War on Lake Champlain

I have three Bassmaster Opens left in my attempt to be the first Australian to qualify for the Bassmaster Elite Series.

As I made my way to the famous Lake Champlain, I was super excited, and I also contemplated this biggest six-week tournament road trip of my life.

What I didn’t know was I heading toward a war zone.

I drove all of that day and 18 hours of the next with only a short sleep just outside of Indianapolis. This got us to Ticonderoga, N.Y., on the south end of Lake Champlain, at around 1 a.m.

I have never been more prepared in my life leading into a tournament. I had worked hard on the physical, mental and the pre-study side of this sport. I couldn’t have done any more and I felt great.

I put in five big days of practice with 4 a.m. starts every day. I fished from as far in the north as Missisquoi Bay to Ticonderoga in the south. They’re a distance of more than 100 miles apart, and then there’s everything in between. The earliest I loaded my Skeeter on the trailer was 8 p.m.

Some mornings started with huge thunderstorms rolling through, and my travel partner, Gene Eisenmann, and I would be the only ones sitting at the ramp waiting for enough light to launch. Those were some of the days we found where the big ones were hiding. I got my best bites in the rain and had put together my best tournament plan yet.

I had found great largemouth up north and huge smallmouth in the main lake, but my heart was set on making the 70-mile run south to Ticonderoga. This is where I felt it could be won, and on top of that I had backup plans of untouched smallmouth on the way home. I felt I was ready for whatever was thrown at me come tournament day.

I was wrong.

Wednesday night before the tournament, I drew boat No. 98 — about mid-pack and just what I wanted. The weather looked stable with a small chance of storms in the late afternoon. Everything was lining up. I felt like this tournament was mine to lose.

Tournament morning approaches and the alarm blares at 3:15 a.m. This is where I believe the physical side I’ve been working on has been a huge benefit to me. After five 15-hour days on the water, averaging less than five hours sleep a night and enduring every type of weather condition possible, I was still feeling great and ready to get after them. I was 100 percent focused.

Blast off is one of my favorite parts of a tournament. As I’m doing 70 mph in my Skeeter on slick, calm conditions, everything just hits me. Again, I’m reminded of how lucky I am to be doing this. Where I am right now, where I’ve come from and what I’m about to do that day — it’s awesome.

I make it down to Ticonderoga after an hour run and I start to fish my best stuff but quickly realize that the water level has dropped. I know this is not good because all my big fish had come from less than a foot of water!

I try to make adjustments all day and find myself with one bass at 12 o’clock — and I have to be back at 3:15.

I run into a marina to fuel up at Buoy 39, and what a very cool experience — as close to NASCAR pit lane as you can get! Three people standing on the dock pull my boat in and ask “How much?” I say $50, they yell “50 dollars!” to the man up the dock at the pump. They fill my boat and I was gone and back fishing in less than 2 minutes. It was incredible.

I had hit every spot I thought I could catch them at except for one, which I now ran to. I started to hear the rumble of a huge storm emerging over the hills, and then I see boat after boat making the run back. I get a sick pain in my stomach that I knew wasn’t good. I should be running with them. It was then and there I had to make a decision.

I checked the radar and the storm looked nasty but short-lived. It should pass in under an hour. The wind started to pick up, and we could see lightning heading towards us. I decided to stay, wait it out, and hope there was a calm after the storm for the run back.

As the storm approached, the bass started to bite, I had finally relocated them on the deeper grass edge and they were coming up and smashing my popping frog. I had four bass. Then the storm hit.

Horizontal rain pounded us as huge cracks of lightning hit the hills, just far enough way that I felt safe. Any closer and we might have run for shelter. Hail started to hit us and covered the boat with ice. It was so loud I couldn’t hear myself think. I found myself casting my frog out and fishing it like there wasn’t a problem, focused on each cast hoping for a blow up. Then I thought to myself, “This is crazy!”

As I was working my frog back, boom, a big blow up and I hook my largest bass. But it’s storming so hard, my co-angler can’t hear me yelling for the net! The storm passes and I upgrade a few more times for a small limit and just like I’d hoped, there was a calm after the storm.

It was 1 p.m. and my chance to make the run back and hit my smallmouth spot on the way home, in the hope to salvage the day. We run out of Ticonderoga, it’s slick calm and I say to my co-angler, “It’s on! Don’t worry, we are going to smoke the smallmouth when we get there!” I was super pumped.

Five minutes later, I was just hoping to get home safely.

When we turned into the main body of water, it was like nothing I’d ever seen in my life. It was like an out of control ocean pumping huge waves directly down the lake. I tried to tack from one side to the other but that was useless. I felt like a small bobber in the middle of the ocean. Although my Skeeter FX is amazing, this was no place for a bass boat.

I knew we had 50 miles of this and we had already speared 10 waves, more than I have hit over my entire fishing career. It turned from “this is crazy” to “this is scary” real quick. We filled the entire boat with water a few times. I had never speared a wave while heading up the front side of it until that moment. There was no escaping it. We had to constantly stop, check on our fish and wait for the water to pump out!

Almost 2 hours later, I was completely exhausted. We were close to my check-in time, and I was pushing hard. I saw a boat over to my right and was sure that they were sinking. I made a hard turn and worked my way over to them. They had two bilge pumps going and were bucketing water from the back of the boat. They said they kept filling with water and were worried they would sink.

I told them to jump in my boat, but the pro said there was no way he’d leave his boat behind and they yelled to just get back safely myself. It was an every-man-for-himself kind of situation. Their motor was running and they both had life jackets, so I knew they would be OK.

I made it back with 15 minutes to go. My co-angler looked at me like I was crazy when I swung into the last island before check-in and started fishing, hoping for a miracle.

We made it back safe, but I felt exhausted, disappointed and shattered. I knew that day just cost me making the Elite Series through the Northern Opens. I weighed in only 12 pounds. However, I was happy to see the guys who were bailing their boat were also back safely, and I was grateful my Skeeter stood up to some of the worst conditions possible and got us back in one piece, and with nothing broken.

The boatyard where all the marine and boat mechanics work looked like a war zone. There were boats driving around with no cowlings on their motors and trolling motors torn from bows of boats. Champlain had brought war upon the anglers.

The next morning my attitude was to get back at that first day. I sat in 98th position. I might have been knocked down, but I wasn’t going to stay down. Tournament director Chris Bowes and his staff do an impeccable job of getting almost 200 boats out quickly each day and weighing in almost 400 bags of bass.

On Day 2, Chris read out the boat numbers like this: “Boat 1, Boat 2, Boat 3 scratched, Boat 4 scratched … Boat 17 scratched, boat 18 scratched …” You get the picture. Boats and people had been beaten up so badly they weren’t even able to fish the next day.

I ran to my north area, a small creek in Missisquoi Bay. They were still there and I had one of the greatest tournament days I can remember! I caught more than 50 bass on frogs and flipping grass. It was insane! I was hoping to make a jump into check range and save this tournament.

I weighed in 15-14, which jumped me 40 places and put me in 38th for AOY with Lake St. Clair to go.

One thing for sure in fishing is, nothing is guaranteed. If I could win St. Clair, you never know what could happen. I have to keep a positive mindset and do everything I know to try and make it happen. I won’t be backing off.

I have to take Lake Champlain as another life experience, and the tuition I need to go through to learn the things I’m yet to learn here in the USA. I know if I don’t give up and keep putting the work in, it will eventually give and my day will come.

Whatever it takes!