Beatin’ The Bank with Bernie Schultz: Lessons Learned 2018

When B.A.S.S. released the 2018 Bassmaster Elite Series schedule, I saw plenty of opportunity. Most of the venues seemed perfectly suited to my style of fishing, and I was anxious to get things rolling.

Unfortunately, with each passing event that optimism faded. In the end, I was left with the worst season of my 30-plus-year career.

The following is a breakdown of each event, highlighting the choices I made and the proper adjustments I failed to make. Hopefully, by reading this account, you’ll learn what to and what not to do when situations call for a change.

Lake Martin

I felt I had a good strategy going in to Lake Martin having fished this Northern Alabama reservoir several times before. My plan was to start with jerkbaits on windy banks, then drop shot over deep structure and look for key docks—maybe even crank shallow, stained water wherever I could find it.

  Our season began on Lake Martin, one of the best "numbers" fisheries in the country.

Our season began on Lake Martin, one of the best "numbers" fisheries in the country.

I quickly learned the jerkbait bite was essentially nonexistent. So, I scrapped that and tried a drop shot over deep brush holding baitfish. That, too, failed to produce with any consistency, at least for me.

I caught nearly all of my fish by cranking and pitching to shallow rock, wood and brush in the upper part of the reservoir. Had I been in a better rotation, I feel I could have excelled in the event. Others in the area did well employing the very same patterns and techniques.

The Lesson: I probably didn’t cover enough water. Considering I was in a crowded part of the lake, I should have moved more. I also missed the deep bite on the lower end, but that may have developed as the tournament progressed.

Grand Lake

Depending on the weather and water level, a March event on Grand might require fishing pea gravel points, bluff banks or working shallow docks and pockets. This particular week promised stable conditions with a warming trend, so I went shallow. After three days of searching, I decided the take-off creek offered my best chance for success.

By dragging a jig around docks laden with brush, then cranking the mid-range depths between them, I generated plenty of bites. Unfortunately, my percentages were poor and I lost too many key fish. Added traffic made me fish faster than I should have, too. In the end, I missed the cut by a couple of pounds.

The Lesson: When things aren’t going your way, don’t get in a hurry. Slow down and be more thorough. Make each bite count, especially when you’re fishing under crowded conditions.

Kentucky Lake

Finally, a springtime event on one of the best fisheries in the country!

Going in, I believed flipping flooded bushes would be the winning pattern. That and perhaps an early morning dock bite from bass chasing spawning shad.

I was right, but because of an irate marina owner, I was unable to fully capitalize on the shad spawn … not just one morning, but two! Though I eventually prevailed in the legal battle, that marina owner made sure I wasn’t able to fish effectively during the critical part of the morning bite.

As for the bushes, falling water killed that too, at least in the areas I chose. This event proved to be one of the most aggravating of the season.

Lesson Learned: No matter how strong the pattern, avoid territorial marina owners and spend your time elsewhere. That confrontation and my foolish pride effectively took me out of the competition.

Lake Travis — BASSfest

Having no experience on this Texas impoundment, I knew I would have to think fast in order to put the right patterns together. Travis is deceptively big and deep, so narrowing the possibilities in just 2½ days was challenging.

  "Running lights, life jackets, aerators, kill switch." Those are the commands you'll hear while passing through the final checkpoint during morning take-off.  -  photo by James Overstreet, courtesy of BASSMASTER.com

"Running lights, life jackets, aerators, kill switch." Those are the commands you'll hear while passing through the final checkpoint during morning take-off. - photo by James Overstreet, courtesy of BASSMASTER.com

I spent most of my time on the lower end of the lake, chasing schoolies with topwaters, jerkbaits and swimbaits. Though the bite was consistent, connecting with quality fish proved impossible for me.

In a tournament where the weights increased daily, I managed to lose ground.

The Lesson: It’s hard to leave feeding fish, but all the 2 pounders in the lake won’t help if the rest of the field is bringing in 3 pounders. Although I eventually switched patterns, I didn’t leave enough time for the adjustment to pay off.

Sabine River 

After a major flood postponed this event for nearly two months, the Sabine’s bass were in a post-spawn mode and hardly biting. I felt my best strategy was to stick to one part of the estuary and fish there throughout the tide.

It would have been a good tactic, except for the fact that others beat me to the best spots. Helplessly, I watched as they caught fish after fish ahead of me — all of the class needed to excel.

  Postponed for nearly two months, the Sabine River proved to be quite a challenge.

Postponed for nearly two months, the Sabine River proved to be quite a challenge.

Faced with the decision of running an hour away and potentially finding the same crowded conditions, I opted to stay and fish leftovers. I slowed my presentation, concentrating on anything overlooked.  I hung in there pretty well as a result, but finished just outside the money.

Lesson Learned: This one was tough. Getting a late draw in the take-off order hurt. Although I had chosen a great area to spend my time in, I was never a threat because of a late draw in the take-off order. I wrote this one off as just plain bad luck.

Mississippi River

I love this river, especially in its upper reaches. There is so much quality habitat, perfect for holding largemouth and smallmouth bass. And therein lies the problem; figuring out which to concentrate on.

As the tournament progressed, I decided to focus on largemouth. I found some really good areas — ambush points on the ends of shallow riprap banks. But like the Sabine, I soon learned I was competing in a crowd.

My best lures included buzzbaits, frogs and shallow crankbaits. The current seams along the riprap and any mats of vegetation caught up in the rocks were key. Though the pattern was solid, it held only so many fish. Dividing them with others in the same area, my chances dwindled.

The Lesson: During this event, the water rose nearly three feet over a week’s time. Instead of sticking with a weakening pattern, I should have followed the waterline and searched out fresh, new habitat. That’s precisely what the top finishers did.

Lake Oahe

Having never been to South Dakota before, I had no real feel for what lay ahead. When I got there, the landscape looked so foreign. It was stark and vast.

By tournament time, I decided to concentrate my efforts in two key areas. One was a rocky stretch of main-lake shoreline near take-off. The other was a large pocket upriver, adjacent to a major channel swing, where I had discovered some late-season spawners.

As it turned out, I was in the wrong part of the lake. Most of the money was made way upriver, in a more fertile area known for winning stringers. Getting there and back required every drop of fuel a boat could carry. By avoiding the long run, I effectively took myself out of the competition.

Lesson Learned: I’m not sure what I got out of this event, other than a severe case of sour grapes. One thing is certain, I’ll know more if we ever go back.

Upper Chesapeake Bay

I’ve fished two B.A.S.S. tournaments on the Upper Chesapeake and finished high in both of them, so I had high expectations entering this event. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had another plan.

After three days of non-stop rain, nearly the entire watershed deteriorated to the point that I was left with only one productive area. It was a small area, too, but full of grass that served as a filter for the flooding, muddy conditions.

As things worsened, more and more fish were showing up. I felt I was ready, but then the unthinkable happened: B.A.S.S. postponed the event.

The rainfall was so intense they opened the dam to the Susquehanna River and flooded the flats below. With all that water came tons of debris. It was simply too unsafe to navigate.

In the end, the event was never rescheduled.

Lesson Learned: There’s no lesson here, really. I did my part but fell victim to the circumstances. Maybe I’ll get another chance down the road. I hope so, anyway.

St. Lawrence River

If you follow this column, then you know my track record on the St. Lawrence. I love that place, every part of it. After having such a brutal season, I wanted this final event to be a statement of redemption but it, too, let me down.

During practice, I located several schools of quality smallmouth. I felt I was in good shape, but as the competition got underway, things began to fall apart.

Two of the schools I found disappeared (which is unusual for this river) and the other had fewer numbers, but I still managed to put together a respectable stringer on Day 1. Day 2, I lost several key fish that hurt, but the final straw came when I suffered a mechanical failure more than an hour from check-in.

  This image sums up my entire season ... one filled with angst and disappointment.

This image sums up my entire season ... one filled with angst and disappointment.

I never made it to the scales, and looking back, that served as the fitting end to a horrible season.

Lesson Learned: The mechanical failure I experienced was self-inflicted. Because I failed to add oil to the main reservoir, the smaller tank beneath the engine cowl developed an air pocket, sending my engine into “guardian” mode. It was a rookie mistake, one that could have been avoided. Always run a checklist before each competition day.

Season’s Summary 

That’s it for 2018. I hope that what I’ve shared here will help you down the road.

Just remember, tournament fishing is all about decision making. Choose right and you’re ahead. Choose wrong and you’ll be chasing your competition.

See you next season.