Busted at Champlain

I posted double 00s at the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open at Lake Champlain. The reason: I never made it to the scales.

I should know by now that you double whatever time you believe it should take to run back to the weigh-in when fishing inland seas like Champlain and the Great Lakes. I failed to do that. It cost me dearly.

I suppose I got overconfident during practice. My first day at Champlain, Sunday, was so windy I could barely hold in place to fish while bouncing on waves. Even so, my 24-year-old 18’ 4” Champion bass boat did a surprisingly good job of walking over the waves.

This is the boat I’m refurbishing for my “How to Keep Your Bass Boat Alive” series of articles in BASS Times and videos on bassmaster.com. The hull was designed to slice through waves to deliver an ultimate top speed.

I was cruising over legitimate 2 and 1/2-foot waves at more than 40 mph in relative comfort. I’ve had rougher rides in that kind of water with much bigger boats.

On Monday, I was buffeted by wind and rain all day. I was fishing the northern end of the lake, which offers little protection from the elements. I could have avoided the beating by fishing south, where the lake narrows and flows past Ticonderoga.

Ti was the place to fish during a major tournament two weeks prior to the Northern Open. It yielded the winner’s catch and that of most of the top 10 at that event. However, with my 150 hp outboard and top speed of 58 mph loaded, I figured I’d lose too much time to my competitors.

I practiced north with the goal of finding large and smallmouth bass. Given the conditions the first two days, I struggled to get on anything. The wind subsided on the final practice days. It made for more comfortable fishing, but I never found a load of bass.

During practice, I caught several largemouths, but nothing over 2 pounds. Smallmouth bites were slow in coming, but I did land one or two 4-pound smallies each day. It was going to be brown bass or bust.

My partner for Day 1 was West Virginian Bryan Humphreys, an impressive individual. He had started his own logging company from scratch and built it into a substantial enterprise. Humphreys now has enough people working for him that he fishes nine months of the year and hunts and traps for most of the rest.

He accomplished all this well before the age of 40. He proved to be a competent angler, too. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Humphreys fishing the Bassmaster Opens as a pro next year. I believe he would hold his own.

We started the morning fishing the edge of a weed bed in 12 feet of water near a drop. It was the only place where I had gotten three quick bites in one area during practice. One of them had been a solid 4-pounder.

This was the place that burned me. I hit it three times that day, probably investing over 3 hours of my time there. It produced only one 12-inch smallmouth bass for Humphreys.

The most productive spot was a mid-lake hump with grass that dropped sharply into deep water. I caught a 3-pound smallmouth there that morning on a drop shot and lost two others. Late that day, I bagged two solid bass there on a Carolina rig.

Humphreys hooked five bass from that hump on a drop shot and landed all of them. He had about 9 pounds in his livewell, enough to keep him in contention.

My third area had a series of humps with sparse grass. I had caught a 4 1/2-pound smallmouth beast there during practice on a Rapala DT6 crankbait. I showed them a DT10 on money day. 

It was so windy there that Humphreys’ drop shot line had a wide bow in it. A good bass belted my crankbait. I worked it up to where I could see that it was barely hooked. That’s when the hook pulled out. 

I kept chunking the crankbait into the brisk wind, winding away when the bait suddenly stopped. I pulled back on my rod and looked at the deep bow for any movement. Nothing happened. I cranked twice and pulled again. The bow in my rod didn’t move.

Then my line started moving slowing and steadily toward deep water. I was onto a horse. I got my first and only glimpse of the bass when the hook pulled out.

That was my day. Six bass hooked and three lost. Had I landed them all, even with the big one, I would have had maybe 13 pounds. That would have put me below 40th place and in the money.

I figured it would take about 20 minutes to make the run back in the 2-footers that were rocking the boat. I gave myself 30 minutes. I was making good time until I hit the stretch where the lake widens south of Monty Bay. Here the stiff south wind had been building waves for nearly 60 miles. Those 2 footers quickly grew to 3 feet and then 4.

I knew I was in trouble. We were still 8 miles north of the point that leads into Plattsburgh Bay and the check-in. 

The last thing I wanted was to be late and ruin Humphreys’ chance to win the tournament. I pushed it and tried to stay on top of the waves. They were quartering into the port side of the bow, pounding us unmercifully. 

I knew I couldn’t make it, that I should back off the throttle. But I hoped beyond hope that I could get in on time. 

After one hard hit, the left knob on my bow graph came off. I shut down. The knob hadn’t merely come unscrewed. The brass fitting that the knob screws into had popped out. 

I put the graph in a rod locker and throttled the boat back on plane. I noticed that the head of my electric motor was rocking, which isn’t normal. I have the motor strapped down, supported with a post and locked down with a stainless steel aftermarket device. It would take a 20-pound sledgehammer to break it lose.

Apparently, the pounding I was giving the boat was the equivalent. Something in the trolling motor bracket broke. The electric motor jumped up. I shut down again and discovered that I couldn’t make the electric motor’s bracket lie flat. I tied the motor down with a rope. 

It was over. There was no way we would make it in on time. If I had put the boat on plane, I would have lost the electric motor. We would have to idle back. 

When I looked toward the transom, I discovered that my outboard had no cowling. I had noticed the night before that the cowling was sitting half an inch forward and was not locked down properly. I figured I had stupidly failed to secure it. I locked it down, pushing and banging on it to make sure it was fastened. I later learned that the cowling on this motor has been known to come off in extremely rough water. When these motors were used on race boats, the cowlings were reinforced with bungee cords to keep them in place. I wish I had known that before Champlain. 

I started to idle back, feeling horrible for Humphreys. He took it better than I would have. He even gave me money for gas, which I never would have asked for given the circumstances. 

The debacle wasn’t over yet. The waves were so tall and steep that they pushed my outboard’s engine halfway underwater even while idling. The engine stalled. We were dead on the water.
Time to call BoatUS.

This is the second time in two years that I’ve been towed in by BoatUS. I’m beginning to feel like a disaster waiting to happen. I hope BoatUS doesn’t cancel my policy. 

The Minn Kota support crew fixed my Fortrex that evening. However, I couldn’t continue in the tournament without a cowling. I drove home defeated the next day. 

I have since found a used cowling on the internet to replace the one I lost. I also fixed the knob on my graph. As discouraging as my Champlain debacle was, I’m looking forward to the Northern Open at St. Clair.

Bassmaster Elite Series pro Michael Iaconelli has adopted "Never give up" as his motto. When I fish the Northern Open at St. Clair, I will be 66 years old. I’m going with a more age-appropriate mantra for myself: "Never say die!"

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