Best of Elite Series aerials

This is more than a pretty picture of the upper Mississippi River. Showing you the habitat and structure in play from the air is the goal of our Bassmaster Elite Series aerial galleries. You get a unique perspective of the patterns in play while watching Bassmaster LIVE, The Bassmasters on FS1 and viewing our on-the-water galleries. In this gallery, I chose my favorites of the season. 
In the captions I’ll share what was on my mind when taking the photos. The season began in February at the Bassmaster Elite at St. Johns River, and on Rodman Reservoir. Time stands still there and you get a feel of “old Florida” in the surrounding wilderness of the Ocala National Forest. What you see in the background is the Rodman Canal that connects the St. Johns to the reservoir. At bottom left is my camera boat. 
Drew Cook was in the other boat, and this photo shows some of the spawning transition areas where he chose to fish. 
Another reason for choosing Rodman is in this photo. John Crews led the tournament from start to finish, fishing in Rodman and specifically along this channel, where he caught fish along submerged and visible structure used as staging areas by the spawning largemouth. 
On this day, the water was calm, setting up ideal conditions to see the habitat in play. This is Scott Martin fishing along a line of thick vegetation of various types and layers. 
I chose this photo for the stillness of the surface, while showing a glimpse of the habitat and what “old Florida” looks like today. 
Rodman is surrounded by undeveloped and wild lands that provide a peaceful backdrop for the fishing. The wind was calm and I could hear owls calling from the timber. 
The next week was the SiteOne Bassmaster Elite at Harris Chain. I looked forward to flying there as the spawn was in full swing. What’s so visual about this area are the various lakes, each with its own distinct habitat from canals to creeks. 
This is inside the Dora Canal between Lake Eustis and Lake Dora. You will see an amazing array of wildlife and cypress trees that are reportedly thousands of years old. Boat tours are popular for obvious reasons. The canal is very narrow and reminded me of a Disneyworld-like attraction. 
This is the view back into Lake Eustis. Pretty scenery aside, the no-wake zone extending the 1-mile length adds commute time for anglers fishing both lakes, while subtracting from fishing time. Time management becomes a priority in tournaments here. 
To get this photo of Lake Eustis I had to ascend through the thick canopy of cypress trees to an altitude of 300 feet. Calm winds made it easier so I could maintain the required visual line of sight between me and the drone. 
Back in Eustis is this dead-end canal that is reportedly popular and productive for bass fishing. It’s one of many here and elsewhere at the other connecting lakes. 
Canals come in two different types, with residential canals providing docks used as staging areas for spawning bass, and ambush points on their shady side. Other canals are undeveloped with shoreline habitat like wood and vegetation the key draw for anglers. 
John Crews explores a residential canal on the east side of Lake Harris in Fisherman’s Cove Golf & RV Resort. I was riding along with photographer Andy Crawford, and he was nearby on the shoreline working up a gallery for Bassmaster.com. 
Outside the canal a crowd gathered in Banana Cove, where Chad Pipkens and more than a dozen tournament boats had gathered. 
I maneuvered the drone to give a high and wide view of Buddy Gross’ pattern. He focused on shoreline contour breaks near deeper water, where the bass and baitfish moved along a parallel path that you see here. Gross won the tournament with 77 pounds, 11 ounces. 
Next stop was the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at Santee Cooper Lakes. It was an ideal setup to capture prime spawning habitat from the air. On this morning the flying conditions were ideal with calm winds and sunny skies. Andy was assigned to shoot a gallery of the leader, Drew Cook. I jumped at the chance to ride along with him.
This was my favorite flight of the season, as the clear water allowed the drone to capture what Cook does best, which is sight fishing for spawning largemouth. 
This is the creek channel that served as a migration route and staging area near Cook’s prime sight fishing spot.
I was so in the moment taking it all in that I forgot to press the shutter on the camera, having to fly back over some of the shots and retake them. 
In the middle foreground is our camera boat. To the right was Cook, who broke into the B.A.S.S. Century Club with a winning weight of 105-5. 
Money shot. That’s what our Bassmaster photographers call photos like this. Clearly, you can see spawning beds surrounding Cook’s boat in the clear water. 
My priority for clear-water, shallow conditions like this is to fly high and behind the boat to avoid spooking the bass. 
This is a stark contrast to Cook’s clear water spawning creek. I’m flying the drone high above Sparkleberry Swamp on upper Lake Marion. The swamp differs from other cypress-tupelo swamps in South Carolina for its heavy volume of water. It’s a magic place. 
By design, the swamp remains flooded. Andy and I were challenged to find tournament boats due to the density of the cypress forests. He commented it looked like those found in his native south Louisiana. 
How coincidental it was for us to find south Louisiana pro Caleb Sumrall, fishing in his comfort zone. 
Next stop was the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at Chickamauga Lake. Andy was assigned to shoot a gallery of then Bassmaster of the Year John Cox. We knew Cox would be fishing in gnarly, shallow cover that fits his angling style in shallow water. Again, I jumped at the chance to ride along. That’s our camera boat at lower left. 
The side channel where Cox fished was too shallow for us (but not for his aluminum rig), so we beached the boat on the river channel side, and hiked with our gear across this peninsula to do our work. I’m about 100 yards below Andy, who you can see at left of Cox.
A narrow ditch runs through this side channel. Cox anchored with his shallow water anchors to avoid muddying up the water. 
Here is the “above and below” view that Andy and I strive for when working together. 
We do this often as it gives you a chance to see the habitat at water level and from above. 
Here’s a good view of Andy. We’ll obviously do what it takes to get the shot. Hiking through the mud and reeds was actually fun, something different, and it worked. 
And a view of me from about 75 yards away with the drone. Cox laughed when he saw us appear from nowhere, but he wasn’t surprised. 
The Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at Lake Oahe finally arrived. I was worried about getting grounded due to high winds that are common on the Great Plains. I got lucky. Sunny skies and relatively calm winds allowed me to fly the drone at 300 feet above ground level to get this panoramic view. 
Our host city, Mobridge, S.D., got its name for its railroad designation, a contracted form of Missouri Bridge, after the original over the Missouri River built in 1906. It was demolished when the lake formed and replaced by this higher bridge. 
Ongoing drought exposed much of the shoreline, offering a glimpse of the habitat as it tapered into deeper water. 
Vegetation sprouted along the previously flooded shoreline. I shot this photo to show the various contrasts between the exposed shoreline and surrounding landscape. 
This was the scene at Indian Creek Recreation Area, takeoff site for the tournament on Day 1. A storm system to the east narrowly missed us as it traveled to the southeast across southwest South Dakota and into Minnesota. 
Even in this photo you get a good look at the drought-exposed shoreline. 
Distance would be a relative term during this tournament, as much of the field chose to run south to the middle lake, where It’s believed most of the baitfish population—and the bass—spend the summer. 
The prevailing pattern unfolded where the smallmouth staged on offshore points and irregular bottom features between shallow and deeper water. In the calm wind I was able to fly the drone to it’s altitude limit over the surface to capture a common sight that morning. Boats running south to their areas, while passing fellow competitors fishing similar patterns. 
Even in the wide-open spaces, the smallmouth schooled up in specific areas, making vertical presentations a must. 
As was keeping an eye on forward facing sonar as the bass roamed the water column following schools of baitfish. 
The more populated east side of the lake was a stark contrast to the opposite side of Oahe, home to the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. It was like going back in time, as you are about to see. In the middle foreground is a herd of wild horses. 
I was able to fly over them at about 100 feet off the ground without even causing them to run away. 
Not far away on the reservation were these two bison. 
This bull never looked up as I flew around it. Until then, I would never thought there would be a bison in an aerial photo gallery about bass fishing. But why not? 
Near the lakeshore was a larger bull. I was over 100 yards away in the camera boat, advancing the drone at an altitude of about 75 yards. I flew slowly to avoid spooking it, and having to maneuverer using visual line of sight and the GPS mapping on the DJI Smart Controller.  
Without a zoom lens, getting a close-up shot means flying nearer the subject. This shot was taken about 50 feet off the ground and 10 yards away. It was a highlight of the trip. 
Another highlight for me was the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at Mississippi River. Here, the river offers more diverse scenic beauty than anywhere else on its 2,000-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. That beauty also translates to an abundance of bass habitat. In the background at right, and shrouded in fog, is our host city, Lacrosse. 
After taking that high altitude photo I was about to land the drone when I spotted Brandon Lester, fishing a point. This photo epitomizes what I try to do with these aerial galleries. You can clearly see the water trail of Lester’s lure as it comes across a tapering dropoff into deep water. 
Nearby was Hank Cherry fishing a textbook transition area with lily pads and vegetation favored by summertime largemouth. 
The south side of Goose Island, with its network of sloughs that are ideal for pitching, flipping, and frogging. This isn’t the identifier of the Mississippi River of which most of us are familiar. 
As I flew the drone here what came to mind was a golf course-like setting. This is Goose Island, and all those watery paths are navigable. 
Another view towards the south, with the Minnesota Bluffs shrouded in fog. 
I like this photo for its depth and contrast, as you get a great view of the bluffs that border the river. 
This angler is targeting the undercut banks where the vegetation casts shade along the shoreline of this narrow island. Largemouth favor such areas for deeper water. 
That’s my camera boat in lower foreground. To access this scenic spot, we had to run on plane through the narrow cut of wild rice in the upper background. 
This was another money shot with the current-swept vegetation. At top background is downtown Lacrosse. Taku Ito is in the boat positioned along the vegetation in the lower middle. To his right is my camera boat and another media boat. 
Taku Ito. 
The drone allows me to capture boats and habitat at different angles. 
I just had to add an iconic Mississippi River image to the gallery. This barge was headed upriver toward Pool 7. 
That’s me in our camera boat after I shot the image of the barge. You can see the strong current from the river as it swept across the muddy flat. 
This image shows a series of wing dams that pose danger for bass boats. On the surface you can’t see these rocky structures. From above, and to the lower right, you can zoom in and see two buoys and an open gap between a wing dam. That’s the only safe passage into the river. In the far top background you can see the Minnesota Bluffs and the Pool 7 lock and dam. 
I end my favorites of the season with this postcard-perfect image. It offers a peaceful view of a side channel with the main river channel running along the Minnesota Bluffs.