OK. I'm really ready. I'm ready physically; I'm in great shape. Coming off one of the best seasons of my career, I'm ready mentally. And my tackle for the Bassmaster Classic is packed, ready to go. Packing tackle might sound a little lame but it is not. It's not just throwing a bunch of this and a little of that in a bag and calling it good it's a process. You need to take into account all the many different variables and factors of wherever it is that you're going. Seasonal patterns for the region, historic weather patterns, fishing pressures and the lake itself are all extremely important.
When I look at Alabama's Lay Lake in late February all things considered it comes up a power-fishing situation. It's been said (and I'm not discounting it) that this year's Classic will include the very best anglers that have ever fished the event. And when I look at the field, there are a lot of great power fishermen in the group. It's a super tough field. There's going to be a bunch of guys working shallow water; pitching jigs, Crankin' square lips and winding spinnerbaits. But you know what? I don't care what the rest of the field is going to do. I would fish this event the same whether I was the only one on the water or whether there were 200 other boats out there. It's what the fish are doing that concerns me not the other competitors. Most of these guys share my feelings when I say it's me against the fish. So, as I prepare, that's what was in my head.
Right now it looks like it will be a power bite and I'm ready. But let me tell you, anybody in this tournament who is prepared only for a power bite is shooting themselves in the foot. There're lots of things that could shut those shallow fish down. Cold weather would be the main thing, but dropping water, heavy angler pressure or even a lot of boat traffic could pull those fish out deeper and lower the weights. I'm prepared for a finesse bite just in case.
Take a look at the lake. It's on the Coosa River chain of lakes and that tells us there will be plenty of those huge, mean spotted bass. That's great, but I've got to think the big largemouth are more important if everything is stable. Lay Lake runs north and south; right about the Ticonderoga Co. line it separates into two different looking halves. To the north of that line there's better spotted bass habitat. It looks like more of a river. To the south, with its big flats and a lot of shallow cover, largemouth rule. But competitors have to be prepared for both.
If it turns out that the weather is mild and stable (and the cold fronts leave us alone and if the fishing and boating pressures don't get out of hand) I will depend quite a bit on a jig unless the fish tell me something different. There is a lot of grass in the lake but it's not what you think about when you think of fishing grass. I don't know what it is exactly; we call it shore grass or gator grass. In the warmer months it's lush and green but now its dead. Oh, its still there, just dead. And it's the first place the bass go when they move shallow. That's where I will focus at the beginning of the tournament.
The first thing I try will be to simply punch through it with a heavy, skirted jig. Berkley ® has a new product just out that will prove to be perfect for this. As a matter of fact, it was designed for this Classic and for other situations just like this. It's called a Berkley PowerBait ® Chigger Craw and works perfectly on my new jig, called a Bomb, also made by Berkley. The thing about this Chigger Craw is the way it flaps around when it's moved. The claws are awesome flapping in the water.
I'll put it on a ?-ounce skirted jig, pitch it to the mat and let it fall. Pick it up and punch through again. If the largemouth are there, a pattern will emerge. They may hit on the fall, maybe as it hits the bottom you just don't know until you try. One thing I'll watch for is what I call ticking the mat. I'll pitch my jig in there then pull it up just ticking the bottom side of the mat, Yoyoing it. Sometimes this drives them nuts. I know I must pay attention and fish the day.
I don't get too caught up in colors but I make sure to match the color of the predominant prey. Maybe it's sunfish (green pumpkin), crawfish (browns) or shad (light colors or blues). Where, what and how is more important then the colors. Heavy braided line and a good Flippin' rod are also important. I use 65-pound test Spiderwire ® Stealth line. There is no tougher line, period.
As I fish, I might notice that the fish are not holding inside the mats but along the edges. If so, I'll make a simple change. I'll depend on the new Chigger Craw for this tactic, too. It's the flapping that makes it work so well. I'll drop down the jig size to a ?-ounce Bomb in similar colors. I'll pitch it to the edge of the grass then pump it in with the rod at from the 12 o'clock to three o'clock positions. This will make the claws really kick and the bait swim in an erratic path. I'll also change line to 20- to 25-pound test Berkley Trilene ® Sensation ® for just a little stretch in my line.
Sometimes the fish will drop out to a little deeper water away from the grass and relate to the bottom. I'll use another simple change I might start picking up some spotted bass here as well with a football head and a Chigger Craw. Same prey-matching colors. Water depth will tell the size jig to use and if it's less than five feet deep I'll use a 3/8-ounce jig head; 5-10 feet deep water needs ?-ounce; a 3/4ounce football head in 10-feet or deeper. The key here is bottom contact. As you move or carefully drag the bait on the bottom it will feel smooth then it may start feeling a little rough or even bumpy. The trick is to stroke or pop the jig at this point, making it rise and fall. By doing this, I'm trying to get a reaction bite. These fish have moved back out and they are not eating all that well but they just can't help but to strike the Powerbait. They eat it like a kid eats candy. They almost always hit it on the fall.
If the weather and lake dictates and cold blustery winds move in I will work on spotted bass probably in the upper half of the lake. These Coosa River spots may be one of the meanest fish that swims but they can be easy to catch. But to do it?well, I'll need to change mindsets. Here's where I switch to spinning rods and light line and try something entirely different. It's a method I picked up looking at a Japanese magazine. I couldn't read it so I just looked at the pictures. A couple of years back there was this close-up picture of a small jig say an 1/8-ounce with the tie at a 60 degree angle. It had some kind of small worm rigged wacky style. I didn't know what they were doing with it at the time but I started playing with it. It's like fishing a wacky worm in twenty feet of water truly amazing. I've tried wacky Wormin' with a drop shot but it's just not the same. This will out-fish a wacky style drop shot most of the time.
The worms you choose are critical. I choose from three and the fish will tell me the rest. Berkley makes them and they are now coming to market. The Gulp! ® Slim Shaky Worm, the Powerbait Fat Dover Crawler and the Wacky Crawler. That Fat Dover has worked well for me but it's hard to say which one of these baits is best. The Gulp! product has everything beat in the scent arena but the action on the Wacky Crawler is hard to beat. As I've said, the fish will tell you which one to use. The color choice again depends on the prevalent prey. I just match it the best I can and I don't dwell on it. I can't say enough that what you are using, how and where you are using it are the most important factors. Line choice is simple: light and fluorocarbon. I use six-pound Berkley Vanish ®.
Everybody is asking who is going to win the Classic, whether it will it be a local guy or somebody with their hair on fire. I don't know, but I can tell you this much: The angler that does win it will make the right changes at the right time and will play the day by letting the fish tell him what to do. Hopefully, with these tactics I'll be in the hunt.