By Bernie Schultz
Whenever B.A.S.S. schedules an event in New York, I feel my chances for success are strong. The Empire State has always been good to me, and I expected this event would deliver more of the same.
Part of the Finger Lakes, Cayuga is nearly 40 miles long and 400 feet deep. Formed by glaciers thousands of years ago, it has evolved into prime habitat for both smallmouth and largemouth. And because spring came late to the region, I felt both species might come into play.
At sunrise on the first morning of practice, I launched in the upper end of the lake then began working my way south. My plan was to search for both species simultaneously — the largemouth on docks, and smallmouth on rock and sand between them. In no time, I found what I was looking for.
Periodically, nice sized smallmouth would appear in 2 to 4-feet of water. Some were locked on beds, others pacing as if they, too, were about to build nests.
The largemouth were right where I expected to find them, as well, but they were suspended high in the water column beneath certain docks and showed little interest in my offerings. Still, I felt I might be able to fool them come competition time.
As I continued south, I marked each sweet spot with specific symbols on my Raymarine units: Red triangles represented above average smallmouth, green squares indicated big largemouth. When dusk came, I had more than two dozen icons recorded.
On day two, I decided to probe a large area of submerged grass on the lake’s northern end. Starting with a Rapala SkitterWalk, I covered water from shallow to deep, but the fish showed no interest in topwaters.
Switching to a bladed jig, I ran the lure through stranding grass in 6 to 10-feet of water. My casts were long and the retrieve brisk, but that coaxed only a few pickerel.
Switching to a 3/4-ounce jig tipped with a Yamamoto soft-plastic craw, I began targeting the more isolated clumps of grass. That produced a few bass, but I could tell I wasn’t quite dialed in. Next, I downsized to a 5/8-ounce tungsten weight and Yamamoto Flappin Hog, and that’s when I started getting the right bites.
Moving steadily through the vegetation, I eventually discovered two concentrations of fish. Many were pickerel, but enough were nice sized bass to make me want to return. I felt I was on the right path.
On day three, I tried expanding on the grass pattern but high winds muddied the entire north end. Rather than fighting it, I moved to a protected shoreline to scout some docks. Not long after making that move, other competitors started showing up … also looking for relief from the wind.
By the time practice concluded, I still wasn’t sure which would be the better bet — the bedding and dock fish to the south, or those in deep grass to the north. I decided to let my take-off number determine where I’d start first.
As luck would have it, I drew boat number 89 of 108 … not what I was hoping for. When my turn came, I opted to head north to the grass — rather than take leftovers down south.
Coming off plane less than a mile from take-off, I settled in on my first waypoint.
Everything felt right, but as the minutes passed, I realized the fish had either left or just weren’t biting.
During that time, I noticed Todd Faircloth a hundred yards away, sitting on what appeared to be my next waypoint … and he was catching fish. I immediately moved in, trying to get a piece of the area, but he had the best part sewn up.
Although our conversation was cordial, it was clear he wasn’t in a mood to share. I did my best to flank him without interfering and eventually boated a limit of keepers, but Todd caught the better fish. By 9am that bite was done, so I headed south to see what bedding fish were left.
In a small cove on the eastern shore, I approached my first icon. To my surprise, the big smallmouth I marked in practice was still there. It bit on the first cast and after a short battle, I put the 3¾-pound smallie in the boat.
Before leaving, I decided to scope the area further — to avoid overlooking any new fish that may have moved in. As I worked my way into the cove, Justin Lucas idled out and left.
Minutes later, I discovered a pair of 2-pound males fanning fresh beds. I knew Justin must have seen them. I told my Marshal that he had to have a good bag, otherwise he would have fished for them. Both bit on the first cast.
In the next two hours I moved from waypoint to waypoint, trying to improve my weight. Unfortunately, most of the fish I marked in practice were gone. The only really big smallmouth remaining were so spooked I couldn’t catch them.
From there I ran to the docks, hoping to score on some of the pre-spawn female largemouth I saw in practice.
The day dragged on, but I was never able to upgrade. At weigh-in I brought 12 pounds to the scales. I knew day two would have to go much better if I were survive the cut.
Too Little Too Late
Rather than compete with Todd , I decided to start day two on another area of deep grass. A place where I had several quality bites in practice.
For the first hour, all I caught were pickerel and undersized bass. Then the bite quit altogether. Rather than run to the docks or look for leftover bedders, I decided to stay put and downsize my baits.
Switching to a drop-shot rigged 4-inch Senko, I boated the first couple of keepers. I put a 6-pounder in the boat a half hour later. I told my Marshal we now had a chance … I just needed a few more big bites.
They never came. The wind died and the water’s surface turned to glass. I wasted another hour there, then finally moved to the docks to finish my limit. As the day wore on, it became clear the bank wouldn’t give up the weight I needed. I tried moving back to the grass, but that failed me too.
At weigh-in, I learned that I had sunk deep in the standings. The only consolation was that I had big bass for the day. Otherwise, my tournament was done … as were my chances of qualifying for the Bassmaster Classic.
I trailered the boat one last time then headed to Florida — rewinding the experience countless times in my head.