The Difference-MakersThe Difference-Makers What separates pros from weekend anglers when it comes to catching bass? Four pros point out the differences they see, so weekend anglers can focus on them and catch more bass.
By Pete M. Anderson
Professional bass anglers on the Bassmaster Elite Series and FLW Tour make fishing look easy. They catch bass after bass from bodies of water across the country. But when you make your living with hook and line, that’s what you need to do.
While some of their success is the result of natural talent, pros also approach fishing differently than weekend anglers. By recognizing those differences and then applying them to their fishing, weekend anglers can make catching bass look easy, too.
“A lot of people have a big misconception about tour anglers,” said Bassmaster Elite Series angler Justin Lucas, a California native who now calls Alabama home. He said they think pros spend hours in their workshops, tinkering with lures, modifying the ones found on store shelves to give them super fishing-catching abilities. In reality, most of that work is done to the prototypes that become the lures you find at your local tackle shop. Lure designers and pros spend countless hours perfecting lures so they catch bass right out of the box. “[Most pros] are going to fish it right out of the package,” he said. “I’m able to compete on the Bassmaster Elite Series without having to do all [those modifications].” And while soft-plastic lures go straight from package to hook that doesn’t mean hard baits go completely untouched.
Lucas said most pros will swap out split rings and hooks. That’s done for one simple reason: minimizing fish loss. “You need to do everything you can do to avoid losing fish,” he said. “We all do [lose fish], but mine has been minimal the past few years.” There hasn’t been any Elite Series wins for Lucas during that time but enough consistency for him to finish 11th in the 2014 Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year race and qualify for the 2015 Bassmaster Classic, which was held on Lake Hartwell.
Most lures come with cheaper-grade trebles. He replaces them with higher quality ones that stay sharper longer and are less likely to bend or break under the load of a thrashing big bass. He also chooses slightly bigger hooks and split rings that bring extra strength, especially for lures that generate a lot of resistance such as swimbaits and big crankbaits, but is careful not to go so large that the lure’s action is affected. He won’t choose larger components on lures such as jerkbaits because they are fished on a limber rod, which has enough give to protect original size parts.
FLW Tour pro Jacob Wheeler agrees with Lucas. The Indiana pro not only swaps hooks on new lures, he changes them after catching three or four bass, especially when cranking rocks. That can dull even the best hooks. He says it’s an example of how pros pay attention to small details in equipment that weekend anglers may bypass as they maximize what time they have on the water. “You have a great rod, you have great line, but you have rusted hooks. Now you lose a 7-pounder that can win you the tournament because you weren’t paying attention,” he said.
That attention to small details goes to other tackle boxes and the rod locker. Lucas carries a box of jig heads and a box of skirts. “Everywhere you go, you don’t know what the water will be,” he said. So he matches jig weight and hook size and color to conditions once he arrives. He has football-head jigs with 4/0 hooks and 5/0 hooks, for example. The bigger ones are especially for Tennessee River lakes, where pulling them across ledges is a popular big-bass technique. He can add a skirt to match water color or forage. He also will remove the skirt from his vibrating jigs and thread on a swimbait such as a Berkley Havoc Grass Pig. “It shows them something different, especially if I’m targeting fish that are targeting shad,” he said.
Lucas fishes the heaviest rod he can get away with, which usually is a power or two heavier than what weekend anglers select. He wants to make sure his hook penetrates a bass’s mouth when he sets the hook. He feels the popular parabolic bend rods don’t have enough power to set hooks. Once he has a bass hooked, the heavier-power rod helps him bring it straight to the boat and into the livewell without having to play it around the boat several times. He also uses reels with high gear ratios. “There’s a huge difference between a reel that brings in 37 inches per handle turn and one that brings in 26 inches,” he said. “That’s almost a foot per crank.” That keeps slack out of the line and bass hooked when they swim toward the boat.
Invest in preparation
Paul Mueller has twice climbed through the B.A.S.S. Nation ranks — from club derbies in his home state of Connecticut to the Bassmaster Classic — and is a rookie on the 2015 Bassmaster Elite Series. That’s a big jump in competition level. “As you bridge that gap [from weekend angler to pro], you are constantly trying to get better,” he said. “When you fish the Elite Series and you have a weakness, and they go to a body of water where that weakness is a prominent pattern, that weakness is going to be exposed.” It’s extremely challenging to learn new bodies of water in a short amount of time, he said, and that’s a large part of what he and other Elite Series rookies have to overcome. It’s similar to what weekend anglers face when carving fishing time out of schedules filled with work, family activities and other hobbies and interests. He believes preparation overcomes time limitations.
Mueller’s fishing resumes backs up his belief. His biggest tournament accomplishments have come at bodies of water more than 1,000 miles from his home, making frequent practice trips unfeasible. He was the top Eastern Division angler at the 2013 B.A.S.S. Nation National Championship on Lake Dardanelle in Arkansas, qualifying him for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Guntersville in Alabama, where he set the single-day weight record of 32 pounds and 3 ounces. He won the 2014 B.A.S.S. Nation Championship on the Ouachita River in Monroe, La., sending him to his second Classic.
But even before leaving his driveway for those events, Mueller spent hours studying lake maps and researching the best ways to catch bass at each venue. “Regardless of skill level, you have to be willing to learn,” he said. That includes when he’s on the water guiding between tournaments. Making decisions whether it’s ensuring clients catch fish or filling out a tournament limit, improves angling skills.
Mueller says preparation applies to learning techniques, too. Take cranking for example. It’s more attached to Southern reservoirs than Nutmeg State natural lakes. But over the past five or so years, he has become proficient at it. Not only is it a great way to catch bass, he said, but it uncovers what bass are holding around. It might not be the winning technique for a particular tournament, he said, but the information it provides can offer a clue to the right one. “[Cranking] can tell you a lot,” he said. “It can tell you what’s down there. It can tell you what they are relating to.”
Wheeler’s hometown hosts the biggest auto race in the world — the Indianapolis 500. And while he doesn’t fish fast enough to qualify for its starting grid, he believes speed is an important part of how pros fish. They understand how to cover water quickly and efficiently, he said, as they search for tournament-winning schools of bass.
Wheeler, whose resume includes a Forrest Wood Cup, Walmart Bass Fishing League All-American crown, Bassmaster BASSfest win and Ultimate Match Fishing championship, said fishing fast reveals patterns sooner. He fishes coves, for example, from the main-lake points to the back during practice. If he catches one or two from docks on the shallow flat in the back of a cove, then repeats it in the next, he’s onto something. But that doesn’t mean he takes his foot off the accelerator. He wants to develop as many bass-catching strategies as he can, so he’ll have choices when — not if — conditions change during the tournament.
He said his best tournaments came after an awful practice, forcing him to fish completely different during the competition days. “You can’t get caught up with last weekend,” he said. Weekend anglers don’t have a lot of time to practice. It might be limited to the weekend before the tournament. “It’s 70 degrees and sunny [then], and now it’s 30 degrees: It’s going to be totally different,” he said. “You have to adjust to the current conditions, so most times it’s gut feelings.” The faster he fishes, the more water he covers and situations he experiences.
Time on the water
Illinois native and soon-to-be Missouri resident Chad Morgenthaler can easily see one difference between pros and weekend anglers, but it might be the most difficult one for weekend anglers to overcome. And that’s the benefits that come with spending more time on the water. It’s the best way he knows to develop an angler’s bass-finding and -catching instincts.
Morgenthaler said on the water is where anglers pick up tricks for catching bass and gain confidence in their skills. That leads to fishing according to gut-level instincts and not questioning on-the-water moves or over thinking situations. It also builds a bank of experiences that they can reference on future trips. This all played a role for him in a 2015 Bassmaster Southern Open tournament. “At Lake Toho, I knew at 10:30 that if I could stay with what I was doing, I was going to get the opportunity to get a big bite,” the Bassmaster Elite Series angler said. Conditions were changing quickly, and he was reacting to the moment based on experience. That led to a win and a ticket to the 2016 Bassmaster Classic on Oklahoma’s Grand Lake.
While Morgenthaler believes there is no substitution for time on the water, there are ways to make better use of the time weekend anglers do have there. Thanks to the Internet, cable television and print publications, there is a wealth of bass-fishing information available in a variety of formats: audio, articles, photos and videos. Apply that information correctly when you are on the water, he said, and it can help you find and catch more bass. “It’s like a college degree,” he said of off-the-water research. “It’s a guideline to get you started. Then you have to put time in to really become dialed in on what you want to do as an occupation. Fishing is no different.”
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