CLINTON, Iowa — The first two days of the TNT Fireworks B.A.S.S. Nation Northern Regional on the Upper Mississippi River saw Steve Lee secure early limits on his way to grabbing the lead.
On Championship Friday, however, the angler from Minneapolis, Minn., needed an afternoon rally to secure the win on Pools 13, 14 and 15 with a three-day total of 42 pounds, 14 ounces.
As he waited in the bag line, Lee estimated he had closer to 10 or 11 pounds and thought the margin between him and second-place angler Eddie Levin, who finished with 40-1, would be a lot closer.
“It doesn’t really seem real. After the first day of fishing, I was like, ‘This is a tough place to fish.’ Then I got on my pattern,” Lee said. “It was a great experience. Obviously, when you win it is a heck of a lot better. I like river fishing and I like tough tournaments. You have to stay focused all the time.”
After landing in fourth with 13-3 on Day 1, Lee caught the big bag of the tournament on the second day at 16-0 and then added a 13-11 limit on Friday.
Not only did Lee win $5,000 for the victory and punch his ticket to the TNT Fireworks B.A.S.S. Nation Championship on Pickwick Lake in November, he earned $500 for catching the Big Bass of the Tournament — a 4-14 largemouth on Day 1 — and $500 in Garmin contingency money.
Fishing mostly the North end of Pool 14, Lee pitched and flipped wooded cover that was located on the front sides of islands where the current from the Pool 13 dam was pushing against the bank, as well as some eelgrass patches South of takeoff.
“I would go up to the logjams and I would put the Talons down and would just pick it apart,” he explained. “There is always current there. I would move a little bit and then do the same thing. (On Day 2) in particular the big ones bit.”
Lee mostly used a green pumpkin Zoom tube rigged on 3/16- or 1/8-ounce sinker. He threw his Texas rig on a 7-11 St. Croix heavy flipping stick paired with Daiwa reels and 20-pound Gamma fluorocarbon.
The bigger bites he got were on the back sides of the logs, so Lee had to pitch over logs to get bites. That made getting the bass free from their hiding place difficult. Both his 4-14 on Day 1 and another 4-pounder on Day 2 got stuck in the cover before Lee managed to free them.
“It seemed like about 18 inches of water was the best. If it was 4 feet deep, I didn’t even fish it,” he said. “It was so surprising that nobody else was fishing the same stuff. I didn’t have to fight for the spot. I think the big ones moved up during the tournament days.”
Water levels on the Upper Mississippi River have been falling since anglers arrived for practice on Sunday, bringing dirty water conditions with them. On Day 3, however, the water began to stabilize.
With the current slowing some on the final day and the water clearing up, Lee struggled to find bites early in the morning and decided to make a run to the South end of Pool 14. After catching two bass off docks, he moved back up the river and made several key catches late in the day that secured the victory.
“I never did give up. I had two fish at 12:30,” Lee said. “I went back up by the dam and I caught a 2 1/2. With 20 minutes left, I went over to one of the trees and I vertically jigged a tube and caught one and then a minute later I caught another one. With that one, I knew I made Nationals but I didn’t think I was going to win.”
Levin, who finished first on the Ohio state team back in 2011 on the Mississippi River, caught 13-8 to land in third on Day 1 and jumped into second place on Day 2 with a 15-9 limit, just 2 ounces behind Lee.
Several key fish eluded him on the final day, however, and Levin brought 11-0 to the scales to finish in second with 40-1.
“The good Lord blessed me,” he said. “I caught five fish every day and that’s all I could ask for. I won Ohio and that was my main goal coming down here. Mission accomplished as far as I’m concerned.”
Finding cleaner water was the key for Levin, who locked up to Pool 13 and found a stretch of lily pads and milfoil in 1 to 2 feet of water that was holding quality bass.
“Those were better-than-average fish. They just came off spawning and were a little beat up,” he said. “It seems like the river fish were a little smaller because they are fighting the current all the time. The grass fish are fat and happy.”
He did most of his damage with a 6th Sense Vega Frog, but would also flip a Venom tube from time to time.
“They seemed to shy away from dirty water,” Levin said. “The grass was cleaning the water as it came in and they were sitting in the line between clean and dirty water ambushing bluegill, perch and crawdads.”
Despite catching two bass early in the morning, Levin struggled to find consistency on the final day.
“It was a lot rougher on me,” he said. “I ran to my main frog area and they were a little pickier today. Unfortunately, I missed a lot of opportunities. I left at least three 3-pounders out there. I had the bites to win it today, but it was about execution for me.”
Nick Uebelhor finished third overall with 38-8 for a three-day total, with weights of 13-2, 13-15 and 11-7. The Indiana boater focused his efforts on very specific lily pads with clear water in 3 to 4 feet of water.
The tournament was hosted by the Clinton, Iowa Convention & Visitors Bureau.