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Angler and TV personality Don Meissner is hoping thousands of people flock to the St. Lawrence this summer to catch bass like these. Photo courtesy St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce
Angler and TV personality Don Meissner is hoping thousands of people flock to the St. Lawrence this summer to catch bass like these. Photo courtesy St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce

Why this bass season could be the St. Lawrence River's biggest ever

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New York's bass fishing season kicks off on June 15, and North Country tourism and business leaders are banking on it being the biggest ever.

They've lured one of the ten Bassmaster Elite tournaments this year. They're the premiere professional bass fishing events in the country, televised nationally on ESPN.

The tournament is August 8 through 11 on the St. Lawrence River in Waddington.

Angler Don Meissner helped land the event as a part of St. Lawrence County's FISHCAP project. At a press conference broadcast on WQTK earlier this week, he said to expect the scale of a NASCAR race, except with fish and boats. He called it the St. Lawrence River's chance to have a "showcase for the world."

"I was down in Texas and I saw what this is about," said Meissner. "There were 34,000 people that came cheering and yelling and raving for their favorite anglers. This is a lot more than just fishing. This is our way to show the country and the world what we're really about here."

The St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce is offering local businesses advice on how they can capitalize on the expected influx of tourists.

Some 50 North Country anglers are getting a head start on the season in Vermont waters, where bass season opens this weekend. The Northern New York Bassmasters chapter will hold its first tournament of the summer Saturday on Lake Champlain.

A few summers ago, one Bassmaster made the mistake of inviting David Sommerstein to be his partner in a tournament on the St. Lawrence River. Here's that story:

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It's still dark at the Patterson boat launch in Ogdensburg. Men and women in flannel and fleece sip coffee, smoke cigarettes, and trade tall tales. Fred Morrill, my partner, emerges from the darkness, leans in, and whispers that we're going 20 miles upriver to Chippewa Bay.

It's a risk, Fred admits, but he's got a powerful boat that he says can go about 60 miles an hour.

There's a lot I don't know about competitive bass fishing, so I canvass some anglers for tips. Big John Narrow and Ruth Harmer are from Potsdam.

"Strategic points? Stay calm, don't lose your cool. Try to get big ones. 'Cause when you get frustrated, you can't catch anything."

Frankly, I'm worried about my stamina. We'll fish from 6:30 in the morning to three in the afternoon, non-stop. We need to catch the five biggest bass we can for the weigh-in.

I draw a lowly 24 for start position so Fred and I idle as boats roar off one by one. It's 48 degrees, the sun just blushing up a clear sky. The air's thick with motor exhaust.

Fred says he's feeling pretty good. "I'm feeling confident. I have done well at Chippewa Bay before, and I think we'll find some nice fish. I'm telling you, every time I stand around these guys, though, it's hard to confident of victory, so you go out, do your best, 'cause there are some really good fishermen here.

There's Dick Garlock, a former pro, and Jim Moore, one of the New York's best. But Fred's no slouch. He and five other guys from this club won the state championship last year.

Our number, 24, is called, the motor roars, and I hold on for dear life at 60 mph. Yet 20 frigid minutes later, the motor's silent. We're alone, floating the outer islands of Chippewa Bay. Fred makes the first cast of the day at 7:12.

"I think this time of year, the Largemouth come out to these outer islands, so I thought five big Largemouth would do quite well today."

It's an hour before Fred reels in a Largemouth Bass. It looks barely the 12-inch limit, "and," he says, "he is barely 12 inches, so it is a keeper. So we'll put that in the live well. We hope to have a lot bigger fish than that today."

The sport of bass fishing is a weird mix of adrenaline and total repose. There's a lot of down-time between the kind of non-stop action set to classic rock on ESPN highlights.

Actually, Fred says, there are two styles, really philosophies, of bass fishing. Power fishermen gun the motor from spot to spot until they find the fish. Finesse fishermen like Fred coax the bass to bite.

"Just like us they eat every day. We just got to give them what they want, or something that they think they want. And oftentimes finesse works, but we got to find the fish that need finessing."

Things really start slowing down. Fred loses time fixing the depth-finder. I try lures called Texas rig slip-sinkers, tubes and swimming sinkos. Nothing works, yet with every cast, I'm almost sure I'm going to catch a fish.

The moon sinks in the powder-blue sky. A fifth Seaway freighter rumbles by; Fred says he's beginning to question his judgment in coming to Chippewa Bay.

We motor back towards Brockville and try the Canadian side of the river. The sun's hot now. We troll and cast around a shoal again and again. If fishing teaches you one thing, Fred says, it's humility.

"I think that's why they call it fishing and not catching, I know we always say that. Because we just haven't figured out where they are yet. And I've got to quit being stubborn about where they should be and think about where they might be."

There's another side of fishing, too. Our minds unwind. Fred and I chat about politics – he's a county legislator; about me being a first-time father; about the price of zinc – Fred's an accountant for the zinc mines; about his former fishing partner, Jim's, battle with cancer. We get to know each other.

 My storytelling dreams say here's where we catch some big fish and make a comeback. But alas. We drift and cast near Ogdensburg for a couple hours, within sight of where we launched in the first place. Then it's four minutes before three. Our take? Four little bass.

"Should I reel in? That's it, huh? I think we had a good time. I'm disappointed that we didn't catch more and bigger fish. But not a bad day, was it?"

We've been in the sun, on the glistening river, chatting and laughing all day, not bad at all. But I have to admit at the weigh in, I feel a little bit embarrassed. The winner, Jim Moore of Gouverneur, caught 19 pounds of fish, almost triple our catch.

And I feel bad for Fred when he brings our little bag of four fish to weigh. He's asked if he has five live fish, and he has to say, no, only four…

Fred just chuckles. He introduces me to his wife, daughter, and grandchild, who came to watch the weigh in. They he returns our fish to the St. Lawrence.

And now we'll release them, and hopefully catch them when they grow up.

It's that hope that keeps an angler always coming back for another day.

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