Steve Morgan's Clear Lake Report

After 2007 ABT BASS Pro Grand Final Champion, Kerry Symes, decided to fish the WON BASS event at Clear Lake as part of his all-expenses-paid-prize, I thought that it’d be only gentlemanly to synchronise my trip there this year to the same tournament on the same lake. As a bonus, there was an FLW Stren Series event on the same lake only a couple of days after. None of us needed arm twisting to extend by a few days and kill two birds with one stone.

Kerry is compiling a trip report separately – focussing on the difference in his non-boating experience between the two events (one is a ‘shared-weight’ and the other is a ‘non-shared-weight’ event. SO, I’ll focus on my experiences – what worked and where – and how what it’s like for an Aussie to try and match it with guys that have been fishing these lakes and events for years.

In the USA, ABT’s contact is veteran bass pro Gary Boyd. Plenty of you would have met Gary over his various trips to Australia. He’s been here three times and done two BARRA Tours. Gary was Kerry’s host and teacher for the trip.

I was lucky enough to be able to borrow a car and boat from Gary’s good mate, Mike North. Mike runs a 20 foot Triton with a 225 Honda pushing it along, towed with a Chevy Suburban. He’s either brave, stupid or very trusting to lend it to an Aussie used to driving on the other side of the road. I suppose he’s well insured …. And Mike, if you’re reading this, it’s well appreciated!

THE PREPARATION

Gary and I had scheduled to arrive at the lake five days before the WON Bass tournament. One thing that rings true all around the world is that the best planning and theorising can’t beat time on the water when it comes to preparing for an event. Clear Lake is nearly 40 km long and we were there at a unique time – the time that largemouth bass move up into shallow water to spawn.

Depending on the weather in the weeks leading up to the event and the water temperatures, the bass could either be in ‘pre-spawn’ mode (staging to come up), ‘spawning’ (on their shallow spawning areas) or ‘post-spawn’, which means that they’ve already spawned and are moving back out into deeper water.

I suppose now’s a good time to give you my version of what happens when a largemouth bass decides to spawn. This version is made up of no scientific reading and plenty of anecdotal evidence from fellow anglers!

During winter, bass suspend in open water or sit in deeper water – usually relating to baitfish, rockpiles or breaklines. They can be caught at these times, but their metabolism is slower and they are generally less active than in the warmer months.

In Spring the bass’ spawning urges kick in. They start to gather on points and slightly deeper areas adjoining ‘spawning coves’. Spawning coves are generally shallow, sheltered and have a gravely bottom that the bass can clean out and lay eggs in.

Anyone who has seen a spawning Australian Tandan (eel-tailed) catfish will be able to picture exactly what a bass nest can look like – usually a cleaned out area with a fish defending the eggs in it. These fish can be incredibly territorial and attack anything that looks like it’s out to snack on the eggs.

Generally the females (which are generally larger) only spend a short time on the nest. They lay the eggs and hang around for a couple of days to help defend the eggs, then they bugger off back into deeper water to recover. Meanwhile, the male will spend its time defending the nest, and subsequently the ‘fry’, which hatch from them. Males will defend the fry until they’re able to head off into the watery world and defend themselves.

Females and males that have finished their parenting are then called ‘post-spawn’ fish, they’ll often stage in areas that are similar to places that they used in the pre-spawn, but as the temperature warms further, they’ll spread to all of the lake’s habitats and start eating every lure known to man as their metabolism speeds up.

Post-spawn and summertime fish are susceptible to anything from topwater to soft-plastics dragged across the bottom.

Got it?

You can read into the nesting part that a territorial bass can mean one that attacks lures that are dropped into the right area. This practice is usually called ‘bed fishing’ or ‘sight fishing’ and can be incredibly productive or incredibly frustrating – depending if the bass on the nest is receptive to being aggravated into eating something.

When we arrived, we had to find out what phase most of the fish (or the most susceptible) fish were in. Largemouths are typically easy to ‘pattern’, which means that if you can catch them in one situation, there’s an excellent chance you’ll be able to catch fish in similar locations and situations in other parts of the lake.

Typically, the local guys said that currently, most of the fish were ‘in transition’, which meant that they weren’t up on the beds yet, but they’d also moved from the deeper areas where they’d been braining them weeks before.

Sounded like ‘you should have been here last week’ to me!

With freezing cold, strong winds (2°C in the morning to 14°C during the day) on the Monday, it seemed more like the first Tassie BREAM event than springtime Clear Lake massacre weather. Just last year the all-time BASS record for a four-day tournament was set on this lake with a 122 pound, 20-bass limit gracing the scales in the Bassmaster Elite series event. I didn’t see any of them wearing every bit of cold-weather clothing that they had when I saw those guys slaying them on TV!

Regardless, we practiced in a freshwater-canal-estate called Clear Lake Oaks. It was like a standard set of Gold Coast canals, but narrower. And with low bridges hemming them in, there were no Rivieras to cast under. There were plenty of pontoons, though, that I felt quite at home casting to.

Gary outlined the technique – we were casting poo-coloured Senkos rigged weighless.

Easy.

Yamamoto Senkos look like a serendipitous by-product of accidentally making a mould out of a BIC biro. Seriously. They’re just a 6″ slab of heavy plastic with a slight taper at each end. They’re incredibly soft and after two fish they’re usually wrecked. Smart marketing my Mr Yamamoto, because they wiggle seductively as they sink and bass chew them down like boiled lollies.

We flipped these into every nook and crevice we could find. “Flipping” is a way of using a long baitcast rod and a short length of heavy line to place the lure, gently, into very tight cover. Generally, you keep the boat close to the cover and use around two rod-lengths of line to deliver the bait into the zone.

Watching the line for a bite (usually it just changes direction and moves to the side), you wait until the lure hits the bottom and the n lift it up and deliver it into the next likely spot. You can present to a new spot every ten to fifteen seconds.

The best part about flipping is that you have to swing hard to set the hook. The bass usually grab the plastic and swim off with it, and you really do need to swing the rod hard to rip through the plastic bait and into the bass mouth. Just like on telly….

We flipped around ten bass from the canals in the afternoon, but agreed that it’d be way too crowded to win a tournament in there – we’d seen another ten boats prospecting there and the first event was nearly five days away.

For the next four days, we systematically fished our way around the lake – launching at various ramps according to the wind strength and direction. On windy days it was nothing to have four-foot rollers crashing onto the windward bank, so we’d target and travel around the leeward shores.

Clear Lake has a variety of habitat. The northern basin is surrounded by relatively shallow shores and is a mixture of docks and natural tule (bulrush) banks. As it’s shallow and gets more sun, then the water warms faster and the bas seem to spawn earlier in that part of the lake. It’s popular but exposed.

The southern part of the lake is narrower and deeper. It has rocky points and banks, with rockpiles scattered off the various points. It’s more populated and has thousands of boatsheds and docks to fish, as well as tule piles scattered amongst them. There’s not too much of the lake that didn’t look fishy.

Early in the week, we had some success throwing swimbaits (Aussie Squidgy Slick Rigs) in some of the prespawn areas, but as the weather warmed up the swimbait bite died off and dropshotting proved the most productive in the southern part of the lake.

Dropshotting is a technique that I find difficult to apply in Australia . It consists of a 1/8oz weight at the bottom of the line and a #2, Gamakatsu Down Shot hook tied around 15cm up the line. The bass seemed to like a thin, straight, 6″ Robowom in brown colours simply nose hooked through one end.

We’d cast this to vertical walls, dock pilings and to the front of tule banks, letting it sink to the bottom and shaking the line. The trick is to drag the weight a little way and then shake the line so that the worm dances around while the weight stays on the bottom. Most locals used 10lb line on spinning tackle for this, but with my bream background, I started with 3lb straight-through fluorocarbon.

During practice, this bought me plenty of bites, but I did lose key fish each day, so I upped the line size to 5lb by tournament time.

Also, we’d identified three key drop shot areas in the southern lake and two flipping areas that held bigger fish – one was Rodman Slough, a creek as far as you could go in the northern part of the lake, and the other at the end of Cache Creek, as far as you could possibly drive in the southern end (and 45 minutes in at 5mph after you hit the mouth).

THE WON BASS EVENT

ABT has been sending BASS Pro champions to WON Bass events for years. WON stands for “Western Outdoor News”, a major fishing and hunting publication on the west coast.

For Aussies that have little largemouth bass experience, it’s a great tournament to fish, because it is a ‘shared weight’ event. This means that you and the boater (Pro) fish for a collective limit of five bass – it doesn’t matter who catches them. Pros are usually very friendly about sharing their knowledge and helping their partner onto fish. It’s not every man for himself.

It’s a Saturday/Sunday event, so we attended the Friday-night briefing to see who our draw partners would be for the two days.

I drew an interesting pair – John Lowe, a dental prosthetist who lived locally and Victoria Taber, a stuntwoman from Reno whose specialty was being set on fire! Her boyfriend was fishing as a boater and she was sick of sitting on the sidelines.

So, on the Saturday, John and I mane the run to Rodman Slough (pronounced: slew) and idled to the stretch of band where I’d caught a four pounder in practice and had seen a monster bass sunning itself in a snag.

It was a cold, 25 minute run – mostly at WOT – and my fingers hadn’t thawed out when my second pitch to the bank saw the line start moving sideways. Whack! In one movement I set the hook and poled a two-and-a-half pounder into the boat. Cool …. A fish in the livewell after two casts!

Ninety minutes later and that 100 yard stretch of bank had yielded five bass for around 13 pounds. We decided to leave and head 25 km to the southern end of the lake to do some dropshotting.

Another ten bass for the rest of the day only saw small upgrades. We weighed 14.73 pounds at a 2.30 weigh-in which was 56th place in a 139 boat field. The weigh-in times are split across the afternoon so that there’s a steady stream of bags coming across the weighmaster’s scales.

Sunday saw exactly the same game plan. I picked a rugged-up Victoria from the docks – and we idled around until the start. Our start number was nearly last, but we did have a 4.15 weigh-in. Each angler gets equal fishing time across the weekend.

After the flurry at Rodman on Day one, I at least expected a bite on Day 2. By 9.30am we hadn’t had one. We left for the southern lake to try to at least catch a fish – let alone worry about upgrades.

The day was incredibly calm and bright. Not a ripple on the water and it was warming up nicely.

We looked in the shoreline tules and saw the first bedding fish on their nests. Being a shared weight event, we stood up on the front deck and took turns dropping dropshots on the heads of the fish and aggravating them into striking. By 1pm we’d talked four into the livewell this way and moved to the opposite side of the arm to try for the fifth.

As the afternoon warmed up, the bass started biting on the dropshots, but nothing of much quality. After several upgrades, we managed a 12.59lb bag which finished me in 84th place in the boaters. Gary fared much better, getting a cheque for 22nd place.

Symesy did exceptionally well, putting 4/5 fish in the bag on Day one and all five of them across the scales on Day 2. He’d only learned to dropshot the day before the event, which really shows his versatility!

FLW STREN SERIES

Starting the following Wednesday was the higher-stake, individual Stren Series FLW tournament. This is one of the events in which anglers can qualify for the FLW Tour Championships where Arkansan Scott Suggs won $1,000,000 as a first prize cheque last year.

In practice, this event is a different game. The boaters and non-boaters fish for themselves and the entire 200-boat field fishes for the first three days. Then, the top 10 Pros and co-anglers are paired together and they fish on the final day.

Kerry will elaborate more on this in his report, but with some of the best anglers on the West Coast competing, my aim was simply to get a five fish limit each day and not embarrass myself!

And, my fishing plan remained the same. In the two days before the FLW, we found no spots better than the ones we’d fished in the WON BASS, so my game plan remained the same. Gary opted for the exact opposite – the creek at the lower end of the lake. We’d be fishing about 1hr 20 mins apart!

In the FLW, you only meet your first day partner at the briefing – the others are listed on your weigh-in slip each day – their names and cell-phone numbers. You hook up with them after the weigh-ins and make your plans.

I was paired with Rick Davis, a guy about my age from San Diego who works for UPS (note to self: that might be useful!). We ran to Rodman in the morning to find at least six boats working ‘my’ stretch of bank …. I should have put up a sign telling them that!

Anyway, I found an opening and starting going to work flipping the Senko – this time in a white/silver colour.

I think that all Aussies would have a hard time coming to terms with the pressure that largemouths can sustain. I should have learned the lesson in Japan – where we fished a 200 yard stretch of bank for three days – but I was thinking that Rodman was going to be a mirror image of thee second day of WON Bass … that was until my line darted sideways and I poled a three pounder into the boat.

YES! AT least I’ll have something to weigh in … I rigged another Senko and went to work, while Rick flipped Texas rigged plastics in behind me.

And then it happened … a few yards up the bank from where I’d spotted the big bass in practice a week before my line purposefully changed direction and I wound in the slack. Striking, I found myself in an unusual largemouth situation …. The fish wasn’t coming at me. In fact, I think it even took a few inches of line against a stiff drag! As it raced under the boat it felt like a small barra surging for freedom and as it arced wide, we caught a glimpse of it.

Crap! This was a much bigger fish that I’d experienced all week.

It gave in quite readily and Rick netted the fish the top half of the two piece net that we’d neglected to assemble. We looked at it on the deck. Both of us had a PB of around 6 pounds, so all we knew was that it was way out of that class.

We stuffed it in the well, and it dwarfed the little three pounder.

After another two smaller fish for me and a nice three pounder for Rick, it was time to do the Southern lake rounds.

The day before the event, I’d pegged a few bed fish in the 3lb+ class that I might need. Both of these bit quite easily, although retrospectively, I should have left them for the last day.

With my limit well over 20 pounds, we concentrated on filling out Rick’s limit. We did that easily with a couple of smaller bed fish that weren’t going to help me and a fish or two off dock pilings that he caught on an unweighted fluke.

By our 4.30 weigh-in we were stoked with or limits – with that big kicker, mine went 22lb 12oz and Ricks went over 12lb.

Frighteningly, I ended the day in 5th place, and it’s strange how one’s perceptions change …. I now knew that I needed a kicker fish each day to be in the game. The 2 to 3 pound fish in the lower lake were a no-brainer for the limit, but I’d need to visit the kicker water each day to try for that four-pound-plus bite.

In short, it never happened. I continued my daily milk-run of spots and although it took until the afternoon to catch a limit on the last day, there were no more fish over the three pound mark and I missed the cut by less than three pounds. But, I was happy to have caught my limits each day, notched up a new PB on the day and departed with a cheque. If only the American dollar was stronger at the moment!