Eugene Gutsalo and his brother Sergey have been fishing Lake Washington for many years. It is no secret that the brothers have a tremendous amount of experience on the lake, having won numerous events, including the last Northwest Bass event to venture across the mountains. Yet on March 23rd, all of the countless days fishing, scanning, and learning about Lake Washington culminated in one of the biggest bags of smallmouth ever coming across the scales on Lake Washington. Boasting a 6.01 pound kicker smallmouth, the Gutsalo brothers weighed in a massive 22.92 pounds of big mean smallmouth! I sat down with Eugene this week to talk about the event and he laid out a lot of great insights about early spring fishing on Lake Washington.
How did your large amount of experience on the lake clue you in to what the lake was doing?
“Sergey and I typically start going to Lake Washington every weekend starting in late February and this year was no different. We noticed pretty quickly that this spring was a tougher than normal to catch decent numbers of smallmouth and the big ones were very hard to come by. Despite the weather holding the bite back, we knew that the fish would still be moving back to spawning bays, and so we focused on trying to intercept them along their way back into the spawning pockets. We were just mentally prepared to have to grind out a limit because practice had been so tough.”
Lake Washington is a bit of a unique lake, what’s your process for practicing for an event on it?
“When we practice for an early spring event on Lake Washington, we do a lot of graphing and try to mark fish on the sonar. Typically the fish are either glued to the bottom or are a few feet above it this time of year, so they are easy to identify on the graph. If we think there are fish in an area then we fish that spot and try to catch a single fish to check the size of the population. This time of year, the smallmouth seem to school by size and often can be patterned to other similar locations. I used to drop a camera for practice but now I prefer to catch a fish because I have been burned a few too many times by seeing a strong population of fish but not being able to catch them. I think that just because you can see the fish on the bottom doesn’t mean that that is where they feed. Some fish can move considerable distances to get to certain areas to feed.
Once they feel like they have a decent pattern figured out for the smallmouth, they will go and either chase a completely different smallmouth pattern or go and look for largemouth. “When looking for largemouth, we try to cover a lot of water in the bays until we run into a group of them. We try to not set the hook on them, but we will pull into them to try to gauge the size of the fish.”
How did you target and catch your fish?
The week leading up to the ABA tournament on Lake Washington was unusually warm and consistent weather for Western Washington. This was set up perfectly for Eugene and Sergey’s plan to target smallmouth moving up main lake points. The plan was for them to target rocky points that were outside of large spawning flats. On tournament day, the team relied heavily on their electronics to help them target specific rocky sections that they had marked in the years prior. The graphs also played an integral role in their choice of presentation. If they would see the fish on the bottom or not see anything at all, they would throw a football head because the fish were glued to the bottom. However, if they started seeing arches 1-3ft off of the bottom, they would switch to the swimbait and slow roll it just off of the bottom. For the first half of the day, the brothers worked their best few points pretty hard, but after they had a 20+ pound bag they started to cover water a lot faster, targeting the bigger, more aggressive fish.
“With the warm weather during the week, we thought that the fish would move up and so the plan was to target fish in the 20-30 foot range almost all day. In the tournament we actually caught 10-15 fish on or around main lake and secondary points near spawning flats in 20-25 feet (except the first fish came in 17ft of water). We targeted the fish exclusively with a football head and a paddle-tail swimbait. When we pulled up on a point we would start with the football head paired with a Reaction Innovations Smallie Beaver. If we caught fish on it, we would stick with it, and if not, one of us would switch to the swimbait if we could see fish suspending just off of the bottom. We alternated between two different swimbaits based on the depth, a 3.8” Keitech Swing Impact Fat on a 3/8oz head and a 4.8” Keitech on a 1/2oz head. The key was to let the swimbait fall all the way to the bottom and slow roll it just off of the bottom.”
What is it like fishing your tournaments with your borther?
“Sergey and I have fished together for so long that we process every situation on the water as a team. We are always chasing similar patterns, but targeting different fish to maximize our chances. If we are out deep and one of us starts throwing a swimbait, the other picks up a football head. Same situation if we are shallow, if one of us is skipping a senko at docks, then the other will crank the ends of docks or throw a spinnerbait. We always want to always work together by doing different things.
What would you recommend to a person who either struggles in the early season or is new to fishing Lake Washington?
“On a typical spring day, I would recommend that they rotate between a football head with a hula grub or a beaver trailer and a swimbait. For the swimbait, a lot of brands work well, but the most consistent swimbait on Lake Washington early seems to be the Keitech Swing Impact Fat. The soft body of the bait allows it to kick even if it is reeled extremely slowly. If the fish are not cooperating on the moving baits, slow down to a more finesse presentation, but in the same areas, especially if there are still fish on the graph. Techniques like a neko rig and dropshot can be deadly when the bite gets tough.” One of Eugene’s favorite techniques in tough conditions is “dropshotting a roboworm… wacky-style because it allows it to fall slower and the action on the bait is different, which can be key when the bite is tough.” A ned rig is a good final option if none of the above are working. Fishing it like a football head, casting out and slowly dragging it back is a great way to pick up the smallmouth that in a negative feeding mood but are still locked on the bottom.
Eugene and Sergey had an amazing day out on Lake Washington. But this event was not any matter of luck, but rather a culmination of countless days on the water that came together perfectly. Their hard work yielded one of, if not the largest bag of all smallmouth ever weighed on Lake Washington.