July 3, 2012
Winding through the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains is Douglas Lake, site of the fourth event in the 2012 Bassmaster Elite Series.
Formed in 1943 when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dammed the French Broad River, Douglas Lake features more than 30,000 surface acres and 500 miles of shoreline at full pool. Hundreds of creeks and hidden pockets branch from the lake's main channel, and all of them support a healthy population of bass.
In fact, the last time BASS held a major event here, nearly every angler in the field caught his daily 5-fish limit. It was as if we were each issued a limit right from take-off.
On Douglas, numbers aren't the problem—size is.
Although it's been years since I fished the lake, I knew the bigger bass lived deep. So going in, my strategy was to locate as many offshore schools as possible. I began by studying a chart beforehand, then plotting my practice route accordingly. With a deep-water pattern, I also wanted to establish a morning topwater bite.
On Day One of practice, I put in at the dam. I figured if the TVA was pulling water that would be a good place to start.
In minutes I was catching fish on Rapala's new X-Rap Pop topwater and their size was respectable. From the boat ramp to the dam, I caught a quick limit of quality largemouth totaling about 12-pounds.
I moved to another shoreline and continued to catch fish, but by that time other boats were beginning to show up. When the sun broke from behind the mountain, there were at least a dozen boats jumping from bank to bank around me. In response, I moved to the closest major creek on my predetermined route.
Continuing along a rocky shoreline with the popper, I noticed large schools of shad on the surface. I tried several adjacent pockets and caught a few small fish there, but nothing worth worrying about.
From there I moved to long, tapering points. The sun was getting higher now and I felt it was time to concentrate my efforts on deep structure. Watching the graph, I noticed each point held large schools of suspended shad with bass beneath them. The images looked perfect for deep cranking.
I alternated between a Rapala DT-16 and a Luhr-Jensen Hot Lips Express. The DT was perfect for combing the 15 to 20-foot range. The Hot Lips would reach much deeper—nearly thirty feet. With the right cast, I could feel both lures bumping fish as they traveled through the school. It was encouraging, but equally frustrating—nothing was biting. I spent the rest of the day charting and cranking to no avail.
At 6pm I received a call from my roommate, Zell Rowland. He asked how I was doing. After sharing my frustration, he told me he had caught numerous 2 to 3-pounders in the last hour by throwing a shallow-running crankbait. That sounded good, so I joined him to see the types of banks he was focused on. By dark we had located several other areas that repeated his pattern.
Back at the hotel that night, I asked fellow Florida pro, Terry Scroggins if he was able to catch any deep fish. He said no. He too, had found numerous schools on deep drops, but was unable to make them bite. Knowing how good Terry is at structure fishing, I figured the deep fish were in some type of funk and chasing them would prove to be a waste of precious time. That was my rationale anyway—realistically, I was really looking for an excuse to go shallow.
The next day I decided to go upriver. I stopped in Indian Creek to run a few shallow points with a DT Fat-3 square-bill. In short time I found several banks holding good numbers of bass. Zell's shallow cranking bite was solid, but in the back of my mind I knew I should be looking deep. So I aborted the shallow pattern and spent the next two hours working deep ledges and humps along the main river channel. Again, I found schools of shad and bass. And again I failed to make them bite. Frustrated, I pulled the trolling motor and headed upriver to the shoals.
Beginning on a stretch of overhanging willow trees, I connected quickly by pitching a Texas-rig Yamamoto Kreature. Most of the fish were just keepers, but a few were like those I caught at the dam. I liked the pattern, so I moved around trying to find similar areas.
Soon, other boats began to move in—so many, in fact, it was beginning to look like a parking lot. I gambled and went father upstream past the shoal, but the current was too swift. It forced me back downstream. Jockeying around, I tried gaining access to the better looking areas, but it was futile. I knew by tournament time it would be take-a-number.
On the final day of practice, I started shallow with the crankbait, running pockets and small points in close proximity to each other. Most held fish wiling to bite the crankbait.
Eventually I moved deep. I wanted to give structure fishing one last try. Again I charted schools of shad and bass with them. Everything looked right, but I couldn't make them bite. I was at a complete loss. I knew with certainty the deeper fish would win this event.
Frustrated, I headed to registration along with the rest of the competitors.
Serving It Up Shallow
The first morning of competition I decided to start in Indian Creek, just upriver from take-off—I knew my best area by the dam would be covered with boats before I could ever get there.
Running upstream, I watched as other boats ahead of me peeled off into separate pockets and creeks. It seemed all of them were headed shallow, at least for the morning bite.
Inside Indian Creek, I pulled up to a rock point at the mouth of a small pocket. In 30 minutes I had my limit, the largest of which was two pounds. The next stop yielded a 3-pounder. I caught them almost at will with the DT Fat-3 in chartreuse.
Working from point to point, I cranked anything that looked promising. By afternoon I had nearly 11-pounds of fish. That's when I tried a couple of deep spots, hoping to luck into some better fish. Unfortunately, just as it had been throughout practice, I found fish I couldn't catch.
After weigh-in I was sitting just shy of the top-50 cut. I heard the leaders were fishing deep all day. No surprise there. Among them was Aaron Martens, who had brought in a huge 23-pound sack. At dinner that night, Zell and I speculated that Aaron must be drop-shotting around suspended schools of shad—an assessment we later learned was wrong. He was actually cranking deep like the other leaders.
Shallow-Water Survival Mode
Day Two began with low skies and intermittent rain showers. I told my marshal I planned to stay shallow, to take full advantage of the cloud cover. Since I wasn't able to figure out the deep bite, I believed staying on the bank was the best means for making the money.
Back at Indian Creek, the fish were on. But for some reason, they were running small. I had a limit in about the same amount of time as Day One, but not a single 2-pounder in the bunch.
When I reached the back of the pocket, I decided to try a stretch of flooded terrestrial grass on a flat bank. Although I wasn't successful fishing flooded grass in practice, I felt the rain might have changed things.
In minutes I caught a pair of 2-pounders by weaving a 3/8-ounce Hildebrandt Tin Roller through the grass. On a second pass I caught another keeper. Seeing the potential, I raced to another bank of flooded grass nearby, but by the time I found my groove, the cloud cover started to break up. Within an hour it was bright and sunny, just like Day One. And so, I gave up on the grass and returned to cranking rock.
Two hours went by without a strike. I told my marshal we were headed upriver to the willow trees I fished in practice. When we got there, everything looked right. Unfortunately, the fish weren't biting. I tried backing off, making longer pitches, but that didn’t work either. The boat traffic was so heavy, finding an area to yourself was next to impossible.
Across from the willow bank was a small feeder creek. I chose to fall in behind
Advancing along a flat bank, I cranked up three quick fish, the largest of which was two pounds. In the back, next to a culvert, I got a strike on the Kreature, but the fish dropped the bait immediately. Although I couldn’t see it, I told my marshal it acted like a bedding bass by the way it bit. On a quick follow-up pitch, my line headed for deep water. I set the hook and dragged a 3-pounder nearly to the surface where it managed to pull free. Grumbling a few choice words under my breath, I swung the boat back into position for another try.
After several futile attempts with the Kreature, I decided to try a tube. It took a few minutes to dig one out, but during that time I felt the fish might set up again. I was right—one flip with the tube was all it took. After a short battle, I added a solid 3-pounder to the livewell. At that point, I knew I was close to making the money.
I retraced my path back out of the creek, but never caught another fish. With an hour remaining, I decided to work several key points back toward weigh-in. The first yielded a couple of keepers, but nothing that could help.
My next stop was a main lake point with a tiny side pocket. The day before I missed a fish pitching to a small snag in the back of the pocket, so that was my focus now. I plowed the DT Fat-3 over the snag and watched as a 3 1/2-pounder engulfed the lure. Right from the set, the fish turned and ran back under the root wad where it eventually pulled free—with it went my $10,000 payday.
Losing key fish has become all too familiar to me—it's happened repeatedly over the past two seasons. And inexplicably, it's always the most crucial fish I'm losing. I fished this tournament as cleanly as I know how—even catching a bedding fish I lost on two previous casts. But like so many other events, it came down to one critical fish—and those keep getting away.
Go Deep or Go Home
As anticipated, the tournament was won by cranking deep. To my surprise, however, from depths I didn't know were possible.
Jeremy Starks won by using a technique called "strolling", which allowed him to reach incredible depths with his deep-diving crankbaits. His approach involved making super long casts, then trolling away from the lure until all of his line had peeled from the spool. At that point he would begin his retrieve. Using this strategy, Starks forced his lures to depths reaching nearly 40-feet. He estimated each presentation took as much as ten minutes to execute.
Britt Myers, who finished second, threw the Hot Lips Express—the very crankbait I tried throughout practice. And he too used the strolling technique to force his lure to incredible depths. Hearing that made the pill even harder to swallow.
Something so simple, yet ingenious—I never thought of it. I left