Sunday, April 21, 2013

My Southern Open Recap on Douglas Lake TN

My learning curve grew exponentially during the 2013 BassmasterSouthern Open on Douglas Lake in Dandridge, TN.  

While I finished in 22nd place and moved into 12th place for Angler of the Year points, it was by no means an easy event.  I never found out how to catch them good using the umbrella rig so I relied on a jig fishing pre-spawn pattern.

To compete at this event we had to overcome severe conditions of both heavy fishing pressure and brutally-cold weather.  The week before our event nearly 400 anglers attacked Douglas Lake in a PAA tournament event.  That week-long derby was faced with snow and cold weather that lowered the water temperature back into the low 50s. The Tennessee umbrella rig (3-hook version) dominated that PAA event and the Southern Open anglers were frothing the water with umbrella rigs during practice.   That additional fishing pressure caused the bass to avoid the standard umbrella-rig technique.  It was not until after the event that I learned how the leaders were slow rolling the TN-rig to entice big bass.  

Douglas Lake fluctuates 40-ft in a season
Water rose 4.5 ft since I arrived

My 2013 schedule only provided me with two and a half days of practice time, so I limited myself to my best lures using my best techniques. After two days of practicing on Douglas Lake I only caught one largemouth bass at the end of the second day.  

The main lake water was 50-52F degrees and stained with a green tint. Two cold fronts had dropped the water temperature to a range that caused a massive threadfin and gizzard shad die-off.  I matched my lures to the bait size and colors, but all the predatory fish in the lake we gorging on dead shad as easy as picking grapes off a vine.   
Threadfin shad and my TN-umbrella rig to match
my spinnerbait closely matched the Gizzard shad

TN-rig caught white bass only for me
In practice I found white bass were bunched up along rock bluffs up river with deep water nearby.  I figured that largemouth had to be nearby, so I used a jig to work the rock bluff.  I caught one 2-pound bass just before my practice day ended on Tuesday.  The next day I fishing rock bluffs with my jig and caught a quick limit of bass.   At that point I knew I found a place and pattern to start the tournament on, but I knew that small limits would not compete with the leaders.  Unfortunately, I was out of time and stuck “with the cards I was dealt.” I felt I was forced to develop a stronger fishing pattern on the first day of the tournament, something every angler dreads.

Sunny weather in practice turned cold and wet during the event

Air temperature in the 30's created ice on boat decks

Not fun watching 174 boats launch ahead of you but that was my luck of the draw on day one
Did I mention the weather?  There was a warming trend in our practice that quickly dissipated when a clash of air masses brought a rainy, cold forecast for the tournament days.  We woke on the first day of the tournament with air temperatures in the 30s and a light coating of ice on the boats.  As boat #175, I didn’t launch out until 7:20am and reached my first spot up river by 8:00am.  On my first pass along the bluff wall I  quickly caught I small limit of bass before the rain started.  Then the wind blew 15mph out of the North and rain came down steady the entire day.  

The bone-chilling conditions reminded me of a Marine training boot camp.  The physical and mental processes of trying to focus and function when you are shivering, soaking wet, and cold, are the most challenging conditions for the human body to withstand.  My leg would shake every time I ran the trolling motor, my back muscles would lock up on every other casts, I couldn’t feel my toes, and tying knots as an eight minute process.  I shivered for nearly seven hours but I was able to survive the conditions by focusing on one task at a time and blocking out the cold.  Not something I enjoyed, however, I came off the water knowing that I was mentally capable of overcoming my physical environment.  The confidence I gained was invaluable!   

Anyone that knows me knows that I absolutely hate cold weather and being cold.  In a bass boat there is no where to warm up once you are wet.  My mental exercises kept me in the game and allowed me to catch a small limit of largemouth that weighted 12-7 pounds, good for 37th place on day-one.   

Small limit of bass the first day held me in 37th place

Cold, muddy water moved in
As if there weren’t enough environmental challenges on the first day, I found totally different fishing conditions on the second day. When I arrived on my spot the next morning I was faced with water levels that raised two feet, high current flow, and cold muddy water that the rain washed in.  I fished my rock bluff for two entire passes without a bite.  I had no other fish to go to, so I was forced to figure out the bass and fish this area regardless of the fast flow and 48 degree muddy water. 

I knew the high current would place the bass tighter to the rocks so I concentrated on pin-point casts. It worked, and the first bass I landed on day-two was a little over four-pounds.  Then I proceeded to catch one or two bass every time I fished down my rock bluff.  

Bass Photographer James Overstreet captured the moment!
At the end of the day I caught a limit weighing 13-1 pounds, just ounces heavier than the previous tournament day.  My final weight was 25.8 lbs and nothing near the top leader weights, yet I was excited to see that my weight earned 22nd place and a pay check under extremely the tough fishing conditions.  My first pay check on the Bassmaster Southern Open level and I stood shoulder to shoulder with Rick Clunn,  only loosing to him by one place!

The points I earned for the year put me in 12th place for the Angler of the Year (AOY) race.  More than just bragging rights, the top five AOY-anglers earn an invitation to fish on the Bassmaster Elite tour, the most prestigious fishing series in the world!  What an honor that would be!
deep coves looked great but did not produce for me
Rock bluffs were the best option I found during the muddy, rising water conditions

Looking back on the event the best thing I did was move away from the shad die off to areas where bass were still actively feeding and chasing bait.  With limited practice time it is extremely difficult to catch up with the knowledge that the local angler had about the lake.  The ecosystem and habitat of each lake is unique, and understanding the dynamics is what drives me to compete at this level.  Fishing in lakes that lack aquatic plants makes me understand why anglers say bass are easier to pattern on Northern lakes.  I am finding that when a lake only contains wood, rocks, and structure drops, it seems to be easier to figure out the local fishing pattern. That kind of habitat is what I term “simple habitat”.  The more I fish the Bassmaster Southern Open trail the more I appreciate the “complex habitat” that aquatic plants add to lake ecosystems like Florida.

When I returned to sunny Florida I took a day to fish with my son-in-law Ryan on the St. Johns River.  The bass were in a spawn/post-spawn mood and we had a great time landing big bass.

Largemouth bass on St. Johns River in sunny Florida
My Son-in-law Ryan beats me with a bigger bass!

My schedule has me fishing the Florida BASS Nation State qualifier on Lake Toho May 4th,

then heading up to the Coosa River / Logan Martin system in Pell City, AL May 12-18th to fish the last Southern Open event for 2013.

I can’t wait to get to Alabama and catch a ton of spotted bass!