Beatin' the Bank with Bernie Schultz - 2017 Lake Rayburn BASS Fest

Lake Rayburn is big — 114,500 surface acres big! It’s the largest manmade lake in Texas and it’s full of bass, both numbers and size. Although I’ve fished there many times, it had been years and I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this event. The only thing I was certain of was that I needed a strong finish … to have any hope of making a run at the Bassmaster Classic.

Lake Rayburn is the largest man-made impoundment in Texas.

Lake Rayburn is the largest man-made impoundment in Texas.

It’s been a tough, thin season and expenses were running high. To help defray some of the cost, I decided to share a lakeside cabin with fellow Elite pros Cliff Prince, Luke Clausen and Chad Grigsby — all great anglers from different backgrounds.

It looked like a fun week ahead.

Practice Begins

On day one, I decided to start near the official take-off at Cassell-Boykin Park — an area of the lake with an abundance of grass and flooded bushes. I stopped at the first large creek to the south, on a long tapering point covered in hydrilla. Immediately, I caught fish using a variety of baits — including various topwaters and jerkbaits. None were big, however, so I moved on.

My next stop was to a ridge flanking a submerged creek channel. At its end, I hooked a large bass using a Stretch 40 6-inch grub rigged to a VMC Swingin’ Rugby Jig. The fish was easily seven pounds. After shaking off a few more bites, I moved on, trying to repeat the pattern. I never could, so it was back to the bank.

From one spot to the next, I alternated between a Chatterbait with a Zako trailer and two different Rapala Shadow-series jerkbaits. By day’s end I had marked a number of good shallow areas — most consisting of hydrilla and hay grass on flatter banks.

On day two, I drove to Powell Point to access the lower end of the lake. I wanted to check the coves there, then try Buck Bay and Ayish Bayou. In each of these areas I found fish. Plenty of them, too. The only problem was size. Most were under two pounds.

I did manage to locate a school of 2½ to 3-pounders on one small point in Buck Bay, and a couple of shoreline mats that held a few 4-pounders near Powell’s, but nothing I felt had the potential to win the tournament.

These were the most productive lures for me during the event.

These were the most productive lures for me during the event.

On the final day of practice, I decided to fish near the 147 Bridge. I started in a group of islands just north, working flooded bushes and trees. The bite was quick and steady but, again, the fish ran small.

From there I ventured to Harvey Creek, then on to Veach Basin and finally Caney Creek. All of these stops proved productive, but the bigger fish were scattered and unpredictable. I wasn’t sure what to expect in the actual competition.

Derby Time

The first morning of competition was overcast and calm. I fully expected a strong topwater bite.

My first stop was just inside Harvey Creek, on a hydrilla bed at the mouth of a small pocket. In minutes, I was seeing action with a topwater. The only problem was they were missing the lure. The strikes were aggressive, but off target. I tried switching baits, which helped, but the fish got smaller in a hurry.

Eventually the sun broke through the clouds and that killed the topwater bite altogether, so I decided to make the long run to Buck Bay to see if the schoolies I had found would pay off.

It took approximately 25 minutes, but when I arrived I could see that the water had muddied. There was no schooling activity. I fished the spot anyway, praying they were still there … but no.

From there, I moved to a flat of hydrilla and filled out a small limit. Next, I hit the mats near Powell Point, then slowly worked my way back toward weigh-in. I had caught more than 30 bass, but I was never able to upgrade my catch. My 9-pound limit was anemic at best.

On day two, I decided to stay close and maximize my fishing time. I started on the deep spot where I had caught my biggest fish in practice. Even though the wind was howling, I managed to put a quick limit in the boat. No big fish, however.

After battling the wind and waves for more than an hour, I finally gave up and headed for a protected shoreline.

Like day one, it was cloudy, so I picked up a Rapala Skitter-V and went to work. In minutes, I was culling. One fish weighed better than 4 pounds. I felt good. It was still early and I thought I could make a strong recovery in the standings.

You needed a limit of these just to make the cut on Rayburn.

You needed a limit of these just to make the cut on Rayburn.

A little later, I culled again … then again. Liking the area, I decided to retrace my steps, hoping to catch any overlooked fish.

When I returned the spot where I caught the 4-pounder, I walked the Skitter-V slowly over the same hole in the grass. Behind it rose a huge bass, mouth open as it tracked the bait. It was a bizarre sight, as if in slow motion … more like a snook or tarpon than a bass. As soon as I saw it close its mouth, I set the hook. It was a costly mistake. The fish turned and the bait pulled free.

Had I not seen the strike, I would have had a much better chance of hooking that fish. But I was on point and too anxious. I watched as a brand new Toyota Tundra swam away (first place prize for the biggest bass of the event).

An hour later, I lost a 5-pounder on the Chatterbait right next to the boat. From that point on, I was completely deflated. Even though I had put together a decent stringer just under 15 pounds, it was a fraction of what could have been.

Once more, I was going home early from an event that should have played to my strengths.