Growing up in Ontario, near the shores of Lake of the Woods, has been a blessing. My father and grandpa got me on the water at a young age. By age-10, I was running a 14-foot Lund with a 25-hp motor, learning how to find and catch fish, bass mostly, but whatever would bite.
That region hosts top-level team tournaments, so ever since I was a teenager my passion has been to compete in as many events as possible while doing some guiding on the side.
Tournament fishing has been a big part of my life, with most competitions on big waters like Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake.
In 2012, thanks to generous sponsor support, I was able to compete in the FLW Tour Opens, four events that took place in Florida, Michigan, Alabama, and Texas. Jumping straight into fishing at the pro level isn't the normal route for most anglers. I had no experience fishing in any BFL or AAA events as they were not readily available.
Things went well that first year and I was fortunate to cash a check at each event. My success in the Opens qualified me for the FLW Tour so I jumped right in for the 2013 season to fish against some of the best bass anglers in the world. My results over the first few years on the Tour were mixed. The competition on the FLW Tour is stiff and I was unfamiliar with almost all the locations. I cashed checks at about half of the events and each year was one or two poor finishes from qualifying for the Forrest Wood Cup. 2016 was my break-out year. I finished in the money at all six regular-season events and ended up 5th in the Angler of the Year points race, which qualified me for my first Forrest Wood Cup.
Looking back on that season, a few factors for success stuck out. Like most anglers, I don't like getting my butt kicked so each time it's happened, I've learned from it, rather than erasing the whole bad memory. The process of preparing and prefishing for these events has gotten easier and my network of buddies that I travel and stay with has been helpful.
At this level of competition, most anglers have the mechanical skills and know the types of presentations they should be using at each location, so finding fish and putting a pattern together is the most important element to success. We have three days to practice on an unfamiliar body of water, so being efficient at finding fish is what separates the best anglers from the rest.
Knowing the seasonal movements of bass on diverse waters across the continent is the first step in deciding where to start your search on a new body of water. Most pro tournaments are held during the winter or spring so we're typically facing some phase of the spawning process. I've learned to study elements like water temperature, seasonal progression, and weather trends and combine them with visual scouting for beds to indicate where we're at in the process.
Once I have an idea of where to look for bass, I focus on factors like the forage options in that body of water and the depth bass may be in, when selecting lure options. The Internet offers a wealth of information about water levels, moon factors, and other weather effects, as well as past tournament results. These provide an idea of the size of bass typical of events at that time of year, as well as top lure selections and productive parts of a waterbody. Regionally, you can learn of locally effective lures, such as bucktail "Preacher Jigs" on the Tennessee River lakes in summer, top tube jig colors for Lake Erie, or topwater prop baits in Florida.
The next step is to start fishing and let the fish tell you what's going on by analyzing where you make contact with them. Ideally you want to find a pattern that works throughout a system, but sometimes it's all about being in the right area of a lake or river. When prefishing, you need to move fast and cover a lot of water to try and figure out what the program might be during the competition. No time to slow down and finesse bites until we get into competition.
My worst finish in an FLW Tour event came in 2014 at Lake Hartwell, South Carolina. At the time, I felt the lake suited my style as far as having plenty of deep, clear water, conditions I feel familiar with. The weather that week in March was cold and fishing was tough. I fished a different section of the lake each day in practice, did not find any solid pattern, and ended up a dismal 148th.
Hartwell was on the schedule again this past year so I wasn't excited to go back. When I arrived the day before practice started, the weather was more pleasant than before and the forecast was good. On the first day of practice, I found a few fish on beds and the weather suggested more would likely come up by the time the event started. Knowing that, I felt that running the bank and looking for fish on beds would be a strong pattern to run during the tournament. I then switched my focus and started looking for fish on my electronics in deeper water, since Hartwell is known for having a good bite off the bank. This became more appealing as more and more competitors focused on running into the backs of pockets looking for bass on beds.
Over the next couple of days I located several offshore schools of spotted bass with a few largemouths mixed in, so I was confident going into the event that I had a backup plan where I could quickly catch a few fish from these deep schools if the bedding bass got picked over or the weather made looking tough. During the first two days of the event I survived by mixing sight-fishing with offshore fishing and made the weekend cut in 18th place. Over the final two days, the wind blew harder and cloud cover made sight-fishing difficult. As it turned out, my deeper bass began to bite better under these conditions and I moved up each day, eventually finishing in 4th place.
Fishing the Tour the past few years I've made some good friends and now have a group that I travel and stay with during these events: Brandon McMillan from Florida, Matt Stefan from Wisconsin, and Blake Nick from Alabama. We generally don't share fishing locations but do share pattern information with each other and try to tip each other off about something occurring in the lake. McMillan and I have become best friends and sharing has been good for both of us. At the Lake Okeechobee event last year he pointed me in the right direction after I struggled the first couple days in practice, and I was able to return the favor later in the year at Lake Champlain with advice on catching smallmouths in clear water. Having trusted buddies to share ideas with helps speed the process of figuring out bass.
Finding bass fast on a new body of water is all about putting the pieces of the puzzle together from the research you can do before you visit, then by letting the conditions—weather, water clarity, water temperature, and water level—tell you where you should be looking and the presentations you should try. The Internet is full of fishing information. Obviously not all of it is valuable, but it can give you some good direction. If you read that junebug worms keep accounting for high finishes at Lake Eufaula, Alabama, you might want to have some packed. Google Earth is another valuable tool. We use it to look for areas with grass, laydowns, docks, or rocks. The lower the water levels on a particular lake when the satellite images were taken, the more detail they offer.
Finally, letting the fish tell you where they are and what they want is the most important aspect for success. While this phrase has become a clichÃ©, it's not easy to follow this advice. Expert anglers often feel they can figure out fish, and subconsciously try to force their will upon them. You hear of successful pros "fishing by the seat of their pants" or visiting areas during competition they'd never fished before and you realze they're not trying to force the issue. Keeping an eye on your electronics, watching for fish following baits or cruising the shallows, and paying attention to all the details of your catches are key parts of the game.
When you make contact with fish in any of these ways, ask yourself why they're there and then try to duplicate that situation. Once you duplicate it, catches become more common and you succeed in finding and catching more fish.
Time on the water puts the odds of contacting bass in your favor, so 12-hour days are common for prefishing pros. But more casual anglers can perform the same drill on a more limited basis and also boost catches almost without thinking.
*Jeff Gustafson, Kenora, Ontario, is an FLW Tour pro, fishing and hunting guide, and freelance writer and photographer. He often contributes to In-Fisherman publications.