips here, he's done no worse than 11th place. Most of his career top finishes have been on grass lakes, so I’m expecting him to stick to the largemouth game.
Also considered: Destin DeMarion
DeMarion's life outside of the Elites is going to be eerily similar to this event. He spends about half of his time down south fishing grass for big largemouth and half of his time up north fishing for smallies. He is a hammer when it comes to either species. He hasn’t had a breakout moment yet, but he is too good to stay in the shadows for much longer.
BUCKET E: LIVESAY
The St. Lawrence River did not do Lee Livesay any favors last week. He struggled to find the quality bites he needed to get above the cutline. This event, I think, will be a different story. Lake Fork is full of lush grass, and he spends a lot of his time picking it apart to try to find the biggest bass possible. Those skills will come into play here as well. He will probably spend the bulk of his efforts on largemouth, but he has a bone to pick with the smalljaws. He also has a lot of work to do in his efforts to lock in a Bassmaster Classic berth on Ray Roberts. He’s motivated more than ever to make a move.
Also considered: Koby Kreiger
Kreiger has a lot of history between Champlain and Cayuga. It’s very up-and-down. This has not been a great year for him, which is evidenced by his presence in bucket E. But he loves to flip grass and if he can avoid getting spun out by all his history, and instead get in sync with the heartbeat of the lake, he may just end up finding some better than average fish.