Elite 50: Beyond 'par' for the course

  • For ESPN2 TV's schedule of BASS Pro Tour broadcasts on "The CITGO Bassmasters," click here.

    RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. — Most fans of competitive bass fishing are familiar with the story of the first Bassmaster Classic.

    When Ray Scott, the founder of BASS, hatched his idea for the "Super Bowl" of bass fishing, he didn't disclose the location of the tournament until the contenders were in a jet headed toward Lake Mead.

    Keeping the location a secret meant all of the qualified anglers in that first Classic would be on an even playing field. No one would have the advantage of knowing the tournament waters and the players would have to rely on pure angling instinct and skill.

    The course format in the Elite 50 events creates a similar challenge to the storied "Mystery Lake."

    With the high stakes of today's tournaments and all of the promotion surrounding them, it is impossible to hold a CITGO Bassmaster Tour event on undisclosed waters. The record-breaking crowds at the Elite 50 event held on Lake Dardanelle show that the fans want to see the competitors weigh their fish and hear the stories of the competition.

    So the only way to level the playing field is with a course format.

    The format for the Elite 50 series involves an off-limits "course" that the Top 12 anglers from the first two days of competition advance to on Day Three. At the Dardanelle event, the course was Illinois Bayou, which contains miles of water within the designated boundaries.

    Looking at a map of the course, conventional wisdom (and local anglers) might say Hole 4 would be the most productive area. Hole 4 was in the back of the huge creek and contained what seemed to be the best cover and clear water conditions for the expected stages of the spawning and post-spawn bass.

    The tale of the tape was a little different though. When the overall catches are detailed, it becomes apparent that conventional wisdom might not always hold true.

    "I thought that Hole 4 would be the best because it was back in the creek and during the spawn and post spawn," said Randy Howell, who finished in first place on the third day. "I caught some key fish there; it was the last hole I fished every day. There were four or five miles of water in there. And I caught three keepers there and ended up culling one of them."

    In the course format, 12 anglers fish the six-hole course in 1 hour and 20 minute periods. The anglers draw for their first hole by the order they qualified.

    "I got stuck with starting in Hole 5 because I qualified in 10th place," Howell said. "But it ended up helping me because I finished by fishing the sixth period in Hole 4."

    When you look at the number of fish caught in each hole on Day Three, you see that Hole 6 was actually the most productive, with 14 fish caught there. Hole 4 was the second most productive with 13 fish, but Hole 2 was not far behind with 12 keepers.

    Many of the Top 12 anglers agree that the key to winning in this format is not figuring out the holes, but figuring out the fish. Tim Horton was another competitor who initially thought Hole 4 would be the most productive.

    "I thought it would be the best because it was protected and it looked like it had a lot of pockets and indentations to protect shoreline vegetation. The other holes had more straight banks where the wind can mess up the grass," Horton said.

    By qualifying in first place for the final day, Horton had first pick at where to start his rotation. He began in Hole 4, but didn't catch a keeper until the last period of the day in Hole 3 when he changed from fishing grass to throwing a crankbait in deeper water.

    "For me, it wasn't about changing holes, it was about changing techniques. The fish were deeper than I thought," Horton said.

    Unfortunately, he didn't figure that out in time to capitalize. Timing is everything in this game.

    "It comes down to who can figure it out the fastest," said Greg Hackney who grabbed the second place spot on Day Three. "It really measures your ability as a fisherman. Whoever can read the water and figure them out will win it.

    "It's a real challenge," Hackney added. "There are a lot of guys who can catch them if you give them a week on a body of water. But to figure it out and adjust quickly takes skill. You have to think on your feet. In the first 30 minutes of the period, I would fish like a wild man. But then you get into a groove."

    The time of day may have figured more heavily into the results than the holes. Major and minor fish feeding periods also come into play. The first period of competition, 10 to 11:20 a.m., was the most productive time, with 16 fish caught.

    The second most productive time was period three from 12:40 to 2:00 p.m., which may fly in the face of that aforementioned conventional wisdom. Typically, most anglers hold to the concept that fishing is best in the early mornings and late evenings.

    With the Elite 50 format having a 10 a.m. take off and a 6:00 p.m. check in, we may be seeing some different patterns emerging.

    On Day Three of the Elite 50 format, two anglers share a hole, which may raise the question of how two elite anglers can be expected to share the same water in an equitable manner.

    Kelly Jordan shared the holes with Zell Rowland, and both anglers brought in good catches.

    "I fished behind Zell all day," Jordan said. "And I caught fish right behind him. I fished as hard as I could. It was some of the most intense fishing I have ever done.

    "In a normal tournament, a guy can fish a small area and beat it to death one day and then come right back to the same spot the next day and catch them again," Jordan continued. "Fish don't eat at the same times or in the same place every day, especially on a shallow shoreline, which is where I caught them. There might be 25 bass just off a grass bed, and two of them are actually up in the grass feeding and can be caught. The next day, those same 25 fish could be sitting off that grass line, but two more are up in the grass and you can come back and have a shot at them.

    "It's definitely a pure form of bass fishing. But the holes at this particular lake were so different, it was hard to expand on what you figured out. Hole 4 was just vast and awesome. Hole 3 had just a little shoreline grass and no pockets or coves. It was like fishing the main lake. I tried to fish offshore, in case they were post spawn, but it didn't work out for me.

    "I fished shallow to qualify and make the finals, so I was keyed in to that. Hole 5 had rocks you could crank and I caught a short fish there, but I had caught them in grass on the first two days, so I went back to the grass."

    Brent Chapman was another angler who tried to capitalize on what he learned in the first two days of qualifying.

    "Hole 6 was a lot like the rest of the lake, where we fished on the first two days. It had dirty water and a lot of shallow grassy vegetation. I caught two in there on a buzzbait (during the first period) just like I did on Day 1 and Day 2 of the qualifying rounds."

    Cranking rocks turned out to be the pattern that Howell used to charge to first place. After not catching a fish in the first period, he caught a limit in Hole 6 during the second period and although he wound up culling all of those fish, they changed his day.

    "I didn't weigh in any of that first limit," Howell said. "But those may have been the most important fish I caught, because it changed my mentality. I had a limit and it gave me confidence to stick with what I was doing."

    Hackney agreed that the mental aspects of fishing a course format contribute largely to success.

    "It's funny how it works. At first you're thinking, I only have an hour and 20 minutes per hole and that's not enough,'' he said. "But once you figure the fish out, you realize that you have plenty of time. Even in a traditional tournament day, you spend most of your time figuring the fish out, but relatively little time catching them. In other words, it takes a long time to figure them out but no time to catch them."

    There are a lot of ideas surrounding the hole concept in tournament fishing. Throwing six to 12 anglers in an area they've never seen before with huge stakes on the line and asking them to perform is a concept every weekend angler can connect with.

    We learn how quickly professionals can adapt, how each of them with their own style approaches a specific type of structure or cover. We see how many ways an angler can position himself in a way to get a bite or how one utilizes a lure that isn't even in the boat of another angler fishing the same water.

    Those are real fishing lessons that we can all get our arms around.

    "The bottom line is that these guys are the best in the world," Hackney said. "With this group of fishermen, they're always biting."

  • For ESPN2 TV's schedule of BASS Pro Tour broadcasts on "The CITGO Bassmasters," click here.