Beatin' the Bank with Bernie Schultz - Lessons Learned 2015

When B.A.S.S. announced the 2015 Elite Series schedule, I liked what I saw. Most of the tour stops were very familiar to me, and those that weren’t also looked promising.

My plan was to research each body of water in advance and pre-fish whenever possible. As it turned out, I was only able to scout the St. Lawrence Seaway and Chesapeake Bay. But as the year unfolded, those efforts really paid off.

Here are some of the lessons I learned from each event. Hopefully they will help you in your pursuits as well.

Sabine River Rebound

The last time our tour visited the Sabine River, I got off to a great start — after day-one I was well inside the top-20. Day-two, unfortunately, was another story. I zeroed.

Determined not to let that happen again, I worked hard to develop a back-up plan … just in case my primary patterns failed me.

I elected to spend my practice time in the Calcasieu River and Taylor’s Bayou — places I believed would remain stable regardless of the weather or tide. When official practice ended, I settled on two small areas of the Calcasieu — both of which held spawning and post-spawn fish.

By rotating this series of baits, I secured a solid finish at the opener on the Sabine River.

By rotating this series of baits, I secured a solid finish at the opener on the Sabine River.

The run there took more than an hour and it was nerve racking. But once I arrived at my best area, I was able to settle in and work it meticulously. That was the key; fishing each target thoroughly with several different lures and techniques.

The selection I relied on most included a Rapala DT4 shallow-running balsa crankbait, Hildebrandt Snagless Sally with Yamamoto Swim Senko trailer, and a 4-inch Senko rigged Texas style. By rotating these, I was able to maximize my catch and escape a difficult tournament with a solid finish.

Lesson learned: When fishing turns tough, make the most of what little you find.

Guntersville Gauntlet

Next came Lake Guntersville, an event I knew would require tremendous weight.

During most of practice, I concentrated on the areas I believed would hold pre- and post-spawn bass — including shallow humps and ridges featuring stumps and submerged grass. It was good strategy for numbers, but it never really produced any big fish.

A break came late on day-three, just prior to registration. In a last ditch effort, I checked an area that had produced years ago — a spot so obvious, I figured others would check it as well. I did so simply because I knew (from the previous event) I would have an early take-off number. If the fish were there, I might get to them first.

Although the spot was small, I discovered numerous big females bedding within a cast of each other. I marked each fish precisely with my Raymarine electronics and hoped they would stay put.

The next morning, before sunrise, I reached the spot in minutes and sank the Power-Poles. Making repeated casts to the coordinates referenced on my electronics, I slowly put fish after fish in the box … all of them big. Using a Yamamoto Senko and Lizard (both green-pumpkin), I repeated on day two and advanced to another solid finish on day three, when I relied on a large Kut Tail Worm rigged to a VMC Swingin’ Rugby Jig.

Lesson learned: Maximize every minute of practice. If not for finding that last minute hot spot, the outcome would have been much different.

Cal Delta Delivery

Although our tour visited the Delta twice before, this time we were based out of Sacramento and that meant long runs to productive water.

Like Guntersville, I took full advantage of practice —spending every minute of daylight searching for bedding fish in the Delta’s intricate system of canals. Late on day-three, I found the motherlode — an area that featured docks and topped-out grass, and with them, countless bass. Some of which were really big!

Catching them wasn’t difficult either. Almost all fell for a full-size Senko or 6-inch lizard. The only real challenge was time management. When you’re facing a two-hour run, fuel becomes a concern … even with a Mercury Optimax. Each trip required a fuel stop, which further cut into an already shortened day.

The Delta living up to its reputation for big bass. Here's a 10-pounder I caught on day-one.

The Delta living up to its reputation for big bass. Here's a 10-pounder I caught on day-one.

In the end, the Delta was a strong tournament for me. If not for losing two giants (one on day-two, the other on day-three), I would have easily been in contention to win.

The lesson I learned here was to better manage my time. On day-one I had a solid stringer with a 10-pounder in the box, and I wanted to make sure I reached weigh-in on time. In the haste of protecting my catch, I gave up nearly an hour of fishing time — time I wish I had back!

Havasu Homerun

I fished Havasu years ago, but it was much different then. Since that time, its habitat has vastly improved and the fish population has responded accordingly.

When we arrived the spawn was almost complete, but there were still a good number of fry-guarding males in the shallows. Finding that, and having two days to practice, I banked my entire tournament on them.

My primary lures were a weightless 4-inch Senko and a drop-shot Kut Tail Worm — both in green-pumpkin.

The first morning of competition, the wind was howling and I struggled to get a bite. As the day progressed, the winds continued to increase. Instead of running around the lake, I decided to stay put and make the most of one area.

Finally, around noon, things began to shape up. By weigh-in time I had put together a nice bag of fish.

On day-two, with less wind, I elected to start in the other direction … on some smallmouth that I had seen cruising during practice. After catching a few of those, I moved to the spawning coves to fill out my limit with largemouth. By weigh-in, I had a nice mixed bag and was well inside the top-50 cut.

Overall, Havasu was a great experience. It’s not often you get to fish the way you prefer throughout an event.

Lesson learned: When conditions get tough, don’t panic. Slow down and work your best area thoroughly … make every bite count.

BASSfest Breakdown

This brings me to my weakest performance of the season: BASSfest on Kentucky Lake. Although I found the right quantity and size fish to do really well, I failed to capitalize on them.

I found a school of largemouth concentrated on a main river ridge, in a 20-yard stretch. When the CORP pulled water, they would bite really well. Unfortunately, numerous other pros found them as well. Even though I was the first to arrive, within an hour I was surrounded by six other boats. It was cast for cast.

In retrospect, I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. I thought a power approach would work, but I hadn’t figured for a crowd, and when so many lures hit the water at once, the fishing got tough.

Several of my competitors planned for it and used finesse tactics to make them bite, and that worked. But by the time I made the switch, the bite was over.

Lesson learned: Have a back-up finesse option, even if you don’t think you’ll need one.

St. Lawrence Review

By far, my favorite place to fish is the St. Lawrence. The river offers multiple ways to catch bass, and both largemouth and smallmouth can factor into a winning catch.

The biggest challenge I faced there was avoiding complacency. To prevent that from happening, I forced myself to try new areas and techniques, and I’m glad I did. After spending just enough time to re-familiarize myself with some key areas, I looked for new ones. I fished docks, bulkheads, grassbeds and rocky shoals — all in areas I had never tried before.

As the tournament developed, I relied on some of that new water to escape the crowd. I used everything from a Rapala X-Rap Popper, tube jig, Shad Shape Worm and small Hildebrandt Drum Roller swimbait to catch fish in a multitude of areas. It was fun. I ended up in 15th place with a huge jump in AOY points. The Classic was back within reach.

The best lesson I took from the St. Lawrence was not to get too comfortable with past success. Be open-minded and explore new water. In this event, it really paid off.

Chesapeake Chess Match

I fished the Chesapeake Bay once before, when Ken Cook won the Classic, but a lot has changed since then. Realizing that, I elected to scout the area ahead of cut off. And man, am I glad I did!

During official practice, the conditions were horrible. High winds and rising water made the search difficult at best. If not for learning about a small creek during my scouting trip a month earlier, I would have struggled for sure.

My best finish came of the season came at the Chesapeake Bay. Here I'm participating in the drive-thru weigh-in.

My best finish came of the season came at the Chesapeake Bay. Here I'm participating in the drive-thru weigh-in.

My success came by beating the same limited cover throughout the changing tide. And it seemed each day the fish chose a different phase to feed on. Had I been running the falling tide, I would have missed the bite completely on two of the four competition days.

The lesson: The tougher the bite, the slower you should fish. By being thorough and not worry about what others were doing, I maximized my chances in one area and converted it into a top-6 finish.

Motor City Magic

Next came Detroit and Lake St. Clair. Although the tournament waters included lakes Erie and Huron, I decided early on that I would stay close and maximize my fishing time — a strategy that clearly paid off.

St. Clair is a great lake, full of quality smallmouth and good numbers of largemouth. Catching them is fun, too. They’ll eat everything, including topwaters, jerkbaits, crankbaits, swimbaits and various bottom-probing soft-plastics. It’s more about finding them than feeding them.

I used the same basic selection that worked on the St. Lawrence — a Rapala X-Rap Pop, Hildebrandt Drum Roller swimbait, tube jig and Shad Shape Worm. By alternating these lures throughout the competition, I easily advanced to the weekend final — where I secured enough points to guarantee a berth in the upcoming Bassmasters Classic.

Lesson learned: Don’t fall for “greener pastures.” Just because others decide to run long distances to catch their fish, that doesn’t mean you should too. Oftentimes, the fish left behind are plentiful and you’ll have more time to catch them.

AOY Championship

Having already secured a berth in the Bassmaster Classic, I had no real pressure going into the AOY Championship. Sure, I wanted to do well — I was inside the top-10 of the AOY points race and there was considerable money at stake. But, somehow, I didn’t feel the pressure.

In practice, I found fish quickly — big smallmouth cruising shallow, feeding on balls of shad. I felt I had located the winning fish as all were in the 4-pound class. Unfortunately, they were so dialed in on the bait they were chasing I could hardly tempt them with artificials. And believe me, I threw everything but the kitchen sink!

It was frustrating watching so many quality fish ignore my best presentations. In the end, I managed to fool only a handful, and that was after three days of trying!

Lesson learned: Don’t die on fish that won’t cooperate.

By noon on the first competition day, I should have moved on to something entirely different. Instead, I committed to a spot that wouldn’t produce. And by the time I had exhausted all options there, it was too late to make any kind of recovery.

Year In Review

Overall, 2015 was a great series. I managed money finishes in eight of the nine events, easily securing a berth in the 2016 Bassmaster Classic.

Overall, mine was a very productive season. Next comes the Bassmasters Classic!

Overall, mine was a very productive season. Next comes the Bassmasters Classic!

Hopefully these experiences will help you in your own pursuits. Just remember; though bass fishing is often a humbling sport, it can also be one of great reward.

Thank you for following my column. See you at the Classic!