How He Does It
La Crosse, Wisconsin
20 fish, 51-08
Last year I finished 38th in La Crosse, which isn’t bad, but it also isn’t the type of finish I needed this year to maintain my position as the leader in the Angler of the Year race. It’s the top 12 finishes that really earn the big points and that’s what I shoot for every time out.
I thought I had a pretty good grasp on how the various pools of the river laid out and multiple ways to catch fish. It didn’t appear that catching limits would be an issue – the real puzzle was how to catch the bigger fish. The one wrench was that the water levels were very different than in 2012. Last year it rose the whole time we were there while this time around it was falling during practice and then reversed course and started rising during the tournament. Overall the water was clearer and because the change of the seasons was a little bit behind it seemed like smallmouths would be a bigger factor.
On the first day of practice I fished in Pool 7, then I spent day two in Pool 8. I had some fish in each one, but I felt like the ones in Pool 8 weren’t quite as good, so I spent the third day back in Pool 7. It wasn’t a particularly great practice, so I was glad to have some areas I’d discovered last year to fall back on.
Despite a good-but-not-great practice, I still felt like 15 pounds a day was within reach, and I had the bites to do it on the first day but execution problems plagued me. I lost a few bass that definitely would have improved on my 13-05 limit. I was hoping for a frog bite, but I just couldn’t make it happen because the grass wasn’t topped out like it was last year, so I ended up fishing a swim jig in areas where little eddies and current breaks hit undercut banks for most of my fish. I paired the homemade jig with a Zoom Ultra Vibe Speed Craw and those fish absolutely crushed it.
On Day Two, our takeoff was delayed by violent thunderstorms, but I still had time to branch out from the areas I’d fished on Thursday and I tried to explore as much new water as possible. Once again the swim jig proved to be the best technique and my 12-06 got me into the cut in 23rd place. The weights were really close together. Another pound and I would have been in 13th. One less pound and I would have been in 32nd.
I was catching 15 or so keepers a day, and while smallmouth played a big role in the catches of winner Tommy Biffle and many other competitors, I only weighed in one brown fish all week. On the third day, the swim jig kept on working, but I added a buzzbait to my arsenal and that produced several key fish. Actually, it started off by frustrating me, as I lost a 4 ½ pound bass and a 3 pounder in the first 15 minutes, but after that my execution problems lessened and the buzzbait kept on producing big bites. My best five weighed 15-03 and vaulted me into 10th place. I was going to be fishing on Sunday again.
On Day Four, I had an opportunity to move up, and little room to move down, so I committed to fishing new water and hoping that I could make something happen. After all of the rain we’d had, the water was getting dirtier. I’m not sure if that affected the bass or if it was something else, but they just acted funny. I had the bites to do well but I just couldn’t get the fish in the boat. Either they’d hammer the jig and not get hooked or I’d hook them and they’d get off halfway to the boat, but no matter what they weren’t going in the livewell. I ended up with 10-10, which was disappointing, but the fishing was pretty tough overall and I only fell one spot to 11th.
While the homemade jig was my key lure, I also have to give credit to my Lowrance electronics and mapping system for my success. Even though I’d been there before, the Mississippi is a confusing waterway, a maze of cuts and ditches. With the changing water level, I couldn’t necessarily rely on last year’s experience to guide me safely.
As the result of my performance, I increased my lead in the Angler of the Year race to 44 points over second place and 50 points over third. With two events left and a lot of fishing left to do, I can’t get complacent. One bad tournament could completely upend my season. Still, I feel pretty good about the way I’m fishing.
Our next tournament is at the St. Lawrence River in New York in early August. I didn’t pre-practice there, but I expect that it will cater to my strengths. I love fishing for northern smallmouths, even though I elected to fish for largemouths in Wisconsin. In the meantime, there’s plenty to keep me busy. I’ll be at ICAST in Las Vegas, representing great sponsors like Megabass. I’m also working to install an irrigation system in my pecan orchard. It’s hard work but it’s also my escape from the fishing world, even if it’s hard to stop thinking about the rest of the season.
- Wed, 03/27/2013 - 21:58
20 fish, 94-10
Falcon isn’t quite the lake it was when the Elite Series first visited in 2008, but it’s still a tremendous fishery where you have to catch well over a hundred pounds over four days to be in contention. This time around we were there a little bit earlier in the spring and the weather had been slightly cooler, so I felt that there would be a lot more fish caught shallow. Despite that fact, I was also of the opinion that some fish had probably spawned in November or December, and those bass would be ganged up on offshore structure. That’s where I decided to focus my efforts, figuring that the offshore fish would be more reliable.
On the first day of practice I focused exclusively on mid- to deep structure and it was one of the best days of fishing I’ve ever experienced. I’m sure that my top five fish would’ve weighed 50 pounds. Once I figured out what I was looking for I could pull up on a spot, make one cast, and usually I’d catch an absolute giant.
After that magical first day I tried to expand my pattern, with little success. On the second day I caught four really big fish, but not much more. On the third day I barely caught anything at all. I was committed to fishing deep because I felt like more fish would be headed that way as the tournament progressed. Unfortunately, the opposite proved to be true – more were going shallow and I eventually ran out of fish.
When the tournament started I had six areas I wanted to key on. Rookie Josh Bertrand sat on one of them all four days. He also made the top twelve. Mark Davis and Kevin VanDam found some of the others and pillaged them for all they were worth, so as the tournament progressed there were only two that I had all to myself. It was a grueling way to fish. Usually I like to cover water, running and gunning. I’m not a “camper.” This time, though, I fished just a handful of stuff for the entire four days of competition. What they had in common was that they were rocky flat points in front of spawning pockets. Usually I’d get bit in about 8 feet of water.
My main tool to locate the fish was a Megabass Deep Six crankbait in the Sexy French Pearl pattern. This is a relatively new offering, but it’s unlike any other deep diving crankbait you’ve used. It gets down extremely quickly thanks to a moving internal weight and you can crank it well into the 20 foot range. It also casts like a bullet, which was critical when the wind blew into my face. Once I found a group of fish I’d scour the area with a Pumpkin Ed jighead (an oversized shakey head) with a watermelon candy Zoom Magnum Trick Worm.
The other key piece of equipment was my new Lowrance Point 1 Antenna. While most antennae send one to three pulses per second to the satellite, this one sends 10 per second. If you move just one foot to the left or right it registers. Oftentimes I had to make the same cast over and over to a spot the size of a bread box to get a bite, and this exact positioning device was critical.
After the second day of competition I was in 2nd place overall, but then my weights started to go downhill and by the fourth day I really struggled. I did have a few big bites that day – I lost two at the boat, and hooked two for a split second that seemed to be heavy – but for some reason they were biting funny.
As you may know, the final day was postponed 24 hours due to unsafe conditions. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had we fished that day. It would have been a brutal ride down, but I feel like I still could have caught some while others would have struggled.
I could have made a few tweaks to do better, and I might’ve left a few Angler of the year points on the table, but I’m fishing well now so it’s hard to be too dissatisfied with how I’ve done. With a quarter of the season in the history books, I’m only two points out of the lead in the AOY race. It’s too early to really think about the title, but clearly I’m in a good position. Ninety eight guys would like to be where I am.
Next up is Bull Shoals. Last year the water was dirty, not from rain but rather from some sort of turnover situation. That’s a one in every ten years occurrence, so I expect that this year’s tournament will be quite different, although the numbers and weights should still be excellent.
13 fish, 26-06
The Sabine River was a new tournament venue for just about all of us on the Elite Series and it provided us with a seemingly endless string of waterways to fish. You could run until you ran out of gas and still have fishable water, but the bass seemed to be concentrated in small portions of the river system. As you can see from the low weights, it was a tough fishery, but I really enjoyed it – it was a mental battle to stay focused and when you’re making long runs and looking for little hidey-holes it forces you to utilize all of your fishing knowledge and craftiness if you want to excel.
I had really hoped to find fish close to the take-off spot. If you’re making a run of an hour or two, not only do you lose valuable fishing time, but you also increase your chances of a breakdown or other mechanical difficulties. With that in mind, I spent the first day fishing in the Sabine itself. I went up as far as I could go and didn’t catch a keeper, so obviously that strategy wasn’t going to work for me.
On the second day of practice I headed west toward Taylor Bayou. It took me a long time to catch a keeper there, but eventually I caught a few and figured out what seemed to be some more productive stretches of water. There was still a lot of water to see, though, so on the third day I headed east into Louisiana, and while there was some good looking water to fish there, most of it was private.
It’s hard to cover water properly when there’s so much to see. You want to fish slowly and effectively but you’re also interested in what’s beyond the next bend, and the one after that, too. The Louisiana experience left me pretty frustrated so I put the boat back on the trailer and headed back to Taylor Bayou to try to dissect that region a little bit more.
I felt like I’d located a productive canal far past where everyone else was fishing, but as I settled in there on the first competition day I had company. There were about four or five other tournament boats in there with me. That made it tough to slow down, because I wanted to be the first person to hit every piece of prime cover. My strategy was to use a Megabass Knuckle 60 crankbait (Sexy French Pearl) to search for concentrations of fish. When I’d find them, I’d flip a Zoom Z-Hog Jr. to make sure I got every last bite. I used three different colors of the Z-Hog Jr.: watermelon candy, green pumpkin and California 420, and eventually I ran out of each one. When the day was over, I had four fish for 7-06, which normally would be pitiful, but at the Sabine it had me in 25thplace.
Since my initial canal got hit so hard the first day, I made a decision to leave it to everyone else on Day Two. I wasn’t going to fight them for it. So I picked out another canal, put the trolling motor down and just fished. That was my strategy: I wanted to shut the Mercury off in the morning and not start it up again until it was time to go. The fish were bedding and I was able to go back to a fish I’d missed earlier and get her in the boat. With a little bit less fishing pressure, I once again landed four keepers, but this time they weighed 9-08, which moved me up nine spots to 16th.
On Day Three I once again chose a new area and once again it paid off. I caught more fish that day than either of the two prior days, probably 70 or 80 bass. My best five weighed the same that my four keepers did the prior day, 9-08, which moved me up three more spots to 13th.
I had one 3 ½ pounder that gave me multiple shots to make the cut. She was on the other side of a log, and the first time I hooked her she landed up on top of the log and came off. I made three or four more pitches and she bit again. That time I jerked her up over the log. She came cartwheeling across the water and came off. After four or five more flips she bit a third time, but this time she hit her head on the bottom of the log and came unbuttoned. I guess the headache finally knocked some sense into her because she never bit again.
My Power Poles were critical in this event, as they are any time you’re fishing for bedding fish. I don’t know how I ever fished without them at this time of year. It was possible to catch an aggressive male bass, put the Power Poles down, and then make the exact same cast and catch the female. Without that ability I might not have caught several of the fish I weighed in.
I missed the cut to fish on Sunday by a mere six ounces. Any one of the several good keepers I lost would have vaulted me over that hurdle, but to tell you the truth I’m not all that disappointed. Twelfth place would have been a double-edged sword. Of course you want to make it whenever you can, but I really didn’t have an opportunity to win this event. I would have made a little bit more money, but I would have lost a lot of time. As it was, it took me 3 ½ hours on Saturday night to take all of my Sabine River tackle out of the boat and repack it for Falcon. We’ll be going from a place where you have a chance to catch 10 pounds a day to a place where you can catch 10 pounders, so I had to restring all of my reels, too. Then it’s an eight hour drive down to Zapata. The guys who finish in the top twelve will have to make that drive overnight or in the morning, which means they’ll miss most or all of the first day of practice, so 13th is about as good as you can do and still be completely prepared to practice.
After churning mud for a week, I’m ready for some big fish at Falcon. I like fishing offshore and I feel that I’m good with my electronics, and if a tournament angler can’t get excited about fishing the best fishery in the country then you’re in the wrong business.
February 9, 2011
Swimming a jig is a great way to catch fish and one of my favorites. What you need to know:
I usually start with a 3/8oz Booyah swim jig in one of three colors: green pumpkin, white or black and blue. I choose these colors because I'm trying to imitate either a bluegill, shad or crawdad. The trailer is one of the most important aspects of the bait. A lot of times I want a trailer that has a lot of action but isn't too big or bulky - my all-around favorite is the YUM Money Craw. The legs on the Money Craw produce the perfect swimming action and the colors match great. If you get a trailer that's too big or bulky, you'll end up missing a lot of fish. I also believe speed is very critical in swimming a jig. Too big of trailer will hamper your ability to keep the jig down in the water and swimming correctly during the retrieve.
I fish a swim jig on a 7' medium-heavy Bass Pro Shops Pro Qualifier rod with a Pro Qualifier 7:1 reel spooled with 50lb BPS Magibraid. This setup is crucial to the technique. The medium-heavy rod helps get the action out of the jig. I want it to be very erratic and the skirt to flare as I'm swimming it. Too stiff of a rod makes it almost impossible to get any action out the bait and also will kill your arms trying to work it. Too light of a rod and you just don't get the hookset you need. The high speed reel is also equally important. This can be a very taxing technique when done properly and having the right equipment makes things much easier. The braid really helps maintain direct contact with the bait. You're also often swimming a jig around grass and it has real benefits in landing more fish due to the low stretch, high strength properties.
When to use:
Basically anytime you're fishing shallow cover, especially shoreline weeds, submerged vegetation and boat docks. I have had success swimming a jig from early spring all the way to late fall. I think the absolute prime time for this technique during all phase of the spawn. The fish are shallow and protecting a general area. I like to make long casts and zoom the bait past any piece of isolated cover I can find. This technique is best in stained water. Another great time for swimming a jig is during the shad spawn. Now, I target floating docks and run the jig about a foot under the surface. This is where the white jig becomes a big player.
I hope this will help you with some of the basics for what is a very productive technique. Oh, by the way, this was how Stanley was caught. E2.
February 2, 2011
Back to the Basics
You don't even want to know how much gear I carry with me on the road. On the Bassmaster Elite Series, we're faced with all different types of fisheries and seasonal conditions. You have to be prepared for everything but that doesn't mean you should get overwhelmed with the plethora of bait choices. Sometimes it's really effective to just stick with what you know works. I often get asked what if you could only pick five baits, what would they be? Here's my list:
1: 3/8-ounce Bass Pro Shops LazerEye. Chartreuse and white spinnerbait with tandem willow leafs, silver front and gold back blade with a white twin-trailer. Catches bass on every pond, river and lake. I don't go anywhere in the U.S. without it.
2: Yum VibraKing tube in black neon, Texas-rigged with a 1/4-ounce tungsten weight and a 4/0 hook. Year-round, this is just a really great bait for flippin' or pitchin' in close. Bass just eat it up.
3: Bomber Model 4A in chartreuse blue. A 4- to 6-foot diving crank bait that is just an awesome lure for a lot of different lakes.
4: Booyah 1/2-ounce black and blue jig with a 4-inch Yum Money Craw trailer in River Craw color. I don't go anywhere without one tied one on, I can fish it deep, run it shallow or swim it. It's a great bait for shallow grass in a lot of our rivers and lakes.
5: Heddon Zara Spook original in black or shad pattern. A great bait for ponds and working top water anytime and walking the dog technique. A really good big-fish bait.