Updated: Nov 30, 2020
This trip was a long time coming, and was the brainchild of good friend and fellow kayak angler Elliot Thomas. The original date for this trip was for a few weeks earlier, but thanks to the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the northeast, we postponed until last week. The six of us who went on this trip have been doing our best to social distance and and remain healthy leading up to the new date we had set. I, for one, was a little reluctant about staying in an Air B&B with 5 other guys for obvious reasons, but at some time, I feel we must return to (semi) normal life while being responsible about it. The numbers of new cases in Connecticut are way down, and the area we were traveling to in Vermont is rather isolated and sparsely populated.
Lake Champlain is known for it's 90 something species of fish, diverse fish habitat, excellent fishing, and wind. It seems like there are fish just about everywhere in the lake, but it is a true test of an angler's versatility to be able to effectively fish all these varying habitats. Our main target species on this trip were largemouth and smallmouth bass, pike, and bowfin. Champlain is famous for putting surprises at the end of your line. There are some oddball species such as longnose gar and drum, and catching a large channel catfish on a lure is not unheard of. The bass fishing is phenomenal, but the possibility of a strange bycatch makes it that much more interesting. With six guys who all have their own approach, we felt good about breaking down water and figuring out patterns from kayaks on this giant lake.
Day 1 6/24
The car was packed the night before, aside from the cooler. With a couple cups of coffee and unrelenting excitement fueling my morning, it was time to hit the road. I had been checking weather, studying Google Earth and Navionics charts for days leading up to my departure, to try and come up with a game plan for the first day of the trip. I wanted to pick a spot relatively close to the house we were staying in, but other than studying satellite images and charts, this section of Champlain was sight unseen for me. Knowing how windy this vast body of water can be at times, I had my sights set on a few sheltered bays and small tributaries that fed into the main lake. Wednesday was calling for SW winds of 8-15 mph.
Most of the guys had planned on arriving later in the afternoon or the next day, but I wanted to get a solid day of fishing in. Originally, Addison Carter was going to make the morning trip with me, but ran into a few things he needed to take care of before leaving for 5 days. So, with the decision on where to go being 100% up to me, I chose to check out the Lamoille River. I wasn't sure if this river held bass or any other species I would be interested in catching, but I've always been drawn to small rivers such as this one. From my experiences fishing other areas of Champlain in June, alewife seem to run these rivers and/or get pushed into rivers by schooling bass.
As I pulled into the parking area of the launch site, I was pleased to see rocky banks on either side of the river and a slow current. I got out of the car, stretched a bit, and walked down to the ramp to check water clarity. It wasn't clear, but it wasn't muddy either. The wind was almost non existent and the sky was overcast. I pulled the kayak off the roof rack and geared up. I tied on a typical mix of what I would fish for local river smallies: Whopper Plopper, Ned Rig, Spinnerbait, Zoom Fluke, and Finesse Jig.
As I launched I immediately noticed that the channel in this small river was on the opposite side, so I zoomed straight across to a rocky shoreline. My second cast with the Whopper Plopper 90 was met by a feisty 13" smallmouth bass. Nothing to get too excited about, but I was on the board quickly and it gave me confidence in the spot. I worked my way down river, drifting with the slow current. I threw the entirety of baits I had tied on with not much else to show for my efforts except a few bumps.
As I continued to scour this unfamiliar water, I started to notice baitfish being pushed to the surface here and there, but no visible predations. I figured this was the unweighted Zoom Fluke and spinnerbait's time to shine, but I couldn't get touched on either presentation. As I kept casting around the schools of bait, I started to see smallmouth hitting these baitfish on the surface sporadically. I quickly went into my topwater box and found a white Yo-Zuri walk-the-dog style bait. My first cast was popped by a smallie several times but I didn't get a hook in it. The next few casts were either hit or at least investigated (much like a striped bass would), but no hookups. I was starting to get frustrated, but kept throwing the spook bait whether I was seeing surface action or not, but was having trouble getting a reaction.
I had drifted down river quite a ways and decided to poke out into the main lake to check how windy it was. Too windy, so I went back up the river as the sun started to poke in and out from the clouds. As I headed back up, I continued throwing the Yo-Zuri spook bait. I finally got another take, but lost the fish on a jump. A good fish, but not one I was going to lose sleep over. The next cast was a different story. This smallie absolutely exploded on my bait, jumping 3 or 4 times almost 5 feet in the air, and as I got it close to the kayak, it felt like this fish was digging for China. I got out of my seat and kneeled on the deck of my kayak to get into position to land this fish. I knew lipping the fish would be problematic with those trebles, so the plan was to "scoop" this bass by the belly. As this beautiful bass came up yakside, it regurgitated it's breakfast, a few alewife in the 6-7" range. I made a grab at the fish and it was in the kayak. 3 lbs. 8oz. of pure bronze muscle. I was very pleased with this fish, and hoped to see more in that size range, but this would be my best fish of the day.
I worked my way back up the river, beyond where I had launched, hoping to find more action and explore this beautiful river. I picked away at the smallies, catching one here one there, most around 2 lbs. or just under. The pike were interested in the topwater presentation as well. Directly in front of the launch, I had one explode on the bait, and as I got this pike close to the kayak, I noticed something strange on it's back. It had a very obvious injury, and it looked fresh. As the fish was fighting, I happened to notice something odd hanging off of the back of this pike near the injury. It was a lamprey, which Lake Champlain is riddled with. I was determined to land this pike, not only to get some photos of my first pike of the trip, but to help it live a better life without a parasitic fish basically eating it alive. I got the pike close and gave it the old squeeze behind the gill plate and slid my hand into it's gill to secure the fish. As I took it out of the water, I noticed yet another lamprey secured to it's side, right behind the pectoral fin! I quickly removed both lamprey from this poor fish, took a few photos, and sent it on it's way. Aside from the scarring on it's back, a beautiful fish with great markings.
Knowing my time was short, I didn't go up the river as far as I wanted to. The scenery on the Lamoille is beautiful from what I got to see, with big rock bluffs and overhanging trees. I was determined to go up as far as time would allow. The water temps started to drop the further I went up, which I thought to be good, considering the lower stretch was around 78°F, but as the afternoon sun started to burn off the cloud cover and the lack of obvious bait in the area, the fishing started to slow down. I got off the water around 4pm with around 20 smallmouth and 3 pike to show for my efforts. It seemed the alewife schools running the river were paramount to catching the smallies. Addison, Elliot, and Tom Mee had just arrived at the house we were renting, and I decided to go meet up with them, get settled, and get ready for the next spot.
By the time we got to the next spot, it was already getting a little late. The guys decided to hit an area close to our Air B&B, a small bay that was wind protected by a point of land. Tom was having trouble with his Garmin electronics, but we got on the water and started to try and break this area down. I decided to try outside the weedlines where there was a drop-off from 12-20'. There seemed to be a lot of bait around the drop-off, but I did not find action out there. Tom scoured the 6-10' range and was getting bit on a mix of Senko and underspin. Addison and Elliot had their own plan to try and sight cast flies to bowfin up shallow, and they ended up getting a couple largemouth instead. It seemed like Tom had this area figured out quickly, and he was rewarded with a beautiful smallmouth that was a touch over 4 lbs and his new personal best!
I tried to mimic what Tom was doing, but I had trouble getting action in this area. I ended up with 3 tiny smallmouth and had a solid one spit a buzzbait on a very acrobatic jump. I was happy to see everyone getting action and very happy to see yet another new spot on this lake that held predatory fish and alewife. We were off the water around 9:30pm and went back to the house to grill a few burgers and regroup for the next day.
Day 2 6/25
We did a bit of brainstorming as we ate dinner the night before, and Malletts Bay seemed like a promising area to check out for the start of Day 2. From looking at the chart, I knew this was a big bay, but it was even bigger than I had expected once we arrived. We launched around 7am, and I got things started with an okay bass on a spinnerbait on the first patch of grass as we left the launch area. The water in this bay was ultra clear and deep, and I knew a spinnerbait bite wasn't something to try to settle in on.
I quickly changed to a finesse approach, using a mix of Ned Rig, Wacky Rig, and underspin. Things definitely didn't start out hot and heavy. We had a bluebird sky, and we were scouring the rock face banks with some shade still left on them, but the only thing we could find were rock bass and a few ratty pike. As we worked our way around the corner, there were more rock faces that dropped down into 30' or so, which looked very promising. Elliot and Addison b-lined for the closest backwater slough in hopes of a bowfin, while Tom and I hung back and picked away at the rock structure with small baits. Some of these structures were the type that you look at and say to yourself, "how can there NOT be a fish here?" Tom and I were proven wrong cast after cast, but it seemed like the closer we got to windblown water, there was an uptick in action. I finally hooked into a bass holding on structure, it was a solid 2 lb. smallie that hit a Ned Rig. My next cast was quickly gobbled up on the same piece of structure, but this fish was more than double the weight of the first one. Knowing this fish could be my new personal best smallmouth, I tried to play it slow. I finally get the fish next to the kayak, and it jumped, breaking my 8 lb. test fluorocarbon leader. I was devastated, but that is part of fishing. You win some, you lose some. I tied on another Ned Rig, identical to the one I had just lost. I took a few more casts at that spot, but it was over.
Tom and I worked our way around the point of land that was blocking the wind with not much else to show for our efforts. At one point, Tom had a massive smallmouth chase his Ned Rig to the surface, but never got to see it again. We kept working for a bite, but it didn't seem there was much happening. I threw a spinnerbait in the areas being pelted by wind, hoping for a reaction strike, but was only "rewarded" with one very small pike. We came around the corner to find the other guys still looking for bowfin, which they did find, but could not get one in the kayak. I lost interest fairly quickly in the bowfin endeavor and started to work the rocky drop-offs again. Around the same area Tom saw the big smallie, I started banging fish. I got three smallies on three casts using a small Yamamoto Senko on a Wacky Rig, and one of them was right around 3 lbs.
I didn't weigh it because I wanted to keep casting, knowing there was a school of fish there. I got blown off the spot and it seemed the fish had scattered after catching a few. I kept casting in the surrounding areas and only got a few rock bass.
As we made our way back to the launch, we stopped at a few of the key spots we noted on the trip out. I was rewarded with a few more fish, one smallie and two largemouth. One of the largemouth was where I had lost the big smallmouth earlier in the morning, and as I was fighting this bass, I noticed at least 3 smallies underneath it. I quickly landed and released the largemouth, hoping to pick off a few of it's cousins, but I couldn't get bit again. Tom and I had a discussion about why that happens and how frustrating it is, knowing there are more fish in an area, but by releasing a caught fish that returns to the school, it notifies the other bass that something is wrong through stress pheromones. I know a few boat anglers that will livewell their fish, even when fishing for fun, so that doesn't happen and they can continue to catch fish out of that particular school. Obviously, a kayak angler doesn't have that same option.
The other largemouth I caught while on the way back in was satisfying. It wasn't the size of the fish (right around 2.5 lbs.), but I called my shot. We pulled up to an area with some massive boulders that extended out off a small point. I was shocked when nobody caught a fish off of this spot when we hit it earlier in the day. I made one cast to the last visible boulder with the Ned Rig, and it never hit the bottom. My hi-vis line went slack and I set the hook on a solid fish that would be my last bite that mattered of the morning trip.
Tom also had a decent morning, picking off both largemouth and smallmouth on the rocky structure. Malletts Bay is very different than a lot of the areas I've seen or fished on Champlain. The habitat is so diverse in that lake, which is part of what makes it such an interesting place to fish. We packed it in around 2pm to go meet Dan and Eddy Bryk, who were at the house and ready to fish. We made our way back to the house to grab a snack and come up with the game plan for the evening.
We decided to hit the spot I started my trip on, the Lamoille River. It was only 20 minutes from the house, and I felt confident that everyone would get on fish there with all I saw happening there the first day. I'm not sure if it was because we had a bluebird sky all day or if it was just the time of day we launched, or a mix of the two, but the trip started off painfully slow. I felt responsible because I had recommended this spot based on how I did the previous day. We didn't see any bait being pushed around, and the water temps were pushing 80°F. I took a run down river to see if anything was happening, and quickly came back up to the other guys with nothing good to report. Eddy had a quick run-in with a bowfin that broke off his jig. Okay, that's something. A little while later, Tom caught a nice 2.5 lb. smallmouth on a Fat Ika, and Elliot got a small pike. Action is action, especially on new water and in tough conditions. I wanted to run up river a little further than yesterday, if for nothing else, just to check it out. I was hoping to see more rock and deeper, swifter water, but it was more of a slough than anything else. We saw a few bowfin cruising and gulping air, and I had one short strike a jig with a spinner blade. A few minutes after that, I hooked up on the spinjig (not sure what to call it), thinking it was a bowfin, but it turned out to be a mid 20" pike.
Fun fight, but we were already sick of seeing pike this size as they are just about everywhere in Champlain. We didn't go up much further, despite my wanderlust. We headed back down river, and as the sun started to get lower, just south of the Rte. 2 bridge we started seeing baitfish being pushed by bass. This was our chance to get everyone a few smallies, because further down river, there were two knuckleheads on jet skis making a terrible commotion. I ended up getting a quick 3 smallies (nothing big) out of the school on a Z-Man SwimmerZ, but it was short lived. We watched the sunset and we were quickly off the water to go make dinner and get some much needed rest.