Waddington, NY — On one hand, Chris Johnston expects the usual routine during the St. Croix Bassmaster Open at St. Lawrence River. However, forces at play could shuffle the deck and alter outcomes.
Competition days will be July 20-22 with daily takeoffs from Whitaker Park at 6 a.m. ET and weigh-ins each day back at the park at 2 p.m.
“It’s the same old St. Lawrence River,” Johnston said. “It’s going to be heavy current, clear water. The only thing that usually varies is the water temperature. We haven’t had a ton of hot weather, so it might not get all the fish out deep like they should be by the end of July.
“That’s going to scatter the fish, but it could change in the next two weeks. If we get a bunch of hot weather, it will group the fish up a little better. But if the water temperature stays cool, you’re going to have a bunch of scattered fish in anywhere from 3 to 40 feet of water.”
Noting that early summer has seen atypically cooler weather overtaking early spring heat, Johnston said he expects clarity — above and below the surface — to play a role in this event.
“Part of the (water temperature scenario) has been sunlight penetration,” he said. “We’ve had smoke (from wildfires in Quebec and northern Ontario) for the last month up here. I feel like the sun isn’t penetrating the water like it normally does and that might be slowing the progress of the (spawning season) and the water temperature a little bit.
“The water’s still crystal clear, but you can’t see that well because of the haze. You’re not getting that visibility you’d normally get. It’s kind of like fishing an overcast day.”
Tournament boundaries include the St. Lawrence and all publicly accessible tributaries from the Moses-Saunders Power Dam at Massena, N.Y., westward to Cape Vincent on the U.S. side and Kingston, Ontario, on the Canadian side. Lake Ontario is off-limits, but Johnston said anglers will have no trouble finding quality and quantity in the river.
Anglers running upriver from Waddington (the St. Lawrence flows northeast from the mouth of Lake Ontario to the Gulf of St. Lawrence/Atlantic Ocean) will encounter a speed zone with a 35 mph limit in the Alexandria Bay area. Johnston does not expect this to greatly impede anyone’s day. However, long runs to the west must be carefully calculated, with options prudently weighed.
“If you gamble and make a run toward the lake, you’re losing about 2 1/2 hours of fishing a day, and that can be tough,” Johnston said. “You’re going to have to be on ’em pretty good to (justify that run) and catch them for three days in a row.
“To be honest, the last couple (of) years, the Wolfe Island-Clayton, N.Y., end has played a lot more, but a lot of fish have been taken and released out of Massena, Waddington and that end. I think you could see someone win it out of that end of the river. I’ve talked to some local friends, and they said they’ve never seen so much boat pressure. Not that there’s going to be less fish (in the Clayton area), but they’re going to be more pressured and a lot harder to catch.”
Taking all of this into consideration, Johnston believes anglers who remain closer to takeoff could fare well. Wherever competitors fish, the large, oceangoing cargo ships traversing the St. Lawrence Seaway commonly factor into a day’s dynamics.
On the navigational side, recreational boats must yield to these commercial vessels, as their turning ability is far less. From a fishing perspective, Johnston said the large ship wakes will often stir up the bottom and stimulate a bite.
“The big thing (on the St. Lawrence) is the wind direction,” Johnston said. “If you get an east wind, it blows against the current and it backs it up. That can make for some of the worst fishing because you can’t drift right and the current gets all messed up. The fish don’t relate to bottom, they’ll get up and suspend, and they don’t bite good.
“If you get a west wind, which is the predominant wind, it makes a little more current, and that makes them bite better. But that east wind can really hurt the fishing — and make it hard to run. It stacks the waves up (and) makes it choppy and hard to navigate.”
Overall, Johnston’s looking for a postspawn tournament. In shallow areas, the fish favor anything different, like a sand flat with isolated rock or a grass patch. In deeper areas of 15-plus feet, humps with rock, sandy areas with pea gravel and chunky boulders attract the big smallmouth.
“I think you’re going to need multiple spots,” Johnston said. “It might be a mix of shallow and deep. I think the fish are too spread out this time of year for you to find the mother lode to win.
“I think you’ll need 10 to 15 spots where you can pull up and catch 4- to 6-pound bass. You’re going to need a rotation. I don’t think you’re going to just run to one spot and load the boat for three days.”
Predicting a three-day winning total of about 69 pounds, Johnston stressed the need for a diverse tactical array. It’s hard to beat a drop shot on the St. Lawrence River, and Johnston has found great success with the Spro CJ Smasher he helped design. Tubes and hair jigs work well in the shallows, while a Carolina-rigged craw bait will deliver deep-water results.
Anglers fishing all nine Opens this season are part of the Elite Qualifiers Division and are eligible to earn one of nine invitations to the Bassmaster Elite Series when the Opens season is done. After five tournaments, the top nine anglers in the EQ standings are Tennessee pro John Garrett (926), Illinois pro Trey McKinney (921), Kenta Kimura of Japan (910), South Carolina’s JT Thompkins (893), Minnesota pro Keith Tuma (878), Georgia’s Matt Henry (869), Tennessee’s Robert Gee (860), Texas pro Ben Milliken (851) and Alabama pro Joey Nania (847).
At the conclusion of the season, the top nine anglers from the EQ field will receive invitations to fish the 2024 Bassmaster Elite Series. Full standings for the EQ division can be found at Bassmaster.com.
You can follow all the action from the St. Croix Bassmaster Open at St. Lawrence River on Bassmaster.com. Live music, farmers markets, craft shows and paddling races are happening in communities across St. Lawrence County throughout the weekend, so check out VisitSTLC.com to plan a weekend of fishing and fun.
The 2023 event is being hosted by the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce in partnership with the Village of Waddington. It is part of a series of tournaments and is supported by a Market New York grant from I LOVE NY/New York State’s Division of Tourism through the Regional Economic Development Council initiative.
2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Title Sponsor: St. Croix
2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Platinum Sponsor: Toyota
2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Premier Sponsors: Bass Pro Shops, Dakota Lithium, Humminbird, Mercury, Minn Kota, Nitro Boats, Power-Pole, Progressive Insurance, Ranger Boats, Rapala, Skeeter Boats, Yamaha
2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Supporting Sponsors: AFTCO, Daiwa, Garmin, Lew’s, Marathon, Triton Boats, VMC
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