By Clark Reehm
Ever since Lake Amistad came onto the national radar five or six years ago, there have been big promises. At the Stren tournament that put the place on the map before the Elites went there for the first time, the rumors started swirling. First it was that the one-day and four-day records set by Dean Rojas would be obliterated. They would have been, too, in that Stren, had it not been for zeroing out the weights. I’ve figured that I was due to be on the receiving end of one of those promises too, in the form of a big win, and while I’ve come close it hasn’t happened for me yet.
Last week was another example of a good performance that ultimately didn’t end up as a win. I came in 3rd in the first BASS Central Open of the year, and that puts me in good position to shoot for a Classic spot through the Opens if it doesn’t happen via the Elites, but it wasn’t what I wanted.
During my rookie season on the Elite Series, I finished 2nd to Todd Faircloth at Amistad. I had the fish to win it, but I had a 2-pounder that died, so I couldn’t cull it. Lesson learned – on a big fish factory you don’t leave anything to luck.
I think part of the reason that Amistad has been so good to me is that I listened to the right people in learning what to look for. It’s a lake where you can definitely run patterns, but there are also glory holes, places like “magic trees” that can turn you into a hero very quickly. I’m not going to elaborate completely on what makes an area good, but typically it boils down to needing to find deep water next to shallow water and then figuring out the specific sweet spots. In this case, deep water is a relative term. A lot of guys used to fishing on other lakes might think that 15 or 20 feet is deep, but on Amistad I still consider that shallow. In fact I think anything up to about 25 feet deep is shallow. Water in the 25 to 40 foot range is mid-depth. I consider anything over 40 feet to be deep and I know for a fact that you can catch quality fish there in 70 to 80 feet of water. Try to get your mind around that. If you can’t, there are times when you’re out of contention before the tournament starts.
In the “shallow” to “mid-depth” range, my rule of thumb is that you want your bait to land where you can’t see defined objects on the bottom. That could be 9 or 10 feet in some areas. It could be 15, 20 or even more elsewhere.
In my time on Amistad I’ve also learned that there’s no use in reinventing the wheel. There are tactics that work and tactics that’ll hang you out to dry. Sure, some tournaments have been won on the swimbait, but a whole lot of people go out with nothing but the big bait and go home with their tails between their legs. The hard part about gauging weights is that a few big bites can totally skew the outcome. Dock talk last week was saying that everyone could catch 17 or more pounds a day without much of a struggle, but I also know of five fish over 12 pounds that were caught in practice. I don’t think there’s any way to really pattern those fish so I wasn’t going to chase ghosts. I knew that five 4-pounders is 20 pounds and that seemed doable to me. I also knew that the fours and fives a lot of guys were talking about are really threes. Ultimately the proof comes at the scales and I know that a lot of the field would get hung up on one random fish. Others would over-prefish and end up rotting in an area. The key here was going to be to stay with the feeding fish. If you’re around big ones, the dominant members usually bite pretty fast. You need to maximize your time.
I was out on the flats, throwing an H20 Express jerkbait. That’s Academy’s knockoff of the Lucky Craft Pointer DD, and it costs $4 instead of $15. While the bait might not have been a high-dollar item, it was part of a system which included SpinTech trebles and a Dobyns 705 glass crankbait rod – they both prevented fish from gaining any leverage during the fight. With this set up, I caught roughly 90 keepers in the three days of the tournament and lost only one fish. By tweaking my equipment, I was able to capitalize on almost every available opportunity. I was committed to moving fast, which brings up another point about the “rotters.” I think too many guys get hung up on fishing slowly with soft plastics in that clear water and it burns them. Meanwhile I was sorting through 30 to 50 fish a day on the flats. I’d catch a couple of twos, then a three, then six one-pounders, then a four and I could build a sack a nickel and dime at a time. The one thing I didn’t do, however, is put any two-pounders in the livewell. The fish care penalty is only 8 ounces if they die, but the opportunity cost is huge. Most states have a law about wasting game and game fish species therefore BASS has a rule in place where as you can not cull out a dead fish. I threw back limits of legal keeper bass before I put any in the box, which might seem off the wall but I had to do it. It also allowed me to maximize my time by not screwing around with the culling beam.
My strategy worked according to plan. I led after the first day and was only about a pound out after the second day, and stayed consistent on Day Three. I didn’t lose – I got beaten. That’s been the deal both times I’ve come close to winning at Amistad, someone has come from behind to get me. Faircloth came from 8th to win. Craig Schuff, who won this event, jumped up two spots with a big bag and 2nd place finisher, Amistad guide Ray Hanselman came in with the largest sack of the tournament.
At one point on the morning of the third day, I thought it was my time – in a one hour stretch I caught a 21 pound limit on a Carolina rig and had a 2 ½ to get rid of – but it just wasn’t meant to be. I had opted to move out deeper on a break line adjacent to one of the flats and bombed a Carolina rig and Texas rig. My bait of choice for this set up on Amistad is the Kicker Fish Hole Shot Ribbontail Worm in Watermelon Candy Red. Remember what I said about not reinventing the wheel? Throwing a big worm isn’t anything new, but throwing a better one is. This Worm has air chambers in its body enabling it to stand upwards. Minor adjustments in tackle and gear make all the difference in the world at the next level of fishing.
With 21 pounds in the box, I had trouble deciding whether to stay out deep and look for a lone big bite or stay comparatively shallow and just nickel and dime my way with a four pounder. I figured that my odds were better with the smaller culls and I don’t really regret that. In these multi-day events, you have to find enough fish to last four days and you also have to adjust to conditions and in those respects I think I succeeded.
Obviously, it hurts not to win, even though I feel good about my performance. Frankly, the 2nd place finish to Faircloth probably hurt more. That would have been huge for my career. First of all, at this level you have to earn respect from the veterans (which translates into better treatment on and off the water) and nothing does that better than a win. Second, once you have that title, no one can take it away from you and it certainly wouldn’t hurt my marketing efforts. Finally, and probably most importantly, that $100,000 check would have been huge. Right now all of my problems in the world are financial. I’m still living paycheck to paycheck. Had I beaten Faircloth, that wouldn’t be the case. I’d be in a better position. Hell, I’d probably be married. A win there would have been life changing for me! But like 80% of the Elite Series pros, I’m still struggling to make ends meet – without a wife, without kids, without a mortgage. I still need the money and I need that gold star on my resume right now.
While the $50 grand for the win in the Open would’ve been nice, the $16,000 I earned still gives me some breathing room. We have another Elite Series payment coming up immediately after Smith Mountain and it really sucks fishing one of the Elite events knowing that you absolutely have to make a check or your financial situation is in total limbo. If I hadn’t gotten paid at Amistad I’d be down to $800 in my checking account. After three events this year I’ve made $36,000 and that allows me to fish a little more comfortably because my lump deposits are almost covered. Hopefully soon I can start tackling some of the debt attributed to sucking all of last year…
The check also gave me the luxury to not have to push it to get to Smith Mountain. In fact, I took my time and gave up the Monday practice day – two days at 100% are more useful than three days at 50%. Right now, with so few luxuries in my life, I have to enjoy the ones that I earn. I haven’t been home since the first of March and I won’t be home until the first of June, so by the time I came off the water, after battling the wind, the waves and hundreds of fish, I was like a whupped dog. Between Del Rio and San Antonio I pulled over twice to sleep, which told me that I needed my rest. Smith Mountain is probably going to be a bed fishing freak show anyway, so Tuesday and Wednesday will be the crucial days of practice. This gives me time to get my gear in order and get my brain into a Smith Mountain frame of mind.