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Lake Erie huffs and puffs throughout bass tourney

09/29/2015, 12:00am EDT
By BY MATT MARKEY BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR
Lake Erie huffs and puffs

Whitney Stephens of Waverly, Ohio, won the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open presented by Allstate on Lake Erie. which took place Sept. 24-26. Stephens had a three-day total of 65 pounds, 1 ounce. Stephens received $6,443 and also won a Triton 19Tr

SANDUSKY — Lake Erie exposed her fangs and made things tough on the 150 anglers competing in the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open late last week, as winds and waves dominated the three-day event.

Whitney Stephens of Waverly in southern Ohio took first place, relying on his bow-mounted fishfinder to pinpoint pods of smallmouth bass that were staging around rock piles in 23-28 feet of water, and using the rocks to protect them from the roily seas. Stephens said as the current pushed baitfish past the underwater structure, the bass were ready to ambush, and he placed his baits appropriately.

Stephens won with 65 pounds, 1 ounce of fish over the three days. Each pro is allowed to weigh in up to five fish each day, and all of the fish are released live back into the lake.

The field was culled to the top 12 anglers for the final day of competition on Saturday. Virginia native Jeff Lugar took second with 64 pounds, 8 ounces, while Jason Root of Fostoria was a very close third with 64 pounds, 7 ounces of bass.

Stephens, who finished 174th in the previous tournament in August on New York’s Oneida Lake, took the pounding, hourlong boat ride to Canadian waters each day and fished a number of different areas around Pelee Island. His fishing time was further limited by the relentless wind and the wave action, which made holding the boat in position beyond challenging.

“It was like starting over every day,” Stephens said, “because the wind made the current shift and reposition the bass.”

His electronics bailed him out, however, and allowed Stephens to locate the winning combination of baitfish, rock piles, and feeding smallmouth.

“I found the baitfish first, and the bass were nearby,” Stephens said. “It would have been nearly impossible to find them without the fishfinder.”

Drop shot rigs were the weapon of choice for Stephens and the other top finishers. Stephens said he used a ½-ounce VMC Tungsten weight and a size 1 Gamakatsu Split Shot/​Drop Shot hook. He alternated between a Z-Man Jerk Shadz, Jackall Crosstail Shad, and Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Shad Shape Worm.

Stephens said his ice fishing experience taught him the value of using tungsten.

“What I found out is tungsten shows up better and is detected more clearly by an electronic graph,” Stephens said, adding that he made short pitches to the rocky areas and then trained his eyes on the screen to watch the presentation in high definition.

Stephens, who was in fifth place on Thursday and moved up to third on Friday, said his search for big smallmouth bass started and ended with the rock piles, where the active combination of baitfish and bass presented the type of opportunities he had hoped to find.

The championship brought Stephens a check for $6,443 and a fully tricked-out Triton 19TrX boat, a Mercury 200 Pro XS outboard, and a custom trailer — a package valued at $45,000. The big bonus is that the win gives him an automatic berth in the 2016 GEICO Bassmaster Classic on Oklahoma’s Grand Lake.

Derek Remitz from Alabama had the lead in the Lake Erie event after the second day, making a bruising 50-minute boat ride to his preferred fishing waters — a large shoal in the open lake — where the battle with the wind intensified.

“I don’t like to drift, but it was the only way to stay on my area,” said Reitz, who finished 10th in the final standings. “The wind is too strong to stay precisely on top of my spots using the trolling motor.”

Friday’s second-place angler, Pete Gluszek of New Jersey, chose to make another hourlong boat ride across the rough lake to fish the tailwaters of the Detroit River. He said he found “an unbelievable amount of baitfish” at the site, pushed there by the river’s potent current that supplies 80-90 percent of the water that enters western Lake Erie.

Despite its feisty behavior and the run it created at area pharmacies for motion sickness preventatives Dramamine and scopalomine patches, Lake Erie ultimately wowed them with her wealth of big fish. First day leader David Reault of Livonia, Mich., averaged better than five pounds per fish on Thursday, checking in his five-fish limit that weighed 25 pounds, 9 ounces.

The pros and their amateur co-angler boatmates, who were limited to three fish each day, weighed in 838 bass that weighed 2,784 pounds on the first day of the event. Day two produced 692 fish for the scales, and 2,370 more pounds of bass.

As one would expect on Lake Erie, most of the fish were smallmouth bass, with just a few largemouth brought in by anglers who chose not to challenge the rough seas and instead opted to fish the more protected waters of Sandusky Bay and other nearshore areas.

Nineteen of the pros averaged at least four pounds of fish for the catch on the opening day of the event, with 10 additional pros just under that mark.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.

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