Preparing for Lake Champlain

Last year was my first year competing in Kayak Bass Fishing tournaments. It was a steep learning curve that included many rough events of only catching one or two bass. A few events I didn’t catch any! One event I struggled at last year was our Adirondack KBF club event on Lake Champlain. I had never fished on Champlain before, and had no idea where to even start. I knew the pros fished for largemouth down in Ticonderoga and for smallmouth up in Plattsburgh. I chose to fish in the middle at Westport. I went in blind and only caught one smallmouth that went 16.25 inches. That was a pretty poor showing for one of the best fisheries in the country. It was a long day, but I learned the importance of better scouting and preparation.

My poor showing in 2018

This year, Adirondack KBF went back to Lake Champlain and I was determined to do better. It started with scouting and research. I watched every episode of FLW or BASS that had a tournament on Champlain. I poured over navionics maps. I studied aerial images, and tried to figure out just what I wanted to do. Lake Champlain is massive, covering over 500 square miles. The boundaries for our tournament included all waters that can be fished with a NY fishing license which is about 400 square miles! That’s almost twice the size of all the Finger Lakes combined. I knew that was just too much water to approach as a whole. I decided to break it into a few small areas I wanted to explore; the South Bay, south of Crown Point, Benson Vermont, and Willsboro Bay.

My scouting started way back in May when I made a trip to South Bay. I didn’t think this area would produce much in the way of big bass, but it was the closest place for me to drive to so it was an easy scouting trip. That trip was a complete bust. I caught one massive pike, but no bass and I just didn’t like the conditions of the water or the area. It didn’t feel right so I quickly eliminated it from my list.

My next trip was a few weeks ago. I made the drive out to Benson Landing in Vermont to see what that area south of Ticonderoga would produce. I expected to find much better grass, thick mats and solid weed lines but the grass just hadn’t come in very good yet. Combined with very high water levels, made for tough fishing. I managed a few bass, including a random smallmouth, but it was certainly not a consistent bite. The area seemed like maybe it would produce under the right conditions and there were a lot of bass boats (fishing an ABA tournament) cruising around, so I had knew there was a lot of potential here. I put it in my back pocket while I continued my scouting.

Fat Ticonderoga Largemouth

My first season, when I struggled, it was often due to me trying to fish the “winning pattern”. I would force myself into situations and trying techniques that were historically how you win on that body of water. It wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized I would do so much better just fishing to my strengths. For example, everyone knows that fishing Kentucky Lake after the spawn is all about ledges, where 30 pound limits are not uncommon. But if you’re a horrible ledge fisherman, you’ll spend all day catching nothing when maybe you can skip docks with the best of them and at least still put up a good bag.

Before this season got too far underway, I sat down and really figured out what it is I do well. Where are my strengths? I cut my teeth on smallmouth. Give me a spinning rod with light line and I feel like I can do some damage. I rode that for my first ever Club win at the Adirondack Paddlefest. Tournaments on Lake Champlain are usually won with largemouth from Ticonderoga, but the smallmouth up north have always been a player. I decided I needed to find some good smallie water to explore and hopefully be able to fish my game.

I weighed my options for where to launch up north. I had to consider driving time since the captains meeting was all the way down in Ticonderoga and there was only 90 minutes from lines out to check-in. I elected to explore Willsboro Bay. It is a large bay, a little south of the Ausable River and appeared to have the kind of water I felt I could fish effectively. I went up the Thursday before the event to prefish and to see just what the area had. The bay was beautiful and just what I hoped for. There seemed to be a wide variety of terrain that I could fish including some small grassy flats, docks, a large marina, huge bluff walls, and some sandy and gravel shoreline.

My prefishing went rather well (with the exception of breaking one of my best rods). I spent much of my time just pedaling around and looking at my electronics. I fished a few docks, but tried not to beat any up too hard. I found the smallies I was looking for. I was even able to sight fish a few. It was exciting seeing the fish in the clear water, casting out ahead of them with a wacky rig, twitching it a few times and seeing them swim over and suck it up. I also stumbled upon a few largemouth.

Busted Rod Tip

Just as important, I was able to eliminate a ton of dead water. The west side of the bay consists of these huge bluff walls with scattered rubble and chunk rock. Some places drop down to 30 feet deep and other down to 100 feet! It screams smallmouth water but after fishing it for 2 hours and only managing rock bass and a couple smallmouth that didn’t even measure 10-inches, I knew this was not an area I would be fishing in the tournament.

I also fished the first row of the marina just to test it by throwing a white swim jig around all the big sail boats. I was seeing massive schools of baitfish on my electronics so I knew there must be predators around. When then I saw a huge school of gizzard shad right up under the end of a yacht in over 25 feet of water, I tossed my swim jig along there. Out shot a 13-inch smallmouth and grabbed it. Based on the water temps, this was clearly the remnants of a shad spawn and the bass were in there feeding. I didn’t think it would still be going on come tourney day, but still. It was exciting to see the school, cast out, and actually catch something fishing it.

I pulled into the boat ramp after fishing, and as I was loading my kayak one of the boat stewards came over and asked how my fishing was. I told him I did as well as I wanted to since I was prefishing for a tournament on Saturday. I boated a few fish, including two 17-inch smallies, and I saw plenty more large ones.  I felt I managed not to overfish anything and I had a few patterns I could ride in this area. My original plan was to wrap up in Willsboro and then head to an area just south of Crown Point to complete a full day of scouting; but since I had the success I did, and the confidence I was in a good area, I decided I was done for the day and Willsboro would be my tournament waters. I had my location, I had my patterns, I was doing what I do best, and I felt I was as prepared as I could be.

Saturday came and that 2:00 AM alarm was brutal, but I was still pumped. I had over a two hour drive to the ramp. Launch and first cast were at 5:00 AM which gave me plenty of time to get my coffee, hit the road, rig up the kayak, and be ready to go. The entire drive up I was thinking about what I was going to do and how I wanted to plan my day. There was a big front pushing in and it looked like some severe storms were going to hit my area right about noon. As I drove, I could see off in the distance a few scattered storm cells and some lighting crashing over the lake. I knew that even if any of the shad spawn was still going, that lightning would shut it down. Still, I made my plan. I would launch and work the bank leading up to the marina, then work up and down the marina. While there wouldn’t be a shad spawn, the big schools of perch were still swimming all over and would provide plenty of forage for hungry bass. After the marina, I would work north along the east shore up to the sandy area. With any luck, I would be able to finish fishing there, and then run back toward the launch by noon in case I needed to seek shelter when a storm hit. It was as good a plan as any and I was confident I could make it work. I pulled into the dark and empty boat ramp about 4:30, unloaded the kayak, got everything rigged, retied a few rods, and waited to launch.

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