ORILLIA, Ontario — When the first three casts of the first day of practice for the Jack Link’s Lake Simcoe Open in Ontario produced three smallmouth bass that weighed more than 4 pounds apiece, Jason Clay and Matt Belzil were feeling pretty good about their chances in the one-day tournament.
By the end of that first practice day, the two Niagara Falls anglers figured their best five would have weighed 26 or 27 pounds. Little did they know what was in store during the tournament, hosted by the Aurora Bassmasters and held Oct. 28 on the 279-square-mile lake, which is among Ontario’s largest.
Their five-smallmouth limit weighed 31.80 pounds, earning them not only the victory over the 47-boat field, but also setting a new Canadian record. The previous record of 31.55 pounds was set at the 2010 Simcoe Open.
“We’ve been doing this up there since 2010 and had a chance to win this thing multiple times,” said Clay, 37, who noted the team has placed second, third, fourth and 11th in previous opens. “To finally do it is an amazing feeling.”
Simcoe is a deep, structure-laden lake that’s home to an array of species, including lake trout and whitefish. It also has a diverse prey base, including gobies, herring, perch and smelt, that allows its smallmouth bass to grow to mammoth proportions. Each of the five bass the duo brought to the scales weighed in excess of 6 pounds. That’s not to say the fishing is easy.
“Simcoe fishes very small for its size,” Clay said. “This time of year, there is a ton of dead water – I’d say 90 percent of the lake is dead water. They’re concentrated and it can be tough to find them. A minimum of about half the field [doesn’t weigh any fish].”
Save for that first practice day, the pair spent most of their time with their eyes glued to their Lowrance electronics, using side-scan and down imaging to locate fish. When they’d find pods of fish, they’d drop down an Aqua-Vu underwater camera to determine their size. By tournament morning, which dawned windy and rainy, Clay and Belzil had a milk run of spots – boulders, flats, points and transition areas in 20 to 45 feet of water – which they prioritized based on where they believed other anglers might fish.
“The water is crystal clear; sometimes you can see down 30 feet,” said Belzil, 36. “The key is getting to spots before they get pressured.”
At each spot they rotated through unnamed bladebaits and crankbaits, as well as 4-inch Set The Hook tubes and drop-shot rigged Jackall Crosstail Shads in natural colors. They used G. Loomis IMX-PRO and NRX rods matched with Shimano Stradic FK reels, PowerPro braid and Sunline Super Sniper FC fluorocarbon for the plastics. They used a prototype PowerPro braid to make extra-long casts with their blade baits and catch spooky fish. For crankbaits, they loaded 10-pound Sunline fluorocarbon on Shimano Curado crankbait rods and Chronach MGL reels. They relied on a Mercury Pro XS to get them to their spots, and credit Mike Swartz, of Mobile Marine Services in Grimsby, Ontario, with keeping their equipment in top shape.
The pair landed about 30 smallmouth bass during the tournament and lost 10, including a 7-pounder that would have been the morning’s second fish. They slowly upgraded throughout the morning, and by early afternoon they culled a 6.1-pound smallmouth.
“I looked at [Jason] and said, ‘We got this. We’re in it to win it and fishing for a record now,’” Belzil said.
They didn’t know it at the time, but their bag would indeed be a record-setting one.
“It was just surreal,” Belzil said.
In addition to their bag, two other teams weighed limits of more than 30 pounds.