As much time as JT Thompkins has spent on the St. Lawrence River over the past three summers, the South Carolina pro said he almost feels like a local. So when he arrived in Waddington for the 2023 St. Croix Bassmaster Open sitting in 4th-place in the Elite Qualifier points race, Thompkins had a tough decision to make about where he was going to fish.
“I was battling with myself. If I stayed in Waddington and caught 18 ½ a day, I thought I would be happy and I would be safe,” the 2022 Chesapeake Bay champion said. “But I have spent a lot of time here and I want to make a Top 10 or win and I know the only way to do that is to make a long run. It may not have been the smartest decision, but I was hoping that if I got down there and caught them that I could really put myself in a position to make the Elites.”
So far the decision to make the long run down towards Clayton and the mouth of the St. Lawrence has paid off as Thompkins enters Day 2 of competition in 7th with 23 pounds, 8 ounces.
Considering how vastly different the fishery is compared to the rest of the Opens schedule, which included eight venues in the south and midwest, Thompkins anticipated this tournament would be a turning point in the race for the nine Elite Series bids that will be awarded come season’s end.
“I felt this one would be the turning point because it is vastly different from anything else we have been,” he said. “A lot of really good anglers are going to catch them here because they are good at research and can figure it out, but I feel like a lot of people who got (to this point in the season) by having local knowledge or being good at a certain thing, that isn’t going to work here. You have to be well rounded to catch them everywhere and I felt like this place would trip a lot of people up.”
After missing his chance at an Elite Series bid by one position each of the last two years, Thompkins has shown incredible consistency in 2023 and has put himself in serious contention for a spot at the next level.
His worst finish so far came at the first event of the season at Lake Eufaula Alabama, 48th. Since, he has cashed checks at every event and his last three finishes include an 8th at Buggs Island, an 11th at Wheeler Lake and a 14th at Eufaula Oklahoma.
He also made the cut at the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota in March, no small feat for a first-timer.
It’s not that the 21-year-old has adjusted his strategy that much. Rather, he is coming into his own as an angler and becoming more comfortable with his style.
“I want to make sure I catch quantity and if you do that, you are in a position to get some quality mixed in and be consistent,” he said. “I have tried to be smart about coming in early and not having any problems. I’m fishing the same, but my fishing abilities is the one thing that has improved. I can get fish to bite a lot better than I used to be able to. I’m starting to figure out my own little deal that I like to do and not try to run around and chase stuff.”
Thompkins wasn’t the only one who made a risky decision to try and improve their points positioning.
“I had two ideas coming into this. One, risk it for the biscuit and run as far down as possible. The other was to play it safe and stay close to Waddington,” Alabama pro Logan Parks said. “I decided I’d rather try to win the event than play it safe. I don’t think playing it safe is going to help you qualify for the Elite Series this year. You have to catch them every single time.”
Parks’ first stop was a halfway point between takeoff and the boundary area, but it proved to be his best spot of the day. His first catch was a 5 ½-pound smallie and he quickly filled a limit from there. But the day left him with more questions than answers as the spots he thought he could catch bigger ones near Clayton did not produce many culls.
Still, a 24-4 Day 1 performance that has him in fourth will go a long way for Parks, who entered this event in 12th-place in EQ points. One half of the Auburn duo that won the 2021 College Series Team of the Year title, Parks was the first man out of Elite qualification in the overall standings.
If he can follow his Day 1 performance up with a competitive bag, Parks will likely head into the final three events inside the Top 10.
Entering the tournament in 14th place in EQ points, just outside the qualification line, Canadian pro Jamie Bruce thought he might be able to layup and stay close to takeoff. A couple days of practice showed him he needed to make a run and head west.
Towards Lake Ontario, Bruce has been able to fish in his comfort zone and landed 23-5 to move into 9th after Day 1. Despite this being the northernmost fishery on schedule, it is still 22 hours from home, but Bruce loves catching smallmouth in beautiful places and he found the perfect recipe for that on the west side of the river.
“I really like nice scenery. There is a little bit of nostalgia that goes along with tall red pines, rock bluffs and clear water,” Bruce said. “I just feel right at home and I am willing to break my back to get down there again.”
While points were top of mind coming into the event, winning has now entered the equation for Bruce.
“Points wise, the smart thing to do would be to stick around Waddington, try to catch 17 pounds, get a check, go home with everything in one piece, but you very rarely get a chance to win one of these and you very rarely get a chance to win one doing what you really love to do in an area you really love. I’m never going to get this chance again. If I don’t go for it, it will be a long 22-hour drive home.
With weather changes coming, a lot can change on the St. Lawrence River. There will be a lot of movement on the leaderboard and much is at stake for anglers who did not have a strong showing on Day 1.
“You can’t count the points until the tournament is over,” Bruce said. “There were some slip-ups just looking at a glance, so the door is open, but there is a lot of fishing left.”
For full coverage of the tournament, stay tuned to Bassmaster.com. The live weigh-in will begin at 2 p.m. ET and the Top 10 at the end of today’s events will advance to Championship Saturday.