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 ďGolden TicketĒ 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 Chadís first win on the Bassmaster Tournament Trail and it also secured his opportunity to fish in the 2014 Bassmaster Classic, his fourth Classic.
Chadís 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. ďWe have a great relationship with Chad and place a good deal of faith in his abilities and decision makingĒ, said Tom Schrader, VP of Marketing and Strategic Development for JASPER. ďWe didnít have to think too hard about paying Chadís fee when we received the callĒ, he added.
Chad is, as one can imagine, on ďCloud 9Ē after his win and has been busy answering congratulatory calls, emails and Facebook postings. ďThe whole situation is still, to this day, so surreal. I just canít believe that it fell together the way that it didí, he said. ďI 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 JASPERís help, simply going to the event would not have been possible for me. This win is as much for them as it is for meĒ, he added.
To read all of the details of Chadís win on Lake Okeechobee, please visit such fishing sites as www.basszone.com, www.bassmaster.com and www.bassfan.com.
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 thereís 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 wouldnít be a problem, but a 6- or 8-pound limit on the Big O wonít get you into the money.
When Iíd been at Okeechobee in January, Iíd 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 didnít 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 didnít take long to figure out that my fish were history.
Once I realized that the area Iíd 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 wouldnít 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 Iíd end up with a sub-10-pound limit, and that wouldnít 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 Iíd 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 Ĺ 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 8í 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 Lewís Super Duty baitcasting reel. Itís 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 Iíve found the perfect flipping reel, itís time to leave Florida. For months it seems like all Iíve 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 donít 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 itís not entirely an Alabama Rig bite. Iím confident that if there are different ways to catch fish, with smart practices Iíll figure out how to catch the bigger ones.
Iíve spent a lot of time in Florida this winter, so I felt that the Toho Open was a great opportunity to show how well Iíve dialed in the bite. I proved to myself that Iím 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 Ė 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 wouldnít be a Florida tournament without a cold front, and we had one blow in the last day of practice. I didnít 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 wouldnít 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 didnít 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 Iíd 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 couldnít reduce the size of my 1 ĺ 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 hadnít hit on Day One, and thatís 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 Iíd 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 Iíd 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 Iíd 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 couldnít help listening. It seemed that most of the field had struggled. I hoped for the best, but knew Iíd 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 thereís nothing you can do about it, but it still hurts.
Iím certainly disappointed that I didnít win. To come that close, with so much at stake, and not finish it off, it really bothered me at first. Now that Iíve had some time to digest it, though, Iíll take the positive out of it Ė Iíve got a great start to the Open season and Iíve taken the first step toward qualifying for the Elite Series if I choose to go that direction. Either way, Iím 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.
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 theyíll be gone the next. Despite that potential difficulty, I was able to start in areas where Iíd 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 Ė on Smith, getting from one creek to another can take a while and, if your fishing spots are in different arms, itís 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. Thatís 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 didnít 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 Iíd had 15 bites the day before, and couldnít get a single bite. That put me in scramble mode, but by the time I got back to where Iíd started the first day, things started to get better. I could tell that it hadnít 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 didnít do all that poorly considering the circumstances.
I like Smith Lake. It reminds me of Table Rock and thatís 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 weíre at Guntersville, taking care of some business and some hospitality trips. I have two events coming up at Douglas Lake and I canít 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 theyíll take $100 off the price. Itís a no-brainer thatíll make any boaterís experience a better one.
Itís 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. Thatís the situation that presented itself on Douglas Lake this year, though. It gave me a great opportunity to really dial in a pattern. Obviously, Iíd like to do well in the PAA Series, especially because this year thereís 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 Ė just the fact that the Elites fished there last May and caught the bass fairly deep. I didnít seek out any help and that may have hurt me, because I didnít 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 thereíd be a good cranking bite too, but I couldnít 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 wasnít 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 hadnít thrown the rig much, just a little bit a few weeks earlier at Guntersville. Still, I tied on the Lunker Lure Gillraker and basically didnít 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 hadnít 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 Iíd expected. Second, the fish were shallower than I thought theyíd 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 didnít 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 hadnít fished before. It wasnít 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 thatís 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 isnít a very big lake. In fact, one tank of fuel lasted me five days.
When the tournament started, I was pretty confident that Iíd narrowed down exactly what I needed to be doing and where. I fished the Gillraker on an El Grande Monster Rod paired with a Lewís Super Duty Casting Reel (6.4:1 gear ratio) spooled with 25 lb. Tatsu fluorocarbon. Keitech 3.8Ē 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 Ė a 5 Ĺ pound largemouth. I quickly added two more keepers, and then caught a giant smallmouth. It was probably 4 Ĺ 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 wasnít meant to be. I ended the day with four fish for 12 pounds. I was the ďbubble guy,Ē 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 Iíll probably have to be in the top five in the points standings at the end of the season. Well, after two of three events Iím 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.
Iíve 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. Weíve been there a lot of times before and it should fish fairly similar to Douglas. Iím a little tired after going at it so hard for a number of weeks, but Iím also fishing with an open mind and a lot of confidence. I like the way that feels.
Coming off a really good finish at the Southern Open on Douglas Lake I was fishing with a lot of confidence. Weíve been to Beaver Lake a number of times on the FLW Tour, including when it was low as it is now. I figured Iíd 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 couldíve 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. Thatís 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 thatís 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 Iíd 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 ľ 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 hadnít 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 hadnít improved my weight so I had to push the issue on the shallow bite and go hunting for those bigger largemouths, but I didnít 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 Iím going to have to miss the FLW on Eufaula, which all but eliminates my chances of making the Forrest Wood Cup. Thatís bittersweet Ė Iím 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. Thatís right up my alley. I love how that river fishes. The only thing I donít like is that itís tough to get around. You have to idle a lot and always run the risk of damaging your equipment. Iíve already taken off my sidescan and downscan transducers Ė theyíd just be in the way. Iím going to focus on trying to find a hidden spot that I can have to myself. Iím 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.
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 youíre taking a chance, so I wanted to have all of my bases covered.
I located fish quickly in both locations. There werenít 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 Ė 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 Iíd 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 Iíd have to spend some competition time in there. I figured that if I drew a short day the first day thatís where Iíd go. If I ended up with a long day, Iíd 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 Iíve done well recently, the best ones have been when Iíve 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, Iíd 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 hadnít been caught, their environment might have been changed enough that they wouldnít be catchable. Iím glad I stayed. Iím 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 wasnít anything fancy Ė just a standard-issue Ĺ ounce Lunker Lure Rattleback jig with a Zoom Salty Chunk, both in black and blue. Itís 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 Lewís 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 anyoneís.
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 Iíd win, or at least give the winner a scare. At about 7:20 I caught a 2 Ĺ pounder on the jig and figured it was on, but then I didnít 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 didnít 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, Iím a little disappointed that I couldnít close out the victory and qualify for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic on Guntersville, but Iím fishing very well and Iím confident about what Iím doing. My instincts are leading me in the right direction, and Iím 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 Iím going to take home the trophy. My primary goal is to qualify for the Elite Series, but now that Iím doing well in multiple Open divisions, I canít help but think about how sweet that Classic berth would be. Next up is Logan Martin, the final Southern Open. Since Iím leading the Southern point race, I have to decide whether to swing hard for a win or play it conservatively for points. I canít 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.
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. Iíd 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 theyíd 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 Iíd 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 wouldíve 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 Iíd 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 Rattliní Shakiní 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 Iíd 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 Ĺ pound class jump completely over the bait. The ones that struck it also hit funny Ė theyíd come up and mouth it and then let go. There was no way to hook them. That mustíve 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 couldnít force myself to make the switch, though, and I fell just a bit short. If Iíd pulled the trigger and moved to my largemouth water, I might not have done any better, but in hindsight I wish Iíd tried.
My 8-06 limit dropped me about 20 places in the standings, and I ended up 7th in the Southern Open points race Ė 8 points out of fifth. It really hurt, not only because I missed a guaranteed spot in the Elite Series, but because I didnít 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 Iíll never do that again. I donít care if I donít catch anything Ė you have to fish the moment.
Thereís no time to obsess about my poor performance. Now weíre at Ft. Loudoun in Tennessee preparing for the second PAA event of the year. Next week Iím off, so weíll set up the camper at Chickamauga and then Iíll head out to Oklahoma for the Grand Lake FLW. There are always more tournaments to fish, and Iíll have more opportunities to qualify for the Elites. At the same time, itís 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. Itís really aggravating but I have to move on and hope to create new opportunities for myself down the road.
Weíd 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. Itís usually a little bit dirtier there, which fits my style, so thatís 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 Iíve 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. Theyíd be there one minute and gone the next. Still, thatís 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 Iíd 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 didnít 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 Ė 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 wasnít 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 Lewís 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. Itís one of my favorite lakes and one where I feel like I consistently have a chance to win. With nothing to lose, Iím really going to put a lot of effort into that one and try to get my PAA season back on track.
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 springís odd weather was going to play a major role. Theyíd 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, weíd 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 didnít 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 couldnít get anywhere near, and I figured that, as the water fell, those fish would replenish the areas where theyíd 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 Iíd 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 hadnít 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. Theyíd get halfway to the boat and come off.
I still managed over 13 pounds, which wasnít bad, but when youíve watched a 20 pound limit swim away, all because of your own stupidity, itís 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 thereís no question about it. A simple attempt to improve upon something that wasnít broken made the situation much worse.
After skipping Eufaula and missing the money at Grand, thereís no chance for me to make the Forrest Wood Cup, but Iím 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 whatís going on next week.
My position in the standings frees me up to go for the win. Sometimes thatís a disaster Ė you keep going after big fish when itís actually just another keeper or two that you need Ė but Iím willing to take that chance because Iím still itching for a win on the tour side.
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. Itís 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. Iíd 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 whoíd been there before.
Launching at Osborne Landing for my first day of practice, the James reminded me of Grand Lake Ė 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 donít 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 thatís 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 Iím 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. Iíd been flipping pad stems with a Senko to get all of those bites just a day earlier, but on tournament day they didnít want it. Iíd also caught a few on a Lunker Lure swim jig out off the edge of the pads, but that didnít 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 didnít 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 couldnít 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 wasnít happy to do poorly at the James, in another sense it freed me up. With the terrible finish, I donít have a realistic shot of making the Elites through the Northern Opens, so Iím going to skip Oneida and Lake Erie. Thatíll 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 itís 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 didnít 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 thatíll benefit me this time.
Before Lake Chickamauga went off limits Iíd 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 thatís where Iíd 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 werenít 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 ĺ ounce Lunker Lure football jig that I felt I could fish out there if I had to.
One thing that didnít 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 Iíd caught bass I couldíve 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 didnít know what to expect when I got out there to compete. I wasnít comfortable with my deep stuff, and the lake was fishing really small. Youíd find something that seemed good and subtle, and when you passed by a few hours later thereíd be 10 boats on it. I donít like fishing like that at all. I figured Iíd start shallow and adjust from there. If I had to, Iíd 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. Iíd 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 7í6Ē 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, thatís where theyíd typically be. It seemed like whenever I hit a thicker, taller clump of grass Iíd get a bite. One key was downsizing to 15 pound test Trilene fluorocarbon, which Iím convinced got me more bites.
It wasnít 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 Ė I caught three limits of fish Ė but not well enough. Late in the day I lost the biggest bite Iíd 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 wouldíve pushed me into somewhere between 20th and 30th place. I still managed a check, but not the one I wouldíve 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. Iím happy that I could do that despite earning zero points in one of six events, but Iím never satisfied. I couldnít 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. Weíre moving there soon, but I havenít yet fished the lake all that much at this time of year. Iím looking forward to the learning process. Iím also looking forward to the next Bassmaster Central Open on the Arkansas River (out of Muskogee, Oklahoma). Thatís a venue that favors power fishing and I expect to build upon what I learned there previously. Thereís lots of fishing left to go.
After a lifetime of living in Illinois, we recently relocated to Branson, very close to the shores of Table Rock. Itís an area weíve grown to love but oddly enough Iíve never fished the lake at this time of year, so I had no local advantage whatsoever heading into this event. Nevertheless, Iíve 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 youíre fishing yesterdayís patterns you canít 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 wouldíve 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 Ė I was going to head up the White to where Iíd 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 didnít think a limit would be an issue, but for reasons that I still canít 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 wasnít 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 oíclock 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 ĺ 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 Ė 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 Iíd put all my eggs in that basket and it didnít pay off. Of course Iím disappointed that I didnít 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 Iíve 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, thatís a tool you can depend on. I fished both jigs on a 7í 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 oneís on the Arkansas River out of Muskogee, Oklahoma, a fishery that Iíve 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.