By Marc Marcantonio
Northwestern Staff Writer
May 3, 2011
September 24, Friday, Official Practice Day of NWBass TOC
With fishing camp behind me, I looked forward to fishing the NWBass TOC event. Although Mike Matkowski and I had both our boats available to practice individually, we decided to fish together so we could discuss and practice our strategy. Call it a dress rehearsal of sorts.
We thought about checking out the largemouth bite to see if this was worth attempting during the tournament. Columbia River tournaments can be won with largemouth bass, but the bite is sporadic and unpredictable. Water levels add to the gamble as you may find a good bite in practice only to find the entrance to your back slough too shallow to access during the tourney. Since it was a two day event both of us agreed that the winners would find a good concentration of smallmouths so we discounted practicing for green bass.
Our objective focused on two goals in practice. First, we wanted to continue our search for an early morning big bass spot. Second, we decided to fish outside but near the areas we did best during practice the prior weekend. The idea was to expand our tournament zone without having to make long, time-wasting runs on the river.
The weather was becoming stable so we fished topwaters within a mile of where Mike caught the seven pounder the prior weekend. Again we fished new spots hoping to expand our knowledge of the river. The result was elimination of more area.
We checked out a couple of main current weed beds with limited success. The only rig that seemed to be producing was the dropshot. We were required to be off the river by 4 p.m. and the wind velocity was climbing so we made a run downriver to expand our off-shore area before the water became too rough to fish. We first tried using crankbaits over both shallow and deep rock bars but only managed a couple of small bass. Mike returned to using Carolina Rigs and football head jigs with Yamamoto Hula Grubs and I went back to drop-swimming with a three-eighths ounce QuickDrop.
Mike fought the waves with the electric motor which by now were occasionally breaking over the bow of the boat. That is when the bite turned on as Mike and I banged out a pair of fat smallmouths each just less than four pounds. The wind forced me to cast directly into it to maintain line control while Mike used the wind to pull his lizard and grubs across the bottom.
Mike kept moving to new areas to prevent over-working the spots where we caught a tournament grade bass. The waves and the bass both kept getting bigger. We started spotting fish on the Lowrance sonar units below the boat in seventeen to twenty five feet of water depth. Because of the waves and because I wanted to quickly reach the fish displayed on the sonar I went with one half ounce QuickDrops and even three quarter ounce sizes.
The boat was over a weed bed in seventeen feet of water and as soon as Mike slid off the edge to the clean bottom a bass appeared on the screen. Opening the bail of my spinning reel I sent the heavy dropshot down beneath the transducer. As soon as the rig thumped the bottom, a nice bass gulped down my Shad Shaped Worm. There is no better feeling than when you snap your rod tip up and only the middle of the rod bends.
Four distinct head shakes confirmed I wasn’t snagged on the bottom so I quickly flicked off the anti-reverse to allow back reeling. This proved to be necessary as a surprised bass realized she made a big mistake and took off, causing me to give line. I fought the big smallmouth while Mike fought the waves to keep the boat broadside to the bass. Despite the 6-pound test Sugoi line and rough water the hard-fighting Mama Pesce was eventually subdued and I lipped a five pounder. Instead of happiness I had a sinking feeling that I just hurt our chances during the tournament.
We moved again and before long I saw another fish below the boat. With the three-quarter ounce QuickDrop my worm quickly descended to the bottom which was easy to see on the sonar display. I was hoping the fish would bite so I could verify it was a bass and determine how big it was. I wasn’t disappointed and not ten minutes after landing the five pounder and moving to a new spot I had hooked its twin! We lipped the big smallmouth and quickly released her. The new waypoints had been recorded and this time we moved about 10 miles upriver to fish completely different habitat.
This new spot completely lacked weeds. The habitat was a main river flat with a cobble bottom. Water current kept the bass actively feeding on crayfish, baitfish, and insect larvae. The wind did not affect this upper portion of the river. We continued drop-swimming with a three-eighth ounce QuickDrop and a variety of soft plastics. Sonar was of little use here as the bottom was only 8 feet deep. Locating bass was accomplished by quickly swimming our dropshot rigs across the bottom. It didn’t take long to find the bass, and we added a couple more big smallmouths.
At this point we decided to stop fishing before we caught more big bass. No doubt about it, we won prefish with more than 20 pounds which is worth exactly zero dollars!
Some joke that dropshotting is the best way to catch a 12lb limit, but without a doubt when used in the right places under the right conditions it can produce the winning weight. Mike and I had won this tournament (and a boat) with a four pound average in the past, and nine of the ten bass we weighed were caught on the dropshot.
We rounded out the day with an outstanding barbecue and tournament briefing. Gary and Lisa Styles own and run the Northwest Bass team tournament circuit which is the largest circuit on the west coast. Last year they averaged more than 100 boats per event. Competition is tough and many outstanding anglers compete in this circuit. We organized all the gear, refueled the boat, and plugged in the battery charger so that we were ready for the morning.
September 25, Saturday, Day 1 of NWBass TOC
I awoke to my eighth straight day of fishing but this one felt completely different from all the others. Adrenalin caused my pulse to pound. Thoughts raced through my mind. Would we be the first boat to our spot? Would it be too windy to run downriver? Would the bite hold up? Did we catch them all yesterday? Will the guys who run up to the Hanford Reach do better? Should we start where we did for the ABA TOC two weeks ago, or where we started last year? By the time we arrived at Columbia Point Marina boat ramp my nerves had settled and my head was back in confidence mode.
Mike knows the river better and considering where we were headed I was glad he was driving. We had to run over some shallow rocks to get to our first spot so my nerves were again on edge knowing rocks and props don’t mix. Matkowski skillfully negotiated the shallow water and we were thrilled to see we were the first to our spot. Both of us tossed topwaters with Mike casting the Bowstick on which he caught the seven pounder the prior week. I started with a popper to present a different look. On my third cast a keeper smallmouth grabbed my popper and went airborne. We quickly deposited it into the livewell and went back to work looking for a big fish.
This time Mike grabbed a fluke and made a long cast that quartered the current. He quickly set the hook on a pig. Between the boat and the angry bass was a shallow rock bar without enough depth for the big fish to swim over. Matkowski let the bass run down current and let the boat slide down current with it until he cleared the rock bar. He guided the bass to the side of the boat and I slipped the net under her. The scales later confirmed her to weigh 4.76 pounds which was our big bass for the day.
Since the water here was shallow and clear, the bite quickly died and we needed to move to our other spots. We caught several more bass of average size and had a decent limit by nine o’clock, always a good sign.
We worked our way downriver to our main area and each spot where I stuck the five pounders the day before. The weather was clear and warming with much calmer winds, but the water became stained from the prior day’s waves. We managed a couple of three pound bass but couldn’t locate the big ones that we knew were there. We kept moving in hopes of locating another kicker and we continued to catch a lot of bass. By now we had caught and released several decent limits of smallmouths on dropshot rigs, but we still couldn’t locate Mama Pesce.
We finished the day with 15.60 pounds for five smallmouths. This was good enough for 11th place after Day 1 and we were still in contention. The leaders had an amazing five smallmouth bass for 23.00 pounds. They also had big bass with a 6.48 pound smallmouth and all their bass were caught on topwaters. Did I mention the Columbia River is awesome?
September 26, Sunday, Day 2 of NWBass TOC
Catching 20 plus pounds during practice while hardly trying, and then only bringing in 15.62 pounds when it counted was disconcerting. We covered many different spots and used topwaters, crankbaits, dropshots, spinnerbaits, hula grubs, tubes and flukes. Other than Mike’s big bass and a couple others that didn’t make it to the scales, the rest of the bass came on dropshot rigs. We decided the reason we didn’t get the weight we expected was the bass reduced their feeding after the major feeding activity that occurred the previous day (always blame the fish). We decided to repeat our game plan in hopes that the bite would improve. We knew there were lots of big fish using the areas where we were fishing, and despite having caught a lot of bass on Day 1 we hadn’t removed the ones we needed to win the tournament.
All we needed was any one of 20 spots to turn on and we could still win this. Again we made it to the same first spot first. We barely made a couple of casts when a competitor’s boat drifted down current directly over the sweet spot which was only two feet deep. We quickly let them know their boat was on our fish and they quickly moved away but the damage was done. The bass were spooked since the water was crystal clear and so shallow.
Having lost confidence that we could get our big bite there we relocated to our runner-up spot. We figured we might as move on to Plan B before losing the precious early morning kicker bite. Our bad situation turned worse when the prop and lower unit dug into the rock bottom while trying to get onto plane. Did I mention rocks and props don’t mix?
The prop was significantly damaged so we had to go easy on it the remainder of the day, although we were able to continue fishing. After an hour with only a pair of small bass it was apparent that the bite did not improve, but rather became tougher. Uneasy about how long the prop would continue to function, we headed down river to our main area sooner than we originally planned (skipping several good spots along the way). Normally we would think nothing of running 10 miles one direction and then 10 miles back the other as part of a game plan to determine the pattern of the day. Instead, we decided to go to our best area and hope it was the right choice.
We managed to get bites and put keepers in the boat, but it was obvious that our bite was getting tougher. We had a limit of bass between 2 and 3 pounds each, but no kickers. We kept trying different lures and different presentations to find the key but it was all in vain. After discussing the situation we agreed that we might improve our weight by moving upriver. Sometimes when one region of the river is dead other region aren’t necessarily affected in the same way. The spot we wanted to fish was near tournament headquarters, so moving now would give us time to go easy on the motor.
The bass were willing to bite on the shallow and rocky flat, but again they were less than three pounds. We managed to cull at least one bass on this spot, but the kicker fish never ate. After a disappointing but hard fought day we went to the scales knowing we didn’t have enough weight.
At the dock we learned that the bite was tough for most teams. We ended up with 13.62 pounds for our limit and our biggest smallmouth was only 3.04 pounds. Surprisingly we moved up in the final standings and finished the tournament in a respectable yet disappointing 9th place. We cashed a check that covered our expenses, except for the motor damage. Day 1 leaders (Mark and Eric Dawson) backed up their performance with a 14.54 pound limit good enough to keep their lead and win the Championship and boat.
Ranger in tow I began the final leg of my adventure, a four hour drive home to western Washington. Normally after a tournament I keep awake by listening to a baseball game if one is on, or listening to fishing songs. This time I spent most of the trip reflecting on a great fishing trip. I feel very fortunate to have experienced first class fishing for many different species on the same river and season. Meeting fishing personalities, fishing guides, and outdoor product manufacturers made the experience even more special and I’m thankful for making new friends. It is astonishing to think how many different people I had shared the last 10 days with. They came from different towns and walks of life, yet all have a common passion for fishing. I was sad to end my trip, but the Jacuzzi and a real bed were beginning to sound most appealing.