September 18, 2011 by Brett Carlson
PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. - While his official residence now reads North Carolina, David Wolak is a northern angler at heart. The former Pennsylvanian grew up fishing bodies of water like Lake Champlain and the Finger Lakes in New York. So if it looks like his smallmouth largemouth mixed-bag strategy is precise and calculated, it is. He's been tweaking it to perfection for years, hence the nickname "mixmaster."
Four years ago Wolak nearly won the FLW Series event held on Champlain. He finished second thanks to a late comeback from Guido Hibdon and the memory still haunts him. Or at least it did until today. While Gary Yamamoto led this year's Walmart FLW Tour event the first two days, it quickly became obvious that Wolak had the steady, winning strategy.
Each morning he'd fish a little 30-yard rock wall formation near Carry Bay. With current and a deep depression that dropped into 20 feet of water, it was the perfect stacking place for fat smallmouths.
After accumulating roughly 15 pounds of smallies, Wolak would turn his attention to largemouths, which were meant to push him into the upper teens. On day one, he upgraded three of the smallies. On a blustery day two he caught two sizeable largemouths and on the third and fourth days four of his five weigh fish were green bass. His largemouth spots were mostly located in Alburg Passage and Missisquoi Bay.
On day four, things pretty much went as planned. It was a little slower in the morning than it had been due to fog, but a determined Wolak stuck with it and boated roughly 50 keepers. By 1 p.m. he caught his 5-pound kicker largemouth off a tire reef and knew it was over. When it was all said and done, Wolak's five-bass limit Sunday weighed 19 pounds, 7 ounces, bringing his four-day combined weight to 81 pounds even. Those 81 pounds were more than enough to earn him $125,000 and his first FLW Tour win.
On the smallmouths, Wolak used a 1/4-ounce Title Shot jig with a homemade skirt if the bass were holding tight to the bottom. If they were suspending, he'd use a Jackall Superpin Tail, a Super Cross Tail Shad or a Clone Fry on a drop-shot rig. For the largemouths, he primarily flipped the first two days with a Jackall Sasuteki Craw. But as the largemouths left the grass and moved to the rock, Wolak picked up 1/2-ounce Title Shot jig with a full skirt and Zoom Twin Tail grub.
"This tournament for me was all about the adjustments," said the pro champion. "I figured out that I needed to slow down with that jig in the cold weather as the fish moved to the hard targets. Lake Champlain is all about adjustments."
Wolak described the third Open of the season as the biggest tournament of the year in the Northeast. And it's a tournament he looks forward to every year.
"This lake is really special to me. I think all the failures and bad decisions I've made in the past have taught me a lot. This is the tournament I prepare my boat and tackle for all year. You can ask my wife, when I come up here its win or bust. It's such a relief to win."
Gary Yamamoto committed his entire week to skipping docks with his namesake Senko. Although his pattern produced the heaviest single-day stringer in Lake Champlain history, it dwindled each of the four tournament days. Part of the reason it dwindled was that many of the lakeshore owners were pulling their docks out for the winter.
Despite fishing methodically, Yamamoto said he sampled up to 100 docks in a day. On day four, he brought in five largemouths that weighed 15 pounds, 11 ounces, bringing his total weight to 74 pounds, 12 ounces.
"I started out this morning on a new area," said the Palestine, Texas, resident. "At noon I just had one good one. I didn't want to stay and gamble so I went back to my primary spot. I was confident I could catch five, but I was trying to get the bites to catch Dave."
As only he can do, Yamamoto put a unique twist on his Senko presentation. In addition to adding a 1-inch, No. 7 screw, he also hooked the Senko backwards.
"I hooked it backwards so instead of going to the boat it moved back towards the dock."
Yamamoto earned $31,329 for his runner-up finish.
"Yesterday I thanked my employees and all my bait buyers and my wife said it was the best speech she's ever heard. I know how to play the game now. If I keep everybody happy, I get to keep fishing."
Connecticut pro Daryl Biron might not have the name recognition of Wolak or Yamamoto, but he put on quite a clinic this week. Similar to the pro winner, Biron employed a mixed-bag strategy with the exception of day two when it was too windy to get to his largemouth areas.
Unlike Wolak, Biron didn't always start on smallmouths. He did the first two days but on days three and four he had some untested largemouth water he really wanted to try. As it turned out, some of that water was already being fished by Yamamoto and Glenn Browne.
"Every day I caught them and that's all you can do. I knew going in that the mixed bag is the way to win on Lake Champlain."
To catch his smallmouths, Biron would Carolina rig a Zoom Speed Craw with a 3/4-ounce weight. He fished this primarily over a weed flat in the middle of the Inland Sea in 13 to 14 feet of water. Occasionally he mixed in a drop-shot, but the Carolina rig was the better producer early in the week. For the largemouths, he'd skip a Senko (rigged wacky style) under docks.
"I've published a few articles on dock fishing and I can tell you that not all docks are created equal. This week the best ones had weeds that came right up to the edge. I'd just skip to any opening in the weeds."
On day four his limit weighed 13 pounds, 14 ounces, pushing his cumulative total to 72 pounds, 15 ounces. Byron earned $26, 829 for third place.
"Today I only had 9 pounds with a half hour left. Those last two fish really saved me in the standings."
Vintage Browne finishes fourth
If he had it his way, Browne would flip shallow cover in every tournament he fished. This week he targeted primarily lay-downs and willow trees up in Alburg Passage. The first two days he fished the west side of the passage and the last two days he occupied the east side.
"Late on day three I started to run some new stuff," Browne explained. "I found out they were holding in little clumps of flat reeds. The trees were better early in the week, but the clumps really got good yesterday afternoon."
Browne basically used two baits all week - either a 3/4-ounce or 1-ounce homemade black and blue jig. The jig was tipped with a Zoom Big Salty Chunk and tied on 65-pound braided line.
"Any time I can truck down the bank I'm in my comfort zone. I bet I caught over 30 keepers again today in 2 feet of water. What a week. These Opens so far have been whackfests."
Browne's day-four limit weighed 16 pounds, 2 ounces, giving him a total weight of 72-6, worth $22,329.
The Ocala, Fla., pro will enter the final Open of the year as the points leader. While there is no official Angler of the Year award for winning the Opens, the top five in the points are given a berth into the 2012 Forrest Wood Cup.
"Going into Guntersville, I feel I've got a pretty good chance because that's going to be a mat deal."
Strader rallies to fifth
Coming into the final day on Lake Champlain, Walmart pro Wesley Strader simply wanted to make the top five. And after catching a limit worth 17 pounds, 13 ounces, he accomplished his goal - moving up from eighth to fifth. His four-day cumulative weight registered at 70 pounds, 3 ounces, earning him $17, 829.
Strader weighed three smallmouths and two largemouths Sunday. He had been catching largemouths exclusively until he stopped on the way in yesterday and sampled one of his smallmouths holes. He did so well there he decided to start day four on those same fish.
"It was crazy this morning," said the Spring City, Tenn., native. "I think I had 16 pounds of smallies in about 20 minutes. Then I kept catching fish, but I wasn't really improving my weight so I went to my largemouth water and that was good too."
For the brown fish, Strader drop-shotted a Zoom Swamp Crawler (green pumpkin). When he fished largemouths up in Alburg and Missisquoi he flipped a 3/4-ounce Phenix jig with a Zoom Big Salty Chunk trailer. After several days of non-stop action, he simply ran out of baits and Derek Yamamoto loaned him some of his Kinami D Bugs.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pro finishers at the FLW Tour event on Lake Champlain:
6th: Scott Canterbury of Springville, Ala., 70-2, $15,129
7th: Brian Bylotas of Olyphant, Pa., 69-8, $14,229
8th: Bryan Schmitt of Deale, Md., 68-15, $13,329
9th: Kyle Mabrey of McCalla, Ala., 64-9, $12,429
10th: J Todd Tucker of Moultrie, Ga., 62-11, $11,529
The fourth and final FLW Tour Open of 2011 is scheduled for Lake Guntersville in Guntersville, Ala., Oct. 20-23.