By BassFan Staff
Ever since Lake Conroe was announced as the site of the 2017 Bassmaster Classic, the talk surrounding the event can largely be summed up in one word: Potential.
The lake has experienced a resurgence as a largemouth fishery over the past several years. Double-digit specimens have proven to be plentiful, and locals have seen limits over 45 pounds cross the scales. On paper, the Conroe Classic was primed to be a slugfest – maybe even a record-setter. All the ingredients were there: a springtime derby in Texas, plenty of big fish,and the best anglers B.A.S.S. has to offer.
But that's not how things played out for the 52-angler field.
The lake sits roughly 50 miles north of Houston, but that's not far enough to be isolated from the city's massive sprawl. Conroe isn't some far-off, hard-to-reach destination of a fishery. It's an increasingly popular tournament venue just a jog up the interstate from a behemoth of a metropolis occupied by more than 2 million people.
The lake's accessibility and proximity to Houston, the buzz of an upcoming Classic and an unseasonably warm winter invited even more fishing pressure and boat traffic to the lake in recent weeks. Those factors combined to force the fish into a pressured funk that left many anglers scratching their heads and scrounging for limits.
Here are the details from the competitors who managed to make the most of a stingy Lake Conroe.
2nd: Steve Kennedy
> Day 1: 5, 17-07
> Day 2: 4, 15-11
> Day 3: 5, 21-15
> Total = 14, 55-01
To say Kennedy liked his chances coming into this event would be an understatement. The Alabama pro described the conditions as "tailor-made" for his style of fishing.
"I read an article where (the pundits) had me at 75-to-1 odds to win this deal," he said. "I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' This is what I do. This was a shad-spawn, post-spawn, extremely tough kind of event. I feel like I'm good at that.
"If there's one thing I have over (the rest of the field), it's the ability to catch individual big fish in tough conditions," he added. "That's what this tournament was about in a nutshell."
He fished in close proximity to Brent Ehrler and Mike Iaconelli in an area referred to as the "Jungle" – a shallow, timber-riddled flat on the upper end of the lake. To give an indication of how tight the quarters were, at one point during the final day Iaconelli actually idled between Kennedy and his camera boat. Kennedy wasn't bothered.
"Right after he went through there, I made a pitch and caught a 5-pounder," he said. "I really believe his boat going through there triggered that fish to bite."
His demeanor after the final weigh-in told the tale – he felt like this was an event he let slip through his hands. In retrospect, he acknowledged his lack of execution on day 1 proved to be his undoing.
"That's when I blew it," he said. "I should've had 25 pounds that first day. What I was doing was pretty simple. I was getting bites swimming a jig around some shallow trees, but that wind we had made it really hard. I lost three big ones – two 5-pounders and a 4."
When asked if he could have done anything differently to put those bites in the boat, he said: "I really don't think so. They don't call that place the jungle for no reason. It's a tough place to land a fish unless they just follow it out and eat it at the boat. The fish just won. That's it."
Two jigs, one to imitate shad and one to mimic bluegill, accounted for the bulk of his bites. While other high finishers opted for smaller, slower presentations to entice the finicky fish, he said his shallow power presentation was geared purely toward evoking reaction strikes, although, he lamented not putting the jigs away and reaching for a finesse bait when conditions got tough on day 2.
"I had four fish before 9 o'clock (on day 2), and I never caught another keeper the rest of the day," he said. "I feel like could've picked up a little beaver bait and finished my limit, but I was so focused on a big bite. I felt like that's what I needed to win.
"The opportunities (to win) were definitely there," he added. "The next few tournaments are probably going to be the same kind of deal, and I'll probably be fishing the same exact way, but those aren't the Classic. I can only hope to get another opportunity like this one."
> Jig gear: 7'6" extra-heavy Kistler rod, Shimano Curado casting reel, unnamed 65-pound braided line (no leader), 5/8-ounce D&L Advantage jig (white), Zoom Super Chunk (white).
> His "back-up" jig, which he used to catch his two largest fish, was a 1/2-ounce Dirty Jigs swim jig (green-pumpkin), with a Zoom Super Craw trailer (green-pumpkin).
Performance edge – "This was the first time I ever used Power-Poles. I know I caught some fish that I would have blown right over if I hadn't had them. These guys better watch out. I didn't know what I was missing out on."
The 9-12 bruiser that Brent Ehrler caught on day 1 was one of the largest fish in Bassmaster Classic history.
3rd: Brent Ehrler
> Day 1: 5, 23-03
> Day 2: 5, 20-01
> Day 3: 5, 11-10
> Total = 15, 54-04
Brent Ehrler didn’t count on the fishing at Conroe to be as tough as it was. He also didn’t count on the fish he wound up catching being as shallow as they were. It was just another example of reality not lining up at all with expectations at this year’s Classic.
“I thought the fishing was tougher than what it would be,” Ehrler said. “Being Conroe in the spring, I thought we’d catch them easily. Two of the days in practice, I didn’t have a limit.”
He tried to sight-fish in practice, but clarity and the transient nature of the fish hindered that enterprise. He caught a few around docks, but not enough to rely on for up to three days of competition. Ultimately, he settled on targeting wood across the upper part of the lake.
“A lot of fish were shallow,” Ehrler added. “I didn’t think they’d be as shallow as they were. I thought they’d be in that 2- to 5-foot range, but they were in 1 foot.”
After sampling various parts of the lake during practice, he opted to head north for the majority of the tournament. In the area known as the jungle, he flipped and pitched hard lines of brush and stick-ups with a weightless Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits D Shad.
“The D Shad falls faster than a Senko and when it falls, it falls head-first and has a flutter to it,” Ehrler said. “I can fish behind guys and catch fish. It was a really good bait.”
He led after days 1 and 2 behind 20-pound stringers each day. His day-1 bag was anchored by a tournament-best 9-12 lunker, the biggest bass in Classic history not caught at the Kissimmee Chain in Florida. It tied Mark Tucker’s 9-12 brute from 2006 for the third-biggest fish ever in the Classic.
“I was around 17 pounds other than the big fish,” he said.
He had a productive morning on day 2 to keep the momentum going, but ultimately thinks the accumulation of fishing pressure in the general area may have caught up to him.
“I think the pressure may have gotten to them,” he said, adding that he maybe would’ve hit a couple areas a little harder on day 1 if given the chance. “I think the amount of traffic and me being there eventually caught up to them.”
> Flipping/pitching gear: 7’3” medium-heavy Daiwa Tatula Elite Series casting rod, Daiwa Tatula SV casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 18-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon line, 3/0 Gamakatsu EWG worm hook, Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits D Shad (watermelon or green-pumpkin).
> The new Tatula SV reel was key in helping Ehrler skip the D Shad under limbs, which made it easier to pull fish out of the thick cover. “I was able to catch fish farther back in there where as normally you’re pitching over branches and limbs and it’s harder to get them over that stuff,” he said.
> When it got windy and the D Shad wouldn’t fall like he wanted it to near specific targets, he pitched a Texas-rigged creature bait on 20- and 22-pound Shooter beneath a 1/4-ounce weight.
James Elam fished a cast or two deeper that most of his fellow competitors on the north end of Lake Conroe.
4th: James Elam
> Day 1: 4, 20-01
> Day 2: 5, 17-12
> Day 3: 4, 12-07
> Total = 13, 50-04
Oklahoma pro James Elam said he diligently watched the southeast Texas weather all winter long. His observations told him to be prepared to target fish that were pretty far along, if not completely done, with the yearly spawning ritual.
"Post-spawn and the offshore bite are what I was thinking about heading in," he said. "I figured I'd check around shallow a little bit, but mostly I was ready to fish deep."
He visited what turned out to be his most productive tournament area during the first day of practice, but he didn't think much of it at the time.
"I junked around (on the north end of the lake) and got five keeper bites, but it wasn't enough to make me really slow down and try to pick it apart," he said. "I spent the rest of my practice time running around and checking on other stuff – deep areas, spots south of the bridge – and I just never found anything that was better.
"I wasn't feeling very confident at all heading into the tournament," he added.
Like several other high finishers, his primary approach consisted of throwing soft-plastics near spawning flats. He also mixed in a minor shad-spawn bite around bulkheads and docks early in the morning. For the flats fish, the key to his presentation was targeting what he called the "halfway zone," about a cast-length or two deeper than many of his competitors.
"I wasn't in the jungle, but I was fishing that upper end of the lake with a lot of other guys," he said. "I think I was catching fish they were going over. A lot of (the other anglers) were right up in the bushes, and I was fishing more out in front of those same bushes. I wasn't all the way offshore, but I was targeting fish in about 5 to 6 feet of water."
A Texas-rigged Senko was his primary bait. If he saw a fish follow the Senko or if he missed a bite, he had a Jackall Chunk Craw at the ready for clean-up duty.
"It was a really slow bite," he noted. "There were a few times where they'd eat it on the fall, but I was mostly just dragging it through there. I couldn't see any beds, but I think those fish were either guarding fry or just hadn't left after the spawn."
He fished a clean tournament and didn't lose a single fish that would've helped his standing. His only regret was not spending more practice time learning the subtleties of his primary area.
"Looking back, I really didn't know what I had when I went there in practice," he said. "I was basically learning my area during the tournament – figuring out how the fish were relating to things, what they wanted. Every day I was figuring it out a little more."
> Senko gear: 7'3" extra-heavy McCain Hi-Performance rod, Shimano Metanium MG casting reel (8:1 ratio), 16-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, 1/8-ounce unnamed tungsten weight (pegged), 3/0 Owner offset shank wide-gap worm hook, 5-inch Yamamoto Senko (green-pumpkin).
> Chunk Craw gear: Same rod, reel, line and hook as Senko, 3/8-ounce unnamed tungsten weight (pegged), Jackall Chunk Craw (green-pumpkin).
> Vibrating jig gear (shad spawn): Same rod as Senko, Shimano Metanium Mg (6:1 ratio), 20-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, Jackall Break Blade vibrating jig (white) Jackall Rhythm Wave 3.8 trailer (white).
Main factor in his success – "It was definitely how slow I was fishing and fishing just a little further off the cover than the other guys. Those fish were pressured and didn't really want to bite. I also really only had one pattern to focus on, so I couldn't second-guess myself."
Performance edge – "We had some big weather swings and I was happy to have my Simms gear – from the headwear to the shoes. When you're dealing with wind, rain and heat, you really can't beat good-quality clothing. The Lowrance Genesis mapping played a big role, too. At Conroe, the smallest little depth changes make a huge difference and I was able to find that kind of stuff."
Ott DeFoe did most of his damage with a topwater bait.
5th: Ott Defoe
> Day 1: 5, 13-13
> Day 2: 5, 16-05
> Day 3: 5, 18-10
> Total = 14, 48-12
Ott Defoe cruised into the Classic on a hot streak, riding consecutive top-10 finishes and the Angler of the Year (AOY) points lead in the young Elite Series season. He knew he wanted to fish the upper portion of the lake and said he didn't waste much time anywhere else during the practice period.
Practice wasn't particularly eventful for him. It wasn't until the final Wednesday scouting session that his bite started to materialize.
"You could tell a good wave of fish had moved up and were getting ready to spawn," he said. "I started getting some good bites – definitely more action than what I saw (earlier). I felt okay about the quality I'd found, but I still wasn't getting a lot of bites. I really wasn't sure if I could put together a good limit with what I had or not."
His method for each day of the tournament was pretty straightforward: work the shad spawn bite until it fizzled, then head to nearby spawning coves and target fish cruising the bank and hanging around beds. Both approaches yielded valuable fish throughout the event.
A new topwater bait from Storm, the Cover Pop, was his most productive lure and he used it to catch fish on the riprap banks and in the shallow coves. He also used a wacky-rigged worm for the spawners and occasionally tossed a swimbait, but noted the swimbait wasn't a vital part of his arsenal.
The shad spawn was happening "up and down the entire lake," so he looked for areas that were conducive to drawing in shad, but also had cover close by that bass could relate to.
"My best spot (for the shad-spawn bite) was a riprap bank that had some old willow sprigs around it," he said. "That shad bite would last until about 9 a.m., which is longer than it usually goes in a lot of other lakes. I think that has a lot to do with the color of the water – we only had about a foot of visibility in most places."
About his spawn pattern, he said: "The fish I was targeting were pretty shallow – maybe 8 to 18 inches of water. All you could see of the beds was a light-colored ring. It wasn't true sight-fishing. You couldn't make out the fish at all, just a little bit of the bed. I threw that wacky rig in there and just let it sit, then my line would start swimming off."
> Topwater gear: 6'6" medium-action Bass Pro Shops CarbonLite rod, Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Platinum Signature casting reel (6.8:1 ratio), 17-pound Bass Pro Shops Excel monofilament line, Storm Cover Pop (ghost pearl shad)
> Wacky worm gear: 7'2" medium-action Bass Pro Shops CarbonLite spinning rod, Bass Pro Shops CarbonLite spinning reel (size 30), 20-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS 8 Advanced Braid line, 14-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon leader, VMC Neko weedless hook (#1), Bass Pro Shops Fin-Eke worm (green-pumpkin)
> The Storm Cover Pop and the weedless version of the VMC Neko hook are both set to be released at ICAST this summer.
> More on the Cover Pop: "It looks like a popping bait, but we designed it to walk in place. Basically the idea is you get a lot of action – walking, spitting, popping – without moving the bait very far. It worked out really well targeting those beds."
Main factor in his success – "Without a doubt it was committing to the north end of the lake. In my entire practice I maybe spent only 4 hours in the south half of the lake. I knew I wanted to be on the north end and that's where I spent all my time."
Performance edge – "Definitely my (Minn Kota) Talons."
> While all the other anglers made a quick exit after the final-day "Super Six" press conference, Kennedy took a seat in the crowd and sat attentively through Jordan Lee's session. He told Lee: "I'm just trying to learn something from you here."
> Elam on the tough bite and the added pressure a lake experiences leading up to the Classic: "I saw that exact same thing happen to Grand Lake. Everybody gets excited and wants to go fish that body of water. You get more weekly tournaments popping up. And with the mild winter (in Texas), I don't think those fish ever went deep. They've been getting thrown at since January. It makes it really tough."