Beatin’ The Bank with Bernie Schultz: 2018 BASS Elite Series Preview

By Bernie Schultz

Like most seasons, this year’s Elite Series schedule features a variety of fisheries — places that are sure to challenge the entire field, regardless of their strengths. From tidal basins to highland reservoirs, there’s something for everyone. A schedule that is certain to level the playing field.

With that in mind, here’s a preview of each venue and what to expect as the season progresses.

Lake Martin

Nestled in the highlands of northern Alabama, Lake Martin is a clear and deep reservoir. It boasts an average depth of 44 feet, and it covers 44,000 surface acres. It also features a very irregular shoreline with plenty of coves, creeks and pockets — places that will help spread the field.

Martin is known for its spotted bass, which should play heavily into the strategies of most competitors. Largemouth, too, will be a factor. But considering it’s a wintertime event, “spots” should dominate the overall catch.

I expect drop-shots and jerkbaits to be key producers. Various jigs and crankbaits could also play. The water will be cold and the weather unpredictable, so the winner may have to combine a finesse approach with some power fishing to outlast the field.

Sabine River

There is no waterway on the schedule more dreaded than the tidal portion of the Sabine. Many of the tour’s best have been skunked there. Factor in recent flooding with saltwater intrusion and it’s anybody’s guess where the few surviving bass might be found. Worse yet, BASS decided to put all of Louisiana off limits. For the first time in history, we’ll be restricted to one side of a waterway that borders two states.

The tour has visited the Sabine twice now, and both times the weights have been low. My results are mixed; one money finish and one just shy.

This selection was money on the Sabine last time we were there.

This selection was money on the Sabine last time we were there.

I expect it will be a mixture of shallow cranking, frogging and probing visual targets with various soft-plastics. Regardless of the lures or techniques chosen, it’s likely the winner will find an area to himself … as that is the only way to remain consistent enough to win in this event.

Grand Lake of the Cherokees

A popular tour stop, Grand is a shallow, riverine impoundment with lots of healthy largemouth. And considering the time of year we’re there, anything from topwaters to shallow-running crankbaits could produce the right grade of fish to win.

Although the lake offers 460 miles of shoreline, it’s hard to hide there. So pattern fishing is likely to be required.

I’ll concentrate on the lower and mid-lake areas, as I’m more familiar with that part of the lake and I like what it has to offer. It’s full of stumps, brushpiles, flooded willows, docks and plenty of rocky banks — all ideal haunts for late-spring largemouth.

Winning will require solid weight each day throughout the 4-day event.

Kentucky Lake

It’s been years since BASS scheduled a springtime event on this lake, and that should keep the fish shallow … especially if a late winter overlaps into spring.

I’m hoping for a topwater, frog and swim-jig bite, and I firmly believe this trio will get it done. The key will be finding the right areas in a hurry. Kentucky Lake is massive. It covers 160,000 surface acres. Neighboring Barkley, which we can also access, is 58,000 acres. That’s a lot of water!

This selection could work at more than one Elite Series tour stop.

This selection could work at more than one Elite Series tour stop.

Even though the length minimum is 15 inches, every angler in the field should limit out in this derby. And you can expect the weights to be high. I just hope I’m among the leaders when the scales close.

Lake Travis/B.A.S.S. FEST

New to the Elite Series schedule is Lake Travis. Located just outside of Austin, Texas, this unique waterway is part of the Colorado River system. It was impounded to generate electrical power while controlling the area’s potentially raging floodwaters. Travis offers approximately 19,000 surface acres at full pool, so it’s not a huge lake.

Having never fished there, I’m not sure what to expect. If the water rises, shoreline cover could provide some good fishing opportunities. If it’s low and clear, it’s likely to be a deeper finesse game.

Considering it’s a Texas impoundment, it should fish similarly to the other reservoirs in that region. I’ll be doing plenty of research ahead of time, as will my fellow competitors, I’m sure.

Mississippi River

Once again, we’re competing on Pools 7, 8 and 9 on the Upper Mississippi. I’m one for three in previous events there, but I still like my chances.

My best finish involved a frog bite, but that has eluded me the past two trips. Catching fish other ways isn’t a problem; it’s catching the right grade of fish consistently that is the challenge.

Besides frogs, other topwater lures, crankbaits, jigs and spinnerbaits can be strong producers. It’s just a matter of timing and getting the right places to yourself. I usually stick to Pools 7 and 8. I like the way they are laid out, and the cover options are good. My only concern is locking through. I’ve been stung numerous times by barge traffic over the years, so, unless the fishing is really promising in the next pool up, I’ll stay close and maximize my time in the take-off pool.

Lake Oahe

Here’s another new lake on the schedule, and it’s big — 230 miles long, in fact!

All I know about this massive waterway is what fellow Rapala pro Brandon Palaniuk told me. “It’s huge and full of big fish — both smallmouth and largemouth.”  The only other thing he added is that he likes it a lot and that we’ll catch a ton of fish there.

Buzzbaits may play into several events this year. - photo by Walker Smith

Buzzbaits may play into several events this year. - photo by Walker Smith

That’s a broad, vague statement, I know. But at least it’s something. And knowing how much Brandon likes topwaters and swimbaits, I bet those patterns will happen somewhere on the lake.

One thing is certain; we’re there at a time of year when the fishing should be steady and predictable … once I figure out what to do.

Chesapeake Bay

My record on this massive tidal basin is solid. I fished a Classic there in the 90s and caught one of the largest stringers of the tournament. On our last visit, I finished sixth.

Although I like my chances, the Chesapeake can be fickle. It’s possible to be on a good bite one day and never see a fish in that area the next. Only a few places will provide steady action over the course of four days, and it’s likely a number of lures and presentations will be required to remain consistent.

Worms, jigs, buzzbaits, spinnerbaits and shallow-running crankbaits are among the most reliable choices. I can’t wait!

St. Lawrence River

This is, by far, my favorite stop in the schedule. I’ve had numerous high finishes there. I like everything about this river, and I feel it’s my best chance at a win in the Elite Series.

My approach is somewhat different from most. While the bulk of the field will be drop-shotting for smallmouth or flipping and frogging mats for largemouth, I’ll be searching shallow shoals, flats and reed beds for rogue fish.

Anytime the tour heads north, I have these tied on.

Anytime the tour heads north, I have these tied on.

Among my preferred lure choices are topwater walking and popping baits, jerkbaits, spinnerbaits and small swimbaits. I’ll also employ a tube and drop-shot when needed. If I get into trouble, I may resort to soft-plastics for largemouth hiding beneath mats of grass or around docks. Whatever it takes, I plan to fish the final in this event.

Schedule Summary

In all, this year’s schedule offers a wide range of lakes and rivers, both shallow and deep. Those anglers who perform consistently enough to reach the year-end AOY Championships will have definitely earned the right to be there. I only hope that I’m among them.