Mistakes and Redemption on Champlain

Lake Champlain and I have a complicated relationship. Over the years I’ve won a club event, placed high in national level trails, and cashed a few checks; but there have also been times I’ve struggled to put up a single scorable fish. I’ve also caught my PB walleye, PB pike, and the only white crappie I’ve ever gotten from Champlain so I look forward to fishing there every season.

My 2022 regular season culminated on Lake Champlain with a NY BASS Nation and Elite Kayak Fishing double header. I was excited for the weekend. We had a decent showing for the EKF Championship. I wasn’t in contention for any AOY, but a championship win would be pretty cool. NY BASS Nation was hosting the State Championship simultaneously as EKF and with a great turnout, they were paying out 3 spots and the champion would qualify for the Bassmaster Kayak Classic. Fall fishing can be a grind, but I was confident going into the full weekend! 

With my history on the lake and the fact that it would be my second weekend on Champlain this year, I made the gutsy call NOT to do any prefishing. I figured I should save some of my vacation time and just go with what I know out there. Leading up to the event, I was getting reports from anglers on the water. To say that the fishing was tough would have been . Bass boat tourneys were coming in with nobody catching limits. Guys prefishing were catching 1 or 2 keepers a day. I wasn’t discouraged though. I know where I was going to go and banked that I could figure them out.

With the northern half of the lake out of bounds, this played right into my strong suits on Champlain. I had enough with throwing a drop shot for smallmouth after a long weekend up in New Hampshire. I was ready to swing a bigger rod on some largemouth town in Ticonderoga. Friday I spent time repacking my gear and rigging rods up. I was expecting to throw 4 baits all weekend. First up a was a frog, followed by a bladed jig, a flipping bait (worm), and a weightless texas rigged stick worm if things needed to get finnessy. I had a ned rig, a jig, and a swimbait tied on too, but never planned on throwing them. It was going to be all about the grass in a couple small stretches where I’ve gotten my biggest bites. They live there year round and I was ready to make it happen.

Saturday morning, Day 1, and I pulled into the launch at 4:30. I had an hour before launch but I didn’t expect it to take that long to get ready. But when I looked at the lake, I saw things were much different than I had ever seen there. The water level was down…… WAY down. That meant between the gravel drive and the water was a 12-ft stretch of muck I needed to get through. It took me nearly 45 minutes to get my boat down, loaded, and ready to roll. I was a bit muddy, but was still ready to find some fish.

Getting through the muck resulted in two things that morning. First off, it put me in a sour mood. I was already dreading getting my boat out at the end of the day. The second thing was all that work had made me hot, so I took off my hoody which I left in the truck. On my way to my starting spot, a cool breeze was blowing making me quite uncomfortable. It was an odd morning all around. I watched a big gray squirrel swimming out in open water, then had a Ken Wood moment when a blue heron tried to land on my kayak while I was motoring to my first spot. At that point I just wanted to start fishing and get the day underway.

At 6:00am I pulled out the bladed jig and started chucking. I wanted to give this 15-20 minutes before plying the grass with the frog. As the sun began to crest the horizon, I was dismayed to see just how muddied up the water was. I know this section of lake is always stained, but this was extreme. My area had less than 6-inches of visibility and most sections it was maybe 3-inches.

Things were a mess at that point. Water levels were way down so where I was fishing pads earlier in the year, sand bars existed now. The hydrilla was brownish in color. Things just didn’t feel right. I wasn’t quite regretting my decision not to prefish, but I was certainly questioning what I was doing. I worked my best spots over, throwing reaction baits but to no avail. I wasn’t getting bit, which was very odd. This area has plenty of pike and pickerel too, so I should’ve had something hitting my bait.

Two hours in and nothing to show for it, I made the short run to a community hole not far away. It has never produced giants for me, but I can almost always rely on it to put a couple small limit fillers in my boat. I just hoped there weren’t any bass boats on it. I rolled up, and luckily it was empty. I worked my way in fishing the T-rig and finally got my first bite of the day. It was a decent fish; 16.5 inches. Not a giant, but it was a start and I was ready to keep that momentum going. Unfortunately that was all she wrote in that area. I got a few small nibbles, but one snagged white perch dashed those hopes.

I needed to make something happen. I cut across the lake to some rock to look for a few smallies. I’ve caught them in that area in the past, nothing big, but any keeper would be welcome at that point. I went 4 hours bouncing between rock and grass, smallmouth and largemouth, but couldn’t get another bite.

I circled back around to my starting area. This stretch was where I had planned on living most of the day anyway, might as well finish off the day there. I crept on up to the main sweet spot. The water was just a slight bit clearer there, but not much. I don’t know if that helped, but I tossed the stick worm in there and finally got my second fish. A measly 13.5-inch largemouth. But that was 13.5 more inches than I had all day so I was happy. Three casts later, I got bit again. I set the hook and the fish ran sideways into the grass. It felt like at least a keeper and I kept tension on the line, but the hook popped free. When bites are few, losing a fish really stings. I still had just over an hour left though, so I felt like maybe I could make it happen.

I kept probing the area with only 1 more bite. It didn’t feel big, and I missed it anyway. I worked the area hard, slowing way down and picking it apart, but the patience didn’t pay off. I couldn’t locate any more fish and then lines out came. I had a meager 30-inches for the day. I decided to inspect the damage, expecting to be sitting at the bottom of the pack. I was down there, but there was a cluster of anglers who struggled. In fact out of the combined events, about 40 total anglers, there were only 6 limits caught. I was in 11/18 for BASS and 19/30 for EKF. The same angler was leading both events and had an amazing day posting over 95-inches. My chances of winning either event were gone, but there was still a chance at a check. I knew first I had to post a big bag, then just hope a few anglers slip.

Saturday night I was pouring over maps, trying to figure out a day 2 plan. I decided my water was just too muddy and blown out. It needed another few days to clear up which I didn’t have. I wasn’t looking for clear water, I wanted some stain for the largemouth. I figured just a little further north and I would find that happy medium. There were a few launches on the VT site, north of Crown Point, I had researched before, but never fished. I decided this was as good a plan as anything. There were nearby coves were I figured the grass would be to my liking. It would just be a matter of water clarity and depths. Time would tell. I picked one, thought Good Enough, and went to sleep early.

Sunday morning I rolled into the ramp and another angler was already there getting ready. He had the same thoughts as me; a rough day 1 so trying something new on Day 2. I was just glad that I wasn’t rolling up on another angler whom had done really well the first day. I got my stuff ready, and at launch I took off across the lake. I figured would be as good place as any to start. 

The water looked a little better in this area than what I was fishing the previous day. I started working my way into the grass and all around me fish were surfacing. There were a lot of carp, but I could see interspersed with the carp jumps baitfish jumping, and swirls of bigger fish clearly chasing them. There was a lot of feeding activity going on in this area which was promising.

I was noticing more and more surface activity and as I reached back to grab my frog rod I realized I actually brought my frog rod! The previous night I was thinking I wouldn’t even bother with the frog rod and planned to swap it out for a crank bait rod. I threw the frog a ton with zero bites, and the couple bites I got on other baits were off of rock. With the dirty water, I wanted more reaction bait options in the boat. But at that moment, I was glad it was back there.

I worked into the grass and with all the activity around just started firing. It wasn’t long and I managed to put my SPRO frog on top of one, and it was a good one. An 18.75-inch to start off the day. This was the bite I had been expecting coming into the event. 

I continued further back getting more and more bites. Unfortunately they were almost all pickerel. I wasn’t actually all that upset about it. I was out of the running, and was more or less fishing for fun anyway; so hammering pickerel on topwater was nice compared to the grind of catching nothing.

I managed another smaller bass toward the back of the grass and started working my way through the back of the cove. I had pulled my motor up and turned it off, and my transducer was up out of the water too since I wasn’t needing either of them. As I pulled up near a boulder sticking out of the water I noticed a small gap in the grass. I fired my frog up past it and started working it back toward the boat. Sure enough, as soon as it hit the opening, the water erupted. I set the hook and she came leaping out of the water. This was a big bass, but as soon as she went back down under, she was gone. That stung. It was the second good bass I missed that morning. But that’s frog fishing, you’re going to loose a few. 

That bite did help me though as I was beginning to piece a pattern together. The grass I was fishing was a mix of milfoil, hydrilla, eelgrass, and even a few pads and some pondweed. But the key was eelgrass. The milfoil in places looked so beautiful, bright green with perch and bluegill swimming all through it, but I never got bit in it. The bass were in the eelgrass. Specifically the gaps in scattered clumps of eelgrass.

I turned my focus to the eelgrass behind the thicker patches of hydrilla. The hydrilla was acting as a windbreak and filter, so the water behind it was much cleaner. This combination was magic. When I found the right combination, I could almost call my shot. I locked the frog in my hand and for the next couple hours it was blow-ups and hooksets. I decided to take a peak at the day 2 leaderboard and I was right at the top. I wasn’t concerned about the overall, but really wanted to try to win the day.

The day was getting on, and around 12:30 the wind was really starting to pick up. I had exhausted all the prime spots at the north end of the cove and was working my way south. The wind had made it impossible to fish the frog so I went back to the bladed jig. With my Amphibia sunglasses, I could make out the color change in the water showing me the pockets in the grass I was looking for. Even with the change in the weather, the bass hadn’t moved. I continued to hammer them, finding them stacked in the same kind of pockets. I had a pretty good bag going, but was missing that one big Ticonderoga kicker. Every hookset I was hoping for a 20+, but instead it was a steady stream of 16s.

My alarm rang, sounding the end of a fun day, and I turned and headed back to the ramp. At the awards I found out my efforts really made a difference. My 89” bag was good enough for 2nd on the day two leaderboards and moved me up from 19th to 7th, and from 11th to 4th in the EKF and BASS events respectively.

On the drive home I though about how the event went and how things might have changed if I had prefished? The irony is I was dead on what the bite would be, and all my prep Friday was right, my area was just wrong. If I had prefished, would I have gone back to my main area with a new arsenal? Would I have abandoned it all and gone for smallmouth? Would I have found my area stunk on Friday, gone to the other spot Saturday, then put together two days of frogging to possibly win the event? Those what-ifs are fun to think about, but for now I will take satisfaction in knowing that I had a great game plan, executed it how I wanted, caught a ton of fish, but I was just a day late and (therefore) left more than a few dollars short.

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