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.