By Bernie Schultz
When B.A.S.S. announced a dual-lake competition on reservoirs Norfork and Bull Shoals, reactions were mixed. Some of the Elite Series pros liked the idea, others did not. I wasn’t sure.
B.A.S.S. decided the competition days should be divided equally between the two bodies of water, but with a hitch: The entire field would start on Norfork, then move to Bull Shoals for day two. After the top-50 competitors were determined, those anglers would fish Bull Shoals once more. The surviving twelve would then move back to Norfolk for the finale.
To soften the blow, B.A.S.S allowed us an extra day of practice — designated anyway we liked. My decision was to practice two days on each lake, then roll the dice once competition began.
On day-one, I launched at Bull Shoals Boat Dock on the lower end of the lake — official launch site for the event. Getting an early start, I ran to the first pocket I could find under a pre-dawn sky.
In just a few casts with a Yamamoto D-shad, I caught my first fish of the week — a fat, scrappy smallmouth weighing nearly three pounds. As the sun got higher, I moved quickly from pocket to pocket, casting the weightless soft-plastic while looking for beds. By afternoon, I had logged more than 30 waypoints on my Raymarine GPS — all of which represented spawning fish exceeding the 15-inch minimum size requirement.
The next day, I made the long drive to Norfork. With good light in the sky, I started running pockets similar to those I had found on Bull Shoals … figuring the two lakes would fish alike. I would soon learn, however, that that would not be the case.
After a couple of hours of struggling, I decided to head upriver to find some dirtier water. There at least, I figured I might find some shallow fish.
The move proved productive. By noon, I had figured out a steady bite on steep, channel-swing banks. My lure selection included a Rapala SkitterWalk, a Hildebrandt tandem-willow spinnerbait, a Chatterbait and a flipping jig tipped with a Yamamoto Flappin’ Hog. The fish I caught weren’t big, but most were keepers, and I was confident they would be competitive.
On day-three, I moved back to Bull Shoals and resumed the search for bedding fish. By midday I had marked well over 30 fish that included a mix of smallmouth, largemouth and a few big spots. I decided at that point to move upriver and try the channel swing pattern that worked so well on Norfork. After a couple of hours, however, I saw that approach was futile.
Although Bull Shoals and Norfork are neighboring reservoirs, they’re actually fed by different river systems. And, so, they fish somewhat differently … even during the spring.
Leaving the channel banks, I moved to some nearby pockets with off-colored water to flip shallow bushes. It was windy and rainy, and the fish were biting. By day’s end, I was confident the pattern would hold in several key locations.
My fourth and final day of practice was spent back on Norfork, hoping to expand on the bluff bank pattern. It turned out to be a good day of scouting. I found two additional areas that I knew I could count on.
With a late draw in the take-off order, I sped upriver wondering what the day would have in store for me. As I rounded the last bend to my starting spot, I found it was vacant. I knew right then the day would turn out well.
Starting with the SkitterWalk, I fished parallel to the steep shoreline. And though the topwater bite wasn’t nearly as good as it had been in practice, I coaxed a few 15 to 17-inch largemouth into taking the lure. When that bite tapered off, I picked up the jig to play cleanup. It was a solid one-two punch, and it worked throughout the day.
By weigh-in time, I had put together more than 11 pounds of fish. It wasn’t enough to hang with the leaders, but it was still a good start … and I felt I could improve my position on Bull Shoals the following day.
The next morning came quickly. With a better take-off number, I raced to a small pocket where I had marked several 4-pound fish. My hope was to boat at least one or two of them to start the day out strong.
When I arrived, however, I discovered the entire pocket erupting with schooling fish. Many were hybrids, but some were quality largemouth.
The first fish I set on broke my line. My adrenaline was soaring, and I had swung way too hard for the 10-pound line I was using. After a quick retie, I fired once more to the breaking fish. That cast yielded a 3 ½ pounder. The next one produced a fish weighing close to three, then the flurry died.
I chased a few isolated breakers but to no avail. It was over, so I trolled to the back of the pocket to check the beds. Once there, I discovered the fish had left. I told my Marshal they must have mixed in with the schoolers, and that maybe they would return once the sun got high. That was my hope anyway.
From there I moved pocket to pocket, searching for any remaining bedding fish. With the exception of a few bare keepers, the beds were barren. The better fish had pulled off the bank, and to where I had no clue.
I knew if I wanted to survive the top-50 cut, I had better make something happen … and quick.
I decided to pull the trolling motor and race upriver to the flipping pockets I had found in practice. When I arrived, I could see the water had fallen. Consequently the bite was much tougher, but it did produce enough fish to fill out a 12-pound limit.
Back at the scales, it appeared as though I would easily make it through to the weekend. But as more and more anglers crossed the stage, I sank in the standings. From 29th, I fell to 35th … then 41st. With 26 anglers left to weigh-in, I thought I was doomed.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the last man crossed the stage. I survived by a single ounce.
Fishing On Saturday
Elated but drained, I retreated to the cabin to prepare for the next day’s competition.
Although I had barely made the cut, the weights were so tight I was sitting three pounds behind twelfth place … which meant a chance to compete back on Norfork on Sunday. I just needed a banner day on Bull Shoals to get there.
The next morning I returned to the schoolie hole, hoping to find a feeding frenzy in progress. It was a different day, however, with a very different look. A few fish did break, but I managed only one bare 15-inch keeper. With the schoolies and upriver flipping bite done, I told my Marshal bedding fish were my only hope.
I no sooner moved to the shoreline when I noticed several fresh beds guarded by nice sized males. In fact, nearly all of the beds that were barren the day before now held fish … some with large females, too.
Using a 4-inch green-pumpkin tube, I pitched to each bed from a safe distance. The fish were skittish at first, but with patience, I was able to make nearly every one of them bite.
By day’s end I had a combined catch of smallmouth, spots and largemouth weighing nearly 14 pounds. And though I fell short of the top-12 cut, I did move up 16 places in the standings and secured a check for $10,000.
Under one of the most exhaustive formats of my career, I did some of my best fishing … and I was content.