Welcome to the 2014 version of OD on B.A.S.S. Look for updates soon after every Elite Series event this season. In this series you will see how I go about fishing each event in hopes it makes you a better, more informed angler.
2014 Bassmaster Classic
Lake Guntersville/Guntersville, Alabama
4th Place – 15 fish, 63-06
This event was my third Bassmaster Classic and I was particularly excited to have a chance to fish one on Lake Guntersville, a body of water that I know well. While I’ve never won there, I’ve fished two FLW Tour events, an EverStart, some BFLs, and various other types of tournaments there, so I know the lay of the land. The Tennessee River lakes are a comfort zone for me which gave me the confidence to expect that I’d be in the hunt when Sunday rolled around.
I went down to pre-practice in December, intending to fish for two days, but after two hours I was pretty much ready to come home because I didn’t feel that I was learning anything. I also knew that things would change before the tournament started, but I forced myself to stay for a day and a half. As expected, the weather changed substantially before the tournament started – it was one of the coldest winters on record – and nothing I could’ve learned really would’ve helped much. My expectation was that the fish would be a little bit deeper than normal and that there’d be a little bit less grass. In the end, it turned out that there was a LOT less grass.
Practice at the Classic is a little bit different than a typical tournament. We practice Friday/Saturday/Sunday, then have a few days off. We complete our practice on Wednesday, have media day on Thursday, and then start the tournament on the next Friday. When I launched on the Friday morning of practice, a week before the event would start, the water temperature was right around 40 degrees – 38-39 in some places, 42-43 in others. I fished around and caught a 7-pounder on a jerkbait, and then added three more keepers over the course of the day. Two were before 11am and the other two were after 4pm, which makes for a long slow day, but some guys reported catching nothing, so that made me feel pretty good because with one more decent fish I would’ve had a good day.
Saturday morning dawned very cold and it didn’t warm up until late in the day, and at that point it was bearable, but certainly not hot. I got 15 bites that day, landing 10. One was close to 6 pounds and a couple were nearly 4. The problem was that I caught them on a jig, a swimbait (both deep and shallow), a jerkbait, a crankbait and two or three different lipless cranks. Despite having a lot of bites, I didn’t really develop any sort of pattern. In one area I caught three fish and saw a local catch a good one. It’s an area that I had expected would be good and I ended up starting there every day of the event, although I don’t believe I weighed in a fish from there.
On Sunday I launched at Waterfront and went down toward the state park, then fished all the way up to Mud Creek, a 35 mile stretch. I only had five bites and landed three of them, but they were all in that 3 ½ to 4 pound range. I never really got a good clue about an area or a pattern up there, and that left me scratching my head.
On the official practice day on Wednesday, we had a shorter day that the previous week, when we could be out there daylight to dark. I was in the second flight, from 7:15 to 3:15, which sounds like a lot, but it tends to fly by. I caught perhaps 15 fish, but only three of them were keepers, and many of the short fish weren’t even close. Most of those were on a spinnerbait in the gator grass.
I had one area I’d checked on Sunday that I wanted to check again. It was a backwater behind a bridge where I expected it to be warmer and clearer. I headed that way about 1 o’clock and found Steve Kennedy coming out. We’re good friends, and in the way only Steve can say it, he told me “Don’t go in, don’t go in.” When I got there, there was 4 to 5 feet of visibility and I could see fish everywhere. In 5 minutes I bet I saw 30 fish, and I only looked at a small percentage of the area. It was amazing, but most of the fish were not the kind that win Classics. The biggest looked to be around 4 pounds. At least now I had two areas I could rely on. Good stuff, but not a home run.
When the tournament started on Friday morning, I didn’t want to start somewhere without winning potential so I avoided the backwater at first. The other area is historically known for producing big bags. There was a big storm the night before and it muddied up a lot of places, including my starting spot. In a lot of places it only had about 3 inches of visibility, but I found one corner with 18 inches of visibility. I made a cast and a bass slapped at my Storm Rockin Shad, so I put my Talons down and on my next cast caught one about 2 ¼ pounds. I can’t describe how much weight that took off my chest. The first fish in the Classic is always a good feeling. On the next three casts, three more slapped at it before I finally caught one about 2 ½ pounds. I switched baits trying to get them to commit and finally caught one around 3 pounds on a chatterbait.
I must’ve spent about another hour there, searching for more clear water, but I never caught another keeper, so I left at around 9:30 with 3 fish less than 8 pounds and went up to where I’d seen Steve. He told me he had three fish, too. The area had gotten dirty, but not as dirty as my other spot. It still had about a foot of visibility. I fished through quickly and caught a small keeper on a Terminator jig. I noticed that the wind was blowing on the rocks, which seemed like a prime spot to me, so I went over there and in about 5 casts caught my fifth fish, a 3 ½ pounder. I made the same casts and caught one nearly 4, and then figured I was onto something so I dropped the Talons. Five casts later I caught a 4 ½ pounder, then caught a few smaller fish. It seemed when I started moving down that stretch I got bit every 10 feet. I must’ve caught 10 or 12 more fish before it seemed to dry up.
With that success on the riprap, I spent the rest of the day running more of it. I went into another tributary and caught a keeper that didn’t help, then hit a second bridge and caught one that helped me cull up by about ½ a pound. I told my Marshall that I’d been fishing a shallow crankbait all day and I just had a gut feeling that it was time to switch to my Rapala DT6, which runs a little bit deeper. On my third cast to a spot where the bank got deep, I caught my biggest fish of the day, about 5 ½ pounds, on the DT6. I’d called my shot with 15 minutes left to go. Considering that I’d had such a spotty practice, I was pleased with my weight of 20-10, which had me in 11th place, within striking distance. Twenty seven pounds was leading it and that’s just a difference of one bite.
I felt like if I could catch the same weight on Saturday I’d be in the mix and my mindset was to catch as much as I could – you never leave them biting in the Classic. I started in the same spot as the first day, thinking that the water would clear quickly. It hadn’t cleared as much as I’d hoped it would and I only had one bite where I’d caught three keepers the prior day. On the way out of the creek I stopped to fish a bridge and caught a smaller keeper. Then I moved to the point of the rocks and caught the 7-07 brute that I needed. I worked down the bank after catching it and caught a short fish. Then I turned around and went right back to where the big one was and fished the exact same cast over and over until I caught a 4-pounder.
When that bridge stopped producing I went to my backwater area from Day One and was pleased to see that the water had cleared by another 6 inches or so. Unfortunately, it was as slick as glass, which doesn’t work well for a crankbait, so I switched to a jerkbait and five minutes later caught a 3 ¾ pounder. They were still there. I kept making the same cast for what seemed like 30 minutes but was probably more like 5 or 10, and finally caught another 3 ½. I even culled once more before I left, which gave me a solid bag.
I went back to the place where I’d caught the big one the first day and made the same key cast again and again – one little point with current running across it – maybe 30 to 40 times before I caught one about four pounds. I must’ve spent 45 minutes back there and that was the only fish that helped. I weighed in 22-11, which pushed me up all the way to third. I knew I’d move, but didn’t figure it would be that much. I’d only caught 7 or 8 keepers that day, but the bites were better and I didn’t lose any.
I was only about 4 pounds off the lead, which is half of a fish on Guntersville. You can’t say that about every place we fish. It was almost better than leading because it meant I wouldn’t be hampered as much by spectators.
On Day Three I started off on the riprap where I’d caught the two big ones the second day and quickly caught a couple of short fish and one that was just barely a keeper. In my second area, the place that had been very good the first day and pretty good the second day, the water had cleared up a lot. Again, there was no wind so they were spooky and I couldn’t get them to bite. I told my cameraman I needed to leave and find some current, so I abandoned everything I was doing and just went fishing out on the main lake.
I went down the river a bit to a place I hadn’t fished in maybe 3 or 4 years, a river bar with a ditch coming out of it. On one little point I had a fish knock slack into my line and miss the lure, but I threw back and hooked up with a 3 ½ pounder. That pumped me up. I felt that things were about to happen.
After I dropped a 15 ½” fish into the livewell I saw that the little one from earlier wasn’t doing well. I figured that I couldn’t win with a fish that was barely 15” in my livewell, dead or alive, and if it died I wouldn’t be able to cull it, so I threw it back. Pretty quickly after that I caught two more fish from that “history” spot, leaving with four total. I spent the rest of the day trying to replicate that but couldn’t make it happen for a long time.
Running down the lake late in the day I stopped on a spot I’d found during practice on my Lakemaster chip, a little ditch. After about 5 minutes I hooked a big one and its head shook and came out of the water. It’s going to be awesome TV footage, and I’m pleased to say that it weighed 8-04. That was my fifth fish and in the remaining hour I didn’t get another bite. I was disappointed that I couldn’t add another one like that, but it’s pretty sweet to end the Classic like that. Fourth place is nothing to sneeze at against this caliber of competition.
I suppose if I’d gotten on the riprap bite earlier on the first day I might’ve finished higher, but overall I’m pleased with my performance.
The DT6 was my main weapon, along with a shallower diving crankbait and a suspending jerkbait. The DT6 was custom-painted in the “pumpkinseed” pattern – not the soft plastic color, but rather like the sunfish. I fished it on a new 7’8” medium-heavy Fenwick Elite Tech Bass rod that is going to be introduced at ICAST. I paired it with a Pflueger Supreme reel spooled with 10 lb. test Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon. One key was to replace the VMC trebles multiple times throughout the day with a fresh set. They’re super sharp and I didn’t lose a fish that mattered.
The other key piece of equipment was my bow-mount Humminbird 360, which enabled me to fish on the fly the last day. I didn’t have to disturb the fish by idling through an area or graphing it. I could just drop the trolling motor and see everything around me. I never turned it off.
This was my best Classic finish and the more of them I fish the more I understand just how special the event is. It gets better every time and you can’t take it for granted. With the Elite Series season starting shortly, I’m more determined than ever to get back, and I’m going to fish even harder all year long. I need some new hardware for the mantle.