By Jason Bryant
Special to BassFan
Bass are fickle creatures by nature. When subjected to extreme changes in weather, they get even more difficult to predict. And when those extreme weather changes also happen to overlap with the yearly spawning ritual, it can be downright maddening to even the most seasoned tournament pros.
That's the exact scenario the 49 anglers competing in last week's Bassmaster Classic had to deal with. The pre-practice period was marked by cold, damp and generally miserable fishing conditions. The single day of official practice was a partly cloudy, T-shirt-and-shorts kind of affair. By the time the Classic finally kicked off last Friday, the air temperature had dropped 20 degrees and much of the Red River backwaters had been whipped into slop by a punishing southwest wind the day before.
After the bipolar weather week, it's not surprising that the anglers who finished in the Top 5 all fished areas that were not only prime pre-spawn staging locations, but also featured select attributes that made them ideal locations for when the fish made a dash to the banks to build beds.
2nd: Greg Vinson
> Day 1: 5, 17-12
> Day 2: 5, 16-12
> Day 3: 5, 13-07
> Total = 15, 47-15
Runner-up Greg Vinson was drawn to the Little Jungle area in Pool 4 by a flurry of bites he coaxed from beneath a single hyacinth mat there in practice.
"That (Little Jungle area) was the first place I looked on the first day of practice," he said. "I went to one little mat about the size of my boat and got five or six bites right away and I was like, 'Man, this place must be full of fish.' I moved around and checked some different areas after that, but I never got another bite. I went back to that exact same mat on the last day of practice and got bit again. That pretty much told me where I needed to be."
"That spot was really a perfect setup," he added. "It had every type of cover you can think of. It was about 3 feet deep in the main part and it had a ditch running down one side that was about 4 feet deep. It was protected from the wind and the inflow of the river. It was just an ideal spot for the fish to transition into and eventually spawn."
A War Eagle spinnerbait was the ticket for targeting the transitioning fish on day 1. A NetBait Salt Lick (soft stickbait) worked slowly around stumps and spawning beds worked better on days 2 and 3. He also punched hyacinths with a NetBait Baby Paca Craw and targeted bedding fish with the original Paca Craw.
"My bite on day 2 and 3 was definitely best in the afternoon," he noted. "It seemed like the last 45 minutes of fishing time every day, a new group would come up to spawn."
Each day on his way back to the weigh-in he'd stop and throw a crankbait at what he described as "the outside bend of an old channel bank" near the launch.
"That spot was about 150 yards from the launch and I would try to hit it real quick on my way back in. It wasn't good for many bites, but that's actually where I caught my biggest fish on day 3."
> Spinnerbait gear: 7' extra-heavy Carrot Stix rod, Shimano Curado 50E casting reel (6.4:1 ratio), 15-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, 5/16-ounce War Eagle spinnerbait (chartreuse/white).
> He used a Colorado/willow-leaf blade combination and replaced the stock willow-leaf with a larger blade.
> Soft stickbait gear: Same rod, reel and line as spinnerbait, 4/0 Owner offset-shank hook, NetBait Salt Lick (watermelon/red, tail dipped in chartreuse JJ's Magic).
> Punching gear: 8' double extra-heavy Carrot Stix rod, Shimano Curado 51E (left-handed model), 50-pound Stren Sonic Braid line, 1-ounce Jethro Tungsten weight, 4/0 Paycheck Baits punch hook, NetBait Baby Paca Craw (black shadow).
> Sight-fishing gear: Same rod and reel as punching gear, 20-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon, NetBait Paca Craw (Cajun craw, tips of claws dipped in chartreuse JJ's Magic).
> Crankbait gear: 7'3" medium-heavy Carrot Stix Wild Black rod, Shimano Curado 50E casting reel (6.4:1 ratio), 15-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon, Bandit 100 Series crankbait (chartreuse/black back)
> He said he fished the Bandit "straight out of the package."
Main factor in his success – "I'd say my decision-making. I let those bites I got in practice lead to me to the right stuff, and I adjusted my presentations with the fish."
Performance edge – "The NetBait baits and the War Eagle spinnerbait. Keith (Poche) and I were both using NetBait products so I think that was a key. The NetBait stuff isn't big in Louisiana yet, so I think those fish aren't conditioned to them. The other thing was the JJ's Magic. There was a noticeable difference in the number of bites I got once I started dipping them."
Day-1 leader Keith Poche said his backwater pond in Pool 4 resembled a canal.
3rd: Keith Poche
> Day 1: 5, 17-13
> Day 2: 5, 11-08
> Day 3: 5, 16-10
> Total = 15, 45-15
Keith Poche said his backwater pond in the Sullivan's area of Pool 4 was "really only big enough for one boat to work thoroughly." He yanked two bags over 16 pounds out of the spot when he had it to himself on days 1 and 3, but could only scrounge up an 11 1/2-pound limit when he shared it with Davy Hite on day 2.
"That area was really longer than it was wide," he noted. "I guess you'd call it a pond, but it was almost more like a canal. When I had it to myself I would go up one side of the bank, then I would turn around and work the other side. By doing that I was giving those fish time to rest and set back up on beds. When Davy came in there on day 2 we were both beating it up and the fish got skittish.
"(Hite) came in there early on day 3, too. The magic didn't really happen until after he left."
He used two soft stickbaits – a NetBait Salt Lick and a Yamamoto Senko – as his primary search baits. He modified the stickbaits by adding a Coloroado blade to the back with a screw-in device he makes himself.
"I would make long casts and just reel that Salt Lick back to me real slow," he said. "A lot of times a buck would come off a bed and I'd catch him. If they didn't eat it I'd pay attention to where (the wake) came from and then go over there and fish the bed with a (NetBait) Baby Paca Craw."
"I've been (adding the spinner blade) for years," he said. "As far as I know, that's a deal that originated in Louisiana."
About why he fished two different brands of stickbaits, he said: "It was mainly a color thing. I was using a green-pumpkin Salt Lick when it was cloudy. When it got sunny I threw the Senko in watermelon/red because it's got more of a translucent look to it."
> Soft stickbait gear: 7'6" medium-action Duckett Fishing MicroMagic rod, Abu Garcia Revo STX casting reel (6.4:1 ratio), 15-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line, 4/0 Gamakatsu EWG worm hook, NetBait Salt Lick (green-pumpkin) or Yamamoto Senko (watermelon red).
> He didn't know the exact size of the Colorado blade but described it as "little bitty." He used gold and silver Colorados, but said he got more bites on the gold.
> Sight-fishing gear: 7'6" medium-heavy Duckett Fishing Micro Magic rod, Abu Garcia Revo STX casting reel (7:1), 20-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line, 1/2-ounce tungsten weight (black), 5/0 Gamakatsu EWG hook, NetBait Baby Paca Craw (black neon).
Main factor in his success – "Sticking to my gut feeling about fishing the area I did. I almost didn't go there on the first morning, but I knew that was a place I could catch a limit and then I just adjusted from there."
Performance edge – "My Tyhpoon Optics sunglasses. I could see bedding fish from long distances and that was a big key to being able to catch them."
Alton Jones likely burned less gas than any other competitor in the Bassmaster Classic.
4th: Alton Jones
> Day 1: 5, 13-13
> Day 2: 5, 17-14
> Day 3: 5, 14-04
> Total = 15, 45-14
Alton Jones said he only burned a "thimble's worth" of gas throughout the 3 days of competition. He fished directly across from the launch site in Port Lake.
"I caught 20 pounds out of that spot at the 2009 Classic," he noted. "That was the first place I fished on the first day of practice and it was on. I looked around at some other stuff the rest of practice, but I never really found anything as good as that little spot."
He defined the area as a "featureless backwater pond" and estimated it to be about 10 acres in size.
"It's only 6 to 12 inches deep and it's got a narrow ditch about 18 inches deep that runs the length of it. The pond is full of pad stems and the ditch is lined with stumps."
He tried to visit the area first thing on day 1, but despite being boat No. 16, there were already three other anglers waiting in line to get into the pond. He identified one of those anglers as eventual winner Chris Lane.
"I fished close by and just watched those three other guys duke it out," he said. "I knew those fish weren't going to bite very well with that many boats in there. One by one those guys started to leave and I finally got in there about 11:00. I turned all my electronics off, put my Power-Poles down and went to work."
He shared the area with John Crews on day 2 and said, "I have to give a lot of credit to John. He's very quiet and very courteous to fish around. I gained a ton of respect for him this week."
He caught 25 fish on day 1 – none of which were sight-casted to. He estimated having 30 bites on day 3 and four of his five keepers were caught from beds. He said he "burned through at least three limits" on day 3 and only weighed one bedding fish.
The morning bite was virtually non-existent in the Port Lake offshoot. The water temperature started off in the low 50s each morning, but climbed quickly throughout the day.
"That place was just dead in the morning," he said. "The magic temperature in there was 58 degrees. When the water hit 58 I didn't go 10 minutes without having a bite. There was one time where I caught three fish on three consecutive casts. I'm still blown away at how different that area looked in the morning compared to the afternoon."
Jones used a Yum Dinger soft stickbait as a search tool. He made long casts and burned the Dinger across the surface on the retrieve.
"If one swirled on it and didn't take it I would kill the bait, count to three and set the hook. One of the best fish I caught came up and swirled on it, and then I saw the wake go back the other direction. I pushed (with a push pole) my boat over there and it was a 4 1/2-pounder sitting on a bed. I ended up weighing that one in."
He caught a few bedding fish with the Dinger, but primarily relied on a Yum Vibra King tube when sight-fishing.
> Soft stickbait gear: 6'9" medium-heavy Kistler Z-Bone rod (with micro guides), Ardent Edge Elite casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 50-pound braided line with 25-pound Gamma fluorocarbon leader (4'), 4/0 Paycheck Baits punch hook, 6-inch Yum Dinger (green-pumpkin/purple flake).
> He used the Dinger mostly as a search bait, but said he caught a couple bedding fish on it also.
> Sight-fishing gear: 6'6" medium-heavy Kistler Z-Bone rod (with micro guides), same reel, 30-pound braided line with 20-pound Gamma fluorocarbon leader (4'), 3/16-ounce tungsten weight, 3/0 Paycheck Baits punch hook, Yum Vibra King tube (green-pumpkin).
> "I used the 3/16-ounce weight because I wanted that Vibra King tube to have a natural, gliding fall. If you get much bigger than that, the tube just plunks right to the bottom."
Main factor in his success – "Recognizing that the fish would transition into the spawn the way they did. I also ran very light on fuel all week and that was a big key. It was very difficult to get into my area and I had to be as light as possible."
Performance edge – "Probably the Ardent reel and Kistler rod combination. Fishing for spawning fish is kind of like deer hunting. The more distance you can put between yourself and the animal, the more successful you'll be. The spectators I had watching me were blown away at how far I was casting."
Ott DeFoe fished two areas that had nothing in common.
5th: Ott DeFoe
> Day 1: 5, 16-06
> Day 2: 5, 11-01
> Day 3: 5, 17-07
> Total = 15, 44-14
Ott DeFoe alternated between two areas in Pool 5 – the crowded McDade backwater and another nearby area he elected not to name. According to DeFoe, the two areas had absolutely nothing in common.
The water in McDade was clear and cover was abundant. The other area held colder, dirtier water, had very little depth contour and the only cover to speak of was a ring of hyacinth mats around the edge.
"I'd start every day in McDade and try to get a limit there before I moved to the other spot," he said. "My second area was really shallow and it'd get pretty cold overnight, so I tried to give it some time to warm up before heading that way."
McDade was more of a numbers spot for him. A Rapala Shad Rap crankbait and an X-Rap jerkbait were his best weapons there. His quality came fish came from the second area where he primarily punched hyacinth mats with a Berkley HAVOC Pit Boss.
About his decision to use the Shad Rap, he said: "I had actually fished a Shad Rap in that area during an FLW tournament and got some bites, so I knew it'd work. I knew a lot of guys would be cranking with square-bills, but not many would throw a Shad Rap in there. There's a lot of stumps and I got hung up a lot, but it was worth it. There's really no better cold-water crankbait than that Shad Rap. The action is perfect for the spring."
He also used a jig and a yet-to-be released Berkley HAVOC Rocket Craw on a few spawners he found in McDade.
> Crankbait gear: 6'8" medium-light Bass Pro Shops (BPS) CarbonLite rod, size 30 Abu Garcia Revo Premier spinning reel, 8-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line, custom painted Rapala Shad Rap (green and brown back, white sides, orange belly).
> "That (custom color) is pretty similar to the root beer color that Bandit makes," he said of the crankbait. "This is going to sound crazy, but I think that orange belly is a difference-maker in the spring. I think the shad sit down on the bottom and they get a little bit of an orange coloration to their bellies. Where I'm from we have red clay and it's not uncommon to catch a bass with an orange belly because it's been sitting on the bottom. I think the baitfish do the same thing."
> Jerkbait gear: Same rod, reel and line as crankbait, Rapala X-Rap jerkbait (Tennessee shad).
> Flipping gear: 7'5" heavy-action G. Loomis Mossy Back rod, Abu Garcia Revo MGX casting reel (7.9:1 ratio), 20-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line, 1/4-ounce Reins Tungsten weight, 5/0 VMC flipping hook, Berkley HAVOC Pit Boss (black/blue)
> Sight-fishing gear: Same rod, reel and line as flipping, 1/2-ounce Terminator jig (green-pumpkin/orange).
> He also caught some bed-fish with a Berkley HAVOC Rocket Craw (not yet released) in green-pumpkin. His Rocket Craw setup was the same as he used for the Pit Boss.
Main factor in his success – "Having that second area I could go to and get a few bigger bites."
Performance edge – "I'd say that VMC hook and the Berkley fluorocarbon. I have a ton of confidence in that VMC hook. I never lost a fish on it all week."
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