Posted by Z3 MEDIA STAFF on 07/01/2012

Story by Matt Pangrac - Lead photo courtesy of B.A.S.S. Communications - angler photos by Dave Rush

Green Bay, WI – Heading into the seventh Elite Series tournament of the 2012 season on Lake Michigan out of Green Bay, Wisconsin, the focus was on boundaries.  With the highly productive smallmouth waters of Sturgeon Bay off limits, many anglers hypothesized that bringing in a giant limit of smallmouth well surpassing the 20 pound mark was a pipe dream. 

Over the first two days of competition, those concerns proved to be warranted, as Aaron Martens was the only angler to weigh a 20 pound limit fishing in crowded conditions.  

On Saturday, the young guns made their moves. Second year pro, Brandon Palaniuk, less than three months removed from his first Elite Series title on Bull Shoals Lake, took the lead on Saturday with a limit of Lake Michigan Smallmouth weighing 21-2.  Jonathon VanDam, also competing in his sophomore season on the Elite Series, figured out the code as well and brought in a 20-12 limit of smallmouth to settle in 2nd place, just four ounces behind Palaniuk. 

On Sunday, Palaniuk did his all that he could do to hold off the hard charging VanDam.  He boxed a smallmouth over four pounds early in the morning, and culled up to bring in his second limit of the week over 20 pounds.  With 20-10 on the final day, Palaniuk finished with a total weight of 76-12 – but it wasn’t enough. 

After a slow start to the morning, VanDam went on a tear.  When it was all said and done, he claimed the first Elite Series tournament of his career after weighing 23-4 on Sunday - the heaviest limit of the tournament.  JVD’s four day total weight of 79-2 bested 2nd finisher, Brandon Palaniuk, by over two pounds.   

3rd place finisher, Aaron Martens, also reached the 20 pound mark on Sunday for the second time in Green Bay.  Martens’ 20-3 limit boosted his total weight to 73-3 and gave him his second top five finish in the last three Elite Series tournaments. 

Dean Rojas, who led after Friday but slipped to 4th on Saturday, maintained his position on the leaderboard by bringing in a 15-10 limit of smallmouth to finish the tournament in 4th place with 66-14. 

With a 5th place finish this week on Lake Michigan, Ott DeFoe firmly entrenched himself in the Angler Of the Year race with just one tournament remaining.  Defoe moved into 2nd place in the TTAOY standings, only 14 points behind current TTAOY leader Brent Chapman. 

Jonathon VanDamAfter struggling through the majority of the 2012 season where he has made only two top 50 cuts at Bull Shoals and Douglas Lake, Jonathon VanDam knew that the only way to earn a berth in the 2013 Bassmaster Classic through the Elite Series was to post a victory in one of the final two tournaments of the regular season. 

He said that he knew he had an opportunity to excel this week immediately after the location of the “mystery lake” was announced as being Lake Michigan out of Green Bay. “I knew that the mystery lake would be somewhere up north, so I was really hopeful that it would be in this area,” he explained.  “Once I found out that it was on Lake Michigan, I was pretty excited.”

VanDam’s excitement stemmed from the fact that just weeks before B.A.S.S. announced the location of the mystery lake, he had competed in the Sturgeon Bay Open and placed 36th with a 12 fish limit of smallmouth weighing 53.38 pounds. 

“Having confidence here was one of the biggest things,” he stated.  “With all the experience that I have fishing for smallmouth in the Great Lakes, I think that I kind of have an understanding about how they behave.”

Entering Sunday four ounces out of the lead, VanDam admitted that things started to unravel for him during the first half of the day.  He lost two kicker smallmouth in the morning, and had an empty livewell at 11:00.  

“I could see big ones swimming around, so I knew that I’d be alright if I could just land five of them,” he stated.  “But after I lost those two, I was about to have a breakdown.” 

VanDam employed several different patterns throughout the week on Lake Michigan.  On Thursday, he took advantage of the unusually calm conditions to amass the majority of his weight targeting spawning smallmouth in shallow water. 

When the sight bite dried up, he shared a shallow water area with his uncle, Kevin VanDam, on Friday and part of Saturday where wolf packs of smallmouth would pull up an feed throughout the day.  “I was basically sight fishing for fish that were cruising.  I could see the big smallmouth swimming around and I tried to lead them a little bit with my bait.”

He relied on two primary lures.  In the mornings, he’d throw a ½ ounce Strike King spinnerbait with painted blades to generate a reaction bite.  When the sun got up, he switched to a to a drop shot that featured a prototype Strike King plastic called a Dream Shot in KVD Magic color. He paired the offering with a 6’10” Loomis NRX spinning rod and a Shimano Sustain spinning reel.  

2nd Place: Brandon Palaniuk (76-12)
Idaho’s Brandon Palaniuk entered the final day on Lake Michigan in prime position to post two Elite Series victories in a single season – a feat last accomplished by Skeet Reese during his magical run in 2010. 

With a four ounce lead over a confident Jonathon VanDam, Palaniuk set a goal of 20 pounds for championship Sunday.  He actually surpassed that, bringing in a limit of smallmouth weighing 20-10 to boost his four day total weight to 76-12, but he fell less than three pounds short of JVD’s total and finished the tournament in 2nd place. 

Brandon PalaniukEven after bringing in limits weighing 18 pounds and 17 pounds in the opening two rounds, it wasn’t until Saturday’s 21-2 effort that he thought he might have a shot at hoisting the trophy.  “After Saturday, I got the chills thinking about it because I thought that I could honestly pull it off,” he stated. 

On Sunday morning, Palaniuk ran to his primary area that he had fished by himself for the majority of the first three days of competition.  “The area was surrounded by sand flats,” he explained.  “There was a rock pile about 500 yards off the bank that came up to about two feet.  On one side, there was a horseshoe bend with a depression that dropped down to about seven feet with grass, shell, gravel, and rock mixed together.  The current would push over it and the smallmouth would be sitting on the edge.”

While he was able to coax one four pound smallmouth on a drop shot, his morning was frustrating.  “I started getting bit on a topwater, but for some reason every five pounder decided that they just wanted to jump over the bait instead of eat it.  Before I knew it, it was 11:00 and I only had one fish." 

Palaniuk made a move and ran north to his secondary area, putting over 20 pounds of smallmouth in the boat between 11:00 and 12:30.  “At the time, I thought that I was going to win,” he admitted.  

Throughout the tournament, he relied on three primary baits – a topwater walking bait, suspending jerkbait, and a drop shot which he rigged with either a 4” Berkley Heavyweight Sink Worm or a Berkley Gulp crawler in smelt or green pumpkin.  He threw the offerings on Abu Garcia Veritas rods and Abu Garcia Revo Premier reels.   

“With Jonathon catching over 23 pounds, that’s really impressive for this week,” stated Palaniuk. “I’ve been friends with him since we started fishing the Elite Series, and I was glad that if someone was going to beat me it was him.  He earned it - it’s not like I just handed it over to him.” 

3rd Place: Aaron Martens (73-3)
After an uncharacteristically poor start to the 2012 season, Alabama’s Aaron Martens put together a string of impressive finishes to enter the Lake Michigan squarely inside the Classic cut.  On Thursday, he demonstrated his prowess for dissecting unfamiliar waters by bringing in the only 20 pound limit of the day to take the lead with 20 pounds.

Aaron MartensOn Friday and Saturday, Martens remained consistent, bringing in limits of 16-15 and 16-1 to enter championship Sunday just over three pounds out of the lead. 

With only 11 fellow anglers competing on Lake Michigan on Sunday, Martens took advantage of the wide open conditions and brought in his second limit of at least 20 pounds.  With 20-3, he finished the tournament with a total weight of 73-3.  While he briefly held the Skeeter hot seat, he eventually finished in 4th place.  

Martens relied on a combination of sight fish and off shore schools of smallmouth that he located during long practice hours in the days leading up to the first day.  On Thursday, he boated over 18 pounds of spawning smallmouth within the first half hour of competition.

His weight dipped on day two and day three, mainly because of the intense fishing pressure in several key areas.  “It was hard to go anywhere and fish the way that you wanted to,” he explained.  I let it get in my head a little bit, and I stayed on some areas way too long.

“You could just move around today,” he continued.  “If I caught one, I had the chance to cull and then go back and catch two or three more off of the same spot.” 

Martens relied primarily on a drop shot which he fished on a Megabass Hedge Hog 6’10” spinning rod.  “I had a great tournament,” he concluded.  “It was just too much of a deficit for me to overcome today.” 

4th Place: Dean Rojas (66-14)
It was “mission accomplished” this week on Lake Michigan for Arizona’s Dean Rojas, who entered the tournament fresh off an 8th place finish last week on the Mississippi River in La Crosse, Wisconsin.  Like VanDam and Martens, Rojas got out of the gates quickly on Thursday by keying on spawning smallmouth to the tune of 19-14. 

Dean RojasHe went offshore on Friday to take the lead, but fell to 4th on Saturday and eventually finished in that same position with a total weight of 66-14. 

“I started on the same spot where I caught them on the second day, but it was getting flat out there.  I knew that it was dying because there was no wind or current,” explained Rojas.  After a fruitless endeavor to the shallows in search of bedding bass, Rojas made a move and promptly caught a quality smallmouth that he saw cruising.  “After that, I knew what to do so I just went down the bank and caught them.” 

Throughout the week, Rojas used a drop shot with a Big Bite Baits Kriet Finesse worm which he cut in half.  He also mixed in several different custom hand poured finesse worms. 

“I’ve had two top 10s in a row, so you can’t beat that.  I’ve got a shot at the All-Star event with a good finish at Oneida, so it’s all good right now,” he concluded.  

5th Place: Ott DeFoe (61-5)
With a 5th place finish this week on Lake Michigan, 2011 Rookie Of the Year, Ott Defoe, put himself in prime position to make a run at the Toyota Tundra Angler Of the Year title next month on Oneida Lake in New York. 

Unable to crack the 17 pound mark any of the four competition days, the Tennessee pro relied on consistency to climb the leaderboard.  DeFoe said that he was shocked at how well he performed this week in Green Bay. 

Ott DeFoe“This tournament was a big surprise to me,” he admitted. “When this tournament was announced, I really didn’t expect to do well. I would have never imaged that I would finish in 5th.” 

On the first two days, DeFoe targeted spawning bass.  “Those bigger smallmouth got caught out of my main areas on Thursday and Friday,” he said.  “Dean Rojas, Aaron Martens, Steve Kennedy, VanDam, and several others were all in there and we cleaned it out pretty quickly.”

On Saturday and Sunday, DeFoe said that he moved outside and targeted on post spawn smallmouth.  When sight fishing, DeFoe used a 5” Berkley Gulp Jerkshad in pearl white color.  He also mixed in a 1/16 ounce VMC marabou hair jig that he threw on 10 pound test braid with a six pound test fluorocarbon leader. 

“It’s a little bitty crappie fly,” he said with a chuckle.  “Basically, I was just swimming it.  I’d let it get about halfway to the bottom and then swim it back.  If you swam that thing by a fish, they would follow it just like they follow a swimbait.  A lot of the times, they’d eat it.” 

Sitting in 2nd place in the TTAOY standings, DeFoe said that he is expecting a lot of sleepless nights in the month ahead.  “It’d be nice to be leading it, but all I can ask for is to be within striking distance.  I’m in the position to where I can make it happen, so I couldn’t be happier.  I’m absolutely thinking about it.  I know that I’ll go to sleep thinking about it and wake up thinking about it.” 

8th Place: Tommy Biffle (58-15)
Final Day Thoughts: “I caught quite a few fish today, but I just couldn’t catch any good ones.  There had been three or four other anglers in the same area for the first few days, so I couldn’t lay off of my fish and let them rest.”

Primary Pattern:  “I practiced out on the main lake for a couple days, but I ended up spending my tournament fishing up in the river by the dam.  I was throwing my Bug up there in the current and generating a reaction strike.”

Primary Baits: Gene Larew Biffle Hardhead with Biffle Bug. 

Key to the Week: “I didn’t think that we could have four days without the wind blowing on the Great Lakes." 

Week in Review: “I caught a lot of fish, but there just weren’t enough big fish up there.  If the wind had really blown for a day or two, things might have been different.  I’m looking forward to getting to Lake Oneida.  Hopefully I’ll be able to win and get back in the Classic.” 

10th Place: Ish Monroe (57-1)
Final Day Thoughts: “It was fun out there.  I’d fire the worm over there and the fish would just swim over and pick it up.” 

Primary Pattern: “Almost all of my fish were caught sight fishing, but hardly any of them were actually spawning.  I really targeted cruisers in shallow water.” 

Primary Baits: Prototype Missile Baits worm, Missile Baits Drop Craw fished on a drop shot. 

Key to the Week: “My Cocoons Eyewear really allowed me to see the fish cruising in the water and that was really important to know where to pitch my bait.” 

Week in Review: “The cruising fish didn’t really want to eat, so you had to really throw something that was finesse. 

11th Place: Stephen Browning (44-8)
Final Day Thoughts:  “I knew that my deal was going to play out sooner or later, and it ended for me today.  The water dropped and it never came back up in the area where I was fishing.” 

Primary Pattern: “I spent the week fishing up at the Depere Dam.”

Primary Baits: Live Target crankbait that ran 18” deep.  

Key to the Week: “When I’m around smallmouth, there’s something about that Live Target bait that they love.  The water was almost like tidal water and it would come up and down each day. I found one little area where the fish would pull up and feed."

Note: 12th place finisher, Russ Lane, was unable to make it to the weigh-in after experiencing mechanical trouble on the water.  At the time, he had two nice largemouth in the livewell but was forced to throw them back and did not record any weight on Sunday.    


Place PRO ANGLER Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4 Total Fish Total Weight
1 Jonathon VanDam 5 17-11 5 17- 7 5 20-12 5 23- 4 20 79- 2
2 Brandon Palaniuk 5 18- 0 5 17- 0 5 21- 2 5 20-10 20 76-12
3 Aaron Martens 5 20- 0 5 16-15 5 16- 1 5 20- 3 20 73- 3
4 Dean Rojas 5 19-14 5 17-14 5 13- 8 5 15-10 20 66-14
5 Ott DeFoe 5 16-11 5 14-11 5 15- 0 5 14-15 20 61- 5
6 James Niggemeyer 5 16- 9 5 12-13 5 13-15 5 17- 3 20 60- 8
7 Skeet Reese 5 16- 0 5 12- 6 5 16- 1 5 14-14 20 59- 5
8 Tommy Biffle 5 17- 1 5 13-12 5 16-10 5 11- 8 20 58-15
9 Bernie Schultz 5 14-14 5 14-12 5 12-13 5 14-13 20 57- 4
10 Ishama Monroe 5 16-13 5 15- 5 5 12-15 5 12- 0 20 57- 1
11 Stephen Browning 5 14-10 5 14-15 5 13- 6 1 1- 9 16 44- 8
12 Russell Lane 5 12-12 5 17- 4 5 12- 9     15 42- 9