Bass Fishing Report
2016 Bassmaster Elite Series
Upper Mississippi River
La Crosse, Wisconsin
15 fish, 38-00
I hadn’t fished the Upper Mississippi out of La Crosse, Wisconsin, since 2006, so while I vowed to check out some areas where I’d caught fish then, I went into practice for the final regular season Elite Series tournament of the year with an open mind. I spent the first day of practice in Pool 9, where I’d caught my fish a decade ago, but when that turned out to be just ok, I decided to focus elsewhere, and that proved to be a good decision.
On the second day I remained in Pool 8, where we’d be launching during the tournament, and practice went pretty well. In fact, it was good enough that I made the decision not to lock down to Pool 7 at all. The locks are an uncontrollable factor, and they worried me. The lock masters wouldn’t give us a set schedule, so while I was willing to take a gamble if necessary, I wasn’t going to do it otherwise. With that in mind, I spent the last day of practice in Pool 8 again, and while it wasn’t an exceptional day, I caught some of my biggest fish and also spent extra time trying to find areas that wouldn’t get harmed by rising water. We were due to get some heavy rain, and I knew that would mess up a lot of sections of the river.
On the first day of competition, I ran down to the lower end of Pool 8 to fish some ditches that had current and grass. Even though I knew there were quality fish there, as I’d feared, it was getting blown out by the additional water coming downstream. It was turning to mud, and the floating eelgrass further contributed to trashing the place.
After three or four hours of trying to make it work, I abandoned my first area and ran to what I’d been saving as a backup. It was a protected area with little current and some big mats, and I expected that it would remain clear. There was lots of pressure around it, but most people were throwing frogs. I picked up my favorite rod – my Lew’s flipping stick – and went to work. They immediately started biting and I culled through 30 or 40 fish to get to my eventual weight of 13-05, which put me in 30th place at the end of the day.
It was a no-brainer where I should go on Day Two – right back to where I’d caught them the previous afternoon. I knew there was more rain coming, but I never expected the kind of storms that we got. It was the type of weather that put Gilligan and the Skipper on their island. We had hail, ungodly winds, lighting, and a ton of rain. Those conditions really cause the grass fish to not want to bite, so I struggled in the morning. In the afternoon, I switched to a Chatterbait, moved out a little, and managed to sack a decent limit. Twenty minutes before we had to go in the sun came out, and I picked up the flipping stick again. That was fortuitous, because I caught my biggest fish of the day with just five minutes left to fish.
The lack of sun hurt me, and with 11 pounds 15 ounces I fell to 41st. Still, I was in the 50 cut to Saturday, with a chance to make up some ground. Once again, the day started off cloudy, and while I caught a few, I didn’t have what I needed to move on. Fortunately the sun came out again in the afternoon, and I moved to the mats. The water was coming up, which caused them to dissipate a little bit, but I was still able to cull three or four times. I weighed in 12-12, which wasn’t bad considering that I had to scramble, and I ended up in 33rd for the second straight event.
I was pleased with the way I fished in this tournament. I pulled the trigger, when I needed to, and I fished clean throughout the week. Ultimately, it left me just a few points short of the top 50 in the AOY race to move on to Mille Lacs. Seth Feider jumped me in the standings, but I had to stay around on Sunday, because if he fell to 5th or lower, I would’ve reclaimed the spot. He ended up the runner-up to Ott DeFoe, and I went home. While I would’ve liked the chance to fish more, I wasn’t really frustrated – I made good moves in an unfamiliar system and never had the bites to finish better. I ended the year on a good note.
I hope to carry that momentum into 2017. We have an incredible schedule and I’m already planning to go for the gusto. I feel really good about how this year ended up considering where I was in the standings just three months ago.
My key tool in this event, as in so many others, was a 7’11” extra-heavy Lew’s Custom Lite flipping stick, paired with a Lew’s Super Duty reel (8:1 gear ratio) spooled with 50 lb. Gamma Torque braid. My key bait was a Missile Baits Baby D-Bomb in Bruiser Flash, rigged on a 3/0 Gamakatsu Super Heavy Cover hook and a 1 ounce Reins Tungsten weight.
My secondary pattern was a vibrating jig, specifically a Z-Man Pro Series Chatterbait in bluegill with a matching Swim Senko on the back. I’d fish it in the drains and it produced 50 or 60 fish a day in practice.
I feel very honored and privileged to work with the sponsors that make this career possible. Companies like Jasper Engines and Transmissions, Phoenix Boats, Mercury, Minn Kota, Lew’s, Humminbird, Missile Baits, Reins Tungsten and Lunker Lure make my job very easy. I get to go out and fish and don’t ever have to worry about equipment failures. That’s one less concern in my daily life, and as tough as the competition is on the Elite Series these days, I need every ounce of concentration and energy to do well.
2016 Bassmaster Elite Series
Charles County, MD
12 fish, 34-09
I’d been to the Potomac River several times before with the FLW Tour, and I’d experienced mixed success on the big tidal waterway – there was a top ten finish, but I’d also had my share of struggles. After a few years away I was looking forward to going there and chasing the bass in the grass.
When I arrived, I realized that while the grass had improved in the past couple of years, it still wasn’t what it had once been. I spent my practice trying a number of different things, not just flipping grass, and while I got some decent bites, they were just one here, one there. It was hard to lock down on a particular technique or to identify one area that was holding more fish than the others.
On the first day of competition, I started off throwing various frogs, including buzz toads like a Ribbit and hollow-bodies like the SPRO. I also flipped a one ounce Lunker Lure Grass Monster jig, but it quickly became obvious that the Missile Baits Baby D Bomb was what they wanted. I just moved through the grass and fished everything that looked good and hoped that one would bite it.
I was disappointed that I only had four bites on the day and could only put two of them in the boat. Fortunately, they were both quality fish, and my 7 pound 12 ounce bag had me down in 78th place, but with an opportunity to make a comeback on Day Two. More importantly, both fish came from a single area and that pointed me back in that direction.
On Day Two, I stayed in my primary area, but I expanded it a bit and got dialed in on the right sections. There were two or three places that had the right combination of grass, and I made sure to be on those sections at the right tides. I was gaining confidence as the event progressed and my 15-01 limit put me into the 50 cut easily, landing in 39th.
That meant that I got to fish on Saturday, and with everything to gain and very little to lose, I put my faith in the areas that had produced the day before and committed to live or die doing what I do best – flipping grass with that Baby D Bomb. It was tougher than the day before, and I didn’t get many bites. Fortunately I fished clean, and except for one three pound plus fish that came off near the end of the day, I put them all in the boat and totaled 11-12. That moved me up to 33rd place and I gained some critical points. It brought me up to 59th place in the AOY standings heading into the last full-field tournament of the year in
La Crosse, Wisconsin. If I can do well there and rise into the top 50, I’ll get to fish the 50-man AOY Championship on Mille Lacs. The points are so tight right now that with two good tournaments I have a legitimate shot at the Classic.
Most of my fish in this tournament came on the Baby D Bomb fished with a Reins one ounce weight, although I fished a 1 ½ ounce in the thickest cover and a ½ ounce Reins Punch Shot on occasion. I pitched them on a Lew’s Custom Lite extra-extra-heavy rod paired with a Lew’s Super Duty Reel spooled with 50 lb. Gamma Torque braid. When I have that combination in my hands, that’s when I feel most dangerous.
The other part of my equipment that made a huge difference this week was my Power Poles. I might’ve used them more in this event than I did rest of the year. Every two or three minutes they were going up and down. The bite was so difficult and it was very slow going. It reminded me of how I often fish in Florida.
I’m looking forward to La Crosse, another grass-filled river. If I can keep my head down, keep an open mind and fish clean, my goals are well within reach.
2016 Bassmaster Elite Series
Union Springs, NY
10 fish, 31-11
We’d visited Cayuga a couple of years ago slightly later in the season and it was a grass flipping paradise, so I was excited to come back and build on what I’d learned. Unfortunately, after a couple of days of practice I was a little less excited because the grass was substantially behind and the fish were doing a variety of things. There were a lot on beds, some still coming, and some that were done with the spawn.
Because the grass wasn’t fully up yet, you couldn’t just drive down the lake and get a good, predictable sense of where the bass would be. It took a lot more work, and with the super-long days this time of year, that meant I put in two 16 hour practice days and a third day that was also unusually long.
Throughout the course of my practice I kept revisiting certain areas hoping that they’d get right. I didn’t want to play the smallmouth game because I didn’t think you could win with them and they’ve burned me in the past. On the third practice day I found the mother lode, one of those pristine, untouched areas just loaded with fish. I caught several and saw hundreds more.
I rushed to that area on the first day of competition and Seth Feider was the only other Elite Series angler there. By 9 o’clock we both had nearly 20 pounds. It was easy fishing that didn’t require much work but once it became obvious that we were unlikely to upgrade much if at all, Seth and I agreed not to beat the area up. That rested the fish and gave me time to expand a couple of miles in either direction. I found plenty more fish but nothing that would help me out.
With massive numbers of bedding fish being caught, the weights were very strong that first day. My 19-11 had me in 15th place. I felt good because it wasn’t far out of first, but at the same time it wasn’t far out of 50th, either.
On Day Two, I was in an early flight, and I was the first angler to arrive to my good area. Immediately it was obvious that something had changed. I don’t know if the fish had left or just got extremely finicky, but the ones that I did manage to get to bite were smaller than those I landed the day before. I caught a few right off the bat, but it was much tougher, and I could see that Seth was struggling, too.
I knew that I had to expand, but most of the fish were getting smaller. I fished clean and culled quite a few times in the remaining hours, but I just couldn’t upgrade past 12 pounds. With the weights so tightly packed, that caused me to freefall down to 61st place. Obviously, I was disappointed, especially because I had such a good day and didn’t lose any fish either day, but sometimes that’s how it goes.
My pattern involved casting to isolated grass clumps with a weightless green pumpkin Gary Yamamoto Senko on 12 lb. test Gamma Edge fluorocarbon. I fished in on a 7’ medium-heavy Lew’s Custom Lite rod paired with a Lew’s BB1 Pro. The key was to make long casts, dead stick the bait, and eventually one would swim off with it. I tried a number of other techniques in the hope that they’d produce bigger fish, but nothing else helped me upgrade substantially.
The key to this tournament was capitalizing on a short (2 to 2 ½ hour) window of opportunity every morning when the fish bit well. That didn’t provide much opportunity to look around or to stumble out of the gate. I know that my area and my technique were solid, that’s why it makes the second day result so frustrating.
I couldn’t have caught the fish that I did without my Power Poles. Any tournament angler, at any level, who doesn’t have a set on his boat is making a mistake. They’re absolutely critical when fishing grass as I was – you can put them down and fan cast without making any noise and that means extra bites over the course of an event.
I don’t normally look at the AOY points race mid-season, but I looked at it this week and was pleased to see that I still have a fighting chance for a Classic spot in 2017. Next up is the Potomac, which is loaded with grass and I’ve done well there in the past. I hear that it’s back to producing big weights, and that has me excited. After that, we go to the LaCrosse, Wisconsin, another exceptional fishery, where I’ve done well previously. If I make a couple of the right moves and continue to fish clean, I can finish out this year in strong style.
2016 Bassmaster Elite Series
19 fish, 57-09
Heading into the week of the BASSfest event, Lake Texoma was 8 feet high and rising. Flooded cover and dirty water means one thing to me – FLIPPING – and that’s my favorite way to fish. I’d never seen the lake before, and given the atypical conditions, I was glad that I hadn’t gone to pre-practice as that scouting would have been wasted.
When the water is super-high and getting higher, the best places to look for bass are the banks where the fish can’t get too far behind the cover. It was textbook situation and by following it I got a lot of bites during practice. It was sunny and calm every day, which made it a no-brainer that the fish would be in that thick cover. The only questions were whether you’d get a bite and whether you’d be able to extract him from the mess of limbs.
Most of the fish that I found were in creeks and I resolved to spend the tournament in those tributaries where I’d gotten the most bites. I had no idea what the quality would be because I generally didn’t set the hook during practice. Nevertheless, I was confident, because as other anglers sang the blues about the tough bite, I didn’t think that catching fish would be a problem. As a result of the falling water and the off day on Saturday, I felt like things were just going to get better as the week progressed.
On the first day of competition I had a limit in the boat in 30 minutes on a Hawg Caller spinnerbait. Then, when the sun got up, I started targeting the cover more directly. That meant flooded willow trees and buck brush with a ¾ ounce black and blue Lunker Lure jig and a Missile Baits D Bomb in California Love. With a limit in the boat, I was able to slow down and pick the trees apart and culled out those spinnerbait fish. At the end of the day, I had 19-06, which put me in 2nd place behind Casey Ashley. I’d lost a couple of big ones that would’ve put me well over 20 pounds, but that’s the price you pay in that tangled web of cover.
I’m still not sure what happened to my fish on the second day. I know that the lake had crested on Day One and then started to fall, and there was certainly a lot of fishing pressure in my best areas, and the result was that the fish were in a funk. They just didn’t bite as well. In particular, my main lake fish didn’t bite at all. I missed some opportunities and only weighed in four fish. Fortunately one was 5 ½ pounds, which pushed me over 11 pounds for the day and I only fell three places to 5th. Still, I was a little concerned.
My adjustment for Day Three was to lay off my main lake fish a bit. They hadn’t produced on Day Two and I didn’t feel that I needed them. I caught one keeper on a buzzbait and one on a spinnerbait early, then I slowed down to flip. That enabled me to fill out my limit quickly, but I never had a big bite. With 13 pounds I knew that I was going to be in the Top Twelve cut for Championship Sunday. The only question was where I’d be in the standings. As it turned out, I held steady in 5th. Normally, that’s a good place to be, but I was 7 ½ pounds out of the lead. I never dreamed that the leader, in this case Casey, would struggle so much.
On Sunday, there were only 12 of us on the lake, and the water had rested for a day, so I knew that I could run my previous water and possibly branch out a little, too. The lake level had dropped 2 ½ feet, which pulled the fish out of places we couldn’t get to previously. It was cloudy and rainy in the morning which produced textbook conditions for topwater. I pulled out a 3/8 ounce Lunker Lure buzzbait, black with a silver blade, and immediately started getting bites. I was able to cover water and kept getting bites, which allowed me to expand my range into a new area after noon. It was a fun way to spend a final day. I also caught one of my weigh fish on a D Bomb, but never got the big bite that I needed to make a move up the leaderboard.
Looking back on it, I wish I had adjusted a little differently on Day Two, but even then it would’ve been difficult to surpass Hackney’s weight. With a decent fifth fish I would’ve moved up one spot.
My key baits for the first three days were the D Bomb and the jig. I fished both on extra-heavy Lew’s Custom Lite 7’11” flipping sticks paired with Lew’s Super Duty reels. I used 50 pound Gamma Torque braid with the jig and 20 pound Gamma fluorocarbon with the D Bomb. On Day Four, the Lunker Lure buzzbait was my meal ticket. I fished that one on a 7’ medium-heavy Custom Lite with a Lew’s BB1 Pro and 16 pound Gamma fluorocarbon.
That 7’11” Custom Lite flipping stick has been the key to my success over the past two events. At Texoma I had it in my hand from daylight to dusk for six straight days and the light weight and comfortable grip allowed me to fish clean the entire time. Considering the thick cover that the fish lived in, that’s no small feat. When your bait is dropping through 7 feet of limbs, it’s like a zipper, and one wrong move, or one weak spot in your equipment, and the fish is gone.
Now I have four days at home before heading up to Lake Cayuga in New York. The last time we were there I just missed the 50 cut and that’s not going to happen again. I know the deal there now and I know the three areas of the lake I need to focus on, so I’m going to spend my time figuring out the subtleties that will enable me to achieve a top finish. After a little bit of a rough start to my season, my finishes have gotten much better over the last two tournaments, and I’m looking forward to Cayuga, La Crosse and the Potomac. All three of those bodies of water fish to my strengths, and I’m planning to make a strong run at winning and at my fourth consecutive Classic appearance.
2016 Bassmaster Elite Series
Toledo Bend Reservoir
15 fish, 45-15
After finishing 2nd at Toledo Bend in 2014, I was excited to go back, especially since I knew that the record high water would have a sizeable number of fish up shallow. Nevertheless, I wasn’t quite prepared for how high the water would be and how much of it would be behind the bushes, which put a bunch of fish even shallower than I was prepared to go.
For the first few days of practice I tried to fish out in the 10 foot range and cover a lot of water with my heavy Lunker Lure jig. I got plenty of bites doing it, but the size wasn’t there. On top of that, it was windy and cloudy, so I didn’t know how the flipping fish would react when the weather changed for the better. With that in mind, I spent some time out deep, and I’m glad that I did because the offshore fish became an integral part of my tournament strategy.
The first day of the tournament was sunny, and I figured that would help me, but it would also require some adjustments. I started on a couple of schools out deep in the 15 to 25 foot range, fishing a Lunker Lure Football Head Jig, a Rapala DT20 and a Strike King 10XD. On my third stop, I caught two 6 pounders in three casts and by 10 o’clock I had a limit that weighed 16 or 17 pounds in the livewell.
I stayed out deep until 11:30, but couldn’t upgrade, so that forced me to go shallow and it was a good thing that I did. I culled with two 4 pounders, and then culled once again with a 2 ½ pounder that brought me up to my first day’s weight of 21-14, which put me in 7th place overall.
The second day proved to be a tremendous challenge. Once again, I started on my deep fish, but the school was gone. Fortunately I found another school about a mile away and it produced four keepers, but no real size. I went shallow once again, and since I was in the last flight I would have more time to figure them out. I caught a 4 pounder once again, but despite the extra time I didn’t get nearly as many bites as I did the day before. My weight dropped to 13-01, and I fell 14 places. I was doing the right thing by bouncing from deep to shallow, but I just didn’t have enough areas with quality fish.
I easily made the cut to Saturday but when you’re fishing the best bass lake in the country on a weekend you know it’s going to be crowded. It seems like half of the population of Texas and Louisiana was out there watching and the other half was on the water fishing. They have every right to be out there, but you have to adjust your game plan accordingly. My failure to do so prevented me from winning the last time around. I was committed to fishing both deep and shallow, but I knew that once I fished a spot I probably wouldn’t be able to get on it again. When my best places didn’t pan out, I spent the rest of the day looking for new schools. I found the fish to do better, but I didn’t execute. One three pounder came off at the boat. Another time I had two fish on a single 10XD, but the larger one – a solid 4 pounder – came unbuttoned. Those fish wouldn’t have put me in the top twelve, but they would have moved me up quite a few places.
Looking back, I truly wish I’d had a few more places to fish. I simply ran out of backup areas. At the same time, Toledo Bend is such a huge impoundment that you have to be careful not to spread yourself out too thin in practice. I would’ve loved to have practiced in more areas, but in two and a half days, it’s simply not possible to cover everything. My hat is off to KVD who found the right schools and managed his fish perfectly in the crowd.
My two key patterns at Toledo Bend were cranking and flipping. When I was offshore, I threw my deep diver on a Lew’s Custom Lite 7’11” medium heavy cranking stick paired with a Lew’s BB1 Pro (5.1:1 gear ratio). With that combo and the wind at my back, it was no problem to almost throw all of the line off my reel. When I went up shallow, I used a Lew’s Custom Lite extra-extra-heavy flipping stick and a Lew’s Super Duty Reel spooled with 50 lb. Gamma Torque braid. My only regret on the tackle front is that I couldn’t make the Whopper Plopper topwater work during practice. I had a feeling it would work, and it’s what Chris Lane used to produce a runner-up finish, but I just couldn’t get it to work for me.
Now we have a little break in the schedule, and I’m participating in a photo shoot for Plano before heading up to Texoma. The season is more than halfway done, and I have some ground to make up, but it’s not yet out of reach and I like the way that the rest of the schedule sets up.
2016 Bassmaster Elite Series
10 fish, 22-01
After a tough tournament in Arkansas I was excited to make my way to Wheeler on the Tennessee River chain of lakes. While I don’t have a tremendous amount of experience on the lake, I’ve spent plenty of time on the other bodies of water on the chain, and I figured the fish would be in the pre-spawn to spawn mode, allowing me to power fish.
I roomed with Britt Myers, who gets up at 4:30 every day, so that enabled me to put in long, long days on the water. Despite my best efforts, I struggled until the last day. I’d found good numbers of fish on the ends of bluffs, and I could catch plenty of them, but, at best, five of them would weigh 8 to 10 pounds. I didn’t think that kind of weight would do me any good during the event, so I kept searching.
I knew that there had to be a concentration of pre-spawn bass somewhere at the mouth of a major creek and eventually I found them at the mouth of Fox Creek, the same tributary that produced a 2nd place finish for Dave Lefebre. The fish were funneling in and there was a shad spawn going on, and in just a few hours I had probably 30 bites, and all of them looked to be at least in the 2 ½ to 3 pound class. It was a 500 yard stretch and I ran back as far as I thought I needed to go, but it wasn’t far enough, because Dave caught his fish in the far back of the creek.
My plan was to start the first day on the bluffs, catch a limit, and then go try to cull them all. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get anything going. My fish were gone, and I couldn’t get anything going in my first three stops. With a short day, I had to turn to my backup pattern, and I was stretched out 20 miles up and down the lake. When you’re struggling like that, it’s easy to spin out and fish too fast, which is completely counterproductive. Eventually I caught a limit and even culled a few times, but with 7 pounds 7 ounces I was mired in 99th place.
On Day Two I vowed to go fishing with an open mind, so I ran up past my “best” area and tried to figure something else out. Eventually, it made sense to “just go fishing” on the lower end of the lake, where I targeted bluff ends and little points at the ends of pockets. I managed a couple of good smallmouths and one good largemouth and with 14-10 I thought I had an outside chance to move up into the cut. It wasn’t enough, though. It moved me up 32 places to 67th overall, salvaging some valuable Angler of the Year points. If you want to know how tough it was, just look at Kevin VanDam – he had over 19 pounds the first day of the tournament and ended up finishing below me after the second day.
My main technique at Wheeler was to fish a ½ ounce Lunker Lure football jig on the bluff ends very slowly in 12 to 15 feet of water. There were other competitors fishing the same areas, but they were staying shallower, so I could go behind them and mop up. I fished the jig on a Lew’s 7’ medium-heavy Custom Lite rod paired with a Lew’s BB1 Pro reel loaded with 14 pound test Gamma fluorocarbon.
Looking back at the fourth Elite Series tournament, I wish had I had gone deeper into Fox Creek on the last day of practice. More and more fish were funneling in every day, but I found them short of their ultimate stopping point.
This marks the halfway point of the season and I remain in awe of the unreal talent level on the Elite Series today. I haven’t looked at the standings closely, but I imagine that the points race is going to be tighter than ever before. While I haven’t been able to pair two good days together in the last two events, I’ve stayed in the hunt by fishing clean and keeping an open mind. I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.
Next up is Toledo Bend, which is high and dirty just like when I finished 2nd there in 2014. I hope that my patterns and places from last time clue me into the bite this time around, but, if they don’t, I’m sure I’ll figure something else out. Limits alone are not an option – I’m fishing to win.
2016 Bassmaster Elite Series
Lake Norfork/Bull Shoals
Mountain Home, Arkansas
10 fish, 19-09
Although I didn’t have much experience on either Norfork or Bull Shoals – just a few previous trips to each – I was excited about this split format event where we’d alternate lakes each day. I was pretty sure that both of them would set up like Table Rock, my adopted home lake, and with four days to practice any way you wanted, there was a lot of strategy involved in building a good tournament finish.
I spent two days on each lake aware that Bull Shoals had been hammered in recent weeks, with a 400 boat Bass Cat owners tournament the week before and a 300 boat benefit tournament the week before that. My first day on Bull Shoals I figured things out pretty quickly and caught a lot of fish, including the quality that you’d need to do well in the tournament. I developed multiple patterns that I figured would hold up through any changing conditions. I spent the second and fourth days on Norfork, and that proved to be my burden. No matter what I tried, I just didn’t feel confident there. I wasn’t catching numbers, and I certainly wasn’t catching anything of any size.
When we launched the first day of the tournament on Norfork, I had a few fish pinpointed on beds. I’m not the best sight fisherman in the world, but I figured I could catch them and then adjust from there. Unfortunately, with an hour and a half fog delay, my short day became even shorter. My key area had about 10 bedding fish in it, and by downsizing to 6 lb. test fluorocarbon and a finesse lure, and staying way off of them, I managed to fool a few. Fortunately my eyesight is still good, as long as what I’m looking at is past the length of my arm.
I’d expected the bed fish to be small, but they were bigger than expected and I had a limit in less than an hour. When the day ended, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself inside the money cut in 43rd place. The weights were tightly packed, and I felt that when we moved to Bull Shoals I’d have enough going on to improve my position in the standings. Unfortunately, the reality proved to be the opposite of my expectations.
The fish on Bull Shoals were in various stages of the spawn, and I targeted them two ways: The first was with a Super Spook on 20 lb. test Gamma Polyflex line. The second way was flipping bushes with a Missile Baits Baby D Bomb, paired with a 5/16 ounce Reins Tungsten weight. Of course I fished it on a 7’3” heavy-action Lew’s Custom Lite rod paired with a Lew’s Super Duty reel spooled with 16 lb. Gamma fluorocarbon. The key was to go extremely slowly and milk key spots for everything they were worth. The fishing was relatively easy, but the size was way off. After expecting a minimum of 12 pounds in my livewell, and realistically as much as 15 pounds, my best limit on the second day of competition weighed 8-04 and that was extremely disappointing.
It was just one of those deals where I fell into a one-day trap, and it was made worse by the fact that I didn’t adapt to the changing conditions on the two different lakes. I’m not very happy, but it’s over and it’s on to Alabama as we near the halfway point of the season.
2016 Bassmaster Elite Series
Georgetown, South Carolina
7 fish, 15-03
Without any experience on Winyah Bay or its nearby rivers to rely upon, I went into the second Elite Series tournament of the year with an open mind. I knew that all of the good fishing was going to be a long distance away, typically an hour or more, and would require crossing big water to get there. Over the years, I’ve confronted many such situations, and the lessons that I’ve taken away are that you’d better be dialed into the bite and, if you’re fishing multiple spots, they all need to be relatively close to one another.
I spent my entire practice period in the Cooper River, which is reportedly the best quality fishery. There was one area in particular that seemed to have the most appealing vegetation and, not coincidentally, it also produced the most bites. With a stop for fuel, it was going to take 2 hours to get there and then an hour and 45 minutes to get back, so it was critical to maximize my fishing time once I got there.
In practice, I’d done the most damage with my typical Florida setup – a 7’11 extra-heavy Lew’s Custom Lite rod, a Lew’s Super Duty reel and 50 lb. Gamma Torque braid. That’s the rig you need to flip a 1 ½ ounce Reins Tungsten weight with a Missile Baby D Bomb all day. I was dialed in on a particular type of vegetation and by picking it apart I was getting 10 to 20 bites in the typical 12 hour practice day. They bit better on the slack to outgoing tide, but I wasn’t going to get as much of that as I’d like.
I was committed to making the run, but I didn’t know whether it would require me to refuel once or twice. Fortunately, my Phoenix/Mercury combo is extremely fuel efficient, and it ended up that, with only one stop to fill up, I still made it back with 6 gallons to spare. I was excited to take off, but on the first day of competition we had terrible weather and got delayed for an hour and 20 minutes. When you’re only going to have four hours to fish under the best conditions, that’s not good.
I had incoming water most of the day but, in the last 15 minutes I had to fish, the tide went slack and I caught my first keeper, lost a great big one, and then caught my second keeper. Then I had to leave to be on time to check-in. I wasn’t happy with 3 pounds 11 ounces, but given the potential of my area I knew that I could make up quite a bit of ground with a few key bites the second day.
The morning of Day Two was calm, and I was able to cut 10 minutes off my run time and arrived in my grass bed at low tide, which was perfect. In the first 20 minutes of fishing, I caught a keeper and a 5 pounder and, with four hours to fish, I felt certain I was going to bust them. It took a few hours, but eventually I filled out a limit of over 11 pounds.
In the early afternoon, I hooked a 4 pounder on a Chatterbait and, for reasons that I still can’t figure out, it came off. It turned out that it was on a bed, but after being hooked she was spooky. I worked her for an hour and a half but could never get her to bite again. That fish would’ve put me up to 13 pounds and inside the 50 cut. Things just didn’t work out.
I suppose that if I had this one to do over again I’d organize my tackle differently. On the first day, I tried to make my boat as light as possible for the long run, and I took out everything but my flipping sticks and a few Chatterbaits, the only two setups I’d been fishing. On Day Two, I put everything back in and tried to expand my repertoire and caught a few fish doing other things. If I’d done that on Day One, maybe I would’ve caught a third bass and gotten a chance to fish a third day. The lesson is that you have to carry anything you might need….ALWAYS.
While my Elite Series season hasn’t started off the way I wanted, there’s still a lot of time and a lot of fishing left to go. With a good event or two, I can climb right back into Classic contention. My main concern is remaining focusing and fishing clean from here on out. There’s no room left for mistakes.
Next up is an event split between Bull Shoals and Norfork in Northwest Arkansas, and while I don’t have a lot of experience on either of them, I feel like I know what to look for, and I’m looking forward to the tournament. After that is Toledo Bend, one of my all-time favorite lakes.
Although the season is still young, I’ve already put my equipment to the test, and my Phoenix 921XP and Mercury 250 Pro XS to the test. They’ve served me well on long runs and in rough water, and I know that I have the best tools on the market working in my favor at every tournament.
Bassmaster Southern Open
10 fish, 25-11
I’ve visited Alabama’s Smith Lake quite a few times over the years, and it’s a fishery that I’m very fond of. It reminds me quite a bit of my adopted home lake of Table Rock, with the main difference being that Table Rock has a lot of big smallmouths. The bass in Smith, and especially the magnum spots, have ballooned over the past few years since the introduction of blueback herring and that has made it an incredibly vibrant fishery.
When I was heading to the lake, I figured it was setting up to be a bed fishing tournament, but the weather changed that in a hurry. Heavy rains muddied it up and raised the water, meaning that even those fish that remained on their beds couldn’t be seen. With that in mind, I started targeting pre-spawn areas – behind docks, secondary points and all sorts of transition zones. I never went deeper than about 15 feet, but I had lots of bites and felt good heading into competition.
Unfortunately, Day One was canceled due to a heavy line of violent storms that produced a lot more rain. The lake came up about three feet, which didn’t bother me, but I knew it would take some adjustments. My bait choices were pretty simple: In calm areas I threw a 1/8 ounce Lunker Lure shakey head with a green pumpkin Senko on the back. In windier areas, I’d throw a ¼ ounce Lunker Lure shakey head with a green pumpkin Zoon Mag Finesse Worm on the back. Both were on 7’ medium-heavy Lew’s Custom Lite spinning rods with matching 3000-sized reels.
Those were the two lures that I’d narrowed it down to during practice, and while they had produced 40 to 50 bites a day, I knew that it was going to be a challenge to top 12 pounds. On the first day of competition, I had a 10 pound limit by 9:30, which put me right on track to hit that target weight. That gave me the freedom to keep on moving, trying to find a couple of kickers. There were some areas that I’d been keeping my eyes on but hadn’t practiced there because I didn’t want to accidentally sore mouth a fish that I’d need in competition. One of them was out on the main lake and moving there proved to be a good decision. Between 10:30 and 2pm, I culled several times. Then I moved out into the 18 to 22 foot range, where I hadn’t practiced at all, and things got even better. My spot was loaded with 3 ½ pound spotted bass, and I kept on culling.
The only problem was that, before I’d finished out my limit that morning, I’d caught a 2 pound largemouth that inexplicably died quickly. You can’t cull a dead fish, so I spent the afternoon throwing back 3 pound plus spotted bass that could’ve helped me quite a bit. On top of that, I was assessed a 4 ounce penalty. I should’ve had 19 plus pounds, but instead I ended up with 16-13, which had me in 7th place.
Saturday was supposed to be only the top twelve fishing, but because of the cancellation of Day One the whole field got to go. It was sunny with very high winds. I knew that the deep fish were unlikely to bite under those conditions, but I hoped enough of them would still bite to grind on them all day. I caught a big one right out of the gate, and then struggled until about noon. I had five of those magnum spots hooked but only managed to put that first one in the boat, and I ended up weighing in only a small limit, which dropped me to 39th place.
I had a legitimate opportunity for 16 to 18 pounds that day, but I still don’t know what I did wrong. On Day One, fishing the exact same setup, I didn’t lose any. All I can figure is that the change in weather and pressure made them a little bit more finicky.
My success in this tournament would not have been possible without my Humminbird Onix units. Between the side scan and the down imaging, nothing gets by me anymore. I can locate key subtle spots while I’m fishing. Several of my bigger fish in this event came when I spotted isolated rocks off to the side, made a cast, and immediately looked up. This technology is amazing and it makes me a more efficient angler.
2016 Bassmaster Elite Series
St. Johns River
10 fish, 20-02
Even though it’s not a typical Florida fishery with lots of matted grass, which I consider my strong suit, I was still excited to go to the St. Johns River. I’d done well in our last Elite Series visit there, finding a little deal in the eel grass that I had all to myself, and I was hopeful that it would work again. Unfortunately, when we returned this year, the eel grass that I’d been banking on had all disappeared as the result of high, muddy water.
I knew that Lake George would be a player in the outcome of the event, but I wasn’t looking forward to fishing there because it always draws a huge crowd, so I started off the practice period trying other things, like the main river and various backwaters. I caught plenty of fish, but there was no quality, so on the last day I caved and went into George to join the party
It wasn’t hard to find the three or four main areas where the majority of the fish were bedding because they were all packed with other competitors’ boats. Instead of fishing, I mainly looked for fish, and I managed to put enough together that I felt I could be competitive.
On Day One of the tournament, I had no choice but to head to Lake George. I made a beeline for what I thought was the most productive area, and even though I doubted it could withstand four days of pressure, I was going to milk it for all it was worth. It was a good decision, because I caught five pretty quickly by sight fishing. Even when I couldn’t see the beds, if I pitched into the holes in the eel grass, it was likely there’d be a fish in there. After culling a couple of times up to a little over 13 pounds, I tried to break away and look for a kicker, but the weather did me in. It got exceptionally windy and it absolutely poured, and I was never able to upgrade.
On Day Two, I had a better boat number but a shorter day, so I had to make the most of the opportunity. I went back to where I’d done my damage on Thursday, but the bad weather had muddied it up and that’s a nightmare with Florida strain fish. I bailed on that pretty quickly and started prefishing all over again, looking at new areas in George. Unfortunately, none of them paid off, so I went to my secondary pattern, fishing holes in the eel grass on the main river.
It took all day but eventually I captured five bass. They weighed less than 7 pounds combined and I dropped over 20 places. It was a frustrating tournament, because I never really got into any sort of comfort zone, and never generated any big bites. All you can do after one like that is pack up and move ahead.
My main technique at the St. Johns was deadsticking a Zoom Trick Worm behind a 3/16 ounce Reins Tungsten weight. I fished in on a 7’3” Lew’s Custom Lite and a matching BB1 Pro spooled with 14 lb. test Gamma Edge fluorocarbon. My back up deal was a Missile Baits Baby D Stroyer fished on a Reins Punch Shot in colors that imitated bluegills. For that rig, I upsized to a Lew’s Custom Lite 7’11” extra-heavy rod paired with a Super Duty reel spooled with 50 lb. Gamma Torque Braid.
I have to offer up a big congratulations to one of my all-time idols Rick Clunn on his historic victory. We were all very glad for him.
Looking back on this event, I wish would’ve taken the time to fish more rather than looking for spawning fish. That’s how Rick won, and it showed that a lot of times we get focused on the fish we can see, and in doing so overlook how many fish are truly there and how many are still to come.
2016 Bassmaster Classic
2 fish, 6-06
I’d only fished Grand Lake once before this Classic so I tried to go into the tournament with an open mind, even though my preconceived notion was that the lower end would be the most productive area. I intended to spend as much time on the water as I could to explore every possible option and dial in my presentations.
On the first day of practice, the water temperature was a lot cooler than I expected, with a lot of mud all over. The conditions were not normal, and I knew that meant that patterns would develop as the tournament went on. You had to pick up new clues every day, and that’s exactly how it went down.
After two days on the lower end of the lake, I couldn’t put anything together, so I had to scrap that area and move elsewhere. When I got up the lake, the water was warmer and clearer and I got more bites. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much more time to explore, and there was lots of water to cover, which meant that I had to shoot from the hip as I went along.
With limited time to figure things out, I elected to concentrate on two or three methods that I felt that could put me in the hunt. I also wanted to keep my eyes open to anything that might develop going forward. I’d get one or two bites in a single spot, all on the same baits, but it never developed into anything more.
When the tournament started, I stayed in the upper end of the lake in areas that I felt had the best populations of fish, but I could never get any sort of rhythm going. I had two big bites the first day and lost both of them. All I could land was a couple of short fish. Obviously, I was extremely disappointed and blanking put me behind the eight ball headed into Day Two. Even though the weather had warmed up a little, we’d lost the wind that would get the bass in a feeding mode. Just looking at the standings, you could see that there weren’t a lot of limits. Even many of the guys who did well were only getting five or six bites a day.
On Day Two I resolved to put my head down and fish hard to make a recovery. I’d thought that I could catch 12 pounds or so pretty reliably, with a chance at 16 or 17 if I managed a big bite. On Day Two, I caught more fish than any other day I’d fished there, but unfortunately only two of them were keepers and I landed 10 or 12 short fish. I weighed in two fish 6 pounds 6 ounces. In hindsight it’s frustrating that I didn’t do any better because I’d put in hours and hours of effort, but there’s not much I could do to change the outcome. It just wasn’t my Classic.
I hate that I didn’t do better because we work so hard to get to the Classic, but my hat is off to Edwin Evers for his monumental win, and, in particular, for his final day catch of over 29 pounds. He knew a few key areas where the fish would show up as conditions changed. It’s similar to the experiences that I’ve had in Florida over the course of my career – when you have confidence in certain areas and techniques, you can hunker down and wait for things to develop.
With respect to tackle, I spent most of my tournament cranking and throwing a jig and a tube. I cranked with a 7’ medium-heavy Lew’s David Fritts cranking rod, which has the perfect action to maximize your strike-to-land ratio. When you hook one on that rod, even if they surge when they’re barely hooked, you don’t worry about them getting off. The two fish that I lost were on a jig, and I didn’t do anything wrong. They just ate it funny. I fished a black neon tube and a 3/8 ounce Lunker Lure Limit Series jig in a craw pattern. Both were a 7’4” heavy-action Lew’s Custom Lite rod paired with a Lew’s Super Duty reel (8.0:1 gear ratio) spooled with 16 to 20 pound Gamma Flourocarbon. My struggles weren’t related to my equipment but rather were attributable to a lack of bites.
I’ll mark this one up to experience. The poor finish doesn’t do anything to shake my confidence heading into the 2016 season. If anything, I’m more excited than ever. I’m healthy and ready to fish hard on a schedule that really seems to fit my strengths.
Bassmaster Southern Open
15 fish, 45-04
After punching my ticket to the 2016 Classic through last year’s first Southern Open on Toho, I was eager to return and start off 2016 the same way. It’s no secret that I love Florida and it has been very good to me.
I felt like I’d need at least 6 to 10 days of practice to develop a winning strategy. The weather changes so often, and so severely, at this time of year, that it’s necessary to fish various areas through those changes. I wanted to spend time in all four lakes on the chain under the different conditions – and it certainly changed a lot. We saw 40 mile per hour winds, 38 degree nights, 70 degree days and everything in between. I tried to learn something every day and then put it all together one piece at a time.
While the first competition day didn’t provide ideal conditions, the outlook for Friday and Saturday was promising. I set out to dial in as many big fish spots as I could and then capitalize with at least one or two big bites from them every day. On the first day, that worked perfectly, as an 8-pounder pushed me up to 4th place with 19 pounds 10 ounces.
Often in Florida, someone will jump out to a big lead the first day with a giant stringer, but I try not to pay attention to that because frequently those guys will stumble going forward. In this case, I didn’t need to worry because the winner had a little over 22 pounds. I was close - one bite away.
The second day seemed to set up right, but the fish threw me a curveball. I knew that they’d be moving constantly, so I committed to fishing new areas every day. On Friday, in one of those areas, I caught a 5+ and a few other keepers, but then my fish in Toho fizzled out. I ran down to Kissimmee and managed to cull a few times to bring me up to my final weight of 14-10. I knew that would put me inside the cut, but I didn’t know exactly where, and I was pleasantly surprised that I stayed in 4th.
Last year, heading into the final day, my deficit was almost 9 pounds. This time around it was only 3, so I felt good about my chances. Saturday presented calm, sunny conditions, and it was lining up exactly like last year’s final round. I was ready to repeat. I headed out with two flipping sticks on the deck, both rigged with Missile Baits D-Bombs. I never varied from that throughout the tournament and that’s been the key to my success, consistently finding groups of bass that respond to that presentation.
I started off in Toho with a 4-pounder and a heavy 3 in the first hour. Even though I had a short day, I felt like it would continue to get better. A little while later, I lost a fish that I never saw, but which felt heavy, and then missed two or three that just didn’t get the hook. It was a weird bite. That happens sometimes down there – you’re not doing anything wrong but the fish just get in a funk despite favorable conditions. With time starting to get away from me, I had to scramble and eventually culled up to 11 pounds. That left me in 5th place when the scales closed.
Maybe if I’d fished flawlessly like last year I would’ve made up the deficit, but that’s how it goes down there. I have enough seconds, thirds, fourths and fifths to know that everything has to go right to win. Of course I’m disappointed that I didn’t win, but I did what I could, and I can live with that.
Every fish I caught during the tournament came on a 7’11” Lew’s Custom Light extra-heavy flipping stick and a Super Duty 8.0:1 reel spooled with Gamma Torque 50 lb. braid. I varied it up between the 1 ½ and 2 ounce Reins Tungsten Weights, but my best color, by far, in the Missile Baits D-Bomb, was “Love Bug.” Often it’s “Bruiser Flash”, but that wasn’t the case this year. It was my first tournament out of my new Phoenix 921 and, just like last year, a high finish is a great way to break in a new ride.
Next up is the Classic at Grand Lake. It’s been a wacky winter in Oklahoma, with tons of rain making the lake high and muddy and then getting cold. Hopefully by the time the tournament rolls around the water will be down, clearer and warmer. If that happens, it’ll be anybody’s game, but I feel like it’ll fish to my strength. I only live a couple of hours away now, and Grand sets up a lot like Table Rock, which means it should be a fun event.
Bassmaster Elite Series
6 fish, 8-09
Bassmaster Elite Series
Lake St. Clair
8 fish, 19-02
I’d never fished the Upper Chesapeake Bay before this year, but I was excited to go there because of the famed Susquehanna Flats. Any time I hear that a fishery has big productive grass beds, I feel like I’m going to be in my element and it’s just a matter of picking them apart. Unfortunately, for reasons that still aren’t clear to me, the grass was not a player at all in this event.
During practice, we experienced unusually high tides, and I had very few bites. I know that the tide would be critical – and that it was important to be on the best places at the best tides – but I didn’t know when that might be. It was going to be a matter of survival.
On Day One, I caught four fish, but three of them weren’t legal. The one keeper I did catch was just over a pound. Nevertheless, weights were low and I knew that if I had a decent day on Friday I could make the top 50. Almost immediately on Day Two, I landed the fish I needed to get back on track, a beautiful 3 pound largemouth, but I just couldn’t add any others to it. Eventually, that led me to go up the Susquehanna River where I quickly caught a limit of paper-thin smallmouths. With five in the livewell, I went back to look for more largemouths, but it just never happened.
It turned out that many of the top finishers fished around the take-off area, playing musical chairs on the few docks in the North East River. It worked out for some of them, but many others struggled doing the same thing. That’s not my gig. I just can’t force myself to fish in a crowd, if I don’t have to do it, so while my performance wasn’t good, I don’t regret the decision to venture outside of that little fishpond.
Almost all of my fish at the Chesapeake came on a Lunker Lure Limit Series jig fished on a 7’2” Denali Kovert heavy-action rod and 16 pound test Gamma fluorocarbon. It’s a small bait and produces numbers, but I’ve certainly caught plenty of big ones on it, too. Apparently I just didn’t put it in front of enough of them.
After a week of relaxing with Deb at the beach, I moved on to St. Clair, another body of water where I had very little prior experience. I’d previously spent a total of three very unproductive days on St. Clair, and when we’d fished tournaments up there in the past I’d always stayed on Erie.
St. Clair is essentially just a big bowl with relatively few contour lines. You have to search and search and search and hope that you run into a school. Unfortunately, the wind was brutal during practice, often in the range of 25 to 30 miles per hour, and that made the search process difficult. I managed to put together a couple of decent days in practice and also tried to find some largemouths as a backup plan. That decision saved me on the first day.
I knew that it would take a 3 ½ to 4 ½ pound average to do well, and that likely meant targeting smallmouths. I fished for them until 1:30 on the first day and only had one fish in the box. I scrambled to fill out my limit with largemouths and ended the day with 12-02. That wasn’t very good, but at least with a strong second day it gave me a fighting chance. Therefore I headed out on Day Two intending to fish for smallmouth all day. That’s what I did and it only produced three fish. I’m still not sure where I went wrong. I passed plenty of groups of boats, but I certainly wasn’t going to crash their party. The smallmouth I caught were quality fish, but I never found the right school. All of the smallmouths came on a green pumpkin Missile Baits Baby D Bomb dropshotted on a 7’ Denali Lithium Shakey Head Rod and 6 pound Gamma fluorocarbon. The largemouths were all on the same jig I used at the Chesapeake, mostly because I still had it tied on when I got there.
The whole northern swing turned out to be a big disappointment. I thought I’d be able to stay in contention for the Angler of the Year championship but instead I ended up falling in the standings. If we head back north again I will definitely do more homework. It has been an odd season for me, with a lot of ups and downs. I’m not going to make excuses, but I will say that I’m disappointed that I spent so much time, effort and money and didn’t live up to the standards that I set for myself.
With our house construction just about done, I can start to focus on the Grand Lake Classic next March. I certainly have obligations between now and then, but I will put in my time in Oklahoma to make sure that I’m as prepared as possible for the biggest event the sport offers.
Bassmaster Elite Series
St. Lawrence River
Waddington, New York
6 fish, 19-03
Historically, the St. Lawrence River events have been won with big limits of smallmouths, and even though the big lake was off limits to us this time around, there was no reason to think that brown fish wouldn’t be the winning ticket once again. That didn’t bother me at all, because I like to fish for smallmouths and felt that I’d be able to figure things out pretty quickly.
Unfortunately, they weren’t ganged up like they were the last time the Elites went there. The water was still pretty cold and, while most of the fish had spawned, they were scattered out both deep and shallow. I tried both strategies in practice and the problem was that you could get just enough bites doing one or the other to become dangerous to yourself. It was easy to get committed to something that wasn’t a winning pattern. That’s what happened to me.
I ended up focusing mostly deep and used the side-imaging and down-imaging features on my Humminbird Onix units to find isolated rock piles and shoals out in 20 to 25 feet of water. Those are places where they typically live after they’re done spawning, and I felt like I could catch decent limits by running those spots. A couple of times I jumped up shallow with a Megabass Vision 110 jerkbait and caught a few that way. The problem was that you really couldn’t pull into one area and blast away at the type of fish that you needed to win. The bass were more concentrated for the Elites two years ago, but this time you had to run a lot of different places to cobble together a good bag.
I was in a late flight on Day One which meant that I had a long day on the water. That was good because it was 11 o’clock before I got my first bite out deep. We’d had some bad weather roll through, and I was just about to go shallow when that 3-pounder bit. Shortly thereafter, I lost one close to 4 pounds, and then I caught a second smallmouth that weighed 5-05. That convinced me that I was on the right spot and it was only 12:30, which meant I had plenty of time left. I got one more bite, a solid 3 ¾ pound fish, but that was it. I couldn’t believe it.
My three fish weighed 11 pounds 12 ounces, which put me in 88th place, but I knew that there was 20 pound potential there which would put me right back in the hunt. I was going to start Day Two deep again, but wouldn’t hesitate to go shallow if things were slow. Unfortunately for me, the fish bit pretty quickly and led me astray.
On my second stop, I hooked about a 4 ½ pounder, and the fish jumped and came unbuttoned. It happens, that’s part of the game, but it didn’t make me very happy. A short while later, I caught a 3 pounder and that convinced me to stay deep a bit longer. Then things fizzled out, and I decided to move up on top of the shoal with my jerkbait. My second fish was another 3-pounder, and then I caught just a plain keeper. It was only 11:30, which left enough time to easily fill out a limit – or so I thought.
In New York, any fish you want to keep has to have at least one hook inside of its mouth. As anyone who has ever fished for smallies with a jerkbait can attest, they have a tendency to slap at the lures and get hooked in the head, in the gills, just about any place but inside the mouth. It’s not like you’re snagging them because they’re trying to eat it, but up there they have to be turned loose no matter what. I had at least six or eight that did that to me, and once again, I had to return to the weigh-in two fish short of a limit.
I suppose that if I had this event to do over again I might be tempted to fish for largemouths. I was surprised that several of my competitors pursued that path and were consistent enough to get checks. Still, I don’t think any of them had a chance to win, and with a Classic berth already assured for 2016 I have to keep taking chances for a tour-level win. That’s how I want to fish, and I don’t regret that decision even when it doesn’t pan out. I’m willing to take magnum chances if the potential payoff is huge rewards. I don’t know when I’ll be in this position again so I plan to make the most of it.
While the St. Lawrence didn’t produce the finish that I wanted, it did give me an opportunity to gain additional confidence that I use the best equipment in the business. I fished my dropshot on the new Denali Lithium Shakey Head rod, and I spooled up with Gamma Edge 6 lb. fluorocarbon. I used that to land smallies all the way up to 5-05, around heavy rocks, so you know it’s tough. I also continued to rely on the side-imaging and down-imaging functions on my Onix electronics. The mapping available for the St. Lawrence is not particularly developed, so it took a lot of blind looking to find the key offshore structure, and, once I found it, I could see in crystal clear detail what was there.
There are two more regular season tournaments this year in which I can continue to aim big and hopefully get back inside the Angler of the Year Championship cut. I’m not sure what to expect from the Chesapeake Bay. I know that it’s a tidal system, and I don’t expect that it’ll be easy. The one that’s been occupying a lot of my thoughts is the following event on St. Clair. I’ve been battling the decision all year, trying to figure out if I’ll run to Erie. It’s a major pain to get there – a long run in big water – but if everything lines up right it might be my best chance to win.
Bassmaster Elite Series
10 fish, 27-3
There was no doubt in my mind that the Elite Series event on Kentucky Lake would be won offshore. Even though that’s not my primary strength, I committed to the ledges from the beginning and spent nearly my entire practice with my nose pointed at my Humminbird graphs. By the end of practice, after hours and hours and hours of idling, I’d dialed my electronics in to an unbelievable level of detail. I’d located five schools of fish and felt that I could catch a limit pretty easily, but getting quality bites was going to be tough.
Things were changing every day, with more fish moving out to the main river and others moving to secondary spots, so timing was going to be critical. I didn’t expect the ridiculous amount of pressure to play such a big role, but that ended up being a major factor in the tournament, with competition boats, spectator boats and recreational fishermen all vying for key positions.
When Day One began, I headed to a school I’d located on the last afternoon of practice, one where I felt a 17 to 19 pound limit would be relatively easy to catch. I had the area to myself for two minutes before another boat showed up. Three minutes later we were joined by another boat. I could see the fish on my graph but they were off of the structure and off of the bottom, not in a feeding position. Even if I had fired up the school I would’ve had to share them with the other anglers, so I left and ran up to the dam.
Once I arrived at my second spot, it was pretty easy to catch a few and I had a limit by 9:30. Unfortunately, they were just plain keepers. With five in the livewell, I started to make my way back, looking for new schools. I ran into a few fish, but nothing of any size.
I have 500-plus waypoints on Kentucky Lake and it seemed like every one of them had a boat sitting on it. I have to admit that played with my head a little bit. Finally I pulled up on a good spot just as another boat was leaving and I remained there for the last hour, catching a 4 pounder and one that was about 3 ¾. Without those two it would’ve been a rough day.
The second competition day was my long day. As one of the last boats out I decided to start on a school I’d found near the takeoff, hoping they’d still be there. It turned out they were still there, and again I caught a limit pretty quickly. This time they were a little bit better. Fishing a variety of crankbaits – a DD22, a Strike King 10XD and a new one from Profound Lures, I had a limit in 45 minutes. After that I decided to go looking, but the bite was tough. There was no wind and not much current and fish were tough to come by. In the end, I weighed in my limit from the morning and ended up in 72nd place.
On Friday I headed to Lake Barkley for the “second chance” tournament. I didn’t feel like I needed to practice there because I have some history on Barkley, but when I arrived I was in for a surprise – they’d dropped the water and my shallow stuff was useless. I switched back to my deep water tackle on the fly.
I knew a good structure spot about 45 minutes north, so I fished my way up intending to do some damage there, but by the time I arrived Randy Howell was already culling off the spot. He ended up winning the bracket with 18 pounds for the day. With an early weigh-in, I was left to scramble, so I hit a bunch of new places with little success until there were only about 90 minutes left in the day.
With not much time left to fish, I lost a fish then landed a good keeper, but knew that I was cutting it close in terms of getting back to weigh in on time. After that I caught about a dozen fish that were too short to keep. I ran a few more places and with 10 minutes left I hit a spot that was loaded. I caught a 2 ½ pounder and lost what felt like a big one. The school was lit up. Most of them weren’t huge, but if I’d had the time to fish them they would’ve been enough to get me back into fishing on Saturday, since it only took about 13 pounds. As soon as my fifth fish was in the livewell I had to go. It was a classic catch 22 – I needed to stay longer to get the weight I needed, but I didn’t have the time left in the day.
The drive back was a barn burner. I cut every corner I thought I could pass safely, and twice I felt the motor drag on the bottom at 70mph. In the end, I was four minutes late, which cost me 4 pounds off of my 11-07 total. I’d never been late to a weigh-in before, but in this case it was the right decision, even if I still ended up on the wrong side of the cut.
I cranked all week with a Denali 7’10” extra-heavy mag cranking rod paired with a 5.4:1 Shimano Chronarch spooled with 12 pound test Gamma Fluorocarbon. The real stars of the show were my Humminbird graphs and Lakemaster chips. I’d upgraded the software and was able to dial in my down-imaging and side-imaging to the point where I could make out the roots on the stumps. Kentucky Lake is monstrous, though, so even three days of idling weren’t enough to see it all.
Next up is the St. Lawrence River out of Waddington, NY. Lots of smallmouths, lots of big water. Everyone is going to catch lots of fish, so it’ll be a battle of ounces. With a Classic berth already in hand, I can continue to fish for a win. I just have to make sure that I don’t fall out of the top 50 in the points. Currently I’m 38th. I’d like to say that I could play it safe, but at this level of competition there’s no such thing.
Toyota Texas Bass Classic
Lake Fork, Texas
10 fish, 36-12
I’ve been fortunate to fish several TTBCs over the years, and as always, the 2015 iteration was an awesome event. It’s an honor and a privilege to get to fish the only tournament all year that takes the best of the best from both major tours and pits them against one another in a winner-take-all format.
In many respects, it’s like the Bassmaster Classic. There’s no mindset of fishing for points – you just want to win. The major differences are that the field is even stronger and more stacked from top to bottom. On top of that, Lake Fork is absolutely full of giants, so in order to win you really have to catch them well every day.
This year the weather threw a monkey wrench into everyone’s plans because Texas had experienced a ton of rain. The lake was flooded for the first time in about six years. While we all knew that the deep bite would probably prevail, the flooded shallow cover gave us new options. There were still a lot of fish on the bank, including some big ones, so it spread out the field and required some choices.
I spent the first day of practice up shallow and had a blast. Immediately upon launching the boat I saw rows of flooded willow trees that hadn’t had water on them in a long time. That’s just too tempting for me to resist. I had to go flip them and in the first 10 minutes I caught an absolute giant on a one ounce Lunker Lure jig. That kept me shallow, and over the course of the day, I had about a dozen bites, all over 5 pounds.
The second day of practice I forced myself to go out deep and spend the whole day there. I didn’t have a single bite. Not one. That made my decision to stay shallow during the tournament relatively easy because it was all that I had. On top of that, they were predicting more rain, so I figured that would keep the bass up there. I knew that the guys who stayed out would be fishing for at most five to seven bites a day, but if any of them could capitalize on it, they’d have a good shot to win, but after zero bites doing that I didn’t have that option.
I caught a ton of fish during the event and weighed in over 18 pounds each day. Normally, that’s enough to put you pretty high up in the standings, but not at Fork. I was 22nd after the first day and dropped a place after Day Two. My pattern was to run spawning pockets off the main lake, not the big creeks. There were willows in there, and I also figured out that some fish were spawning in the grass on what must’ve been the old shoreline in 4 to 6 feet of water. I love to fish that way and it was a blast.
Every fish came on the big Lunker Lure jig. Longtime readers of these journals are probably guessing that it was my standard black and blue model, but this time I really diversified – my jig was black, green pumpkin and pumpkinseed, which I felt mimicked the bluegill down there pretty well. I added my typical Big Salty Chunk, but dyed the tails chartreuse. The rod, reel and line didn’t change, though – 7’8” extra-heavy Denali Kovert, Shimano Chronarch Ci4 (7.6:1) and 50 lb. Gamma Torque braided line.
My hat is really off to Brent and the other guys who stayed out deep and made it work. He’s a tremendous angler, one of the best deep water experts I’ve ever seen. Guys like Brent and Jason Christie knew that they’d probably have to milk one or two particular sweet spots, but they went in with the game plan necessary to make that happen. On top of that, the weather was brutal. It rained every day and we had sustained periods of heavy winds. It’s hard enough to fish in 40 mile per hour winds when you’re up in a spawning cove, but trying to stay on offshore cover and present a bait efficiently in them is a whole different ballgame.
While my finish wasn’t exactly what I wanted, I’m proud to have been a part of this great event, competing against one of the strongest fields that the sport has ever seen. I’ll be glad to take a spot in that tournament any time I qualify. Next up is BASSFest at Kentucky Lake, so I’m taking off the braided line, switching out my flipping jigs for football jigs, and getting ready to focus on the deep bite that eluded me in Texas.
Bassmaster Elite Series
Lake Havasu City, Arizona
15 fish, 45-08
Until you actually arrive at Lake Havasu, you can’t quite imagine how beautiful it is. Coming from the urban environment in Sacramento, it was a complete change. Several times I just looked up and said “Wow!” out loud. Making it even better, it’s a fantastic fishery where you can catch fish just about any way you want – largemouths and smallmouths, deep or shallow, flipping, fishing vegetation or hitting deep offshore structure.
We really only had a day and a half of practice, and I knew absolutely zero about the lake, but after the “Groundhog Day” series of troubles that we had at the Delta, I was completely relaxed once I crossed the state line into Arizona. It was a different world, and my attitude improved the moment the speed limit switched from 55mph to 75mph.
I arrived at our rental house with a couple of days to get my tackle reorganized and do a little bit of map study. I figured that I’d go up the river one day and spend the other day down lake. There was no way I could look at everything, but by identifying key spawning areas I was pretty sure that I could hit the highlights and build on from there.
My first day of practice wasn’t particularly good. I had eight bites, and some of them were quality fish, but I wasn’t completely dialed in yet. On the second day I went down the lake and caught quite a few more fish flipping and fishing beds. I decided that in the tournament I’d start up and work my way down.
After getting a whole bunch of flipping bites in practice, once the tournament started, it was like someone flipped the off switch. That bite died, and I still don’t know why. I ended up having to rely on bed fish that I found as the day progressed – I’d move forward down the bank, find a bed, decide whether to fish for it, and then try to catch the spawning fish.
In the last hour, I made a complete change and started fishing current breaks near where I’d been flipping. I caught three 3 pound smallmouths really quick to bring my bag up to 13 pounds 11 ounces. That had me in 56th place, but now I had a clue about how I’d start Day Two.
I found lots of crawfish parts in the livewell, which enabled me to rig up a green pumpkin orange Lunker Lure Finesse Jig that matched them perfectly. I started on the current breaks looking for smallmouths and almost immediately caught a decent largemouth. I couldn’t believe it. After that the current breaks died on me and I never caught another fish there, but I did manage a few flipping the Missile Baits D Bomb. Once again, some late-in-the-day heroics saved me. I had located some main lake structure that I believed had potential and when I got there with 90 minutes to go I had five bites and landed two of them, a 4 pound largemouth and a 3 pound smallmouth. They brought me up to 14-13 for the day, and moved me up 15 places to 41st, inside the cut.
I knew that the river was done for me, so I intended to expand my main lake stuff on Day Three, starting on or near the places where I’d gotten the two big bites at the end of Day Two. I changed up my gear again, this time using a magnum shakey head with a watermelon/green pumpkin Senko on it. In the first two hours, I had only one bite, and it got away, so I started expanding and eventually happened onto some productive water nearby. Pretty quickly, I caught three big largemouths, and then I continued to grind after that. Despite trying a lot of different things, I ended up landing only six fish, but they were all good ones. My 17 pound limit pushed me way up the standings to 14th place, just outside the cut.
While it was disappointing to not fish on Sunday, I was happy with the adjustments I’d made. I fished instinctively and that’s when I usually do best. Also, even though I’ve already pre-qualified for the 2016 Classic, I’m now in 26th place overall. After a disaster at the Sabine and a mediocre result at the Delta, I’m pleased to be up there, and I’m super-excited about the rest of the schedule.
Before the next Elite Series event, we have the Toyota Texas Bass Classic at Lake Fork. The place is loaded with big fish, the water is high and therefore should fish to my strengths. I can’t wait. After that it’s off to Kentucky Lake, which should be another slugfest.
Despite using a variety of techniques at Havasu, my tackle was standard issue. I flipped with a California Love D Bomb and a green pumpkin chartreuse tube with 5/16 ounce Reins Tungsten weights on 20 pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon. I used a 7’8” Denali Kovert XH rod paired with a Shimano Ci4 baitcasting reel (7.6:1).
I fished the 3/8 ounce mag shakey head on a 7’2” Kovert heavy action rod with the same reel and 14 pound Gamma Edge. I bought the heads at a tackle store there in Havasu and paired them with Senkos that I got directly from Gary Yamamoto himself – they even say “Gary’s Color” on the bait.
Despite the short practice period, I was able to break down a new lake with the help of my Lakemaster mapping software. They’d just finished their latest version of Havasu and I had the most current rendition available anywhere. I could see where the grass was located, where the right kind of ditches could be found, and so forth. It saved me and is truly an incredible tool for any fisherman.
Bassmaster Elite Series
10 fish, 26-13
The logistics of getting out to California were challenging for many of my fellow pros, so I hired someone to bring my rig out west. That would give me more time at home, where our new house project is still underway, and it meant that I could fly out and spend some time with Jasper Engines and Transmissions clients before the practice period started. I met up with some great guys at Lake Berryessa and we enjoyed a couple of fantastic days on the water, which got me in a good frame of mind.
Next, I moved down to the Delta. It’s a body of water where I don’t have much history, but it sets up well for the way I like to fish. It is loaded with all sorts of vegetation and reminds me of Florida, just with the addition of tides.
My practice went well. Gerald Swindle and I roomed together and we stayed down near the water until the tournament started, at which point we moved closer to the launch site in Sacramento. I spent a lot of my practice days in some well-known productive areas, but I also tried to go off the beaten path a little. The days were long – 6am until 8pm – and it was critical to figure out how the tides affected the bite. I caught a lot of fish, including a 10, an 8 and several over 5, but the big fish bite was inconsistent. My best areas had quality fish in them, but I had no idea if they’d bite when I got there.
On Day One, I committed to making the best out of what I thought was my most fertile area but just getting there was a challenge. It took over 90 minutes of running, and there was all sorts of confusion about where you could run and where you had to idle. On top of that, there were five to ten boats around you at all times, so it was nerve-wracking, and I was admittedly tensed up when I started fishing.
My stress level certainly didn’t help my performance. From the very first pitch I was keyed up and not in the right frame of mind to execute. With only five hours to fish, each mistake is brutal, and I lost three good fish right out of the gate. When it was time to make the long run back I had only 13-09 in the livewell, good enough for 61st place.
I knew that I had a lot of ground to make up on Day Two, and I’d located a backwater in practice that I felt had the potential to give me the quality fish I needed. I knew it would be crowded, but I’d caught a 10 there during practice, so it was worth the additional stress. My plan was that if I could sack a decent limit elsewhere I’d spend the rest of the day down there.
I managed to cut my run time down from the day before, and overall I just felt more calm and comfortable. When I stood up, I was a different person than I was on Day One, and I had a limit in 12 minutes. Now I just needed a big bite. The first day I’d made it back to weigh-in with just two gallons of fuel left, so on Friday I elected to refuel early to eliminate the worry of running out of gas.
After refueling, I went to my big fish area. I saw some great big ones there, but it was obvious that they had been fished for previously. They were cruising around and ultra-spooky. I managed to catch a few but only culled once. It was frustrating knowing that the right ones were there for me to make a move. but that I didn’t have the skill to get them to bite. Still, I gave it all that I had.
I weighed in just a little bit less on Day Two and dropped four more spots. It was frustrating knowing that I’d had the bites to be well up in the money but that being keyed up cost me those fish. A positive mental attitude goes a long way, especially if you don’t have a lot of history to rely upon.
I had two main lures on the Delta, one for high tide situations and the other for when the water was out. When the water was up, I was flipping the full-sized D Bomb (in the appropriately-named California Love color), paired with a pegged ½ ounce Reins tungsten weight. I fished it on a Denali 7’8” extra-heavy Kovert rod paired with a Shimano Ci4 spooled with 20 lb. Gamma Edge fluorocarbon. The key was to get the lure through the cover and then let it sit for 10 or 15 seconds before hopping it. The fish were spooky and didn’t want to bite, but by testing their patience you could make them eat it.
When the tide went out and the water cleared up, I went “power shotting.” Basically that’s a heavy dropshot with a short leader. I used a Senko, and all you had to do was pitch it into a likely spot and hold it still. That little bit of current would float the bait and make it quiver and then it would suddenly start swimming off. I fished that on a 7’ heavy Kovert.
The other pieces of equipment that were crucial were my Phoenix boat, my Mercury outboard and my Humminbird Onix units. Most of us hadn’t made the run from Sacramento down to the Delta prior to the actual competition, and the map we were given was crude and inexact at best. My equipment never failed me and consistently makes my job easier.
Despite the fact that I didn’t drive out to California, this was one of the most grueling tournaments I’ve ever fished. Because the Delta is so vast, the practice days were exceptionally long and it seemed like there were off-the-water obstacles – parking issues, road construction, things like that – at every turn. I compared it to Groundhog Day because just when you thought things would get easier it was the same thing all over again.
Next up is Havasu. I’ve never been there and haven’t done much research, but I’m excited because I hear that it’s a dynamic fishery. I’ll go into it with an open mind and hope to be reporting back with a better finish next week.
Bassmaster Southern Open
8 fish, 13-14
Coming off a top twelve finish in the Elite Series tournament on Guntersville, I didn’t get much time to practice for the second Southern Open of the year. After fishing the final round on Sunday, we didn’t get our camper moved until Monday and I didn’t get out on the river until Tuesday at 10:30. That left two partial days to practice on a body of water I’d never fished before. After giving it everything I had mentally and physically through practice and four tournament days at Guntersville I was wiped out.
The Alabama River is a large body of water, so with my practice period significantly shortened, I had to focus on a limited section of water. I decided to go south both days, fishing the first 20 miles from the launch on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday, I picked up at that 20 mile mark and worked down to the dam. I tried to check out both the main river and backwater areas, but I didn’t find a whole lot of productive water in either location.
The current was on and off, and it rained the entire time we were there. With changing conditions, I was fortunate to find a few spotted bass here and there. When I’d get a bite or two, I’d leave and try to find something else.
I’d been planning to fish the grass along the bank, but on Thursday’s first day of competition, they dropped the bottom out of the river. It was about 2 feet low, so that plan went out the window, and I had to regroup. My backup plan was to spend the majority of the day in a backwater close to the take off. I knew that it produced a lot of fish, and with all sorts of lily pads and other cover it just looked fishy.
I landed a keeper very quickly, but after that, it became a grind, and I gradually added three more small fish to my live well. I had two opportunities to really upgrade my catch, but the two 4-pounders I hooked got off, and I only weighed in four small bass. My co-angler had a 5-pounder, so clearly the quality fish were there, but it wasn’t fast and furious by any means. We’d sometimes go 30 or 45 minutes without a bite.
On Day Two, the water jumped back up. I knew that there was still a good stringer to be caught somewhere in my Day One backwater, so I committed to spending at least a few hours there. Once again, I caught one almost immediately. Then my co-angler caught a 3 ½ pounder. That size fish is pretty golden on that body of water. I tried to slow down and fish methodically, but I just couldn’t get bit.
At 11 o’clock, I moved out to the main river and headed south. Even though I had not yet caught any of the big spots that I know live there, I was going to have some fun looking at new water trying to figure them out. The current was running harder at that point, which is typically good for spotted bass, and after running about 20 miles, I caught three of them. I also jumped off a nice largemouth. That was frustrating, but at least one of the spots was the 4-pounder I’d been looking for the whole time.
Unfortunately, when you’re worn out and mentally drained, you end up losing some fish. I don’t know if I could’ve made a run at winning, but losing fish both days prevented me from doing much better. I took away some satisfaction from finding the fish to do well, but that wasn’t enough. You have to execute, too.
Once the tournament was over, we drove 11 hours home, unpacked the camper, cleaned everything out and then repacked on Sunday to get ready to go again. Next up is the Elite Series on the California Delta, a complicated waterway that I haven’t fished for over a decade. I’m not as familiar with it as some of the field, but I think it fishes to my strengths. After making a huge move in the points at Guntersville, I’m looking to carry that momentum forward. Because I’ve already qualified for next year’s Classic, I’m in a position to fish freely and that’s usually when I do the best – and now that I’m rested I’m prepared to eliminate the mental errors and capitalize on good instincts.
Bassmaster Elite Series
20 fish, 76-06
I’ve spent a lot of time on Guntersville over the past two years, and while I’ve never fished an April tournament there, I feel like my knowledge of the lake is pretty vast. Heading into practice I had a strong idea of what the best patterns would be. If I could get them dialed in and avoid mistakes I expected to be in position to have a great event.
Because of my familiarity with the lake, I could spend most of my practice on the lower end, where I thought it would be won. I did run far up the lake one of the three days and that was a good decision because it eliminated that zone from my thoughts. I wouldn’t even be tempted to go there.
By the end of practice, I felt comfortable that there were three or four ways that I could catch quality fish, all on offshore shell beds in 4 to 6 feet of water. Some of those bass were spawning. Others were prespawn. Still others had completed the job. It was the best of all worlds, and reminded me of the type of situation I’ve found in Florida when I’ve done well there.
When you have a situation where the fish are “coming and going,” it often means you can catch big numbers. I knew that in order to be competitive I’d have to have a shot at a big fish or two each day as well. My spots were small, and I’d fish them thoroughly, but still managed to fish 40 or 50 each day. I wasn’t tempted to go to the bank because every second or third place I’d catch one. Occasionally I’d catch more than one.
The key to finding the “juice” was utilizing the full capabilities of the Lakemaster chip on my Humminbird graph. I highlighted everything in the 3 foot zone, and I could just run from place to place looking for the right combination of factors. I wanted that rough texture, and I’d also look for grass edges on my Onix units. I continued to refine the sweet spots as the tournament progressed.
I knew that weather would be a big factor in my success. The fish simply didn’t bite as well on the clear, calm days. That’s what we had on Day One, and my goal was just to survive, because I saw the cloudier, windier weather coming. On that first day of competition, I weighed in 16-10 which had me in 57th place. I did lose one a little over 4 pounds, which would’ve moved me up to around 18 pounds, and that made me upset at the time, but it was the only fish that would’ve helped, that I lost all tournament.
Even though my Day One weight had me out of the money cut, I wasn’t going to change anything. There would be no swimbait flinging, and I wasn’t going to go camp out on a bridge. With the weather change, everything went exactly according to plan and I sacked 24-08 the second day to move up 40 spots, well into the cut.
On the third day I expanded a bit. It was a mixed bag of weather, and I had a lot of bites but no real big ones. Still, I managed 17-13 and moved up another six spots, into the top twelve for the final day. I thought I had discovered some new areas with huge potential, but despite hitting them three times on the fourth day, they didn’t work out for me. Nevertheless, Day Four produced my greatest numbers. Unfortunately, I think I’d caught all of the bigger spawning fish and the new fish moving in just weren’t as big. I’d catch five or six off of a single spot, but they’d rarely be over 3 pounds. Still, my 15-07 moved me up another spot, into 10th when the scales closed.
Every fish I weighed in came on a ½ ounce Biffle Head with a Sooner Run colored Biffle Bug. I fished it on a 7’ heavy-action Denali N2 rod, paired with a Shimano Ci4 Chronarch with a 7.6:1 gear ratio. Sixteen pound test Gamma fluorocarbon completed the outfit.
One of the other key elements in my success was my 12 foot Talons. I’d sit in 8-10 feet of water and cast up into the 4-6 foot zone. The smaller male fish often bit first, so whenever I got a bite I’d drop the Talons. That way I never lost the perfect lineup for another cast.
This tournament felt really good. I was in my element and moved up every day. Since I’ve already qualified for next year’s Classic, I don’t have to think about points – I can just go fish and have a good time. Next up is the western swing, and I’ve only been out there to fish once before, but mentally I’m in the kind of zone where I can fish instinctively and let the cards fall where they may. That’s usually when I do best.
Bassmaster Elite Series
4 fish, 7-09
While many of my fellow Elite Series pros had fished the Sabine back in 2013, I didn’t have that history to fall back upon, so this vast waterway was a mystery to me heading into the official practice period. I expected that would be tough, and that a lot of gas would be burned, but other than that I went into it with an open mind. There had been a lot of recent rain which made the water high and muddy. While I didn’t know whether that would hurt the fishing or improve it, it didn’t really matter. With the luxury of a 2015 Classic berth already in my back pocket, I was able to fish comfortably even when things didn’t quite go my way.
While some of the field committed to making runs of up to two hours, I started off practice in an area just 20 minutes away from the launch and never saw much reason to venture away much more than that. I put the trolling motor down and had 30 or 35 bites in the course of the first day. I put my hands on three or four pretty nice ones and shook off a bunch more that felt pretty solid.
On the second day, I headed to another well-known area and had about the same level of success. The few that I landed included a decent percentage of keepers, and bites weren’t hard to come by. It quickly became obvious that it was going to be a canal and backwater bite. That complicates things, because it usually means crowded conditions and that boat numbers matter quite a bit.
With two productive areas identified, I could use the third day of practice to really dial in the specific elements of tournament strategy that were likely to play a role, including timing my runs, making sure that they were safe, and getting my equipment ready to avoid any malfunctions or surprises.
Unfortunately, despite taking care of the things that were within my control, other things that are outside of my control often play a big role in tournament success. One of those is boat number, and on Day One I drew out as number 110, basically the last of the last. That was the bad news. The good news is that it meant I’d have a long day, and after a two hour fog delay the guys who had to weigh in early were pressed for time. If you were making a long run, the margin of error was even less. Fortunately, I was staying relatively close and had a comparatively long day ahead of me.
When I got to my area, there were probably 20 boats in there with me, far more than it could support for multiple days. I caught two keepers quickly, then four or five short fish. When the bites stopped, I moved to my second area and caught another 20 fish, but only one was big enough to make the ride back to the weigh-in, for a total of three fish for 5 pounds 12 ounces. That was really disappointing. On the other hand, even though I was in 62nd place, I wasn’t out of it. This was a tournament where a few key bites could vault you from obscurity up to near the lead. I went into Day Two with a positive mental attitude.
The second day began with an even longer fog delay, nearly 2 ½ hours, and since I was in the first flight I was going to be especially pressed for time. We got out around 9:40, and at my first spot I went two hours before I got a bite. That proved to be the day’s only keeper. I kept flipping and throwing my spinnerbait to no avail. With two hours left, I went to my backup area and caught 15 more fish, but none of them kept. It was frustrating to say the least.
This was a tournament where I was never able to gamble on big fish, but never had the option to play it safe and catch a limit, either. I just fished what I had and what I knew and tried to make the most of it. It didn’t work out. I take my hat off to those guys who found a way to make it work. Next time I’ll be better prepared and I’ll be aware of more of the better-known areas.
Most of my fish in this event came on two baits: a Hawg Caller spinnerbait with painted willowleaf blades and a Missile Baits D Bomb in Bruiser Flash and Black Red Flake. I fished the 3/8 ounce chartreuse and white spinnerbait on a 6’9” Denali Kovert medium-heavy spinnerbait rod, a Chronarch Ci4 reel and 16 lb. test Gamma Fluorocarbon. I fished the D Bomb on a 7’ heavy action Noirwood N2 rod, with the same reel and same line.
Going into the Sabine I wasn’t scared of having a bad tournament, but now that it’s over I can tell you that I certainly didn’t enjoy the experience. It took a couple of days to get over it, but now I’m ready for Guntersville. My goal there is to catch one fish that weighs more than my entire catch from the Sabine, and then add a bunch more to go with it. It’s going to be a slugfest, which has its own set of pitfalls, but I feel like I’ll be back in my comfort zone once again.
2015 Bassmaster Classic
Greenville, South Carolina
45th Place - 5 fish, 10-00
I’d fished Lake Hartwell before on the FLW Tour, but I went back in December to get reacquainted with the lake before the cut off. Judging from what I learned then and what I knew about the general seasonal patterns, I figured there was a pretty good chance that the tournament would be won out deep. I was hoping that wouldn’t be the case, though. Those deep fish are often tracking schools of blueback herring and they can be difficult to relocate, even if you think you understand where they are.
During the official practice period before the tournament, the water temperatures remained fairly high and there were still a good number of fish up shallow where I wanted them. I nevertheless spent two of the three days out deep. My better results came relatively shallow, in the 6 to 12 foot range, so I knew that there would probably be enough fish up shallow to survive, but with the harsh cold weather settling in I was worried that it would get tougher.
I really didn’t know how the cold snap was going to affect the fish. I tried to chase the deep bite again on the Wednesday before the tournament started, but I just couldn’t get it to work. I was only getting two or three bites a day doing that and I knew that I couldn’t win that way. Therefore, I also spent a few hours in the creeks looking for some more productive shallow cover. That way if the deep guys stumbled I might have a chance.
On Thursday, B.A.S.S. told us that the tournament start would be delayed due to hazardous road conditions. It probably didn’t affect the fish much, but the shortened day hurt those of us who were fishing for a limited number of bites. Also, the weather was brutal. My Frabill Ice Suit was phenomenal. My core never got cold, and I simply could not have made it through Day One without it, but the super-low temperatures caused reels and rod guides to ice up and you could only make a fraction of the number of casts that you’d make on a normal competition day.
Day One was clearly my demise in this event. I struggled to get bit and, over the course of the day, I caught only two fish – one shallow and one deep. I had a third bite but lost it. It would take an absolute miracle on Saturday to make the cut. I had to make some adjustments.
On Day Two I stayed deep until 10am looking for big bites but I simply could not get bit out there. At that point, I went shallow to an area where I’d caught some good fish in practice. At least I knew the right class of bass lived there. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make them bite. I had three bites all day, landed them all, and my tournament was over. It was an exceptionally difficult event for me. I simply never picked up on the right clues, and my failure to do so was complicated by the weather conditions. It is what it is. Most everyone in the field struggled at least one or both days. That’s typical of blueback lakes.
I’m still not sure where I went wrong. I really thought that my new ONIX units from Humminbird would give me an edge – they are absolutely phenomenal – but I’d find a group of fish in deep water, get one or two bites, and that would be it. Without much prior knowledge of the lake and how the fish there behave, I was behind the eight ball.
My two main lures were a 3/8 ounce Lunker Lure jig and a #8 Shad Rap. I fished the former on a 7’ medium-heavy Denali Jadewood rod with a 6.2:1 Shimano Chronarch Ci4 reel spooled with 12 and 14 pound test Gamma Fluorocarbon. I fished the Shad Rap on a 6’10” Kovert cranking stick with the same reel and 10 pound test Gamma Fluorocarbon.
Next up is the Elite Series season opener on the Sabine River. I’ve never been there before so I’m not quite sure what to think about that one. Fortunately, I’m already qualified for the 2016 Bassmaster Classic, so I can fish at ease and have fun with the season. There are several venues I’ve never been to, and that concerns me a bit, but having the Classic berth in hand allows me to fish my strengths and that’s when I tend to throw caution to the wind and excel. I’m really looking forward to it.
Bassmaster Southern Open
15 fish, 52-07
What a way to start the year! I’ve made no secret of the fact that I wanted to win a high-level event. In late 2013, I won the Bassmaster Wild Card to qualify for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic, and that just whetted my appetite for bigger things. Now, by winning the first B.A.S.S. Open of 2015, and thereby becoming the first qualifier for the 2016 Classic, I feel that I’m really starting to show that I can compete anywhere, anytime, against anyone, and have a fighting chance to come out on top.
This wasn’t an easy tournament for anyone, as you can see by all of the top sticks who had one good day and then struggled on the next. Most people said it couldn’t be won in Toho. I disagreed and while everyone else bumped boats in the locks, I stayed in the first lake and did what I do best – flip heavy grass.
During the course of my practice, I came to the realization that Toho was where I’d fish throughout the tournament. It was clean from one end to the other and the vegetation looked good everywhere. I spent some time in Kissimmee and thought that I could cut a check there, but it didn’t have the consistent big fish potential of Toho. After a 30 pound day in tough conditions, my mind was made up that I’d live and die in the upper lake.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Florida in recent years, and I’ve learned that you have to focus on several main things this time of year. First of all, are the fish bedding? That doesn’t mean you’ll sight fish for them, but it tells you where to look. Or are they offshore, like when Gerald Swindle won on the shell beds? Finally, are they coming and going from shallow areas? Toho is usually the last lake in the chain for the fish to move up. They still like to go shallow, but at this time of year there are typically a few more pre-spawners there than in the other lakes. It’s also critical to watch the wind – that’s what killed my chances two years ago, when I didn’t look out for it and many of my best places got blown out.
During practice, it’s all about keeping the lake honest, making sure that no likely pattern escapes your attention. I quickly learned that the offshore bite wasn’t happening and that while there weren’t a tremendous number of big fish up shallow, I could get a big bite here and there. I gradually learned that most of the fish were in transition – not shallow, not out in the open – and over time I revealed little pieces of the puzzle by checking out different areas and different types of vegetation. The important connection was that every place I got a good bite had clumps of hydrilla connected to the bottom.
This being Florida, a drastic cold front rolled in ahead of the tournament, dropping the water temperature from 72 to 57. As it crept back up, though, we got a sunny day and I busted a 30 pound bag. That told me that I had it dialed in.
On the first day, it was just a matter of surviving. With 145 boats locking down, it felt like I had Toho all to myself, and my 16-12 had me in 12th place. That was higher than I thought it would place me.
Day Two’s weather report called for sunshine and I had a long day of fishing. I expected that meant that the afternoon bite would be strong and while I didn’t really catch much before 10:30, after 1 o’clock the fishing was insane. Between 1:30 and 4:30 I probably caught 45 fish. The key was my one decent bite, a 4 ½ pounder, that brought me up around 14 pounds. That fish told me what I’d do on Day Three….if there was a Day Three. I wasn’t sure that I’d hold onto my place in the Top 12 and I was packed and ready to go home, but was pleasantly surprised to find out that I’d actually moved up three places, to 9th. Tackle prep was easy that night – retie my two flipping sticks and get a good night’s sleep.
When I got up at 4am, I could see that the conditions were perfect for a good day of flipping. It was crystal clear without a breath of wind. I started off on my good stuff, and when the sun had just barely gotten up at 8am I caught my first fish. Ten minutes later I caught a heavy 4 pounder and I knew I’d made the right decision. Then 30 minutes after that I caught another heavy 4. At 10 o’clock I caught a third carbon copy of that fish. I still had a couple of small guys in my limit, and I told my co-angler that I needed 25 pounds to have a shot at winning. It was crucial to fish slowly, and that’s hard to do when you’re trying to make up ground.
Sometime between 12:30 and 1, I headed to one isolated clump I remembered and that’s when I caught the fish I needed. It was 7 ½ pounds, a true game-changer that gave me a shot to win. I still had one about a pound and a half in the livewell, and I needed to get rid of it. Ten minutes or so later I caught another one and culled, but it only gave me about 6 or 8 more ounces. I had 90 minutes left but could never upgrade again. I was absolutely heartbroken, thinking that I had given up my chance to win. The truth is that it was tough out there, and when the chatter started at the weigh-in site I got my hopes back up again. It turned out I didn’t need one more big fish. With 22-03 I held off Florida native Bobby Lane by almost 3 pounds.
I’m thrilled to be able to report on this big win, and in hindsight, I think there were several keys. First off, even though Kissimmee is a big lake, only certain areas were productive and the tremendous pressure hurt those areas. Second, I forced myself to slow down. Talking to some other competitors after the event, I realized that many of them succumbed to pressure and fished faster when the bite got tough. That’s a recipe for disaster.
I won the way I like to fish, with a 7’11” Denali J2 Series flipping stick in my hand. I paired it with a Shimano Ci4 casting reel (7.6:1) spooled with 40 lb. test Gamma Torque braided line. My key bait was a Missile Baits Baby D Bomb in Bruiser Flash (black/blue) with a Reins 1 ½ or 2 ounce tungsten weight, depending on the thickness of the cover. I’ve switched from a 4/0 Gamakatsu Super Heavy Cover flipping hook to a 3/0 and I feel that has improved my hookup percentage substantially. It may go against the grain, but it works for me.
One final equipment note: The first tournament after I picked up my last boat, a Phoenix 920, was the Wild Card that I won. This was my first tournament in my new Phoenix 921, and I won it, too. I’m going to lobby Gary Clouse of Phoenix to build me a new boat for every tournament now. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Seriously, this win is huge for my confidence heading into both the 2015 Classic on Hartwell and the 2015 Elite Series season generally. Not only does it provide some financial help, but it allows me to fish without any pressure. That could be dangerous for me or for the competition – that remains to be seen – but I’m going to take some chances and see where that leads me. I’m fishing well and I’d like that success to snowball.
Next up is the Hartwell Classic. With a handful of Classics under my belt, I know that it is a tournament like no other. We’re so busy during the week that it feels like you only have two hours to fish rather than eight. The lesson I take from this win on Toho is that when that’s the case, you focus on things you do well, in areas that you know can produce. It sounds simple, but it’s harder than it sounds. By focusing on the known variables, I was able to win this week and I’m going to carry that mindset forward.
2014 Season Wrap-Up
Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year Championship
Bays de Noc
10 fish, 26-05
Bassmaster Southern Open
Charlotte, North Carolina
15 fish, 32-07
The end of my tournament season was really busy, starting off with the Elite Series Angler of the Year event in Escanaba, Michigan. I didn’t have much to gain or much to lose because I’d already solidified my position in the Bassmaster Classic and was out of the running for the AOY title. Nevertheless, we’d heard that the Bays de Noc were great fisheries with monster smallmouths and that you could catch them any way you wanted – dropshot, topwater, Chatterbait, swimbait, etc. That excited me, even though there wasn’t a lot of money at stake.
Unfortunately, despite it being a large body of water, it fished quite small. There was some ultra-productive water, but also a lot of dead acreage. When the wind blows it fishes even smaller and it definitely howled while we were there, to the tune of three canceled days. We finally finished up on Monday and that led to a long drive to North Carolina for the final Southern Open of the year.
I have a fair amount of experience on Norman and it was no secret that the tournament was likely to be won on docks this time of year. There are docks everywhere, so the goal was to isolate the area that had the best chance of producing the winning weight and then dial in its potential over the three days of competition.
During the practice period, I narrowed down my approach to two main presentations: for the first hour or so, when there were low-light conditions, I’d hit up to 20 or 30 spots with a ½ ounce white Lunker Lure buzzbait, trying to catch fish that had pulled up to feed overnight. If I could catch three or four keepers doing that, then I could pick up my ½ ounce Lunker Lure Limit Series jig and hit the docks. Tipped with a Missile Baits D Bomb, it very closely mimics the bluegills and crawdads that hide in that shade.
I was pretty confident that I was around the right caliber of fish, but I knew that my ability to make the top twelve would depend on whether I got a quality bite each day. On the first day of competition I got it, a 3 ½ pound largemouth that had me in 3rd place with 13-08. Then on Day Two the weather changed. It was cloudy and rainy and the fish were looser on the docks. Using the buzzbait and the jig, along with a Sammy 115 topwater, I added 11-03 and remained in 3rd place.
Heading into the final day I was only a little over 2 pounds out of the lead, but on Norman that seems like a huge deficit. There was no reason to abandon my game plan. After the rain exited, it was clear and windy. My topwater bite was OK, but the jig bite died as a result of the front, so I switched from the bigger jig to a Lunker Lure shakey head tipped with a 4-inch Zoom Finesse Worm to finish out my limit. I knew that I probably couldn’t win on the little worm so once I had five in the livewell I went back to the jig. It just didn’t work out, and my catch of 7-12 dropped me to 7th place.
Andy Montgomery performed masterfully to earn the win. He has a lot of history on Norman and lots of places to visit, so as my fish depleted he kept expanding. Overall, though, I’m pretty satisfied because a top ten on Norman is something to be proud of.
That tournament ended the year for me just as I started it – strong. By finishing 4th in the points in the Southern Opens I requalified for the Elite Series that way, as well as through the Elites themselves. Also, I’ll be fishing the Toyota Texas Bass Classic on Lake Fork in May as well as the February Bassmaster Classic. I feel very blessed. I’ve worked hard to advance as an angler and it’s gratifying to see the fruits of those labors.
Of course none of this would’ve been possible without the help of my sponsors. A 1 ounce Lunker Lure jig fished on Denali Rods and Gamma Line gave me the confidence to swing hard all year long. Jasper Engines and Transmissions enabled me to be out there doing what I love to do. My Phoenix boat and my Humminbird electronics did not give me a moment of trouble, allowing me to focus 100 percent on my job. Few other anglers have that kind of support system.
After Norman, we headed straight to Hartwell to do a little bit of pre-Classic scouting. I didn’t fish much, instead spending hours upon hours graphing with my Humminbird 1198, both side-imaging and down-imaging, trying to refamiliarize myself with the lake’s contours. When I arrive for the official practice, I want to know not only how to navigate safely, but where every little ditch and brushpile might sit. I’ve had a great season, and that leaves me fired up about the next one.
Bassmaster Elite Series Cayuga Lake
Union Springs, New York
10 fish, 27-02
I’d never been to Cayuga prior to the official practice period for this last full-field Elite Series tournament of the year, but I knew that the lake was going to pump out some 20-pound-plus stringers and that it had a lot of grass (both shallow and deep) in the upper third of the lake. It also has a lot of docks. Therefore I was excited and confident that it would fish to my strengths.
On the first day of practice, I had an excellent day fishing a big Lunker Lure jig out in the grass in 12 to 14 feet of water. One stretch in particular treated me exceptionally well, and I hit the water on the second day of practice looking to expand on that promising start. As that second day progressed, and into the third day, the jig bite gradually got weaker and weaker. It never went away altogether, but increasingly I turned to a crankbait and a Senko with a 3/16 ounce tungsten weight to figure things out. The Senko seemed to be the most consistent producer.
I spent the final day of practice plying some of the well-known community holes to try and figure out if they’d hold up during competition. On the first day of the tournament, I ran to one of those areas and it proved to be even more crowded than I’d expected – there were probably 30 boats in one 200 yard stretch. I struggled early, catching one 14-inch bass pretty quickly, but then struggling for a while. The crowd got to me mentally, and eventually I had to make a move to get away from them. The other thing that complicated my efforts was the, at-times, violent storms that rolled through the area.
Once the bad weather cleared out, I started to run the little isolated patches of grass that I’d found, and that proved to be the ticket. They produced a limit pretty quickly, but they weren’t the right quality – a 3-pounder, a 2 ¼, a 2, and two plain keepers. Those wouldn’t get the job done, so as the day progressed, I ran about 10 miles south to my best stretch and culled three of those five, using a D Bomb with a 1 ounce weight in addition to the Senko. The D Bomb triggered some reaction bites, but I never got the big bite that I knew was there, and I eventually settled onto my weight of 14-02. That put me in 46th after Day One, just 2 pounds out of 25th. I was surprised that 14-plus didn’t have me higher in the standings.
Day Two was predicted to have more sunshine, which tends to position the grass fish more predictably, so I committed to spending more time on my best isolated spots, especially since I had an early weigh-in. I put three fish in the boat pretty quickly, and then at around 10:30, I ran back to my best stretch and was surprised to see nobody there. Within 10 minutes I caught my best fish of the day, which was a hair or two under 4 pounds. Then I did the right thing and slowed down , sticking with it until I had four or five more good bites.
With an hour to go, I ran up to the north end of the lake near the check-in site and managed to cull once more, but despite my best efforts, I simply didn’t get the big bite that I needed. I ended up with 13 pounds even, for a total of 27-02, just 15 ounces out of the top 50.
I’m not making an excuse, but one other factor that complicated this tournament for all of the competitors was the tremendous population of pickerel in Cayuga. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I caught at least 30 to 40 of them every day. The real problem is that during practice, you never knew if the fish you shook off was a bass or a toothy critter.
This is one of those events where you really have to applaud the winner. Despite all of the various factors in play, and the extremely tight weights in general, Greg Hackney won by over 9 pounds. That’s unbelievable. Looking back on it, I found the right pattern and presentation, just not the right places. Greg and Todd Faircloth (2nd place) managed to fish a little bit away from the crowd and that was the right call. Despite that slight disappointment, I’m now locked into the Angler of the Year Championship and the Classic, so it certainly wasn’t a disaster.
A few tackle notes: I fished my workhorse black and blue 1 ounce Lunker Lure jig on a Denali 7’11” XH Jadewood Rod paired with a 7.6:1 Shimano Ci4 reel spooled with 40 pound test Gamma Torque Braid. The D-Bomb (green pumpkin) with a 1 ounce weight was on the same rod/reel/line setup. The Senko (green pumpkin) was on a 7’ heavy-action Noirwood rod, same reel, but with 14 pound test Gamma Fluorocarbon. I added a 3/16 ounce tungsten weight.
In theory, we have a few weeks off before we have to go to Escanaba, Michigan, for the final event, but we’re starting construction on our house at Table Rock and I’ve spent the last few days busy with plans and contractors. After making the swing through the northeast on my own, it will be good to have Debbie with me in Michigan and then after that at Lake Norman.
Right now, I’ve got big smallmouths on my mind. This final Elite event is going to be fun – we should crush them in just about every way you’d want to catch them – and we’ll all get to fish for three days. I like the way that my season has progressed and things continue to look good in front of me.
Bassmaster Elite Series Delaware River
4 fish, 6-11
The reality of the challenge of fishing the Delaware River didn’t hit me until just a few months before the tournament was slated to start. I talked to Mike Iaconelli, the hometown favorite and a veteran of this fishery, and he told me that 12 pounds a day would be the golden ticket.
I knew it was going to be tough, but I also felt that the river was set up to fish the way I like to fish – there would be eelgrass and hydrilla and milfoil, so I kept up a good attitude and thought that I’d figure something out. The one hitch would be the violent tide swing, up to 9 feet. I’ve never experienced something that drastic, and until practice was underway, I didn’t realize how short the optimal window would be. Typically, you want to be on your best stuff at a low, outgoing tide, and that doesn’t last all that long on the Delaware. Making it tougher, that optimal zone got a bit later each day, and with a short day on the third day of practice, it was impossible to run around and check lots of places out at their best. It makes you pick an area and commit to it, which is hard to do on a system you don’t know all that well.
Even though the fish population was small, I was confident that if I got around the right group of fish I could wait out a decent bag. I wasn’t going to run the tide because that probably meant trips of 60 or 70 miles into the unknown. Practice was a grind – I got five bites the first day, none the second day and two the last day. With the exception of one fish close to two pounds that jumped all over a frog, I didn’t see any of them because I was afraid to set the hook and burn up a fish I might need during competition.
On the first day of competition, I made the easy choice to go up where I’d had the five bites and arrived to find it covered up with boats. That was reassuring that I’d found something good, but it didn’t give me much freedom to move around. It forced me to stay in my best areas and really bear down. I had to be sure that I’d catch fish and get some points. When I’d talked to Kevin VanDam that morning, I heard concern in his voice and saw it in his face. He had a very difficult time this week, blanking on Day One, and that’s not a frequent occurrence. I managed two bites that first day and caught them both. They weighed 3-09.
On the first day I left my key area when the tide turned and most of what I hit after that proved to be unproductive, so on Day Two I committed to my first area, kept my head down and fished hard. That day I had three bites. One was short and two kept. They weighed slightly less than my two fish the first day, a total of 3-02. I was glad to have them.
I threw a wide variety of lures at the Delaware, but the two best presentations turned out to be a Lunker Lure Limit Series jig and pitching a Trick Worm on a 3/16 ounce Lunker Lure Shakey Head. The jigs were black and blue, both 3/8 and ½ ounce depending on the desired fall rate. I fished them on a Denali Noirwood 7’ heavy action rod with a Shimano Ci4 baitcasting reel spooled with 16 lb. test Gamma fluorocarbon. I tipped the jig with a Missile Baits Baby D-Bomb in “Bruise.” The worm was green pumpkin, and I fished it on a 7’ medium-heavy Denali Noirwood rod and a Shimano Ci4 baitcasting reel spooled with 14 pound Gamma fluorocarbon. The water was quite dirty and, when the tide got up, the jig was better than the worm. I caught one weigh fish each day on each bait.
Overall, while I’m not thrilled with a 75th place finish, I feel that I practiced well and fished clean this week. If I had it to do over again, I’d probably spend some time farther south, but it was so hard to just get a bite that you couldn’t run all over the place. Only one guy caught a limit every day. You simply can’t master that system in 2 ½ days.
My performance locked me into the AOY event on Escanaba, but I haven’t yet locked myself into next year’s Classic. Before we go to Michigan, there’s Cayuga, and I’m jacked up about that one. It has deep grass and shallow grass, and I know they catch big bags dropping a jig. I’m going to practice daylight to dark and do my best to make up some of the lost ground from Philadelphia.
Bassmaster Elite Series BASSFest
9 fish, 25-04
I’d fished Chickamauga twice before in FLW Tour competition, once in the early spring when the fish were pre-spawn and once in the post-spawn period, about the same time of year as this event. In BASSFest all Elite Series contestants would get the same number of points so I had nothing to lose. If I had the opportunity to take a chance I was fully prepared to do so.
I strongly suspected that the tournament would be won deep, and I found a lot of good deep structure to fish – both subtle places and the community holes – but it seemed like there were 10 or 15 boats on each of them. That makes a tough situation even harder, because I don’t do well when you have to mix it up with a crowd and then wait out a bite here and there. The schools didn’t seem to fire up reliably, either.
Knowing that the harsh winter had everything behind schedule, on the final day of practice I slid up shallow and in the last three or four hours found some groups of quality fish. I knew they’d probably be depleted pretty quickly by other people who’d found the same fish, so I committed to starting on them and riding them as long as I could.
On Day One, the weather threw us a curveball, with heavy winds and clouds, but I got off to a great start, with a 7 pound 11 ounce bass in the first 10 minutes, exactly where I’d shook her off during practice. After that I pieced a limit together pretty quickly, primarily off of some docks, but with the cloud cover, it scattered the fish out, and I had to work a little bit harder than I would’ve liked. Still, I ended up with 16-13, which had me in 24th place.
Heading into the second day, I felt that in order to duplicate or better my first day weight I’d have to fish a little deeper, so I started in an offshore spot where I’d caught some fish in previous years. From what I could tell, the crankbait bite was pretty much dead, so I left that rod in the locker most of the time and primarily fished two lures: A ½ ounce Lunker Lure Shakey Head with a plum Missile Baits Tomahawk, and a Lunker Lure Football Jig. I also threw a ¾ ounce Biffle Bug a bit. During the first two hours of the day, I didn’t have a bite, so I moved out a little bit deeper and caught two pretty quickly. I was still concerned that my shallow fish had left me, and I felt that I had a good chance to catch a big one out deep, but, with the day passing by quickly, I really never settled on doing one thing. I flip-flopped between shallow and deep and that was my demise.
Even worse, it was Friday the 13th, which has been my nemesis for a long time. At 11 o’clock, I jumped off a 5-pounder at the boat on the same bait and in the same place where I jumped off a 6-pounder in one of the FLWs that cost me making the cut. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. It took me about a half hour to shake that off, giving me just enough time to head to the docks and catch two more. If I had it to do over again, I might’ve slowed down or stayed deep the entire time. The guys who won had to grind it out deep, but that’s tough for me to do in a crowd. I guess I have to work on it.
My four keepers totaled 8-07, causing me to just miss the cut. Instead I was relegated to the “second chance” tournament on Nickajack. I launched there on Day Three and simply didn’t fish well. I thought I needed to go right and instead I turned left and ran 45 minutes in that direction. It just didn’t pan out.
In terms of tackle, I fished the big shakey head on a 7’ Denali Noirwood medium-heavy rod paired with a high-speed Shimano Chronarch CI4 casting reel (7.6:1 gear ratio). I fished the Lunker Lure football jig on a 7’ heavy action Noirwood paired with the same reel. Both were spooled up with 15 pound test fluorocarbon. The other equipment that played a key role in my fish catches were my dual Humminbird 1198s. With the two of them and side-imaging, it’s possible to cover more water in a tournament than I ever thought possible. I also had the new Lakemaster chip, which is absolutely phenomenal. It’s amazing how far this technology has come in just a few years.
Now we have a few weeks off before the next Elite Series event. I’m working a tournament for Phoenix Boats, and then I’ll spend time with some JASPER clients before heading up to Philadelphia and the Delaware River, a body of water that’s totally new to me. I’m sitting in 4th in the Angler of the Year race, and I’d love to make up some ground on the three guys ahead of me.
Bassmaster Elite Series
15 fish, 38-14
I’d fished Dardanelle once before, but what really set me up to do well in this tournament was the fact that it fishes quite a bit like Crab Orchard, my home lake in Illinois. That helped a bunch. I knew that there would be a lot of boats crammed into three or four main areas, and while I don’t like fishing like that, it’s a scenario that I’m comfortable with.
Heading into practice the weather threw us a bit of a curveball. They’d had a ton of rain, which persisted throughout the three scouting days, and it continued to muddy up the water as the week progressed. There was a wave of late spawners that were just coming off the beds and they were really shallow. It’s a textbook scenario and in many ways I fished just as I did at Toledo Bend earlier in the month – just a bit shallower because the water wasn’t as clean.
Over the three days of practice, I divided the lake up into three sections and attacked one of them each day. Eventually I settled on the upper end of the river, which produced the most bites. I also thought it had the potential for a really big bag. I was getting 30-35 bites a day and knew that it would be important to get a kicker or two.
A lot of us don’t set the hook on many fish during practice, so we don’t have a sense of what kind of weights our areas can produce. The first day I weighed in 18-02 and that surprised me. I caught a limit really quick, including a couple of nice ones, then proceeded to cull up by ounces all day. At about 9:30 I went to a secondary spot, targeting water willow bank grass. Any time there was any wood in or near the grass, like a laydown, it was a given there would be a fish on it. About 2pm I flipped my jig at just such a spot and hooked and landed a largemouth of almost 6 pounds that pulled me up to that 18-plus range, good for 12th place.
On Day Two, we had a fog delay that lasted until about 8:45, making for a short day. I was concerned that I’d beat up on my primary area a little bit too much, but given how productive it had been, I had to head back there first thing. It was the first sunny day we’d had in a long time, and combined with a rapidly dropping water level that made the fishing tough. Still, I was reluctant to change tactics. I struggled to get bites and didn’t really figure out that the fish had moved off of the structure. I kept on thinking that the bigger bass would be buried in the thickest stuff and couldn’t back off. As a result, I weighed in only 11-02 and fell to 29th place. I had a couple of big flurries when the current moved, but couldn’t get a big bite.
On Day Three, the rain returned and I couldn’t wait to get out there and take another shot at them. The water had come back up and that sucked me in to the thick cover once again. I was fishing the backs of some creeks, but I knew the post-spawners were moving out, so I tried to run some new water. Most of it turned out to be unproductive. I weighed in only 9-10 and fell to 40th. That was particularly disappointing because lots of other guys caught them really well. It’s frustrating to not capitalize on those conditions, and I hope it doesn’t cost me the Angler of the Year title. It just goes to show that it’s a constant game of adjustments and this tournament threw as many changes as possible at us – those who adjusted the best got to keep on fishing.
As is often the case, my primary set-up this week was a ¾ ounce black/blue Lunker Lure jig with a matching Big Salty Chunk. I fished it on the 7’11” Denali flipping stick and a Lew’s Super Duty Reel spooled with 55 lb. Toray Fluorocarbon. When I have that combination in my hand, I feel like I can compete anywhere. The other equipment that really helped me was my Humminbird electronics. Dardanelle can be a very treacherous system to run, and not only did my mapping software enable me to find key areas, but it helped me get in and out of them in a timely fashion.
With five Elite Series tournaments in the books, I feel really good about this year. I’m in fifth place in the Angler of the Year standings, and while I feel that I have more to give, I’m also happy that I’ve taken advantage of my opportunities. I’m fishing against some of the best anglers in the world and lots of them would change places with me in a heartbeat. Now we have three weeks off before Chickamauga and I can use a little bit of rest to regroup and recharge. We’ve been going hard since January and I’m ready to start planning my late-season charge.
Bassmaster Elite Series
Toledo Bend Reservoir
20 fish, 77-06
Prior to this tournament I hadn’t spent a whole lot of time on Toledo Bend, and given the time of year, I expected the dominant pattern to involve a post-spawn structure bite and crankbaits or jerkbaits. Fortunately, I got on something altogether different within the first hour of practice that carried me the entire week, all the way to my best tour-level finish so far.
The water was unusually high, and when I launched the boat, I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was lots of visible grass everywhere. There was “hay” style grass with 6 to 8 feet of water in front of it and milfoil with at least 5 feet of water in front of it. I was in heaven, because I knew that’s where I wanted to focus, much as I would in Florida. In fact, I never had to pull my cranking rods out.
The first morning of practice we had a big thunderstorm roll through that forced me off the water for a while, but before it did that I had 45 minutes of the best fishing I’ve ever experienced. I caught one fish on a frog that was over 11 pounds, maybe pushing 12, and caught eight more solid keepers on a ¾ ounce Lunker Lure jig. In that short time, I knew what I was going to do during the tournament. I spent the rest of Monday and all of Tuesday trying to expand upon it. The particular area is known to have a population of big fish, and on a big lake like Toledo Bend with lots of standing timber it can be hard to get around, so I didn’t want to spread myself too thin by checking other areas. Making it even better, there was a wide range of water clarities in my area, so I knew that I could adjust with the conditions.
I was glad that I maximized my time those first two days because Wednesday was pretty much a washout due to heavy winds.
On the first morning of the tournament, I started off sight fishing and throwing a Senko, and I had a limit pretty quickly, which gave me the luxury to continue to learn the area as I went on. At about 10:30, I hit one good stretch where I culled three times – with a 7 pounder, a 4 pounder and a 3 ½ -- all in the course of about 10 minutes. From 11:30 to 2 I continued to cull with my jig and eventually got up to 18-15, which had me in 19th place. There was about a two to three hour period each day when they bit particularly well. I’m still not sure if it was because of a waning shad spawn or some other condition, but I knew that I needed to be in my best spots when that time rolled around.
I also knew that I needed to spend as much of Day Two with a jig in my hand as possible because that’s the lure that was producing the better fish. It was critical to be on my best stretches at the best times. Shortly after takeoff, I had three or four fish in the box, once again sight fishing and throwing the Senko, but at 11 o’clock I had another awesome 10 minute flurry and landed an 8, a 5 and a 4 to cull three times. After that, I never laid the jig down and continued to catch them, all the way until I had 24-13 in the box, enough to move up 16 places to 3rd.
Unfortunately, after making the 50 cut we had to deal with weekend boat traffic, and there were a lot of local tournaments on the lake on Saturday. There’s nothing you can do about that. I knew that I was fishing differently than most of them, but all of that pressure repositions the fish and makes it tough to get into a rhythm. I stuck with the jig all day, but I only had about half as many bites as the previous day, and I never got a big bite. My limit weighed 11-12 and I fell seven spots, but still managed to make the final day cut in 10th.
With nothing to lose and everything to gain on Sunday, I committed to the jig all day. At about 11am, that seemed like a bad decision because I only had one fish in the livewell. At that point, I returned to my primary area, and about noon I started catching fish again. It wasn’t fast and furious, but it was one here and one there and they were the right size, cookie-cutter footballs. In just a few hours, I went from potential disappointment all the way up to 21-14, the best bag of the day, while many other great fishermen faltered. At weigh-in I spent a lot of time on the hot seat and survived scares from Jared Lintner and Randall Tharp, but the one bullet I couldn’t dodge was eventual winner Jacob Powroznik. He beat me by 2 pounds, but I wouldn’t do anything differently. I did everything I could do, fished a really clean tournament, and I’m proud of my effort.
As often seems to be the case, the key bait was a black and blue ¾ ounce Lunker Lure jig paired with a Zoom Big Salty Chunk trailer. I fished it on two different reels – a Lew’s Super Duty and a Shimano Core – both spooled with 55 lb. Toray braid. The one change to my presentation is that I flipped it on a 7’11” Denali Jadewood extra-heavy flipping stick, which I’m sure enabled me to land fish that might’ve gotten away previously. I watched video of my performance after the tournament was over and saw that the rod’s unique action enabled me to get a hook into bass even when I was out of position to make the hook set. I’m excited about that – it’s going to mean more fish in the livewell just about every time out.
The other piece of equipment that made a huge difference was my 112 pound thrust Minn Kota trolling motor. I never stopped moving the whole tournament and I never had to worry that the grass would be too thick or that I’d run out of power.
After a short break, next up is Dardanelle, another shallow grass fishery. That suits me just fine – where’s there’s grass, there’s bass. We’re at the halfway point of what so far has been a fantastic season. I’m in 5th place in the AOY race but it’s too early to count my blessings. There’s a lot of fishing left to go, including some fisheries I’ve never seen, but I’m in a good frame of mind and ready to keep on casting.
Bassmaster Elite Series
Table Rock Lake
13 fish, 33-04
With a strong start to the Elite Series season at Seminole and the St. Johns, I headed into our tournament at Table Rock feeling good about my chances. I’ve fished there quite a bit at this time of year, and I’m pretty good at both the jerkbait and Wiggle Wart bites that tend to dominate, but I’m also comfortable switching up my tactics as needed. The lake is very productive right now and I knew that the key would be not just catching fish but finding a way to add a kicker or two each day, adjusting as the weather changed.
In any tournament on a lake where you have a lot of experience, one key factor is to integrate your history into your game plan without relying on it entirely. If you’re inflexible, that’s when you tend to stumble. I’m comfortable with Table Rock and knew that I wasn’t going to get stressed out, but my history almost got me into trouble.
I spent the first day of practice on the lower end of the lake in the clearer water. It was a dark and cloudy day and the water temperature hovered around 48 degrees, absolutely perfect for the jerkbait bite and I did pretty well with it. There was going to be a warming trend, though, so I knew I’d have to expand upon things on the next day.
On the second day, against my better judgment, I went up the White River into the dirtier water. I knew that there would be huge numbers of fish up there, and I was filming a Pro Patterns segment and wanted to give them plenty of action. The area didn’t disappoint – I probably caught 75 fish cranking a Wiggle Wart – but my best five were probably only 12 pounds or so. I was afraid to make that long run when I wasn’t sure if there were any big fish biting up that way.
I decided to stay down in the clear water most of the third practice day and the results were less than inspiring. Eventually I worked my way up into the dirtier water in Long Creek and that’s when I started getting bit real well, including some big bites. I figured that if it blew on tournament day I could spend my time in the clearer water and use the Long Creek fish, which weren’t far away, as my fallback spot.
It was critical to start each day on your most productive water because there was a golden hour to an hour and a half period that you had to maximize. On the first day of competition, I started in the calm clear water in Indian Creek and missed that window of opportunity. The morning was brutal, with just four or five shorts to show for my efforts. I finally pulled up stakes and headed into Long Creek and started to catch short fish virtually non-stop, but I didn’t have a keeper in the box at 1:30. I was getting anxious and fishing too fast. Fortunately, that’s when the bigger ones started to bite and I ended up with a limit for 10-06. I was fortunate to have what I had. It left me in 84th place, which is horrible, but in reality it was only a pound and a half out of the cut. With a big bite on Day Two I could be right back in it.
On the second day, the weather completely changed, with heavy winds and rolling storms. I started in Indian Creek once again and this time they bit. I had a limit by 10 o’clock and culled several times, but I only had around 12 pounds at 12:30. I needed a big bite to make the cut. This time, I made the right move and went back to the dirty water and culled two or three more times, with a 6 pounder to boost my effort, jumping me into a tie for 29th place. I’d salvaged the tournament.
The weather changed again on Day Three – it was cold and clear, with no wind. I started in the clean water again, and true to form I couldn’t get a bite. By the time I left at 9 o’clock and went back to Long Creek, I’d missed my window of opportunity and was lucky to grind out three fish for 6-11 the rest of the day. Meanwhile, Kevin VanDam, fishing many of the same areas, went there first and lit them up. He had a huge bag on Day Three. That’s frustrating. If I’d even managed to catch a limit, I would’ve earned some critical points, but timing was everything.
The majority of my fish this week came on a Megabass Vision 110 jerkbait (Pro Blue), fished on a 6’6” medium-action Carrot Stix rod paired with a Team Lew’s reel and 8 lb. Toray fluorocarbon. I also added some on an old hand-painted Wiggle Wart. The crankbait was fished on a 6’9” medium-action Carrot Stix rod, a Team Lew’s reel and 10 lb. Toray fluorocarbon. A couple of key fish came on a shad-colored Hawg Caller spinnerbait, slow rolling it in the deeper trees. I had the right baits and the right tackle, but I made the wrong decisions.
We have a couple of weeks off before the next Elite Series event. The last four weeks were pretty rough, so this will give me a chance to catch up on the business side of the sport and reorganize my tackle before heading to Toledo Bend. I don’t know Toledo Bend or Dardanelle (the following stop) as well as I know Table Rock, but I love grass fishing and overall I’m fishing pretty well right now, so I’m sure I’ll be ready to get back on the road shortly. I’m 8th in the Angler of the Year race and I think that this rest will allow me to get revved up again to keep the momentum rolling.
Bassmaster Elite Series
St. Johns River
15 fish, 50-09
After finishing 15th at Seminole to start off my Elite Series season I was excited to get to the St. Johns River for what I expected to be another tournament focused on spawning bass. As usually happens, though, Mother Nature threw us a curveball with all sorts of changing weather so I forced myself to practice with an open mind, keying on the weather changes as they occurred.
I knew that there would be some good bags caught out of Lake George, but I also knew that it was going to be crowded and I had no intention of fighting the big crowds there. Instead, I focused on Crescent Lake. The first day of practice was stormy, which made it hard to sight fish. Instead I headed into a likely spawning area and fished around with a Missile Baits Shockwave and absolutely mauled them. I quickly figured out the certain areas where fish were already bedding, as well as some places where they were going to bed, anticipating that I’d need them to replenish every day in order to have a good tournament.
I only covered half of Crescent that first day, so on Day Two I finished my loop and ended up with a pretty good idea of what I would be doing when the tournament started. On the third day, I tried to refine my tournament strategy by finding some areas in between Crescent and the ramp where I might be able to supplement my catch or make a good cull. That ultimately proved to be a good use of my time.
After the stormy conditions during practice, Day One of the tournament turned out to be sunny and dead flat calm, so rather than cover water with the Shockwave I was able to bed fish with a straight tailed finesse worm, pitching it into the holes in the grass and around the cypress trees. I had my key areas mostly to myself and worked them over pretty hard. Along the way I caught a lot of fish. I had thought that I could catch at least one or two a day over the six pound mark, and I was very disappointed that didn’t happen. I weighed in 14-03 and sat in 45th place.
The second day I followed pretty much the same strategy and while I caught fewer fish, the average size was better. Quite a few fish had pulled up overnight in Lake George, so while I weighed in almost a pound more than on the prior day, everyone else caught them too, so I dropped a spot to 46th. That was pretty nerve-wracking because I had expected that bag to move me up a few spots.
Heading into Day Three eight pounds out of the twelve cut I knew that I really had to catch a massive bag in order to get to fish Sunday. The decision seemed pretty obvious – throw the swimbait all day. It paid off pretty early, with an 8 pound 9 ounce largemouth in the boat at 9:30am. It was a grind, with bites few and far between, but when one ate it they absolutely choked on it. Late in the day I went back to the spot where I caught the big fish in the morning and culled out the other four fish in my livewell. I was pretty sure that would be enough to move me up the leaderboard.
Heading back to weigh-in, I stopped at a spot on the main river to flip holes in the eelgrass and caught the 5-pounder I needed to move up even more. When it was over I had 21-05 in the livewell. As a result, I moved up 26 spots that day, to 20th, not enough to get me into Sunday’s cut, but enough to push me into 8th place in the Angler of the Year standings with a quarter of the season completed.
While I would’ve liked to have finished better, overall I consider this to be a very satisfying event and one that provides a huge confidence boost. I maximized what I had to work with and made some critical adjustments. On the third day, I moved out about 30 yards from where I’d been fishing and that seemed to prolong the bite and improve the overall quality. I suppose I could’ve done that earlier in the tournament, but there’s no guarantee it would have worked a day or two earlier.
I fished the junebug worm on a 7-foot Carrot Stix heavy-action rod with a Lew’s Super Duty reel spooled with 16 lb. test Toray fluorocarbon. A 5/16 ounce Gambler tungsten weight completed the presentation. The swimbait was on a 7’6” Carrot Stix heavy-action rod, same reel, but this time spooled with 55 lb. test Toray braid. The Shockwave is an incredible bait, one that I wish I’d had years ago – in this case the “Shrapnel” color seemed to produce the best bites.
The other elements of my equipment that made a critical difference were my twin 12-foot Talons. I was able to help myself on Day Three by fishing some deeper areas and the ability to anchor in 9 to 11 feet of water and not worry about the wind pushing me up into my areas likely enabled me to catch some fish that would’ve been pretty spooky if I’d drifted over them.
Now I have a week off before the third stop of the Elite Series season – on Table Rock, my new home lake. This short period of time to recharge will be good for me. After four tournaments in a row, I’m a little tired. Fortunately, it’s not too much time off, because while it’s important to be well-rested, I also want to keep this good momentum going.
Bassmaster Elite Series
15 fish, 52-10
With consecutive good tournaments in Alabama, I wanted to keep the momentum going in Georgia as I embarked on my first Elite Series season. I’ve made a vow to take things back to basics, quit trying to confuse myself, and fish the way I like to fish, and so far it has been working. I’m making really good decisions on the water.
Heading into the Elite Series opener on Lake Seminole, I was watching the weather and the moon phase carefully and expected that sight fishing would play a major role in many competitors’ plans. As so often happens, a cold front disrupted the move to the shallows and in many respects that played right into my hands. Seminole is a great fishery, but the weather was changing every day. As a result, the fish were moving too much for the weights to be really high across the board.
I spent the first practice day in Spring Creek, a well-known and popular spawning area. I was there all day and caught some fish, but really not the numbers or size that I thought it would take to win the tournament. Therefore, on the second day of practice I went up the river and started planning for something other than sight fishing. I started flipping a Missile Baits D Bomb into thick mats and flinging a big Lunker Lure jig around. I caught my biggest fish of the week that day, and shook off a few that felt like they were pretty substantial, but still I felt that it wasn’t phenomenal. I was trying to plan for where the fish would be on Thursday and could only make an educated guess about how things would play out.
On the afternoon of the second day through the final day of practice, I invested a lot of time in looking for bedding fish. I made the rounds of the clearer areas of the lake and a lot of the backwaters. Again, I never discovered the group or groups of fish that I thought could put me in the winner’s circle, but there were a bunch of fish up shallow that were willing to bite – at least they were willing to bite that day.
When the tournament started on Thursday I decided to chase after some of those bed fish, but most of them were gone. The ones that stayed behind were difficult to catch, and when I didn’t have anything in the livewell at 10:30, I knew it was time to cut my losses and make something happen. It was a textbook scenario to get those flipping fish to bite, and when I got up the river they were chewing. By the time I weighed in, I’d gone from an empty livewell to a limit that weighed 20 pounds 10 ounces and had me in contention.
Even though I’d brought a good weight to the scales on Thursday, I knew that Friday wouldn’t be easy. I’d have to put my head down and keep on flipping non-stop, waiting for that one to one and a half hour window when there would be a little flurry. It was definitely slow, but I caught three fish early before it dried up for a while. Finally, at 12:30, I moved to my secondary area right in time for that golden hour and a half. I changed from the D Bomb to a ¾ ounce jig and fished down the edges until I intercepted the schools. When it was all over, I’d added another 22-06 to my total.
I was committed to fishing the jig on Day Three. I felt that it provided me with the best chance to make a run at the win. The weather had other ideas. It warmed up and that spread out the schools of fish, so I never really had a shot at that brief flurry that I’d encountered the prior day. I still had the bites to put 16 or 18 pounds of bass in the boat if I’d landed them. Unfortunately, those bedding fish bite kind of funny, just swatting at it and moving the bait a short way. I botched a few of them, but many of them were simply uncatchable. In the end, I weighed in four for 9-10.
Looking back I don’t think that I’d do anything different. I suppose you could argue that I should’ve done more sight fishing, and that proved to be the ticket for some of the competition, but plenty of others stayed with it too long and ended up way down the leaderboard as a result. I feel like I made good decisions and maximized what I had to work with. I’ll take a 15th place finish to start the season any day. It provides a boost to my confidence and combined with the other recent strong finishes I truly feel that I have a legitimate shot at winning one of these upcoming events. Moving to the Elites has really galvanized my desire to work harder and get my fishing back where I expect it to be.
My tackle from this event was pretty simple. I paired a “Bruise”-colored D Bomb with a 1 3/8 ounce tungsten weight. The ¾ ounce black and blue Lunker Lure jig got a matching Big Salty Chunk on the back. I threw both on an 8-foot extra-extra-heavy Carrot Stix rod paired with a Lew’s Super Duty Reel and Toray 55 lb. Finesse Braid. It’s simply the best braided line that I’ve ever used and has increased my efficiency whenever I have to beef up my tackle.
Next up is the St. Johns River in Palatka, Florida. Based on my prior experience, I expect this one to be a little bit tougher than many others believe it will be. I know that the fish are pretty hard to catch off of the beds in this system and with some nasty weather coming in, it’ll be tough to find the precise winning pattern during practice. The anglers who do well will adjust as they go and figure out a way to add a kicker or two every day. The way I’m fishing now, I feel confident that I’ll make the type of decisions necessary to be near the top once again.
Bassmaster Southern Open
10 fish, 23-02
After the Bassmaster Classic at Guntersville, I didn’t have to go far for the next tournament, just a bit down the road to Jasper, Alabama, home of Smith Lake. The two bodies of water are very different, but I was still looking forward to making the change. I knew that there’d be a decent Alabama Rig bite, and that a jerkbait and crankbait would probably play a role, too. I also hoped they’d bite a jig a little bit, but in the end I knew that the A-Rig would be the major player.
Ultimately, I didn’t get to practice too much because I came down with a nasty flu that seems to follow me wherever I go this year. Obviously, I needed to spend some time on the water, but with back-to-back Elite Series events coming right on Smith’s heels I knew that it was most important that I get healed up. The weather was miserable – cold, rainy and windy – which wasn’t conducive to getting better.
Fortunately I’d been to Smith before and between my history there and the time I got out during the practice period, I felt that I could focus on one particular area. I looked at some other stuff but pretty quickly narrowed it down to one section of the lake, figuring I’d live or die there.
On the first day of competition, the weather stayed true to form and once again it was nasty and wet. In other words, a perfect Alabama Rig day. I started off throwing it early and had four or five bites on it first thing in the morning before I caught a nice spotted bass. That was pretty much the last bite I got on it, though. I switched to cranking a Wiggle Wart on 10 lb. Toray fluorocarbon, and it was game on the rest of the day. Four of the five fish I weighed in came on the crankbait, but I struggled to get quality bites. At the last minute, I finally had a 4 pound largemouth slap at it, but he was barely hooked and when he came up near the boat he spit the lure back in my face. I ended the day with 11-09, which was enough to keep me in the hunt, but in order to move up I’d likely need to add a kicker or two on Friday.
I was pretty jacked up to start the second day of competition. The conditions were completely different than those on Day One – sunshine and no wind, and the water had cleaned up. I picked up where I’d left off the day before, with the cranking stick in my hand, and I caught a nice largemouth right out of the gate. By 10:30, though, I hadn’t caught anything else and I was starting to get pretty frustrated. I’m sure it was the conditions. They just don’t bite that crankbait as well when it slicks off like that.
With the crankbait bite pretty much dead, I pulled out the A-Rig and decided to fish some new places. Specifically, I went out a lot deeper than I’d been fishing and started to get bites almost immediately. With a short day (2pm weigh-in), I had to make it happen quickly, and I did, but once again I had trouble with some of the bigger bites. One of the lost fish was my fault, but the other one was not. I had a wire on my A-Rig break and the fish came off. I suppose I could have checked to see if that was likely to happen, but it’s not a problem I’ve had before so I had no reason to think it would bite me during the tournament.
Once again, I weighed in 11-09 and ended up in 25th place, just about two pounds out of the top 12 cut. I don’t think I was around the fish to win, so I’m not as disappointed as I might normally be in that situation. More importantly, I’m pleased with the adjustments that I’m making on the water. I switched things up each time the conditions changed and that’s what you need to do in order to succeed at this level. It leaves me headed into the Elite Series season with a lot of confidence.
For the Alabama Rig, I used an 8-foot extra-extra-heavy Carrot Stix rod with a Lew’s Super Duty reel and 20 pound test Toray Fluorocarbon. The best rig I’ve found is the Lunker Lure Gill Raker and with Missile Baits Shockwaves on the back – it’s deadly. I fished my Wiggle Wart on a 6’9” Carrot Stix medium action rod with a Team Lew’s baitcasting reel spooled with 10 pound test Toray fluorocarbon. Those two combos did almost all of the heavy lifting and helped me to maximize my chances. The other piece of equipment that really helped was my Humminbird 1198 side-imaging unit. With limited practice time, I literally just had to drive around and look for bunches of fish, often without making a cast. The fish were grouped up. You couldn’t necessarily make every group bite on tournament day, but it made it easy to eliminate unproductive water.
Next up is the Elite Series season opener on Seminole. I expect that it’s going to be a sight fishing blowout, and that has me extremely excited. I’m glad to be back with B.A.S.S.
2014 Bassmaster Classic
13 fish, 47-12
Going into my first Bassmaster Classic since 2006, I wasn’t really sure what the Guntersville bass would be doing. This time of year is typically very volatile, and February of 2014 was no exception. We had cold weather, snow, rain and then a warming trend. I knew that certain lures would probably dominate – specifically a lipless crankbait and a chatterbait in the grass, along with a jerkbait – but with water temperatures in the 40s, everything was subject to change at a moment’s notice.
Since I’d been there for pre-practice in December, a lot of the grass had died off as a result of the exceptionally cold winter. The majority of the grass that remained was in the backs of the creeks, an area that the fish typically don’t frequent this early. There were some fish still out on the main lake, but they weren’t relating to anything in particular, and without being able to use the Alabama Rig, I felt that they’d be tough to locate and pattern.
Despite that fear, I still forced the issue and fished out on the river for two days of practice. I knew that’s where the real giants would be caught, but I couldn’t really get anything going out there and things were changing so fast that I had to locate a reliable population of fish that I could track. The backs of the creeks had numbers of fish and plenty of good ones, just not the absolute giants.
It was important to come out of the gates strong, and not fall too far behind the first day, so I started on a main river spot and had three bites there before heading to the back of a creek which had some of the thickest milfoil around. I got in there with a black and gold XCalibur XR75 one-knocker and went to work. Fishing it on a 7 foot Carrot Stix rod and a Team Lew’s baitcasting reel spooled with 16 lb. Toray fluorocarbon, I could feel everything that bait was doing, which enabled me to slow down my presentation and just tick the tops of the grass. When it would momentarily get stuck in the grass, I’d free the bait with a quick snap of the rod and often that’s when the bites would come.
The fish were out in the middle of the creek, and while I caught a 6-pounder very quickly, after that it was a grind, with just three more 2-pounders to show for my efforts. At 12:30, I left for my secondary spot and on my first cast I caught a short fish. With a quick adjustment, within five minutes I caught a 3 ½ pounder and on my next cast I landed another 6-pounder. After that, I had 10 or 12 bites that didn’t help before I hooked a fish that I couldn’t move. I never saw it, so I’m not 100 percent certain it was a bass, but it pulled off. Except for that I fished very clean and when I got to the scales I had 19-05. Normally that wouldn’t be great on Guntersville, but the weights were off and it put me in 14th place.
On Day Two, I was inclined to keep doing the same things, knowing that the fish were continuing to move a long distance. The water was getting dirtier, but I just felt that would push them out of the middle of the creeks and to the banks. At 7:35 I sat down a little bit short of where I intended to fish and fortuitously I landed right on top of the school. Twenty minutes later I had 16 pounds in the livewell, so it was clearly the right call.
The spot had quite a few 3- and 4-pounders, but I couldn’t get a 6-pound bite, so at 10:30 I left for my backup spot. On my first cast I landed a 3 ½ that didn’t help, but on the cast after that I landed a 5-pounder that enabled me to cull. The spot continued to produce and I even flipped a few docks with a ½ ounce black and blue Lunker Lure jig, which produced two of my weigh fish. With 21-14, I moved into 7th place. That was 6 pounds off the lead, but on Guntersville that’s a single bite.
It was going to take a few breaks to make up that deficit, and I just didn’t get them. My area continued to get muddier, which scattered the fish out. In the first two and a half hours of Day Three I caught three fish, but one was too short to keep and the other two were just average keepers. It wasn’t what I needed so at 9:30 I headed for my good spot from Day Two and it was covered up with local anglers. I couldn’t fish the key spots I wanted to hit, and in the areas I was able to fish I couldn’t get bit. That led me to scramble, trying different areas and different patterns, but nothing seemed to work. To be honest, it kind of spun me out. I ended the day with three fish.
The final result disappointed me, but looking back on it I realize that I didn’t know the lake well enough to make the winning adjustment on a whim. It takes time on a lake like that and I learned a lot as the tournament went on – if it was this week I’d be better prepared to make a charge at it. I really have no regrets. There were some patterns I’d considered, like what Jordan Lee did behind some of the culverts and causeways, or what Randy did on the Spring Creek bridge, but I hadn’t really developed them well enough in practice to make them a viable part of my game plan.
In addition to the tackle mentioned above, the other key piece of equipment this week was my bow mount Humminbird 360 sonar. It enabled me to look in front of the boat and find key grass patches without disturbing them first. It’s dead-on accurate and I was able to confidently make the right casts again and again.
Next up I’ll stay in Alabama for a Bassmaster Southern Open on Smith Lake. It’s getting cold here now, but I’m fishing well and since I don’t have the pressure of having to qualify for the Elites this year I can fish wide open and look exclusively for the winning pattern. After that the Elite Series season starts and I’m ready to go. It’s full of great lakes, some old, some new, but I feel like I have some momentum now and I’m anxious to keep on fishing.
Bassmaster Southern Open
10 fish, 21-12
Coming off my win in the Bassmaster Wildcard event at Okeechobee in December, I was really looking forward to getting back to Florida to start the 2014 season right where 2013 had ended, with another win.
It may seem like a long time ago, but I did pretty well at Toho last year, too, starting off the season with a 4th place finish in the first Southern Open of the year. This year, qualifying for the Elite Series wouldn’t be on my mind, so I would be in position to take some additional chances to shoot for another win.
Prior to arriving in Florida, I’d heard that Lake Toho had been on fire and Lake Kissimmee had been a little bit off. I kept that tucked away in my mind, but, with six days to practice, I had ample opportunity to check out all of the lakes in the chain.
I spent the first day of practice on Toho and saw enough to believe that it could be won there, but, as always seems to happen in Florida, we had some cold fronts pulling into the area that would push the nighttime temperatures down into the 30s, which always seems to put those Florida-strain fish into a funk. I was flipping a heavy weight around staging areas and had figured out which locations and which types of vegetation were best. As my practice drew to a close, I was leaning toward fishing in Toho. The only thing that messed that up was that the three biggest fish I caught all week came from Kissimmee.
I believed that I could get about 15 bites a day in Kissimmee, as opposed to 20 to 40 bites a day on Toho. I wouldn’t have to spend time in the lock if I stayed in Toho, but I felt that would limit my chances to bring in a big bag, so I came up with a compromise solution – I’d start off in Toho, stay there long enough to catch a limit, and then go to Kissimmee and grind it out there the rest of the day.
When I got to Goblet’s Cove on Toho the first morning of competition, it was immediately evident that the place was no secret. There were about 25 boats in there with me. With a short day (3:15 weigh-in), I didn’t want to die there, but I knew that I had to slow down to get the bites that others would miss. Fortunately, that part of my game plan worked out pretty well. I caught a limit quickly and locked through relatively early in the day. In some respects, the short day worked to my advantage because it forced me to stay in one area and work it thoroughly. On the other hand, while I caught numbers of fish down in Kissimmee I never had a big bite.
The second day of competition was my long day and I only stayed in Toho long enough to catch a limit. That might’ve been 45 minutes, which again worked well because it cleared out the huge numbers of boats from the locks. I locked through quickly and was on my best water with lots of time, but, once again, I never got a big bite. After weighing in 10-13 the first day, I weighed in 10-15 on Day Two. The overall catch was down a bit, though, and I moved up into 33rd place, enough to get a check for my efforts.
I suppose I could’ve tried to throw a lipless crankbait or a jerkbait a little bit more, like several of the top finishers, but that was a very hit or miss bite. I know it exists when it gets cold down there, and I did it for a while, but in some respects it’s a luck deal. Some guys who did well with it on the first day didn’t get a bite on Day Two.
What I’m proudest of from this event is how clean I fished. I’ve changed up a few things since Okeechobee and I think they’ve made me a more efficient flipper with a better overall hookup percentage. I’d had some issues with losing some fish, when using the big 2 ounce tungsten weight. I still use the same basic equipment – an 8’ extra-extra-heavy Carrot Stix flipping stick, 66 lb. Toray braid and a Lew’s Super Duty reel – but I’ve incorporated a new hook that seems to improve the process. It’s a Gamakatsu Super Heavy Cover flipping hook. It has the stoutest wire I’ve seen on a flipping hook and a friend of mine who works with steel has helped me to roll a specific little bend into it so it doesn’t flex at all. It pairs up perfectly with the Missile Baits Baby D-Bomb and that’s all I fished in Florida, in both the Bruiser Flash and Love Bug color patterns. I don’t think there’s a better small creature bait on the market today.
Next up is the 2014 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Guntersville. I haven’t fished a Classic since 2006, so to say that I’m excited would be an understatement. The catches are going to be huge and I have a few little tricks up my sleeve that I think might give me an edge over many other members of the field. I can’t wait.
Bassmaster Classic Wild Card
Lake Okeechobee, Florida
1st Place - 15 fish, 63-13
Morgenthaler Wins Bassmaster Classic Wild Card and Secures a Berth in the 2014 Bassmaster Classic
Jasper Engines and Transmissions Pro Angler, Chad Morgenthaler, almost passed up his opportunity for a “Golden Ticket” to fish the 2014 Bassmaster Classic. He debated the merits of fishing the Bassmaster Classic Wild Card on Lake Okeechobee in Florida, until he finally decided to make the commitment with one day to spare. Good thing. Chad won the tournament with 15 fish and a total of 63 pounds, 13 ounces. This was Chad’s first win on the Bassmaster Tournament Trail and it also secured his opportunity to fish in the 2014 Bassmaster Classic, his fourth Classic.
Chad’s indecision came from the existing financial commitment he had made to the Elite Series for 2014. In the end, he called sponsor, Jasper Engines and Transmissions, who agreed to pay his entry fee. “We have a great relationship with Chad and place a good deal of faith in his abilities and decision making”, said Tom Schrader, VP of Marketing and Strategic Development for JASPER. “We didn’t have to think too hard about paying Chad’s fee when we received the call”, he added.
Chad is, as one can imagine, on “Cloud 9” after his win and has been busy answering congratulatory calls, emails and Facebook postings. “The whole situation is still, to this day, so surreal. I just can’t believe that it fell together the way that it did’, he said. “I always thought my first win would come on Lake Okeechobee and for it to be coupled with a berth in the Classic made it even more special. Without JASPER’s help, simply going to the event would not have been possible for me. This win is as much for them as it is for me”, he added.
To read all of the details of Chad’s win on Lake Okeechobee, please visit such fishing sites as www.basszone.com, www.bassmaster.com and www.bassfan.com.
Lake Okeechobee - Clewiston, Florida
57th Place - 10 fish, 24-06
Coming off of a great finish at the Southern Open on Toho and Kissimmee, I felt like I had these Florida bass pretty well cornered, but sometimes it seems like fish down here are different than anywhere else in the country. Even the slightest change in weather messes with their heads. Right now Okeechobee has a lot of fish in it, and they can be caught a lot of different ways, but there’s so much water in the lake that the fish are scattered and a wind shift or drop in temperature can quickly ruin even the best bite.
I spent the three official FLW practice days trying to hit as many historically productive areas of the lake as possible. I figured that if I looked at a lot of water, in many different parts of the lake, then I was likely to fish into a key stretch that was loaded with bigger than average largemouths. Getting limits wouldn’t be a problem, but a 6- or 8-pound limit on the Big O won’t get you into the money.
When I’d been at Okeechobee in January, I’d done best on the north end of the lake, but during this practice I quickly realized that the north end was pretty much over. In a complete flop, the better fishing was at the south end of the lake. On the second day of practice, I found two big schools of fish down there and got a ton of bites, including some that were clearly very big, even though I shook the majority of the fish off. Unfortunately, what I didn’t know is that on the third practice day, while I was fishing elsewhere, they sprayed the entire area. About three miles of my best area proved to be worthless. I started there after we launched on Day One, but it didn’t take long to figure out that my fish were history.
Once I realized that the area I’d been banking on would be a non-factor, I moved over to Pelican Bay. I knew there were a lot of small fish there, but I also suspected that the bigger females wouldn’t be far behind. There were already 9 or 10 boats in my area when I arrived, but I still managed to catch a limit fast. After culling a few times I left to hunt down bigger fish but I never got the big bite I needed, so I ended the day with 11-02.
I knew that if I headed back to Pelican on Day Two, there was a real chance that I’d end up with a sub-10-pound limit, and that wouldn’t do me any good. With a couple of areas on my mind, I headed out that day planning to shoot from the hip and see what happened. I might stub my toe, but I also wanted to give myself a chance to vault up the leader board. Once again, I got quite a few bites in the first half of the day, but they were all small.
In the back of my mind I’d saved an area from practice where there were isolated mats mixed in among the flat reeds. Arriving there at 2pm, I immediately saw that the water had cleared up, which is critical in Florida. I could see loads of beds everywhere and I quickly caught a 5 ½ pounder that moved me way up. Then I culled three or four times, but I never got another really big bite. I caught them on swim jigs, swimbaits and Senkos, but the majority of the fish I weighed in came on the flipping stick. I was doing the right things; I just never made it into the areas that lit up on Day Two for a lot of other competitors. Still, I earned some valuable points and got a small check, although I missed out on another $6,000 by less than a pound.
Of course, I employed an 8’ flipping stick and 50 pound Power Pro braided line to do most of the damage, but my key equipment discovery this week was the reel I used. It was the new Lew’s Super Duty baitcasting reel. It’s low profile and light like their other reels, which makes it comfortable to fish all day, but the increased sturdiness and handle stroke provide more winching power to get big fish out of the thickest, nastiest cover on any lake.
Of course, now that I’ve found the perfect flipping reel, it’s time to leave Florida. For months it seems like all I’ve used is braided line and the only items in my storage boxes are hooks, big weights and Missile Baits D Bombs. My next two tournament stops are at Smith Lake in Alabama and Douglas Lake in Tennessee, and I don’t expect braided line flipping to play a role in either of those events. I hope I can remember how to cast with lighter tackle! Seriously, though, what I really hope is that these two tournaments develop such that they can be won with any one of a number of techniques. In other words, I hope it’s not entirely an Alabama Rig bite. I’m confident that if there are different ways to catch fish, with smart practices I’ll figure out how to catch the bigger ones.
Bassmaster Southern Open
Lake Toho - Kissimmee, Florida
4th Place: 15 fish, 45-15
I’ve spent a lot of time in Florida this winter, so I felt that the Toho Open was a great opportunity to show how well I’ve dialed in the bite. I proved to myself that I’m fishing well, but unfortunately, despite making some great adjustments, I ended up just over a pound short of the victory. A fourth place finish was a great way to start the year, but it still leaves me wanting more.
I started off my practice with a day in Toho itself, but I spent the rest of the time in Kissimmee. Once I got down there and saw how much better the fishing was, it was an absolute no-brainer. The better quality fish were relating to the thickest mats in areas closest to the main lake, which meant they were both going to the spawning areas and coming from those same areas – a constant stream of bass. Of the 30 to 40 bites I got each day, I only swung on about three but I still managed an 8 pounder each of my practice days there, so I knew they were the right fish. In fact, I felt early on that I had a decent chance to win, even if the weights went through the roof, as they often do in Florida.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Florida tournament without a cold front, and we had one blow in the last day of practice. I didn’t even go out. I knew the wind would muddy some areas, but I would just have to adjust on the fly.
Apparently just about everyone else figured out that the best bite was in Kissimmee, because out of just under 200 boats in the field, approximately 160 decided to lock down. That complicated matters because there was a real chance you wouldn’t make it back on time if you cut it close to weigh in. On the first day, I had to be back at 3pm, so I left Kissimmee at 1pm to be safe. Unfortunately, the sun didn’t pop out until about 11am, which gave me a very short window of opportunity. The fish bit funny that day, too. I probably had about a dozen bites where I never got a hook in them and only ended up with a little over 9 pounds.
In order to counter the troubles I’d had on Day One, I felt it was necessary to make some adjustments. First, I downsized from my standard D-Bomb to a smaller creature bait. I couldn’t reduce the size of my 1 ¾ ounce tungsten weight, but in order to get better penetration I dropped from 65 lb. braided line to 50 lb. braid. That helped me get through the thicker mats with ease. I also had time on Day Two to fish an area I hadn’t hit on Day One, and that’s where I caught two of my biggest fish. They were just enough to push me into the Day Three twelve cut by a few ounces.
On the third day, the sun was out and, with the water warming, I knew the better fish would be on the move. There was an area I’d fished on Day Two, but I only caught a bunch of small guys. Something told me it would be worth hitting again because the females would be moving in right behind them. I was only about 5 pounds out of the lead heading into the final day, so I knew that if I could intercept those big girls and sack 22 to 25 pounds, I had a shot at it.
I started at the north end of Kissimmee, where I’d caught my biggest fish on Day Two, but after hitting the heaviest mats for 90 minutes all I had in the livewell were four rats. At that point I made a move to the area I’d been watching and in another 90 minutes I had over 18 pounds. At that point it was 10am, and I felt like with another 6 to 8 pound bite I could make a run at the victory and the Bassmaster Classic berth that would come with it. Unfortunately, the bite died after that and none of my subsequent bites would allow me to upgrade.
All 12 boats had locked down that final day, and as we sat in the lock and then in the weigh-in line, there was some light chatter that I tried to tune out, even if I couldn’t help listening. It seemed that most of the field had struggled. I hoped for the best, but knew I’d probably come up one bite short. Indeed, the eventual winner, Richard Howes, caught a fish on his last pitch to tie Daniel Lanier and force a Day Four fish-off. That happens, and there’s nothing you can do about it, but it still hurts.
I’m certainly disappointed that I didn’t win. To come that close, with so much at stake, and not finish it off, it really bothered me at first. Now that I’ve had some time to digest it, though, I’ll take the positive out of it – I’ve got a great start to the Open season and I’ve taken the first step toward qualifying for the Elite Series if I choose to go that direction. Either way, I’m fishing well, making good decisions, and that allows me to stay focused. Next up is an FLW Major on Okeechobee and I hope I can keep the momentum going.
Smith Lake - Jasper, Alabama
36th Place: 10 fish, 21-04
I have a solid history on Smith Lake, and that helped with my practice strategy, allowing me to cut down the learning curve. Typically I target spotted bass there, but I felt like the largemouths would play a bigger role this year than they have in the past and I wanted to spend a lot of time looking for those better bites.
Even though the air was cold and we had snow during the practice period, the water temperatures were right at 50 degrees. Conditions got worse as practice progressed and that made the spotted bass harder to pattern. They follow around schools of herring and you can find them in an area one day and they’ll be gone the next. Despite that potential difficulty, I was able to start in areas where I’d caught them in the past and managed to dial them in pretty quickly. Then when it started to warm up I turned my attention to catching largemouths.
I quickly figured out that the largemouths were in the creeks where the dirtier water was located and I found them on bluff banks, holding in 3 to 12 feet of water. My goal was to pattern them but not get spread too thin – on Smith, getting from one creek to another can take a while and, if your fishing spots are in different arms, it’s possible to use up most of a tournament day just going from one to the next.
By the last practice day, I felt like I was in pretty good shape, with three or four main areas, one of which was close to the launch ramp and had a mixture of both largemouths and spots. That’s where I started on Day One, and I had three fish in the boat pretty quickly. As it started to warm up, I ran to one of my largemouth spots in Rock Creek. There were a lot of boats there, more than I expected, but by slowing down and fishing the water thoroughly I was able to get my limit quickly. The key bait was a 3/8 ounce ball head Lunker Lure Limit Series jig tipped with a green pumpkin chartreuse Critter Craw. I was also flipping a tube, which seemed to get better bites, but it was harder to keep them hooked. I didn’t lose any fish on the jig, but I lost a 5- or 6-pounder on the tube near the end of the day. It really hurt, and probably cost me the 20 cut. I ended the day in 48th place with 10-14. The weights were stacked pretty closely together.
Day Two dawned a little bit warmer and I decided to reverse my milk run and add some areas, too. I started in Brushy Creek and caught a couple of small spots, but it quickly became obvious that the fishing was tough. I went to my best largemouth area, a stretch where I’d had 15 bites the day before, and couldn’t get a single bite. That put me in scramble mode, but by the time I got back to where I’d started the first day, things started to get better. I could tell that it hadn’t been pressured, which allowed me to fish slowly and precisely, and almost immediately I caught number three, a nice largemouth. The fish had pulled out deeper and in the last 40 minutes I managed a really nice spot and then my fifth keeper to move me up 12 spots to 36th. It was a tough day for everyone, as many of the leaders stumbled, so I felt like I didn’t do all that poorly considering the circumstances.
I like Smith Lake. It reminds me of Table Rock and that’s my comfort zone. If I had it to do over again, I suppose I could have fished for spots more in practice to have more backup fish, but that would have limited my time to search for the largemouths, so I feel like I made the right trade-off.
Now we’re at Guntersville, taking care of some business and some hospitality trips. I have two events coming up at Douglas Lake and I can’t wait to get back in the water.
As I noted above, it was freezing cold at Smith and under those conditions it can be tough to safely launch and load your boat, especially on steep ramps and especially by yourself. The folks at EPCO Marine Products are offering a special deal this month on the Snapper Boat Latch, which takes all of the uncertainty out of the process. Just enter "CHAD" in the promo code box and they’ll take $100 off the price. It’s a no-brainer that’ll make any boater’s experience a better one.
PAA Tournament Series
3 fish, 6.10 lbs.
Bassmaster Southern Open
10 fish, 28-14
It’s rare that we have a chance to fish two tournaments on a single body of water in a given year, and even rarer that the two events occur back-to-back. That’s the situation that presented itself on Douglas Lake this year, though. It gave me a great opportunity to really dial in a pattern. Obviously, I’d like to do well in the PAA Series, especially because this year there’s a chance to qualify for two Toyota Texas Bass Classics, but just as importantly I was able to use the PAA event to prefish for the Bassmaster Southern Open. After a fourth place finish in the first Open, another good event would move me one step closer to qualifying for the Elite Series.
When we arrived in Tennessee I knew next to nothing about Douglas – just the fact that the Elites fished there last May and caught the bass fairly deep. I didn’t seek out any help and that may have hurt me, because I didn’t know that the Alabama Rig was going to play such a huge role. Instead I focused on the techniques that I typically utilize in 45 to 50 degree water. In the end, that meant I focused on a jerkbait and a jig. I thought there’d be a good cranking bite too, but I couldn’t make it happen.
I focused my efforts in 30 to 35 feet of water, and over the course of three days of practice, I had a total of seven bites, never more than three in a single day. That was all I had to go on. The first day of competition I started off throwing the jig on a bluff bank and caught a keeper real fast. That put me in that mindset, which was a mistake, because it just wasn’t happening. I had one more bite the whole day and as luck would have it I broke the fish off.
By the second day the word was out that the big catches were coming on the Alabama Rig. To be honest, I really hadn’t thrown the rig much, just a little bit a few weeks earlier at Guntersville. Still, I tied on the Lunker Lure Gillraker and basically didn’t put it down all day. I had a bite in my first five casts and thought it was really going to be on fire, but by 1:30 I hadn’t had another sniff, so I put it down and picked up the jig, at which point I caught my second fish pretty quickly. That was it.
Obviously, it was a disappointing tournament for me, but I learned a couple of things: First, the overall quality of the fishery was better than I’d expected. Second, the fish were shallower than I thought they’d be. I took Saturday off and worked for the PAA and then spent quite a few hours tweaking the Gillraker. By the time the Open started, I wanted to make sure I had the right heads, the right swimbaits and the right retrieve locked in.
On Sunday, I picked the Gillraker up and more or less didn’t put it down for the next six days. I probably threw it for close to 100 hours and it was a tremendous learning experience. That first day of practice I had 8 or 10 bites and they were all quality fish. Armed with the information from the week prior, I could key in on areas that I hadn’t fished before. It wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, but I was starting to get dialed in.
Over the four days of practice I found little groups of fish from one end of the lake to the other. Normally that’s a bad deal, because when the tournament starts you spend more time running around than fishing. In this case, though, it was helpful because Douglas just isn’t a very big lake. In fact, one tank of fuel lasted me five days.
When the tournament started, I was pretty confident that I’d narrowed down exactly what I needed to be doing and where. I fished the Gillraker on an El Grande Monster Rod paired with a Lew’s Super Duty Casting Reel (6.4:1 gear ratio) spooled with 25 lb. Tatsu fluorocarbon. Keitech 3.8” swimbaits seemed to produce the best results. I had tweaked the rig just right and they were really biting that day. I fished clean and ended up with 16-14, which had me in 20th place. All I needed was a couple of big bites to vault me up the leaderboard.
On Day Two, I got a big bite right out of the gate – a 5 ½ pound largemouth. I quickly added two more keepers, and then caught a giant smallmouth. It was probably 4 ½ or 5 pounds. Unfortunately, on Douglas, they have to be 20 inches to keep and this one was just about an eighth of an inch short.
I thought I had my timing down right, but due to the constantly changing weather I was actually off a bit. I ran down from the upper end to the lower end and added a fourth keeper, but that was it. With two hours left to go, I ran back up. I caught another big smallmouth that barely missed measuring, and then lost two three-pound largemouths in the last five minutes. Either one of those fish would have pushed me into the top twelve, but it wasn’t meant to be. I ended the day with four fish for 12 pounds. I was the “bubble guy,” sitting in 12th place, with five anglers left to weigh in but the last guy knocked me out.
The good news is that my goal all along has been to make the Elites. That means I’ll probably have to be in the top five in the points standings at the end of the season. Well, after two of three events I’m in first place, ahead of Brandon Lester by a point and ahead of my good friend Glenn Browne by four points. Now I can turn my attention to winning the points race.
I’ve also really gotten a crash course in maximizing the effectiveness of the Gillraker. I know when to add blades, where to add them and what size to add for maximum control. That should help me in my next event, an FLW Tour tournament on Beaver Lake. We’ve been there a lot of times before and it should fish fairly similar to Douglas. I’m a little tired after going at it so hard for a number of weeks, but I’m also fishing with an open mind and a lot of confidence. I like the way that feels.
10 fish, 20-10
Coming off a really good finish at the Southern Open on Douglas Lake I was fishing with a lot of confidence. We’ve been to Beaver Lake a number of times on the FLW Tour, including when it was low as it is now. I figured I’d spend most of my practice time up the river, where the bigger sacks are usually caught, but after 13 hours of driving I decided to stay close to the campground on the lower end of the lake the first day. That proved to be useful, because I easily could’ve had a 12 pound limit, and probably could have had some more.
The second day I went up the river to the War Eagle area. That’s where a lot of the bigger catches occurred last year. This time around most of the fish I caught up there were shorts. I never really got in a groove or developed any confidence in that part of the lake, so on the final day of practice, I elected to look for more stuff in the lower end. I would have had 12 or 13 pounds again, and historically that’s been pretty strong there, so I decided to stay down lake for the tournament. I figured that if I had a good limit in the boat early, I could run up lake for a couple of hours looking for one or two big bites.
As I’d hoped, I caught a limit pretty quick on the first day of competition. Those first five fish included two keeper smallmouths, one decent largemouth and two spots. I was catching them in 20 feet of water on a ¼ ounce Lunker Lure shakey head with a green pumpkin Missile Baits Fuse on the back, fished on 6 lb. fluorocarbon.
The shakey head bite got slow in the afternoon, so at about 1:30 I ran up to a creek where I knew some big largemouth lived. I started pitching a 3/8 ounce Lunker Lure Limit Series jig (Missouri craw with a green pumpkin Twin Turbo on the back) around the pole timber. That was obviously the ticket because I caught 25 more fish in the last two hours, including a 4 pound largemouth and another good largemouth to cull again. That gave me 13-01 for the day, and I was pretty happy.
Unfortunately, it was clear that the afternoon bite was much better than the morning up there, and I had a short day on Friday. Still, I had some areas on the lower end that I hadn’t been able to fish the first day due to the wind, so I hit them early and had a limit of spots in 90 minutes. By 11:30 I hadn’t improved my weight so I had to push the issue on the shallow bite and go hunting for those bigger largemouths, but I didn’t have enough time. It was just starting to turn on when I had to leave, and I ended up with a limit that weighed 7-09.
Despite falling quite a few spots on the leaderboard, I still got a check. I would have had some valuable points, too, except for the fact that I’m going to have to miss the FLW on Eufaula, which all but eliminates my chances of making the Forrest Wood Cup. That’s bittersweet – I’m glad to be fishing well, and with strong momentum, but there were scheduling conflicts and I had to make a choice.
The next tournament on the schedule is at the Red River and it promises to be a shallow, dirty water slugfest. That’s right up my alley. I love how that river fishes. The only thing I don’t like is that it’s tough to get around. You have to idle a lot and always run the risk of damaging your equipment. I’ve already taken off my sidescan and downscan transducers – they’d just be in the way. I’m going to focus on trying to find a hidden spot that I can have to myself. I’m not fishing for points, just for money, so if I can find an area that seems promising I can afford to put all of my eggs in that one basket.
Bassmaster Central Open
14 fish, 35-14
Heading into the first Central Open of the year, I was pretty certain that the winning catch was likely to come out of Pool Four, and eventual winner Stephen Browning proved my hunch to be correct. With that in mind, I spent three days of practice down in Pool Four, and the other two in Pool Five, where the launch site was located. Of course you always want to fish where most of the big fish are, but any time you mess around with locks you’re taking a chance, so I wanted to have all of my bases covered.
I located fish quickly in both locations. There weren’t necessarily huge numbers of them, but the quality was good. With the full moon upon us, they were also in a wide range of stages – some were bedding, others were guarding fry and a third group was well past the spawn.
On my last day of practice, I went into an area in Pool Five where I’d caught some fish during an FLW Tour event and everything about it was right. I caught two really big fish in there, plus a couple of other good ones, and that convinced me that I’d have to spend some competition time in there. I figured that if I drew a short day the first day that’s where I’d go. If I ended up with a long day, I’d lock down to Pool Four, because the lock would probably eat up two or three hours of time.
As it turned out, I was in the fourth flight, boat number 66. In other words, just about in the middle of the pack. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it forced me to make a decision, and I decided to stay close and not mess with the locks. Thinking back on the tournaments where I’ve done well recently, the best ones have been when I’ve slowed down, picked an area apart, and not allowed myself to get in a hurry.
There was a big bedding fish in my chosen area, but by the time I got there someone else was set up on her, so I eased off and fished around. By 10:30, I only had three fish in the well, so I switched areas, filled out my limit and culled up a couple of times, ending the day with 11-12. That put me in 25th place, which kind of surprised me because I figured it would take more like 13 or 14 pounds to be in that range.
Even though I had a 4pm weigh-in on the second day of competition, it was pretty easy to make the decision to put down stakes in my primary area and stay all day. I knew that the right fish were there, and, if I could fish for them all day, I’d have a shot to move way up in the standings. I had a five-fish limit in the boat pretty quickly, but they only weighed around 6 pounds.
At 11:30 I came very close to locking down to Pool Four to try to upgrade. I knew it would be a huge risk and only leave me two hours to fish at the most. After thinking about it, and considering the fact that the water had dropped overnight, I decided to stay where I was.
My reasoning was that the fish I had down there were bedding, and even if they hadn’t been caught, their environment might have been changed enough that they wouldn’t be catchable. I’m glad I stayed. I’m also glad that I decided it was time to fish like a big boy. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, if I was going to go down, I wanted to go down swinging. I tied on my Lunker Lure Jig and it was on almost immediately. I caught a five-pounder, a couple of threes, lost a four, and culled a couple of times, all in about 45 minutes. That brought me up to five for 15-05 and into second place behind Mike Pedroza by about two pounds.
That left me committed to throwing the jig all day on Saturday. It wasn’t anything fancy – just a standard-issue ½ ounce Lunker Lure Rattleback jig with a Zoom Salty Chunk, both in black and blue. It’s just about unbeatable during the spawn and pre-spawn. I fished it on an 8-foot Carrot Stix Black Wild Series extra-extra-heavy flipping stick, paired with a Lew’s Super Duty Reel spooled with 50-pound Power Pro Braid. With that setup in my hands, I felt like my chances to win were as good as anyone’s.
I was sharing my best area with fellow FLW Tour pro Randall Tharp, who was in 3rd place. Even with him there, the overall traffic was still much lighter than it had been with a full field of anglers. We had the whole thing to ourselves. I felt that if I could get four or five bites on the jig I’d win, or at least give the winner a scare. At about 7:20 I caught a 2 ½ pounder on the jig and figured it was on, but then I didn’t catch another until 11:30. It weighed over 4 pounds, so that gave me hope. Unfortunately, the water had come back up and the sun never came out, so the fish didn’t really position the way they had the prior day. I eventually brought out a square billed crankbait and caught two more fish, but I jumped off my fifth fish a couple of times. I suppose I could have fished harder with the squarebill or some other lures, but that probably would have only put me in position to move up a couple of spaces and make a little more money. I still feel that even though I ended up a little bit short, the jig was my best chance to win.
Of course, I’m a little disappointed that I couldn’t close out the victory and qualify for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic on Guntersville, but I’m fishing very well and I’m confident about what I’m doing. My instincts are leading me in the right direction, and I’m adjusting to the conditions as they change. If I continue to put myself inside the cut, eventually my number is going to roll up, and I’m going to take home the trophy. My primary goal is to qualify for the Elite Series, but now that I’m doing well in multiple Open divisions, I can’t help but think about how sweet that Classic berth would be. Next up is Logan Martin, the final Southern Open. Since I’m leading the Southern point race, I have to decide whether to swing hard for a win or play it conservatively for points. I can’t do that until I see how the lake is fishing, and I intend to spend a fair amount of time down there before the event to make sure I give myself every chance to achieve my goals.
Bassmaster Southern Open
Logan Martin Lake
Pell City, Alabama
10 fish, 20-12
I headed into the third and final Bassmaster Southern Open in first place in the points race and thereby in position to qualify for the Elite Series. With a lot to lose and a lot to gain, I went down a week ahead of time to get in as much practice as possible. I’d never been to Logan Martin before and wanted to maximize my chances of doing well.
The region had been pummeled by rain, so when I arrived, the lake level was four feet above summer pool, highly unusual for this time of year. With that in mind, I had to practice as if the lake would remain high but also plan for the possibility that they’d draw it back down to a more typical level. Everyone had told me that spotted bass would dominate, but with all of the newly flooded cover, I also knew that I’d have to explore the largemouth options.
Practice started off extremely well. I immediately felt comfortable with the lake and could catch 12 to 15 pounds of spots a day. In fact, on several days, I had multiple teen-class limits, and one day I would’ve had a 19 pound limit of spots. The largemouths continued to beckon, though. I knew that if I could catch a decent limit of spots each day, one or two big largemouths could put me over the top.
On Day One, everything started off as planned. I headed to one of the multiple schools of spotted bass I’d located, and I had a limit by 8:30. With a late weigh-in and a long day ahead of me, I then turned my attention to the largemouths in the flooded grass. That also worked as planned, as I caught my two biggest fish of the day fairly quickly. The spots came on a mixture of topwater, a 3/16 ounce Lunker Lure shakey head tipped with a black Zoom Trick Worm, and a Strike King 5XD crankbait. I caught all of my largemouths on a Lunker Lure Rattlin’ Shakin’ Shad.
While my 12-06 limit was good, the problem was that the fish bit for everyone on Thursday. To be honest, my weight was lower than I expected, so I was a little bit disappointed, but I was still in the hunt and knew that a good Day Two would get me where I needed to be. I also knew that things were changing and fishing was probably going to get tougher.
On Day Two, I had a 2:30 weigh-in, so I elected to play it safe and fish for spots. All of the schools I’d located were close and I wanted to maximize my fishing time. I never realized how tough it was going to be. I had a pretty good topwater bite going in the morning with a Spook Jr., but that day I had three fish in the 3 to 3 ½ pound class jump completely over the bait. The ones that struck it also hit funny – they’d come up and mouth it and then let go. There was no way to hook them. That must’ve happened 30 or 40 times.
I had a little over 8 pounds in the boat and my gut kept telling me to fish for largemouths to get up to 10 pounds, which would get me where I needed to be. I couldn’t force myself to make the switch, though, and I fell just a bit short. If I’d pulled the trigger and moved to my largemouth water, I might not have done any better, but in hindsight I wish I’d tried.
My 8-06 limit dropped me about 20 places in the standings, and I ended up 7th in the Southern Open points race – 8 points out of fifth. It really hurt, not only because I missed a guaranteed spot in the Elite Series, but because I didn’t fish up to my capabilities. When the current stopped flowing and the spotted bass got weird, I should have listened to my inner voice and gone to fish for largemouths. I fished against my gut and I’ll never do that again. I don’t care if I don’t catch anything – you have to fish the moment.
There’s no time to obsess about my poor performance. Now we’re at Ft. Loudoun in Tennessee preparing for the second PAA event of the year. Next week I’m off, so we’ll set up the camper at Chickamauga and then I’ll head out to Oklahoma for the Grand Lake FLW. There are always more tournaments to fish, and I’ll have more opportunities to qualify for the Elites. At the same time, it’s very frustrating that everything went so well on the Southern Opens for so long and then it came down to the final day of competition, and I fell a pound short. It’s really aggravating but I have to move on and hope to create new opportunities for myself down the road.
PAA Tournament Series
Ft. Loudoun/Tellico Lakes
8 fish, 12.59
We’d visited Ft. Loudoun-Tellico a couple of times on the FLW Tour, so I was familiar with how the waterway laid out, but we had always been there earlier in the spring. This would be my first experience with the lakes in what I presumed would be a purely post-spawn bite.
I was under the impression that of the two lakes, Ft. Loudoun tends to produce better stringers of fish during the post-spawn phase. It’s usually a little bit dirtier there, which fits my style, so that’s where I started my practice. The first day was decent. Some of the main lake areas were pretty clear, which confused me, and a lot of the backwaters were fairly dirty. I had expected the fish to be moving out to the main lake, but they were way behind where I expected them to be, still hovering around their spawning areas. I could have put together a pretty solid limit, but I only found groups of fish in a few places, which left me fairly concerned.
With only limited success on Ft. Loudoun, I decided to spend the second day of practice on Tellico, where I’ve done well in the past. I saw lots of fish on the beds, as well as quite a few fry guarders, but things were changing by the day, or even by the hour. They’d be there one minute and gone the next. Still, that’s where I saw the greatest numbers of catchable fish, so I spent the third day of practice in Tellico once again, trying to expand on what I’d learned.
Once the tournament started, the changes continued. Fish were leaving at an alarming rate. I had found certain key pockets and key spawning areas, and there were still enough fish there to salvage a decent bag, but I lost a lot of key fish. I had to scramble and head to Ft. Loudoun during the last hour to fill out my limit and even then it didn’t weigh much.
Despite not doing as well as I would have liked the first day, I knew that my best areas in Tellico still had a lot of fish. Many of them were in beds, but in the dirty water they were tough to see. On the first day, it had been cloudy, making it all but impossible to see them. On the second day, the sun came out, but the water fell, making them skittish – a perfect storm of bad luck. I still had a chance to salvage the event with a square-bill crankbait, but they were just slapping at it and I jumped off a few good fish. In the end, I weighed in just three small ones.
This is the type of event that is truly frustrating. I went from a practice period, where I thought I had a legitimate shot of winning, to a middle-of-the-pack finish. I found plenty of fish, but they were so far up Tellico that by the time I needed to punt there wasn’t much I could get to in time to make something happen. Most of my bigger bites came flipping a tube on 20 lb. fluorocarbon around cedar trees, winching them out with an 8-foot extra-extra-heavy Carrot Stix flipping stick and a Lew’s Super Duty reel. Later on, I switched to a Strike King KVD 1.5 square-bill in a shad pattern, fished on 12 lb. fluorocarbon and a Carrot Stix cranking rod. I had the right tools, but I just lost too many fish to make a run at it.
After a tough start to the PAA season and now this middling result, any chance of qualifying for the Toyota Texas Bass Classic is a stretch. Table Rock is next up on the PAA schedule, and we just bought a condo there. It’s one of my favorite lakes and one where I feel like I consistently have a chance to win. With nothing to lose, I’m really going to put a lot of effort into that one and try to get my PAA season back on track.
10 fish, 28-03
After the PAA tournament on Ft. Loudoun-Tellico, we pulled the camper to Chickamauga Lake in Dayton, Tennessee, and then I got right back in the truck by myself and headed to Oklahoma for the next FLW event. Debbie stayed in Tennessee and I roomed with my old friend Glenn Browne as well as with Rusty Trancygier.
It was another one of those tournaments where this spring’s odd weather was going to play a major role. They’d had an extreme amount of rain upriver and the lake had jumped up about four feet and crested right before the tournament started. When they put out the schedule, we’d all assumed that this was a tournament that would be won out deep on summertime structure. Unfortunately, the water was so dirty and there was so much debris that when tournament time rolled around we had to look to the shallows.
The fish didn’t move immediately when the water level rose. They were headed to their post-spawn areas, but eventually they saw all of those newly-flooded willow bushes and trees, and they turned right around. Once that happened, I put a flipping stick in my hand rigged with either a tube or a Lunker Lure jig and went to work.
I spent all three days of practice flipping shallow cover and located good concentrations of fish from one end of the lake to the other. The lake was going to fish small, but I felt like I had enough different places that I could survive for multiple days and keep on catching quality fish. In fact, the water was so far up that there were some fish you couldn’t get anywhere near, and I figured that, as the water fell, those fish would replenish the areas where they’d been depleted by anglers in the previous days.
On the first day of competition, I caught a limit fairly quickly, but, other than that, my game was off. I was losing just about every other fish and, in hindsight, the reason became obvious. I was flipping my usual 20 lb. fluorocarbon and 8-foot extra-extra-heavy Carrot Stix flipping sticks, but I’d made an adjustment to my terminal tackle. Normally I use a 4/0 Daiichi offset round bend hook with my tube, but because the fish were in such heavy cover I decided to go with a stronger hook in a different style. That was a mistake. I hadn’t set the hook on many fish in practice, so I had a false sense of security as to how it would perform during the tournament. As I said above, once I started setting on them, the loss rate was ridiculous. They’d get halfway to the boat and come off.
I still managed over 13 pounds, which wasn’t bad, but when you’ve watched a 20 pound limit swim away, all because of your own stupidity, it’s maddening.
On Day Two, I switched back to my regular hook, and, even though fishing got tougher for most people, my weight improved. I assume that part of the reason others struggled was because the water fell about a foot and a half, but I think that actually helped to replenish my key stretches of cover. I also ran a lot of new water and kept adjusting to get up to 15 pounds. Unfortunately, it was too little too late, and I fell a little bit less than a pound short of a big check. I hate to have to admit that it was my fault, but there’s no question about it. A simple attempt to improve upon something that wasn’t broken made the situation much worse.
After skipping Eufaula and missing the money at Grand, there’s no chance for me to make the Forrest Wood Cup, but I’m still super-excited about the last FLW Tour event of the year on Chickamauga. I spent a day and a half fishing there before it went off-limits, and I expect to be really dialed into what’s going on next week.
My position in the standings frees me up to go for the win. Sometimes that’s a disaster – you keep going after big fish when it’s actually just another keeper or two that you need – but I’m willing to take that chance because I’m still itching for a win on the tour side.
Bassmaster Northern Open
7 fish, 10-03
I left the FLW Tour event at Grand Lake in Oklahoma and drove 19 hours straight through to the James River in Richmond, Virginia, for the first Bassmaster Northern Open of the 2013 season. It’s always exciting to start a new series with a fresh slate, but at the same time I knew that the Northerns would be a challenge. I’d never been to either the James or Oneida Lake (the second stop) and, with limited practice time, it was going to be tough to beat the locals and the guys who’d been there before.
Launching at Osborne Landing for my first day of practice, the James reminded me of Grand Lake – high and muddy, with a lot of floating logs and debris. Conditions like that shove most of the field into small areas, wherever there are pockets of clean water. That makes it tougher on first-timers like me who don’t know the key little spots within the spots.
On the first day of practice I just rode the James itself, trying to understand how it laid out and looking for promising areas. I never made a cast. On the second day I went to the upper end of the Chickahominy River tributary and immediately felt at home. The available cover, the water color and the water clarity all fit my style to a tee. At that point, without much time to learn a whole system, I committed myself to the upper Chick. That proved to be a good decision, as that’s where most of the top finishers fished, including the winner.
The first day on the Chick I put together a 12 to 15 pound limit pretty easily, and felt like I was narrowing down key areas and key bait choices. The next day the weather changed, but the fishing stayed strong. There was abundant sunshine and not a bit of wind, but I kept on flipping docks, grass and pads, and I’m sure I had at least 25 or 30 bites, including one fish pushing 10 pounds, which is huge for that river. That success made me lock down on the Chick even further. I put all of my eggs in that single basket, partially because it had been good to me, but also because I had no time left to explore anything else. Of course, tidal water always has all sorts of changes, some major, some subtle, that can affect the outcome of any tournament.
On the first tournament morning, I made the long run down to the mouth of the Chick, and then all the way up to the top of the river without incident. My Phoenix and Mercury combo got me there easily and comfortably. Once I sat down in my key stretch, though, something was wrong. I’d been flipping pad stems with a Senko to get all of those bites just a day earlier, but on tournament day they didn’t want it. I’d also caught a few on a Lunker Lure swim jig out off the edge of the pads, but that didn’t produce, either. With a long run each way, that only left me with about 5 hours to fish, which prevented me from exploring more. I didn’t know what changes to make, so I fell a couple of bites short of my limit.
It was frustrating because a poor first day left me out of the hunt. All I could do was go back to what I thought were my best areas and put my head down and flip. I knew the fish were there. I just had to make them bite.
I got a lot more bites the second day and I had a chance to put together a pretty decent bag, but once again I couldn’t fill out a limit. I brought four small fish to the scales and finished way down in the pack. I was done weighing in at 4pm and by 4:30 I was in the truck headed back to the camper in Dayton, Tennessee. At 1 am I rolled up, exhausted, but done with this brutal stretch of tournaments.
While I certainly wasn’t happy to do poorly at the James, in another sense it freed me up. With the terrible finish, I don’t have a realistic shot of making the Elites through the Northern Opens, so I’m going to skip Oneida and Lake Erie. That’ll allow me to focus on the Central Opens. I finished 6th in the first one of the year at the Red River, and now I can put some serious time into the remaining two. The Ross Barnett event will be a challenge, but it’s one that I welcome. The next one is at the Arkansas River out of Muskogee, Oklahoma. I was there once before for a PAA tournament, and I did pretty well on the first day of competition. I didn’t adjust sufficiently on Day Two, but I still ended up with a decent finish. More importantly, I feel like I learned some things about that river that’ll benefit me this time.
10 fish, 27-09
Before Lake Chickamauga went off limits I’d spent a few days idling around, trying to understand where the fish would be heading when we arrived for the tournament. There were already good numbers of fish on the main river ledges, with more coming, so I figured that’s where I’d focus my attention when the official practice period began.
My intention when I got back was to fish deep almost exclusively, and for the first two days I kept my nose glued to my Humminbird 1198c Side Imaging unit, trying to find the better schools of fish that I knew it would take to win or place high. Unfortunately, I probably targeted a range that was a little too deep. I found several schools of bass, but they weren’t of the quality it would take to do well. I struggled to find big schools of the right caliber fish but caught just enough on a Strike King 6XD, a Rapala DT20 and a ¾ ounce Lunker Lure football jig that I felt I could fish out there if I had to.
One thing that didn’t figure into my game plan was the super moon that occurred while we were at Chickamauga. It changed the bite substantially. I adjusted a little bit by getting out really early on the third day of practice. I started shallow, targeting bluegill beds and whatever little patches of vegetation I could find. The big, bright moon brought huge numbers of bluegills up to spawn and by fishing close to the main river in areas near where I’d caught bass I could’ve had a big bag that day.
The impact of the moon was changing so rapidly that with our off day in between practice and the tournament I didn’t know what to expect when I got out there to compete. I wasn’t comfortable with my deep stuff, and the lake was fishing really small. You’d find something that seemed good and subtle, and when you passed by a few hours later there’d be 10 boats on it. I don’t like fishing like that at all. I figured I’d start shallow and adjust from there. If I had to, I’d start practice all over again.
On the first day of competition, I went shallow early and gradually moved out deeper until I intercepted a good number of fish in the 8 to 12 foot range, at the edges of the hydrilla. I’d been fishing a Pop-R and a Zara Spook up shallow, but that bite died off pretty quickly, so I switched to a Biffle Bug on a 7’6” heavy action Carrot Stix micro guide casting rod. With that lure, I could cover water and check areas effectively. Over time, I refined the presentation enough to eke out a few extra bites. If I could find another piece of cover or structural element at the grass edge, that’s where they’d typically be. It seemed like whenever I hit a thicker, taller clump of grass I’d get a bite. One key was downsizing to 15 pound test Trilene fluorocarbon, which I’m convinced got me more bites.
It wasn’t fast and furious. In fact, I struggled until 2pm, and I caught my best four fish in the last 90 minutes to cull up to 14-04. That kept me in the hunt and I felt like my areas were less crowded than those of a lot of the guys ahead of me. That was confirmed when I saw the on-the-water pictures. It was amazing how small the lake was fishing. I was confident that with the dwindling moon my fish would continue to replenish, too.
My best areas were a 30 minute run from the take-off and on Day Two we had a two-hour fog delay, so that made it an extra-short day for me. Accordingly, I skipped the shallow stuff. My game plan worked – I caught three limits of fish – but not well enough. Late in the day I lost the biggest bite I’d had in two days. It just came off not far from the boat. The weights were so tight that it really hurt me. Instead of weighing in 13-05 and finishing 53rd, that fish probably would’ve pushed me into somewhere between 20th and 30th place. I still managed a check, but not the one I would’ve liked.
Now the FLW Tour season is over, and even though I skipped Eufaula, I still had plenty of points to requalify for next season. I’m happy that I could do that despite earning zero points in one of six events, but I’m never satisfied. I couldn’t have made the Cup fishing only five tournaments, but looking back at a few events some unforced errors cost me a decent chunk of money. Going forward, I have to learn to rely on my instincts even more and everything tackle-wise has to be perfect.
Next up is the PAA event on Table Rock. We’re moving there soon, but I haven’t yet fished the lake all that much at this time of year. I’m looking forward to the learning process. I’m also looking forward to the next Bassmaster Central Open on the Arkansas River (out of Muskogee, Oklahoma). That’s a venue that favors power fishing and I expect to build upon what I learned there previously. There’s lots of fishing left to go.
PAA Tournament Series
Table Rock Lake
8 fish, 17.90
After a lifetime of living in Illinois, we recently relocated to Branson, very close to the shores of Table Rock. It’s an area we’ve grown to love but oddly enough I’ve never fished the lake at this time of year, so I had no local advantage whatsoever heading into this event. Nevertheless, I’ve spent enough time on the lake at this point that I felt I could figure things out.
The lake had been five feet above full pool before the event started and the fishing was pretty easy. You could catch largemouths up in the bushes and smallmouths on the shallow secondary points. I was hesitant to hang my hat on those bites, though, because things tend to change quickly and if you’re fishing yesterday’s patterns you can’t be competitive.
The official practice started on Labor Day and I had a really good day fishing up the White River arm. Most of my fish were shallow and I culled through multiple limits of mostly largemouth bass to eventually produce a best five that would’ve weighed 13 or 14 pounds. They were still shallow and even though the water was falling a little bit each day you could pick them off fairly easily.
On the second day of practice I went up the James River arm and I really struggled. Then the final day I decided to look for a deep bite on the lower end of the lake and it was even worse. That made my tournament strategy a no-brainer – I was going to head up the White to where I’d gotten the most bites.
The first morning of the tournament I ran up to some of those pockets just off the main river and everything went according to plan. I boated a limit quickly, three or four of them on a quarter-ounce black Lunker Lure Buzzbait, and then I went flipping with a Lunker Lure Limit Series Jig in a bluegill pattern. By noon I had a decent weight and felt like I could afford to do something different to try to hunt a kicker or two to boost my catch, so I moved out deep. The bite was still good and I managed to cull a few times, including with one really nice smallmouth.
I caught so many fish that first day that I didn’t think a limit would be an issue, but for reasons that I still can’t figure out it got much tougher. I started off Day Two with the buzzbait again, but this time after flinging it for a long time all it had produced was two short fish. I realized that wasn’t going to work, so I went to flipping bushes and also to swimming the Limit Series jig. That latter technique produced a pretty good one quickly, but before I knew it, it was 11 o’clock and I had just that one fish in the livewell.
With time running short, I felt that I had to make a switch, so I headed out to some deep brush piles and fished them with a ¾ ounce Lunker Lure Football Jig (peanut butter and jelly) with a Missile Baits twin tail (cinnamon/purple) on the back. I hit what I thought was my best one first and had to wade through 15 or 20 short fish before I finally caught my second keeper. Then there were another 15 or 20 short ones prior to catching keeper number three. Once that fish was securely in the livewell, the bite shut off completely. I left and hit a few more brush piles. That bite should have gotten better as the afternoon progressed, but I had a total of three more bites – two short fish that I landed and one keeper that I lost.
Hindsight is 20/20, but thinking back on it I wish I had stayed shallow the entire time. The idea went through my mind to hit some more shallow stretches, and I tried it a little but never really committed to it the way I should have. By limiting myself to one river arm I’d put all my eggs in that basket and it didn’t pay off. Of course I’m disappointed that I didn’t make the cut to fish Day Three, but I went in there looking for a win so there was no choice but to gamble. I had no chance to qualify for the Toyota Texas Bass Classic through the points, so I have no real regrets, and I learned quite a bit about fishing Table Rock at this time of year under these conditions.
The other thing that really stood out from this experience is the Toray fluorocarbon that I’ve been using for the past month or so. I used 16 lb. line for both the flipping jig and the football jig and when one spool of line holds up to a hard week of fishing, with no memory and maximum abrasion resistance, that’s a tool you can depend on. I fished both jigs on a 7’ Carrot Stix heavy-action Black Wild rod, which has been one of my main tools for a long time. Together with the new line, I feel that my equipment puts me in the best possible position to excel.
Next up is the second B.A.S.S. Central Open of the Year. This one’s on the Arkansas River out of Muskogee, Oklahoma, a fishery that I’ve visited once before. Last time I had one good day and one tough one. This time the river has been high and muddy for the last month, which I believe plays to my strengths. It should be a shallow, power fishing bite and if I can find the right area or the right backwater, I should have a very good tournament.