Monday, October 23, 2017

Bassmaster Southern Open - Lewis Smith Lake - A Good Ending

The extremely clear, deep waters of Alabama's Lewis Smith Lake reservoir is intimidating to most first time anglers. Don't fret and keep reading.  Being  born in and raised in Florida where our deepest lakes are 20 feet deep, the deep water of Lewis Smith was more challenging than the water clarity.  I found ways to succeed under both conditions and if you follow along in my blog you too can catch more bass.

This was the final Bassmaster Southern Open #3 event of 2017 on Lewis Smith Lake in Jasper, Alabama and the last chance to get out of my 129th place standing.  More importantly, this was my last opportunity to complete the journey of testing my "instinctive fishing" skills in another high-stakes tournament. I accomplished both goals and achieved a 28th place finish in the event, raising my Pro AOY points to 80th place overall on the Bassmaster Southern Open tour. 

Lake Conditions: 
The house my fishing buddies rented was near the Duncan Bridge Marina in Cullman, AL , so I began my scouting from that general area of the Sipsey River.  Water level in the reservoir was about five feet below full pool.  Working my way toward Rock and Ryan Creeks, I noticed the water temperatures were hot (mid 80's), fish were suspended about 15 feet, and lots of trees showed on my Lowrance electronics standing 70-feet tall in over 100 feet of water. Such as contrast from Florida waters!

During my first few days of scouting I realized that extreme water clarity and depth were primary factors to deal with in the event, and the habitat was limited to rocks, docks, sand banks, and open water.  Weather and water temperatures during the week suggested to me that the fish were still dealing with the "dog days of summer".

I didn't like all the suspended bass as they are often inactive and difficult to consistently catch in a tournament. Sure, I knew I could catch my share of three pound spotted bass, but it didn't "feel right" as a winning pattern for a three day Open event.

After two days of scouting, I made the decision to stay shallow and use  "Florida baits" in for wolf packs of spotted and largemouth bass that I observed cruising the shallows. I planned to use my instincts and fish new water every day "that looked good" in order to accomplish a top 12 finish.

Tournament pairing and registration and pairing events are fun!  Getting to see friends from all over the states and have a chance to unwind before the event.

We all have the same goal of winning that trophy.

Day One:
On day one of the tournament, I was drawn out as boat number 25 and paired with a local Alabama angler.

Myself and two other boats ran up the Sipsey River to the Duncan Bridge Marina area.

 During the early-morning conditions, I threw a top water plug for the first time the entire week because it just "seemed right" . I was rewarded with a three pound largemouth that BASS featured on the website and a non-keeper spotted bass.

Throughout the day I worked threw soft and hard jerk baits  and swimbaits to fill out my mix-limit of spotted and largemouth bass. Aquatic plants Stonewort and Waterwillow in the back of pockets played a key role in my fishing pattern.

My first day catch ended up to be 9 pounds and 14 ounces, good for a 23rd start.

Day Two:
On the second day of the tournament I was boat #151 paired fellow angler Jordan McDonald from Georgia. We had been paired together before, and as luck would have it we had another good day fishing together.  While we waiting before the event started, Jordan and I watched first hand when Bassmaster Elite Pro Shaw Grigsby went "live" on Facebook in his boat next to us!

At my first shallow-water stop, the topwater bite over shallow water brushpiles and sand banks didn't happen, but my coangler Jordan hooked a nicer keeper spotted bass and another dozen small bass on a shakeyhead jig.

The bigger bass I had found the day before didn't reload and I realized I had burnt the area of resident fish.  To accomplish my goal I had to search new water and new schools.

I began searching new water along sand pockets and rocky areas with 40-foot depths nearby. By 1 pm I had only caught a few short bass and did not have a single keeper fish in the boat.  My quest and mental resolve was being put the the challenge, but I remained strong with a sense of confidence.

My second move was out to the main river along sand banks near the 80 foot range. This paid off!  My first catch was a 4 pound spotted bass that took my jerkbait away from a smaller spotted bass. As I was fighting the fish I laughed as I  noticed my coangler Jordan captured it on GoPro. The area also produced another two more spotted bass that measured over the 15 inch size limit.

At the end of the second day I was unable to fill out my limit. I ended up with three spotted bass for a total weight of 7 lbs. 2 ounces, putting me in 28th place overall. I finished the event by missing my top-12 goal by four pounds; the equivalent of only two small keepers.

Tournament director Chris Bowes handed me a check that helped solidify a long 2017 and challenging year as I pursued a complete change in my mental fishing theory.

Looking back my ranking felt respectable as It had been two years since I cashed a check in the Bassmaster Southern Opens. While I don't truly understand the reason, my mind seems to thrive on the most difficult fishing and weather conditions.

My theory is that I must subconsciously believe the challenging fishing conditions even up the playing field against locals and full-time pros who spend many more hours than me on the waters finding fish. I guess when abnormal conditions change how the fish react, my "instinctive skills" for finding bass are faster than my competitors.

I will always be an active student of the sport a bass fishing and I continually strive to learn faster methods of finding and catching fish from unfamiliar waters. An angler's best tool is their experience and ability for observation. Learning to trust instincts on choosing the right fishing locations based on observation has totally changed my fishing.  But this is not for the timid angler as it requires tremendous mental strength and resolve.  

Regardless, my fishing this year has been a fun pursuit of discovery that has produced incredible self awareness and positive personal rewards. I think I will continue on this journey in my future tournaments. I hope you will follow along. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Old Hickory Lake TN

2017 Ray Scott National Championship in Nashville, TN April 3rd-9th
While my tournament event did not go as expected, Cumberland River's Old Hickory reservoir in Tennessee was a beautiful system to fish the ABA National Champship. Dense angler fishing pressure and abnormal weather conditions threw a wrench in my fishing, eliminated anything I found during my single-day ride around, and shut down the bass bite to a slow crawl.

Bass Pro Shop Outpost in Chattanooga TN

With all three species: largemouth, spotted, and smallmouth bass, the possibilities for catching fish seemed endless.

On the Tuesday I arrived water temperatures where reaching 67F degrees.  My plan started with several hours of scouting with my Lowrance Structure Scan unit.  Once I got a feel for the water conditions, I made my first fishing stop along the main river channel along a rocky bluff wall. In water 40ft deep, the logical thing to do would be to fish a jig down the rock outcroppings.
But I'm not logical and I surmised by the conditions that any bass out here would be pre-spawn, feeding in anticipation of soon heading shallow to spawn. With the predicted cold front on the way, this deeper area should hold heat longer.

Using a topwater walking bait, I fished the bluff and caught a good pre-spawn spotted bass that looked to be just under three pounds. So far so good.
First spotted bass of practice on a rock bluff

There was a large crawfish pincher sticking out of the fish's gullet.

My next fishing stop was all the way to the back of a creek to assess the stage of any spawners. I needed to find out if the bass were on beds yet or if they had spawned already.

On my first pass along the shallows I eye-balled five single bass on beds, and two paired with bigger females. No bass fry was present.  The beds were extremely different than our Florida Kissimmee Lake bass beds.  Old Hickory bass made very light colored beds and non-distinct bed on sandy bottoms. Male bass were observed in the middle of the beds and were extremely hard to see.  These bass lacked any mottling and were an almost silver in color.
The lighter color in the center of this sand flat was a bass on a bed
A nice largemouth caught fishing the shallows near beds.
Waterwillow plants were still brown from the winter but new sprouts were starting!
Since I had scouted both extremes (shallow and deep), my third fishing stop was mid-river to find bass closer to the river channel.  This group of bass should be a mix of prespawn/spawning fish but less subjected to the effects of the predicted cold front.  Cold temperatures often pull bass off beds, and may even pushed spawning fish back out to the main river until weather conditions stabilize.
It was in this mid-river area that I found the biggest largemouth and spotted bass. In fact, one largemouth bass-bed deep inside a fallen tree held a six pound female spawning with a three male!!
A six pound bass was seen spawning in the protection of this tree-fall.
Severe Weather
On Wednesday afternoon the American Bass Angler's Ray Scott National Championship registration meeting began. 
Angler registration and pairing meeting in TN Civic Center
 During the event the weather front officially hit Nashville TN. Along with rain and cold temperatures, the front also brought ludicrous-level wind speeds. With 45 mph gusts and small craft wind advisory throughout the night, the tournament organization was forced to cancel the first day of the tournament. The scheduled three-day championship turned into a two-day shootout.
I drew out as boat #29 in flight 2, so all night I wondered how the wind and cold would affect those big spawning bass. I contained my excitement of potentially catching that six pound spawning bass first thing in the morning.


Day One
Day one of the tournament started at 4am with predicted winds in the 30mph range and air temperatures in the low 40s.  After a 20 minute run up lake from the Sanders Ferry boat ramp, I could hardly feel my face or work my hands. The wind burn and cracked skin I received is still slowing my ability to type this blog a week later!

My first stop was a wind protected, deepwater bay just off the main river north of the mid-lake bridge. Sunlight was low and the morning was gorgeous. Working a rocky point in the bay I landed my first spotted bass over the required 12 inch limit. After catching a few short spotted bass, I moved to the back of the bay and caught my first keeper largemouth bass over 14 inches. As I was fishing, the sun was breaking the horizon on this bluebird sky day.  The warmth from the bright sunshine felt good and would hopefully warm up the shallows that sat in the mid 50s.  Surface water temperatures had dropped over 12 degrees!

As the sun rose, I noticed the water in the bay was dirty, and rising. My first thought was "Wholly crap, the main river was swelling due to rain and the lack of hydro-generation”. I fished all the rocky bluffs, creeks and bays I scouted as well as new ones with no success. Between the 12 degree temperature drop and incoming dirty water, my bass got lock-jaw.   My first day weigh-in at 3:15pm consisted of two bass for a miserable 130th place standing out of 156 pros.

Day Two
On the second tournament day it was even colder at 4am with frost all over my boat and Mercury engine. Being physically worn down from the cold at this point, I donned four layers of shirts and my BassProShop’s heavy duty rain suit.
My Triton/Mercury Marine rig was cold and covered with frost

My first fishing stop was again in the deep water bay where I caught my two bass on day one. I found the water up half a foot higher and dirty water from the main Cumberland river all the way back in my bay. After fishing for 40 minutes my coangler and I never got a bite so I called an audible.
Heading back out to the deep water of the main river I found parts of the river was clearing. Fishing the clear side along the river shoals, my coangler caught the first keeper bass off a wood laydown.  I had my first clue of the day.  But after working main river wood for an hour neither one of us got bit again.  “Some clues lead anglers in the wrong direction.”

Given the conditions, I moved to fish the deepest water in the largest protected creeks way off the main river.  My first stop was a large marina surrounded by 20 feet of water. Large schools of shad were swimming around the marina docks and my coangler caught his second keeper largemouth bass on a jerkbait. I worked hard with a jerkbait, shakeyhead, worm, and sinko around every dock and only managed to draw strikes from two short bass. 

Large, deepwater marinas held the shad and a few bass.

Fishing sinkos wacky-style earn a few bites but no keeper bass
Things just did not go my way and I ended the day officially skunked. First time I have been fishless in over 15 years fishing as a pro angler. Very disappointing to me and I felt I let my family and sponsors down. I wanted to do so much more for the Kids in Support of Soldiers.  All the yearlong effort to qualify for the national championship and miles of travel, everything at the time seemed worthless.  The highs and low of tournament fishing hurt, but that pain builds toughness, and the ability to shake it off is something tournament angler know all too well.  
On the 10-hour drive home I was able to review the event and shake off the pain and humility I experienced.

Internal Dialog
On the bright side, the ten-ton gorilla is off my back! The experience of being skunked allowed me to push through my fear of failure and stand tall despite my poor results.  Being skunked did not cause the world to end, people didn't laugh, sponsors didn't drop me, and no one posted ridicule on social media.  Wow!  Life continued…

As I write this summary, I am concurrently preparing for the second stop of the Bassmaster Southern Open trail on Tennessee's Lake Chickamauga!  Our Florida strain bass were stocked there beginning in 2000 and the bigger females are now making the local newspapers. Huge 30 and 40 pound bags of bass are winning tournaments in the area. Lake Chickamauga is set up to be a much different fishery than Old Hickory!

The lessons learned from Old Hickory Lake have greatly helped me understand the bass of Tennessee.   Stay tuned, I'll post my Bassmaster Southern Open experiences and results in the next blog.

I hope this helps you catch more bass on Old Hickory Lake.   Jeff