I love fishing the St. Lawrence River area. We recently finished our Bassmaster Elite Series season finale there, and I did pretty well with a third-place finish. It was my fourth top 10 on that fishery.
I fell in love with the place the first time I fished there, which, coincidentally, was my first-ever Bassmaster event in 1992. We launched in Clayton, N.Y., which isn’t far from Lake Ontario.
It was the first time this ol’ Texan had fished for smallmouth – in fact I didn’t know much about the species. All I knew was that you could catch largemouth out in the river and the vaunted smallmouth in the bays on the lake.
I decided to practice in the smallmouth waters of Henderson and Chaumont bays outside the river in Lake Ontario. I just launched my boat and went fishing even though I had no clue what I was doing.
I quickly discovered those brown fish were aggressive so I focused on capitalizing on that. I had always heard you had to fish deep for smallmouth, but I found some fish shallow and used a spinnerbait to cover water and had a blast.
I finished ninth.
We went back in 1995 and in ’97. I finished eighth in ’95, and in ’97 I was leading doing pretty much the same thing and in the same areas. I was convinced that you need to go out of the river into Lake Ontario because that’s where the big fish are. I finished second in that one.
I remember following Larry Nixon and Shaw Grigsby into the lake on one of those events, and the lake was pretty rough from the wind.
In those days I was running an 18-foot Hydra-Sports bass boat, and the wind and waves made it tough to negotiate. After we got out about five miles into the lake, Grigsby and Nixon turned around, but I stayed with it.
I had no idea what I was doing out there, but I did know I wanted to catch smallmouth and still keep my boat in one piece. I made the 40-mile plus run, and it paid off.
We went back in 2019 and launched out of Waddington, N.Y., and the lake was off limits. I didn’t know anything about the river except it had a lot of current, so I didn’t do well, finishing 65th.
After the tournament, I decided to stay and fish the river and learn how to fish smallmouth in that current. I did a lot better and began to understand it.
In 2020, B.A.S.S. went back to Clayton and Lake Ontario was put back into play. The first day I ran to the lake and caught 26 pounds, 3 ounces, the biggest smallmouth bag I’d ever had. The last day the wind blew out of the South making it very tough, and I finished eighth. But the finish helped set me up to win the Bassmaaster Angler of Year title.
Over all of those years, I’ve seen the fishery change. Zebra mussels helped add clarity, and now you can see bottom as deep as 20 feet or more. It reminds me of the Bahamas.
More importantly, exotic gobies have come on strong and the smallies are gobbling them up, putting on more weight and muscle. Some experts say gobies are bad, but they are like steroids to smallmouth and the fish are so healthy.
However, gobies have changed the way you have to fish for the smallmouth. Those baitfish are so prolific that the bass don’t have to swim far to eat.
The smallmouth aren’t as aggressive as they were in the early years, so it takes slower presentations to catch them. You can still get bit on jigs, spybaits and jerkbaits, but if you want to win, you really have to slow down and fish things like a drop shot and other bottom baits.
Even so, I’ve never seen a fishery this good.
It might be the best smallmouth fishery in the country, and I’m thrilled that we’re going back again next year – and back to Clayton – where this all began for me.