A thousand miles and over a week removed from Gerald Swindle’s 2016 Bassmaster AOY Championship at Minnesota’s Lake Mille Lacs, another Elite Series competitor is back on the water. Far south, on Louisiana’s Red River, Stephen Browning is steeling himself for the upcoming Southern Open out of Bossier City.
Here in the swampland, Browning is looking for redemption. A 49th place finish at AOY has left him with plenty of riddles to solve—and Mille Lacs hasn’t yet left his mind. The fish, Browning says, were scattered all over the 207 square-mile lake at AOY. But by now, they should be tight. In other words: if the sight of endless 4-6 pound smallmouth gets your motor going, Mille Lacs is still the place to be.
“We were really there at a weird time,” Browning says, as he whips his boat around one of the Red River’s creeks during practice. “The fish were really in transition. If we had been there a little later, I don’t think that would have been the case. They weren’t bunched up, like I feel they are probably fixin’ to be. The marshals were telling us to wait a few weeks and see…that it’d be crazy.”
Armed with an exploratory knowledge of the great northern lake, Browning left his Arkansas home headed for the AOY Championship with two seek-and-destroy methods in mind. One, deploying a paddle tail swim bait, paired with a 7’10” heavy-moderate action St. Croix Legend Tournament rod, Lew’s 7:1 Pro G Speed Spool Reel and 14lb Gamma fluorocarbon line. Two, dragging a green pumpkin tube mated to a 7’6” medium-fast St. Croix Legend Elite rod, Lew’s Carbon Pro spinning reel and 10lb Gamma fluorocarbon.
“They were feeding on crawfish pretty heavily up there,” he adds. “And that green pumpkin with orange-died tips seems to work well under those conditions.”
Unfortunately for Browning, his strategy never quite clicked, and as he preps for the Southern Open he’s still itching to get another shot at Mille Lacs. “That was my first time up there,” he says. “If I had a chance to do it all again in another week or two, I’d take a different approach. The lake had a really good break from 8 feet to 12 feet, and I’d hit that hard. ”
He’d hit it with big spinnerbaits—a 3/4 oz—and jerkbaits. “The lake is really a big bowl full of rocks and sand. It’s pretty much wide open,” he notes. “There are shoals out on the lake though, there are reefs you can target with a big spinnerbait or a jerkbait.” Browning trusts his spinnerbaits to a 7’3” St. Croix Legend Tournament Series rod, “the Carolina rig rod,” he adds. For big-bladder spinners, he pairs it with a 6:4 Lew’s Speed Spool, or—if the blades are smaller—he’ll step up to a 7:1 reel to keep from wearing himself out. Both reels take 14-16lb line.
The jerk bait finds a home with a shorter, 6’8” St. Croix Legend Elite and a fast, 7:1 Lew’s Speed Spool with 10lb line.
Though a 49th place finish at AOY isn’t what Browning was aiming for, just getting to the championship at the top of the most competitive level of bass fishing is an achievement to be proud of. And the Mille Lacs first timer left with an array of knowledge that has him convinced the lake is ripe for premium, Autumn smallmouth fishing. “The bass up there get a lot less pressure than other hot lakes,” he concludes. “The fish we were catching at AOY were old, probably 12-15 years old. It tells you that the bass fishermen up there have taken good care of the fishery of the years, and I think it helps that with so many anglers after walleye up there, the bass aren’t really the primary target species.”
That’s good news for bass fans hoping to get a taste of this year’s AOY Championship lake. And if Browning’s right, the best bass at Mille Lacs have yet to be hoisted this year.