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Will Elliott: World’s best bass anglers visit area

Eight top bass-fishing pros came to Western New York for a Bassmaster Elite Series stop on the Tournament Trail. They finished after four days of fishing in varied and challenging conditions.

The outcome proved positive for a new form of tourney and reconfirmed the productivity of Niagara River’s bass fishery.

I Love NY hosted the Bassmaster contest, called a Classic Bracket, which pitted the eight top Elite Series entrants from a previous series held at Cayuga Lake. Anchor Marine on Grand Island provided the dockage, launch and base space for contest officials, competitors and visitors to view the contest and mingle with these top-ranked bass competitors.

The event introduced new tournament features for entrants and viewers. The entire four-day contest was live-streamed on the Bassmasters Web site. Starting the second day, WatchESPN provided live coverage. Each entrant’s boat had on board a cameraman and an official judge. Cameras zoomed in on each angler’s catch, a weigh-in and then a release at the site where the bass was caught.

This kind of contest eliminates the staged production of live-fish weigh-ins, but it holds the possibility of reduced hooking mortality of fish held in a boat’s live well, brought to a weigh-in site and later released, often in waters not near the habitat site where it was caught. Mid-July in the upper Niagara River’s shallow waters can be stressful to otherwise hearty bass.

Hearty they were. From the first day, entrants caught bass in river waters from currents below Strawberry Island to the south end of Grand Island. Most Elite circuit contests are won with larger-sized largemouth bass; however, most of the Niagara River is moving current. Bigmouth bass prefer calm backwaters with weeds and shallow areas with tree stumps, piers, pilings, rock rubble and other structures.

All eight entrants had a bucket/priority list of fishing sites in these currents and the bite showed fairly early each morning, mainly for smallmouth bass. Site selection can be tricky.

“There’s no key spot for these moving smallmouth bass. A dream day is when you hit a hot spot early,” 22-time Elite tourney winner Kevin VanDam said at the start of the contest.

He consistently showed early numbers throughout the four days, including an early 20-pound total in the final round that ended with a win over Brett Hite of Phoenix.

Conditions and catches changed rapidly and radically throughout the match. The first day had hefty northwest winds that bucked river-current directions and made casting presentations challenging. Day Two saw nearly calm winds until later.

The second day provided the greatest drama. Dean Rojas of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., was more than 10 pounds below Keith Combs of Huntington, Texas, and in the last 15 minutes Rojas boated enough weight to top Combs’ catch.

“The last one, a 3.3-pounder, came at 2½ minutes before the end,” Rojas said.

Rojas, as with the other seven entrants, willingly shared information anglers could use on the water. A 17-year veteran of Elite-Series competitions, he works a drop shot (a lure closely set above a weight) in the shallows (less than 22 feet) with weights of less than an ounce. As an added tip, he suggested trying the color smoke purple.

After three days of head-to-head, two-angler quarterfinals and semifinals, the Friday championship came down to Hite and VanDam.

VanDam, using his own brand of Strike King KVD lures, amassed an early 10-pound lead and finished with 20 pounds, 3 ounces and 25 fish caught. Hite caught 21 bass that totaled 13 pounds, 9 ounces.

VanDam, with tournament director Trip Weldon as his judge/observer, made a cast that put his line and catch out of bounds. Weldon immediately voided the released fish. However, Hite had the right and option to protest the catch, which he did at 2 p.m., a half hour before the contest end.

Weldon and other officials checked on previous protest procedures and 90 minutes later VanDam was officially presented the Elite Classic Brackets trophy, $10,000 and his 23rd Elite win.

The beauty of this kind of contest is that local anglers and guides could relate to the entire event. For example, Capt. Terry Jones, watching a screen at Anchor Marine that Friday afternoon, could see just where VanDam pulled his fish below the old Holiday Inn on the east river.

Once again, a national fishing contest with pro competitors showed the bounty of Western New York’s fishery.

email: odrswill@gmail.com

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