By Steve Quinn
Today, interest in competitive bass fishing seems to be at its highest level yet. At state and regional levels, dozens of circuits compete to attract weekend tournament anglers. Formats vary, including team events, individual competitions, and pro-am or angler/co-angler styles with several scoring options. More trails are trying the new catch-weigh-and-release format popularized by Major League Fishing (MLF).
As these events feature highly skilled anglers fishing waters across the U.S. nearly year-round, they serve as an exhibition of the most successful techniques and lures and provide food for thought for bass tournament anglers planning for the coming campaign and non-competitive anglers alike.
Since pro anglers vary greatly in their backgrounds, fishing styles, and favored techniques, events that put them all on one body of water on specific days serve as an experiment of sorts. They’re far from scientific studies, where levels of statistical significance and controls are required to obtain irrefutable results. But after all, we’re talking fishing, where skills are important, but luck can be involved, and there are always forces outside our control that affect results, including health issues, mechanical problems, and weather factors.
At the top pro level, three major tournament circuits are available. MLF recently acquired the FLW Tour, but plans call for retaining the recent format for the coming season at least, with standard multi-day five-fish limit competitions, the same as used in Bassmaster events. But the name will change to the FLW Pro Circuit and it will form a feeder system for the MLF Professional Bass Tour (BPT), with competitors qualifying to move to that circuit. As most readers know, the MLF formula used by the BPT allows competing anglers to catch as many keeper-size bass as they can in the allotted time, which are immediately weighed by an impartial judge, recorded, and released.
Competitors can track their standings throughout the day on the ScoreTracker app, as reported by the judges. These events can be viewed live by bass fans logged into organization websites. These watchful eyes pretty much have eliminated the common practice of winning pros misrepresenting what they’d used in a bass tournament, when reporting to the press. This was done either to hide a secret presentation or else to please their sponsoring lure companies. These days, you almost get the straight scoop, though anglers may not reveal an exact lure, instead calling it an “unnamed” model.
John Johnson, Editor of bassfan.com, the popular website that reports on top-level tournaments, as well as other issues in the bass world, has noted trends in lure use by event winners, and even some divergence between tactics employed by BASS and FLW pros and those on the BPT, who may seek numbers of bass instead of size, since their scores are cumulative. “Because many pros believe it’s easier to catch three small bass than one big fish, many anglers on the BPT have embraced finesse tactics,” Johnson says, “particularly Ned-style rigs with small softbaits on light jigheads. Shaky-head jigs and small swimbaits also fit in this category and are more popular on this circuit than the others, though they’ve come to play a large role in all situations, as anglers may encounter tough fishing, when finessing a few bites can be the ticket to success. There’s been a corresponding increase in the use of spinning tackle.
“On the other hand, the top point producers in BPT have tended to shy away from big-fish presentations, such as large swimbaits, weedless frogs, and flippin’ dense cover. You see more dock-fishing and guys targeting shoreline cover on that tour.
“Overall, there’s been a move toward offshore fishing, particularly in the BASS and FLW tournaments. Pros spend a lot of time scanning the depths with side-imaging and scanning units like Garmin Panoptix and LiveScope and Lowrance LIVE. They make it easier to find groups of deep bass. Offshore patterns have increased in recent years by an order of magnitude.”
In those situations, pros select lures depending on the characteristics of structure, position, and number of bass found on sonar, and their attitude. For expansive structure in water over 15 feet deep, crankbaits continue to play a big role, as well as swimbaits rigged on heavy jigheads, football jigs, and at times, jigging spoons. But drop-shot rigs work at any depth, enticing fish from smaller spots, as again, new sonar systems allow anglers to watch bass react to lures dropped to them, ice-fishing style.
By the Numbers
Bassmaster staged 10 events last season, including the Bassmaster Classic, from early February until the end of September. The FLW Tour began in January and wound up with the FLW Cup in August for a total of eight tournaments. The new MLF Bass Pro Tour also held eight competitions. Combined, events were held in 14 states in nine months of the year.
Deciphering winning lures is more difficult at BPT events because they’re divided into four “stages” and each one has a winner, finally cutting to a five-man field in the Championship Round. Moreover, the field may be split in earlier rounds, so not all anglers fish every day. So events can cover up to six days on several different bodies of water. And as might be expected, many top finishers used several different presentations during these multi-day events, and over the course of a day. Several winners made brief but effective use of surface lures, including buzzbaits, weedless frogs, and topwater plugs. For example, they might take advantage of an early surface bite to corral a couple of big bass to anchor their bag.
Seventy-two-year-old Rick Clunn kicked off the Bassmaster season with a bang on the St. Johns River in Florida, bringing in 98 pounds 14 ounces of bass over four days, including a pair of fish just under 10 pounds, mostly caught on a spinnerbait (3/4-ounce Luck-E-Strike Trickster) fished shallow around docks, shoreline brush, and vegetation. And third-place finisher Mark Menendez used a Strike King spinnerbait during this spawn-time event. These results signaled what we can call the “Year of the Spinnerbait,” since this classic lure accounted for more wins and high finishes than it has in many years.
Joe Balog, fishing industry insider, freelance writer, and accomplished bass angler, notes that this recent dominancy of spinnerbaits hasn’t been matched since the 1990s. “Prior to invention of the ChatterBait, and before swimbaits became popular, spinnerbaits dominated the shallow bite,” he says. “Think back to the dominance of Hank Parker and Jimmy Houston. But spinnerbaits fell out of use as those newer styles accounted for notable victories and gained great attention, which led to wide sales, which led to more success.
“But as we often see, lure popularity can be cyclical, and it seems that today’s bass haven’t been exposed as much to their allure as had been the case 15 or more years ago, which could contribute to their success.” Conversely, bladed jigs accounted for fewer top finishes in 2019 than in previous seasons, though Edwin Evers won the BPT Red Crest championship on one on Pool 7 of the Mississippi River.
“When the great variety of swimbaits hit the market some 15 years ago, and we saw how effective they were, I thought they might overshadow the use of crankbaits,” Balog says. “After all, they’re more realistic in their shape and movement, as well as coloration. And they’ve become a staple of bass tournament anglers, though primarily smaller models used to fish mid-water areas and the depths. But crankbaits continue to dominate many events, and we see dozens of new additions at the ICAST show each year.”
Few performances were as dramatic as Terry Bolton’s victory in January on big Sam Rayburn reservoir in Texas, site of the FLW’s inaugural competition of 2019. He wielded several of Rapala’s DT models to work inside and outside grasslines for prespawn fish. And at the next Tour event at Lake Seminole, Brian Latimer relied on a Bill Lewis MR-6 square-bill crankbait to take the win. On the other end of the bass spectrum and calendar, Seth Feider relied on DT cranks to put record-breaking bags of smallmouths on the scales at Lake St. Clair in September during the Bassmaster Angler-of-the-Year Championship. Clearly there’s something about these billed baits that continues to appeal to bass in many situations.
While some top-level pros continue to rely on a variety of swimbaits, they’re less in evidence than during the swimbait craze, as Balog says. Instead of the hollow-body models and oversized lures of wood, plastic, and plastisol that were so popular, anglers rely on 3- to 43/4-inch solid paddletails that can be rigged on jigheads and used to cover water while offering a lifelike profile and natural action and color. Keitech was first to market with their Swing Impact, but most softbait makers now offer similar models. Similarly, you don’t see big baits, overs 6 inches, except by a few swimbait aficionados, such as Californian Chris Zaldain of the Bassmaster Tour who hesitates to throw anything else. One new spin on swimbaits is rigging them on jigheads that include a trailing spinner blade, such as Owner’s Flashy Swimmer. These heads add flash, along with a bit of lift and stability, to the presentation, and they’ve accounted for some big tournament catches.
As John Johnson noted, the effectiveness of small worms and other softbaits on jigheads for luring many small to mid-size bass is widely recognized, and Ned rigs and shaky-heads can save the day in many situations. That explains their more widespread use among BPT competitors, but they’re also a staple on the other tours, as spinning rods are no longer an unusual sight. Many softbait makers have rushed to add Ned-style softbaits to their line, and several rod companies have introduced Ned rods, including some make of high-end graphite fibers. This is rather ironic, since Kehde and his cronies have relied on inexpensive older rods and basic reels for their outings. For decades, he used a light-power 6-foot Shakespeare rod and vintage Cardinal 4 reel, and he refers to their approach as “frugal fishing,” especially given the longevity of the Z-Man ElaZtech baits they prefer.
As we’ve noted for years in In-Fisherman, spinning rods spooled with thin braided line and a fluorocarbon leader are powerful tools for long casts, setting hooks, precise and lifelike presentations, and battling big bass. They work deep, shallow, and in-between, as Micah Frazier of Georgia demonstrated when he pulled winning smallmouths from as deep as 45 feet with a Ned rig in the St. Lawrence River. Other high finishers there relied on drop-shot rigs, marabou jigs, and wacky-rigged worms. Stickworms, rigged weightless and in some form of wacky style, including Neko rigs, continue to be popular and deadly, particularly around shallow cover or under docks.
We haven’t seen any dramatically new lure styles in several years, mostly refinements in size, shape, color, or other minor details. Perhaps as a result, anglers of all skill levels have learned to be more versatile than in the past, often fishing with a dozen or more rods strewn across the deck, each armed with a different lure and destined for different situations on the same body of water.
Bass Tournament pros count themselves fortunate if they can limit their selection to a rod or two, which allows for better focus and greater efficiency. But most of the time, versatility pays the bills.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Quinn has been writing on bass topics for In-Fisherman publications for over three decades.