It’s incredible how quickly this season has passed by. It seems just like a few months ago, my wife, Katie, and I were caravanning across the country with all our possessions in tow, headed to our next chapter as Tennesseans.
In reality, a year has passed, and the Bassmaster Open season has come and gone.
Though my season started with a bit of a disappointing finish at what I would have considered by strongest venue – the Kissimmee Chain – I developed a level of consistency through the next three events by cashing checks in each.
I’m not ecstatic about my overall standings in the points, coming in at 24th, but I feel that I’ve been making some overall great decisions and fishing clean, especially at the last two events at Lake Champlain and Douglas Lake.
New Experiences in New York
Going into the event on legendary Lake Champlain, I knew that a combination of smallmouth and largemouth were going to be essential to doing well for multiple days; unless, of course I were to find Ticonderoga fishing strong for the green fish.
By the end of practice, I’d pretty much eliminated a run to Ticonderoga – not because it wasn’t fishing well, but I didn’t feel it was that much better than an place that I’d found up in the Missisquoi area for largemouth. The added benefit of fishing up north was that I’d have quick access to prime smallmouth territory.
Though I was fairly confident in my largemouth area, which was a shallow backwater holding a tremendous population of fish in the 2- to 3-pound class, my practice looking for smallmouth areas was spotty at best, with most of my luck coming out in depths over 30 feet by using a dropshot for solitary fish found on rocky structures.
It seemed like many of the smallmouth were still on shallower flats, which made it difficult to pinpoint them from day to day, but as practice went on, more and more fish funneled on to the deeper structure. Though I don’t have much experience with targeting smallmouth in that situation, I do have ample confidence in my ability to find fish on my sonar, which made it a more efficient strategy than trying to chase down flat-roaming smallies.
The first day of the event, my strategy worked out about as well as I could have hoped. By 10 o'clock I’d caught over 50 largemouth using a combination of different Z-Man ChatterBaits. Once I felt that I was only able to cull up ounces, I abandoned my largemouth pattern and went searching for smallmouth.
After several failed attempts to find smallmouth on any of my spots, I finally started to find some marks on a deep main-lake point in the Inland Sea. I was able to lower a dropshot rig down to these marks with a Z-Man Trick ShotZ and quickly culled up to 18-01 with a pair of smallmouth.
The second day went about the same, with the largemouth area producing yet another 50 or so green fish. However, by the time I made the decision to leave, my limit was much smaller than the day before. I knew I needed at least two big smallmouth to cull up to a quality weight, and after the previous day’s process of elimination, I decided to focus on the one point in the Inland Sea, which had numerous rocky high-spots in 30 to 45 feet that I was able to rotate through to find the solid marks I was looking for.
Unfortunately, I was only able to improve my weight slightly with one brown fish, while also losing the largest smallmouth I had hooked all week – a specimen that was well over 4 pounds. I completed the second day with 14-11, which ultimately dropped me to 36th place, but kept me within the check range.
Though I was disappointed I wasn’t able to improve my weight the second day, Lake Champlain certainly was a learning experience, since I’d never really targeted smallmouth on such deep structure in a competitive situation.
At 2 1/2 hours from home Douglas Lake was by far the closest venue on the Opens schedule, though it may also have been the event I was the most uncertain about.
Douglas is a lake that I’ve fished several tournaments on in the past, so I’ve had some experience there. However, it’s a very unique lake that’s been very different every time I’ve fished there due to the extreme water-level fluctuations it goes through annually.
This time around, Douglas was close to full pool at the beginning of practice, but it was falling quickly, so shoreline cover options were getting scarcer as practice went on. The bite was changing daily, which made it very difficult to find quality limits.
After several long and seemingly fruitless practice days, I’d decided that the upper reaches of the lake, where the French Broad and Nolichucky rivers flowed into Douglas, harbored the best overall quality and frequency of bites, not to mention some of the best shallow cover and shad population. The biggest issue with this region of the lake was the extreme fishing pressure it was experiencing from local anglers and the competitors.
I spent a great deal of time finding isolated cover that I could exploit to fill in a limit on the main lake, and did also find one deep area that I felt had potential as well, which all served to diversify my strategy.
On Thursday, my biggest hope was to capitalize on the river bite as well as possible because I doubted it would remain strong for Friday, and I needed a cushion in case Friday was as tough as I’d expected.
Fortunately, I did end up making quick work of the river bite, landing over 12 pounds by 8:30 a.m. using a combination of a Secret Lures prototype flipping jig and a ChatterBait. Many of the willows I’d been focusing on in practice were quickly losing depth, but I quickly recognized the opportunity the falling water presented by throwing the ChatterBait in deeper drains where shad and bass alike were being condensed.
By 10 o'clock the river bite had slowed, so I felt I needed to go test out some of my main-lake patterns. My deep area did end up producing as I expected, though not to a great extent, as I was able to cull once with a solid keeper caught on a 10XD crankbait.
Going into day 2, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to duplicate the previous day’s weight up the river, so I knew that I’d likely have to mix in some new areas in the main lake, but I needed to capitalize on everything I could scrape up from my river areas in the morning.
Within the first half-hour of the second day, things looked to be going well as I quickly landed a solid 2 1/2-pounder on the jig and one close to 3 on a Secret Lures MVP swimjig. However, after the initial flurry, I didn’t get another keeper bite up the river and bailed around 10:30.
I soon found that my main-lake areas were not much better as spot after spot yielded no additional keepers. I wasn’t even able to coax a single bite from my offshore area.
Finally I made a move to the end of the lake by the dam, where I had some deeper willow bushes. The first willow I pitched to, I had a fish pick up the bait and swim toward the boat. I set the hook and was in the process of swinging it aboard, but the fish – a solid 2 1/2-pounder – came unbuttoned at the edge of the gunnel, just inches from the inside of the boat.
I shook off that defeat and was able to pull in a squeaker fish that just barely measured before leaving for some other isolated areas with the same kind of cover. With a couple hours to go, I swung aboard one more small keeper and also lost another good-sized fish in a shallow brush pile.
At the weigh-in, I learned that the fish I’d lost in the last few hours had cost me a spot in the top 12, but the four fish I was able to bring in were enough to secure 27th place – my best finish of the season and my third straight check.
I’ll Take It
My goal going into the season was to accomplish one of three things – win an event, qualify for the Elite Series or finish in the top 10 in points to qualify for the Open Championship. Unfortunately I came up short on all counts, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m disappointed. Sure, I had higher expectations, but after a 111th-place bomb at Lake Toho, I knew that two of those goals were no longer in the cards unless I were to win an event.
In the end, I feel that though I started off with a bad event, I'm now fishing better than I have for years, and I'm now making better decisions than I have in a long time.
I may not have accomplished my short-term goals, but what I’ve learned about myself this season fishing the Eastern Opens will surely assist me in accomplishing my long-term objectives.
Let’s keep things rolling!
(Miles "Sonar" Burghoff is an aspiring tour pro and co-host of the TV series "Sweetwater." To visit his website, click here. You can also visit him on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube (SonarFishing) and Instagram (@sonarfishing).