Highs and Lows of Champlain

Most anglers have a favorite lake. For young kids, it might be the farm pond their grandfather takes them fishing on the weekends. For the weekend anglers it’s likely that little honey hole they Almost caught that state record catfish 5 years ago. The budding tournament angler will always remember the lake they got their first victory on. And for the big name pros, there’s always one lake on the trail that they seem to do well on, so when it shows up on the schedule they circle it as one they really hope to win.

As for me? I have a little of all those individuals in me. When I’m asked my favorite lake, I struggle to find an answer. Is it Canadarago, where I would fish with my dad and grandmother as a little kid catching bullhead off the dock? Is it one of the lakes in the Adirondacks my family would camp at in the summer, and where I really learned how to bass fish? Is it one of the small lakes I’ve found more recently, and had some epic days bass fishing? I can never come up with a good answer to that question; but in the spring when I look at the tournament calendar and see Champlain listed, I get a little excited.

Lake Champlain is a massive lake, stretching over 100 miles from tip to tip. I first fished there in 2018 and had a bummer of a day. I really had no idea how to approach such a massive lake and only landed one bass. In 2019 I spent more time exploring the lake; and come tournament day I found a couple good spots and put up 85.75”, good enough for second in our club event. 2020 was when I really learned to appreciate the lake. More research led me back to an area I previously explored, but really wasn’t impressed with. That year I pieced it together and won our club event with over 90 inches.

Last year was a challenging year on Champlain. I had two major events and both posed major complications. The weather forecast for the Hobie event would make my area nearly impossible to fish effectively and my area was out of bounds for the EKF event. But even with the wind at the Hobie event, I was able to fish nearby my area, out of the brunt of the wind, and put up solid numbers finishing in the top 20 out of over 80 anglers. For the EKF Championship, I was forced north and went in blind. It was a fall event, and I struggled only finding a few fish. It was clear if I wanted to fish up north, I would need a lot more time to learn more areas.

Now we come to this year and my schedule included two events on Champlain. The first was June 11-12 and it was a big one. There were KBF Trail events on Saturday and Sunday, the Pro Tour event went all weekend, and my KFL team, the NY Empire, elected to put our home game against the Delaware Doom on Champlain. It was going to be an exciting weekend.

The lead-up to the event was chaotic to say the least. I was in the midst of selling my house, moving, buying a new truck, and doing a plethora of other things. Time was a premium. But still, I wanted to go up north and look around for some more areas. Tournaments on the lake have been shifting more and more north over the years. The smallmouth have gotten bigger so the days of being able to easily win with a big bag from Ti are gone.

The Thursday before the event was my main day to scout. I was off work Friday, but I needed to meet with my realtor, pack more of the house, and go look at a new truck. I made the 3 hour drive in the AM from my new house to my usual launching point down south. When I showed up the wind was blowing a little and the rain was falling. I looked at the water levels and color, I could see some emergent vegetation, and just took in the general conditions. I had a good handle on what the area would be. I decided not to launch in the rain and headed north to check on some other areas I scouted online.

The rain was coming down harder as I drove north and the wind was picking up. As I pulled my truck into the park I hoped to launch from, I saw the dreaded “Residents only: Sticker required” sign. I double checked the maps to see if maybe I missed something else right nearby, but this was a bust. I left to look for some other launches.

The next spot was total bust as well. Non-residents could use the area, but the beach was certainly not kayak friendly with narrow stairwells leading down to the water. It was clear I wouldn’t be launching there. I stopped at one more place on my way driving around. This was a launch on a creek mouth, and the water was flowing fast and dirty. Not really what I wanted to find to target some big schools of smallies, and it would be quite a trek from there out to some offshore spots. The rain was still falling, the wind was blowing, I had burned three quarters of a tank of gas just driving looking for a spot to launch, and had nothing to show for it. I wasn’t feeling great.

Over the next day my team reviewed our strategy for Saturday. We all had varying success in scouting, with some catching em, and others not so much. But my teammates all have unique strong suits, so I knew we could diversify our approaches to the day. We would split up, two anglers would go north, and two would stay south. I knew my anglers up north would be able to find the smallmouth. They had the experience and skill, and I trusted them. As for the two of us staying south, it would be all about the big bite. We could both struggle, or either of us could land a couple kickers that would make a huge difference. That’s the deal when fishing Ti, smaller average, but the chance of a real giant is there. I had confidence in my area that I would get a good bite or two. I just hoped it would be enough.

Saturday morning came and I told my team to focus on fishing, have fun, enjoy the day, and we’ll make it happen. I got myself all prepped at the launch and there was just one other local kayak angler launching there. But when 5:00 came, he turned one way, and I turned the other. This was exactly what I was hoping for, I would likely have the area mostly to myself except whatever bass boats decided to fish through there.

As I motored out, I didn’t really have a dedicated plan on where to start. There were a number of spots I could go to, but I decided to just feel it out as I started up the lake. As I approached the first point, I saw something that got me excited. The bass were busting shad up around the grass. This was perfect. I anchored up and waited for lines in.

Tournament time came and started off throwing a spook around. I really though I could get on a topwater bite early but it wasn’t happening even with the shad all around. I tried the buzzbait, but that too wasn’t working. I got a few short strikes on it, but they weren’t connecting. The activity was slowing a bit and I needed a change. I pulled out a big swimbait to see if maybe something moving just under the surface would work and it did. It only took a few casts and I put a solid keeper in the boat (16.25). But that must have been a fluke because I kept at it with the swimbait, but didn’t get anymore bites.

The shad activity looked to be slowing even more so I picked up the chatterbait and kept hucking around some topped out hydrilla and emergent grass along the shoreline. The next 20 minutes produced a 32-inch pike, a small scorable bass, and then an absolute tank of a walleye. It was my biggest walleye ever measuring approximately 28-inches and weighing over 9-lbs. It was an exciting catch and I was in a great mood, but it wasn’t going to help my KFL team or my chances in the KBF Trails and Pro Tour.

After that catch, I moved on to my next spot. This was a well known community hole and you can see the boats come and go constantly, but it was unoccupied so I motored over quick to see what was hanging out. As soon as I pulled up I got on a big flurry of fish, but unfortunately they were all in the 11-12 inch range. There were some that might have been keepers for my KBF event, but I didn’t bother with them. 12s weren’t going to mean much in the grand scheme so I just tossed em. I did manage to get two that were worth measuring, at least for the KFL, that went 15.5 and 14.0.

It was clear there wasn’t much of size on this spot, so I needed to move and quickly. The day was a quarter of the way through, I only had 3 fish submitted, and one dink pictured I didn’t want to submit. I moved on and made my way along the bank looking for that right mix of grass and rock. A short while later I put a 14.5 in the boat. It wasn’t much, but technically I had a limit. I was doing all I could to not look at the standings. I knew those guys up north were killing it and I was just hoping my teammates were doing the same in the KFL.

Continuing on I soon landed a 17.5 which gave me a real limit and I permitted myself a chance to look at the KFL boards. We were doing good, in the lead. But there were a number of smaller fish I knew we needed to cull so there was no time to rest. We had to keep grinding. I was live on the Team broadcast when I landed a 19.75 largemouth. She weighed 5.37 and was over a 2-inch cull for the team. A big upgrade for us, and for myself as it got rid of my 14. My smallest was now 14.5 so I knew I needed bigs.

It was just after 10:30, three hours left in KBF and only two left in the KFL game. We had a solid lead in KFL, but they didn’t yet have a limit so we knew culling would be crucial. I came up to another one of my better stretches and there I nabbed a 17.5. It was only 0.5-inch cull for the Team, but was a 3-inch cull for me. These were the class of fish I expected to find. I figured one more good one would go a long way.

It was an hour later, and had just went off the air of the national KFL broadcast. I was reeling my chatterbait back when I felt the tick of a bite and reeled down. The fish felt good, and didn’t want it to come up and jump. As I got it closer to the boat I suddenly saw her swirl in the water. I realized then I had a giant on. I scooped it up in the net and it was big! She went 20.5 on the ketch board and weighed 6.01 lbs. I held her up for the camera in case they were monitoring backstage but unfortunately they didn’t see so I got her back in the water. That fish was important. It was a 5-inch cull for me and a 3.25 inch cull for the team. I knew that fish put us over the top. The Doom had a limit, but they would need a couple big culls to catch us and there was only 45 minutes left in the game.

I wasn’t going to lay off the gas though. I was in striking distance for the KBF trail and I was going for it. Around 12:15 I landed another nice fish going 18 inches. She culled a half inch for the team and was a 1.5-inch cull on my board. I was sitting top 3 in the trail, and only a couple inches back. My smallest were both 17.5s and the bite was getting hotter.

With the KFL game over, and seemingly in the bag, I kept grinding for another big bite. Thats when I felt another hit. This one felt big and was digging hard. It pulled around out toward the deeper water, something none of the other fish had done. As I fought the fish up, I caught a glimpse of the white side and tail of a fish in the stained water. It wasn’t a pike or a walleye. I tried to keep tension, but as the boat swung around in the wind and from being pulled, I felt the hook give way and I was left with nothing but slack. I don’t know what the fish was. If it was a largemouth, it would have been another 5-lb plus and likely topped 20-inches. A fish that size would have likely given me the win. But based on how it fought compared to the others, I’m going to guess it was a drum. That area can produce some big ones, and it seems more in line with how it fought….. at least that’s what I’m telling myself.

In the trailing minutes of the day I got one more bite, but it was a short strike and I never got it hooked. My day was over and I finished the day with 93.25-inches. One of my best tournament days ever, and a bag that got me 4th place in the Trail and helped my team to victory. It was interesting looking over the rest of the KBF top 10. Every one was a bag full of smallmouth. I was the only one fishing largemouth. Going out to the top 20 was more of the same, just one other bag of largemouth, and a few randoms here and there. It was clear what people felt like the winning strategy was. But I went out, fished my area, fished my way, and proved it could still be done with largemouth in Ti. Additionally I was leading the Dakota Lithium Big Bass with my 20.5. I knew there was another day of fishing left for the Trail II and Pro Tour, but I my weekend was made. My team won, I cashed a check, caught a PB, and had a wonderful day. If Sunday went well, then it would just be icing on an already pretty good cake.

I made the 2 hour drive home, got some sleep, then at 2:15 was up again to make the 2 hour drive back to the launch. This time I had the launch all to myself. I got prepped, and headed onto the water. I didn’t have much of a clear plan again. I originally wanted to start further out where I got into the better fish the previous day, but I also did something different that morning. I brought my frog rod. The topped out hydrilla wasn’t fishable with the spook or buzzbait. I had tried flipping but didn’t get any bites doing that. I figured a frog would fish it effectively, so I tied on a small white frog to imitate the large gizzard shad the fish were feeding on.

This was the right call. It only took a couple casts and my first fish was in the boat. She was a 16.75, and the frog was down her throat. Within the first hour I also landed an 18.25 and a 16.50. The frog was working, but I was not fishing clean. I was batting about .333 having only landed 3 of the 9 bites I got, and 2 of the ones I lost felt big. There was another big bite I completely missed, but I’m pretty sure that one was a pike. I saw the wake come from 2-ft away and it tried to t-bone it from the side, but my frog never found it’s way into that fish’s mouth.

I made my way to the community hole I landed all the dinks on the previous day. There wasn’t as much traffic this morning and I thought maybe there would be some more bigger fish setting up there. Unfortunately after about 15 minutes on the spot, it was clear it still wasn’t happening there. I got 2 more keepers, a 13.25 and 14.75 to round out my limit, but that was it. It was about 8:00 and it was time to go back to the area I got my big fish the previous day.

As I made my way, I stopped at a couple patches of topped out hydrilla and my landing success with the frog took a couple more hits losing two more good fish. The day didn’t feel right, and it never got better. I worked my way up and down the better section, but I wasn’t getting bit. The wind was blowing a little harder, and I just wasn’t figuring out how they were setting up. I tried getting in shallower, tried getting out deeper, tried some different baits, but it wasn’t my day. I got a small cull late in the morning, but that would be the last fish I would catch that counted. I wrapped the day up with only 81.25 inches finishing 29th in the trail and dropping to 12th in the Pro Series.

Its hard to replicate big bags in Ticonderoga. The bass boat guys rely on getting a megabag one day, then rounding it out with average bags the rest to do well. I got my megabag Saturday. My five biggest would have been roughly 20-lbs. That would have been around 2nd of the ABA event on Saturday, and would have won the BASS event Sunday. My 6.01 would have won big bass at both events (it was the big bass of the KBF weekend). In kayak events, it’s way harder to to separate yourself from the pack. It makes multiple day kayak events way more volatile. Anything can happen on day 2. It’s a double edged sword I both love and hate. Kind of like Champlain herself. She can give you immense beauty, giant fish, and reward your work one day. Then turn angry, windy, big and mean, and dash your hopes the next.

But I know this, next year if Champlain pops up on the event list, you can bet my calendar will be circled ready to go.

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