Sunday, December 28, 2014

Lessons from the Ups and Downs of 2014

Fishing is a sport of trial and error.  When anglers go fishing everyone has their own style of tying on lures, testing theories, and eliminating water.  Luckily for everyone, the art of discovery is still a major factor in fishing, even with all the advances in equipment and electronics!

For tournaments my study always begin with looking at the fishery habitats available on each lake.  My homework helps answer the question of whether the water has aquatic plants, structure, or man-made docks and cover for bass to utilize.  A main source of information is the national Aquatic Plant Management Society webpage links. I compiled the most helpful links on my webpage under the Angler Tools page.

Preserving our nation's water through scientific understanding

Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Foundation has been my most supportive premier sponsor, and the Triton/Mercury rig my most reliable equipment for successful fishing trips throughout South Eastern US lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. Stop in at Miller's Boating Center in Ocala to pick out your own reliable fishing rig!

Triton/Mercury rig traveled nearly 5,000 miles in the 2014 season
During the 2014 season, I made a change in my normal way of scouting and finding fish.
After a few years of limited success on the Bassmaster Southern Open trail, I modified my traditional fishing techniques in an effort to reach higher finishes.  I based this modification on taking the advice of others, mainly listening to them say I had to fish the way that past champions fished in order to win.

Fishing large reservoirs is educational and rewarding. Spottedbass
By trying to fish the styles of other pros I hurt my overall success in 2014. One reason was being limited to three days of practice for each tournament due to my family and career obligations . With such limited time, this change in fishing habits did not fit my style and made it difficult to be consistent.  After a year of trying this new method, I learned how wrong it was for me.  I already began making mental changes to help me return to my own style in 2015.  Some of the psychology that aided me in understanding this was by Jay McNamara.  If you are a serious angler you should read  Jay McNamara's The Psychology of Exceptional Fishing.

Typical FL largemouth

Florida bass habitat
Growing up and learning to fish in Florida allowed me to develop a personal fishing style that focused on shallow water. While on the Bassmaster Open trail, I was forced to learn how to find bass in large, deep water reservoirs.  Fortunately, I found that I liked fishing deep water contour breaks.   Learning how schools of bass migrate in thirty to seventy feet-deep water made sense to me and has been fun to analyze on the tournament trail. 

Together, both my shallow and deep water skills have given me a method of consistently catching bass in tournaments.  My fish have not always been the biggest, but they consistently put me close to top 25% of the field.

Learning to fish contours such as this 70'-100' breakline has been fun.

Looking back on all my Southern Open events I found that my most successful baits were topwaters, jerkbaits, swimbaits, and jigs.   These accounted for all the bass I weighed in since 2012.  I like fishing spinnerbaits and crankbaits, but found these baits were only productive for me when scouting for bass in practice.  I am still working on developing my skill for fishing these baits for weary bass that have been heavily pressured by anglers. 
Docks are often the only habitat in large reservoirs
The 2014 season yielded emotional ups and downs like I have never experienced before.  I realized at the end of the season that I am not the same angler who started this level of competition.  I feel I have developed a quicker ability to analyze strengths and weaknesses, both in my angling skills and in choosing the best lures and bass habitats for the conditions.  I shared my techniques and habitat choices in my blog posts, Facebook page, and website links.  I hope they help you catch more fish as well.

The Year in Detail:

The 2014 Bassmaster Southern Open season started off with two events that experienced massive cold fronts and Gail force winds.  The article, North American Cold Wave of 2014, covered the extreme weather events we anglers faced in 2014.

Cold fronts on radar
Muddy water and severe cold made my groups of Florida largemouth shut down in the Florida event, while snowfall caused frozen line guides that hampered my Spotted bass success in Alabama. During such extreme conditions all an angler can do is just grind it out for a few bass and hope for the best.

In between tournaments I volunteered with several youth events: Teen Sportsman Association,
Kirchman Foundation, Osceola County Sheriffs Xtravaganza Fundraiser on Lake X, and several packing events for Kids in Support of Soldiers.

Famous Mercury Marine Lake X

Osceola County Sheriff fundraiser

KISS packing monthly care packages for US Troops

Goodies from Walgreens and many other donors for troops
My experience at the 2014 ICAST tackle show event in Orlando was inspiring! New tackle products were announced and demonstrated, manufacturers provide product training, and I even hung out with longtime friend Bill Dance.

ICAST 2014 in Orlando FL

Longtime friend Bill Dance at ICAST

In the spring of the year I joined Steve Chapman, Boodreaux, and Captain Mike Ortego on the Fishing Florida Radio show! Hilarious bunch of guys and a great radio show for fisherman throughout Florida.  I encourage you to listen live or download the podcast.
Headphones and on the mic with FFR

Fishing Florida Radio hosts Steve & Boodreaux
Bassmaster finished up the Southern Open season in North Carolina where roaming bass failed to stay grouped up during fall cold fronts.  The fronts brought bluebird skies between all-day rain storms which keep the shad moving and bass confused.  Or maybe it was just me who stayed confused?
Coming into weighin on Day1, Lake Norman

The trophy up for grabs in the last event of 2014
 While the 2014 season felt like my toughest ever, it was not.  I still maintained a 56th place pro ranking in the Angler of the Year (AOY) race for 2014.  That ranking brought my overall AOY record into the top 22% of the pros for my three year history with the Bassmaster Southern Open circuit.  I am proud of that record, given I am full-time father of four kids and holding down a full-time career as a Limnologist!  

                        Year    My AOY Finish    Overall Rank
                        2012         79                      Top 32%
                        2013         28                      Top 11%
                        2014         56                      Top 24%

An exciting year that allowed me to maintain a top 25% showing

Plans for the New Year:

My game plan for the 2015 season will be focused on using  lures that I am confident will catch bass on each lake given the weather conditions and habitats available.  The season starts on the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes in Florida, travels to the Alabama River, and ends in Georgia on Lake Seminole.  Fishing spans from January through October and challenges anglers to catch fish in all seasonal conditions.
Lake Toho is the site of first Open in Jan 2015

The 2015 season will visit AL, GA, and FL.

The pro that wins the 2015 Angler of the Year race will have to catch pre-spawn, spawning, and post-spawn bass in the first two events, then switch gears and catch fall transition bass in October.  I am excited about all three events as they are scheduled in places and months that should bring unstable weather conditions. 

Without the benefit of long practice days, unstable weather helps me as it puts all anglers on an even playing field. Anglers who have been fishing for weeks before the event will have to start over.  Having to adapt throughout the tournament is a condition that suites my "scramble and move" style of fishing. 

I enjoy the challenge of fishing conditions that tests an angler's skill for adapting.  I began fishing tournaments to learn, and changes in fishing conditions may not always be fun, but it teaches the most about how bass act and react to lures.

Preparing tackle during the off season

You have to love this sport in order to appreciate this emotional roller coaster ride that unstable weather and fishing conditions bring.  The mental aspect of the game is the least understood and most confusing. But then again, I am somewhat of a fishing geek that likes to analyze the inner voice and the mental side of fishing.

Jigs accounted for many bass

I want to win this game and have made the mental plans that will allow me to break into the top 10% of the field.  This level will put me in contention for multiple wins in 2015 and beyond!

Learning to represent sponsors and talk to crowds is important

Thank you for following my 2014 season.  Look for another year of photos and videos as I share my fishing adventures on the lakes we explore in 2015 Bassmaster Southern Opens!

See you in 2015.  Have a Happy and safe New Years

Friday, October 10, 2014

Lake Norman NC in the Fall

The last tournament of the 2014 Bassmaster Southern Open season took place in Charlotte NC on Lake Norman. This 32,000 acre highland reservoir lake is nearly double the size of my home town waters of Lake Toho. It is always a challenge to figure out in four days how to catch the biggest bass in a strange lake and beat local experts. That is what the Opens are all about.

Lake Norman Practice
Water temp in August was holding in the mid 80s before the event, and dropped into the mid 70s by practice period.

Two sunny days greeted me the first days of practice in NC. I fished with local resident Cary Martin before the off limits at midnight Sunday night.  Spotted bass were eating well, and active baits like spinnerbaits , topwater, and jerkbaits were very productive. I was able to quickly locate deeper docks that held schools of bass. The largemouth bass species eluded me.


On Monday, two days before the tournament, a weather front brought a solid day of rain and clouds. Schools of shad and spotted bass unexpectedly moved out deeper to the 20-40ft range. Luckily, the spots would still come up to hit jerkbaits and spinnerbaits worked over them. Solid limits of 16" bass were again easy to find and catch.



An abundance of 16 inch spotted bass should have clued me in on fishing for larger-than-average spots. I even knew that a local tournament took 11lbs per day to place in the top, that's a 2.2 lb average that 16" spots would not fulfill!

During the last day-and-a-half of the practice period it was partly cloudy and partly sunny. Wolf packs of bass began showing up along the shallow backwater banks. A trick worm worked along the numerous seawalls got me a 3lb largemouth bass and a possible big-bass pattern. 

Spotted bass up to 18" were hitting all week.

Black, clear water continued to flow down from the upper end of the lake while the lower end remained green and algae-rich. I wasn't sure what to make of this water color change. I believed rainfall and water release from the upper dam was the reason rather than a turnover, but I wasn't sure. Threadfin shad sure liked the freshwater and were schooling in the shallows.  
Typical Fall school of threadfin shad on Lake Norman, NC.
 The algae bloom of the lower end acted like a lake turnover, when the cooling surface waters sink and push the deeper nutrient rich waters to the surface. This mix often drop oxygen and pH levels. I was perplexed without my oxygen and pH meter to confirm the depth profiles.

Day1 of Tournament
The first day of the event I am paired with William Shipes, an experienced college angler who joined us for his first-ever Open. It was nice to see him have the support of his mom and dad Robbie and Janice.


Photo by Janice Shipes

Photo by Janice Shipes

At nearly every stop I catch keepers on a StrikeKing Chartreuse Sexy Shad jerkbait.
When I work around shallow water, William quickly fills him limit on a shakeyhead jig/ trick worm combo. This traditional spotted bass bait failed me in practice. However, William showed me the error of my ways, and I ended up catching several nice fish mimicking his technique.
Photo by Janice Shipes
This is where I differ from many boaters. I remain open to learning from my coanglers, and I give them a shot at catching bass too. The more we both catch, the more clues we gain to what the bass are keying on.

My day one weight is five bass for 8.4lbs, good for 69th place and only 3.7lbs out of top 12 cut.

My coangler William weighs in his allotted three bass limit for 6.10lbs, and good for 9th place among the other coanglers.

Day2 of Tournament
On the second day, my partner is Josh Price, sitting in 29st place for the event.  More importantly, sitting in top5 for coangler of the year race. Nice guy who seems ready to place number one.
Launch Day2, my boat #33, weigh-in 3:30pm.

Darrell Pons Sr. in his Lucas Oil wrapped Ranger Boat.

Florida angler Cecil Douberly waiting for his boat launch.

High winds from the SW blow first thing Friday morning.  I stop at a set of productive wind blown docks and we both land keeper bass. The next few stops on shoal islands only frustrate us with short bass. Graphing the areas show the shad moved deep again but the bass won't hit jerkbaits, buzzbaits, or topwater. Try as I may, no luck.

The rest of the day I alternate between shoals and docks with limited success.

Two hours before weighin I make a deal with my coangler. I'll let him him fish a new series of productive docks I've been holding off on fishing. When he fills his limit, I'll go back to pitching the docks as well to fill my limit.
AERF & Kids in Support of Soldiers help me catch bass!
Talking with Chris Bowes on the weigh-in stage. Photo by Janice Shipes
The first pass on the docks and Josh fills his limit, then culls one. As he does, I work water around the docks and get my 4th fish on a jerkbait. A three pound spot follows my hooked bass, but I can't catch it. I move in to pitch the next set of docks and finally catch my fifth fish. 

The last hour and a half we work hard to upgrade without success.


In the end, my 16.11 weight is only good for 62nd place and out of the money.

Josh Price, my day2 coangler, makes a nice 21st place finish for $413 and retains his 4th place AOY standing!

Williams Shipes, my day one coangler, made it to the final day and finished 4th, good for a $2433 payday!

Overall, it was a fun time on Lake Norman. The fall transition made the fishing as tough as the fish changed behavior with the weather front. Normal fishing techniques and lures worked a little, but the fish reacted odd.

This video shows and explains the baits I used to catch a moderate bag of spotted bass each day.

Most anglers can catch fish on their home waters given enough practice, but the challenge of going to new lakes and competing with only a few days of scouting makes you a much better angler.

I thank Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Foundation (AERF) for allowing me to represent them on the Bassmaster Southern Open and Bass Nation tours.

I am so happy to be running a Mercury ProXS outboard! Thanks to Mercury Marine and their service crew Andy, Scotty B, & Jay for making a great outboard motor and standing by it!

Jeff Miller at Millers Boating Center sells the best Triton Boat rigs, complete with Mercury, Motorguide, Lowrance, and Power-pole. Stop by and see them next time you're near Ocala, FL. 

I encourage every aspiring angler to fish at the Bassmaster Open level on new lakes. It's fun, challenging, informative, you often fish with Elite pros. If you're good, or lucky, you can even earn a little money.