WADDINGTON, N.Y. — Last year’s Bassmaster Elite Series tournament on the St. Lawrence River was called “the best smallmouth tournament ever in the history of man,” by none other than Kevin VanDam. Don’t expect an encore performance this week when the four-day Berkley Bassmaster Elite at the St. Lawrence River presented by Black Velvet begins Thursday.
Oh, it’s still going to be great. But maybe not quite as record-shattering as when it took 95 pounds, 3 ounces to win and 116 five-bass limits topping 20 pounds were weighed over four days in 2018.
“I think it’s going to be a little big tougher compared to last year,” said David Mullins. “But last year was probably the best smallmouth fishing has ever been in a tournament for us. You still get a lot of bites. It just seems like the bigger ones are harder to come by.”
The 75 Elite Series anglers practiced three days before a day off the water Wednesday. The general theory is that fish aren’t as grouped up in deep water as they were last year, when the tournament was held a bit later, August 23-26.
“The fish are still here,” said Mullins, who predicted a winning weight of 86 pounds. “They’re in a transition time. I think they are all going to get out there and group up eventually, but they’re not there yet. Some of these fish spawned only 20 days ago.”
Keith Combs, who finished eighth last year with a four-day total of 88 pounds, 10 ounces, echoed that, saying, “Last year was exceptional, but I think the fish may have been a little more grouped up in deep water. It’s going to be a good tournament though.”
Some shallow water techniques might be bigger factors this year. Combs said he found smallmouth throughout the water column in practice.
“I caught fish as deep as 40 feet and as shallow as 6 feet,” he said. “And I caught them in-between. I don’t feel like there was a concentration at any depth for me.”
Rather than drifting a drop-shot bait on deep structure, like the most successful anglers did last year, Combs relied on crankbaits and jerkbaits for the majority of his weight in 2018.
“You can catch ‘em cranking here and sometimes the average has been a little better for me,” said Combs, adding, “I have one tied on.”
Combs smiled and said, “Well, three tied on.”
Elite Series rookies Chris and Cory Johnston have been considered two of the clear favorites in this event because of the Canadian brothers’ success in northern smallmouth waters. They’re both in contention for the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year title. Cory is third in the current AOY standings, only 12 points behind leader Drew Cook, and Chris is 11th, 38 points back.
However, Chris was quick to downplay his experience in the St. Lawrence River. In fact, when tournament boundaries and weather have allowed, the Johnston brothers have always chosen to make the run to Lake Ontario and capitalize on the smallmouth bite there.
“I’ve fished a lot of (St. Lawrence) river tournaments, but when the lake is available, I go to the lake almost every time,” Chris Johnston said. “I’ve spent probably 10 or 15 days in the river in my life, maybe. I’ve had a few decent days, but to be honest it’s not fishing very well now.
“I don’t know what’s going on in the river, but it’s probably the toughest I’ve ever seen it fish.”
Chris and Cory competed in a team tournament on the St. Lawrence River just before it went off-limits to Elite Series anglers. Chris said they weighed 28 pounds in that event. He’s been back to those spots in practice this week, “And there’s not a fish on them,” he said.
“In the second week of July, there were still fish spawning out here,” Johnston said. “It was the tail end, but there were still fish spawning. Now they should be getting out to their summer haunts. I think the fish are out deep, but they’re scattered now.”