Beatin’ The Bank with Bernie Schultz — 2015 BASS Elite Series Preview

Soon, the 2015 Bassmaster Elite Series season will be underway, and with it will come a considerable amount of roadwork.

The tour kicks off in March on the Sabine River, a natural border flowing south between the states of Texas and Louisiana. Three weeks later, we’re on Lake Guntersville in northern Alabama. From there, the tour heads west to the Sacramento River in California, then to Lake Havasu in Arizona. After that it’s Kentucky Lake in Tennessee. From there we head to the St. Lawrence River on the Canadian border, then slightly south to the Chesapeake Bay. For the finale, we’re back at the Canadian border on the Detroit River.

Once the regular season concludes, the top 50 competitors will advance to the Angler of the Year Championship (AOY) at Sturgeon Bay on Lake Michigan.

Certainly challenging, this schedule will offer a true test for bass fishing’s best. Each waterway is unique and different from the next, which should level the playing field considerably. And that’s what a good schedule should do.

With that in mind, here is how I see each event and what it will take to survive.

Sabine River

Two years ago, BASS began our tour in this exact location, in Orange, TX. Primarily a saltwater estuary, finding sweet water and black bass will require some running.

I got off to a great start on day-one last time, but zeroed the following day. In fact, consistency was a challenge for nearly every competitor in the field.

More suited to redfish, to reach to reach sweet water will require some running. - photo by Steve Bowman

More suited to redfish, to reach to reach sweet water will require some running. - photo by Steve Bowman

I caught my fish using a variety of lures and techniques, adapting with each phase of the tide. To reach my best area required more than an hour long run through the Intracoastal Waterway. Once there, I found a number of other boats using the same water … the area obviously fished small as a result.

If memory serves, it took approximately 10 pounds to make the cut, and that’s ridiculously weak for two days of fishing. Locals blame hurricanes and saltwater intrusion for killing off much of the estuary’s bass population, but add that it’s quickly recovering.

Even so, you can expect low weights and high fuel bills to summarize this event.

Lake Guntersville

In sharp contrast, Guntersville will likely be the best event of the year. So many different tactics could come into play. Everything from sight-fishing to deep cranking could work, and the weights will run heavy across the board. 

I’ll stay relatively shallow, as that is my strength. Buzzbaits, spinnerbaits, lipless crankbaits, swimbaits, bladed jigs and a variety of soft-plastics could account for much of the shallow water yield. Carolina rigs, crankbaits and perhaps structure spoons will produce for those who venture offshore.

Whatever tactics are utilized, the timing for this event couldn’t have been better.

Sacramento River

Having fished “The Delta” twice before, I have some idea of what to expect. The biggest challenge will be time management: To reach the Delta from Sacramento will require nearly two hours of running time, and you can bet most of the field will make the trek.

I’ll feel right at home. The Delta looks very much like the bass habitat found in my home state of Florida. And a multitude of tactics are likely to work, too, including flipping, frogging, cranking and topwater. I’ll stay shallow and move with the tide, as I believe the angler who best adapts to that and the limited amount of time we’ll have to fish is most likely to win this event.

The Delta looks much like Florida water - shallow and full of vegetation.

The Delta looks much like Florida water - shallow and full of vegetation.

To reach the Sacramento Valley from Florida will require four long, hard days of driving, and I’ll be sure to leave early so that I’m not totally spent by the time I arrive.

Lake Havasu

I fished Havasu once in the early 90s and I recall the lake being pretty stingy back then. The water was low, which prevented accessing many of the backwater ponds adjacent to the river. I also remember size and consistency being a problem — the fish ran small on average and seemed to vanish, even in large schools.

According to recent reports, however, Havasu supports a healthy population of smallmouth and largemouth — both of which now run much bigger on average. If that’s true, it could be a game changer. I expect topwaters, jerkbaits, grubs and drop-shots to be the primary tools for catching the smallmouth. For largemouth, probably Senkos, Kut Tails and a slew of other soft-plastics.

Finding and catching fish isn’t my biggest concern, but getting them to myself is. Havasu is likely to fish small!

Kentucky Lake

This year, BASS scheduled Kentucky Lake a bit earlier than in the past. Depending on the water level, the fish may be shallow and/or deep. Anytime there is water in the bushes, a large percentage of the lake’s largemouth will remain tight to the bank. When the water falls, however, they quickly vacate.

I caught this monster the last time the Elites visited Kentucky Lake. - photo by Seigo Saito

I caught this monster the last time the Elites visited Kentucky Lake. - photo by Seigo Saito

Besides the bushes, I expect the points and intermediate ledges outside of key spawning areas to be the most reliable spots, and any number of techniques could produce. Watch for the flippers and better ledge fishermen to excel here.

As for me, if the bushes are in the water, I’ll stay shallow. If not, I’ll run south to find submerged grass. Either way, this event will separate a lot of the field, both by location and weight. Kentucky Lake is huge, and it’s full of big bass.

St. Lawrence River

In 2013, I finished in the top-12 on the St. Lawrence, and I’m looking forward to going back. The river is vast and beautiful, and it holds tremendous schools of fish — both smallmouth and largemouth — and either or both could factor into the winning stringer.

For those bold enough, Lake Ontario is approximately 70 miles to the southwest. And as Brandon Palaniuk proved last year, the time and distance may be well worth the risk involved.

Drop-shotting deep was the dominant pattern then, and I expect the same this time around. Look for a number of 20+ pound bags to cross the stage here!

Chesapeake Bay

I fished a Bassmasters Classic here in 1991, and could have made a run for the title if not for one bad day. Back then there were plenty of 2 to 3-pounders swimming around. Now they’re 3 to 5-pounders!

Grass, rock and docks will be primary targets throughout this huge watershed, and to do well will require efficiency…that and being in the right area at the right tide. The Chesapeake’s water levels fluctuate with the moon and the fish will relocate accordingly.

Topwater, cranking and flipping will account for most of the fish from grass; skipping and pitching around docks and duck blinds should make up the rest. And unless the weather gets nasty, you can expect big weights from the leaders. Money should be around 26 to 28-pounds (on 10 fish).

Detroit River

Serving as a connecting waterway to Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River offers protection from high winds and big waves. Some of the competitors believe the tournament may even be won there. Chances are, however, most everyone will run to bigger water.

Wherever the winning weight comes from, expect it to be heavy. This waterway harbors some of the biggest smallmouth on the planet, and they bite! Even making the money cut could require as much as 38 pounds (on 10 fish), and smallmouth are sure to dominate the catch.

Tubes, drop-shots, crankbaits, jerkbaits … even topwaters could produce. The key will be finding the right size fish in areas where they’ll replenish. Whoever does that is certain to survive this slugfest.

Smallmouth like this should dominate the latter part of the season.

Smallmouth like this should dominate the latter part of the season.

AOY Championship

Like last season, BASS has decided to hold the Angler of the Year Championship on Lake Michigan. This time, however, the field will launch from Sturgeon Bay — an area reputed as the best on the lake for big smallmouth.

If I’m fortunate enough to qualify, this will make my third trip to Green Bay … and I like it there. It suits my style — lots of big smallmouth and plenty of ways to catch them. Hopefully things will go well and I’ll advance to the Bassmasters Classic.

Stay tuned and we shall see!