1000 Islands

Clayton, New York

2016 FLW Costa Tournament

Practice - Day 1

After months of preparation, I had determined that, overall, the bigger fish live on Lake Ontario while more fish live on the river; thus, I would spend three of my four days practicing on the Great Lake. I divided it into three sections, one per day: Amherst Island, Main Duck Island and surrounding shoals, Chaumont & Henderson Bays. First up was Amherst Island.

Launching from Clayton, Amherst Island was approximately 25 miles to reach via the Canadian Middle Channel. Luckily partner Tom Stark and I were greeted with glass calm conditions and drove directly there without any wake to navigate. My strategy was simple (also being convinced the schools of fish would be in deep water), we would not stop to fish until marking some on my Humminbird graphs. Beginning on the southeast side of the island we idled west around a trio of shoals without marking any fish. 

After nearly an hour, we finally saw a few on the graph and began fishing. It did not take long until Tom hooked into the first fish of the trip, a 4 pound smallmouth. The bronzeback was fooled by a drop shot rig. After 30 minutes of inactivity we drifted into shallower water and I picked up a pair of 3+ pound smallmouth on Xtreme Bass Tackle tubes. To find fish so shallow puzzled me.

We proceeded to head west along the island looking for fish on the graph. Eventually, we were at the far west end and came across a point extending to 12 feet of water. After a short while Tom caught a 5 pound smallmouth, which ended up being the largest of the trip, on a ned rig. Suddenly, another bass boat roared up close to us and boated a hefty fish as well. A little bit later I landed a 3.5 pound fish. This area was beginning to look sweet! While we did not catch another fish there, we saw several others with our eyes. I thought I had found a winner.

One word accurately describes Lake Ontario: HUGE.

Tom Stark (above) boated the first fish of the trip on a drop shot rig. (Below) I pose with my first fish from Lake Ontario fooled by an Xtreme Bass Tackle tube.

Practice - Day 2

Crap happens.

Chalk’s Marine has a certified Mercury Marine service department and was willing to take a look as soon as it opened up at 8:00. After some inspection they found a blown spark plug (they replaced all six), cracked guide tube, and an impeller that needed to be replaced. In all, it took up the entire morning, but I was back in business. Tom and I raced back to the motel to grab his tackle and then back to the river.

The wind was blowing like mad, so it was an obvious choice to spend our time on the river opposed to the lake. Unfortunately, only minutes after

When it rains it pours. Practice Day 2 was a "Crap Happens" kind of day. In the midst of all the crap, a storm arrived and saturated me.

Practice - Day 3

The alarm went off at 7:30, which totaled three hours of sleep. I showered, kissed my wife, kissed my children, and went on my way.

Day 3 of practice consisted of driving. I arrived 8:00 that night.

Practice - Day 4

That original game plan established with three days on the lake and one day on the river was completely blown up. A thousand options were available, and I decided to expand on what I had found during Day 1 of practice. Disastrously, back at Amherst Island the worst thing happened: the fish I had found were gone.

I went to every spot that produced earlier that week, and never caught a fish. I tried several other spots in that area, and they all failed to yield any fish. After 10 hours of fishing, neither Tom nor I caught a single fish. I checked one last spot by the ramp.

This is not the sight any boat owner wants to see. After determining my boat was done for the week, I spent two days traveling to get another.

While the truck and boat do not match, they made a great couple. The 2016 Nitro Z20 loaned to me by Schnelker Marine performed flawlessly - I gotta get one! 

Tournament - Day 2

The game plan was pretty simple to come up with. We would begin the same spot we did yesterday, and then hit up the same docks. My co-angler was a local and was confident he knew where some fish would bite. Thus after exhausting my two spots, we would try his spots and new water. I felt an opportunity was knocking. The lake was so rough that day, that the tournament officials made it off limits. This would hurt a lot of anglers ahead of me, and I felt like making a jump on the leaderboard was a real possibility. Day 2 is normally good to me. Out of the six Open Tournaments I have participated, I’ve made a climb on the leaderboard in five of them. It was no different this time.

To my great disappointment, we could not harvest a single fish at the first spot. We spent an hour there before taking off to the docks. I arrived to the docks at 7:03, and by 7:21 I had my limit that weighed 13-01 pounds. I know that exact weight because I was never able to cull. It is interesting to note that the day before under the exact same docks, the fish were only 2 pounds or less. Less than 24 hours later, two over three pounds readily bit along with several 2 pounders. Like the day before, each fish were victim to a Stik-O rigged wacky style.

From there we ran to Goose Bay. We tried frogs in the slop, punching through it with creature baits, and skipping docks. I managed a handful of small keepers that did not help me. Next we skipped over to the Canadian side of the river to try drop shot rigs in heavy current and rocks. After four spots and only two small keepers caught by my co-angler, we headed back to the same patch of docks from that morning. We arrived with just 90 minutes remaining.

We covered these docks and expanded all over the area. Only a single small keeper and a handful of rockbass cooperated. My day ended having left everything I could muster tapped out. The lost practice time markedly impaired my odds as I simply did not have enough areas to cover. Trying new areas during a tournament is not often a good tournament strategy.

As expected, the weights by everyone seemed to be down. My weight was nothing to be excited about, however it still vaulted me 22 spots to finish 47 out of the 137 professional anglers. Only the top 37 got paid, but my perseverance in the face of “crap happening” awarded me a respectable finish and enough points to land in 20th place in the overall Standings.

My goodness, what an opportunity to practice what I preach. Just 48 hours before departing for the FLW Costa tournament on the 1000 Islands in Clayton, New York, I was a guest speaker (pictured below) for the Indiana State Police Pioneer Camp. This camp consists of young, at risk teenagers for a week of activities at Potato Creek State Park. There were several themes in my message that day, but the dominant theme was how to deal with the times when “crap happens,” and crap happened to me in New York.

“Crap happens to everyone. What separates the winners from the losers is the winners don’t allow the crap to stop them. They find a way to persevere. They make the most of whatever they’re dealt. They do not quit because it is convenient.”

For those who are not familiar with the 1000 Islands, let me begin with a brief description. It is the western end of the St. Lawrence River, which has over 1,800 islands scattered throughout. Beginning where Lake Ontario narrows on its eastern side, the Great Lake comes pouring in with the force of every other Great Lake behind it. About 745 miles later, the river dumps into the Atlantic Ocean.

As if that did not present enough boundless angling opportunities, Lake Ontario was also fair play for participants. Both the lake and river are teeming with trophy sized smallmouth bass, and as an added bonus, trophy sized largemouth bass also exist in the river. Bassmaster Magazine recently recognized it as one of the top bass fisheries in the country. In 2014 Bassmaster also rated it as the “scariest” fishery in America with its unpredictable weather and legendary waves. So, add a Great Lake with an enormous river, well, you’ve got one of the biggest playing fields in all of bass fishing.

that I saw on the graph and plucked with a drop shot rig. Quality was not an issue, but quantity was. After nearly nine hours, we had only boated six fish, but the best five weighed nearly 20 pounds.

It was late afternoon and time to head back towards the ramp, but not without stopping at a few spots in the river. The first three stops failed to produce any bites, but the final spot landed a handful of fish on jerkbaits and BPS Stik-O baits. However, while motoring to that final spot, my boat would not reach its maximum speed. It was about 10 mph slower than normal, and I could not figure out why.

Once we had thoroughly scoped the area and with winds now sending three foot waves into our area, we made the run to the north side of the island, which was also protected from the wind and waves. While combing a handful of areas, several hours elapsed before another fish came into the boat. This was a 4 pound smallmouth

This was a serious issue that had to be resolved. I was about to compete in a professional event on a body of water that can kill someone with an untimely mechanical failure - I remembered Lake Erie. Having my motor in tip-top shape was a necessity, both for effectiveness and safety. Being a Sunday night, there was no one to contact, but I would be sure to find a marina first thing Monday morning.

With the St. Lawrence River in the background, and my rigged decked out with TC Custom Lures, Schnelker Marine, KeelGuard, ProX Outfitters, The Bait Sack, Xtreme Bass Tackle, Lock-n-Haul, and Bass Pro Shops decals, I was motivated more than ever to explore its waters along with Lake Ontario. This trip is only possible with their support.

Unfortunately, it did not go as planned. It reminded me of John Steinbeck from his autobiography Travels with Charley, "We do not take a trip; a trip takes us."

launching, it was apparent problems still existed with the motor. Instead of being 10 miles per hour under the normal maximum speed, it was now 20! You know the saying, when it rains it pours, literally. Before we could even get back to the ramp, the clouds opened up and drenched us with pelting rain.

Crap happens.

Again, Chalk’s Marine made us an immediate priority. Upon inspection, they found two new blown spark plugs, air inside the fuel rail, and fuel inside the air rail. The cause was unknown, but what was known, was it would be a week before they could get the parts and fix the problems.

Crap happened.

After a series of phone calls and text messages, I was left with two options:

1: Drop out of the tournament and go home.

2: Drive my boat home to Indiana (10 ½ hours away), and borrow a 2016 Nitro Z20 from Schnelker Marine in New Haven.

Some have used the word stupid to describe my choice, but I prefer the words committed and determined. Not only is the event important to me, but my sponsors made an investment in me as well. That investment is dependent on the exposure they gain through my participation.

Not to mention, how fortunate am I to know the people I do? Terry VanDaele offered the $60,000 boat without any hesitation by adding, “That is what teams are for.” How awesome it is to be a part of that team.

I began driving at 5:00 that evening and arrived home at 4:15 the next morning.

"Finding a needle in a haystack" is equivalent to "finding a 20 inch fish in Lake Ontario."

In the last 30 minutes we skipped around a few docks and caught four largemouth bass. They were not what I needed to be competitive, but it was an option to avoid not catching a limit of fish if I faced that dilemma during the tournament.

Tournament - Day 1

Fortunately, I was partnered up with FLW co-angler legend, Keith Honeycutt. He has won seven of these events as a co-angler! Unfortunately, he had never seen the 1000 Islands before that morning. Surely he was able to determine after talking with me that I was concerned about the day’s prospects.

We began in the area that produced a few fish on jerkbaits and Stik-O’s at the end of Day 1 Practice. I passed through this spot the day before without a bite, but I had visually seen a

Anticipation builds to a near outbreak as anglers wait among each other, pay tribute to the National Anthem, and then get called off one at a time. I can be found dead center in this image on Day 1.

fish and always felt this was an area where smallmouth fed early and late. My hunch was right.

On Honeycutt’s very first cast on this fishery he hooked a 3 pound fish! One side of me was ecstatic, another was a bit jealous as I struggled so much to get bit. Sadly, the fish came unbuttoned before it got to the boat, but it showed promise. Over the next two hours Honeycutt landed two fish that were over 3 pounds and I caught two that were substantially smaller, but keepers. Frankly, it was better than I had hoped.

After the area had cooled off, we gambled and went after the big fish around Amherst Island. It took 45 minutes to reach our destination and were greeted with three foot waves rolling onto our area. The waves did not deter me in anyway, but after 45 minutes of plugging away, we never had a strike. Next we soaked up an area on the north side of Amherst for 30 minutes, again, without success. It was clear to me that it was not going to happen. All of my practice around this island was for naught. It was time to go back to the river.

A short stop at Carleton Island garnered a small keeper smallmouth for me off a drop shot, and then we ran back to our starting spot. Honeycutt boated another 3 pound smallmouth with the drop shot rig, but that was all. The wind had really picked up sending two foot waves onto the spot. This added to the mounting pressure. It was time to get some largemouth.

We roared to the stretch of docks that yielded a few fish the day before for Tom and I. It took just 20 minutes for me to complete my limit and to begin culling by skipping a wacky rigged Stik-O under docks and boats. Honeycutt picked up his fourth keeper.

Time ran out on us. I ended with a 10-08 pound limit (four largemouth & 1 smallmouth), while Honeycutt had over 11 pounds on four fish. Overall, the weigh-in was poor. The top individuals had great weights, but it dropped off quickly. The big lake had kicked up eight foot waves and made fishing difficult, while the bite on the river proved tough for everyone. I stood in 69th place out of 137.

An image does not do justice for the grandeur of 1000 Island Bridge. Notice the semi truck traveling on it. That truck puts in perspective the enormity of it.