September 09, 2011
Since 1992, I have spent a number of days watching some of the luminaries in the bass fishing world practice for a Bassmaster or FLW tournament, and then I tried to write some descriptive prose about how the practice day unfolded, featuring where and how all of the bass were inveigled. Guido Hibdon of Sunrise Beach, Missouri, was the first one. After that I have watched Chad Brauer of Osage Beach, Missouri, Luke Clausen of Otis Orchards, Washington, Shinichi Fukae of Osaka, Japan, Mark Davis of Mt. Ida, Arkansas, Brent Ehrler of Redlands, California, Dion Hibdon of Stover, Missouri, Stacey King of Reeds Springs, Missouri, Thanh Le of Davie, Florida, Aaron Martens of Leeds, Alabama, Tommy Martin of Hemphill, Texas, John Murray of Phoenix, Arizona, Larry Nixon of Bee Branch, Arkansas, and Brian Snowden of Reeds Springs, Missouri. Sometimes after I watch these anglers from sunup to sunset, all that materialized was a pile of notes from which I was unable to assemble a publishable story. Yet, countless readers across the last 20 years have petitioned me to find a way that the angling world could examine my notes and scribblings about the practice sessions that didn't become a published story. Before the advent of blogs, we pondered about putting them into a book format. Now at the behest of several longtime readers of these stories, this blog site seems to place where anglers and readers about angling can peruse some of this material. Here are some notes and descriptions that describe the way Mark Davis fished Beaver Lake, Arkansas, in mid-may of 2007:
During the first seven weeks of spring in 2007, the denizens of Beaver Lake, Arkansas, endured a number of unusual spells of weather, ranging from unseasonably warm to unseasonably cold, which sent area thermometer readings to several record highs and lows.
The effects of these meteorological events on the flora and fauna across the hills, glades and waterways of the Ozarks were so noteworthy that folktales about what transpired will charm the angling community for decades to come.
Besides the radically fluctuating temperatures and bizarre weather, Beaver Lake's water level measured 1121.04 feet on May 17, which was the first day of the FLW's Wal-Mart Open. That was about 13 feet higher than it was when the FLW's Wal-Mart Open staged it four-day tournament on April 4-8, 2006. Throughout the 2007 Open, the lake level was eight-tenths of a foot above its top power pool level. Thus, the bases of some shoreline sycamore and willow trees were flooded and scores of last year's terrestrial weeds and brush were several feet under the surface.
According to many of the FLW contestants, the odd weather patterns and the surfeit of new water scattered Beaver's largemouth, meanmouth, smallmouth and spotted bass across a wider expanse of this highland reservoir's geography than the tournament anglers encountered in 2006, when the bass were in their pre-spawn phase.
During the third week of May of 2007, anglers found that the preponderance of the bass had spawned. Thus, most of the female bass were in that mysterious and incognito state that transfixes them as they recuperated from the rigors of procreation. The high-water conditions kept a goodly number of the male bass inhabiting some of the shorelines in the middle and lower portions of the lake, which stretches from Coose Creek to the dam, but largemouth and smallmouth bass longer than 15 inches were scarce.
The upper third of Beaver starts at Highway 12, and anglers consider the riverine portions of this section to be the reservoir's best environs for largemouth bass.
The water warms earlier in the upper portions of Beaver than it does in its lower portions. Theoretically, the bass spawn in the upper sections of Beaver before the bass spawn in its lower sections. Therefore, many of the bass that abide above Highway 12 normally recover from the trials of the spawn by mid-May and begin foraging upon shad on offshore humps, saddles and massive gravel points at the mouths of spawning coves.
The best of the humps, saddles and points are in close vicinity to a drop off that is associated with the submerged channel of a feeder creek or the primary river. On these humps, saddles and points, the bass can be situated on the bottom or suspended at a variety of depths.
In addition, some post-spawn bass also gather on bluff-end points at the mouths of the large coves that contain good spawning habitat, but the bluff points don't entertain the significant aggregation of bass that the humps, saddles and massive gravel points do.
Most spotted bass, which are the predominate black bass species at Beaver, spawn before the largemouth bass spawn. But a goodly number of spotted bass remain in the vicinity of their spawning grounds well after the largemouth bass vacate their spawning sites. The post-spawn spotted bass that remain cruise along the shorelines and forage upon a variety of minnows and invertebrates. These shoreline spotted bass can be relatively easy for a knowledgeable angler to find and inveigle with a deftly presented lure, but because most of these spotted bass range in size from 11 to 14 inches, they won't win an FLW Tour event.
When the spotted bass eventually move from their spawning sites towards their summer lairs, the majority of them follow the submerged creek channels rather than the shorelines as the largemouth bass do. Thus, the migrating spotted bass are difficult for anglers to find. And if their whereabouts can be pinpointed, they are usually suspended and difficult to catch.
As for the meanmouth and smallmouth bass, they are relative newcomers to Beaver. Though the smallmouth bass population has expanded noticeably in recent years, anglers are yet to fully delineate the spawning, post-spawn and pre-summer habits of the meanmouth and smallmouth bass. Nevertheless, some anglers have determined that the habits of the meanmouth and smallmouth parallel those of the spotted bass.
As the bass gather on the offshore humps, saddles and points, they become quite mobile. What's more, many of them forage on the extremely pelagic gizzard and threadfin shad, which causes the bass' roaming quotient to expand even more, and if there isn't a considerable population of shad and pre-summer bass roaming across the massive offshore locales, the fishing is trying.
In the nomenclature of Ozark anglers, pre-summer bass often "feed up," meaning that they can be seen during the early morning hours chasing shad on the surface. Across the years, anglers have determined that the brightness of the sun is what provokes the shad to leave the surface and dive to deeper depths, and the bass follow their prey.
If all is hunky-dory in the bass' pre-summer world at Beaver, anglers can tangle with several 15-inch and larger bass with topwater lures on cloudy days or until the sun rises above the scaffolding of trees that border the shorelines.
When the bass aren't pursuing their forage upon the surface on the offshore humps, saddles and points, most anglers have a difficult time pinpointing the bass' whereabouts.
That's because many acres of these offshore terrains are inhospitable to bass. But anglers who know the location of a submerged tree, manmade brush pile or some other bass-attracting features on these offshore areas often find and catch some bass; it takes, however, an immense amount to time, work and local knowledge to find these lairs. The best of these trees and brush piles lie adjacent to a drop off such as a river-channel bend, and dyed-in-the-wool Ozark bass anglers like to slowly swim a quarter-ounce jig and four-inch grub over and around these offshore lairs. Guido Hibdon, a wise and veteran tournament angler from Gravois Mills, Missouri, suspects that a considerable number of Beaver's bass abide in these deep-water areas year-round, but he says that tournament anglers don't have enough time to find these bass, which makes them the domain of local anglers and guides.
Because post-spawn female bass are difficult to catch and pre-summer bass tend to roam a lot and feed sporadically, scores of anglers classify these two periods the most confounding of the year, but not Mark Davis of Mount Ida, Arkansas.
In fact, his many colleagues on the national tournament circuits often call Davis the maestro of the post-spawn and pre-summer. In addition to Davis' abilities at catching post-spawn and pre-summer bass, Darrel Robertson of Jay, Oklahoma, said Davis possesses the talents of a neuro-surgeon at dissecting a lake during the practice sessions before a tournament. And from Davis' long tenure on the tournament trail, he has found that to be a successful tournament angler that it is critical during the four days of practice before a tournament to find 12 areas that will yield bass for four days of competition.
Davis sharpened his angling prowess as a guide on Lake Ouachita, Arkansas, which as a crow flies lies 125 miles south of Beaver. It is where he learned how to find and catch post-spawn and pre-summer bass for the clients he guided. Ultimately, he became so adept at finding and catching post-spawn and pre-summer bass on offshore humps, saddles and points that it became his favorite time of the year to be afloat. He calls these pre-summer bass "outside fish," meaning that they have moved away from the shorelines and their spawning sites, and schools of them roam the offshore lairs in chase of shad. He said that once a goodly number of these outside bass are found that it is an easy task to catch them day in and day out, and the only element that can foil this phenomenon is a rapidly rising lake levels. Even a rise as small as four inches can wreck havoc with Davis' outside bass; Davis assumes that a rise provokes the bass to scatter in the direction of the incoming water. Conversely, dropping lake levels usually motivates them to become outside bass.
Moreover, shad are a critical element in this pre-summer phenomenon at Ozark reservoirs: if the shad aren't there or they leave, Davis says the bass aren't there or they leave.
During Davis long tournament career, this was just the sixth time that he had been to Beaver, and every time Beaver's shad have been difficult for Davis to find. He thinks that Beaver's temperate bass population keeps the shad population trimmed down, and that also affects the size of Beaver's black bass.
Another factor in the shad equation during the third week of May of 2007 was that some of the shad were spawning, which kept them from moving to main-lake humps, saddles and points.
On May 14, Davis allowed me to watch him practice for the Wal-Mart Open. It was his third day of practice.
On May 12, he fished around the War Eagle area, which is the upper or riverine portions of Beaver and more than 35 miles from the dam, where the fishing was lackluster.
On May 13, he examined the Starkey area, which is about three miles from the dam. Here he found a few bass still spawning, as well as some spotted bass and smallmouth bass cruising the shorelines in main-lake coves. Some of the bass were good-sized ones, but he couldn't cajole them into striking his lures.
During these days, Davis thermometer indicated that the surface temperature of Beaver's crystal-clear waters ranged from 72 degrees to 75 degrees; some other anglers reported temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s.
Because a significant number of bass at Lake Ouachita had moved from their spawning sites to several offshore locales to forage upon shad, Davis hoped that he could find the same scenario transpiring at Beaver. Davis mentioned that a knowledgeable Ouachita angler could tangle with two dozen nice-sized bass in several hours of topwater fishing, and when the topwater fishing petered out, bass could be caught with such subsurface lures as swimbaits, Mojo rigs and Carolina rigs on the offshore lairs.
But he failed to find a similar bonanza during his first two days of practice.
He noted, however, that the transition from post-spawn to pre-summer can occur virtually over night. Therefore, on the morning of May 14, he elected to test a five-mile stretch of water from Highway 12 to the mouth of Monte Ne Branch, thinking that this portion of Beaver is where the pre-summer action will materialize first.
As he plied this segment of the reservoir, he examined 18 locations, comprising of buffs, bluff-end points, massive gravel points, a hump in the mouth of a cove, a large gravel flat adjacent to an island and along the inside bend of the White River, several main-lake boat docks and three bridge piers. He fished these spots quickly and mostly with a swimbait and topwater lures. But he also used a drop-shot rig, Mojo rig and Carolina rig.
From his first cast at 6:27 a.m. until his last cast 3:44 p.m., Davis had five spinning outfits and five casting outfits at his ready.
He worked with All Star rods, Shakespeare line, Pflueger President casting reels and Pflueger Medalist spinning reels.
Three of the casting outfits sported topwater lures: a Heddon Zara Super Spook Jr, a Rebel Pop-R and a Cotton Cordell Boy Howdy. The fourth casting rod had a swimbait and the other one had a Carolina rig. Even though the Boy Howdy was affixed to a casting rod during this practice session, Davis prefers to employ it on spinning tackle. Throughout this day, Davis made 10 casts with the Carolina rig, 16 with the Pop-R and five with the Boy Howdy. The Spook and swimbait were the workhorses of his casting arsenal.
The Heddon Zara Super Spook Jr, Pop-R and Boy Howdy were tied to 15-pound-test monofilament. According to Davis, the Boy Howdy is the easiest of the three to use, noting that it is virtually impossible to fish it incorrectly.
His swimbait was a five-inch Basstrix Paddle Tail Tube affixed to a 5/0 extra-wide-gap Gamakatsu with the shank covered with 1/8-ounces of lead, and it's crucial that the swimbait is attached perfectly straight on the hook. He worked it on 20-pound-test monofilament.
The Carolina rig consisted of 20-pound-test monofilament, three-quarter-ounce sinker, barrel swivel, 24-inch leader, 2/0 Gamakatsu round-bend and offset shank hook and six-inch watermelon Strike King lizard.
His spinning rods were garlanded with a wacky rig, drop-shot rig, Mojo rig, shaky-head jigworm and slip-sinker-worm rig. He didn't use the shaky-head jigworm. He made three casts with the slip-sinker-worm, about 19 with his Mojo rig and an unquantifiable number of casts with the drop-shot and wacky outfits.
On his wacky rig, Davis employed a green-pumpkin Yum Dinger on a 2/0 Mustad Worm Hook and eight-pound-test fluorocarbon line. He normally prefers a four-inch Dinger, but on this outing he opted for a five-incher. And when the bass are along the shorelines from their pre-spawn phases through their post-spawn phases, Davis says the wacky rig is one his favorite tools. In fact, his history with this contraption stretches back to 1968, when he and other anglers around Lake Ouachita called it a swinging worm, and back then Davis used a CrÃ¨me worm.
Davis' Mojo rig was affixed to eight-pound-test monofilament and comprised of a 3/16-ounce sinker, tiny barrel swivel, 12-inch leader, 2/0 Gamakatsu round-bend and offset shank hook, and four-inch watermelon Strike King Finesse Worm.
His Texas-rig consisted of eight-pound-test monofilament, 1/32 slip sinker and seven-inch watermelon Strike King Finesse worm affixed to a 3/0 Gamakatsu round-bend and offset shank hook.
His drop-shot rig was comprised of a 4 ½-inch greenish-hued Roboworm, No. 1 Gamakatsu extra-wide-gap hook that was eight-inches above a 3/16-ounce sinker on eight-pound-test fluorocarbon line.
Location and Presentations of Lures
During the early morning hours, Davis primarily focused on garnering strikes on or near the surface.
On his second cast of the morning, as his boat floated on top of 62 feet of water at a bluff-end point, Davis landed and released a small spotted bass that engulfed a bone-hued Heddon Zara Super Spook Jr. As he released this bass, he said that he always expects to catch a bass at a bluff-end point. At Beaver, however, Davis finds that many of the bluff-end points are too rounded, which causes the bass to be widely scattered all around the point. He prefers bluff-end points that have a well-defined ridge or spine, explaining that bass tend to congregate along the ridge or spine.
At the 18 spots that he fished in this five-mile stretch above the Highway 12 bridge, Davis caught four bass on the Spook and missed hooking two significant strikes, caught one on the Pop-R and one on the Mojo rig. Three keeper-sized bass followed his swimbait to the boat.
The biggest one was a two-pound spotted bass that engulfed the Spook upon a massive gravel point that lies close to where the White River channel turns and crosses the lake. When he caught this two-pounder, his boat was in 28 feet of water.
The second biggest bass was a 15-inch largemouth that swallowed the Spook at a bluff-end point that was graced by flooded timber, surface-feeding bass, a large school of shad, and a wad of gar. As he plied this point, his boat was in 50 feet of water. Most of his casts were 30 feet and more off the shoreline, and they were aimed at flooded timber and an occasional surfacing bass. Two casts after Davis caught the 15-inch largemouth, his Spook beguiled a 14-inch largemouth bass. As he releasing the second bass, Davis remarked that the shad had attracted a number of bass to this point, but he suspected that once the shad meandered away the bulk of the bass would move away, too.
Throughout the morning, Davis always retrieved the Spook with the traditional walking-the-dog motif.
When he employed the Spook at several of the massive gravel flats, humps, saddles and points, Davis executed a fan-casting technique, making casts that exceeded 120 feet in distance. At two of the most promising looking gravel points that extended many yards into the lake, he executed enough casts with his Spook that he encircled the boat.
At the steep bluff points, some of his casts with the Spook were perpendicular to the shoreline, others were parallel to shoreline, and a few were from an inside-out angle. When a bluff point was adorned with some flooded timber or a laydown, Davis made casts that allowed the Spook to travel next to those objects.
When he saw bass feeding on the surface, he always made a cast to those feeders.
In Davis' eyes, a Spook and swimbait are ideal lures to use during the pre-summer days — especially during the low-light periods when the bass forage upon shad on or near the surface. Both lures can be effectively and quickly fished across great expanses of water, and because of the time constraints of a tournament, Davis noted that it's essential to work fast and efficiently when searching for schools of pre-summer bass on Beaver's massive offshore lairs.
Davis finds at times that the bass will strike a swimbait when they are reluctant to engulf topwater lures. The best retrieve, Davis says, is a steady and quick-pace one that allows the bait to swim six to 12 inches under the surface, but its effectiveness in Beaver's clear waters is best during low-light conditions. One of the merits of a swimbait for Davis during his practice sessions is that it provokes a lot of bass to follow it, revealing their whereabouts, without hooking them, and then during the tournament, Davis can return and spend some time at attempting to catch those bass.
At 8:30 a.m. Davis surmised that the paltry topwater bite that he had experienced this morning had ended, noting that the sun's intensity was shinning as brightly as a new dime and that generally spells the doom to a meager topwater bite. Nevertheless, he continued to test the Spook until 9:50 a.m. at spots where a breeze created a chop across Beaver's surface. But if the offshore pattern at Beaver was going as strong as it was at Ouachita, Davis conjectured that Beaver's bass could still be caught until 10 a.m. even on a sunny day and all day long if it were cloudy. At Beaver, however, Davis and scores of other tournament anglers found that concentrations of bass feeding on the surface were rare.
When he employed his Mojo rig and Carolina rig on a couple of the offshore lairs above Highway 12, Davis used his rod to drag the rigs across the bottom without shaking it or imparting any unusual action. Although he caught only one small spotted bass on the Mojo rig and nothing on his Carolina rig, Davis says both outfits are indispensable when the bass are situated on the bottom of a hump, saddle or point.
At 10:35 as he left the five-mile section above Highway 12, Davis stopped at the bridge and tested the piers with a drop-shot rig. Here, his boat was positioned on the downwind side of the pier and floated in 90 to 110 feet of water. His casts were into the wind and past the upwind side of the pier. As the drop-shot rig sank to the appropriate depth that Davis wanted to fish, the force of the mild-mannered wind pushed Davis' line against the pier. This tactic allowed Davis to crawl the worm along the wind-blown side of the piers, making the worm look as if it was sucking the algae off the piers, but it failed to elicit a strike.
From 10:50 a.m. until 3:44 p.m. Davis explored 10 spots in the middle and lower portions of Beaver: a steep point in Prairie Creek, two coves in Rambo Creek, three main-lake coves between Rambo and Moulder Hollow and three coves in North Clifty.
At these locales, he caught eight bass on his wacky Dinger, four on his swimbait and three on the drop-shot rig.
One main-lake cove had steep banks, consisting of some ledgy areas, a touch of gravel, several boulders, a few laydowns, as well as some logs and debris that cluttered the end of the cove. The steep shoreline of this cove created a shade line. And because the weather forecasts predicted bright sunshine during the tournament, he wanted to examine several coves like this to see if he could detect a pattern that revolved around shade.
While he plied this cove, the wind erupted for a spell, causing some choppy waves to slap the shoreline. Here Davis employed the swimbait and wacky Dinger. On many of his retrieves, a bass followed these baits, and several of them were keeper-sized spotted bass. He thought that these followers were male bass that were guarding nests, explaining that it is not rare to find a considerable number of spawning bass in the lower portions of an Ozark reservoir in mid-May. As a succession of bass followed his wacky Dinger without striking it, he thought that a floating worm might elicit a strike; but then he quickly amended that statement by saying: "If the bass aren't in the mood, it's not your lure or line" that is the problem. Therefore, he never tested the floating-worm option. But he did think that a cloudy sky or at least a hazy one would make the bass less tentative.
Besides his exploration of some steep-sided coves, Davis examined coves with gentle slopping shorelines, which didn't create a shade line. These coves contained some flooded brush and trees. Their geology was comprised of gravel and dirt that were occasionally dotted with a massive pile of boulders. A few boat docks also dotted these coves. The shade in these coves came from the brush, docks, trees and boulders, and it was from around the shade of these objects that Davis elicited many strikes. From Davis' perspective, the flatter and woodier coves provide better spawning sites and are more hospitable to largemouth bass than the steeper coves. In addition, several of the piles of gigantic boulders and a few of the boat docks attracted a significant number of smallmouth bass, but most of them weren't 15-inchers.
Davis found Beaver's omnipresent spotted bass abiding in the steep and flat coves.
As Davis plied a cove in Rambo Creek, he said that he could tell in a matter of a few minutes if he was fishing the right terrain. If he were, he would see bass cruising and some of them chasing sunfish. And in this particular cove, he didn't see or catch a bass.
The bulk of the bass that he caught on the swimbait were around either laydowns or partially flooded bushes and trees. Even though the wind blew mildly and intermittently, the waves created a mudline along a few of the shorelines, and when Davis found a mudline, his swimbait occasionally elicited a strike — especially if there was some flooded wood associated with the mudline. He also worked the swimbait, retrieving it in a rather quick and steady pace, around boat docks, where it caught the attention of a number of bass, but the bulk of them were too wary and didn't strike it.
Throughout the afternoon, Davis' wacky Dinger was his most fruitful lure, and he exhibited its knack for waylaying post-spawn bass that were moseying around the shorelines of the spawning coves.
Davis contends that the wacky Dinger is an uncomplicated lure to use, but pinpoint casting is an essential ingredient. When he used the wacky Dinger on May 14, he'd cast it to a shady area next to a laydown, along the edge of a dock, parallel to a long ledge, adjacent to a flooded tree or among a series of shallow boulders. As the Dinger hit the water, Davis curled his index finger around his line, held his rod at the two o'clock position, and allowed the Dinger to fall on a slack line to the bottom. During this procedure, he kept the bail of his reel open in order to peel some line off the spool if he needed some more slack line. If a bass didn't engulf the Dinger, he lifted the rod to the one o'clock position, allowing some line to peel off the reel; then he allowed the Dinger to fall to the bottom on a slack line. If a bass didn't strike it on the second drop and he was plying a potentially fruitful area, Davis would lift the rod to the 12 o'clock position and then drop the Dinger a third time. Because the water is clear and the bass are relatively shallow, Davis normally caught them on the initial fall of the Dinger.
To probe the deeper environs in these coves, Davis utilized his drop-shot rig, casting and retrieving it through a maze of big boulders that are the size of a Volkswagen. He, also, worked it around flooded trees and boat docks. As Davis discovered on May 13, some of the docks sheltered significant concentrations of smallmouth bass, but his drop-shot rig couldn't garner a keeper-sized one.
After Davis made his last cast of the day, he was confident that he could catch a limit of bass each day of the tournament. But during the first three days of practice, he hadn't found enough locations were he could catch 10 pounds of bass each day, and conventional wisdom had it that he would need to catch 10 pounds a day in order to finish in the top 10.
During the next two days of practice, Davis determined that he should spend his tournament days fishing the backend of Coose Creek and Ventris Hollow, wielding his Spook during the early hours and the wacky Dinger after the topwater bite diminished.
On the first day, Davis landed 11 pounds of bass, which put his name in eighth place on the leader board. But during the night of May 17, the bulk of bass in the backs of Coose Creek and Ventris Hollow moved off the shorelines and were suspended out in the creek channel — perhaps they were finally beginning their move to their pre-summer haunts.
Davis was mystified by this development, noting that the water temperature dropped slightly, and from his vast experiences, a dropping water temperature usually keeps the post-spawn bass cruising the shorelines.
Throughout the tournament's second day, Davis continued to probe Coose and Ventris. Ultimately he eked out a limit of spotted bass, but those five specimens weighed only four pounds, five ounces. That paltry catch dropped Davis to 33rd place and out of the final two days of competition.
Though he failed to exhibit his renowned mastery at beguiling post-spawn and pre-summer bass, his 33rd-place finish paid him $11,000. At the same time, readers of this blog got some rare insights to into his methods of pursuing his quarry during a perplexing time of the year. Moreover, Davis and all of his fellow anglers can be heartened by the fact that we often learn more from our failures than our successes, which is probably why Winston Churchill once remarked: "Success is the ability to go from one failure to the next."