Beatin' the Bank with Bernie Schultz - 2016 B.A.S.S. Elite Series Preview

By Bernie Schultz

The 2016 Bassmaster Elite Series will begin this week, and with it will come a broad range of lakes and rivers — several of which are new to the circuit.

The tour kicks off on the St. Johns River in northeast Florida, then moves to Winyah Bay, SC. Next is a combined event on lakes Bull Shoals and Norfolk in Arkansas. After that, Lake Wheeler in Alabama. From there, we head to Toledo Bend and, after a lengthy break, we resume on Lake Texoma in Oklahoma. Then it’s all the way to New York for Cayuga Lake.

A few weeks later will be the new “Classic Bracket” event on the Niagara River in Buffalo, NY. Then the Potomac River in Maryland and Mississippi River at La Crosse, WI. For those fortunate enough to be in the top-50, the Angler of the Year Championship is slated for Lake Mille Lacs in northern Minnesota.

Sunrise take-off on the St. Johns River.

Sunrise take-off on the St. Johns River.

In all, it’s a good schedule — one that is diverse and challenging. And by the time the smoke clears, only the toughest, most resourceful anglers will have survived.

Here’s what you can expect from each stop.

St. Johns River

Kicking off the season on the St. Johns is a good choice, and the timing couldn’t be better. Many of the river’s biggest bass will be shallow and catchable.

You can expect sightfishing to be the primary pattern with a variety of soft-plastics being the preferred lure choices. So long as the weather holds, expect big weights among the leaders.

Watch for key areas in lakes George and Crescent to attract the bulk of the field. The rest should spread out along the wider points in the river.

Although the St. Johns is tidal, that would only impact the fishing if the water gets really high and stained. Otherwise, this will be a slugfest of two to three pounders, with an occasional trophy thrown in.

Winyah Bay

This event is a big question mark for the season. The tour has never tapped these waters, so it’s anybody’s guess as to what it could take to win.

What we do know is that it’s tidal, and that it has nearly unlimited water to explore. Having only 2 ½ days of practice could make that problematic. Even still, by using a seasonal approach and some basic tidewater logic, finding bass should be easier at this time of year than any other.

Like other tidal rivers, lure choices could run the gamut. So long as they work shallow, they should work here. And I like tournaments that provide some mystery, so I look forward to seeing how this one will play out.

Several tour stops are sure to provide opportunities for culling. - image by Lalo Flores

Several tour stops are sure to provide opportunities for culling. - image by Lalo Flores

Bull Shoals-Norfolk

If I chose a specific time of year to fish these White River impoundments, it would be April, on the exact dates set. The fish are on the bank and aggressive, and all three species could come into play.

Everything from topwaters to deep-diving crankbaits could produce the winning catch, and you can bet the weights will be strong.

Unlike any previous Elite Series event, this one will begin on one lake, then move to the next and back again. It’s a strange format with a limited practice period, so none of us are sure what to expect.

Although I’ve never been to Norfolk, I like the timing and the uncertainty involved. The two lakes may fish similarly, or not. Only time will tell.

Lake Joe Wheeler

I have mixed feelings about this lake. The first time there, my dad passed away during the competition. Later, however, I managed to secure a few top finishes.

Like other TVA lakes, Wheeler is a consistent producer. Twenty-plus pound stringers are possible, but the money cut will probably be closer to 27 pounds (on ten fish). That’s with more than 100 guys vying.

Everything from topwaters to deep-diving crankbaits could play into this one as well. In fact, some of the field may start with a surface lure, then probe deeper once the sun gets high. Either way, the best action should be close to the main river channel.

Toledo Bend

Timing should be good for this Texas-Louisiana border lake, and multiple big-fish patterns could be working simultaneously.

Expect plenty of crankbait action this season - both deep and shallow. - photo by Seigo Saito

Expect plenty of crankbait action this season - both deep and shallow. - photo by Seigo Saito

When we were there last, most of the fish were up shallow, in and around stumps and flooded terrestrial grass. I’m hoping that’s the case again this time. If so, a broad range of lures could work.

The only real curveball might be the development of a deep grass bite. Toledo Bend is a salad bowl full of healthy grassbeds, and the winning school of fish could be found relatively deep, on either side of the lake.

Expect the winning catch to breach the 85-pound mark.

Lake Texoma

This Texas-Oklahoma impoundment is home to all three species of black bass (largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass), and it could take a mixed bag to win.

Everything from square-bill crankbaits to finesse worms may be required to remain consistent, and it’s likely crowds could form in key areas of the lake. Much of that will depend on the water’s clarity and level. If it’s high, the field should spread out.

Texoma can produce from one end to the other and all points in between.

Cayuga Lake

The last time the Elite Series visited Cayuga, fishing was good. Nearly everyone in the field caught a limit. Grass and docks were key then, and should be again this time.

My approach was to start on the grass, then move to the docks as the sun got high — a strategy that clearly paid off. To separate one’s self from the field, it’s essential to catch a couple of kicker fish. Do that and it should be a fun ride to the scales. Unless, of course, the wind blows.

Like the other New York “Finger Lakes,” Cayuga lies north to south — so any type of strong wind from either of those directions could wreak havoc on the field.

Niagara River

This first-ever “Classic Bracket” event is limited to an 8-man field, which will be decided at Cayuga. The winner on the Niagara River will earn a spot in the 2017 Bassmasters Classic.

Having never fished the river before, it’s hard to say what will be the dominant patterns. I’m betting it will come down to smallmouth relating to swift current or largemouth held up in thick vegetation.

I hope I’m there!

Potomac River

Quality fish like this still roam the shallows of the Potomac River

Quality fish like this still roam the shallows of the Potomac River

Speaking of current and vegetation, the Potomac offers plenty of both.

Tidal by nature, this river continually produces healthy numbers of largemouth from its many creeks and main-river flats. But timing is critical. Get to your spot at the right phase of the tide and it can be crazy good. Miss it by an hour and it could be a long, lonely walk to the scales.

Potomac River bass respond well to topwaters, crankbaits, bladed and non-bladed jigs, spinnerbaits and a vast array of soft-plastics. I’m sure I’ll have something of each group tied on.

As for weight, I believe 25 pounds will be close to making a check — more like 60 to win. We shall see.

Mississippi River

Restricted to three pools in the upper Mississippi, there should still be plenty of options for anglers to choose from.

On our first trip to La Cross, Texas pro Todd Faircloth won by combining a flipping and frogging strategy. The next time, crankbaits dominated. Any of these are likely to factor in this fall. The trick will be deciding on which pool to fish and for how long. Locking times are quick, but there is a risk of getting stuck behind commercial barge traffic.

This event will come down to time management … and a little luck, of course.

AOY Championship

The top-50 anglers from the season will advance to the Angler of the Year Championship on Lake Mille Lacs in Minnesota. Known for its insanely healthy smallmouth population, I expect the weights to be big … for a few, at least.

The AOY Championship promises plenty of big smallmouth action.

The AOY Championship promises plenty of big smallmouth action.

Mille Lacs isn’t as vast as the locals would have you believe. And if the wind gets up, it could get even smaller in a hurry. Most of the fish should be concentrated on offshore structure and you can bet these guys will find them.

It should be interesting to watch this one on television.

I feel sorry for the few competitors that will have a legitimate shot at taking the AOY title. They’ll have to compete in heavy traffic with more than 40 others who have no chance.