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Pete Ponds tries a new lure during practice Monday. Photo: David Sommerstein
Pete Ponds tries a new lure during practice Monday. Photo: David Sommerstein

Four St. Lawrence fishing tips from America's bassmasters

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Just a couple weeks after he drew statewide attention to the allure of the Adirondacks, Governor Andrew Cuomo is bringing the big spotlight to the St. Lawrence River tomorrow.

Cuomo visits Waddington Thursday morning, for the first launch of the Bassmaster Elite Series tournament. He'll speak on the same stage where anglers will weigh their day's catch each afternoon at 3:15. According to the Governor's office, Cuomo will then join B.A.S.S. tournament director Chris Bowes for some fishing on the St. Lawrence, north of the Eisenhower power dam.

Local businesses are expecting unprecedented crowds for this weekend's tournament. John Chamberlain owns JC's bowling lanes and bar and grill in Waddington. "The fisherman are here. The sponsors are here," says Chamberlain. Regular Ken Graves says it's the biggestn thing to ever hit the North Country. "Not just Waddington,"Graves affirms. "It's the second biggest sport to NASCAR. I'm telling you the truth, it's big."

Maybe not as big as football or baseball, but bass fishing is big. The Elite Series tournaments draw tens of thousands of fans and national coverage on ESPN.

Still, a lot of people don't know anything about professional bass fishing. David Sommerstein went for a ride-along while the anglers were practicing this week.

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Doug Kirkbride, from Beaver Falls, just competed last weekend in the Northern New York Bassmasters tournament here on the St. Lawrence - it's like the minor leagues. So Doug knows his spots.

But Rule #1: the anglers in the Bassmaster Elite are prohibited from talking to locals like Doug for 30 days prior to the tournament.

Mike Iaconelli's boat is littered with rods and lures to test out for competition. Photo: David Sommerstein
Mike Iaconelli's boat is littered with rods and lures to test out for competition. Photo: David Sommerstein
We settle into Doug's 225 horsepower bass boat at the Whittaker Park launch in Waddington..

This all's a thrill for Doug, going in search of some of the 99 professional Bassmasters practicing all along the river today. It's like me, a baseball fan, watching Derek Jeter take batting practice. Doug follows these guys' careers on TV.

"They can find fish faster than most people. I mean, that's why they're on the Elites. They can pick a pattern out, and they're going to do good with it."

Before I can ask what a pattern is, we're headed upriver at 68 miles per hour. I can't see because the wind's pressing my eyelashes against my eyes. My mouth's dry in a second.

"At 70 miles an hour, your face feels like it's stretched wicked bad. It tingles. It'll take 15 minutes to get feeling back."

We stop when we see Elite Series Fisherman Pete Ponds of Mississippi. Ponds has been fishing professionally since 1996. The Elite Series is nine tournaments a year, from February to August. Ponds says sure, fishing for a living sounds fun, but seven months a year on the road is a grind. And not every day's sunny and gorgeous like today.

"You have to think about all the conditions, you have cold weather, you have rain, you have high winds and rough water. You've got to go fishing whether you want to or not."

Elite Series veteran Dave Smith searches for trends near Iroquois Dam. Photo: David Sommerstein
Elite Series veteran Dave Smith searches for trends near Iroquois Dam. Photo: David Sommerstein
As we're talking, Ponds is catching a fish: It's a two, two and a half pound small-mouth. Ponds says it'll probably take fish twice that size to win. You weigh your five biggest fish at the daily weigh-in at 3:15 in the afternoon. The top 50 anglers after Thursday and Friday's competitions move on to Saturday. Then Sunday it's down to a dozen anglers competing for the grand prize of 100,000 dollars and a trip to the Bassmaster Classic, the Super Bowl of bass fishing.

Tip #1 - Ponds is working 20-30 feet deep with a bait called a drop shot.

"Drop shot is a bait where you put the heavier part on the bottom, then you move up just a little bit, and then you put the small hook, and then the plastic, and you're bouncing it along the bottom, and if you get close to a fish you hope you fool him."

As we cruise the river, it looks like these guys are just fishing solo on fancy powerful boats. But they're intensely focused, trying to find answers in the mighty St. Lawrence, its shifting currents, shoals, and bays.

We motor up to Mike Iaconelli – Mike Ike – known as the bad boy, crazy guy of the tour. He's got rods and mounds of lures everywhere. He flicks his line in and out of the water constantly as he talks to me – for Tip #2.

"In practice you try to cover a lot of water. You try to eliminate stuff. Elimination is sometimes more important than finding stuff in practice, so I've got 20 rods on the deck. I'm covering a lot of water. I'm fishing fast, using my outboard, trying to fish this entire pool, and that's how you find the winning fish."

One thing the anglers agree on – this first Elite Series event on the St. Lawrence is a hit.

"I mean, this river's just slam loaded full of small mouth bass."

Randy Howell of Alabama's working the bottom off Leishman Point. He says one thing about this tournament is you can go anywhere down to the dam in Massena, so long as you make it back by weigh-in. Tip #3.

The tiny village of Waddington is expecting ten thousand fans for the tournament. Photo: David Sommerstein
The tiny village of Waddington is expecting ten thousand fans for the tournament. Photo: David Sommerstein
"I hear some guys may run way 50 or 60 miles down to lake Ontario. If they do that, the fishing will be real good for them, but the boat ride won't be real good, so I hope…I'm definitely not doing that. I'll find what I need right here in the river and I won't run too far."

Some anglers "run and gun" – work one spot hard, then zoom to the next. Others work one good spot.

Our last stop is Dave Smith of Oklahoma City, the senior member of the Elite Series field. He's tucked in by the Iroquois Lock.

Remember when my guide, Doug, mentioned patterns? Well, that's Smith's tip. Tip #4 – trends.

"Well, normally what we do is find something that works, and then we try to duplicate it, and then you can get you a trend. And then you can follow that trend all the way up and down the lake. Usually here, this time of year, it's around current. Of course, you know there's a lot of current that goes down the St. Lawrence. But you've got to find the right current breaks and the ones that have got the big fish in them."

Doug and I whiz back to Waddington. He points out one spot where he caught a lot of big fish last weekend. But that's a secret to the Elite anglers.

Doug says one thing's sure after this weekend's tournament. The secret's going to be out that the St. Lawrence is a great place to fish.

"Maybe it's a good thing, maybe it's bad. We'll find out. I'm sure it'll bring more people to the area." But, he says, "they'll be taking my spots, yeah. There'll be a lot more company out there after this, I'm sure."

And that's the great hope for local leaders and businesses. That after the cheers from Sunday's weigh-in fade away, the fishing continues, and the St. Lawrence becomes a destination for America's anglers.

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