By Sean Ostruszka
Fishing tournaments often showcase the next best thing, as they can be the proving grounds for the newest tackle and techniques, shining a light on ways anglers anywhere can catch fish. That was my original angle for this article—to highlight those next-best-things that are winning tournaments.
But when I looked at all the top tournaments in 2018, I didn’t find revolutionary new patterns. No secret new lures. And that’s not a bad thing. As great as a new lure, pattern, or technique is, eventually they lose their shine and become just another tool. Then it’s up to you to use that tool to its fullest—at the right time and place.
What the 2018 season did was showcase pros doing just that. They used the same tools in different or better ways, which you can incorporate into your next outing.
Blade Jigs Beyond the Prespawn
Thanks to pros like Bryan Thrift and Brett Hite, the secret is long out about blade jigs. Fortunately, they still catch fish plenty well, as evidenced by the first two stops of the 2018 FLW Tour.
If you’re fishing the prespawn and there’s grass, a blade jig is about as good as it gets (yes, possibly even better than a lipless crankbait). Hence why winner Tim Frederick, runner-up Bryan Schmitt, and most of the field were tossing them at the tour’s opener on Lake Okeechobee. Only, the top pros weren’t just targeting prespawn fish but also spawning fish—by slowing way down.
“As that tournament went on, I started to feel like the fish were on beds,” Schmitt says. “Those beds were in holes in the grass. So you’d be reeling, hit grass, and then there would be an open spot. The slower I reeled, the longer it was in that open spot to annoy a bedding female.”
Many top pros keyed in on this, reeling far slower than the other pros around them also throwing blade jigs.
A month later, Chris Johnston won at the Harris Chain, incorporating a blade jig, keying in on a postspawn pattern: the shad spawn. Again, Johnston was fishing it slowly. He typically only fishes blade jigs slowly to keep them in contact with cover or close to the bottom, but because the water he was fishing was in the 10- to 12-foot range, he couldn’t reel slow enough to keep his vibrating jig down.
“So I let it sink to the bottom, and then yo-yoed it,” he says. “They’d smoke it every time I killed it.”
When to Go for the Big Bite
You’re catching plenty of fish, but you want that kicker to cap your day. Sure, a big bite can happen at any time, but if you’re Ish Monroe, you perk up at a certain time. “Between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.—that’s when I almost always get my biggest bites, especially on topwater,” he says. “I can’t tell you why, but it’s just one of those deals.”
Midday is hardly prime topwater time, especially on sunny days, but Monroe has faith in them when chasing the biggest bite. “Most people have them stowed away by then, but I have confidence in them because time and again they produce that big bite,” he says. “And that goes for any body of water.”
Bryan Thrift is a power fisherman to his core for a simple reason. “To me, tournament bass fishing is all about efficiency,” says the 2018 FLW Tour Angler of the Year. “Time is money in our sport. The more casts I can make with my time, the more chances one of those casts might catch a giant that can win me a tournament.”
Power-fishing—fishing fast with aggressive lures—allows him or any other angler the opportunity to make more casts than with a finesse presentation like a shaky head or a drop-shot. Yet, a look at the tournament landscape shows finesse tactics winning more tournaments (more on that later on).
“There’s just so much pressure now,” Thrift says. “Seems there’s a tournament every weekend and 100 boats on every lake, even on weekdays. The fish never get a break.”
Pressured fish are often less likely to commit to an aggressive or fast-moving tactic, particularly the bigger fish that win tournaments. So the finesse trend should bode terribly for guys like Thrift and Jason Lambert. Yet, both found victory in 2018 thanks to “power finesse.”
Lambert, one of the best offshore anglers in the sport, dominated the FLW Tour field at Kentucky Lake, cracking the 100-pound mark and winning by nearly 30 pounds over second place in what most considered a tough tournament. He was power-finesse fishing with a Castaic Baits Jerky J on a custom 1-ounce scrounger head.
Lambert cast it, let it hit bottom, and slow-rolled it back on a straight retrieve. The Scrounger/Jerky J combo wobbles like a crankbait, but much more subtly. Lambert has won more than $200,000 on it the last two years, because this semi-finesse presentation outperforms a crankbait on pressured ledges while still allowing him to cover water.
Thrift pulled a similar deal at Lake Cumberland in his win. Smaller bass would “eat the paint off the blades of his spinnerbait,” but he couldn’t get a big bite on it from the lake’s chunky smallmouths. He wanted to cover water, so he switched to the more finesseful presentation of a 3-inch Damiki Armor Shad or Keitech Swing Impact FAT 3.8 on 1/8- and 3/8-ounce jigheads.
“There wasn’t one pattern,” he says. “You just had to put the trolling motor down and go fishing. At the same time, if I didn’t go with a more finesseful approach, I didn’t win that tournament.”
Master Your Electronics
So finesse tactics often aren’t conducive to tournament fishing. They’re too slow, especially something like a drop-shot. Yet, drop-shots, shaky heads, soft-plastic stickbaits, and other finesse tactics were winners in seven tournaments in 2018, and major players in many others.
“To slow down you have to know you’re on fish, which means you better know what you’re seeing with your electronics,” says Mark Daniels Jr., who won the Bassmaster Elite Series event on Lake Oahe drop-shotting and casting a Ned rig.
Like Thrift, Daniels Jr. loves power-fishing, but after getting his tail whipped by guys using finesse tactics on offshore structure, as opposed to pitching to visible cover or the bank, he realized he needed to make a change.
“Lots of events have schooling fish, suspended fish, offshore fish, fish in deep grass,” he says. “You have no choice but to rely on your electronics. You set a waypoint, circle back, and know exactly where to cast and, often, even if there are fish there.”
Being able to see fish is how he won at Oahe, where he found postspawn smallmouths on tapering points. I’m fancasting these spots and start seeing fish, so I use my trolling motor over individual fish, dropping my lure vertically down to them, and, boom, I watch them eat it on the electronics.”
Of the 20 fish he weighed in during the event, 15 were caught that way. And not just in deep water. One of the fish was so shallow the knot where his leader connected to his mainline braid didn’t even make it out of his rod tip.
Another five fish were caught power-fishing. “I used my trolling motoring to run around these points at a good clip, using my graph to look for fish,” he says. “But I was also pitching my drop-shot or Ned rig with a Z-Man TRD out here or there as I moved along. I picked up a number of fish doing that.”
Bass On The Move
“This is one of the biggest things that messes everybody up.” A statement like that is worth taking note when two winning pros said almost the exact same thing when talking about their 2018 wins. So what were they talking about? How much fish move and being able to reconnect with them.
The Mississippi River is 2,348 miles long. Yet Ish Monroe won the Bassmaster Elite Series event on the river from a stretch of backwater the size of a 5-acre pond, because he kept moving with them. By the final days, he was only fishing a 200-yard stretch in that tiny pond.
“I knew the fish were in there from practice, and they’d keep moving in because the water was rising,” says Monroe, who fished a River2Sea Ish Monroe Phat Mat Daddy Frog in thick vegetation throughout the event. “I had to keep moving with them every day.
“A lot of times you see guys getting bites in an area and then the next day they don’t get any bites in the same area, so they leave. Well, if the weather or water conditions didn’t change, then the fish probably didn’t go far. You just have to find them again.”
Meanwhile, Daniels is the one credited with the quote at the start above, and he mentioned it because he noticed a similar issue at Lake Oahe. In practice, many of the fish were on beds or roaming in a couple feet of water. Yet, from the final day of practice to the beginning of the tournament, the fish had already begun to move and transition back deep. That’s why Daniels Jr., once he’d located a staging area, didn’t have to move far because he knew the fish would be moving to him.
Of course, to say this or any of the previous nuggets are easy would be to simplify things. Yes, it’s easy to slow down with a vibrating jig or swap out a crankbait for a more-finesse moving bait, or dedicate yourself to learning how best to use your electronics. At the same time, if it were so easy to know the whens and hows to do this, we’d all be successful tournament anglers.
Still, being mindful of these little things with the tools you probably already have will almost certainly pay dividends. It may not cut you a six-figure check, but if incorporating any one of these results helps to catch a big bass to brag over, sometimes that’s nearly as good.
*Sean Ostruszka, Orland Park, Illinois, is an avid bass angler and freelance writer.