CITGO Bassmaster Northern Opens debut


SANDUSKY, Ohio — Anglers say Lake Erie is home to such a tremendous smallmouth fishery that it is easy to get spoiled after a trip or two to the famed bass waters.

That intrinsic truth will be affirmed when the CITGO Bassmaster Northern Open series returns to the giant lake July 14-16 out of Sandusky Bay. And now, the idea of visiting Lake Erie has the entrants fired up about the circuit's season-opener.

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With more than 10,000 square miles of water touching Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and Canada, Lake Erie might be the best smallmouth fishery in the country, according to anglers and experts alike. And it has enjoyed its lofty standing for several years.

Exactly how good is the fishing on Erie? Consider: During the three Bassmaster tournaments held on smallmouth-laden Lake St. Clair in Michigan, many pros chose to make the long run to Erie. And in 1993, Randy VanDam, brother of Kevin VanDam, destroyed the standing Ohio record with a 9 1/2-pound bronzeback.

In the fall of 2003, a Northern Division tournament on Lake Erie produced a three-day catch that is ranked fourth in all-time BASS records for heaviest weight (4,743 pounds, 10 ounces) and seventh for number of limits (310) caught in the pro division.

Last June, in the New York CITGO Bassmaster Open out of Buffalo, winner Frank Scalish loaded up with more than 55 pounds of Erie bass to take home the $50,000 top prize.

But Scalish warns that anglers shouldn't expect the big lake to be quite as good this year.

"It's certainly not at its best," the 44-year-old Cleveland pro said. "But it's not going to be disappointing. It's the best smallmouth fishery in the world."

While anglers caught 1,735 bass on Lake Erie and the Niagara River tributaries in Buffalo, Scalish predicts the number will be lower. For this tournament, competitors are limited to waters within the Ohio boundaries.

"The bummer is that the Canadian waters are off limits to us. If we could run across to Canada, you would see a lot of 25-pound bags," Scalish said. "Every day, you'll probably see a 20-pound bag come in, but it won't be three days in a row from the same guy."

Erie expert Joe Thomas agrees.

"I've spent a couple of days up there and I think the fishing's going to be good," said Thomas, 43, an Ohio pro with four CITGO Bassmaster Classic appearances to his credit. "Like any time we have a tournament on Lake Erie, the weather will be a huge factor.

"The islands offer some protection from the wind, but Sandusky Bay — when it blows up — can get really bad. If you get a north or east wind, it can make that whole place pretty miserable to fish. But if the weather is cooperative — which it typically is in July — there will be a lot of fish caught. The downside is that this time of year most of the tournaments are won on the Canadian side."

Veteran smallmouth anglers expect to have difficulty locating and catching bass in quantity because the fish are in a transition period.

"They're coming off the spawn and they're not really locked onto the offshore structure real well," Thomas explained. "I think you'll see them caught from 7 to 28 feet. So it's more common to catch one or two fish and then have to change spots to catch more."

"The fish are pretty scattered," Scalish agreed. "They're not coming in big numbers. The schools are very loose. We're running into three or four here and three or four there. It's nothing like in the spring and fall when they school up by the hundreds."

Scalish and Thomas believe it will take 17 to 19 pounds a day to win the event. And they expect bottom-hugging techniques like drop-shotting and tube dragging to be key to the biggest and most consistent catches. Scalish won last year's Open by fishing a Yum Dinger soft stickbait on a jighead around submerged rocks.

This is the first of three Northern Open events that will send the top anglers to the CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship in December — and, ultimately, the coveted CITGO Bassmaster Classic in February of 2006 at Lake Toho near Kissimmee.

Weigh-ins will begin at 2:30 p.m. at Shelby Street Launch, 101 Shelby Street, in Sandusky.

The second Northern Open event is Aug. 11-13 on Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh, N.Y. The last event is Sept. 15-17 on Oneida Lake in Syracuse, N.Y.