Tuesday, November 1, 2011

ABA American Fishing Tour Nationals

- Price of boat gas in South Carolina - $3.34 per gallon;
    - Number of anglers I had to compete against - 315;
        - Cost of experiencing a lake turnover during a national championship - PRICELESS.

October was a month of change on Lake Murray in Columbia, South Carolina. Warm seventy-degree air temperatures kept the trees believing that summer was still present and leaves remained green. Two small cold spells dropped water temperatures into the high sixties and set the stage for a major lake turnover, when oxygen and water temperatures mix throughout the 200-ft deep reservoir. Local anglers were hardest hit by the devastating effect of this sudden water quality change. The dominate topwater pattern disappeared as schools of striped bass, blueback herring, and largemouth bass scattered and became unpredictable. This turnover leveled the playing field and this Florida angler took advantage of the tough situation and ever changing conditions.


Our practice began on a Sunday, with clear sunny skies and a light west wind. Daily air temperatures reached the high 70s F. Hordes of bass and blueback herring were swimming the clear-water shallows near the lower end of the dam. Schools of shad were easily found by any observant angler boating up the stained Saluda River. The tournament was setting up to be a slugfest with local knowledge of offshore brush piles having the advantage.

That all changed when a cool night breeze dropped the surface temperature of the lake lower than the deepest water, causing the oxygen-rich surface waters to sink. United States Geological Survey data confirmed that the oxygen levels on the bottom jump from 1 to 7 part per million (ppm). This over night change allowed fish to roam the entire 200-foot water column. Shad and herring took advantage of this new feeding opportunity and quickly relocated to the food-rich deeper water. Anglers woke up to an entirely different lake system on Monday morning.

My Monday was no different. The fish that followed my topwater lures on Sunday no longer chased the baits. Every bass in my area seem to be sulking, swimming listless, or simply cruising the barren shorelines with bored interest in lures. Rocks, docks, and boat marinas became my dominant pattern for holding bass and a few coves still held herring.

Tuesday marked our last day of practice and I continued to discover and mark waypoints of coves that held good boat docks. I felt that having a large selection of coves was important to get me through a three-day event as the weather was expected to change and the wind was going to blow hard. Tuesday’s practice also gave me a clue to a second behavioral change in the bass: suspending. I noticed several times during my practice bass would follow my bait when I reeled it in to make another cast. To catch these semi-active fish I planned on adding a jerkbait to my lure selection for the tournament.


Day 1: I traveled 30 minutes to my best cove and it remained loaded with the last remaining blueback herring schools and wolf packs of 3-4 pound bass. A topwater lure quickly caught my first bass weighing about 2.5 lbs. Throughout the morning bass would strike my topwater baits but not fully commit to eating them. Something was off and I could not figure it out. I slowed down and began throwing a drop-shot worm around any nearby docks. This proved to be the right move as I landed a good 3.5 lb bass and many short bass. When winds began to blow I used a Rapalla Glidin' Rap over a wind-blown rocky point to catch my last keeper. I ended the day with three bass that gained me 30th place.

Day 2: Armed with the knowledge of a slow bite I threw my drop-shot worm almost exclusively on the second day and caught five good bass along with many short fish. I moved up two places in the standings to 28th. Topwater lures and jerkbaits continued to only produce short strikes, and again I noticed a lot of bass following my bait as I reeled them in for another cast. This experience mentally ate at me all night long. I did not sleep well as I kept waking up and contemplating on how to catch those 2 and 3 pound bass that followed my baits.

Day 3: After a night of restless sleep I settled on rigging up a Zoom fluke jerkbait for getting a reaction bite. When I arrived at my fishing cove on the final day I used the low-light morning hours to fish the jerkbait, but to no avail. I never did figure out the key to getting reaction strikes out of those semi-interested bass. When I finally picked up my drop-shot worm I only caught small sunfish around the docks.

By 10 am I had not caught a single bass and I began to have second thoughts about my entire pattern. I made a cast with the Zoom jerkbait and let it sink next to a dock while I took a mental time-out to think about what to do or change. That’s when it hit me, literally, a small bass hit the jerkbait on the fall and I landed my first keeper. I picked up the drop-shot and started dead sticking the bait next to every boat dock in my area. My dead sticking method consisted on letting the worm lie on the bottom a full minute after each cast. If nothing picked it up, I would cast to the next dock. With time running out I hooked and lost a nice 3-lb bass. I landed one last keeper and headed into the final day weigh-in with only two small bass for the day.

In the end I finished 42nd out of the 316 of the best ABA American Fishing Tour anglers in the US and received a small check. I learned first-hand what a lake turnover would do to bass in the fall. The cool part about the tournament was that I finished highest among the Florida anglers in the Championship, bragging rights that I will cherish for a long time with my Florida friends.

Check out my video on drop-shotting to see the technique I used. http://www.jeffhollandfishing.com/


Monday, October 3, 2011

Powering Up for ABA Nationals

When I first began straightening out my tackle in preparation for the upcoming 2011 Nationals, I thought it would be a smaller task than it turned out to be.  Tackle was the easiest part, but checking out my boat’s power supply proved I was not ready for Nationals yet. 
First, I pulled all four batteries out of my boat.  Wow, what a filthy mess.  Grime seemed to cover everything.  My three Bass Pro Shop AGM 175 Deep Cycle batteries were going on four years old and holding strong.  Yet, I wanted to computer test them to make sure I did not have any bad battery cells.  My Motorguide Tour Edition 36v trolling motor was going to need all the power I could supply.  The local Advanced Auto Parts store tested my batteries and showed the battery cells were just fine.  When re-installing them I found the battery straps to be loose and in need of adjusting.  A loose battery can do some series damage in the bilge compartment of your boat when you are navigating six foot waves. 
Two items down and more maintenance to go.
Next, I went over my trolling motor wiring system connections.  I was amazed at how loose the wires had become.  Although I only tighten the connections a smidgen, the slack was enough to cause reduced power to my trolling motor.  Both the front plug connection and the stern breaker connections needed adjustments. 
With my batteries and wires in good shape, next I needed to verify the charging systems.
Looking over my XPS on-board battery chargers made me realize that I did not have any spare fuses for the three battery leads.  Each positive and negative battery lead is fitted with its own fuse for safety.  I do not remember ever reading about these fuses in a modern day boat-check list!  I visually checked each fuse and re-seated the connections.  Spares are now kept stowed.
Lastly, I replaced all my battery wing nuts with stainless steel marine locking nuts I purchased at my local ACE Hardware.  Locking nuts are easier to tighten and stay secure. 
Finding five items that needed maintenance reinforces the need to go over my boat's power supply system more often.  Doing it myself gave me the peace of mind knowing that my boat is ready and the knowledge that I have spare parts and the know-how to quickly replace them.   
This pre-tournament prepartion will allow me to focus on finding fish and avoid worrying about my equipment. 
When ever you get the opportunity check out the power connections on your boat do so, it will help avoid any on-the-water mishaps.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Wishing, Instead of Fishing

I was reminded of a valuable lesson during my third qualifying tournament for the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Weekend Series trail.   In practice I had found two distinct patterns, one a pre-post spawn bite and another involved spawning bass.  Typical of most tournaments the bass were biting really well the day before the tournament.  My first fish of the day was a seven pound female full of roe and ready to spawn.  I found that I could fish flukes over holes in the vegetation and catch numerous bass two to four pounds.  My other pattern developed when I fished a new brush pile that the state Fish and Game agency sank the month earlier.  While the hundred or so brush piles looked great, bass had yet to setup in the trees.  As I was running back to the shoreline I noticed pods of shad at the surface.  The closer I looked the more schooling bass I noticed.  One pass with a top water lure confirmed a large school of bass two to three pound bass were feeding and easy to catch.  I kept thinking this was too good to be true as not another tournament angler was in sight.  I should have known. Continuing on to the shallow grass line I shook off several bass over four pounds that I believed were post spawn females feeding up after laying their eggs.   The only trick to reaching the schooling and grass line fish was that I had to navigate a shallow, 1 foot deep winding creek that contained numerous blind turns.
I launched on tournament day as boat 21, and my worst fear materialized when I ran down to my creek and fog had totally set in.  Too dangerous to run in the fog, I settled to fish around the spawning bass and wait for the fog to lift.  My coangler and I quickly began catching bass but my mind was on getting to the easy schoolers and post spawn females.  I wasn’t fishing in the moment, but instead looking forward to later in the day when I could reach my schoolers. 
Because I wasn’t 1000% focused on my current fishing conditions I had to repeat my casts and fish numerous angles to get bass to bite.  It wasn’t efficient fishing but still effective.  By 9:30am both my coangler and I had our limits of bass. I started to get a glimpse of fishing the moment when I noticed the fog had lifted yet I wasn’t ready to leave an area that we were catching fish out of.  Wishing thinking prevailed and at noon time I decided to make the run through the shallow creek.  We arrived at the schooling area and while shad were somewhat present, the bass were not.  Fishing the grass line produced the same empty results. 
This is when it hit me; I was “wishing and not fishing”.  I had fished around quality bass all morning long but my mind was focused on an old fishing pattern observed a day early.  I was fishing yesterday instead of the moment!   I knew better!  I quickly abandoned the wishful pattern and went back to my spawning areas.  Sure enough, my first bass was a four pounder that culled a small bass.  My coangler culled out all of his smaller bass with two pound fish.  The bass had moved shallower with the conditions and not out deeper like most competitors around us were fishing.  We caught another 30 bass before heading in to the weigh-in.
I ended up getting a paycheck for sixth place with a little over thirteen pounds and moved up to eleventh in the Angler of the Year standings.  If only I had recognized sooner that I was fishing behind myself, may I would have found those eight to twelve pounds bass that were being caught all around me by my competition.  Lesson learned; concentrate on fishing, not wishing!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Leesburg Bass

Harris Chain bass must continue their annual spawn on a limited number of calm, hard bottom areas. Any angler who has put time on the water during the spawn has found the few hard bottom areas in canals, and these areas get tremendous fishing pressure. Bass are resilient, and they spawn on the rhizomes of spadderdock pads that dominate the shoreline of several lakes. This is what the good anglers focus on.

February in 2011 brought two full moons; the first moon brought freezing temperatures and the second brought warm spawning temperatures.

On February 12th following the colder moon, I fished an American Bass Anglers (ABA) one-day tournament. I was greeted to 41-degree air temperatures in the morning and 60s by weigh-in time. Water temperature ranged 54-58 degrees in the main lake and canals were colder (51F). Clean beds lacked any sign of male bass and conditions told me that my group of fish had ceased their spawning attempts. No bass fry were visible so I knew the bass had yet to spawn in this canal segment of Lake Eustis.

During this ABA tournament, I resorted to using lipless crankbaits over three feet deep bladderwort grass in the main channel to catch my fish. As slow, steady retrieve caught bass in the 3 to 4 pound range with several missed strikes as I lifted the chrome bait out of the water. I believe these were the female bass staging to spawn, as they were located immediately next to the clear-water spawning canals in Lake Eustis. It took 16 pounds to win the tournament and I placed in the top-ten with close to 10 pounds. On the same day, a friend of mine won the Fisher’s of Men tournament with a similar winning weight throwing lipless crankbaits in 6 feet deep hydrilla. Ironic how we both found the same pattern, under the same cold-front conditions, working totally different lakes with dissimilar water clarities.

A week later on February 18th the full moon had shown and spawning conditions in Little Lake Harris ripened. Confirmed reports of 20 to 30 pound bags came from canals and lily pad fields in the little lake. Main lake temperatures reached 70 degrees and canals rose to mid 60s.

On February 25th I practiced for the Bassmaster Weekend Series (BWS) tournament following the warm full moon and found sparse signs of bass spawning activity. A buck here, a cruising four-pound female there, and clean beds. Water was 71-74 degrees, and I could not find bass fry to indicate that the bass had successfully spawned. Fishing during practice was tough, with only three bites coming from pitching a sinko to spadderdock pad clumps in the stained water located at the mouth of spawning canals in Lake Harris and Little Lake Harris.

The BWS tournament was won with only 19 pounds, and many of the heavy-sticks who brought in 30-pound stringers the week before could only manage 15 to 19 pounds. Co-anglers in the tournament caught good bass throwing lipless crankbaits from the back of the boat and most boaters targeted spawning bass using pitching techniques. I found a fresh group of bass had moved up to spawn in the canals of Haines Creek and Lake Griffin. I finally observed bass fry and the guarding bucks easily hit soft jerkbaits. Many of the four to six pound females were still in the act of spawning, and failed to get them interested in my baits. I left the Harris Chain with water temperatures in the mid 70s, and bass starting to spawn on the main lakes. I learned just how quickly the Harris Chain bass move up to spawn and back out to fatten up on young gizzard shad. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Making Sense of It All

In bass fishing there is a saying, "It all makes sense once you start catching fish".  Bass fishing to me is the exciting process of putting together a live-action puzzle.  Every piece of the puzzle is a variable.  Most variables are constantly changing and in motion: weather conditions, sunlight penetration, fish behavior, fish location, and boat position.  Add to these factors the vast number of fishing lures that an angler has to choose from and you almost get a sense of overwhelming odds against the angler. 

Figuring it all out makes a fishing trip worth something special.  It is only after you catch a fish or two does the puzzle start to make sense.  Take for instance my last tournament experience.  The weekend before the tournament the water was warm and bass were setting up to spawn.  I had found some bass on shallow-water beds and I planned on catching them in the event.  Nevertheless, a cold front the night before the tournament dropped the air temperature 20 degrees and altered my day.  After I ran across the lake in 30 degree morning air temperatures the first thing I had to do was thaw out my hands and feet.  This Florida angler is not fond of winter weather! 

The harsh cold front ended up lowering the water temperature in my spawning area over ten degrees and caused my bass to leave the beds.  On most Florida lakes you can find the bass repositioned somewhere nearby, a dropoff or deep hole, but not on the Harris Chain of Lakes.  Harris bass flat disappear! 

After fishing for nearly three hours without a bite I finally decided to change my approach and leave the shallow water behind me.  I went back to a fall/winter fishing pattern where my bass keyed in on shad. One of the best lures that I use to mimic shad is a lipless crankbait.

An hour into my new fishing pattern and I caught a two-pound bass. The fish swallowed the crankbait and gave me a clue that I did everything right to fool that fish: the right color, right lure speed, the right fishing depth.  That single hit reminded me of a similar fishing trip and put another piece of the puzzle together.  When my next bass was a four-pounder I knew that I had figured something out. The only problem was that this last fish did not eat the lure well; in fact, it was only hooked with one barb of the treble hooks.  That told me something was wrong with my presentation or the fish-feeding period was slowing down.  A few casts later I missed a two-pound bass that swam up to eat my lure just when I was lifting it out of the water to make another cast. The conditions were changing and I lost the piece of the puzzle that told me lure color and presentation. 

Regardless of this loss I maintained the same lure and presentation until the event was over.  After landing eight bass and missing three I felt my performance was acceptable but not great. I felt confident about putting some of the puzzle together and giving me a chance to win, but I never figured out the other changes I needed to make to get the fish to bite later in the day when they quit feeding so good.  

I walked away from the tournament in seventh place and feeling good about the experience that I had gained in adapting to changing cold-front conditions. Maybe next time I will put enough of the puzzle together to win.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Lackluster Performance

Florida was challenged with severe cold fronts to begin the new year. Having to start the 2011 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Weekend Series trail during such weather extremes was less than fun. My first day of practice started at 7am in 29F temperatures. The first wave over my boat soaked my right leg and shoe. Not good. I never could find a group of bass big enough to win so I scrambled and fished my strength: shallow water power fishing. I ended up finishing 32nd place and earned a few points. I will definitely have to step up my focus to have any chance at a top five finish this year. Maybe I need to expand my techiniques to include more deep water fishing patterns?