Elite Analysis: Champlain Day 1

I realized this morning how long I’ve been around the game when I thought back to my earliest awareness of Lake Champlain. I was fishing the co-angler side of a tournament at Lake Minnetonka in June of 1997, and one of the reasons that Denny Brauer agreed through a friend-of-a-friend to let my traveling partner practice with him was because he could get a two-part paper map out of the deal. He’d never been there and needed to familiarize himself with the big pond.

Does anyone even use paper maps anymore?

Roland Martin went on to win that inaugural Bassmaster Champlain event that September with 56 pounds 15 ounces over three days, raising his then-record number of wins to 19. It was (as of this date) his final victory with B.A.S.S.

Two years later at Champlain, Mike Iaconelli had what effectively amounted to his professional coming out party by earning the first of his (to date) eight B.A.S.S. wins. He beat runner-up Rick Clunn by just under 2 pounds.

A little over a month from now Ike, who like Clunn is competing this week, will join Clunn and Martin in the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame.

The time since those earliest tour-level visits seems to have flown by, but think of how much the sport has changed in that time period. Anglers were just starting to normalize braided line, and fluorocarbon was little-known. No one was using a Chatterbait. Or a drop shot. Or Power-Poles. Forward-facing sonar was just a pipe dream.

Nevertheless, even as the sport has changed markedly, Champlain has remained more consistent than many other top fisheries. While the zones that produce have changed over time, the lake itself remains a gem. That’s why the tours keep going back again and again. The other constant, of course, is wind, and we saw plenty of that today. We’re probably going to see even more before this event is over.

Still, they’ll catch ‘em. They always catch ‘em.

What Sophomore Slump? – Cody Huff, Alex Redwine and Jay Przekurat, all Elite Series second-years, occupy the first, second and third spots in the Day One standings. Fellow sophomore Matty Wong is sixth. They’re joined in the Top 10 by rookies Bryant Smith and Kyoya Fujita. So much for those 26 years of veterans’ experience fishing BASS tournaments at Champlain – we appear to be in the midst of a youth movement.

How Tough is Huff? – Cody Huff finished 2nd at Pickwick and 10th at Oahe last year, but he’s yet to make a Sunday cut in 2023. He entered this week 57th in AOY, with a season’s best finish of 20th. After starting off with four checks in a row, he missed the next three before bouncing back with a season’s best (to date) 20th at St. Clair.

More Twenties than ’21 – When the Elites last visited Champlain in 2021, no one hit the 22-pound mark on Day One – Buddy Gross was in first with 21-13 and there were a total of nine anglers over the 20 pound mark. Today, by comparison, there was Huff’s 23 pound 3 ounce bag, four more over 22, and five more over 21. Matt Robertson (20-03) in 17th was the lowest-placing angler with 20+.

First to 20 – Alex Redwine (2nd) was the first to unofficially hit the 20-pound mark via BASS Trakk, surpassing it at 8:58am, and then culling past 21 at 9:47, before anyone else had hit 20 (recognizing that many anglers did not have Marshals). Of course, he needed to add to that early 20 to stay near the top, but when the wind makes it rough to move around it’s a huge advantage to catch them early.

Ike’s Classic Hopes – During the early portion of his career, Mike Iaconelli ruffled a lot of feathers by saying something to the effect that he expected to never miss qualifying for a Classic. To his credit, starting in 2002, he made 18 of them in a row. Then he left BASS for another circuit and despite excelling in the Opens and then fishing several years on the Elites he’s yet to fish another one since 2019. He seemed poised to qualify for the 2024 iteration, entering Champlain in 23rd and expected to do well. With 11-05 today, he hit more than a speed bump. It’s probably too great of a deficit to make the cut to Saturday, but he’ll need to salvage some points tomorrow and then show up strong at the St. Lawrence to return to the big show to try to add a second Classic victory to his Hall of Fame career.

Speaking of Brauer – The LIVE hosts pointed out that perennial Champlain contender Seth Feider idolized Denny Brauer growing up. Everyone thinks of Feider as a smallmouth guru, but he had made clear on several occasions that his favorite thing to do is to flip deep grass for green fish and he’s finished 2nd, 2nd and 4th here in previous Elite events. Both of them have an AOY title, but Brauer holds a few accolades that Feider does not — like the 1998 Classic trophy and an Elite Series blue trophy from Champlain (2006). With 16-02 today, it’ll be an upward climb for Feider to get back into contention. He said it “ain’t a largemouth lake no more” and that he “gave up on the smallies too quick.” Notably, Brauer was also on the Wheaties box, while if Feider were to achieve something similar it would only be right to be Llama Loops.

Cut Weight Math – Hank Cherry is in 50th place with 18-0. Using the semi-reliable 2X+1 formula, that means it’ll take 37 pounds to make the cut to Saturday. Assuming that holds up, anyone in the top 65 to 70 has an outside shot with a banner day.

Rolling the Fuzzy Dice – In a conversation we had on Monday night, Opens angler and podcast host Matt Pangrac seemed convinced that Kyoya Fujita would make a run at AOY. I was dubious, because Fujita was 82 points out of the lead. More importantly, he was in 15th place – a lot of dominoes would have to fall for him to move that many places. Well, the rookie did his part today with 21-5 and sits in 10th. He may not win the title, but a Classic berth is effectively ensured. He’s putting on a show and it’s scary to think how dangerous he could be with a bit more seasoning. Pangrac also mentioned that he was surprised Cody Huff hadn’t done better this year, and lo and behold Huff bounced back with 23 plus. If I’m a struggling Elite pro I want him mentioning me as much as possible.

Christie Solidifies His Hold – After finally winning a Bassmaster Classic trophy, there’s no doubt that Jason Christie wants a second, and there’s likely no better place for him to do it than Oklahoma’s Grand Lake, where he came very close on two occasions. To do that, however, he has to qualify. He entered Champlain just inside the bubble and caught 21-7 to land in 9th. If he can back it up, look for lots of stories this offseason about Christie’s Classic hopes.

Don’t Blend – This exceptional rookie class continues to show out. In addition to Fujita, Bryant Smith is having an incredible year. He came into this event in 20th place in AOY, yet 4th in the Rookie of the Year Race. He’s been overshadowed by the likes of two-time winner Joey Cifuentes and winner Will Davis Jr. but there’s a chance he could turn out to be the best of them. If he holds on to his current 5th place position it’ll mark his second top ten of the year – after he finished 7th at Santee (along with a 12th place finish at Murray for a fantastic trip to South Carolina.” Cifuentes held his lead by earning the 14th place position after Day One.

Brandon Palaniuk — “I’m trying to wrap my head around why me and the smallmouth aren’t getting along.”

Caleb Kuphall — “I didn’t know there were smallmouth in here until all of the guys started bringing them in.”

Larry Nixon — “I think I’ve turned into a fair-weather fisherman….I’ve been on a lot of boat rides in my life and that was a bad one.”

KJ Queen – “It was wet and it didn’t rain.”

Dave Mercer — “If this wind would just blow I think they’d bite.”