This past week I competed as a co-angler in the third of four FLW Series Eastern Division bass tournaments. As with the previous two, Okeechobee and Eufaula, I had never been to Lake Champlain. What a beautiful lake! There are many who dislike fishing clear water, but I am not one of them. There is something about a good fish dogging it out near the boat and being able to see it the whole time!
Although I failed in reaching my goal of a top twenty finish, all was not lost. I've gained valuable experience. I am learning that experience is an extremely useful thing to have. Allow me to share one example. On the first day of the tournament, my boater took us to an area that was unlike any area that I had seen in practice. It was a shallow flat that led up to scattered reeds. The clumps of reeds were in about 2 feet of water. My partner was pitching a jig to each of the denser clumps. I decided that there was little reason for me to try to follow up with a similar technique so I made a few longer casts into the reeds with a buzzer.
I may have commented on how this area reminded me of Lake Okeechobee, at the very least, I thought it. I had been to Okeechobee earlier in the year and had fished what they called hay fields. A great bait for this type of cover was a bait from Reaction Innovations called a Skinny Dipper. I rigged one up and proceeded to make long casts into the shallow reeds where there were small patches of lily pads. Where the buzzbait would tend to catch and hang, the Skinny Dipper came through like a champ.
I started catching keeper largemouth... to the point my partner had to dig out a different rod to match my technique. He grumbled under his breath something about getting schooled on a bait that is one of his sponsors. It was a good 45 minutes for me. Good simply because I was fortunate enough to recognize a situation similar to previous experience.
Oh, and my best fish for the day? It came because of an article I read sometime ago. It mentioned what has become a favorite phrase for me, "Like a fat boy trying to hide behind a flag pole." You see, there was one lonely reed behind us out on the flat. I ALWAYS make sure to note those little "flag poles". And once it was past the front of the boat without my angler noticing it, I turned and made my cast. This bit of prior experience has paid of for me many times before and this time it was a three and a half pound largemouth. Remember this! Look for the fat boy hiding behind the flag pole!
So, by nine o'clock in the morning of day one, I had 4 fish in the livewell. A great start to the tournament. Now let me acknowledge my lack of experience.
Lack of Experience
The remainder of day one and most of day two proved to be frustrating. I simply have not had much experience with "punching". Although we were not fishing heavy mats of grass, rather, my partners had found coontail that was growing anywhere from 3 feet to 10 feet deep. The coontail would rise towards the surface then fold over inches below the surface. It took a vertical presentation with a heavy jig or weight to get down into the stuff and heavy braid to get them out.
I simply was not prepared for this situation on day one. But I was ready for it the second day. 65# braid, a 1 oz. tungsten sinker pegged in front of a BMF hook with a Sweet Beaver soft plastic bait. What I was not prepared for was "just one of those days" - a day where my partner gets the bites and I don't.
It started on a 4 to 6 foot deep flat, covered with coontail. Thick coontail. Thick enough to clog the trolling motor prop. With another boat just a couple casts away, my partner proceeded to whack'em. To the point that the angler in the other boat yelled, "You are on fire!" Here I was with plenty of grass to flip, but no bites. When the action died down and we had moved to another spot, I ask my boater about the recent flurry. "Were there some rock piles or some other feature mixed into the coontail that you were keying on?" He pointed to a patch of coontail. "You see that small clump of milfoil under the coontail? There were a couple larger clumps of milfoil mixed in with the coontail back there." The milfoil grew up about half as tall as the coontail and was a light green color when viewed from above. That was where his bites came from, dead center in the weeds within weeds. It is always nice to know "why" because up till then I was completely baffled.
One problem with being paired with a local is that they have so many spots to fish. I felt like the entire second day was spent trying to figure out the current situation and make adjustments. Then... off we would go to a totally different situation.
I don't even remember how I caught the 4 keepers I caught, I just remember feeling sick every time my partner caught a 2 pounder and would throw it back because it would not up his cull. I do remember finally getting what felt to be 2 good bites on my punching rod. Both times I swung expecting to connect, only to reel in a limp, empty line.
You may have heard of the legendary monster of Lake Champlain known as Champ. Although I did not encounter anything resembling Champ, I did seem to have a creature following me around the lake all week. We called him Pete. Pete the Pike. Ole Pete seemed to be everywhere. If you were to throw a jerkbait, Ole Pete would be there. Or a spinnerbait or spook, or even if you reeled in a Carolina rig too fast, Ole Pete was sure to show up. But losing a couple seven dollar tungsten weights to Ole Pete was the clincher. Not only does that cost money, but worse than that, precious fishing time spent re-rigging.
I never did catch my fifth keeper on day 2. After the weigh-in, I was so happy to speak with my day 3 partner when he said we'd be targeting smallies the following day, all day. Finally, I could put to use what I learned in practice...
A Good Day Three
Even though I took other rods, my focus was on two: A Carolina rig rod and a drop-shot rod. When we would drift over sparse grass, I'd drag the Carolina rig and when over bare bottom I relied on the drop-shot.
What I experienced in practice was that you had to be around the perch to get bit by the smallmouths. How did you know you were around perch? They would almost constantly be ticking, tugging, and sometimes even thumping your bait! There would often be a small group of 5 to 6 inch perch following in your bait as you'd reel in to make your next cast.
Something I observed in a clear pond back home helped me here. When I first started playing with a Flick Shake or wacky jig, I noticed it would draw the attention of small bluegills. The bluegills would pick and peck at the wacky-rigged soft plastic. It seemed this would often draw the attention of a nearby bass that would come and inhale the bait, taking it away from the bluegills. I learned to stay steady with the little ticks I'd feel and wait for the rod to load up or the line to swim off before reeling down on the bass.
So here is how it worked on day three. I rigged a Little Dipper (a 3.5" version of the Skinny Dipper) on a drop-shot rig. I would make a fairly long cast and drag the 3/8 oz weight as we drifted. Then the perch would show up... peck, peck, peck. At times it would feel just like the rig was dragging over small rocks. Every once in a while I would lift the rod tip sharply, ripping that little swim bait away from the perch. Instantly I would point the rod tip right back down creating a dead-fall slack. After waiting a second or two, I would slowly reel up the slack and check for weight. Most all the smallmouths I caught this day were on at this point. Being able to repeat this throughout the day made for a truly satisfying bass fishing experience.
It was a nice way to end the tournament. Even though I failed to finish as high as I had hoped, I gained a whole new set of experiences that I am sure will pay-off in the future.
Golly, I like fishing!