ABT’s BREAM and BASS events have always been a mix of some of the best ideas that the world has to offer fishing tournaments. Our key-tags and board ideas are from South Africa, the weigh-in process comes from Japan and the USA has always been a rich source of ideas and inspiration to make the events fun to fish and valuable to sponsors – shared weight and random pairings being some of those.
To help with the assessment of non-shared weight’ events, this year I decided to fish a FLW event in Clear Lake, northern California. And yes, I know ! it’s a tough job !.
My host for the event was veteran Californian professional angler, Gary Boyd. Gary’s the guy who now hosts the winners of the BASS Pro Grand Final shootouts. He’s a long time pro who fishes all of the major circuits in the west.
The BLA Clothing Shootout winner from last year’s Yamaha BASS Pro Grand Final, Andrew Robinson, travelled and fished with Gary in February 2005 at a Lake Oroville tournament and at the prolific Delta area behind San Francisco. I followed a few weeks later, in early March.
I’ve had some excellent feedback about the description of how a bass event runs in Japan, so here’s a run-down about what happens when you decide to sign up for an event where they give away $262,000 in cash and prizes !.
BIG MONEY EVENTS
There are two main bass tournament organizations in the USA, the original Bass Anglers Sportsmans Society (B.A.S.S.), which runs the Bassmaster tournament trails and magazine. Originally founded around 35 years ago, BASS USA is now owned by media giant ESPN. You can see the Bassmaster shows on cable in Australia occasionally.
There’s also the FLW events, run by FLW Outdoors. FLW stands for Forrest L Wood, the creator of the popular Ranger brand of bass boats. The organization, however, is corporate owned and run, dragging all sorts of out of industry sponsors to help augment anglers’ cheques.
Within the FLW organization, there’s the FLW Tour, the top level event that you need to qualify to fish its events are mainly held in the southern and eastern parts of the country. The next level down is the EverStart circuit, which is open to all anglers that want to pay up. There are different EverStart divisions across the country, including a Western Division that runs four events a year in some of the west’s best bass fisheries – the Delta’s maze of canals and sloughs filled with largemouth bass, the desert lake Havasu that’s ripe with smallmouth bass, the massive Lake Mead adjacent to Las Vegas and our destination, Clear Lake.
Clear Lake is a bass factory that’s loaded with Florida-strain largemouth bass. Florida largemouths can be a little temperamental, but when they choose to feed, the fishing can be as good as it can be slow when the conditions don’t suit. The lake record for a bass is around 17 pounds, and from all reports 8 to 10 pound fish are reasonably common. The weekend before the FLW event, a 40+ pound limit (for five bass) was weighed in at a local teams-style tournament.
So after signing up on-line at the end of 2004 as a co-angler (non-boater), I travelled with Gary to the lake, we set up our shared house with two other tournament anglers and practices for two days. There are no off-limits periods for the FLW (and most west coast) circuits, and although we landed some bass on spinnerbaits and shook off plenty of small fish on drop-shotted 4″ plastic worms, we were definitely lacking in confidence heading off to the briefing.
Like our briefings, the format, rules, regulations and sponsors are discussed before the partner draw happens. The EverStart series is a random draw event, which, like the BREAM and BASS events, means that Pros fish with a different non-boater (called a co-angler in this case) every day. It’s not a shared weight event, which means that you fish for your own fish and try to bring in four bass over 12-inches, each, every day for the first two days.
Usually, the anglers fish for five bass each, but at the time of this competition, Californian bureaucracy found a way to argue that anglers had to stop fishing once they had their limit – hence, to avoid argument, the organisers dropped the limit back to four bass to ensure that no-one was breaking the law. Even though all fish were released at the end of the day anyway.
After the first two days, the 172 boat field (organisers take a maximum of 200) is cut back to the top 10 Pros and co-anglers for the final two days of competition – and the weigh-ins are held in the car-park of the nearest Wal-Mart department store. They are FLW’s biggest sponsor.
After the formalities of the briefing, the partner draw started and pros eagerly awaited their starting position. Boats were organised into five flights of around 36 boats each. Each flight had a different weigh-in time. Flight 1 weighed in at 3.00pm, 2 at 3.20 right through to flight 5 at 4.20pm. The second day, boat numbers were reversed to ensure equal fishing time.
There’s no mucking around at the draw, your names are read out once each and there’s about a two second gap to the next pair. You hot-foot it to the door and there’s an FLW staffer there to sort you out if you got lost in the stampede. After meeting your partner, you head off to a quiet spot to discuss the logistics and fishing plans for the next day.
My partner for Day 1 was SanDiego lawyer Ed Arledge. Ed outlined the plans for the following day, that we’d carry out in his 20 foot Ranger with a 225hp Mercury strapped on the back.
“I’ve got a bit of a plastic bite happening in the morning and a rippin’ pattern in the tules (reeds) later on, so bring your Carolina-rigging gear and your rippin’ lures tomorrow,” he advised.
Carolina rigging is a way of dragging a plastic across the bottom with a weight and twelve-inch trace and if you’ve read about rippin’ in the 2005 Tournament Anglers’ Guide, you’d know that it was using long-profile suspending lures with a ‘rip’ of the rod tip and then a pause.
We then walked to the marina where Ed’s boat was moored and worked out that I’d meet him there at 5.30am – ample time to check-out and get ready for the starts. There were about 100 boats already on the water and in the docks, ready to go.
THE TOURNAMENT DAYS
Like most tournaments, fishing days are an early start. This one started at 4am, getting organised, making lunches and stowing my tackle in the car. It was a little chilly, but apparently sweltering for a northern Californian morning at around 8 or 9degreesC.
Gary, like most pros, keep their tackle in the boat and use lockable hatches to keep it there, as well as a boat cover to keep the boat dry and to deter thieves.
When the boats and trucks are moved to go fishing for the day, the guys carry a couple of the witches-hat style traffic cones to reserve their spot in the parking lot. Usually they try to keep the ones nearest the power outlets so that charging the batteries is more efficient.
Gary met his co-angler for the day and I slung the tackle bag over the shoulder, grabbed the handful of rods and made my way down to the marina to get going. Ed was already there and raring to go.
“Let’s get through this checkout ASAP – it’ll get busy soon,” Ed said.
We idled into a line of boats a dozen long and opened the lids of the livewells. Ed flipped the switches that filled them up and left them running. As we passed the check-out dock, the officials looked in the well and threw us a float-tag with out boat number on it that I stashed in the glove box. When we cleared the dock, Ed pulled the safety lanyard to demonstrate that the kill-switch worked, hooked it up again and we were on our way.
After boats check out, they wait for the start. By around 6.20am, there were well over 150 boats drifting around – some anglers were chatting and others laying their rods on the deck, ready to go when they hit their spots.
Ed pulled out what looked like Jason’s face mask from ‘Friday the 13th’ – but painted patriotically in the stars and stripes. These masks are specifically designed for bass anglers and as well as saving the wind blasting around your glasses (and freezing everything further out than the brain), they also are designed to eliminate the roar of the wind.
It’d make sense in around ten minutes.
At 6.30, two things happened, the sun pipped the horizon and the first boat idled past the start-boat and stomped on the throttle. Boats organised themselves in order so that they were passing the start boat as their number was called. We were #87 and were underway at around 6.40am. Gary started last and said that it took around 20 minutes to start over 170 boats – very efficient indeed.
After a little over five minutes of running, we hit Ed’s first spot.
“I had a great session here in practice, but the bite’s been getting slower every day,” Ed explained, “so we’ll only worm-fish for a couple of hours before getting into those rip-fish when the water warms a little.”
Ed probed a steepish rocky bank with a Carolina-rigged 4″ pumpkinseed brush-hog while I slow-rolled a white spinnerbait. And, after about 20 minutes and a few false alarms, Ed set the hooks into his first bass.
Co-anglers are welcomed to net the boaters’ fish, so I scooped up a 14 inch fish that would have weighed around 2lb.
As Ed set the hooks into the his second keeper, I ditched the spinnerbait in favour of a Carolina rig. After I netted Ed’s third keeper, I felt a light tap on the line and set the hook into an 8″ specimen whose eyes were bigger than its belly.
Each bass Ed caught, he’d immediately weigh on his Cul-em-Rite scales and press a button to record the weight. Then, he’d add a coloured float attached to a clip to the fish and drop it in the livewell. The scales recorded the weight of each fish and when you weighed a bigger fish than the ones already in the well, it’d tell you which float to grab and swap the fish over.
It was a pretty useful tool to use, but I did notice that Ed would do a visual check before chucking the smaller fish over the side!
At the end of the first two hours, Ed had a small limit – probably seven or eight pounds – in the well, and I had nothing. Bloody Carolina rigging. When he suggested that we went to fish the reeds for the rip bite, I couldn’t have agreed faster!
After about a ten mile run to the northern end of the lake, we pulled up in a broad, shallow bay, filled with broken patches of tules (pronounced tool-ees)> Ed tied on a Lucky Craft Pointer 78 – a shallow diving rip bait in a natural ‘shad’ colour.
There was no need to ask what the local baitfish looked like, as small balls of them milled in the gaps in the weeds. I chucked a smaller Lucky Craft over a school and ripped it down under them, to be greeted with my first keeper on the pause – a one and a half pounder that liked the lure as much as the bass in Maroon Dam do.
Trying to replicate the pattern, I ripped through the small school a second time, scattering the baitfish and impailing one on the hooks. It looked like a dead-ringer for a small bony bream. Ed pulled another bass from around the nervous-looking bait. It was small and he released it after the Cul-em-Rite told him it wouldn’t do.
We messed around in the reeds for a couple of hours. Ed upgraded a few times and I landed another undersized fish.
Back on the main motor and we travelled five minutes south to another reedy bay. Ed was smacking these school sized fish on the Pointer 78 and after his limit topped 10 pounds, he asked me if I wanted to use one. You bet! My clown coloured version was definitely off the menu.
We moved to the northern end of the lake again for the last couple of hours of fishing and found a small bay where the bass were packing the shad into the shallows and boofing into them several times a minute. This was more like it! If I couldn’t fill out a limit here, I deserved to bring up the tail of the field.
Ed upgraded again and as I ripped the bait down into the shadows of a nearby dock, the lure felt like it had dragged into the reeds. I leant on the rod and it came to life. You beauty! A three pounder joined my lonely little keeper in the livewell. Next cast, a two pounder joined him.
The bites then slowed. The bass were still boofing here and there but we couldn’t convert. Ed swapped to a larger ripbait and upgraded again. I stuck with the 78 and mid retrieve, the lure clunked to a stop – this was more like it. It nearly felt like a barra sucking the lure in. I set the hooks and was shocked when the fish pulled line against a stiff drag. After a couple of short bursts, a 5lb 13oz bass made the net and all of a sudden my limit looked less poor.
Ed landed a couple more before it was time to leave and as we rocketed back across the lake to the weigh-in, he glanced at his watch several times. We made it to the check-in boat with 10 seconds to spare and handed them our tag.
As expected, there are several differences between FLW’s weigh-ins and our home-grown ones.
We idled in to Ed’s berth in the marina and tied up. At the end of the third flight, there were probably 100 boats in ahead of us and the pontoons were a hive of activity. I lined up for some weigh-bags and took three when my turn came – one each for our fish and an extra one for a five-pound plus fish, as is the state regulations for tournament participants.
We loaded the bags together and walked together to the weigh-in line, where we signed the forms that validated each other’s catches.
In line, there were several aerated tubs of water, complete with chemicals and air stones. You suspended your bag in the water, added some fresh water and then put an air-stone at the end of a tube into your bag to keep the water oxygen-rich.
Chris Jones, the energetic weighmaster and tournament director, gave everyone a Simon Goldsmith-like interview and added your fish plus waterless bag to the electronic scales. Your weight was computer recorded and a slip came from the trailer’s inbuilt office that you took from the stage with you. It had the details of your day’s catch and also the details of your next day’s partner – including phone numbers and where they were staying!
At the far end of the stage, another guy added water to your weigh bags so that the fish remained healthy until you took them to the release boat.
Fish were then released in the immediate vicinity – an area that was off-limits to tournament competitors for the duration of the event.
At the end of the day, it was most unjust that I weighed in 12lb 4oz from four keepers while Ed only weighed in 11 1/2 pounds from about 30 fish. But I wasn’t complaining. I was sitting in 34th of 172 co-anglers.
Back at the dock, I happened across my Day 2 partner, Thanh Le, and we made plans for the following morning.
DAY TWO – A SWIMBAIT LESSON
Although several methods were catching fish, the dock talk revolved around rippin’ and swimbaits providing the most success for anglers. Some incredible four fish bags were weighed in including a massive 30+ pounds for local leader, Sieg Taylor. It took over 19 pounds to make it into the top ten – a goal for all anglers, as the top ten in each division got to fish on days three and four, while the rest were sent packing.
Thanh was an incredibly down-to earth Pro. He only worked rigging boats in the ”spare time he had between tournaments, and he’d taken up tournament fishing after retiring from the military. He had a great sense of humour and was terrified of Australian crocodiles. Too much exposure to Steve Irwin, I suspect.
“I’m going to need 25 pounds today to make the cut,” Thanh declared, with every bit of confidence that he could do it, “so let’s go out there and have some fun and we’ll see what happens.”
We were all ready to go in the starting line up – sitting in his 20 foot Triton and 225HP Evinrude rig when he told me that he’d driven two and a half hours last night – each way – to get some of his ‘Mission Fish’ swimbaits that worked well for him the day before. He should have asked. I had plenty in my bag.
He was fishing the swim baits – essentially a monster shad-shaped soft plastic designed to swim through weeds and tules without hanging up – on a near 8 foot heavy actioned rod and 30lb braided line tied straight to the hook. The length of the rod is required to drill the hook through the bait and into the bass’ mouth whan you get bit. It was the sort of rig that’s be equally at home on Faust as it was on Clear Lake.
We travelled a few hundred metres from the start to a cove secluded in the tules and started fishing.
“A lot of guys would rive straight past this spot because it seems too close to the start, but I got my first three fish in here yesterday,” said Thanh as he flung his Mission Fish deep into the broken reeds and began a straight, slow-rolling retrieve.
I picked up the successful Lucky Craft from the day before (that I’d traded Ed for a Jackall) and started rippin’ the gaps.
Thanh quickly picked up three small bass – none bigger than around three pounds – by drilling the hook home as soon as he felt a bite and skidding the bass through the grass.
It was a start, but nothing was the size required to get him into the cut.
We left after an hour for his big bass spot, that usually produced better later in the day. No use leaving any stone unturned. Today would have to be the day.
Thanh’s ‘Big Bass’ spot was nondescript – a couple of short, weedy points leading into a small bay. Thanh described the area as a perfect ‘staging’ area – meaning a spot where bass would wait in the week or two before they headed into shallow water to spawn.
Largemouth bass are like our eel-tailed catfish. They move up in spring – usually when the water warms to 64degreesF – and they clear out an area to lay their eggs. After laying their eggs, the fish remain on the nest and protect their young. The Cleear Lake fish hadn’t moved up yet, but they were just about to, and these staging areas were where all of the big stringers were coming from in the northern half of the lake.
I ripped a couple of small keepers from the tules while Thanh fished for the big bite. He landed a 4 1/2 pounder off the first point and then a 6 1/2 pounder off the second that he tore through the tules with the finesse of a bulldozer. He was getting excited – at 10.30am – he had about 15 pounds in the livewell with a couple of 2 1/2 pounders to upgrade. A couple more big bites and he was in the hunt.
I’d been constantly getting bites on the ripbait and was inching my limit towards ten pounds. I suppose that I was in the same boat as Thanh – figuratively – a couple more big bites for me and I’d make the cut, too.
We joked, fished, fished harder and joked again as we thoroughly covered similar structures, catching two and three pounders, but nothing like the fish we needed to make the cut.
Some of the major staging points had six to eight boats fishing them – we avoided these crowded spots but noticed that the fish were caught regularly by anglers fishing them.
Pros have a great deal of pride in their sportsmanship. If two boats met head-to-head along a bank, they’d ask each other which way they’d like to pass – and respected the other angler’s wishes. The leaders were generally given a wide berth on their productive honey-holes. The mood on the water was just like an Australian event – even though the entry fees were six times the amounts and payouts were 20 times ours – the winner of this qualifier event would take home cash and a Ranger boat collectively valued at $50,000 USD. Payouts went to 48th in each division.
THE WASH UP
Thanh weighed 16 1/2 pounds to make 16th spot ($1,600 Pro payout) while I weighed 10 and a bit from the back of the boat to slide up to 32nd ($300 co-angler payout).
This was a non-shared weight event, so each angler fished for themselves. How did this differ from the shared weight I’d fished the year before? A fair bit, I suppose. Co-anglers aren’t even allowed on the front deck in an FLW – and a pro’s boat’s ineligible if it doesn’t have a back deck for the co-angler to fish from. In the shared weight, the Am would take over the front while the pro was out of action. In FLW, you just had to drift around until he was ready to go again.
In shared weight, both pros offered me use of all their gear. In FLW, It’s not done – or expected. As a largemouth rookie, I learned a lot from both formats. The pros in FLW were happy to explain what they were doing, since they weren’t competing directly with you.
But what do the US pros think about the different formats? I asked Gary Boyd his opinions.
He replied, “Let me tell you something. Over all of the years of tournament fishing – and all of the formats I’ve fished, I’ve found that the cream rises to the top – regardless of the format. I like shared weight because it brings new people into the game. It brings better numbers and better paybacks. New blood comes into the sport.”
“In the 18 years I’ve been fishing these things, there’s never been any cheating of any kind. In theory, you could probably cheat in a shared weight event, but it just doesn’t happen,” he continued.
“I think that shared weight is 10 times friendlier. And there are two ways we get new anglers into the sport – one is by shared weight, where the learning curve is accelerated, and the other is by clubs, where old hands take new anglers out. Growing the sport is what we’re all about. More people means better sponsors and bigger paybacks,” he smiled.
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