HAMBURG, N.Y. – Joseph Pappas couldn’t wait for the storms to arrive Saturday because, when they finally hit around noon, his bass started biting like crazy – crazy enough for the third-year pro from Southgate, Mich., to win his first EverStart Series tournament in Northern Division action on Lake Erie.
Pappas won the Pro Division in this week’s smallmouth frenzy after popping two limits close to 20 pounds the last two days in the final round. His winning weight – 39 pounds, 13 ounces – bested runner-up Thomas Lavictoire by over 6 pounds.
“I feel great,” said Pappas, who collected $24,000 in cash (winnings and incentives) plus a new Ranger boat for the victory. “I put in a lot of time out there on the water and I sacrificed a lot to be here. It’s just a great feeling finally to get a win.”
The weather took a turn for the nasty Saturday afternoon on the east end of Lake Erie, with violent lightning and bursts of pouring rain. That caused some hair-raising moments for a few anglers already dealing with the lake’s big water. A couple competitors reported that they had to put away their gear for a while as lightning moved into the area and they could feel the buildup of static electricity in their fishing rods.
“Oh yeah, the rods were humming,” said Andrew Bray, who finished third in the Co-angler Division.
Fortunately, nobody was hurt. In fact, the onslaught of shifty weather and, most importantly, the wind probably helped anglers Saturday, especially Pappas. The last two days have been relatively calm on big Lake Erie, and that seems to have a detrimental effect on the smallmouth bite. When a breeze finally picked up in front of the storms, that’s when many finalists started catching them.
“This morning was tough because there was no wind. It was just kind of swirling around,” Pappas said. “Then, about 11 o’clock, we got a little bit of a ripple on the water, and I think it made a difference.”
Pappas started fishing Saturday morning on the high, flat area that gave him a leading 19-pound, 15-ounce limit Friday, but found the fish weren’t cooperating in the calm water. So he left, caught three middling smallies and was worrying about just filling out his limit when the breeze picked up in front of the nasty weather.
“I knew something was going to happen with the weather because the fish started biting about 15 minutes before the storms hit,” he said. “That’s when I ran back and started fishing my big-fish spot.”
“Big fish” is an understatement. His kicker bass was a monster Erie smallmouth estimated to weigh about 6 pounds by itself. The rest of his 19-pound, 14-ounce limit Saturday was filled out with the chunky 3- and 4-pound bass that make this lake one of the best smallmouth destinations in the world.
“I didn’t think I had that much weight,” Pappas said. “When I put (the 6-pounder) in the livewell, I didn’t think it was that big. But it just kept growing and growing.”
Pappas’ big-fish technique all week involved using a drop-shot in water 35 to 42 feet deep in his flat area. He used two winning baits (the identities of which he guarded until the tournament was over): a 4-inch, melon-gold Zoom worm and an imitation Goby.
Pappas, a 32-year-old project engineer, looks to be an angler on the rise. He started competing in the Northern Division as a co-angler in 2001 and ended up ranked fourth. After switching over the pro side the following year, he won his first FLW Outdoors tournament, a BFL Michigan Division event at the Detroit River, in 2003. With his win this week, he climbed up to 40th in the Northern rankings and doubled his career winnings.
“I was fortunate,” he said. “ Today I just ended up with the big bites again.”
Lavictoire (pronounced “luh-victory”) put together the second-best stringer Saturday but couldn’t compete with Pappas. He caught a limit weighing 16 pounds, 5 ounces and finished in second place with a two-day weight of 33-11. He collected $10,000.
“I made a pretty brutal run every day. It didn’t matter whether there was rain, wind or whatever,” said Lavictoire, who hails from West Rutland, Vt. “I was fishing a tube and a drop-shot, just like everyone else. The main thing was just keeping them pinned. I didn’t catch a fish but once every half-hour or 45 minutes. I just stayed with it.”
Thomas goes shallow for third
Jeffrey Thomas of Broadway, N.C., who is admittedly what you might call a “foreigner” to these waters, brought his Southern ways to Lake Erie this week and worked them to his advantage. While most of the leaders were fishing deep with drop-shots and tubes, Thomas proved with his third-place finish that a good ol’ shallow-running spinnerbait works on these Northern smallies, too.
“Everything I’ve caught the last four days was in 3 feet of water or less,” he said. “I was throwing a ¾-ounce Hawg Caller spinnerbait. It was kind of scary because a couple of times the waves threw my boat up on those rocks.”
His Erie spinnerbait technique caught Thomas 32 pounds, 9 ounces in the finals and he collected $9,000.
Brad Brodnicki, a local favorite from Amherst, N.Y., caught a total of 31 pounds, 14 ounces and finished fourth. He won $8,000.
“I didn’t travel far all week,” said Brodnicki, who used a drop-shot all week. “I just found a little hump close by the ramp.”
Joe Balog, the Harrison Township, Mich., pro who won the 2001 EverStart Series Championship, finished this tournament in fifth place with a final-round total of 31 pounds, 8 ounces. He won $7,500.
The most inspiring story of the week was the tale of Kevin Bartsch, a young pro from Spooner, Wis., who has been fighting cancer since he was an infant. He underwent his fourth surgery and treatment for the illness prior to this event, and word is that he hasn’t eaten much since the tournament started just so he could feel well enough to fish.
“I didn’t even think I would be able to fish on the second day,” he said. “I thought I was going to have to go to the hospital.”
Not only did he not go to the hospital, he caught almost 35 pounds of bass in the opening round and made the cut. His two limits weighing a total of 29-15 in the finals earned him a career-best seventh-place finish and $5,500. At the last Northern event, the Detroit River, Bartsch finished 22nd.
“I’m just glad I’m here. I’ve been sick all week battling my cancer,” he said. “But fishing has always been part of my therapy. When I’m healing from surgery, I just go fishing. It’s a good way to keep your mind strong, and that’s the strongest muscle in your body.”
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 Pro Division finishers in EverStart Northern competition at Lake Erie are day-one leader Mike Desforges of Burlington, Ontario, with a final-round weight of 30 pounds, 14 ounces (6th place, $6,500); Bartsch (7th); David Trautman of Kent, Ohio, with 22-0 (8th, $5,000); Ron Fabiszak of South Bend, Ind., with 20-14 (9th, $4,500); and Kevin Bishop of Hilton, N.Y., with 16-12 (10th, $4,000).
With one tournament left to fish, Bob Izumi of Milton, Ontario, took a narrow lead in the Northern Division pro standings with 535 points. Charlie Hartley of Grove City, Ohio, is close behind with 532 points.
The next EverStart Series event is a Northern Division contest at Lake Champlain near Plattsburgh, N.Y., Sept. 22-25. It is the fourth and final Northern tournament of the season, and is the final EverStart regular-season event of the year.