Let’s get down to business
So far I’ve written about myself as both a business owner and a person to give everyone a feel for who I am and what I believe in. Now it’s time to get down to business and tell everyone what they want to hear. How do I stay competitive and make the most of my limited time on the water? You’ll be surprised at just what some of my secrets are.
Step 1 - Preparation for the Year
As I worked in the shop on a cold night in January 2015 I wondered, how will I ever be able to stay competitive tournament fishing during the busiest time of my life? I actually contemplated quitting tournament fishing but as always the problem solver in me couldn’t let that happen. I’m no quitter and the thought of it makes me sick to my stomach. I laid my cards out on the table and began to brainstorm. I quickly realized my love for river fishing would be the key to getting me away from work and out of bed tournament morning. I chose to focus on events that would be held on moving water and what better stage for me than the River Bassin Trail? My best friend from growing up, Mike, had just moved back to the Pittsburgh area and wanted to be my partner for the team division. This brings me to a major point. Mike was fairly new to competition and river fishing so I could have easily went out looking for the best of the best to have as my teammate, but that’s not what any of this is about. We started fishing to have fun and if you lose that, you become stressed and that amazing stress reliever we found in fishing is gone. I couldn’t think of someone better to be my partner and travel the country with than my best buddy. My plan is now coming together! I’ve decided on a trail to compete in and I have a partner. I then started to look at the obstacles in front of me and how to plan for them. Prefishing wasn’t going to be possible at all and I knew that. The time just wasn’t there. I was about to start traveling to places I’ve never fished before in my life with no time to learn the area. I needed the perfect stress free plan of attack to have any chance at this.
The absolute most important thing I feel in tournament fishing is knowing yourself and what stresses you. Sure, you can read articles like this for ideas, but in reality you have to devise a plan that revolves around you as a fisherman and as a person. My kryptonite when it comes to fishing is stress. If I get stressed, I self-destruct out there and nothing works. My own number one stressor is getting the truck loaded and getting out the door on time. Ask Missy about what it’s like dealing with me when I’m trying to leave for an event. I am extremely annoying and particular about getting everything in order, so I eliminated as many possible stressors as I could when it came to loading up. I knew a minimalist approach was the way to go to give me the least amount of things to remember. I tossed the fish finder aside and let it collect dust. I’m terrible at remembering to charge batteries and the last thing I need is a dead battery tournament morning ruining my mood. A good river fisherman can look at the water surface, clear or not, and know what’s happening underneath, so a fish finder just seemed like an unnecessary stressor for me on the river. The less I have to remember, the better.
I chose 3 techniques that I was confident could produce for me anywhere in the country. This leaves me only having to worry about 3 primary rods, a couple backups and minimal tackle. I loaded my truck one time this year with all that was needed and left it in the bed the rest of the season. I just went back after each tournament and replenished the baits I needed in my supply. Doing things this way left leaving for the next tournament as simple as hooking the trailer up to the truck the night before and pulling out in the morning stress free!
Step 2 Techniques
My goal was to have three techniques that I could tweak as needed that could catch fish in conditions on any waterway. One of the keys in this stage of planning is remembering you only need three good fish and that twenty small ones are useless in a tournament.
My confidence lies in reaction baits, so first up is the Buzzbait. Smallmouth bass are aggressive and the easiest thing to manipulate, in my opinion, is their predatory response. I use a 3.5” Free Minnow in both Tournament Series and Standard Formula as a trailer for a couple reasons. It has an amazing action behind a Buzzbait subtly wiggling side-to-side and I think it draws more strikes than without. I use the difference between Standard Formula (buoyant) and Tournament Series (heavy sinking) to my advantage in this circumstance. I start with Standard Formula because the bait comes up to the surface faster and the hook and trailer run very close to the surface. Most people, if getting short strikes will just add a trailer hook, but I hate how they tend to mangle fish. I want to get the fish back into the water in as close to the same condition as I pulled them out. This is where the Tournament Series formula comes into play. These baits are much heavier than Standard so they position the Buzzbait hook and Free Minnow at a downward angle as it is running and, in turn, converts short strikes into hooked fish. You can throw them just about everywhere bouncing them off logs, rocks, you name it and don’t be afraid to occasionally fire a cast straight out across the center of the river. You’d be surprised just how far an angry Smallie will travel to the sound of a Buzzbait.
Technique number two is the Phase III Spinnerbait with a Yoda trailer. Everyone knows spinner baits produce, but add a Yoda to one and look out! The Yoda makes the entire Phase III wobble in a mild, front-to-back motion and the skirt appears to breathe while moving through the water. This fools big ladies! Several customers every year log new personal bests with this technique. When fishing a Spinnerbait, I’m banging it off laydowns to make the appearance of something falling from above and then trying to swim away. My other favorite targets are anything you can see on the river bottom that seem out of place. This could be as simple as a couple of rocks or even a change in the composition of the river bottom such as rock to sand or mud.
Technique number three and what I feel is most important is a finesse presentation. Well I call it finesse, but in my mind finesse is about the speed I’m fishing the bait rather than size. For this I use a 5” Free Minnow in Tournament Series fished weightless. This bait is the glue that holds my entire approach together. If I miss a strike on the Buzzbait or Spinnerbait, I know in general where there’s a hungry bass. I’d say probably 50% of the time you can pick up that fish by throwing the Free Minnow at them. Think of someone chasing an ice cream truck down the street and not catching it. They’re walking back home with no ice cream when all of a sudden someone walks out of a house and says, “Hey! Here’s a huge ice cream cone… Enjoy!” and they don’t even have to work for it. That’s what the Free Minnow is as a follow up. It’s a big free meal falling right in their face that appears to be injured. Would you pass up the free meal after just missing that truck??
This technique is also great when you encounter a tough bite and they aren’t going to hit the reaction baits. As I approach an eddy, I will throw the Free Minnow upstream of it and let it roll in like a stunned baitfish. Some of the smartest and largest bass feed like this frequently in the slack water areas close to current. Even if they aren’t actively feeding, not many can resist an injured big meal in their face. In open, moving water flowing over submerged structure, I like to use a “jerk-jerk-pause” approach to let it sink while picking up the slack line. Using a high visibility line with a flouro-leader is essential for this technique because most of the time these baits will be hit on the fall while your line is slack so being able to see your line moving is the key because you won’t feel the bite. When all else fails, this is my go-to bait and the one that I believe in most.
Step 3 Specific Event Preparation
I believe this to be the step that is overanalyzed the most. I hear people talking about how before an event they take to social media and google looking for “secrets” for an area. I stay far away from this practice and I’ll explain why. Given the nature of what Promotional Staff positions have become with social media and an explosion of new companies, it seems everyone and anyone is writing about fishing products and what works in certain areas. I don’t think this is a bad thing at all. It helps the companies get their name out there; however, the problem is that you have people that might not necessarily know a ton about bass fishing writing about it. John Doe makes a forum post about a day he had on blank river with pictures of nice bass and a nice write up about how he used such and such company’s bait in let’s say June Bug for color. What John might not even know and generally never explains is why that bait in that color worked on that day in those conditions. He doesn’t explain that the water was high and muddy that day or that the same approach might not work in clear water at normal pools. That leaves you headed out tournament morning with an unfamiliar bait in a color you selected based on an article that was written months ago with results based on completely different conditions. See my point about how this approach is setting you up for failure? I’m not saying using these tips to your advantage isn’t smart because there’s some very good content out there, you just may not want to take that gamble on tournament day. Leave experimenting with new things for recreational days on the water. Smallmouth bass in a Tennessee river and Smallmouth in a New York river have something very interesting in common. They are still both smallmouth bass and both pretty much live and eat the same way. There are subtle differences given climate, but chances are if it catches you Smallies in New York in clear water it’s going to catch you Smallies in Tennessee in clear water. Stick to what you know and are confident with. Don’t waste time looking for answers on what works in that area but spend more time researching how the changing of conditions such as clarity, water level, temperature etc. should change your approach. Once you get good at reading a river you can swing past the water the night before when you get into town and know what colors you should be tying on for the morning just by looking at it. The number one thing I do in the week leading up to an event is, what I like to call, Google prefishing. I start looking over all waterways within bounds and start zooming in with satellite to float myself down the rivers. I look and decide on what stretch of river in those bounds looks the “fishiest” to me and that’s where I’m headed.
Step 4 On the Water
Once I’ve gone through Step 3 and I’m out there fishing sometimes it begins to become apparent that I have chosen the wrong spot. I have a split second decision to make. Should I run to a different spot and try to salvage the day and waste a lot of time or do I just stay here? If you stay, all the thoughts of how you made a bad choice on location have to be purged immediately or they will leave you skunked. Three guys can float the same exact bad choice and two of them that are frustrated about it are likely to go home without a fish scored. Their casts become lazy and less frequent. Now the third guy says I picked the wrong water and there’s nothing I can do about it but try to grind out a limit. That guy who accepts it and pushes forward fishing hard all day might just scrounge together a limit and place while those frustrated buddies who are barely fishing wonder what the heck you’re doing different.
Finally, I want to give some kudos to my tournament partner for the year, Mike. This guy traveled all over camping and crashing in hotels for the night to get skunked at three events in a row. He didn’t quit and became determined. He went onto the River Bassin Championship in Tennessee and put up a 50”+ limit to push our team into second place and put himself in the top 10 for individual. I’m looking forward to the 2016 season already buddy!
In closing, I just want to point out this was MY approach to fishing river tournaments in 2015 given my personal situation. I’m just about ready to sit down and do similar planning for 2016 that could very well include a whole new list of baits and techniques given the things I learned last year and our new products at 412 Bait Company. Take the time to learn from articles like this and use these new things to form your own plan of attack that leaves you stress free and confident on the water.