I drove to Lake Erie 10 days before the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Open there. Visions of glistening bronze bass danced in my head.
Erie’s Western Basin is four hours from my home in southeast Ohio. I fished Erie often when I competed in Ohio bass tournament circuits, but that was 20 years ago. Now I rarely have an opportunity to visit this inland ocean. What a crime.
With nearly two weeks of smallmouth fishing to look forward to, my Erie adventure would be part tournament, part vacation and part birthday celebration. Three days after my arrival, I notched age 63.
I pitched a tent and a canopy at East Harbor State Park Monday evening. After a restless night, I boated to South Bass Island and checked humps I hadn’t fished for two decades.
I caught several bass by drop shotting a Strike King 3X Elaztech Finesse Wormwith a round 3/8-ounce XCalibur Tg tungsten drop shot weight. A round weight resists snags well in rocky environments like Erie.
Several smallies nabbed the worm, but none were much bigger than 3 pounds or so. I figured the humps would give up 16 or 17 pounds a day. That wouldn’t be enough for a Top 12 finish. I knew it would take over 20 pounds a day to win at Erie.
Three hours later, my electric motor went out. I lost two practice days getting it repaired. The delay brought out the manic in me.
When the electric motor was finally fixed, I fished two days east of Sandusky near Huron and Lorain. I revisited places where I had caught bass in the past. I got few bites and landed nothing bigger than 3 pounds.
Throughout practice, I rotated among a drop shot rig, a tube, a football jig and a crankbait. Only the jig failed to catch smallies. The tube boated more drum than bass. Walleyes smacked my crankbaits more often than the bass did.
The drop shot was the winner. It’s likely that 80 to 90 percent of the smallmouths weighed during the Erie Open were duped by drop shot rigs.
I spent the rest of my practice days in Canada. The best fish I found were west of Pelee Island. I caught several 4- to 4 1/2-pound brown bass there. I wasn’t on the mother lode, but I had a chance at 20 pounds a day.
I weigh any bass that looks to be 4 pounds or better when I’m pre-fishing for smallmouth bass on the Great Lakes. I invariably big-eye these bass without a scale and overestimate them.
The wind blew strong and steady out of the northwest on the first tournament morning. I could have made short run to my humps near South Bass Island and fished in calm water all day.
Another option was to duck behind the east side of Pelee Island and fish out of the wind. Many of the Top 12 fished there.
Unfortunately, the biggest bass I had found east of Pelee were too small. I was determined to go for the 4-pounders I had found west of Pelee.
Three- to 4-foot waves with an occasional 5-footer dictated a slow boat ride. The waves grew taller the farther north I boated from Sandusky Bay. When I finally got to my fish, the wind and waves were so strong I opted to try the drift-and-drag.
After idling upwind of a series of humps I had marked in practice, I put out three drift socks. As the wind pushed the boat over the humps, I dragged a tube. My partner, Gary Boyd, dragged a drop shot rig.
The drift-and-drag proved too fast for smallies but just right for drum. I think I caught a hundred pounds of them over the next hour. That prompted me to switch tactics.
It was impossible to hold my position with the electric motor. So, I idled slightly upwind of a hump and quickly crab-walked on my hands and feet across the bouncing front deck. Then I hugged the pole seat with one arm and slung the electric motor into the water with the other. I planted my behind against the seat and braced one foot braced against the gunnel.
I ran the electric motor on high into the oncoming waves. The bigger waves washed over my ankles. I did my best to fish a drop shot rig vertically for a few minutes until the boat drifted backward over the structure and downwind of it.
I repeated this comedy act countless times over the next three hours. Boyd wisely fished from the passenger seat to avoid being tossed overboard.
We managed to catch our limits, but the bites were coming slow and the bass were running small. I finally threw in the towel and headed for my backup fish near South Bass Island.
After boating to South Bass, I had about 90 minutes left to fish. The water was calm and the fishing was easy. I pulled the boat over one of my waypoints and quickly boated a smallmouth that weighed more than 3 pounds. That let me cull one of two small bass in my livewell.
Another competition boat was fishing the same series of humps. It was 100 yards off when I started it and fished past me. I watched the anglers in that boat catch two drum and two smallmouths.
I started the outboard and punched the throttle with the intention of moving to another hump 200 yards away. The engine bogged. The boat wouldn’t come up on plane. Boyd scooted to the front deck. That helped the boat slowly climb out of the hole.
Suddenly, I was faced with a dilemma. Do I fish the next hump and hope the outboard starts again? Or, do I head straight in and reduce my odds for being stranded on Lake Erie 10 miles from the launch ramp?
The 14-plus pounds in my livewell would take me out of contention to win. Boyd had three fish that would give him a shot on the co-angler side. We headed in.
The Mercury support crew replaced a coil and the alternator in my outboard.
The next morning, my bow graph/GPS map wouldn’t boot up. That wasn’t a huge problem because I could go to my waypoints with the console unit and toss out a buoy.
However, without the bow unit, I couldn’t see when I was on the edge of a dropoff. Also, during practice, I had caught several bass by dropping my bait right on them after spotting them on the graph. I wouldn’t have any of those opportunities.
The wind switched to the northeast and subsided that day. My partner, Don Laporte, and I fished my humps on the west side of Pele without problems.
After I tossed out the first buoy, Laporte immediately lost a bass on a drop shot rig. Then he lost another. Then he caught two. I had yet to get a bite.
“You want to try some of these?” Laporte said, pointing to a bag of plastic baits. “I’ve got plenty.”
Laporte had me four bites to none. It was a no-brainer. I dove into his bag and grabbed a handful of baits. I immediately started catching bass on them. The bait was a 3-inch Goby from Nemesis Baits.
We caught over 20 bass on the little goby baits that day. The Dark Cinnamon Purple color did the trick early. After the sun got up, the lighter KLK color coaxed more bites.
We had a great time catching and culling bass, but my bigger fish never showed. I had one that went 4 pounds, the rest were smaller.
My 18-5 that day left me about a pound out of the money. I believe the outboard mishap the first day cost me a check.
My daughter, Valerie, drove up in time to catch Thursday’s weigh-in. She stayed with me at the campground through the tournament.
If you’ve read my past blogs, you know that Valerie is in nursing school. She graduates on September 19 and will be a bona fide registered nurse. It’s a big deal at our household.
Valerie also loves the Bassmaster Opens and comes whenever possible. She’s befriended Opens tournament director Chris Bowes and the rest of the tournament crew. She sometimes has breakfast with them after takeoff in the morning.
Val never made it to breakfast Friday. A co-angler failed to show. Bowes asked Val if she’d take the co-angler’s place as an observer. She didn’t need to be asked twice.
I’m waiting for my number to be called Friday morning, and I see Val in another boat. She’s smiling so hard it must hurt. I swing by so we can chat.
Her boater is going to Canada, but he plans to hit a spot in Ohio water first. Val can fish in Ohio waters. She doesn’t have a Canadian fishing license, so she’ll be twiddling her thumbs there.
Val comes up to me that afternoon while I’m in line at the weigh-in. Her face is beet red. She didn’t have time to fetch a ball cap that morning, and she forgot to put on sunscreen.
But she is still all smiles. When her boater fished Ohio waters that morning, Val lost one smallmouth and caught two on a drop shot. Her boater didn’t catch anything there.
Val was feeling mighty proud about that. I was, too.
Although I failed to make the Top 12 cut, Val and I were in no hurry to leave Lake Erie. While the finalists were doing battle on Saturday, we planned to catch a mess of the brown ones.
We boated to the humps near South Bass Island. I spotted the competitor I had seen there the first day. I idled within earshot.
“You in the finals?”
We would have to fish elsewhere. There were obviously bigger bass on those humps than I had found in practice. I could have avoided a beating on the first tournament day and done as well or better fishing close.
I went to work with the Humminbird and soon found another rocky hump a few miles away. It topped out at 13 feet and dropped into 20.
Our plan was to leave before Noon but we came off the water at 3:30. We were having too much fun drop shotting smallies. We boated several 3-pounders and a slew of smaller fish.
I’m not ashamed to say that Val outfished me by a large margin. That’s my girl.
Even when you’re catching dozens of smallmouths, each one has you giddy with excitement. They jump, they pull doggedly with unbelievable stamina, and they are absolutely gorgeous. Smallmouths are, by far, the most beautiful of the black basses.
If you don’t believe in miracles, go to Lake Erie and tie into one of its big smallmouth bass. Feel its power through your rod tip. Watch it fight ferociously for its freedom. Gaze upon its vivid, tiger-striped bronze body. You just might become a believer.
Phoenix 721 Update: I figured Lake Erie would put the Phoenix 721 bass boat I’m driving in the Bassmaster Opens to the test. Erie didn’t let me down. Neither did the Phoenix.
The waves on the first morning of the tournament were brutal. The Phoenix handled the rough water impressively. I’m extremely pleased with this boat. I think you will be, too.