June 12, 2004 by Gary Mortenson
RED WING, Minn. - Jeff Ritter of Prairie du Chien, Wis., had a simple goal heading into the $250,000 Northern Division event on the Mississippi River: to beat his highest-ever EverStart Series finish - 14th place - which, interestingly, came on the same waterway in 2002.
Heading into the final day of competition, it was clear that Ritter was well on his way to achieving that goal. However, what transpired for Ritter during the final weigh-in turned out to be nothing short of a dream come true. After hauling in a two-day total of 23 pounds, 1 ounce, Ritter outpaced rival and fellow FLW Tour pro Dave Lefebre by nearly 3 pounds to capture the first EverStart title of his career.
Not surprisingly, Ritter was nearly at a loss for words after realizing that he had won it all.
"It's awesome. I don't know what to say," said the victorious angler, who was nearly overcome by emotion after his family poured onto the stage to congratulate him. "It's really indescribable. I'm a shaking mess right now, but it feels great."
However, his victory was far from easy.
"I caught a 2-pound fish right off the bat, but then I went nearly three hours without getting another bite," said Ritter, who fished the area of the Mississippi primarily below the Wabasha Bridge. "I was starting to really get nervous. But at about 10:30 a.m., I got three quick bites in a row and got back on track."
To his credit, Ritter never deviated from his overall fishing strategy all week, despite enduring conditions that would make most veteran anglers hang up their rods for good. In fact, over the four days of competition, temperatures fluctuated from a high of 96 degrees to a low of 56. To make matters worse, pouring rains, high winds and severe waves over the first three days of competition finally gave way to a high-pressure system that served up its own curveball during the finals: bluebird skies, a light breeze and searing temperatures.
But through it all, Ritter persevered.
"I used the same technique all week, swimming a jig through the grass," said Ritter. "The key was fishing the green grass. The water dropped on me a little bit, but it really didn't affect my fish. They stayed pretty shallow the whole time. You could literally see the water move when the fished moved; that's how shallow they were."
So what kind of jig wound up winning Ritter the biggest prize of his career?
"It was a homemade jig," he said. "I really don't have a name for it yet. Maybe I should start thinking about one?"
Once again, Ritter zigged when others zagged. While most anglers were using a combination of smallmouth and largemouth bass, Ritter decided that he would only target the largemouth bass in an effort to maximize his catch weight.
"All of my fish were largemouth bass," Ritter said. "I didn't catch a smallmouth all week."
With $10,000 in cash, a fully rigged Ranger boat valued at $40,000 and his first EverStart title of his career, it was clear that Ritter had had one of the best weeks of his career.
"This is by far the biggest win," he said. "Hopefully, it won't be my last."
Second tourney title on Mississippi barely eludes Lefebre
After winning the EverStart Northern Division tournament title on the Mississippi River in 2002, Lefebre proved yet again that he still has the Mississippi magic, turning in an impressive two-day catch of 20 pounds, 7 ounces, to grab second place overall. But with back-to-back stellar performances on the Mississippi River and $10,000 in prize money to add to his growing bank account, Lefebre said there was still room left for some good old-fashioned frustration to set in.
"It's disappointing," said Lefebre, who hails from Erie, Pa. "I really thought I had this tournament won. I gambled today and I thought it was going to pay off. But I came up a little short."
Fishing a Kimami Flash Senko-style bait, Lefebre said that he targeted bass in shallow water for most of the tournament.
"I was fishing super, super shallow," said Lefebre. "I was targeting bass under little pieces of duckweed. But I honestly don't think I caught a fish in any water deeper than 1 foot."
With strict DNR requirements that forced anglers to immediately decide whether to keep a fish or not - per state regulations, once a fish is in the livewell, it can't be exchanged for another larger fish later on - Lefebre was forced to make some tough decisions.
"Heading into the finals, I was only going to keep a fish if it was over 16 inches," he said. "But then I started thinking how the recent high-pressure system was going to keep catch weights low. So I decided to gamble everything and not throw back any fish today. I really thought my gamble paid off. I really did. I guess I was wrong."
Baumgardner nets third place
Chris Baumgardner of Gastonia, N.C., used a total two-day catch of 18 pounds, 7 ounces to win $9,000. However, had it not been for the sunshine, Baumgardner just might have pulled out a victory.
"I caught all of my (four) fish in the first hour, but then the sun came out and everything just shut down," he said. "I never could quite get that fifth fish."
Mike Feldermann of Galena, Ill., finished the tournament in fourth place after landing a total catch of 17 pounds, 12 ounces. Unfortunately for Feldermann, he met a fate similar to Baumgardner.
"I was catching fish on a buzzbait all week. But then the sun came out today and the bite was just dead."
Feldermann, who targeted "weeds and lily pads" most of the week, said he was generally happy with his performance despite the tough going in the finals.
"Overall, I had a good tournament," said Feldermann, who pocketed $8,000 in winnings. "I had a lot of fun."
Aaron LaRocque of Wabasha, Minn., took home fifth place and a check for $7,500 after landing a two-day total of 14 pounds, 4 ounces.
"The day started out slow right away," said LaRocque. "The water started to drop and the sun came out and I started to realize I was in trouble. I was really hoping for rain."
Best of the rest
Rounding out the top 10 pro finalists are Bob Izumi (sixth) of Milton, Ontario, with a two-day catch of 14 pounds; Wesley Strader (seventh) of Spring City, Tenn., with a catch of 10 pounds, 3 ounces; Douglas Stanton (eighth) of Winona, Minn., with a catch of 8 pounds, 14 ounces; Pete Gluszek (ninth) of Franklinville, N.J., with a catch of 7 pounds, 10 ounces; and Bill Chapman (10th) of Salt Rock, W. Va., with a catch of 7 pounds.
EverStart Series Northern Division action resumes July 21 on the Detroit River in Trenton, Mich.