CHARLES COUNTY, Md. — From the moment Brian La Clair arrived in Charles County, Md., for the TNT Fireworks B.A.S.S. Nation Northeast Regional at Potomac River, he had a feeling things might go his way.
By staying patient and executing on almost every bite, the Denton, Md., boater was able to capitalize on his hunch and take home the victory with a three-day total of 50 pounds, 10 ounces, outlasting New Jersey’s Manuel Cruz and Maine’s Jonathan Carter.
By finishing at the top of the Delaware state team standings, La Clair will head to his fourth TNT Fireworks B.A.S.S. Nation Championship and compete for a chance to go to his second Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota. His first Classic appearance came in 2011 in New Orleans.
“It feels good. I’m gonna say this might be one of the biggest tournaments I’ve ever won,” he said. “I have been fishing for a long time and I’ll be honest, I felt like it could happen. I don’t get that feeling too often. You have to go with the flow and see how it all works out. This trophy is really nice. It was a good week. I didn’t lose very many.”
Opening the tournament in third place with 16-12, La Clair caught 17-8 to move into the lead before landing the biggest bag of Championship Friday at 16-6.
One bay served as La Clair’s primary area. His best stretch in that bay featured five docks, a bulkhead and bank grass. Out in front of his best stretch was a sandbar where he saw bream spawning. At low tide, there was only about 8 inches of water. But when the tide moved in, the bass moved in with it to feed on those bream.
Each day it reloaded with bass, but he had to wait for the incoming tide to provide enough water to where he could move mostly undetected through the area with his Lowrance Ghost trolling motor.
“I went out looking for something different because I knew I wasn’t going to win doing what everyone else was doing,” he said. “You have to find strictly big fish, 3 pounds and above. I found a bunch of fish that were using one stretch.
“Those fish bite better when there is more water over the grass. When it was really skinny, they were too spooked. When they got 2 feet of water over their heads, they were good. There was also a depression that ran the length of the bulkhead and it was clean with spotty grass.”
On Day 1, La Clair caught the majority of his bag using a 6-inch glidebait in a bluegill pattern around the docks and bulkhead. On the second and third competition days, La Clair could not generate bites on the big bait and instead utilized a more traditional approach.
He caught the majority of his bass the final two days on a 3/8-ounce green pumpkin Dirty Jigs swim jig paired with a twin-tail trailer and either a weightless Texas-rigged or wacky-rigged Yamamoto Senko in a watermelon laminate color. He also mixed in a 1/4-ounce brown flipping jig.
The final day started a little slower for La Clair, but he watched his co-angler James D’Ambra catch two of the bass he needed to qualify for the Nation Championship. As the tide came in, the bite got better and better until about 11 a.m. Along with his primary spot, he caught bass out of a different grass bed, but could not upgrade anymore.
“I just kept my cool. I knew the bass were going to be there again and they showed themselves today even better,” he said. “It was a good day. I went out calm, cool and collected.”
New Jersey boater Manuel Cruz finished second with a three-day total of 47-14. After leading Day 1 with 17-9, Cruz stumbled slightly on Day 2 with 14-1 and fell to fifth. On the final day, however, Cruz caught 16-4 to claim a spot in the Nation Championship.
“This will be my first championship, which is awesome,” Cruz said. “I am happy and I am ready to go down there.”
During the week, Cruz targeted bream beds. The bream were setting up on the edge of a grass line just off the bank and the Clifton, N.J., native caught most of his Day 1 bag with a frog.
“The bass were feeding up shallow in less than a foot of water,” he said. “I picked up a frog the first day. I figured that would be the best thing that would look like an injured bluegill. They were eating it very well.”
The second day, a popper generated more bites and on the final day, he used the popper as well as a Texas-rigged Senko with a 1/4-ounce weight.
“This morning started off with a hiccup when I lost two right away,” he said. “But I was able to recover. The bite started to slow down later in the day and I had to change gears a little bit. The second half of the day, I put together a decent bag.”
Using some of the lessons he learned fishing the James River in the past, Maine boater Jonathan Carter finished third with a three-day total of 46-3. Carter opened the tournament with 14-14, a tally that unfortunately included a penalty for a culling infraction. He rebounded in a big way on Day 2 by catching 18-5, the biggest bag of the event. He followed that up with 13-0 in the championship round to finish at the top of his state.
Carter focused on isolated grass patches during the week, with one 30-yard area of milfoil producing the majority of his weight. With milfoil edges on either side of a hard spot in 3 feet of water and deeper water access close by, the Portland boater reeled a 1/2-ounce Z-Man Evergreen JackHammer in Hite’s Hot Craw with a green pumpkin Strike King Rage Craw.
“I was looking for grass that wasn’t part of a vast flat,” he said. “More isolated stuff that I could thoroughly fish and target groups of fish. I didn’t find a whole lot. I had one main area and four backups.
“On the first two days, you could pretty much catch them on whatever you wanted to throw.”
On the final day, he switched to a white Z-Man ChatterBait Mini Max with a 2.8 Keitech swimbait trailer.
With a 5-12 largemouth he caught on Day 1, Delaware’s Rodney Oberdick claimed Big Bass of the Tournament honors on the boater side and a $500 check.
Zachary Queeney from New Jersey took home the nonboater championship with a three-day total of 31-0. Starting the tournament with three-bass limits of 10-5 and 7-6 the first two days, Queeney landed the biggest nonboater bag of the tournament on Day 3 with a limit measuring 13-5.
“The bite here is crazy,” he said. “It was something different every day. I had nine rods with nine different baits and got bit on all of them.”
Massachusetts nonboater James D’Ambra finished second with 28-6, followed by fellow Massachusetts angler Rob Ross in third with 27-11. Pennsylvania’s Ross Caruso earned $250 for winning the Big Bass of the Tournament award on the nonboater side with a 5-9 largemouth he caught on the final day.
The top finishing boater and nonboater from each state punched their tickets to the TNT Fireworks B.A.S.S. Nation Championship at Lake Hartwell scheduled for Oct. 18-20. The winner of that event will receive an invite to the 2024 Bassmaster Elite Series roster and the top three anglers will qualify for the 2024 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota in Tulsa, Okla.
The tournament was hosted by the Charles County Commissioners.