COMPLETING the 2002 BASS Pro Grand Final prize, early March saw Brisbane angler Craig Simmons travel to the USA to fish an American bass tournament. Choosing the venue of Harry Watson’s inaugural bass adventure – Lake Oroville in northern California – Craig was treated to a week of practice fishing and tournament fishing with some of the seasoned Stateside pro bass anglers.
Lake Oroville is a rocky, deep, clear lake populated predominantly with spotted (Kentucky) bass. These fish look like the largemouth bass that can grow to over 20lb, but reach only half that size. What ‘spots’ lack in size, however, they make up in sheer aggression, so Oroville’s fish were an excellent testing ground for an array of techniques that Craig hadn’t fished before. The whole idea of these trips are to expose Australian anglers to the boats, tackle and techniques that have been in development for over 30 years in the States’ incredibly active tournament arena.
After visiting the Fred Halls Fishing Tackle Show in Los Angeles on the way through California – a two day sojourn that is a story in itself – we settled in the country town of Oroville and organised our practice fishing with some of the local pros.
The Tournament Director of the WON Bass organization, Mike Kennedy, was integral to the orchestration of this week. Mike put together an awesome string of US bassin’ talent to teach Craig the ropes. After all, Aussies are at a distinct disadvantage here – we send them in to fish a tournament for a species that they haven’t even seen before, and a bit of local knowledge never goes astray.
Craig’s first day was spent with local Dave Rush. Dave has a reputation for putting together big bags of bass on Oroville, and right from the start he had some overhead tackle in Craig’s hands and a ‘rippin’ bait on the end. Rippin’ is a technique much like our ‘jerkbaiting’. Using narrow-bodied, suspending and deep-diving lures, you cast the lure right to the edge of the bank, crank it down several turns of the handle and let it suspend. The pause lasts between one and five seconds before the lure is ripped again.
Unlike Australian bass, spotted bass in Oroville’s March cool water bit the lure gently – nearly like they were chewing on the lure on the pause. As a result, many fish were lightly lip-hooked and all of the pros recommended upgrading the hooks on their rippin’ baits to chemically sharpened Gamakatsu trebles. Changing up a size also helped the lure to suspend properly and, incredibly, these guys all make sure that when they replace the trebles, they add the new ones so that the hook points are facing opposite directions.
What difference does this make? Have a look at your trebles. All trebles can be added so that there are either one or two points facing forward, depending on the side of the eye the split ring starts. Dave makes sure that his trebles are added in opposite directions. He swears by this system for extra hookups on especially soft-striking fish.
The next lesson for Craig - dragging jighead-rigged soft plastic crayfish imitations down the rocky slopes - was easy for an Aussie to pick up. The difference in presentation, though, was the speed. We’d hop and shake the jig off the bottom and get lots of hits up off the bottom, whereas the spots would readily eat a lure that was stationary or crawling across the bottom.
As a result, we really had to concentrate on slowing our retrieves down. And the spots ate the offerings - everything from single tailed grubs through spider grubs and hand-poured crayfish imitations.
With a pile of fish under the belt on the first day, Craig was looking forward to more lessons with Reseda pro Gary Boyd on the Wednesday.
Gary’s a veteran ‘worm fisherman’, meaning that his confidence pattern is when fish are biting 4-6” worm-style plastics on light tackle. After hosting some Japanese pro anglers, he added drop-shotting to his arsenal and is right at home fishing the spotted bass patterns that Oroville was offering.
Gary, Craig and I landed over 50 spotted bass in our day on the water, reinforcing the soft plastic pattern as a way to easily fill the livewell with five small bass that would weigh 6-8lb collectively. Talk was, though, that virtually all boats would bring in those sort of weights and that it’d take a bag that included the odd 3lb or 4lb fish to take home cash.
The WON Bass tournament format is unique. Boaters (Pros) and non-boaters (Amateurs) share the weight that they collectively catch during the session. For instance, the Pro can catch three of the five fish limit and the Amateur the other two – whoever lands the largest fish can contribute to the weight. As Pros and Amateurs fish for different prize pools, it really adds a spirit of co-operation to the event. The anglers really do fish as a team.
In that spirit, tournament favourite, local angler and nine-time WON Bass tournament winner, Gary Dobyns, took Craig out on the day before the tournament to refine his patterns and to teach his technique.
Gary’s a real rippin’ expert and loves to fish spinnerbaits too, which was right up Craig’s alley after his StClair spinnerbait bite that won him the trip.
Gary also likes nasty weather. The windier, ranier and nastier it is, the better the big bass bite, Gary says, and their day on the water didn’t disappoint at all. The guys easily landed a 10lb plus limit on the day before the tournament, fishing gullies with water cascading into them and the dirty water lines stirred up by the wind. Making up the limit were three species of bass – smallmouth, spots and largemouth – and both of the anglers felt confidence going into the event. Craig loved the fact that the day before the tournament he pulled a lot of fish on his favourite Aussie spinnerbaits. A lot of the time the lure got nailed on the first couple of cranks of the retrieve.
US bass tournaments are similar to Australian BASS and BREAM events in many ways – there’s a gathering of anglers who love their fishing, love their boats and enjoy the challenge of fishing against each other for money. In other ways there’s a world of difference, and it’s mainly in the size of the toys!
Of the 165 boat field, all 165 craft were high-powered, fibreglass bass boats between 18 and 22 feet long, towed by what Craig affectionately referred to as ‘big-ass trucks’. Add 150 to 250hp to the transom and you’re nearly ready for tournament fishing. All you need to do is bolt on a cable-drive electric motor, add a dozen or two rods and enough soft plastic baits to stock a medium-sized tackle store, and you’re ready to go.
Boats started in eight flights at first light and weigh-ins were staggered over two hours to cope with the number of anglers. This tournament boasted limits in nearly every craft and the whole process ran like clockwork.
Craig wasn’t lucky enough to draw Gary (1st place) or Dave (11th place) in the tournament, but he did fish with two great guys and managed to pull eight out of the 10 fish that they weighed over the event from the back of the boat.
Finishing 126th out of 165 in the Amateur division, Craig brought home no prizes – but he did return with an appreciation of some new techniques, some new friendships and a head full of ideas to try in his quest this year to win another Australian BASS Grand Final.
1) Simmo picked up the rippin’ technique quite easily.
2) West Coast pro Dave Rush proved to be a great teacher.
3) 225hp on the back of a 21-foot boat makes for an awesome fishing machine.
4) Triton Pro Gary Boyd taught Simmo all there was to know about wormin’.
5) 165 boats made it to and from the water remarkably easily on the smallish four-lane ramp.Reads: 794