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Two Incredible Tournaments, One Incredible Bass Lake

PART ONE

Fishing was tougher than expected at the Angler's Inn 2007 Monster Bass Tournament on El Salto Lake this July. The temperature was near 100, lake levels were lower than normal, and the bass were deep and hard to find.

The results, nevertheless, were amazing.

A three-day team event, each team weighed five bass daily. Competing were: Team Webster (Jim Webster, Hernando, Miss., and Steve Ciski, Naples, Fla.); Team Webster III (Jimmy Webster, Memphis, Tenn. and Matt Fuchs, Southhaven, Miss.), Team Tharpe (Jason Tharpe, Gainesville, Ga. and Ben Corbitt, Atlanta); Team O'Neill (John O'Neill, Overland Park, Kan. and Bentonville, Ark.'s Leon Banks) and Team Schurz (Jay Schurz, Linton, Ind. and James Bowden of Indianapolis).

Day One was the toughest competition day, as anglers tried to determine the best fishing patterns for bass concentrated in deep pockets making them difficult to find.

Team Webster worked it out first and took the lead in the competition, with 24.44 pounds at the end of the day.

It looked like Team O'Neill wouldn't be able to touch them: The first four bass they weighed totaled slightly less than 14 pounds. But, saving the best for last, a 7-pound, 1-ounce hawg put Team O'Neill in a close second place with 20.88 pounds.

Team Webster III was on good fish in the morning, but couldn't connect with a lunker in the afternoon, leaving them in third place with a total of 19.69 pounds.

Team Schurz came in fourth with 17 pounds, and Team Tharpe was first to get eliminated with 15 pounds — enough for a healthy lead in many stateside tournaments, but too little here to remain in competition.

When Day Two started, we observers still didn't know where, or how, competitors were catching fish. With a $3,000 first-place prize on the line, the anglers were being extremely secretive about their honey holes and techniques.

Team Webster certainly had it figured out: They brought in bass weighing 7 pounds, 9 ounces, 7-7, 6-4, 5-2 and 5-2 to cement their first-place lead with a two-day total of 55.94 pounds. Team Webster III jumped to second place, with five fish weighing 22.75 pounds. Teams Schurz and O'Neill both weighed in bass over 6 pounds, but even those lunkers weren't enough to keep them in the tourney — despite impressive efforts, both teams were eliminated after Day 2.

Jim Webster is Jimmy Webster's father, creating additional interest in Day Three of the competition, with father pitted against son in head-to-head battle for champ.

Less than 14 pounds separated the teams going into Day Three, and everyone knew one good bass on El Salto could eliminate that gap.

It just wasn't meant to be, however.

Team Webster's five-fish total on Day Three included a 7-5 bass and a 7-14, enough to beat Team Webster III, which still weighed in an impressive 20 pounds for a three-day total of 62.44 pounds.

Jim Webster and Steve Ciski were proclaimed winners of the Monster Bass Tournament, with a three-day, 15-fish total of 83.06 pounds. That's an average of more than 5.5 pounds per fish, extremely impressive in anyone's book, and not far off Les Melton's 6.1-pound winning average in the first Monster Bass Tournament.

I've heard some folks say El Salto is past its prime, but my own experience and these tournaments suggest otherwise. The lake's big bass action has shown no signs of declining, and even when the fishing is tough — as on my most recent visit — it's still better than can be expected almost anywhere else in the world.

In June this year, several of my friends spent a week fishing on El Salto, and everyone in the group caught bass over 10 pounds. The top two largemouths were gigantic, both weighing slightly more than 12 pounds.

"We caught all those big bass on Carolina-rigged worms and lizards fished by the dam," one of the friends told me.

Two weeks later, when my wife Theresa and I arrived at El Salto, those dam bass were gone. The same techniques used in the same area our friends fished proved unproductive, but later in the day, we hit the mother lode.

Our guide Armando pulled us into a cut. "Here we catch fish," he said smiling. And here we did. Theresa stood at the front of the boat and caught 26 bass on 26 casts, including two 5-pounders, a 6- and an 8-pounder. Had she been competing in the Monster Bass Tournament, they would have been enough to put her in the money.

After Theresa had her fun, she opted out of fishing to enjoy an afternoon massage. Without her front-ending me, I had a chance at a bass, too, and with Armando's help, I managed to catch several lunkers by running long-billed crankbaits through deep holes where bass were suspending (one of the tactics Team Webster used to sweep the Monster Bass Tournament). I didn't catch the 10-pounder I was hoping for, but I managed to land several over five, including a 7-pound, 8-ounce bass that put on a true acrobatic show.

"I think we'll see even more and bigger bass next season," Chappy Chapman predicted after the Monster Bass Tournament. "There are plenty of huge bass out there, and most anglers who visit are still likely to land the trophy of a lifetime — maybe several trophies of a lifetime. When it comes to bass fishing, El Salto is still hotter than a jalapeño!"

Amen to that.

Trip Planning Info for El Salto

Fishing:
October 1 through April 30 prouces the best fishing for sheer number of bass on topwaters. Prespawn usually occurs between December and January, with spawning February through March. The best months to fish for big postspawn females are April, May, June and July. Trophies can be caught almost year-round, from Sept. 15 thru July 31: on crankbaits and topwaters in fall and on plastics in late spring.

Proven El Salto hawg-catchers:
Berkley Power Worms (7" and 10"); YUM Ribbontail Worm (10"); Zoom and YUM Lizards (8"); YUM Dingers and Yamamoto Senkos (5", 6", 7"); Bomber Fat Free Shad and Rapala DT16 medium- and deep-diving crankbaits; Bill Lewis Lures 1/2- and 3/4-oz. Rat-L-Traps; Heddon's Zara Spook; Rico Pop; Smithwick Devil's Horse; 1/2- to 1-ounce spinnerbaits; Storm WildEye Swim Shad (4", 5", 6").

Suggested line:

20- to 25-pound test.

Rods:

medium heavy and heavy.

Reels:
baitcasters.

To book a trip and for more information:
contact Angler's Inn by phoning 1-800-GOTA-FISH or visiting www.anglersinn.com.

To contact Keith "Catfish" Sutton, send an e-mail to catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. Autographed copies of his books are available at www.catfishsutton.com.