Once again the final major bass tournament of the year, the Bass Pro Shop Lake Simcoe Open hosted by the Aurora Bassmaster, launched out of the Port of Orillia on October 20th. Every year the best of the best show up for the most unpredictable event of the year and capture one of the most prestigious titles in fishing. Every team wants to have their name carved on the trophy that has become the symbol of the most prolific smallmouth trophy lake in the country, Lake Simcoe. This is not a tournament for the weak hearted as the unpredictable nature of Simcoe at this time of year requires every skill as a boater and an angler to find, catch, and return safely with Simcoe’s legendary giants.
The week leading up to the event was marred with high winds changing direction daily, sporadic rain, and lake turnover. Lake turnover is the process of temperature stratification where the water temperatures become uniform from top to bottom. The process isn’t complete until the water reaches the low 50f degree range (8c). The compilation of conditions for the week make it the most difficult time of the year to find big bass as they begin to school up and migrate to their traditional wintering holes. It also marks the beginning of a feeding frenzy where fish will add up to 20% to their weight in a matter of weeks coming into ice over. Before this process begins fish can be anywhere from shallow to as deep as 60 feet down and often in schools in the middle of the lake chasing baitfish. Finding and catching 5 big fish requires a lot of knowledge and skill or a lot of luck. The winner will have both.
There’s an elephant walk on the reach this morning.
At 8:00 am the boats began to trickle through the Atherly narrows onto the big lake. A taste of what was to come was waiting a few hundred yards after the narrows in an area known as the gap. As the boats pass under the bridge that separates Lakes Simcoe and Couchiching you can stare at the reach. The reach is a term used by maritime fisherman. It is where the sky meets the sea and if the line on the horizon looks like a herd of elephants there are rough seas ahead. By the time you are out of the gap you have hit a wall of 4 to 6 ft. waves. If your heart isn’t already pumping with the anticipation of catching monster bass it will start now and this is the time to decide if you will execute the plan or turn around and fish more tranquil waters of Lake Couchiching. For most the plan was never in question and for a mile out you can see the white spray from boats busting waves and heading to points south or west.
The winds howled all day and made it impossible to fish small spots on the open lake effectively. For most recreational anglers rough conditions can make for a long day on the water. For tournament anglers it just makes the day shorter. The Simcoe Open is already the shortest tournament of the year and travel time in these conditions as you go from one planned area to the next can become a major issue. Hitting your best spot first and catching fish early was the key as most were experiencing a good early bite before it died and anglers got a taste of smallmouth lockjaw.
The walk of shame
As mentioned, the Simcoe Open offers only a few precious hours that are available to anglers … as less daylight exists in late October and conditions warrant that extra buffer at the start and end of the day. Anglers therefore need to plan and monitor their travel times very carefully. By 3:00 pm the first 25 boats began to return to port. Those who have 20 pounds or better load their boat onto their trailer and drive to the stage. Those who didn’t fare well, head to the long dock near the stage known as the walk of shame. On this day there was a long line of boats and some of the best angers in the country collecting at the walk of shame. In fact Simcoe can arguably be more humbling during this tournament for more anglers than at any other event. They all know their peers and the spectators alike are expecting to see huge smallmouth bass weighed in … and each team that doesn’t oblige feels some sense of shame – regardless of whether it’s warranted or not. “The event has proven time and again however –that even past winners can zero as well as National Angling heroes. Conversely relative new comers can figure things out and put an amazing sack together … so you really never know what’s going to transpire”, said Wil Wegman conservation and media director of the Aurora Bassmasters who has been on the organizing committee of this event since day one. Most of the boats being loaded onto trailers were not so lucky and in the end over 60 boats came up empty in 2012. Often tournament anglers dump their fish early before weigh-in if they are not in contention. But in the Simcoe Open if you had any fish you would not dump them because there is a prize of $2000.00 for 36th place sponsored by Rapala. Wayne Izumi won the prize with a single fish weighing 4.65 pounds.
For those who fish the event or attend the weigh-in, it is common to hear the emcee yelling out “29 pounds” as boats drive up to the stage and put their fish on the scales. Normally the first to take the hot seat, the place where the leader sits until someone weighs in something more is about 27 pounds. On this day teams from the walk of shame were the ones that were waiting. After a few small weights under 20 pounds the serious contenders began to drive to the stage. Two very good anglers and members of the Barrie Bassmasters Bill Walker and Kal Vaisanen were the first to post a weight over 24 pounds. In some years this would get you a hand shake and well out of the money but there was only six teams left to oust them. Two of the best anglers in the country Mike Desforges and Derek Strub pulled up to the stage and began to pull fish out of the livewell. As they lifted a monster 7.75 pound smallmouth it looked as though they were the team to beat. But as the remainder of the fish hit the scale their total was just a little over 20 pounds.
Practice builds confidence
Most tournament angler are not about to give a lot of good information about pre-fishing but the tone of the week leading up to the event was pretty dismal. The conditions made it difficult to cover water or stay on areas that might hold fish.
After the tournament however, most anglers are more forthcoming – and willing to openly discuss their trials and tribulations during pre fish. Almost everyone seem to agree that the week leading into the event was extremely tough and that fish were scattered. In contrast Matt Belzil and Jay Clay were one team that had a good practice and it showed as they began to empty their livewell.
“Pre-fishing this year was surprisingly very good” said Clay “We set aside 4 days ahead of the tournament and we brought up two boats and fished individually so that we could cover more water. We had a set plan on areas of the lake we wanted to check out, we would work together to side image potential spots then fish them trying to locate the exact areas that fish were holding on. We were able to pinpoint what the bass were holding on and duplicate it in multiple spots in the lake. While we spent more time searching then actually fishing in the hours that we spent fishing we were able to hook up with decent numbers of fish and good sizes. On Wednesday I landed a 7lbs 2oz toad that boosted our confidence on finding big fish areas.
The experience gained in prefish provided the confidence Clay and Belzil needed and this translated into a weight of 25.60 pounds of Simcoe’s finest and they replaced Walker and Vaisanen on the hot seat. Jason Clay said “When we came into the check in boat I we knew we would be in the top ten … we were thinking 5th was probably where we would end up. After we pulled the boat and made our way up to the staging area … we were told we would be near the top as the weights were low this year.”
A very familiar team was lurking at the back of the line. If you are sitting on the hot seat there are a few teams you don’t want to see at the back of the lineup. The last boat in the line was three time champions Bob Formosa and Jay Saliba. When they finally reached the stage and started unloading there fish it became apparent they had done it again. When the fish hit the scale Matt Belzil and Jayson Clay knew they were about to become second. “When Jay and Bob started unloading their fish, the first three out weren’t any giants and I thought we may have had it … then when they pulled out the last two pigs I think we both knew that was going to be the difference … when the scale settled it was disappointing but we were both still ecstatic to finish second in a field of great anglers. Finishing second to four time champions seems to ease the pain just a little” commented Clay. The scale read 27.05 and that was good enough to take top spot.
The weights for 2012 were the lowest since 2002 when Bob and Jay won with 27.01 but it was good enough to take first prize of $20,000.00 plus Shimano Pay to Play win for an additional $2,760. Although the winning weight was lower this year it would have won any bass tournament in Ontario in 2012 with the exception of the Casey Cup won by Huw Spicer & Liam Spicer 27.55 lbs. also on Lake Simcoe.
2012 Bob Formosa and Jayson Saliba 27.05
2011 Wayne and Gail Misslebrook 28.50
2010 Mark Moran and Joe Muszynski 31.50 Record
2009 Barry Graves and Jason Gough 29.00
2008 Howard Gifford and Mike Gifford …..28.36
2007 Bob Formosa and Jayson Saliba 29.65
2006 John McDonald and Steve Hawkins ….29.90
2005 Jim McDonald and Mike Deveaux .. 28.38
2004 Dave Johnson and Barry Graves 27.38
2003 Bob Formosa and Jayson Saliba 29.59
2002 Bob Formosa and Jayson Saliba 27.01
Time on the Water Canada interviewed Bob and Jay shortly after their win.
TOTW – This is your forth title in an extremely difficult tournament with a very tough field. In fact you guys have been in the top 5 every year except one. How does it feel and how does it stack up against other years?
Formosa – Any win feels great but this one is incredible. Every year the competition is tougher. Tournament anglers are so much better today than they were years ago. Add to that the information that is available and the electronics and it becomes more difficult to separate your selves from the rest of the field.
Saliba – I still can’t believe we won. We were so sure we needed one more good fish to have a chance. In most years 27 pounds might make the top 10 but this was an extremely difficult year.
TOTW – How did practice go and when did it start to gel?
Formosa – The conditions for practice were less than great with high winds and rain almost every day. We spent five long days practicing and until Friday it didn’t look very good. We also had to learn new electronics with side imaging which take a while to get use to. It took several days to get use to the new equipment and use it to our advantage. It wasn’t until Friday that it all started to come together. We found some fish and Jason caught one over 7 pounds so we knew they were big fish.
Saliba – We found fish in three locations but they were a long way apart. We knew the first spot would have to pay off. They were such small areas so choosing the one that was fishable factored into the plan.
TOTW – Did the fish come fast once you were on them?
Formosa – Yes, we caught a lot of fish early and pretty well had our weight by 10:00 am. After that the bite died and it was a struggle to catch anything.
Saliba – When the bite shut down we had to gamble that our second spot which was a long run in those conditions would produce. We only got one bite after 11:00 and that was a one pound cull.
TOTW – Was there any particular technique or bait that worked for you?
Formosa – Jay and I were just dragging heavy tubes. We fished a very small area which we went over time after time. It was too rough to use much else.
TOTW – When did you think you had a shot at winning?
Formosa – We thought we would need one more large fish over 6 pounds to have a shot. It wasn’t until we saw Jay Clay and Matt Belzil lift a smaller fish from the livewell that we knew we had won. In this tournament you need 5 big fish to win. Most years it takes one fish close to or over 7 pounds to be in contention so to win you need to get lucky.
Saliba – Even though the conditions were tough we thought someone would be on them. We were encouraged when we saw the weights ahead but I still can’t believe we won with 27 pounds.
TOTW – Can you win this tournament again?
Formosa – Anyone who is constantly close to the top can win. We know what has to be done and we could get lucky again. There are so many great anglers and fall specialists in this tournament. The team that works the hardest, understands fall patterns, and gets a little lucky will win eventually.
Saliba – We know the competition is getting tougher. Until a few years ago you were really only competing against a handful of teams that really understood what is going on at that time of year. Now there are a lot of guys figuring it out. We have had a lot of success so it makes putting a plan together a little easier. I hope we can do it again. We are certainly going to try.
TOTW – You guys have won a lot of tournaments throughout the years but you really excel in the fall. With 4 Simcoe Open wins and 3 Fall Classic wins as well as numerous others and top 5 finishes there’s definitely a pattern here. What is about the fall that really gets you in gear?
Formosa – For several years I didn’t fish any tournaments until the fall. We felt compelled to come back to this tournament and win again. There is no place better to be in the fall where you have a chance to set records.
Saliba – Work and other commitments keep me busy through the summer so I haven’t fished as much. When I fish in the fall I want to catch big fish and have a chance to break records again.
TOTW -Is there anyone you would like to thank?
Bob Formosa – I would to thank the Aurora Bassmasters for their hard work and dedication to our fishery. Thanks to Bass Pro Shops for their sponsorship and support and of course the CSFL and their crew who do such a great job. We would like to thank Extreme Marine for their great emergency service on Friday night. Thanks to Natural Sports for the new electronics and installation, and of course my friend Jay who has been my partner in this tournament for over 10 years.
A special thanks to my wife Julia who always supports and encourages me.