2017 Bassmaster Classic
5th Place | 15 fish, 48-12
Prior to this Classic I’d been to Conroe multiple time for the TTBC but I wasn’t sure how much that would help me. I’d finished 4th there once when the water was 7 feet low, but this time it was at full pool. Those tournaments had been later in the year, and I expect the fishing to be easier in the spring, but with a largemouth minimum size limit of 16 inches, limits might be tough to come by and as everyone saw the fishing was actually quite tough.
I did not visit the lake before it went off limits because it is relatively small, and in my visits there I’d made multiple laps around the lake. Also, whatever I found in January might not apply in March. Finally, I don’t really like the south end of the lake, and with spring break traffic I expected it to be crowded, so I planned only to fish north of the big bridge. If you take a small lake and cut out two-thirds of it from the start, that makes practice pretty straightforward.
On Friday’s first practice day Andy Montgomery and I were the only two boats that put in at a ramp up the lake. As I started running, I saw numerous birds along the shoreline stickups. They were feeding on spawning shad, so I pulled out a Terminator spinnerbait. Pretty quickly I hooked up with a 6 or 7-pounder. It came off but it gave me a good sign of the area’s potential. As I pulled into the first pocket, shad followed my lure on virtually every cast. On the way in, I caught a 5 ½ pounder and on the way out I caught one about 4 ½. In less than an hour I’d had three bites that would have totaled over 16 pounds, which could form the basis of a good bag.
When the shad bite died off things got tough. In fact I’m not sure I landed another keeper all day. I did find one area that had quite a few spawning fish in it, but after that I looked and looked at similar areas and had trouble finding any more.
Saturday, the second day of official practice, was very similar. I started off chasing the shad spawn along some riprap. I quickly caught several small fish, then a keeper, then one that weighed about 4 1/2, before finally breaking off one around 3 ½. That had the makings of a good day bag, but there was no reason to double back and burn additional bites. After that I covered water with a topwater and a flipping bait, but it was hard to get bites. I did find one place where I could catch a few, but it certainly wasn’t wide open. Either the fish were still spawning or they were hanging around in the areas where the shad were spawning – I wasn’t sure.
On Sunday it got really tough. I couldn’t get anything going at all on the shad spawn bite, so I fished deep quite a bit and couldn’t get that to work either. I think the local pressure had beaten the fish up.
After a few days off, we were back on the water on Wednesday for a final day of practice. I wanted to spend my time looking for new stuff so I didn’t go back to the shad spawn areas. Catching those fish on Wednesday would just hurt me, and I was going to fish those areas regardless, so I focused elsewhere. By covering water with a big swimbait and a Storm Cover Pop, I did figure out that a whole new wave of fish had pulled up. In areas where I would have gotten two bites over the weekend, I’d get five, and I saw six or eight fish following the swimbait at times. They were on dark spots, and while I couldn’t see the beds clearly, the situation was eye opening. I was happy to find it.
On the first day of the tournament I was boat number three which made me happy because I wasn’t sure if others would want to begin on my starting spot. I was headed to the riprap along a small bridge and with a stiff south wind blowing at takeoff I expected the bite to be good. That condition tends to push the bait around and fire the fish up. Starting on the point, I quickly caught several short fish and one keeper. Then I fished the length of the bridge and couldn’t add another. I was a little bit disappointed but I still had some other shad spawn stuff to fish. I was convinced that I would catch most of my weight in the morning, as it was when I got most of my big bites in practice, but it didn’t turn out that way.
About 9:30 I headed to what I expected to be one of my better pockets and started throwing the Cover Pop. Pretty quickly one got under it after a twitch and inhaled the bait. The bass got wrapped up in the twigs and started thrashing. I could see the bait, but not the fish, but when I got there she was still on and I landed my best fish of the day, about 3 ½ pounds. Shortly thereafter, one missed it so I threw back with a wacky worm and caught a 3 pounder.
At around 10:30 I went to some shallow brush where I’d caught a 4 pounder in practice, but after an hour of fishing with no bites I had to make a move. Heading into the next pocket, within 30 minutes I managed to fill out my limit by picking apart the cover very slowly. While it was windy in many areas, that pocket was protected so I could take my time and I caught five keepers there. Most of what I weighed that day came on the Cover Pop – perhaps one of the fish I brought to the scales was on the wacky worm – and my 13-13 had me in 25th place, right at the cutline. I was proud to have a limit. Two spots above me was two pounds up and two places below me was two pounds down, so I was going to need to get some big bites going forward.
On Day Two I employed a pretty similar strategy. There were severe storms on Friday night with heavy lightning and hail, and typically those major post-frontal conditions are not good for the shallow bite. The wind had shifted from out of the south to out of the north, and so while I started on the same bridge, I knew that the water would be being pushed in the same direction. I caught six or eight short fish before I finally landed a keepers, but it was a solid 5-pounder. The next one was a good solid keeper and it was nice to have two in the livewell early. After that the shad spawn pretty much dried up, so I started working my way back down the lake.
First I stopped at a series of cuts where I’d seen a few keepers in practice. The first one was a little “pond” and quickly it produced a couple of little bitty fish on the Cover Pop. I realized that the quality fish just weren’t going to eat the topwater that day, so I put it down and picked up the wacky worm.
Approaching a pretty overhanging tree, I fired in my worm and caught keeper number three, a skinny little fry guarder. As I made a move after that, I passed Bradley Roy in the middle of the creek. He was on a spot that I wanted to fish, but every time I passed by he was there so I never got to fish it. Heading into the next pocket I pulled out a swimbait and on my first cast caught keeper number four, which weighed about 2 ¼ pounds. I kept throwing my wacky worm and my swimbait but didn’t get bit again. I switched directions and headed back to the point, throwing at everything that looked like a bed, and finally caught number five, a solid 4 ½ pounder.
I saw several more beds, including one which clearly had a fish on it, but I couldn’t get it to bite. That was it for the day, five fish on three different baits – two on a swim jig, two on a wacky worm, and one on a swimbait. It wasn’t pretty but I had 16-05 and that moved me up to 13th place. I didn’t realize quite how tough it was going to be on everybody.
Heading into Day Three I knew that mathematically I had a shot, but I didn’t expect all of those top guys to struggle like they did. In order for someone to jump up from down the leaderboard to win, Brent Ehrler, Edwin Evers, KVD and Dave Lefebre would all have to catch less than 17 pounds and I didn’t think that was likely.
I started the final day of competition on the bridge once again and managed to catch two catfish and two short bass before finally giving up on the shad spawn and picking up my Cover Pop. Pretty quickly I had a decent fish knock it out of the water and then on the back side I had a decent fish flush it, but my drag must have loosened on the rough ride up the lake and I couldn’t get a hook in the fish. It came off. I’m not sure how big it was, but it was a good fish.
Abandoning the bridge, I headed down to a pocket where I’d fished the first day. As I headed in I saw two local boats, one on the way out, the other fishing in the far back. I turned the steering wheel a quarter of a turn to start to make a U-turn out, but ultimately decided to stay. That was a good decision because on about my fifth cast with the Cover Pop to a dark spot, I saw a big fish materialize under the bait. The lure was approaching some twigs and my line was about to get hung, so I raised my rod and made a few cranks before seeing the fish take off. I went back to twitching it on the edge of the brush and worked it about 4-5 feet through the brush before she bit. I landed her and she weighed 9-09 and that’s a fish I won’t soon forget. It took until 10:45 to get my first keeper, but it was worth the wait. See video here.
The was a 3 or 4 pound male with the big girl, and after I landed the big one I celebrated, put my Talons down, and just sat for a minute. I retied, changed my hooks and took a sip of water. I’ve never done that before, but as fired up as I was I knew that if I made another cast right away it would not be pretty. For the first time, with nearly 10 pounds in the boat, I knew that a couple more bites like that and I could be right back in it.
On the next cast I suffered a terrible backlash. I just looked at my Marshal and said “Told you so.” When I got that cleared out, I threw my bait into the bed, twitched it twice and the male hit and pulled off. I should’ve tried the wacky worm first.
Over the next hour and a half or two hours I filled out my limit, mostly with the wacky worm. James Elam was fishing nearby, although he was out a bit deeper, and about an hour later he caught one between 4 and 5 pounds, so I stayed until about 1 o’clock, but I never caught anything else.
At the end of the day I pulled into another pocket and caught a few small ones before seeing a pair of decent fish rubbing on each other on another bed. I couldn’t get them to bite, but it was obvious that another new wave of fish was moving up. Without the storms on Friday night, they might’ve moved up on Saturday, with another wave coming on Sunday, and it would have been a much different tournament. I really feel that given the circumstances I fished quite well. I was one of only four anglers to weigh in a limit each day, and my 18-10 n Sunday moved me up eight more places into 5th.
The Cover Pop, which will be introduced at ICAST, was a huge part of my success, as it tricked that near-10 pound bass. I learned a lot from East Tennessee pro Craig Powers back in the day about “rolling” the P70 Pop-R, and when Brandon Palaniuk first showed me a Cover Pop prototype a few years back I offered up some suggestions to make it the perfect tool for that technique. I fished it on a 6’6” medium BPS CarbonLite rod paired with a Johnny Morris Platinum casting reel (6.8:1) spooled with 17 lb. BPS Excel monofilament. The lure was in the Ghost Pearl Shad color.
My wacky worm of choice was a BPS Fin-Eke worm (green pumpkin) fished on a 7’2” CarbonLite spinning rod paired with a size 30 CarbonLite spinning reel. I spooled up the reel with 20 lb. XPS braid and topped it off with a leader of 14 lb. XPS fluorocarbon. I’ve raved about the VMC Neko hook for over a year now and I’m convinced that it maximized my strikes and hookups in this tournament once again.
My Talons were also critical, as they are in nearly every tournament. I put them down 30 to 50 times a day and they always operate flawlessly. Whether it’s working a bed or picking cover apart before I blow over it, they’re critical in shallow water.
For the next event we’ll stay in Texas at Toledo Bend. The more I fish in the Lone Star State the more I think I understand the bass down there. I still don’t have a full grasp, but things are starting to make a little more sense. Last year I had a good tournament down there with a Terminator Popping Frog and I’d love to repeat that. It’s fun fishing in places where big fish live – I’ve already had a great big fish year with an 8-06 on a frog at Okeechobee and a 9-09 in the Classic on the Cover Pop. Where I live a 7 pounder is a big fish, but they catch 7 pounders down there all the time.
I’ve had a great start to the year, but this is a marathon and not a sprint. I need to keep things in perspective, control what I can control, and let the chips fall where they may. If I prepare appropriately and practice and compete as hard as I can, things should turn out well.