BUFFALO, N.Y. — Grant Goldbeck got a lesson is just how good the smallmouth bass fishing can be during practice this week at Lake Erie. As he prepared for the 10th of 11 Bassmaster Elite Series tournaments this season — the Empire Chase presented by Farmer's Insurance — Goldbeck caught a 4-pound smallmouth on a bare hook.
The Gaithersburg, Md., angler explained that he'd found a big school of bass and noticed another tournament competitor easing into view, about 150 yards away. Goldbeck didn't want to give away his hot spot, so he cast a drop shot rig in the water without a soft plastic lure on it — just a weight and a bare hook — and felt a tug on his line.
"I figured it might have had the weight in its mouth," Goldbeck said. "But when I got it to the boat, there was a 4-pound smallmouth with just that tiny drop-shot hook in its front lip."
That happened on Tuesday, when there was no wind on Lake Erie's 10,000-plus square miles of water. With as little as 10 miles-per-hour breezes, Lake Erie turns into a whole different place.
And as the 106 Elite Series anglers prepared for Thursday's launch of the four-day event, the wind seemingly was always on their minds.
"Ten miles-per-hour is about all you can handle here and still fish," said Kevin VanDam, who enters this next-to-last tournament of the season with a 12-point lead over Todd Faircloth in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race.
"In reality, we probably shouldn't be fishing tournaments here. It's one of the best fisheries in the world, if you can pick your days. But unfortunately, we can't."
Edwin Evers of Talala, Okla., showed just how good it could be a year ago when he won the Empire Chase with a three-day total of 65 pounds, 7 ounces. The key words there are "three-day." Just like this year's event, the 2007 Elite Series event at Lake Erie was scheduled for four days, but one day of competition was cancelled due to the boater safety issue of high winds.
Evers' primary method of success last year was drop-shotting a small, soft-plastic worm in depths of 36 to 42 feet.
"It's supposed to be windy (Thursday), so a drop-shot will probably be out the window," said Jon Bondy, the only Canadian Elite Series pro. Bondy also works as a fishing guide on the other end of Lake Erie, about a four-hour drive from Buffalo.
"People think I'm a local here, but I'm really not," Bondy said. "I'm very familiar with light line, spinning rods and smallmouth bass in deep water, so that's really the only advantage I have."
According to Bondy, you have to be ready with two plans of attack on Lake Erie, depending upon the weather conditions.
"You need drop-shot spots, which are basically small piles of rocks," Bondy said. "And then you need broad areas where you can drag a tube across. You've got to have both. You've got to be prepared for that."
Bondy said that throwing out a couple of drift socks to slow your boat speed and dragging a Carolina rig or a tube across those broad areas is the best avenue to success once the wind kicks up on Lake Erie.
This is definitely the first time this year that most of the Elite Series pros will have two drift socks in their boats. Unlike other Elite Series stops, there aren't many areas on Lake Erie — the 11th largest lake in the world — to pull in close to the bank, get out of the wind and catch fish.
Bassmaster Classic champion Alton Jones said he lost one of his drift socks at Lake Erie last year, so he came prepared this time by rigging the devices with floatable cable, which should allow him to recover one of them if it comes untied from his boat.
Auburn, Ala., resident Steve Kennedy fished only one of the two-and-a-half days allowed for practice this week. That was on Tuesday, when the winds were calm.
"I found something I'm real confident in, if I can get there," Kennedy said. "But it's 50 miles away, and even if its blowing only 10 miles-per-hour, I'm not sure I can get there."
Kennedy didn't spend any time regretting his lack of practice on Monday and Wednesday.
"You can't practice in that rough stuff," he said. "You can't idle around. Every wave is coming over the front of the boat. You end up beating yourself and your equipment up.
"It may not work out," said Kennedy, who added with a laugh, "but at least I'm going to be fresh out there."
The daily 8 a.m. ET launches and 5 p.m. weigh-ins will be held at the NFTA Boat Harbor, 1111 Fuhrman Road in Buffalo.
Visit Bassmaster.com for full coverage of the Elite Series Empire Chase with weigh-in host Keith Alan, July 31-Aug. 3, 2008. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, daily weigh-ins with live streaming video and real-time leaderboards start at 5:00 p.m. ET. On Saturday, catch "Bassmaster University" at 4:15 p.m. ET before the weigh-in. Then on Sunday, get "Hooked Up" with hosts Tommy Sanders and Mark Zona at 12.00 p.m. and 4:20 p.m. ET, with the final day weigh-in and real-time leaderboard content starting at 5:00 p.m. ET.