Brent Ehrler of Redlands, California, has enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame in professional bass fishing. He began his FLW career in 2003 and straightaway won the Western Division points championship. At the end of the 2009 tournament season, he was ranked second in the BassFan World Rankings, and his angling versatility and prowess was hailed by many.
He started the 2010 season by winning the FLW Series National Guard Western Division tournament at Lake Shasta in January, his fourth FLW win, in addition to 20 top-10 finishes and $1,241,983 in prize money.
Winter kept its relentless grip on the Heartland throughout last February, and when Ehrler arrived at Table Rock Lake, Missouri, on February 27 to practice for the second FLW tournament, weather and water temperatures were unseasonably cold. Ice formed in the backs of coves and fishing was extremely challenging. A massive shad kill had occurred, which seemed to further stymie the bite.
Ehrler allowed me to observe his first practice day, from sunrise at 6:46 a.m. to sunset at 6:04 p.m. Joining us was Brandon Hunter, a successful co-angler from Benton, Kentucky, who's practiced with him since 2008.
Setting the Scene
At 6:35, Ehrler launched about 13 miles above the dam, where thermometers read 27°F. A 7-mph wind angled from the west, and barometric pressure registered 30.02 inches. Once the sun rose above the Ozark hills, it shone like a new dime, ultimately warming surface water as high as 45°F from the morning's low of 39° F, though a pesky northwest wind gusted to 25 mph.
Lake level was about 10 inches above normal and the main lake was clear, though a bit stained in parts of the Kings and James river arms. Ehrler began his day fishing a jerkbait on deep wind-blown points near the mouth of Fisher Creek, hoping for action despite unseasonably low temperatures. He'd selected this area because it's near an access where many local tournaments weigh-in, so he hoped an abundance of bass in the vicinity might provide clues to activity levels and patterns at Table Rock.
In the frigid conditions, I considered his jerkbait retrieve too fast, but he said that the quick pace was essential to cover water and locate congregations of bass. He felt that once he found a group, he could slow down and milk the spots during the competition. But he admitted it might be difficult to provoke strikes on faster presentations.
As he watched ice form on the guides, he briefly reflected on his 5 years on the FLW circuit, and he concluded he'd never experienced such demanding conditions as Table Rock presented that day. During the winter of 2009, he'd spent two weeks there for an FLW tournament. He'd acquired what he called a rudimentary knowledge of the lake's 43,100 acres, 745 miles of shoreline, and three bass species. In that event, he finished 6th with 48½ pounds.
Difficult conditions and a lack of initial success led him to doubt that he could decipher in just 3 practice days the whereabouts of Table Rock's bass. So he braced for a week of trying fishing, perhaps enduring many hours without a bite. Ultimately, however, his work ethic, versatility, instincts, and over-riding optimism guided him to a mother lode of bass. Yet it took more than two grueling days of fishing and heavy contemplation before he realized what he'd found.
To prepare, Ehrler had spent considerable time searching the internet, consulting websites like ozarkanglers.com. He studied the results of past tournaments and determined what areas are noted for yielding winning catches, as well as areas with many small bass. He'd poured over maps and consulted a Fishing Hot Spots paper map several times while he fished with me. His two Lowrance LCX38cHD units contained lake map cards.
He had also talked to local anglers, ascertaining information such as the color and style of lures bass traditionally prefer, and he acquired jerkbaits in the popular Table Rock Shad hue, some 20-year-old crayfish Wiggle Warts, and a variety of jig-grub combos. He even customized lures, following local prescriptions, but noted that an angler can get too wrapped up in "dock talk," so he tends to use only the lures he has confidence in.
After plying points for half an hour, Ehrler decided to move across the lake to a point at the end of Cedar Bluff, about 14 miles above the dam. Here he used a jig-and-grub combo to no avail. As he fished, he pondered his next move, weighing the merits of a 36-mile run up the White River to Roaring River or a 19-mile jaunt up the James. He opted for the latter, as this area had produced good bags the year before.
After probing a series of small coves a mile above the mouth of the James, they moved at 9:26 to Jackson Hollow, skipping past Aunts Creek. He bypassed Aunts Creek because he'd found the fishing pressure there too intense on his previous visit. (At the 2010 tournament, Rod Shuffield of Arkansas, caught 18 bass that weighed 56 pounds 9 ounces in Aunts Creek and finished second.)
At 10:27, they moved to Morris Bluff and fished transition areas, where a bluff peters out and the terrain changes to shelf-rock, boulders, chunk rock, then gravel. At 11:21 a.m. Brandon Hunter caught a 14-inch largemouth on a grub in 6 to 8 feet of water, along a chunk-rock bank with mild wave action.
At 11:40, they began fishing several points and transition areas across from Cedar Hollow. On a shallow gravel point that drops into 50 feet, Ehrler hooked a bass on a pearl Lucky Craft Pointer 78DD close to shore, but allowed it to shake loose as another angler approached.
From about 12:30 until 3 pm, they probed shorelines and secondary points in Thompson Hollow, catching two bass over 15 inches and two under; Hunter caught a 15-incher on an 1/8-ounce Picasso Shakedown jig with a green-pumpkin Reaction Innovations Smallie Beaver while Ehrler caught three on a crayfish-colored crankbait.
From 3:46 to 4:23, they fished at the mouth of Viney Hollow and shorelines inside Viney, then ventured into Smith Branch, where Ehrler caught a 3-pound largemouth on a crayfish crankbait in a small cove. After working upriver from Piney, they headed back toward the boat ramp, stopping on a main-lake point and made their last casts of the day with no results.
Three Lucky Craft spinning rods and 7 casting rods graced the deck of his Ranger Z Comanche. His 7-foot spinning rods were matched with Abu Garcia Soron SX40 reels spooled with 12-pound-test Sunline PE braid with an 8-pound Sunline FC Sniper leader. One spinning outfit had a 1/4-ounce ball-head jig with a wire guard and 4-inch smoke grub that had been soaked in water to give it a milky hue. During the tournament, he also dressed this jig with a Yamamoto Swimming Senko in a natural shad color and a 4- or 5-inch smoke Yamamoto Single Tail grub, also soaked to a milky color.
A Neko rig adorned another spinning outfit, with a 5-inch green-pumpkin Senko with a 3/32-ounce Lunker City Nail Weight in the head, an O-ring 'round the egg sack, and a 1/0 Owner Weedless Wacky Hook impaled under the O-ring. An 1/8-ounce Picasso Shakedown jig with either a green-pumpkin Yamamoto Pro Senko or Flappin' Hog, stripped of side appendages, dressed the third spinning rod.
Three of his casting rods were 7-footers with either a medium-fast or medium-heavy action, from Lucky Craft's cranking-rod repertoire. They were fitted with Abu Garcia Revo Winch Reels (5.4:1 gear ratio), and spooled with 10-pound-test Sunline FC Sniper. He wielded a variety of shallow- and medium-diving crankbaits, including a Lucky Craft RC 1.5DD and vintage Storm Wiggle Warts. Three casting rods were 6-foot 10-inch graphite models for fishing jerkbaits. Each carried an Abu Garcia Revo Premier (6.4:1 gear ratio), spooled with 10-pound Sunline FC Sniper.
Another 7-foot graphite casting rod and Revo Premier, spooled with 14-pound-test Sunline FC Sniper, had a 1/2-ounce football jig and green-pumpkin Yamamoto Hula Grub. During the tournament, he switched to a 1/2-ounce Pepper Jig with a black Arky-style head and a brown-green-purple skirt and 5-inch green-pumpkin Yamamoto Double-Tail Grub.
Over the past two seasons, Brandon Hunter has played a significant role in Ehrler's practice sessions, especially when they fish unfamiliar waters. As Ehrler fished a crankbait or jerkbait at Table Rock, Hunter used, at Ehrler's request, an 1/8-ounce shaky-head jig dressed with a green-pumpkin Smallie Beaver, or 4-inch smoke grub on a 1/4-ounce jig or a skirted jig with trailer. Having Hunter as a pre-fish partner allows Ehrler to simultaneously test two different presentations. Because Hunter's a gifted angler, Ehrler trusts his abilities, and during the 3 practice days at Table Rock, Hunter had more bites than Ehrler.
For years, Ehrler was reluctant to have another angler prefish with him, especially on his home waters in California. Ehrler feared distraction, or that a companion might reveal his tactics to competitors, or return to fish his spots. In addition to Hunter's fishing skills, Ehrler enjoys the companionship, saying it relieves the tedium that can afflict an angler regularly practicing from daylight to dusk.
When Ehrler practices at unfamiliar lakes, he relies on crankbaits, such as Lucky Craft's RC1.5, Skeet MR, and BDS3, which work in 1 to 4 feet of water, or a 1.5DD in 4 to 8 feet. He says 3 days of practice doesn't allow much time to experiment, and cranking covers a lot of water, allowing him to find bass quickly in prime conditions. But he conceded the wintry scenario limited the usefulness of this method.
Nevertheless, he cranked for about four hours, plying various terrains in 4 to 8 feet of water. He relied on crankbaits along shorelines and secondary points inside coves, hollows, and small creeks. He retrieved at medium-speed with the rod pointed at the 4- to 5-o'clock position, never imparting a pause or snap to alter its cadence.
He devoted most time to fishing a various suspending jerkbaits, including deep-divers. He retrieved with rod held at the 3- to 5-o'clock position as he executed a series of two twitches followed by a 2- to 4-second pause. At times he used a single twitch instead. He didn't try the extended pauses that many local anglers favor during winter, feeling that this would be effective only if one knew the whereabouts of groups of bass.
He fished jerkbaits in wind-blown areas, focusing on submerged trees on main-lake points and around secondary points inside small creeks and hollows, as well as ledges and boulder areas along steep banks. He ignored boat docks, which many local anglers rely on.
Ehrler used a football jig and Hula grub for 18 minutes along a bluff, retrieving by delicately lifting the rod from 2 to 12 o'clock, which raised the jig about 2 inches off bottom. He described it as minor hop and drag, He also tried a Neko rig for 10 minutes, casting to laydowns on the bank and slowly dragging and shaking and shaking it.
Hunter fished a 4-inch smoke grub and 1/4-ounce jig and caught one 14-inch largemouth. Ehrler barely used a grub and said it hadn't worked for him in 2009. Traditionally the grub has been one of the most effective bass lures at Table Rock and other Ozark impoundments, especially in winter.
During the 2009 Table Rock tournament, Ehrler and Hunter caught a good number of bass on shaky-head jigs dressed with plastic worms. Ehrler didn't use it, but he asked Hunter to work it regularly. Hunter dressed the jig with a Smallie Beaver. He'd shake the jig at it fell toward bottom and as moved it slowly with a lift-drop motion, but most bites came as he dragged it along bottom. This combo elicited the most bites during their 3 practice days.
The Rest of the Story
The following day, Ehrler and Hunter ventured about 49 miles up the White River to fish main-lake points, channel banks, and bluff ends. Inside one creek arm, however, they had action on shaky-head jigs, catching a 3-pounder on a 45-degree shoreline with shelf-rock. In this creek, Ehrler used sonar to locate a likely-looking lair on a secondary point.
Hunter reported, "As we were leaving the creek, he spun the boat around, and I knew exactly what he was doing. I immediately looked at the graph and it was lit up. We turned the boat, fired out with a grub and started getting bit. We knew we were fishing a creek channel swing but didn't study it too hard." Most bites were from small bass, but as soon as they each boated a nice keeper, they left and searched in vain for a similar locale.
During more than 36 hours of pre-fishing, Ehrler boated just 6 keeper-size bass and Hunter only two. After the last day of practice, Ehrler thought he'd start the tournament with a 1/8-ounce Picasso Shakedown jig and Yamamoto Flappin' Hog.
Though the small creek arm he'd found on day-2 had been his most productive spot, Ehrler planned to start in the James River arm, focusing on areas such as Thompson Hollow and Piney Creek where Hunter had gotten bites on a shaky-head and Smallie Beaver. With a run-and-gun approach, he hoped to catch 3 keepers a day, finish in the top 50, and collect at least $10,000.
But once he pulled boat number 6 on day-1, Ehrler decided to make the 46-mile run up the White to fish that secondary point and channel swing they'd found on the second practice day. If he'd had a later boat draw, he feared another angler would beat him to it, forcing him to travel 46 miles back down to the James River.
Even as he made the frigid run up the White, he fretted that he'd made the wrong choice. But his worry melted after his first three casts netted a pair of 2½ -pounders. Within 45 minutes, he'd sacked a limit weighing 16 pounds 6 ounces. He left the spot and spent the rest of the day searching unsuccessfully in other areas of the upper lake.
He caught bass on 4- and 5-inch milky-colored grubs on a 1/4-ounce jig. Holding the boat over 30 to 35 feet of water, he made long casts onto the point and allowed the grub to fall to the bottom — gravel with occasional boulders in 7 to 15 feet of water. A few bass engulfed the grub on the initial drop.
If a bass didn't strike on the fall, he began a slow, steady retrieve once the jig touched bottom, allowing it to scrub the gravel and rocks and eventually glide across the tops of submerged trees about 12 feet below the surface. Some bass didn't bite until the grub was under the trolling motor. At times, he'd catch one after missing a strike; as Ehrler allowed the jig to fall after the miss, another bass occasionally would eat it. He felt most of the bass lurked in the submerged trees and had to be enticed out.
His second day was similar, boxing a good limit within an hour. Fishing nearby areas, he later nailed a 6½-pound kicker on a pearl Pointer 100DD.
On day-3, Ehrler feared the bass at his honey hole might have become accustomed to his grub tactics so he switched to a 4-inch Swimming Senko on a 1/4-ounce jig, Lucky Craft 2.5DD crankbait in ghost-minnow, and Lucky Craft Pointer 100DD. He caught a 2 ½- and a 5½-pounder on the 2.5DD.
During the final day, he opted for the grub and quickly caught 4 bass. He got his fifth by slowly lifting and dragging a 1/2-ounce Pepper Jig with a brown-green-purple skirt and 5-inch green-pumpkin Yamamoto Double-Tail Grub across the bottom of the point. Long before his last cast, Ehrler had outpaced the field, catching 20 bass that weighed 69 pounds 11 ounces, while some of the nation's finest tournament anglers failed to catch a single keeper. With this win, Ehrler replaced Kevin VanDam atop the BassFan World Rankings.
Ned Kehde, Lawrence, Kansas, is an In-Fisherman Field Editor and frequent contributor to Bass Guide. His detailed accounts of the tactics of expert anglers are widely acclaimed.