By Todd Ceisner
Typically, during the week of the Bassmaster Classic, I travel to the host city the Tuesday before the tournament and get some work done on our Scouting Report article. I’ll speak to some competitors either in person or by phone and on Wednesday afternoon, I try to be at the ramp to intercept additional anglers to get some fresh observations as they come off the water.
This year, knowing that Lake Conroe wasn’t that big of a venue, I figured I’d apply for the angler ride-along program for the final practice day, which B.A.S.S. uses as a dress rehearsal of sorts for day 1 of competition. The email solicitation from B.A.S.S. arrived in late January and I sent back the names of five competitors who I thought would be interesting to observe for a day.
Brent Ehrler’s name was on my list.
I’d never been in the boat with Ehrler before, but I’ve covered him at the Forrest Wood Cup and other events and had always been intrigued by what makes him tick on the water, especially as he prepares for a major event. When I got word the morning of March 17 that I’d been paired with the California native, I alerted him via text message.
He didn’t respond for 3 1/2 days. I cut him some slack as practice for the Classic had also started that day and he was basically in a Conroe bass fishing bubble for 72 hours. None of the 52 competitors wanted to be bothered, especially by a pesky writer.
Finally, he replied the day I was flying to Houston and we agreed to meet at the ramp at the south end of Conroe the following morning.
What follows is a blow-by-blow account of the final practice day on the water with Ehrler, the winner of the 2006 Cup at Logan Martin Lake and 2015 Toyota Texas Bass Classic at Lake Fork, and unbeknownst to either of us at the time, the man who would go on to lead this year's Classic after the first two days of competition:
On Tuesday night, I mapped out a route from downtown Houston to Lakeview Marina. Many people bemoaned the Houston traffic last week, but there was nothing to complain about heading out of the city a little before 5 a.m. on a Wednesday morning.
After an uneventful hour-long ride, I parked my tiny rental car in the back corner of the parking lot by a storage building. As I start walking toward the ramp, I see Ehrler’s GoPro-wrapped Ford pickup pull in. His driver’s side window is down and he’s in good spirits and seems relaxed. I drop off my gear in his Ranger and he launches the boat.
He pulls into a slip at the marina and starts working on tackle prep with a headlamp. A B.A.S.S. official instructs him to head over to the staging dock at Lake Conroe Park.
After stowing some of the rods he’d already pulled out, Ehrler fires up his outboard and idles around the bend over to the dock at Lake Conroe Park, where the field is staged in order of boat number. This will be the official blast-off site for the Classic. He eases in toward the bulkhead and deploys his Minn Kota Talons just before the nose of his Ranger touches the wood. Up on the bank is a placard with the number 43.
It’s still pretty dark out so we’re unable to see the fog that would eventually delay blast-off for the final practice day for an hour. Eventually, B.A.S.S. Nation qualifier Scott Clift pulls in to Ehrler’s left and Hank Cherry takes the spot to his right.
Ehrler continues to unpack his rod locker and it becomes apparent he’s not totally dialed in yet. He’d practiced from daylight to dark for three days (Friday through Sunday), but hasn’t been on the water in about 60 hours. He seems a little anxious about what may or may not work today. He pulls out some flipping rods – all from the new Daiwa Tatula Elite Series, which features signature rods from several of the current Daiwa pro staff, including Ehrler.
By 7 a.m., the chatter is that the fog may delay things a bit. The first flight is due to leave the dock at 7:20 a.m. Anglers continue to mill around on shore while others, Ehrler included, work on tackle and map out a plan for the day. Cherry complains that he’s pretty tired so he lays down on his front deck and closes his eyes.
Ehrler did some sight-fishing, but also skipped docks and pitched and flipped flooded wood cover.
Tournament director Trip Weldon grabs the microphone and says he’s going out on the lake to determine how widespread the fog is and he’ll make a decision on delaying take-off when he gets back. Anglers grumble about the potential delay. Cherry grouses about being awoken. If it were a normal practice day, they’d already be out on the lake.
Finally, an announcement is made that boats will be turned loose at 8:20. Ehrler backs away from the bank and drifts over away from the crowd before finding his place in line. Before long, we’re running wide open toward the northern end.
It’s 8:30 a.m. and Ehrler has come off plane to idle through a stump field. There’s some emergent wood breaking the surface, but it’s the subsurface stuff he’s worried about. He spent time up here earlier in practice, but was still uneasy about running it.
The water clarity is significantly dirtier the further north we go. There’s plenty of standing timber now and endless shoreline cover. He still hasn’t made a cast.
“I wish someone would come running by me so I can follow them,” he says.
He’s very concerned about running lanes if he comes back up here during the tournament.
> 8:34 a.m.: Ehrler’s boat rubs over a stump as he continues to idle and look at his electronics. It’s quite striking the contrast between the two ends of the lake. This is wild country up here. No wonder one area is referred to as "the jungle." There are what appear to be lane markers in the water, but it’s hard to discern where the boat lane would be. Ehrler continues to idle. He glances over toward the shoreline to our left and says he may go take a look at the area later.
Ehrler believes the fish that will be caught in this part of the lake live here year-round.
“I think they come in and out of the river and never leave this general area,” he said, looking up ahead to the mouth of the San Jacinto River.
> 8:38 a.m.: “I don't like this,” Ehrler says, his first passive dismissal of the area. He has six rods spread out under a strap on the port side of his deck. Another eight are laid out on the driver’s side and two more are in the co-angler storage area.
> 8:39 a.m.: Ehrler shuts down the big motor in what amounts to the middle of a field of standing timber. He has targets on both sides of the boat and up ahead. He reaches for a spinnerbait rod and fires a cast toward a piece of wood protruding out of the water to his right. A fish boils on his bait on the next cast. He alternates sides, probing the stick ups, all the while his outboard's lower unit and trolling motor deflect off stumps.
> 8:42 a.m.: Ehrler lays down the spinnerbait rod and fires up the big motor. We idle out of the mine field and continue north toward the mouth of the San Jacinto. He points to another stretch of stick-ups and says, “That area’s been good.” He then points to a stretch of brush that creates a point and says he wanted to check the corner of it, but there’s about 100 yards of water between the boat and the area. He opts to turn around instead of going there. He swings the boat out to the left, jumps up on the front deck, then has second thoughts and gets back behind the wheel.
“I don’t like it,” he says. “This drives me nuts. I don’t want to be here. I want to be out there and I can’t get there.”
Five seconds later, he asks if I’m ready for him to get on plane. I give him a thumbs up and we vacate the area. He makes a short drive around the corner and we run through a slalom course of lane markers and idle past an island. Ehrler stops on a small patch of stick-ups and probes it with a chartreuse and white spinnerbait.
> 8:57 a.m.: Ehrler has switched to a 4-inch paddletail swimbait on a weighed hook with a willow blade trailing underneath. He’s using a quick retrieve around the brush in an effort to cover water. He points to an isolated stick and remarks, “What’s crazy is a stick like that is what could have one on it. I’m plowing mud with the trolling motor, but they could be there.”
> 8:58 a.m.: He makes his first cast toward a bulkhead near the Wildwood Shores development. The houses here look fairly new so these bulkhead walls can’t be all that old.
> 9 a.m.: Ehrler sits down to swap reels on his swimbait rod.
> 9:04 a.m.: He’s back on the trolling motor casting the swimbait. The water is still very stained.
> 9:08 a.m.: Ehrler gets his first bite with the swimbait. It was on a small point with a bit of grass on it. There are shad in the area and he puts his Talons down. He gets another bite, but doesn’t set the hook. Today’s not the day he wants to handle that many fish.
> 9:13 a.m.: There is shad activity on the surface around here. Ehrler puts his Talons down and starts picking over a channel between the bank and the end of a small island.
> 9:17 a.m.: Ehrler mentions again how worried he is about the north end and the impact the forecasted wind on Friday could have on it. He doesn't want to tear up his equipment and he’s concerned he might not be able fish his best spot.
> 9:24 a.m.: Ehrler continues to cover water with the swimbait. He gets another bite, but shakes it off. “I should’ve jerked on that fish because I’m not coming in here during the tournament,” he said.
> 9:38 a.m.: Ehrler’s back on the main lake and stops on a swath of brush. He starts flipping a weightless Yamamoto Fat Ika and gets a bit on his second flip. He worries aloud about this area getting trashed by a south wind. “The north side might be okay, but it's only so big,” he says.
As he goes down the stretch, we see (and hear) carp thrashing back in the brush. He continues to flip the Fat Ika as this looks to be a good stretch despite the presence of the carp.
He picks up the swimbait and flips it at specific targets in the brush and slowly reels it out, making sure it gets down.
> 9:45 a.m.: Ehrler says he’s giving himself 1 minute to get a bite or else he’s leaving. On his next flip into a bush, something grabs his bait and the bush shakes. He doesn’t set the hook, but his line gets wrapped up in the branches. “I still have 30 seconds,” he jokes while untangling his line. He winds up staying to fish a little longer.
A Yamamoto Fat Ika, rigged weightless, was one of Ehrler's options when pitching to wood or bulkheads.
> 9:58 a.m.: Ehrler is still flipping and mixing in the swimbait down the stretch of brush. The carp are still spawning and thrashing around. He wonders if that spooks the bass. “They weren’t here the other day,” he says.
I ask why he’s not using braid when flipping into the bushes and brush. Some of the stuff looks fairly gnarly. He says he likes 16-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon for the weightless Fat Ika because it helps the fall rate of the bait and it’s strong enough and abrasion-resistant for heavy cover.
> 10:15 a.m.: Ehrler straps down his rods and we leave the northern end. We’re now in the mouth of Caney Creek, a well-known section of lake loaded with boat docks. He starts by skipping the swimbait under platforms and flipping the Fat Ika near ladders.
Before making a short run back into a pocket, he mentions some details about this TTBC win at Fork. He’d found three deep spots there and refused to go shallow, where much of the field was concentrating. “I wound up winning,” he said. “What’s frustrating here is that the shallow bite isn’t what I thought it’d be. I didn’t think I’d have to go out deep in March.”
> 10:20 a.m.: He’s fished his way to the back of a pocket/canal that’s lined with mini-mansions and docks. He throws his swimbait in between a dock and the bulkhead and a 3 1/2-pounder grabs it. After a brief battle, he swings it in the boat. It’ll be the only time he sets the hook on a fish on this day.
> 10:32 a.m.: He’s moved into another residential canal and continues to fish the swimbait along bulkheads while skipping docks when the opportunity is there. I mention the 2018 Classic, which is scheduled for Lake Hartwell, where he’s enjoyed great success on the FLW Tour. He says that’s one he definitely wants to be a part of. “It’s just a fun lake,” he says. “I like it.”
> 10:39 a.m.: He comes to the end of another pocket/canal and wonders if he'll catch another one. “This one’s a little shallower,” he notes. He flips to two ladders. “They usually like ladders, but not ones you're two feet away from,” he quips, pointing out that he probably got too close.
>10:45 a.m.: Every so often, Ehrler will skip a BOSS jig around the docks, but it’s becoming obvious a dock pattern won’t be in his game plan. “Why they're not on docks, I don’t know,” he said. “They might be now. I just had a jig bite near a lift.”
He then recalls the only 20-plus inch fish he caught during a previous TTBC at Conroe (anglers were allowed to bring 20-plus inchers on stage during weigh-in). “I was fishing some brush in 8 feet of water and I got hung on a limb, but I broke off a 6-foot limb and pulled that out of the water,” he said. “I retied and on my next throw caught a 6-pounder.”
I ask him if he thinks some Classic anglers will target docks all three days of the tournament. “Yes,” he said. “With the wind, guys are going to fish where they can fish. I have a feeling you'll see guys fishing water they haven't fished just because. I think I'll be one of them. You’ll just fish where you can and hope to get bites and by the end of the day hope to have five.”
Regarding the wind that was in the forecast for day 1, he added, “The good thing is you can move fast and fish a swimbait and crank and cover water as opposed to if it's calm you'd have a jig or a worm.”
> 11:05 a.m.: I mention to Ehrler how Conroe might be bass fishing’s version of Bristol Motor Speedway with a good portion of the lake walled off by bulkheads, creating almost a coliseum-like environment. With the houses right on top of the water, the sprawling balconies are like the bleachers at Bristol which puts fans right on top of the action.
> 11:23 a.m.: Ehrler moves into the back of another canal with a small culvert and some overhanging brush that is mostly in the water. He pitches the Fat Ika around, but doesn’t get a bite.
> 11:30 a.m.: Ehrler’s phone rings. It’s close friend and fellow Classic competitor Brett Hite. Ehrler wedges his phone to his ear with his right shoulder so he can continue fishing while comparing notes with Hite, who wasn’t having a stellar day.
> 11:39 a.m.: Ehrler leaves Caney Creek and we make a run across the lake to a point that comes off a campground. We are just below the Highway 1097 bridge. He glances back into the pocket between the campground and bridge. There’s a quarter-mile worth of riprap and some potential spawning habitat, but he opts to stay out on the secondary point, where he slings a medium-diving crankbait for several casts. He thinks the riprap along the causeway is an option, but it’d be too exposed to the south wind on day 1.
> 11:54 a.m.: Ehrler arrives a new spot down the lake just outside the entrance to Walden Marina. The sun is out now and the clouds have mostly dissipated. He fishes down a bulkhead with a Texas-rigged Senko. This time, he’s off the bank a bit. At this point, he’d trying to identify areas that he thinks can be fished effectively in 20- to 30-mph winds.
“I think my tournament is going to be blown out as far as what I want to do,” he said. “I don't know yet, though. If it's calm, I know what I want to do.”
He’s referring to the brushy area up north that he idled through earlier today.
> 11:57 a.m.: Jason Williamson idles out of the marina. It appears he was in the back potentially looking for bedding fish. Cherry is also fishing near the entrance behind Ehrler.
Below are some additional images taken during our Day In The Boat with Ehrler:
> 12:06 p.m.: Ehrler approaches a dock that leads to shore. He noses in and puts his Talons down. He jumps on shore to look for bedding fish along a bulkhead in the marina. A few minutes later, he's back in the boat after not seeing anything worth coming back to.
> 12:22 p.m.: We’ve swung out of the inside of the marina and Ehrler is now working down the earthen berm that protects the marina from the main lake. It looks like prime bedding habitat. The water is pretty clear. He continues with the swimbait, but is also trying a finesse worm rigged on an Owner JigRig. He says it’s the first time he’s used it. He remarks that he’s fished in here before and that the bottom of the channel heading out to the lake is littered with brush.
> 12:35 p.m.: Ehrler idles out of the marina and runs to the mouth of another creek. The water is markedly cleaner here and it’s not lost on Ehrler, who continues to cover water around docks with the ribbed swimbait.
> 12:50 p.m.: I ask Ehrler if he’s concerned about the lack of bites today. “I’m trying to find something I can put my head down and do on Friday if all else fails,” he says.
Ehrler asks my opinion on who could be a threat to win this week. I tell him people would be silly to write off Keith Combs and that Mike Iaconelli’s record at Conroe is stout as well even though he’s lacking the wins that Combs has. Hite’s name comes up because of his prowess with a vibrating jig.
> 1:43 p.m.: After sampling some offshore spots, Ehrler, makes another run to a pocket with docks and undeveloped shoreline that leads to a causeway. He says he hopes this is the “juice.” The sun is high and it's warmed up nicely today.
> 1:51 p.m.: He comes to a stretch with some wood in the water, a mix of laydowns and stick-ups. “This is the stuff I like,” he said. He makes his fifth flip and gets a bite. “That felt good,” he says.
He’s more chatty now than before.
“That makes me feel good, that bite right there,” he said. “This is the most consistent thing I've had. That dock deal, you can fish a lot of those things and not catch ‘em. What stinks is there's not much of this that’s not on south-facing banks.”
> 2:05 p.m.: He gets another bite to reinforce his confidence in the stick-ups. He sits down and idles toward a causeway. He casts the swimbait, but as we get closer, he makes a couple casts with a crankbait. As we emerge from under the bridge, he trolls over to a flat on the left that’s littered with stick-ups and laydowns. It’s a target-rich environment. “If I can get one bite in here, I'll leave and come back and fish it blind in the tournament,” he says.
> 2:18 p.m.: Ehrler mentions time is starting to run out. He’s due to check in at 3:30.
> 2:26 p.m.: He still hasn’t gotten a bit around the vast area of stick-ups. He sees a fish break off the surface in the distance, but chances are it was a carp.
> 2:44 p.m.: Ehrler leaves the area with no bites, but says he might come back. He adds that he still hasn't covered what he wanted to.
He makes a run into a cove near a high-rise resort condo. The shoreline he’s working is lined with strategically placed bricks. He works down the bank thinking he's seeing beds, but says he’s frustrated with the water clarity, which is keeping him from figuring out what's down there. He said he had caught some fish in this area earlier in practice cranking hard cover and on a shad spawn.
> 2:50 p.m.: He sees a small bass cruising near a bed and pulls up his trolling motor and leaves.
> 3:02 p.m.: Ehrler heads back toward Lakeview Marina. He pulls into the pocket next to the Jack In The Box restaurant, which has a dock for customers to tie off their boats. He starts flipping older bulkheads with a Yamamoto D Shad. We come to a concrete embankment that forms the foundation for the road up above. He spots a fish that he thinks was on bed. “Nice one,” he says.
> 3:13 p.m.: He sees a few more on beds along the concrete wall and seems enthused. As he moves away away from the bulkhead he sees a bunch more swimming on a shallow flat. “Whoa, that's weird. This has me freaked out now,” he said. He idles away thinking this could be an option Friday morning.
> 3:20 p.m.: With 10 minutes left, he runs to a stretch of bank with stick-ups adjacent to another large marina. It looks fishy, but he doesn’t get a bite or see any beds.