Sunday, April 10, 2011

MWC IL River - What Went Wrong

After spending the previous weekend and the two days prior to the MWC IL River tournament, Shooter and I felt we had a good shot at winning the tournament. We knew it was going to be a shootout due to the excellent water conditions and the lack of bigger fish being caught. If the fish we were catching on Thursday were still there we were going to be in the mix!

Saturday was a raw, cold, day with east winds gusting to 30 mph. Our plan was to hit our big fish spots with the number one spot being the Peru flats. I was a little nervous that there would be a ton of boats as I noticed several were fishing there on Friday. As we pulled up to our spot I was shocked to see that no one was fishing the flats. This could only mean one of two things, one we have the spot to ourselves and we are going to win this thing or the fish have moved on.

Unfortunately, it was the latter. We spent 3 hours jigging and trolling crankbaits. There were plenty of fish there, the problem was the big females were gone. We quickly caught our limit and began sorting but we caught nothing over 16". That is what happens when fishing rivers in general, especially in the spring, here today, gone tomorrow! We went shallow, deep, slower and faster but we could not find them. We decided we had to move as you cannot win the tournament on day 1 but you certainly can lose it!

We then went to plan B, a spot the locals call Auggies which was close to our first spot. This was a hardly a secret spot as there were fifteen boats, or so, fishing the tight break. Again, we caught plenty of fish but nothing that was going to help us win so we packed up and headed to the clam beds.

In most years, the clam beds are going to hold big sauger, especially when the river is in good shape. The IWT tournament was won the week before in the clam beds and it was sure to be a player. We rounded the corner to see an armada of boats fishing from the high  wires all the way down past the power plant on both sides of the river. This area was getting pounded to say the least but we knew all of the boats were down there because big fish were there.

The action was not fast and furious but we did manage to catch about 2 fish every jigging pass. They were all female sauger, none were huge but we did manage to upgrade all of our fish in just 3 passes. We were in the right area as we would go right by the eventual winner as he was trolling upstream and we were jigging downstream. We did not see a lot of fish caught so I am not sure if the big fish were caught early or not or if trolling was producing the bigger fish. Regardless we needed a "kicker" fish so we left with about an hour to go and ran back up the flats hoping that the big fish moved in.

No luck as we continued to catch fish but nothing to help us. We headed in very disappointed knowing that we would need a huge Sunday. We ended up weighing 8.93 pounds which put us in the bottom one third of the field. The good news was, as we thought, it was a shootout and only a couple of pounds separated us from the top 20.

Day 2 - We decided to change it up on Sunday and cover as much water as possible hoping that we would find that "kicker" fish. We decided to run all the way up to Utica to fish the spot where my buddy Mark caught a kicker walleye on Friday. If I had to do it all over again I would not have made the run. I hate fishing up there because you know there will be a ton of boats and a ton of smaller fish. Plenty of tournaments have been won up there and big fish are always caught. However, it is hard to catch them two days in a row up there as the  big fish seem to be on the move.

The steep break where we had caught them on Friday still held fish but not as many. We easily caught our limit in the first hour but nothing of any size. By looking at all of the boats it looked like a good number of the fish had moved to the other side of the river. Probably caused by the river level going down. We didn't check it out and headed back down river to the flats.

We set up on the flats and started smoking them. The good news is some bigger female saugers had moved back in. We were catching them like crazy with doubles being common. The problem was they were all in the 17" range. We kept hoping and hoping that if we put in our time we were bound to catch a big fish. No cigar, after about 3 hours the bite died so we headed back down to the clam beds to see if we could upgrade.

Again we caught fish but nothing to help us as the fishing pressure seemed to be taking its toll. We thought our best chance was to head back to the flats and hope. To my surprise, when I turned the key to my Verado nothing happened. Uh Oh! The battery was dead. I had a problem the Saturday before the tournament due to a wiring issue. I fixed that issue, what now? We didn't have time to worry about that as we were floating down a working river with barges and a ton of fishing boats.

The only thing we could do was to switch the leads from the Verado battery to the kicker battery. It was a big pain but we were lucky enough to get it done without incident. Luckily the boats that we almost floated into understood we were without power and avoided us as we floated down river. It turned out the brand new battery was bad and was not holding a charge.

We headed back up to the flats and we started smoking them right away. We did upgrade a couple of fish but our biggest for the day was only 17-3/4". We headed in and ended up having a better day weighing over 10 lbs. That moved us up to 52nd place out of 123. The sad part is we were only one good fish away from placing in the money.

I was disappointed to say the least but I can't complain about the fishing. It was awesome we just could not catch the "kicker". There were lessons learned that I can use in the future. I love fishing this river and still think I will have my day it is just going to have to wait! I am already looking forward to the 2012 MWC!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

MWC IL River Recap

The first tournament of the year is over. Although it was disappointing finishing 52 out of 123 it was still a great time. Lessons were learned, the bite was great and the new Lund/Mercury is everything that I expected and much more! Here is a recap of the pre-fishing with part II coming soon.


March 19-20 - One of my favorite things about fishing tournaments is I get to spend a few days pre-fishing with friends that I normally I do not get to spend a lot of time with. On the 19th I shared the boat with one of my high school buddies, Scott Gordon who lives in Bloomington, IL and one of my fishing mentors (Sat and Sun), Mark Michael who lives in Princeton, IL. We spent the morning trolling number 9 rapalas and some custom stick baits down at the clam beds. The bite was pretty good when we concentrated on a tight break in 14 to 17 feet of water. Most fish were in the 15 to 17 inch range with a few a little bigger like the one Scott is holding above.

We jigged through the same area with similar results. I tried to jig, against doctors orders, with my broken left arm. I thought I could get away with it, that was until I tried to set the hook on a fish that absolutely crushed my jig and plastic. I screamed with pain and dropped my rod immediately. Needless to say the boys gave me a hard time and questioned if I had a fish at all. I learned my lesson, at least for the next couple of days, and only jigged with my right arm.

We moved up to the Peru flats for the afternoon and caught a few. When I tried to start up the brand new Verado nothing happened. Uh Oh! We used my kicker motor to get back to launch. At the time we thought the batteries were wired wrong, which they were. After the tournament we found the new battery was also bad and wasn't holding a charge which led to an interesting situation the last day of the tournament which I will discuss in Part II. Mark and I were going to fish the IWT the next morning but with the uncertainty of the battery situation we decided to make sure everything was working Ok for the next weekend as being dead on the water during the tournament is not a good thing!

Day 2 Mark and I spent the day checking spots from Spring Valley up to the Starved Rock dam. We jigged all day and caught fish everywhere we went. The bite was awesome with most fish again in the 15-17 inch range. However, we were able to get a couple that were close to 2-1/2 pounds. There was an eddy near the dam that was absolutely loaded with fish. We could have sat there all day and pounded 15-17 inch saugers but we knew we had to find bigger fish so we moved on.

Mark Mearvy and his partner won the IWT with 6 fish that weighed over 19 lbs. They caught them where we were fishing on Saturday in the clam beds. The rest of the field was stacked between 9 and 13 lbs. This verified our thoughts that the MWC was going to be a shootout. Finding the bigger fish was going to be the key.

March 21-23 - To save vacation days for later tournaments I went back to work. The nice thing is I had a sales meeting in Chicago those three days so I was able to drive straight from Chicago Wednesday night which saved me some time. I hate not spending a whole week on a body of water prior to a tournament as it puts us at a disadvantage to our competitors as most spend the entire week pre-fishing. If there is one tournament to skip a few days it is the MWC IL River as spring conditions usually change everything. It looked like this was going to be the case as rains drenched the upper midwest Monday and Tuesday. Somehow the majority of the rains did not fall in the IL River watershed. The river did rise about two feet but I returned to find the river in excellent shape.

March 24 - Two days prior to the tournament, now it is time to get to work! Dale Bowman, the outdoors writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, was supposed to be fishing with me but had to cancel. In his place I recruited my long time fishing buddy Brad Munda to help me find the right fish. My partner for the tournament, Ol' Shooter brought his boat. Our plan is to cover as much water as possible looking for big female sauger. Brad and i will jig through the same area that Shooter trolls through.

We start right near the launch and I caught a couple decent saugers. We then headed down to the clam beds. The bite was on but nothing huge. Shooter caught a good one on the green can side of the river. Brad and I jigged up one about 2-1/2 pounds and then we pulled it upriver with a three way rig. Almost immediately I caught one about 2-1/2 pounds on the dropper jig. Not a bad start, time to head to the next spot.

Shooter got a head start up river and called us over when we reached the peru flats. He had already caught 2 good fish with one a pre-spawn female sauger that was almost 20 inches. Brad and I jigged through the same area and we each caught two 19" pre-spawners and a 17" male who was milking like a cow. These are tournament winning fish, if they are still there on Saturday we have a great shot of winning this thing. To make things even better, nobody was fishing this area.  Mark and I had fished it last Sunday and we only caught a couple of small ones. This is the same area that we finished 3rd a couple of years ago so we were feeling pretty good.

We got out of there and headed up and across the river to a place the locals call Auggies. There were a bunch of boats fishing the outside bend. If you stayed tight to the break the bite was really good, if you slipped off of it, not so much. In the middle of the pack of boats I caught one that looked like it was 18-1/2" or so. It was one of the rare ones that I hooked with my bad arm. I tried to hide it from everyone so I just held onto my rod and acted like I was dragging my jig and would try to shake it off when no one was looking. I only had one more tournament boat to hide it from. He was trolling 3 ways up-river and asked how we were doing. I said "oh, one here and there, nothing of any size". The entire time my rod tip is pounding. Just when I think we are clear the fish comes up to the surface and the guy said "he's got a good one" and pointed at me. I felt pretty bad and said I just didn't want everyone to see it. The games played are kind of funny and is worth a blog at a different time.

Brad and I ended the day with 26 keepers that we put in the boat with several more that we could have gotten in had we used the net and were not hiding fish. Shooter had 14 by himself, we were feeling pretty good.

March 25 - We have the same game plan as the day before. Today Brad fished with Shooter and Mark Michael fished with me. We decided to head to Utica and fish our way down river. Mark and I absolutely killed them with fish after fish. We had 10 keepers on our first pass. We went through a bit of a dry spell when I noticed a change in the bottom on my humminbird. I was just about to say something when Mark said "there's one". It turned out to be a fat, pre-spawn, walleye. Kicker fish like this is what we need tomorrow!

Everywhere we went we caught fish and so did Brad and Shooter. Even though we caught decent fish including one that I would die for the next day we were convinced the spot we caught fish yesterday was going to give us the best opportunity to win. We headed in feeling pretty good.

Coming soon - See what and how we did, warts and all, during the tournament with part II .

Special thanks to Mark and Brad for helping us out!