It was quite the week for Brandon Lester. August 23-26 saw the Tennessee angler put on a smallmouth clinic during the final regular-season event of the Bassmaster Elite Series on the St. Lawrence River; and, while he came up a pound and 2 ounces short of the win, Lester's third-place performance — 94 pounds, 1 ounce over four days — demonstrated the impact of Raymarine's reliable and ultra-clear imaging.
Running twin Axiom Pro units at his console and one on his bow, Lester caught most of his fish over shoals — high spots or rock outcroppings in the river — that were anywhere from 25 to 40 feet. Such spots were many, so Lester had to spend significant time examining the selection. He dialed in on the most promising areas.
"Raymarine electronics were an important part of this," Lester says. "I had my SideVision set 120 feet on either side, so I could see those isolated boulders and rock veins. These irregularities are where smallmouth key on. These spots create current breaks and with my DownVision, I could see the fish sitting behind the rocks when I was idling."
Noting the critical advantage of Raymarine's sharp returns, Lester said his ability to leverage this target separation played a key role in his success. The St. Lawrence sees massive water volume flowing between its banks and, while this certainly stimulates feeding, it can also create challenging dynamics for those trying to eyeball their quarry.
"A lot of those fish can be hard to mark and it can be misleading because the current is so strong those fish sit so close to the bottom where they can be hard to mark. If you can see two or three fish on the spot, that means there's probably more there.
"I had my trolling motor transducer set on Raymarine CHIRP sonar, so I could see the rocks on the bottom and I could see the fish behind the rocks. Knowing what was going on at all times on the bottom was a big help, for sure."
As crafty and aggressive as a smallmouth can be, they're all too happy to gobble the easy meals. On the St. Lawrence, that means leveraging the current-born buffet of baitfish that flow across the structures they inhabit.
"The Raymarine Axiom's CHIRP sonar is everything when you're fishing for those smallmouth," Lester said. "You have to know that, as you come up on that shoal, a lot of times, those fish will be sitting right on the face where the current meets the shoal.
"You can see when you get over top of that rock, you want to drop your bait straight down on that rock and let it fall off the back side. Normally, that's where that fish will be sitting and if a goby or a little minnow washes by, he can just slide out in the current and eat it really quickly and then slide back behind that rock. They don't want to be constantly fighting that current all the time."
Within this game plan, Lester had to vary his depths throughout the week. The first two days, he caught most of his fish in 25-28 feet, while the third day saw the bite moving into 35-40 feet. During the final day's cloudy, rainy conditions, Lester caught some of his fish in 18-20 feet.
"You had to play around with the depths, but smallmouth are known for that," he said. "They're known for moving around a good bit. Typically, it's not a drastic change; they're still there somewhere. You just have to play around with those depth changes and figure out where they are. Typically, it's the same shoal, it might just be a different drift."
Lester recalls a particular bar extending off the end of an island where he had been catching fish off the tip in 25-33 feet. When the next day found that area barren, he made a drift closer to the island in 20 feet and found the fish that had moved up shallow.
THE RIGHT PRESENTATION
Lester caught all of his fish on dropshot rigs with baits designed to mimic the invasive gobies, which have become a foundational element of the smallmouth diet. Bulbous heads and tapering bodies define these bottom-huggers and Lester rigged his impostors on No. 4 Mustad Titan-X Wacky/Neko hooks and kept them close to that zone with 3/8- and 1/2-ounce weights, depending on depth.
"I alternated between green pumpkin/purple flake and a green pumpkin/purple/copper with an iridescent bottom," he said. "I would use that second one more when the sun was out because I feel that iridescent body shines and gives it a little shimmy in the clear water.
"When the conditions were darker, I'd go with the straight green pumpkin/purple flake because it's a darker color and I feel like the fish can see it better."
BRIDGING THE GAP
Complementing his main river work, Lester also fished a bridge near Ogdensburg and caught some of his day-three fish — including his largest, a 4 1/2-pound brownie. As he explained, the bridge deal did not require much in the way of sonar, because this was more of a visual scenario.
Comparing bridge pilings to current-breaking boulders, Lester says he fished every one, but ended up catching fish on only four. Having done well in practice, Lester thought he had the potential for 20-plus pounds on this structure, so he saved it until day three when he thought he might need some diversity. The bridge proved less generous during the tournament than it was during practice, but the visit definitely boosted Lester's overall performance.
"A lot of guys pass it by; it's an obvious spot, but it's so obvious that nobody pays attention to it," he said. "Typically, I like to let the sun get up before I fish a bridge. You get shade to position the fish. I feel like if you have shade working for you and the current, that just makes it all the better."
ALMOST, THOUGHTS FOR NEXT TIME
Despite missing the win, Lester said he's encouraged by his best finish on the St. Lawrence — an accomplishment to which his Raymarine mapping made a major contribution. This year, he said, was all about branching out and finding more fish.
"Typically, when I fish the St. Lawrence, I fish close by, right there in Waddington (the tournament's host city). This time I ventured a significant way toward Lake Ontario," Lester said of his third St. Lawrence River tournament. "I was running 30-35 miles from the takeoff. I think that's important; if you get complacent when you go back to a place year after year and you try to fish the same stuff year after year, it typically doesn't go well.
"I think it's important to try to find new stuff and to try to open new doors. It's always a good idea to fish new areas and I think that was a big key for me."