HARRISON TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Lake Erie encompasses 9,940 square miles, compared to the 430 square miles of neighbor Lake St. Clair. Using the process of eliminating water points to St. Clair as the obvious choice for a tournament angler having the option of fishing both waters.
Chad Pipkens defied that logic by choosing to run across Lake St. Clair, then through the Detroit River and into Erie. Once there he endured a grueling boat ride to the northern side of the lake on the Canadian side.
The gamble paid off with a win at the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open. Erie produced all 67 pounds, 4 ounces of his winning weight.
Here are some of the keys to his win beyond the obvious textbook techniques he applied in his game plan.
Key #1: Big lake, small area
Experienced on Erie mattered for Pipkens. He’s spent eight years learning the lake, even though it’s not that significant compared to the big picture. It does stack up when all of that time is focused in learning the nuances of a specific area.
“Time on the water is huge here,” he noted. “Success comes down to knowing how to fish specific areas of the lake.”
And those specific areas have nuances of their own. Sweet spots holding fish move around from one day to the next.
“Erie is deeper and it has so much more structure and bait.”
By comparison, St. Clair lacks the same variety. It’s also why Pipkens made the 200-mile daily commute through it in order to get to Erie.
Key #2: Coverage bait, payoff bait
The sweet spots holding fish on a given area of bottom structure indeed changed daily. For this tournament that was only 50 or 60 yards. Even so, Pipkens had to pin down the location where the fish concentrated on the cover.
He did it with a crankbait. The choice was a Damiki DC 300 fished on the corners of the shallow flats he targeted to catch his fish.
The crankbait served a dual role as a fish locator and a fish catcher.
“Crankbaits obviously cover a lot of water,” he said. “But the lure also is a big bass bait.”
Pipken recognized the big bass potential to up the odds of catching heavier daily weights. By contrast some Erie anglers chose the textbook approach of drop-shotting in similar areas. Pipkens was among them until he gave up on the rig after consistently catching small fish.
“I do like to drop shot and it does work well here,” he said. “But I knew that I’d need twenty-plus pounds each day to be in contention.”
Pipkens’s fish staged shallow water, adding another reason to choose the crankbait.
“When the bass are shallow you can find them quicker with the crankbait.”
Key #3: Time management
In this tournament anyone who fished Erie faced an issue of time management. That’s because of the varying weather conditions on each lake. The wind was a major factor. So much so that just getting there and back was just as key as catching fish.
“You’re looking at two separate weather systems on both lakes,” he noted. “You have to prepare for those changes and factor it all in to the travel time.”
Here’s the proof. Pipkens logged a total of 1 hour, 45 minutes of commute time on Day 1. It took more than 3 hours on the next day. Pipkens caught his limit weighing 22-8 by noon. He knew better than to stay and try to cull up.
The wind can be deceiving here. You’d think for every minute taken to get there you simply add an equal amount of time for the return. That’s not the case on Erie.
“Sometimes you’ll feel the wind pick up and for every minute you stay it means adding another ten minutes for the trip back.”
That was the case once again on Day 3, with a twist. A U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat stopped Pipken as he entered the Detroit River. It was blocked off to public access due to a boat race. After some nervous moments the Coast Guard opened the river long enough for Pipkens and others to cross during a lull in the race.
Pipkens made it back and it was yet another reminder about how gambles can be risky, even when they pay off.