BASS Lake Michigan Baits, Gear & Patterns

Jonathon Vandam's Winning Pattern, Baits & Gear

When it was announced that B.A.S.S. would be filling the mystery slot on the Elite Series schedule with a stop at Lake Michigan in late June, the smallmouth fanatics on tour began to lick their chops. Among them was Jonathon VanDam, a native of Michigan who’s spent many a day chasing brownbacks on the Great Lakes. He was comfortable on the big water, so that was one factor working in his favor. Also, in May and prior to the mystery announcement, he fished the Sturgeon Bay Open, a major regional bass tournament that typically attracts 150 boats. This year, the weights were out of sight for the buddy tournament and it got the Elites to thinking about the possibilities for when they arrived in Green Bay, Wis., about 45 miles south of Sturgeon Bay by water.

Then the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources stepped in and issued the B.A.S.S. tournament permit, but it restricted the field to the lower portion of the Bay of Green Bay, citing concerns over fish mortality. Sturgeon Bay was suddenly out of play. It resulted in some grumbling amongst the pros and griping at each other on the water as boats bunched up on areas holding the best fish. VanDam was able to avoid all of that, finding a couple sweet spots south of where the crowds were concentrated and had them to himself for 4 days, plenty of time to catch 79-02. Over the final 2 days, when only two others (Brandon Palaniuk and Aaron Martens) broke the 20-pound barrier, he averaged 22 pounds, including a tournament-best 23-04 on the final day to win by more than 2 pounds.

“Words just don’t describe what this means to me,” he said. “I’ve been dreaming of this for a long time. ”In winning the Lake Michigan Elite Series, he scratched two major items off of his career to-do list – collecting a tour-level victory and qualifying for the Bassmaster Classic. And he did it in just his 15th Elite Series event and 2 months shy of his 24th birthday. With many fish in a funky mood, either cruising the shallows or just beginning their typical postspawn migration to deeper water, it forced the Elites to have a couple programs working. It wasn’t like past events at Lake Erie where it was dominated by dropshotting suspended fish or bottom-huggers in deep water.

The wind blew sharply on the first day of practice, but calm conditions the rest of practice made for easy maneuvering and the ability to break down as much water as they needed.VanDam was able to key in on an area about 10 miles south of the most cluttered spots that featured a rocky point with an adjacent flat. He said it seemed the bass were chasing alewives, which were spawning in the shallows. “I basically was trying to concentrate on shallow water where the fish were feeding,” he said. “There was a lot of bait up shallow.” He nailed a 5-pounder on a spinnerbait the first morning and saw a bunch of other good fish nearby. “At that point, when it comes to smallmouths, you’ll get the biggest bites on reaction baits and they would consistently hit the spinnerbait,” he said.

Competition:

A lot of pros fishing the northeastern portion of the fishable waters last week were able to pounce on some sight-fishing opportunities the first day of the tournament due to the flat-calm conditions. VanDam was no different. He boxed a solid 17-11 to start out in 7th place. “I was up in Rileys Bay sight-fishing and that kind of saved me,” he said. “It just wasn’t happening on my spot. The fish may have been there, but I just couldn’t get them going.” On day 2, he started to get dialed in on the fish he had to himself. “That was a huge factor,” he said. “I could manage things a little better and not worry about someone moving in and catching a 4-pounder that I could’ve used the next day.” After having to switch trolling motors in the morning, he caught a number of keepers on both a spinnerbait and a dropshot.

“That clued me in to what was going on,” he said. “The baitfish were continuing to spawn, but I could sense it was beginning to tail off.” While his weight dipped slightly to 17-07, it was enough to move him into 3rd entering the weekend, behind Dean Rojas and Martens. “I knew I was on the potential winning fish,” he said. He eclipsed the 20-pound mark on Saturday with 20-12, but so did Brandon Palaniuk, who caught 21-02 and led JVD by 4 ounces entering the final day. Between a slowdown in bites and a couple lost giants on day 4, his morning was one to forget. His afternoon, however, was one he’ll never forget.

He moved around trying to make sense of what was happening, but his final move to an area not far from where he’d caught most of his weight paid off as he located a wad of 5-pounders hanging in 1 to 2 feet of water. He picked up the dropshot and went to work. “I had the trolling motor set to low so I could ease through real slowly and not spook them,” he said. “I’d find one I could see and let him see the bait. On some, I had to make multiple casts to and I changed up baits and colors. “I basically had to guess where they were going and put the bait out in front of where they were and hope they’d go for it. If they could see it, they’d react to it.”

Winning Pattern:

While many were thrilled to not have to deal with windy conditions on the big water, a little breeze helped stack VanDam’s fish a little better. “In the area I was fishing, the wind created a current and it was almost like a reservoir when they’re moving water through,” he said. “The current helps position the fish better on the structure.” When it was breezy, he’d pick up the spinnerbait, but he caught the majority of his weight on the dropshot. Asked if he thought those fish would still be holding in the area in a week or two, he said, “I think they’d still be there. Maybe not as many, but there’d still be a bunch in there.”

Winning Gear:

Spinnerbait gear: 7’1” medium-heavy Shimano Cumulus casting rod, Shimano Core 50MG casting reel (7:1 ratio), unnamed 17-pound fluorocarbon line, 1/2-ounce Strike King Tour Grade Painted Blade spinnerbait (sexy shad or sexy blueback herring). He felt the painted willow-leaf blade on the spinnerbait was key to drawing reaction bites.

Dropshot gear: 6’10” medium-action G. Loomis NRX dropshot rod, Shimano Sustain 2500 spinning reel (6:1 ratio), 10-pound PowerPro Super 8 Slick braided main line, unnamed 8-pound fluorocarbon leader, 1/0 Lazer TroKar light-wire finesse worm hook, 1/4- or 3/8-ounce unnamed dropshot weight, 4” Strike King Dream Shot (KVD Magic).

The Dream Shot, developed by Mark Zona and Kevin VanDam, is expected to be unveiled at ICAST next week. The KVD Magic color is a green/silver combo with blue flake. “It’s by far the best smallmouth bait there is,” VanDam said.

Main factor: “The biggest thing, especially the last day, was just sticking to what I knew best. Knowing the smallmouths were in that area, the key was getting them figured out and getting them to bite.”

Performance edge: “My Strike King polarized sunglasses were tremendous (on day 4) with the sight-fishing I was doing.”

Brandon Palaniuk's Pattern, Baits & Gear

Based on the fishable water the field had access to, runner-up Brandon Palaniuk knew right away the northern portion of that zone would hold the majority of the fish “That also meant most of the boats would be there, too,” he said. He did his due diligence in practice in the areas that got hammered during the tournament, but couldn’t get on anything he felt gave him a shot to win. “The third day of practice, I burned every drop of gas and every volt in my trolling motor battery running around looking at a lot of stuff,” he said. “I found one spot right before I had to head in and spent about 30 minutes there.”

The spot had everything an angler would want in terms of fish-holding structure. There was an isolated shoal with a small depression that dropped to 7 feet on one side. It also had some rock and grass and it was close to deep water. “I had to build on it every day,” he said. “The first couple days, I’d be done by 9 or 10 in the morning and I’d just spend more time breaking down the area even more. Having that area to myself helped a lot. It allowed me to be able to manage them better.” He caught his day-1 weight on a topwater walking bait and a suspending jerkbait in the calm conditions. Everything on day 2 came on the jerkbait. By day 3, he knew every nook and cranny and it allowed him to take the lead with a 21-02 stringer, which he caught on the topwater and jerkbait. The first 3 days, many of his fish came out of 2 to 6 feet. He finally broke out the dropshot on the final day when he caught 20-plus again as the fish pushed out to 25 feet.

Topwater gear: 7’ medium-action Abu Garcia Veritas casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo Premier casting reel (7.1:1 ratio), 12-pound Berkley Trilene XL line, unnamed 5” walking bait (light color with blueback pattern). Jerkbait gear: 6’9” medium-action Abu Garcia Veritas casting rod, same reel, 12-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon line, unnamed suspending jerkbait (clear with blueback pattern). He swapped out the stock hooks for VMC trebles on both the walking bait and jerkbait.

Dropshot gear: 6’10” medium-light Fenwick dropshot rod (no longer in production), Abu Garcia Revo Premier 20 spinning reel (5.1:1 ratio), 8-pound Berkley NanoFil (main line), 6-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon (leader), No. 2 Gamakatsu Split Shot/Dropshot hook, 1/4-ouce Eco Pro tungsten dropshot weight, 4” Berkley Gulp! Crawler (green-pumpkin and smelt).

Main factor: “Thinking outside the box and with an open mind. That was the biggest deal and making the gamble to get away from the crowd and fishing something more toward the south.”

Performance edge: “My Skeeter (boat) and Yamaha (motor) were pretty sweet. They gave me the confidence to run hundreds of miles this week. You don’t know what the Great Lakes will bring you, but having the condifence to take off and run 40 miles, it puts your mind at ease.”

Aaron Marten's Pattern, Baits & Gear

Aaron Martens was in his element last week, chasing wads of smallies in clear water with a spinning rod in his hand. “The fish were schooled up and you could find them on your graph,” he said. “That’s what I live for.” He started his practice up north in Little Sturgeon Bay and got 50 bites – enough to convince him that’s the area he needed to be in even though he knew he’d have company. “They may have cut us off in only so much water, but it really was a lot of water,” he said. “I was never really able to get to everything. There was enough fish for everyone. It made for an interesting tournament.” He benefited from an early-morning flurry on day 1 that helped him weigh 20 pounds even to take the lead. Most of his weight early in the event came off an offshore point, but crowding forced him to bounce around on days 2 and 3. “I found a lot of schools on my trolling motor,” he said. “You had to just fish around and watch your graph. I was constantly moving around. I did way better when I moved around.”

Dropshot gear: 6’10” medium-light Megabass Hedgehog dropshot rod, Shimano Stella 2500 spinning reel (6:1 ratio), 6-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, Nos. 1 and 2 Gamakatsu Split Shot/Dropshot hook, 4 1/2” and 6” Roboworm Straight Tail Worm (MM3), unnamed 1/8- and 3/16-ounce dropshot weight. He downsized to 5-pounder Sniper on the final 2 days and had numerous 5-minute fights to land fish.

Main factor: “Constantly moving around. I did way better when I moved around.”

Performance edge: “My Phoenix boat is just sick. It’s an unreal ride. I don’t think I hit one wave hard this week.”

Dean Roja's Pattern, Baits & Gear

Dean Rojas was one of the pros who’d never fished Lake Michigan before, but he also knew it’d be won up north near the boundary line. When he gets on new water, he relies on his strengths and while the frog rod never made its way onto the deck, he did focus on shallow-water fish. He was boat No. 4 on day 1 and was able to get on some bedding fish right away, which helped him weigh nearly 20 pounds to open the event in 2nd. “Whenever I’m faced with a new body of water, I go with what I’m most comfortable with,” he said. “I found some bed-fish and those were the ones that got me started.” He went the dropshot route on days 2 and 4 and mixed in more sight-fishing on day 3 to claim his second Top-5 of this season. “When it was calm, you could see down 7 or 8 feet,” he noted. “It reminded me of Lake Mead and Lake Havasu back home. I know how to fish that stuff, so it worked out good for me.” He owes a big thanks to Terry Scroggins, who invited him into his area on day 2 when Rojas was struggling in the morning. “I’m very appreciative of his generosity,” he said. “He made my week a better week and I thank him for that.”

Dropshot gear: 6’10” medium-heavy Quantum Tour Shaw Grigsby spinning rod, Quantum Catalyst PTi spinning reel (5.2:1 ratio), 8-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 3/0 Gamakatsu extra-wide gap hook, unnamed 1/8- and 3/16-ounce tungsten dropshot weight, 4" Big Bite Baits Finesse Worm (green-pumpkin/purple patterns). He upsized his weight to 3/16-ounce when fishing away from shoreline and went lighter in shallow water.

Main factor: “Just keeping everything simple and fishing my strengths. I was really focused in on maximizing every day. The first 2 days I caught everything I could. The 3rd day I caught everything that would bite. On day 4, I caught all I could. It was a different strategy from (the Mississippi River). It was interesting.”

Performance edge: “Obviously, my Yamaha and Skeeter, as well as my MotorGuide trolling motor and Power-Poles. Those four things are so cricuial for fishing shallow like I like to do. They’re everything to me.”

Ott Defoe's Pattern, Baits & Gear

Like many Elites, Ott DeFoe wasn’t thrilled with the boundaries that were put in place for the tournament, but he certainly made the most of it, averaging more than 15 pounds a day to score his best finish of the season (he was also 5th at the Bassmaster Classic). “I wasn’t happy that we were penalized with where we could go,” he said. “But we were all on the same playing field and as long as that’s how it is, I’m good with it. Someone was still going to win and fish were going to be caught. We knew it wasn’t going to take 25 pounds a day to win and yes, we had to fish around each and that part stunk, but you just had to put your head down and make the most of it.” He said the limited water meant a couple pieces of the puzzle were already in place. “You knew the key area would likely be a 5-mile stretch of the lake and that they’d probably be in less than 15 or 10 feet of water,” he added.

He threw a soft plastic jerkbait to help him weigh fish from three different areas. He got off to a good start on day 1, catching 14 pounds in the first 45 minutes in Rileys Bay en route to a 16-11 stringer that put him in 13th place. “If I could see one cruising, I’d make a cast out in front of them and let the bait fall right there,” he said. “You could catch them that way. I’d make bomb casts and see the fish come up to the surface. The first 2 days I caught them all that way.” From there, he worked on main lake points and in Little Sturgeon, weighing between 14-11 and 15-even the final 3 days. One unique thing he did was throw a small, black hair jig up shallow to locate some bedding fish. “They’d follow it and some would bite it,” he said. “It usally got the attention of the bigger fish.”

Soft jerkbait gear: 7’4” medium-heavy Fenwick Aetos spinning rod (to be unveiled at ICAST), Abu Garcia Revo Premier 30 spinning reel (5.8:1 ratio), 10-pound Spiderwire Ultracast braid (main line), unnamed swivel, 8-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon line (leader), 4/0 VMC offset shank worm hook, 5” Berkley Gulp! Jerk Shad (pearl white). He threw the Jerk Shad weightless, but said the swivel and even the fluorocarbon leader imparted just enough downward pull to get the bait into the strike zone.

Hair jig gear: 7’4” medium-action Fenwick Elite Tech Smallmouth Series spinning rod, Abu Garcia Orra SX 20 spinning reel (5.8:1 ratio), 10-pound Spiderwire Ultracast braid (main line), 6-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon line (leader), 1/16-oz. VMC DM marabou jig (black).

Main factor: “Being in a few good areas and keeping the bait in the water. It wasn’t a horribly long run, maybe 35 miles each way, and having pretty calm weather was pretty good.”

Performance edge – “My Nitro boat and Mercury motor. They were key to me being able to run all that distance.”

Lake Michigan Winning Pattern Bassfan 7/1/12 (Todd Ceisner)

Lake Michigan Patterns 2-5 Bassfan 7/6/12 (Todd Ceisner)