Chris O’Brien is an angler who I love to follow his success and the techniques he uses to catch a ton of bass. Chris took a top 20 at the FLW Costa event on Lake Champlain. So of course, I wanted to find out all the details. And Chris graciously was willing to share his keys to success with Keitech baits for Lake Champlain spawn and post-spawn smallmouth bass.
You just finished a Lake Champlain tournament. Overall, how do you feel about your performance in the tournament?
You can’t really complain when you get a top 20 in a field of 200+ big sticks. Overall I felt it was a good event. I made some mistakes but I’ll learn from them. I’m extremely happy with decisions I made throughout practice and the event. I kept a good flow and it allowed me to get into a good rhythm and fish confidently
What section of Champlain did you focus on?
Lake Champlain is a monster body of water and can be very overwhelming. Each section of the lake is its own entity and can take days to break down. I focused on north of Plattsburgh, in Vermont and New York. I have fished this section before and thought it would be most efficient to fish familiar water instead of learning a new section of the lake. The cover in this section of the lake is very “smallmouthish”. The rock, sand, reefs and pockets all point to a thriving population of smallmouth.
Were you only targeting smallmouth or largemouth as well?
I focused strictly on smallmouth. I have a better understanding of the smallmouth on Champlain versus the
largemouth. With relatively limited practice I wanted to focus my practice on my strengths. Based on the seasonal pattern, I felt smallmouth could contend for the win. I caught a few random largemouth in practice but my bags were all smallmouth.
You were fishing both spawning and post-spawn fish. What were the keys to finding and locating spawning fish?
Although you could sight fish for spawners just about everywhere in the section of lake I fished, there were a few keys to my pattern of finding the bigger than average fish. I found the larger fish were spawning on bottom transitions where rock met sand or boulders met gravel. Each transition, the beds would mostly be along the “softer” side of the transition. I continually took note of the bank
to help narrow down the transitions.
They were spawning on these transitions from inches of water out to about 8 feet. When I could locate these transitions in 6 to 8 feet, the fish would typically be better than average.
I saw you were using a flogger. For those who don’t know what that is, explain it and how it helped you find spawning fish on Champlain.
Ahh, the ever controversial flogger. A flogger is a simple tool that can be purchased from most any scuba diving retailer and some tackle retailers. I’m not sure if there are different brands but the actual technical name is a bathyscope. Essentially it’s a road cone with a Plexiglas bottom used for underwater viewing. The Plexiglas bottom allows you to stick the cone under the water for clear viewing. It takes the waves/ripples and glare off the water.
This device was essential in locating the fish on the bed. A lot of times the bed or bed area could be seen above water but the fish would camouflage to the bed making it tough to see them. Once you looked through the flogger you could see if the fish was there or not and generally the size.
Once you found bass on the bed, you threw the Keitech Shad Impact. How did you present the bait to these spawning fish to get them to eat it?
I actually had a 2 prong approach to beds I marked in practice. I would fish my way toward them throwing a Keitech 3.8 Swing Impact fat on a Ledgehead jig head. Often times they were aggressive enough to move off the bed some and eat.
If I didn’t catch the fish leading to it, once I was on top of it, I looked through the flogger to make sure it was still there. If the fish was still locked to the bed, I would drop shot the shad impact in goby color. Smallmouth get very predatory around anything mimicking a goby. I was using a 5/8oz drop shot weight so it would sink quickly and lock to the bottom allowing me to give the shad impact a very erratic action without moving the location of the bait.
What Douglas rod did you use with this bait?
Chris, I can’t say enough good things about these rods. The strength to weight ratio is incredible and Fuji guides with 3 points of contact, make them incredibly sensitive.
I chose the 6103XF for a drop shot. The slightly shorter length really helped with accurate pitches at the beds. It’s the perfect action for crazy smallmouth, stout enough for a hookset with plenty rod left to play them out.
For a swimbait I was using the 764F. This is the perfect swimbait rod, the right amount of tip to load up the bait and bomb it out there and enough backbone and length to drive home the hook on a super long cast.
You also found post-spawn fish on the Keitech 3.8. What were the keys to finding these fish with this bait?
I found success locating post spawn fish outside of early major spawning pockets. Every pocket was different, shallow humps, deeper humps and a variety of points. With the vastly different cover in the areas, the 3.8 was crucial. It’s a bait that matches the hatch of post spawn fish feeding back up perfectly. With this bait I can adjust to all types of cover and depths without changing baits. I was able to let it sink with a slower retrieve in deep cover and a faster retrieve with less countdown in shallower water without sacrificing action in any situation.
You have started using Ledgehead jig heads. Why do these heads make a difference?
These heads are a game changer. The head itself has a wobble to it, giving the swimbait added action. With a boot tail swimbait the tail kicks, paired with a Ledgehead wobble the bait has a good realistic flow.
Another big key is the screw lock keeper. You can catch several fish on the same swimbait without it tearing. You never have to worry about your bait sliding down on a short strike and no more messy superglue all over.
For anglers going to Champlain during the period where fish are on beds and also post-spawn, what are the overall keys to using Keitech baits to put fish in the boat?
During the spawn you’ll want to choose a bait that is imitating a predator of fry or eggs. Smallmouth are very territorial to their nests. Whether it be a goby, perch or crawfish, Keitech makes a perfect color to imitate them.
Depending on the size or depth of the bed, you’ll want to choose if a bottom bait is best or if something higher in the water column will do the trick. Typically for me, if it’s a shallow bed I’ll throw a bottom bait, a Model 2 Football Jig or drop shot with a short lead, like 4 inches.
If it’s a deeper bed I prefer to swim something through it, a swimbait or drop shot with a longer lead, like 18 inches.
Post spawn is all about matching the hatch. Whatever they are feeding up on is what you want to imitate. Color and profile are huge for this. All schools of baitfish, alewives, perch, shiners, gobies etc., are never consistent in size throughout the lake. Keitech makes a variety of sizes in swimbaits for just that reason. Regardless of the size of baitfish, when the school slows down, I’ll always make a few cast with a bigger bait. A lot of times it will fire them back up.
I usually let the weather decide how I’m going to approach post spawn fish. Blue bird and light wind, smallmouth have a larger strike zone. I’ll fish a swimbait higher in the water column, like the top third. On cloudy wind days I’ll fish closer to the bottom with a swimbait, like bottom third, or drop shot a shad impact.
If the fish are in that finicky post spawn stage, down size and finesse is a great technique. The Spider and Live Impact are great baits for this application. They both have a slow rate of fall with very subtle action.
Who are your current sponsors?
I am currently partnered with some great companies, Ledgehead Lures, 3S Business Corporation, Keitech USA, Douglas Outdoors and Bryce Marine/Nitro Boats. All these companies offer superior products I can depend on.
Ledgehead Lures is a new partnership for this season. I was fortunate enough to draw the owner, Tim Saylor, in a Costa event last season. Tim tossed me a couple of heads to try after he started to out fish me 2:1 with his heads versus my homemade heads. Needless to say I was very impressed, action, quality and concept are all top notch.
After the event Tim and I stayed in touch and felt we both had things that would be beneficial to one another. Tim is a long time tournament angler that understands what tournament anglers want/need.
3S Business Corporation is a software consulting company. We have been partners for awhile now and have both been able to help each other grow. They specialize is software development, system solutions and IT training. This company is on the leading edge of technology and is continually perfecting major corporation’s systems.
I have had a long time partnership with Keitech USA. Their baits flat out catch them. I have been using Keitech products before our partnership. It’s a product I believe in and have confidence in. Their colors and sizes are realistic and the attention to detail is the best in the industry.
Douglas Outdoors has been industry leading in Fly Rods for many years. Recently they added conventional lines of rods. These guys get it! They’ve design the lightest most sensitive rod I have used while maintaining strength and backbone. They use all high end Fuji components and make a rod for every application. It’s great never having to settle for a rod that’s not quite perfect for a technique.
I’ve been running a Nitro Z21 from Bryce Marine. I love the layout and fishability of the boat. Living around the Great Lakes I’ve put it through the paces and cannot say enough good things about it. Bryce is one of those dealers that gets it. They understand a tournament anglers demands, the shorten seasons up north and are a wealth of knowledge when it comes to boats and all accessories.
I am very grateful for these companies and our partnerships. Without them I wouldn’t be able to fish at this level, I am very thankful.
Thank you Chris for sharing the keys to your success with us. I will be following to watch all of your future success on Instagram @cobrien1908.