The Elite Series Evan Williams Bourbon Showdown on the St. Lawrence River provided numerous challenges for me, not the least of which was finding a way to gain ground on Edwin Evers in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of Year race.
I hadn’t fished the St. Lawrence since the 1990s. In years past, I’d always run to Lake Ontario and fished for smallmouth, even though those tournaments often were won by largemouth.
I’ve won there twice, and in those days, it only took about 17 pounds average to win. But the fish have grown since and it has taken 20-something to win – with big smallies.
The distance from take-off to Ontario is about a 120-mile run, one way. That’s doable, but only with calm, stable weather conditions. You rarely get stable weather there for four days.
And then I looked at the point standings. I trailed Edwin by 50 points with two tournaments to go. If Edwin stumbled, I could catch him. On that fish factory, a bad day is tough to make up, so I knew I had a chance.
To complicate matters, I knew I needed to garner a solid finish to qualify for the Toyota All-Star Week on Muskegon Lake – near my home – in September. I was in third and only the top 8 get automatic berths. I couldn’t afford to stumble.
I went to Ontario the first practice day and found some giants, but they weren’t in big groups like they normally are. I was hoping to find big wolf packs where I could go in, catch them quick and still get back to the weigh-in, regardless of weather conditions.
I practiced the river the next day and caught a lot of good fish deep. They were fat fish, too. I could stay in the river and catch a good limit, and with the forecast calling for 10- to 15-mph winds, I might have more fishing time in the river and be taking fewer risks. (When they say 10 to 15 up there, the wind usually blows 15-25.)
Besides, the wind in the river would help me. A west wind enhances the current and helps position the smallmouth where they are easily targeted.
I didn’t sleep much that night, wavering on where I should start.
I chose the river, caught 21 pounds the first day of competition and was in the hunt. My plan the second day was to fish for an hour or so and see what the wind did, but I started catching them good, caught another 21-pound limit in addition to culling four, 18-pound bags. That put me in third going into Saturday.
However, a cold front came in and the wind blew out of the north. The fish I caught that day were stunningly small.
And then things started to happen. I had a big smallie in my fingertips when he suddenly came unhooked. I broke my line at the end of a long cast on another big one. It went badly the rest of the day and I wound up missing the cut by 12 ounces. Any one of those big fish I lost would have put me in the finals.
Stuff like that is what makes Elite tournaments challenging. In a four-day event, you can’t afford a slip-up; someone always catches them. And they did.
Despite it all, I was blown away by the record crowds we drew. I signed autographs until 7 p.m. the third day. The fan reception was unreal.
So now it’s on to St. Clair, another smallmouth slugfest. However, the weights won’t challenge the St. Lawrence weigh-ins; as good as St. Clair is, it’s been a little off this summer. But I’m still in this Angler of Year race and will be fishing to win!
Remember, it’s all about the attitude!