By Clark Reehm
Last year, Smith Mountain Lake was a disaster for me, a low point in a difficult season. Not only did I have a poor showing in the tournament, but on the second day I had a dye pen wedge in my hot foot and I got thrown from the boat, adding insult to injury…and I certainly didn’t get a check, even though I needed it desperately.
Coming back last week, I had a strong suspicion that it would be a bed fishing slugfest again, and that’s definitely not one of my strengths, so I was apprehensive. So while my 41st place showing may not mean much to everyone else, it’s huge to me. That’s four checks in four events (three Elite Series tournaments plus the Amistad Open) and more than anything the $46,000 I’ve earned lets me breathe.
Last year I won $26,000 all year, so I’m already ahead of that with a lot more events to go. That doesn’t mean I’m ready to go on a spending spree or buy a Benz. Mostly it means I can start working down my debt. To get to this point in your career, whether through the Elites or the Opens, costs a lot of money. On the Elites, you need to make about 65 grand just to break even. Last year on the Opens, I had two top 20 finishes and I lost money on the deal. Mostly this means that I’ll be able to make my next big payment to BASS without sweating it until the last minute, as I did just about every other time. I freak out every time I have to come up with another 8 or 10 grand. You can get a lot of people to loan you a thousand or so, but not many people have $8,000 sitting around. Even when you get ahead of the game, you’re never really comfortable, though – there’s always next year’s payments to worry about.
While I’m pleased that I cashed a check doing something that’s not a strength, in reality points are points and dollars are dollars. It doesn’t matter if you come in first with 100 pounds at Clear Lake or 30 pounds at the Arkansas River, it’s all the same when the standings shake out and in your bank account.
Who knows, I could bomb at the next tournament, but I’m starting to feel like I’m putting a few things together. Most importantly, I’ve really learned to maximize my prefishing time. I hate to say it, because it sounds like I’m sort of giving up, but instead of looking for a four day pattern, I try to find two days worth of solid fish – once I get a check, I can worry about additional days. Sure, you always want to find that top secret honey hole, but the fact is that most tournaments are won on community holes. You have to put yourself around the greatest number of fish. In the Opens you can try the off-the-wall stuff, but it’s too easy to get burned that way on the Elite. Too often the fish run out and it sucks, and with only 2 ½ days of practice you have to play it safe. Someone like Skeet can take a risk with a swimbait and fish for 5 or 6 bites a day, but most of the rest of us have to put ourselves in the numbers areas.
I only made about 10 casts during practice at Smith Mountain. I’d already sacrificed one day driving from Amistad, so with a day and a half I had to make the most of my time. Oddly enough, that meant I didn’t start until about 10am on either of my two remaining practice days. Yes, your read that right. I waited until the sun was up to start looking for beds, otherwise my batteries would be smoked during the best possible looking hours. I’ve heard of guys taking measures to extend battery life for those purposes (with a generator, extra batteries or secondary boats) but those take time and money and I don’t really have either to spare.
The lake has three main areas: the Roanoke arm, the Blackwater arm and the area by the dam, including Craddock Creek. Before I got out on the water Wolak told me that the fish were the same caliber in all three so I committed to that dam area. The spot where I ended on Tuesday is where I picked up on Wednesday. That way I could really learn those areas and not waste time running all over the place for the same caliber fish. I could also see who was hammering on which beds.
I marked every bed that I found, not 30 to 50 a day like everyone else was claiming, but enough to last a couple of days, and that was my game plan. With the help of a 16 pound bag on day two, that propelled me out of the ranks of the also-rans and into the check line.
While I’m no Shaw Grigsby, I’ve learned a lot about bed fishing since I’ve been on tour and I have some definite opinions about tackle and techniques. Everyone thinks that they have a super-secret bed bait, but I don’t think there’s any such thing. It’s kind of like chili in Texas or gumbo in Louisiana – everyone thinks theirs is the best but in reality most are pretty good.
Really it just boils down to a few key characteristics:
Color: The division here is bright colors versus natural colors. You can definitely see bright colors like white or bubblegum (which are the same to the fish, as far as I’m concerned) a lot easier, but they also pose certain problems. You don’t get bit as quick, and when they do move on it you end up foul-hooking a lot of fish because you’re going by sight. Sometimes they scare fish off the beds, too. Smallmouth usually like bright colors, but on Smith Mountain they seem to scare them off.
Size: Everyone thinks little baits are key, but I go the opposite direction. A lot of times the fish, particularly the bigger fish, are more aggressive towards bigger baits. I think they see them as more of a threat.
Action: Most anglers overwork their lures. In most cases, less action provokes quicker strikes. Also, everyone seems to think craws are the best provokers, but I think a swimbait is the deal. I don’t even know if crawfish eat bass eggs. A swimbait, on the other hand, looks like a predator. Throw one in – if the fish is aggressive toward it, that’s a catchable fish.
I think a tube is one of the worst bed baits around. They tend to ball up on the hook and mess up your hookup ratio and landing percentage. Hard baits often suck too – you’ll end up with a lot of foul-hooked fish on treble hooks. For legal catches, a single hook is best. Believe me, everyone has the story of spending 2 hours on a fish and then having to release it because it was foul hooked. Nothing will ruin your day quicker.
I used braid on just about every fish I caught. When they’re all hot and bothered it doesn’t spook them at all, and you can hook up and jack him into the boat. When they’re that ready, you could use barge rope and not have any problems.
I don’t know why I had a big bag on Day Two but mediocre sacks on Days One and Three. The only difference was that the fish I found that day were just bigger for some reason. Everyone was congratulating me on my comeback, but it really wasn’t a comeback, more like the law of averages. The only difference that might possibly explain it was that I slowed down a bit after going too fast to find the good fish. Those better fish feel the trolling motor and spook off before you ever see them. Kind of like what I said about community holes above, if you’re in an area where you see a lot of fish, there are lots more you can’t see. The better beds may have been deeper or tucked away, but if you know they’re there you just have to grind them out and make them bite.