It was my 8th cast of Sunday morning, not even three minutes after lines in and she smoked the chatterbait. Not a giant, but a 15.75-inch smallmouth on the board that early was a good sign and I was pumped. A feeling that would quickly fade as the day went on.
Maybe I should back up a few days.
I arrived at the Snow Pond Center for the Arts a little before 4:00 on Wednesday afternoon. I got myself checked into my cabin, unloaded my gear, and headed down to the water to check out the launching options there at the campus. The beach I initially hoped to launch at was a tad steep, but a nicer gravel area looked promising to drop my Hobie Outback into the water. It just so happened that area was adjacent to my Dakota Lithium teammate’s cabin who was returning from a day on the water. Instead of taking the few hours I had to get out and graph around the lake a little, I opted instead to relax at the camp and catch up with some fellow anglers for the first time in person since everything was forced to go virtual this season. In the course of our conversations, it was clear there would be a battle this weekend. The top anglers in the region were all there, and most had already put a lot of hours on the water figuring the lakes out. I retired for the night excited to get out myself the following day to see what all these lakes had to offer.
Thursday I decided to spend the entire day on Great Pond. My pre-scouting had led me to think this would be the better option for my style of fishing so I wanted all the time I could get to explore it early and try to figure out a game plan. I launched and before too long my excitement turned to frustration. I was marking massive schools of what looked like good fish. But every drop yielded the same result. A large white perch hooked on my drop shot or ned rig.
I methodically moved about the lake checking all sorts of areas from deep to shallow and even some small tributaries. I found some areas with promise I knew I could fish come tournament day. The only issue was all the fish were small. They were scorable fish, but certainly not the kind of fish needed to win. At that point I was still thinking I would fish those areas and I would just have to hope that it would simply be a numbers game. Catch enough fish in those areas and you’re bound to land a few decent ones. It was 12 long hours, but at least I had the confidence I could go out there and catch fish.
I loaded up the kayak, picked up some dinner on my way back to campus, and made my plan for Friday. I had yet to even put my kayak in on Messalonskee. The wind on Friday was going to be blowing hard from the north, but I figured I would at least have a couple hours to explore.
Friday I got up early, drove down to the gravel area right on the campus, and headed out for a quick recon mission. Had to keep myself honest and at least say I fished it. I cut across the lake and headed north. I pulled up into the cove just before the lake narrows and began fishing around. As I moved north into the narrow area I got my first bite. It was a solid thump; but I never got her pinned and she pulled off. When it jumped I could tell it was obviously in the 16-inch size class. Better than anything I got over on Great Pond. That bite had come when I pulled the chatterbait right next to a mooring buoy. I continued north and along the next buoy I made the exact same kind of cast. Just as the chatterbait passed the buoy she smoked it. An 18.25-inch smallie. Not the fish you want to stick that late in practice, but it was a pattern. I wasn’t sure if it was the buoy or depth. I fished between the buoys at the point making sure to avoid actually fishing them in case I wanted to fish them in the tourney. I got one more strike between them, but nothing more than a bump of the chatterbait.
With landing just a single fish, and only 2 other bites, I knew I needed something more to go on for the tourney. At Great Pond I had been catching bass exclusively from deeper water. I figured I should test that to see if I could get into a numbers bite I could fall back on in the event. I explored some of the deeper water at the north end but only managed a few small bass, and more of the white perch. I did get one hit on my drop-shot I’m certain was a trout. It came in and absolutely smoked my bait, harder than a bass ever would. It didn’t nibble like the perch, and my line and bait were not chewed up like something toothy such as a pike had grabbed it. But who knows.
I was close to the first big island and had drifted into some shallower water. I figured I would check my buoy pattern one more time. This time I grabbed my ned rig and tossed it next to a buoy holding a pontoon boat. The rig never hit the bottom before it starting swimming off to the side. I set the hook and my second fish of the day was in the boat. Unfortunately it was another fish I wished I hadn’t stuck, a 17.50-inch smallie. But that last fish solidified it. I had caught tons of fish on Great Pond, but no size. In less than an hour on Messalonskee I landed two, and lost two, and those four fish would have been bigger than my five largest at Great Pond. The bite was clearly on at Messalonskee so I knew I needed to be there come tournament day.
I spent Friday afternoon re-rigging all my rods, tying leaders, and sorting tackle. I wanted everything in place for Saturday. My starting baits were tied on, the plastics I would need were in my hatch, and my secondary baits were hanging up ready to be tied on should I need to switch it up. Everything was ready and I had my game plan set. Saturday would just be Day 1. I needed both a solid limit, and to not burn all my fish. It would be a fine line to walk, but I was confident I could make it happen.
The alarm went off at 4:00 AM and coffee pot started to rumble. First launch was in an hour, and lines in was at 6:00 AM. I got my self up and dressed, tossed the few things I still had inside into the kayak, and drove down to the beach. The gravel area I knew would be extra busy this morning, and since I was going North anyway I figured I would get a 100 yard head start on those launching from there. I got the kayak down to the water, loaded it up, and then went back up to the truck to sit in the heat for the last 10 minutes before launch. The truck read 39 degrees. The first time seeing 30s in four months. But at 4:57 I shut off the truck, popped on my Astral PFD, and shoved off from the shore.
It was only a 15 minute run across the lake to get to my starting area, but I gunned it. I knew this first stretch could be super productive so I wanted to make sure I was the first there. I arrived to my area and watched while a half dozen kayaks continued up from the south and proceeded past me heading further to the north. It was getting light and I could see I would at least have this first stretch all to myself.
The alarm chimed for lines in and picked up a spook and went to work. I never got bit on the spook in practice, at first light this time of year I always like to test the topwater bite. I only gave it five minutes before putting it down and picking up the chatterbait. I picked apart every dock, buoy, and point I could find to throw at. And I gave each target a few throws. It took me a little to get my first bite, but I was moving slowly. My first fish was a 12.50-inch smallie. I didn’t care that it was small, I knew the bigger bites were here and most importantly it was a confidence booster.
Continuing along that stretch, I was able to put three more decent fish in the boat and by 8:00 I had 4 fish measuring 58.75-inches. It was a little less than I had hoped, but was still a solid start. I moved into the north side of the cove which was new water. I was alternating between a ned rig and the chatterbait but I just wasn’t getting the bites I knew I should be. I didn’t catch my 5th keeper til almost 9:45, but it was a decent 16.25-inch bass. She hit the ned rig on the same buoy and floating dock pattern I had been on.
It was half way through the day, I was sitting on a 74.75-inch limit and I knew I needed to cull up at least 5 inches, and hopefully more like 10 inches. The first cull would be easy considering my smallest was only 12.50. It would be harder after that, but just one 20-inch fish would be an 8 inch cull and would give me a solid limit for the day.
I decided I needed to change tactics. The lake had laid down flat calm and the chatterbait bite just wasn’t popping. I didn’t want to beat up every dock and buoy knowing I might need those fish on Sunday. I decided to change gears entirely and swapped out my DT-6 (that I never actually threw) for a BX-Brat squarebill. I love grinding a squarebill for smallies and hoped that even in these calm conditions I could still force a reaction bite. That switch would pay off big time.
Working up around the next small point I was just burning the Brat along the weed edges when I landed my first upgrade. The 17.50-inch smallmouth choked the squarebill. I was extra cautious as I reeled it in. I knew it was a big fish, and didn’t want to risk loosing it. I was only about 100 yards from where I had landed the 17.50 during practice and it looked like the same fish. I now had an 80-inch limit and it was 10:30. I still had over three more hours to make an upgrade, but I didn’t want to burn the area I was in too bad. There were a handful of other anglers in the area and if we all fished it hard, there would be nothing biting on Sunday.
I decided to run back to the first stretch I had started on and run from there south the rest of the day trying new water. I knew despite the slick calm bluebird sky conditions, they were hitting the squarebill so I figured I should bump into at least one more small upgrade. As a moved south, I noticed that I was actually fishing a little deeper so I changed out the Brat for a Berkley 5.5 squarebill.
I continued to catch small fish with no upgrades until about 12:40 when I bombed a cast out just a tad deeper. I barely got a single crank of the reel in before the line was tight and pulling hard. I reared back and felt a solid fish digging down. It was the good upgrade I had been looking for. That 18-inch smallmouth gave me an 83-inch limit, and I was happy! I did what I needed to do on Day 1.
In the last half hour I decided to pop out and check out these humps that were getting so much buzz. When I arrived there was only about 20 minutes of fishing left. I found my friend Brian from my club was the only person out on this particular hump. With 5 minutes till last cast, I hear him shouting and he did what he always seems to do at home. He landed a nice last minute upgrade. A solid 17-inch fish. I got one nibble on a jig, but never did put anything in the boat out there. Then it was 2:00 and Day 1 was over. My 83-inches was good enough for 15th place. That didn’t surprise me, but I was shocked at how tight the scores were. Only two anglers broke the 90-inch mark so it would not take much to climb the leaderboard on Sunday. I was excited for the day to come.
I elected to sleep in a tad Sunday and not launch right at 5:00. Lines in was still at 6:00 and rather than sit in my kayak out in the cold at my first spot; I could get the extra ten minutes of sleep and relax in the cabin instead. I launched just after 5:30, 30 minutes before I would land the 15.75-inch fish. I was excited to see if I could put it together.
After that initial fish, worked my first stretch a little faster the second morning. The window would be short before the wind would pick up making fishing difficult in the midday period. It took less than an hour and I had my second bass on the board, a 15.50-inch smallie. That was two 15-inch fish in the first hour. I was still feeling great. I knew three or four 15’s and a 17 or 18 inch kicker or two would be a solid limit that day.
By 8:15 I already had a limit. It was small, only 72-inches. I felt like I was fishing with urgency, moving quickly, almost like I was running out of time yet the day was only just starting. 30 minutes later I made a 2-inch upgrade and an hour later I made another 1-inch upgrade. I had 75-inches and it was only 9:30. Most anglers would be feeling great, but a voice in my head kept telling me time was running out. I felt like the day was almost over, I needed a kicker, and I needed it now, yet it wasn’t even half way through.
At 10:00 I made another 1-inch upgrade. That 15.25-inch smallie gave me 76-inches. An upgrade would normally make most anglers happy, but that fish felt more like a nail in the coffin. I could not shake this feeling of You didn’t get a kicker yet, it’s not going to happen today. I was catching fish, and upgrading, but I was nickel and diming 1-inch upgrades. It wouldn’t be enough to get me up to the 80-inches I felt I needed.
Every pike that bit me off and each small fish I landed from there on out just kept bringing me down and down. The wind was howling, and the lake was churning. I made the call that if I was going to get a big upgrade I needed to find new water. I knew the humps would be nearly empty given the extreme weather conditions. It took fighting the waves for 30 minutes just to get out there. Big fish are caught on them all the time and with the wind I just hoped the smallmouth would be active.
It was about noon and for an hour I worked the chatterbait, crankbait, ned rig, and even dragged a jig up and down the humps. I was constantly pedaling just to hold position and had to adjust my rudder between every cast to keep my boat facing into the waves. I know what can happen when you get sideways in big water and the last thing I wanted was to flip in the middle of the lake in those conditions. It was brutal and my legs were on fire. I got one bite on the chatterbait, but that was it. I couldn’t fight the wind anymore, I wasn’t getting bit, and I was just entirely dejected. I turned east and headed toward the shore thinking maybe I could fish this last area and pick up some kind of upgrade.
On the eastern shore I was right by the public launch south of the Snow Pond Center. There were half a dozen kayaks fishing around the area trying to keep out of the wind. I kept casting right up till 2:00 but never got another bite.
I pedaled back to the beach slowly. Both from sheer exhaustion of fighting the wind, and from having spent everything I had mentally to keep going. The standings were opened up, and it was just as I figured. I started in 15th, my Day 2 position was 15th, and my final tournament position was 15th. My Sunday was one of mediocre fish. My largest only 15.75-inches and my smallest at 14.50-inches. Just a simple 17-inch fish would have moved me up to 8th overall.
It was a long day that started with such promise; but I had quickly gone downhill mentally and I’m not sure why. I’ve seen it happen so many times, with only a few minutes to go, someone makes the right cast and lands an upgrade that makes all the difference. I just had zero belief that day it would happen for me. Every cast I was confident I would catch a fish, but I was also confident that it would either be a small bass or even worse a pike. With my KBF season coming to a close, this was a good reminder of how much work I still have to do. While my fishing skills have improved by leaps and bounds the last few years, my mental game needs serious work. Something I can focus on this winter and hopefully next year come in stronger and ready to compete and win.