If I ever have the honor and privilege of fishing in the Bassmaster Elite Series, I am going to look back to this article every season during the Northern Swing and remember fondly that while it may be tough to have my three-day limit of 4-pound average smallmouth only land me a middling check on the St. Lawrence River, it’s hotter than a blisterbug in a pepper patch here in Texas, and for the blessing of being in New York State, I will be forever grateful. So, if there is any incentive to fish my rear end off to qualify, it’s just so I have an excuse to get up there where it’s “Texas-winter” in the middle of July to try and catch a limit of 5-pound fish briskets for four days in a row.
As I do my deep dive into the picks for the event, I have to be frank with you. The deep pool of anglers is more like the ankle-deep kiddie pool you all bought for Fourth of July that is still sitting in the yard. Sure, there are plenty of guys who know how to catch smallmouth bass, but if we’re really honest with each other, unless you’re really hard up to pick a bunch of dark horses in hopes they out-pip the stallions in the group, we’re all looking at the same dozen-or-so anglers.
The St. Lawrence River should be smack in the middle of the spawn. And unless it’s insanely bumpy out there on the river, you’re sure to see all the tricks come out to catch the big ones off the beds. Not only will the spawning fish weigh more, but they tend to stay put for several days in a row and are super aggressive. You may see a group of anglers drift-fishing with drop shots, Carolina rigs and the like with some success if they can’t locate the prime spawning grounds.
With all that in mind, these are the guys that most of you were already thinking about picking. But let me remind you why you picked them.
BUCKET A: CHRIS JOHNSTON
He’s Canadian. He is a monster smallmouth angler. He has eagle eyes. He has won here before. His record is so strong, he may have to be given a handicap to keep it fair. In all seriousness, Chris Johnston has fished here three times as an Elite and hasn’t finished worse than fifth. His knack for finding the spawning promise lands is unmatched, and I can’t see him hurting his record this time. His momentum is great too with three finishes in a row better than 20th with two Championship Sundays in the mix. He’s going to be hard to beat.
Don’t forget about: Cory Johnston
He’s Canadian. He’s a monster smallmouth angler. He has eagle eyes. No this is not Groundhog Day – it’s plain genetics. Cory Johnston has a record that is every bit as impressive as his brother Chris. He has a seventh and a fourth in prior years — and lest you forget, his “dismal” 36th-place finish in 2019 could have been his opportunity to win had he not had major mechanical issues that caused him to stumble on Day 1. You can’t go wrong with either one of these boys.
BUCKET B: ITO
You guessed it. It’s the most wonderful time of the year – Taku time! There is no more likely bet to bring Smallmouth Disneyland to the northern border than Taku Ito. He won this event last season with a whopping 90 pounds. If I have any advice, it’s that you should not get sad about his 15-pound limit on BassTrakk. It’s a surefire bet to be at least 23 pounds by the time it hits the scale.
Don’t forget about: Jason Christie
Assuming there will be some prespawn and postspawn bass out on the flats, Jason Christie should be able to dial in his live sonar and get them to react. For the time being, I feel bad for Matt Pangrac having to stick to his guns and pick Jason every event for the rest of the year having to pass up on Taku. But for a guy who used to be strictly known for his power fishing, Christie has shown the world how diverse of an angler he really is. I hope I don’t have to eat crow.
BUCKET C: FEIDER
I feel like if I tried to build the drama in this lineup, it would come off as disingenuous. Seth Feider may be an insanely obvious pick, but at the end of the day, I’m not a fool. I mean, half the field will be throwing a hair jig that he designed. Since 2015, he has fished the St. Lawrence River six times and has never missed a Day 3 cut and has four finishes better than 18th.
Don’t forget about: Chad Pipkens
Chad Pipkens will absolutely be overshadowed in this bucket, but that’s no reason not to pay close attention to him. He loves the light-line game and should be a force to be reckoned with. He has a ton of experience here and has only missed the Day 3 cut twice.
BUCKET D: SCHULTZ
I know what you’re thinking: Florida = smallmouth. And regarding Bernie Schultz, that would be an accurate statement. I made a terrible mistake for years in overlooking Bernie, specifically here, but also on smallmouth fisheries in general. Five finishes better than 15th on this river should have clued me in. However, the one year I did pick him here, in 2018, he finished 104th. Don’t let that scare you though. He is a phenomenal bet in this Bucket and somehow is the only true value pick that I’ve seen at less than 8% currently.
Don’t forget about: Austin Felix
Although you might consider Austin Felix a sleeper pick, you’d be wrong. He should be dead and center, squarely behind Bernie Schultz. He certainly has earned his “Fairy-Wand Wielder” badge and has two great finishes including one Championship Sunday in last year’s competition.
BUCKET E: AOKI
If there is a Bucket to gamble in, it’s Bucket E. There are several anglers who have had good finishes amidst an onslaught of rough ones. Some guys who are not known for smallmouth have done well in a seemingly random fashion and there are others still, who should do well and have struggled to make a Day 3 cut. I’m going with Daisuke Aoki, an angler who is unproven on the St. Lawrence River, but like so many other Japanese anglers, should be able to catch them on light line and little lures that most of us in the U.S. have never seen before. Crossing my fingers, but feeling strong about this one. Also worth noting, he is good pals with one Brandon Palaniuk who knows a thing or two about this body of water.
Don’t forget about: Justin Atkins
This swing might be exactly what Justin Atkins needs to get himself back in alignment. It’s been a tough go since joining the Elites, but he is too good of an angler for this slump to last forever. He had a fantastic event on Pickwick a few weeks ago, finishing eighth, and if he can continue that momentum, he may grab another Day 4 finish like he had last year.
Mercury Bassmaster Drain the Lake Challenge
I was concerned about my roster for the last event on Pickwick and for good reason. The event saw my second-worst score in the Mercury Bassmaster Drain the Lake Challenge to date. Not only did I drop all the way down to fourth place among the pundits, but Ronnie Moore somehow managed a miracle roster and launched himself into the lead. I can’t handle it. I’m pulling out all the stops for the rest of the season. There are a few key smallmouth guys that I’m hanging onto for Oahe, but this roster is going to be stacked.
• Daisuke Aoki
• Joshua Douglas
• Seth Feider
• Taku Ito
• Chris Johnston
• Cory Johnston
• Brandon Palaniuk
• Bernie Schultz