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Anything Goes

Editor's note: Mark Hicks is one of the country's most widely read and respected bass writers. He has penned countless articles for Bassmaster Magazine, BASS Times and other publications.

Dec. 8, 2010
Spoiled rotten

If you read this blog, you know I make my less-than-extravagant living by writing about fishing and hunting. That means I spend an inordinate amount of my life pounding a computer keyboard.

I relish the good times that free me from my home office. At the top of this list is anything I do with my wife, Debbi, and daughter, Valerie.

The next highlight is competing in the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens. Whenever I begin the drive to an Open tournament, I feel as if I've been let out of a cage. Each event is always an adventure regardless of what I catch. These special weeks end far too quickly.

Next on my list is hunting whitetails with homemade primitive wood bows, followed by spring gobbler hunting. Something that actually qualifies as work comes next — the Media Event.

A media event is a gathering of pro bass anglers, writers, photographers and video producers. The pros are sponsored by one or more of the companies that host the event.

These outings are loads of fun, partly because I'm spoiled rotten, along with my media brethren. The last media event I went to happened last October in northern Alabama.

It was sponsored by Vicious Fishing, Ardent, Bandit Lures and Duckett Fishing. The pros in attendance were an eclectic group of gypsies. They included Boyd Duckett, Marty Stone, Pete Ponds, Terry Scroggins and Fred Roumbanis.

We all met at the Ponderosa, a playground owned by Vicious Fishing. The spread encompasses several hundred wooded acres of prime whitetail and turkey habitat, plus three small bass lakes.

Overlooking one of the lakes is a luxurious two-story log lodge with a cathedral ceiling at one end and a large playroom at the other. Game mounts are everywhere, including the long neck and head of a giraffe. Can't say I've ever seen that before.

Between these rooms on the first level is a well-stocked kitchen. It was here that gourmet cook Bruce Ervin, owner of Traveling Chefs and the Inventor of Camp House Kitchen, prepared extravagant meals three times a day.

We awoke to the smell of bacon and coffee every morning and were treated to a variety of scrumptious sandwiches at midday. Each evening meal was a masterpiece with multiple entrees.

I especially liked the ribs, the perfectly grilled two-inch thick steaks, and, oh yeah, the chicken and seafood gumbo. I stuffed myself with gumbo until I was borderline ill. Like I said, I'm spoiled rotten.

Of course, there was plenty of "work" to do. This included fishing with the pros, photographing them and picking their brains.

This was the first time I had worked with Fred "Boom-Boom" Roumbanis. I had watched Roumbanis in action on ESPN, but that didn't give me a true indication of his personality. Roumbanis is high energy, fun loving, unpredictable and up for anything kooky.

He's also a seriously good fisherman. I learned a great deal by watching him fish Optimum's 3-inch Baby Line Through, a solid, soft plastic swimbait.

Roumbanis also intrigued me with a crankbait he designed for Ima Japan, the Roumba. This fat-bodied wakebait swims with a wide wobble. I was surprised at how slowly Roumbanis retrieved the bait over the limbs of laydowns and other cover. He also paused the Roumba often.

Another bait that looked like a winner was a prototype shallow crankbait that Marty Stone was developing with Bandit. It should be unveiled soon.

In the evenings, after we waddled away from the dinner table, the pros and media folks would head to the game room. It was replete with a pool table and tall, round ice chests filled with soda pop and beer. Scroggins had seen a pool table before.

The most intense competition was an impromptu pitching contest. I'm not sure why, but we wound up taking turns pitching a hollow weedless frog with a long baitcasting rod that was too limber for optimum pitching.

Despite the soft rod, the pros performed with excellent accuracy. Soon, the floor was littered with boots, shoes, cups and anything else that would serve as a target. As the game progressed, the targets were placed farther away.

Each angler was allowed 10 pitches. The one with the lowest score had to do 30 pushups. I got roped into the game and wound up doing pushups after two of the rounds. Fortunately, I do 30 pushups every morning, so the punishment was no big deal.

Scroggins and Roumbanis went at it hard. Scroggins proved to be the best player at crunch time, but he didn't always finish first. He never finished last, either, so he avoided pushup duties.

Another contest ensued on the final evening after most of us had consumed more than our share of alcoholic beverages. It started after a debate about which knot was the best for tying a fluorocarbon leader to braided line.

Of course, there was great disagreement. We each tied our favorite knot to see who was right. I put forth the Albright knot, Scroggins fashioned his complex Slim Beauty knot. Other entries were the double uni and the blood knot tied with six wraps of fluorocarbon and nine of braided line.

This went on for quite some time. The table was strewn with spools of line and broken knots. I'm sure it was an educational endeavor, but, for the life of me, I can't remember whom, if anybody, won.

Nov. 15, 2010
Back again

Despite my lackluster showing in 2010, I've signed on to fish the 2011 Bassmaster Southern Opens as a nonboater and the Northern Opens as a boater. I'm the poster child for the eternal optimist.

My spirits lifted the instant I learned that my entries were confirmed. Having the next Bassmaster Open tournament to look forward to — even if it's months away — keeps my internal jets fired up.

Besides my blog on the Opens webpage, I will be doing several video reports at each tournament I compete in. These will be immediately uploaded to the website. The plan is to do reports on the day or days just prior to the tournament, on each day of the tournament and immediately after the tournament. I hope to provide insights you can't get anywhere else.

B.A.S.S. has made several changes to its Open and Elite Series tournaments. The one that's got me excited is that the winner of every Open tournament on the boater side qualifies for the Bassmaster Classic.

That means three more anglers from the Opens will be fishing in the 2012 Classic, nine anglers in all. Moreover, you can bomb the first two tournaments in any division and still have a shot at the Classic at the final event.

I fished Florida's Lake Tohopekaliga a few years ago, and I'm looking forward to another crack at it during the first Southern Open in January. Since I'm competing as a nonboater, I'm hoping it isn't a full-blown bed-fishing tournament.

Bedding bass shouldn't be an issue during the second Southern Open at North Carolina's Lake Norman in March. This will be a prespawn deal. Norman is only six hours from my southern Ohio home. It'll compensate for the long drive to Toho.

I fished Norman in March six or seven years ago and did well on jerkbaits and shaky heads. I'll be sure to have these baits tied on during the Open there.

I know nothing about Tennessee's Douglas Lake. I had to Google it. This is the site of the third and final 2011 Southern Open, which happens the first week of June.

Douglas is east of Knoxville, void of aquatic vegetation, has an annual water level fluctuation of 54 feet and it often rises 15 to 20 feet in a day or two after heavy rainfalls on the nearby Appalachian Mountains.

I suspect that many boaters will target docks, visible shoreline cover and planted brush at Douglas. This will be another short drive for me, but it could be a challenging event from the back of the boat.

A month later, in early July, I'm off to the first Northern Open at the James River. I hope to be towing a boat there. I have yet to procure one. It's that eternal optimist thing again.

I've never been to the James, so I'll have to educate myself quickly about how to attack this tidal fishery. Shallow wood, vegetation, docks and jetties should all yield bass.

The second northern Open happens on Lake Erie out of Sandusky, Ohio, in August. It's the closest thing I have to home water. I have no excuses for not sacking limits of heavy smallmouth there.

The final Northern Open at New York's Oneida Lake in September should be a barnburner. Oneida isn't known for trophy bass, but it teems with 2- to 3-pound smallmouth and largemouth. I expect a large field of anglers to catch loads of limits.

Oct. 11, 2010
Stingy Seminole

The final 2010 Bassmaster Southern Open at Lake Seminole had much in common with the first two tournaments in this division. It was damn stingy.

The Southern Open at Okeechobee back in January happened after weeks of historically cold weather. The chilled water had sucker punched Okeechobee's largemouth. Limits were scarce. There were lots of zeros for boaters and nonboaters alike.

Alabama's Lewis Smith Lake hosted the second Southern Open the following May. Torrential rain made the clear, highland reservoir rise and fall quickly. The bass were unhappy and they let us know it. Only winner Andy Montgomery of Blacksburg, S.C., brought in a five-bass limit all three days.

Seminole greeted Southern Open anglers with constant cold-front conditions. The largemouth bass buried under Seminole's copious hydrilla mats and refused to come out and play.

Although a few 20-pound-plus limits were brought to the scales, Trevor Fitzgerald of Ocklawaha, Fla., needed only 44 pounds, 2 ounces to capture first place. Under better conditions, it would have taken more than 60 pounds to win here.

Of the 138 boaters who competed in the event, 24 failed to weigh a single bass in two days of fishing, while 42 nonboaters suffered the same fate. I avoided that distinction by catching a 1-pound, 1-ounce bass.

I caught that mighty largemouth on Day 1 while fishing with Jonathon VanDam, nephew of the Great One, KVD. I fished with VanDam at the 2010 Okeechobee Open. It was déjà vu in many ways.

At Okeechobee, VanDam was punching matted grass, which is what he did at Seminole. And, in both instances, he badly outfished me.

VanDam boated three or four bass at Okeechobee. I never got a bite there. He boated eight bass at Seminole to cull a limit that weighed 13 pounds. I landed the only bass I caught at Seminole and broke off another when I set the hook.

I was punching grass with a heavy weight as VanDam was doing. Since I'm proficient with a flippin' rod, I was surprised that I got so few bites.

Before fishing with VanDam for two days, I didn't believe that a boater could vacuum-clean bass from grass mats and leave so few of them for a nonboater. After all, the bass can be anywhere in the greenery. It's impossible to hit every fish on the head with your bait.

My experiences with VanDam have prompted a change of heart. I now believe that a proficient, high-energy angler like VanDam can cherry pick a grass mat and leave little fruit behind. This is especially true when the bite is tough, as it was during the Okeechobee and Seminole events.

I came to this realization about four hours into my day with VanDam at Seminole. He had already boated a limit. For about 45 minutes, the Strike King Space Monkey he was fishing left an obvious bubble trail as he quickly reeled it back for the next pitch.

I could see exactly where his bait exited the mat. I was surprised to see that his pitches were no more than 4 feet apart. From the back of the boat, they seemed to be spread out much farther.

I could avoid hitting the same spots he did while the bubbles were present, but, even then, I could get no more than 2 feet from where he had fished. When there were no bubbles to guide me, I was lucky to get my baits more than a foot from where he had fished.

Also, VanDam was plucking his bass within 4 feet of the grass mat's edge. Why didn't I pitch farther back into the mat to find untapped water? Believe me, I did.

Unfortunately, the bass were hanging close to the edge of the grass that VanDam was fishing. It was a relatively narrow band of hydrilla near the shoreline. Pitching farther into the grass put your bait in 2 feet of water. The grass near the edge was 3 to 4 feet deep.

On Day 2 I drew Danny White of Milledgeville, Ga. White is a nice guy and a capable fisherman who has done well in several Bassmaster tournaments.

We launched early and had an opportunity to chat before takeoff. He mentioned his wife, Robbie, and her three-year ongoing battle with cancer. She had come to the tournament to cheer him on. The next week, she was scheduled for more chemotherapy. It kind of put things in perspective.

White hadn't caught anything the first day in Spring Creek, but he had done well there in practice. He wanted to go back and give the bass an opportunity to make amends.

As we raced to Spring Creek through the brisk air, the sun broke over the horizon. It lit Spring Creek and its flooded stump fields with brilliant morning light. I looked about and took it all in. I was thankful to be there, regardless of the tough bite.

The water in Spring Creek was much clearer than where I had fished with VanDam the day before. We worked jerkbaits, topwater plugs, spinnerbaits and crankbaits over a point covered with submerged hydrilla near a major creek bend.

When that didn't work, White tried working a Texas rigged bait through the grass while I floated a slow-sinking worm down through the greenery.

As we fished, a local angler idled past at a respectable distance and shouted to us.

"Catching any?"

"Not a thing," White replied.

"That's an awfully good spot you're on."

That awfully good spot never yielded a bite. Nor did the other two places where White had done well in practice. After that, we tried punching through thick grass clumps with heavy Texas rigged baits for several hours.

This approach produced a single bite for White. His flippin' rod doubled over when he set the hook. Then the bait popped out of the bass' mouth.

White eventually abandoned Spring Creek and went to main-lake grassbeds where the water wasn't as clear. We hopped from one spot to another the rest of the day.

With 30 minutes left to fish, a bass snatched my Spro Bronzeye Popper Frog as I walked it through a pocket in a small patch of pepper grass. I waited a few seconds, set the hook hard and saw what appeared to be a 2-pounder roll under the surface. Then it got into the pepper grass and came free.

It was a sour note to end my 2010 Bassmaster Opens season on, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything. I hope to be fishing the Opens again in 2011.

Oct. 5, 2010
Breakout at Seminole

I'm pulling out what's left of my hair, trying to meet a mountain of article deadlines before I can leave for the final 2010 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open at Lake Seminole. I'm fishing this one as a non-boater.

I had hoped to get there on the Saturday prior to the tournament. I'll be rooming with Harry Potts of Ozark, Ala., who is fishing on the pro side of the tournament.

My plan was to spend a few leisurely days pre-fishing with Potts, but that's not going to happen due to my workload. And you thought all outdoor writers did was go hunting and fishing.

Plan B is to leave early Monday morning and make the drive from Ohio to Bass Pro Shops headquarters in Springfield, Mo. I have to return the Nitro Z-9 that Bass Pro Shops was generous enough to loan to me for the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Opens. I'll try not to shed a tear when I unhitch the Z-9 for the last time.

It's a 13-hour drive to Springfield, and I'll have to leave home in the middle of the night to get there before Bass Pro Shops' offices close at 5 p.m. I'll stay overnight and leave for Seminole the next morning, a 12-hour drive.

If I'm able to finish my articles before I leave, I'll fish with Potts Wednesday before the official tournament meeting. Otherwise, I'll be stuck in the motel with my laptop typing away. That seems likely.

When I finally get on the water Thursday, I'll feel as though I've broken out of jail. I can't wait.

I fished Seminole once before when I competed in the BASS Top 100 circuit. That was at least 16 years ago. It was a spring event. Most of the bass were in the prespawn mode, and some were already on the beds. The bass will be on a different program during the early October Open.

I remember that Seminole had copious grassbeds and standing timber. After talking with two local anglers that will be fishing the Seminole Open as boaters, I've learned that the lake is much the same.

One of the anglers I contacted is Pam Martin-Wells, the second woman to compete in the Bassmaster Classic. She's been fishing Seminole, which is now in her backyard, all her life.

Martin-Wells told me that Seminole is thick with hydrilla and that this vegetation will be a major player in the Open. There is also some milfoil and peppergrass, but hydrilla is the dominant grass. Then again, there are other options.

"You can find anything you want to fish on Seminole," Martin-Wells said. "You can even run up the Flint River and catch shoal bass."

How much weight will it take to win the Open?

"I can't answer that yet," Martin-Wells said. "The lake is kind of in transition."

She told me that Seminole is capable of producing heavy limits, but that when it's tough it's darn stingy.

"It could take 30 pounds or over 60 pounds," Martin-Wells said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see some heavy weights."

Frank Jordan Jr. lives 5 minutes from Seminole and has been fishing the lake for 20 years.

"Fishing has been tough here since the end of June," Jordan says. "It's been a hot, dry summer. The lake is low and there are thick hydrilla mats everywhere."

However, he also told me that someone won a boat fishing a tournament at Seminole two weeks ago with a limit that weighed 21 pounds. Last June, a buddy tournament was won here with a five-bass limit that weighed 25 pounds.

"I caught a 7-pounder on topwater a few days ago," Jordan said. "We've had a lot of rain recently, and that could help the bite for the tournament."

Jordan believes most competitors will punch through the mats with heavy jigs and Texas rigs to dig the bass out of the greenery. Frogs and toads will be a factor in areas where the grass mats aren't too thick.

Many of those who make the top 30 cut will be fishing main lake grassbeds near deep water, Jordan believes. Some bass will be caught worming the outside edges of the grass, but most will succumb to anglers who penetrate the grass with heavy rods, lines and baits.

"I doubt that deep structure fishing will be a factor," Jordan said. "There's just too much hydrilla."

As for running to shoal bass up the Flint River, Jordan advises caution. After you get about 10 miles up the river, it gets dangerous for a bass boat. You need a jet boat to go farther than that.

I mentioned Seminole's shoal bass to Elite Series pro Mark Menendez when I recently interviewed him for one my articles. Menendez won't be fishing Seminole. However, he said he wouldn't be surprised if some of the anglers brought tin boats so they could run far up the Flint River to reach untapped bass.

Sept. 20, 2010
Chesapeake frustration

"Ode to the Toad"

You sputtered so deliciously
over grass and nasty weeds
Where lunkers lurked and lay in wait
for an easy meal to cross their plate
When largemouth gulped you down with glee
my rod bowed deeply — look at me
But when bass nipped at your dancing legs
and failed to get the hook engaged
I missed hogs KVD would envy
yet my livewell remained empty
I cussed and stomped when I missed the mark
You broke my heart — you little fart.

That was my Chesapeake tournament in a nutshell. The final Bassmaster Northern Open was my last chance for redemption. I was on good bass but failed to boat them.

I got few bites in practice. I wasn't alone. Most of the competitors were struggling. The talk at the tournament briefing was that the catch would be light.

I spent my first practice day up the Elk River. I mainly fished grass flats. I tried frogs, toads, jigs, worms and weightless soft plastics. I punched mats and cast to holes in the vegetation. I got two largemouths to pounce on a swimming jig. That was it.

I also flipped docks here and there. In hindsight, I should have spent more time fishing docks and other hard cover. When cold fronts shut off bass in the grass, you can usually get some bites by fishing wood or rocks.

I launched at Anchor Boats Marina in North East, Md., the official tournament site, the next practice day. As I tied my boat to the dock, I noticed an angler with his rods leaning against a tackle bag.

"Waiting for your partner?"

"Nope."

"Wanna go fishin?"

"Sure you don't mind?"

"Grab your stuff and hop aboard."

He did. It was George Beville of Apex, N.C., a non-boater who competes regularly in the BASS Opens. George often hangs around the dock on practice days, hoping for an invite to go fishing. He usually gets one, which speaks well of the boaters that compete in the Opens.

George is a Vietnam veteran. It was a privilege to fish with him. He took a bullet for our freedom.

For my freedom.

The bright spot that day happened at our first stop. It was a grass flat in Chesapeake Bay of mixed milfoil and eel grass. George caught a 3-pounder on a buzzbait and had three more strikes that he missed.

A bass nabbed my black Stanley Ribbit toad bait, but I swung too fast and pulled the bait out of its mouth. That was a good thing. I needed to catch it during the tournament, not while practicing.

Those were our only bites that day. They were the fish I went for when the tournament began.

I had never been to the Chesapeake before and was starting from scratch. I told George he might fare better fishing with someone else the next day. He said he'd be happy to stick with me.

Our first stop the next morning was at a sparse milfoil bed near the bank in the bay. George hooked a good bass on a buzzbait, but it pulled off halfway to the boat. Another fish blasted my Ribbit but avoided the hook.

We fished more grass beds with a buzzbait and a Ribbit. We also tried punching matted grass on the Susquehanna flats with heavy Texas rigs and casting all manner of baits to holes in the grass. Nothing.

My daughter, Valerie, drove over from Ohio in time to make the tournament briefing. She was between quarters at nursing school. Having Valerie there was the highlight of my tournament. She's my biggest fan and absolutely loves everything about the BASS Opens.

At the meeting, I learned that the grass bed George and I had found that morning was in an off limits area. That left me with one option.

On the first morning of the tournament, I boated straight to the milfoil bed where George and I had gotten the most bites in practice. I started with a buzzbait, but scattered pieces of floating eel grass fouled the blade on three of every four casts.

I switched to the Ribbit to improve my efficiency. My partner that day was Mick Robeson, of Edison, N.J., one of the nicest guys you will ever meet. He was slowly twitching a black frog over the grass.

It took 30 minutes or more to get the first bite and put a bass in my livewell. The fish nabbed the Ribbit. Maybe 90 minutes later the Ribbit produced another good bass. Then things shut down.

Three hours into the morning, I left the grass bed and bounced around to three other spots nearby. No luck. I returned an hour later. The water was lower due to a falling tide. It was also glass flat and clear. You could see every blade of grass beneath the surface in the bright sunlight.

I spent the next 45 minutes punching through isolated grass mats. Isn't this what's supposed work under such conditions?

I also tossed a green pumpkin Yum Houdini Shad (a Fluke-type bait) with a pegged 1/32-ounce sinker into holes in the grass. I have done well with this approach in similar situations by letting the bait fall to the bottom like a Senko.

Frustrated with the lack of action, I went back to the Ribbit and started covering more water. I had bass number three in the livewell 30 minutes later. It was a reaction bite or nothing.

I gave a Ribbit to Mick and we went to work. With three hours left to fish, we had at least a dozen bites between us. We each landed one fish and missed the rest.

As the tide came in during the last few hours of the day, the bites grew more and more anemic. I headed in with four bass that I figured would go 9 pounds.

Valerie was at the dock with a camera and snapped a few shots of me bagging my bass. When the scales said my bass weighed 11-11, Valerie was thrilled. I can't explain how amazing it was to have my daughter there beaming over my catch. I ended the day in 19th place.

Although I failed to catch a limit, my fish were averaging nearly 3 pounds each. If I could sack five of them the next day, I'd be in the hunt to win.

My partner the second day was the same guy that fished with me in practice. That's right. George.

We zipped back to the grass bed the next morning. George caught a 3-3 right off. I had two solid strikes soon after. I let both bass take the bait and swim with it a few feet before I set the hook.

In both instances, my rod bowed deeply before the Ribbit pulled out. The bass had the bait in their mouths, but just shy of the hook.

Thereafter, it was cast like crazy to get maybe one bite an hour. I had seven or eight bites that day and missed them all. In almost every case, I waited before setting the hook. Then I could feel the bait pulling out of their mouths. They were heavy fish.

I finished the day with a goose egg and finished the tournament in 51st place. George weighed in our only bass.

It wasn't until I returned home that I thought of something that might have turned those missed strikes into bass in the livewell. That would have been the Ribbit Double-Take toad hook from Stanley Jigs. Its two extra-long, side-by-side hooks reach back to the Ribbit's legs.

I tried fishing with the Double-Take hook in practice. It frequently snagged grass when I tossed the Ribbit on top of matted grass. I switched to a single toad hook. It didn't reach back nearly as far in the bait, but it skated over the grass with few glitches.

The Double Take hook would have worked in the grass bed I fished during the tournament. Why? Because the bass were in scattered milfoil and not under the mats.

I was casting my bait into lanes and allies where the twin hooks would have avoided potential snags. Had I used the Double Take hook during the tournament, I'm convinced I would have fared much better.

Sept. 10, 2010
Chesapeake "Tweener"

Hurricane Earl swung up the East Coast past Chesapeake Bay on the Friday prior to the final 2010 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open. Since the tournament takes place on the Chesapeake, Earl could have impacted the fishing in a bad way.

Texan Dave Mansue, the New Jersey transplant who won the 2009 Northern Open at the Chesapeake, has seen the aftermath of hurricanes here.

"If a hurricane dumps a lot of water in northeast Pennsylvania, it flushes down the Susquehanna River and into the Chesapeake," Mansue says.

When that happens, the bay gets high and muddy. Anglers are forced into the backs of harbors and coves to find clearer water.

Thankfully, the torrential rain never materialized. Even so, the Chesapeake is likely to throw anglers a knuckleball. The tournament happens between the end of the summer dog days and the beginning of autumn. This isn't a good time to fish the Chesapeake, claims Elite Series standout Michael Iaconelli of Runnemede, N.J.

"The first cusp of fall is a transition time on the Chesapeake," Iaconelli says. "The bass are just leaving their summer patterns, so they're more scattered."

Having said that, Iaconelli still predicts that it will take 16 to 18 pounds a day to win the tournament. Since he is fishing this event, Iaconelli hopes to be the one that carries those heavy sacks of bass to the scales.

Iaconelli has already qualified for the 2011 Bassmaster Classic through the Elite Series. He's fishing the Chesapeake because, well, I guess he likes his job.

The reason Iaconelli predicts good catches is because he has seen the evolution of Chesapeake's bass fishery over the past 20 years. A hurricane ripped through the upper Chesapeake in the late '80s and decimated its aquatic vegetation.

"There was very little grass here in the early to mid '90s, and the fishing was tough," he says.

The grass has made a strong comeback over the past decade, and so have the bass. They're here in big numbers and in giant economy sizes.

"Last July, a 50-boat tournament was won here with a 5-bass limit that weighed over 28 pounds," Iaconelli says. "The big bass for the tournament was an 8-pounder."

The bass thrive in thick beds of hydrilla and milfoil that carpet expansive, shallow flats. Areas with a mix of both grasses generally yield the best fishing, claims Iaconelli. Scattered clumps of milfoil can also be good. Eel grass is another option.

"Most fishermen snub their noses at eel grass, but it gives up some good bass," Iaconelli says.

Chesapeake's bass generally get on hard cover later in autumn, but laydowns, docks, pilings and rock cover could play a role in the tournament. If the weather cools, some of the bass could quickly move to hard cover.

"There are a lot of pilings and rocks from old industry along the Bay," Iaconelli says. "If somebody finds the right little rockpile, they could win on that spot."

The lack of rainfall this summer has allowed saltwater to push farther up into the bay. Some anglers think this concentrates the bass into smaller areas. Iaconelli disagrees. He believes the bass have learned to cope with salinity changes.

"The bass don't leave because of the salinity, but it does change their behavior and where they position themselves," he says.

One option for the bass is to move to the backs of bays where tributaries bring in fresh water. Bass also go to places that have substantial current flow. Iaconelli calls these "flushes." Many exist in the middle of the bay.

The saltwater influx adds tiny crabs to a bass's menu. This makes jigs and craws especially effective baits, Iaconelli adds.

Though most competitors will confine their fishing to the upper bay, largemouths can be found as far south as the Chester River, claims Iaconelli. However, making a long run on the Chesapeake's vast bay water is a gamble.

"It takes only a 10-mph south wind and an outgoing tide to stack waves bigger than anything I've ever seen on Lake Erie," Iaconelli says.

Anglers that do well in this derby will need to make good choices regarding the tidal fluctuations. The rule of thumb is that the bass bite best during the final 2 hours of a falling tide and the first hour of a rising tide.

Anglers who know the bay well might opt to run with the tide so they can fish during these prime low tide periods all day. The other school of thought is to camp in an area that holds bass and to adjust tactics throughout the day as the water level changes.

"I've seen September tournaments here won from the backs of bays to the middle of the Chesapeake," Iaconelli says.

Basic lures include weedless frogs and toads, spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, jigs and Texas rigged soft plastic lures. If the bite gets tough, shaky head worms, drop shot rigs and weightless plastics will come into play.

"I think the key is mimicking what the bass are feeding on," Iaconelli says. "The saltwater influence doubles the forage species that bass have available compared to a straight freshwater fishery."

The wild card is smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna River. The brown bass usually turn on later in the year. When they do, they can produce tournament winning catches. If someone brings a jet boat to the event, they'll have access to smallmouth water that can't be reached with a regular bass boat.

Now that the Chesapeake is such a dynamic bass fishery, it gets heavy fishing pressure on a weekly basis. However, the bay is so vast and so productive it continues to yield excellent fishing.

"It's going to be a fun week," Iaconelli says.

Get more information on the final 2010 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open here. For a map of Chesapeake Bay, click here.

Aug. 23, 2010
Detroit debacle

The Detroit River, the site of the second 2010 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open, is a major artery that flows from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie. These waters comprise the world's greatest smallmouth fishery.

I knew it would take at least 15 pounds a day to make the top 30 cut there, and more than 60 pounds over three days to win the event. So, how did I spend two days fishing this smallmouth Mecca during the Northern Open and weigh only 10 pounds, 3 ounces?

By making horrible decisions.

Horrible decision No. 1 was not sticking with my initial game plan. Since I had never fished Lake St. Clair or the St. Clair River, I decided to put my eggs in the Lake Erie basket.

I have been to Erie only a few times in recent years. However, I have competed in many tournaments there in the past.

I planned to look for smallmouth on offshore reefs in the Pelee Island area. Pelee Island is a long run from the Detroit River, but I felt comfortable making it in the Nitro Z-9. I expected the smallies to be 20 to 30 feet deep and that drop shotting would be the best way to pick them off.

I also wanted to invest one practice day on Lake St. Clair in case blustery weather prevented me from making the trek to Pelee.

On my first practice morning, I boated south to the mouth of the Detroit River and was greeted by a southwest wind and a bumpy Lake Erie. It wasn't treacherous by any stretch, but I didn't relish fighting the waves for 35 miles to the reefs I wanted to check out.

I decided that this would be a good day to fish Lake St. Clair and find backup water. The run up the Detroit River would be smooth, and the south shore of Lake St. Clair would shield me from the wind and calm the water. So, I turned the boat around and headed north.

In other words, I wimped out.

I know that any day you can get out on Lake Erie when the waves are less than 3 feet tall, you have to go. There's no guarantee that you'll get anything better.

Lake St. Clair was placid compared to Erie, and I spent a pleasant day drop shotting offshore grass and fishing the spoils near the shipping channel. Wherever I went, I caught smallmouth bass that weighed 2 pounds. I began to wonder if the same bass was following me around the lake.

I determined that I would fish Lake St. Clair only as a last resort. I needed to get out on Erie.

The next morning, Erie welcomed me with a gentle chop. I boated maybe three miles east from the Detroit River when the sonar/GPS unit went blank. Either it had died or it wasn't getting power.

I crawled under the console and poked around a maze of multicolored wires for 20 minutes. That's not a good thing for any boat, because I'm electrically challenged. I have wire-phobia.

I found a blue wire and a black wire that had come unplugged. I hooked them up in every possible combination to the several open connectors I found. No luck.

I fished that day with only my bow unit. It is not interchangeable with the one that quit working. Since I couldn't find and scrutinize offshore reefs without a console unit, I fished the north shore of the lake.

I caught four bass that day in 12 to 15 feet of water on a Booyah Football Jig dressed with a Yum twin-tail grub. My biggest three bass averaged 4 pounds. They were the right size, but too few in number.

After I pulled my boat out that evening, I called my good friend Bob Troxel. I've known Troxel for more than 40 years. He's the Athens, Ohio, Fire Chief and a former electrician. I never thought to call him that morning when I was playing with wires, which was a major brain fart.

I wiggled under the console while still at the marina and called Troxel. He instructed me to hook a black ground wire to a particular connection. My console unit fired up. The fix took all of one minute, tops. I mentally booted myself. Hard!

I was determined to fish Erie's offshore reefs the next day, no matter what the weather. That was probably another mistake. The wind blew hard out of the west, and the waves grew taller the closer I got to Pelee Island.

I took my time and was never in trouble in the Z-9. But, when I reached the reefs I wanted to fish, the waves were constant 4- and 5-footers. I couldn't stand up on the bow, let alone maneuver with my electric motor.

I resorted to the only viable presentation left to me, Lake Erie's venerable "drift and drag." I idled upwind of the reef, threw out a drift sock and dragged a tube or a football jig as the wind pushed me over the structure. I made repeated drifts over each reef to cover different sections of it.

I put my fishing chair in the front pedestal hole without the pedestal. That let me sit low to the deck to reduce the odds of being tossed out. I crawled back and forth from the console to the seat on my hands and knees as the boat rose and fell on the swells.

If there were any other bass boats in the area that day, I never saw them. I'd sit on my seat and watch the bow depthfinder/GPS to see where I was on the reef. I'd start drifting in 30 feet, slide over reef tops as shallow as 14 feet and continue back out to 30 feet.

The wind whistled through my rod guides at 22 mph. As the bigger waves approached, their whitecaps sounded like someone slowly ripping a sheet of notepaper in two. It was almost a Zen like experience, if you're into that sort of thing.

I desperately needed a smallmouth to grab my jig and snap me out of my trance. That never happened.

That afternoon, I boated south to the east side of Pelee Island to escape the brunt of the wind. It was an easy ride because I could run in the troughs of the waves as they pushed eastward.

The drift and drag tactic produced a total of four smallmouths on two reefs there. All of them weighed 3 to 4 pounds and hit in 11 to 13 feet of water. They were telling me I needed to fish shallow.

They were liars.

The ride back to the Detroit River launch site reminded me why you don't mess with Mother Nature, especially when you're fishing Lake Erie. I finally pulled up to the ramp at dusk after a long, battering run.

The forecast for the next day called for more of the same. I decided not to test Erie's patience. That was a wise decision. The bad decision was spending the day on the St. Clair River. I should have put in another day on Lake St. Clair, which is where the tournament was won by Indiana's Todd Schmitz.

The St. Clair River had been giving up giant smallmouth earlier that month. An entire day of dragging heavy tubes and drop shot rigs in the river's deep, swift, aqua-blue water netted me a single 2-pound brown bass.

I drew boat No. 6 for the first day of the tournament. I ran to Pelee Island on a relatively calm Lake Erie. My fishing day passed in hyper speed. It was suddenly time to head back, and I had only two smallmouths that weighed 7 1/2 pounds. The size was right, but I desperately need more bites. I pushed my luck and kept casting.

While fishing on the east side of Pelee Island, which was in the lee, I didn't realize that a blustery west wind had roiled Lake Erie's surface.

When I came out from behind Pelee and aimed by bow for the Detroit River, I realized I had made another boneheaded decision. The waves were snarling at me straight out of the west. My Z-9 would have needed to sprout wings to get me back on time.

I returned to the ramp 30 minutes late. I released my bass and didn't bother weighing them. My partner did the same. He had only one 2-pound bass, so I didn't hurt his chances of making the top 30 cut. We both would have been far out of the running even if we had gotten back on time.

The wind was to blow out of the northeast the next day. It would have made for a slow ride to Pelee Island, but I could have ridden in the troughs to the north shore on the way back. Then I could have sped back full bore by running close to the lee bank.

Since smallies love the wind, there was a chance that Pelee Island's bass would have been more agreeable on day two. The downside was that I had no chance to make the top 30 cut.

There was another consideration. My partner that day, Rick Sweadner of Woodsboro, Md., had caught a three-bass nonboater limit the first day that weighed over 9 pounds. He was just out of the top 30 cut.

Pelee Island was a boom or bust proposition that could easily end up on the bust side of the equation. I elected to go to Lake St. Clair where Sweadner had the best odds for filling his three-fish limit and making the cut. It proved to be the one good decision I made the entire week.

We drop shotted grass in 17 to 18 feet of water all day. It was like fishing for yellow perch. I landed five 2-pounders. Sweadner boated four keepers. His best three totaled 7-pounds, 8-ounces, and earned him the right to fish the next day.

As I drove home in a sour mood, it dawned on me that I had never effectively fished for deep offshore bass during practice. I had let Lake Erie, equipment issues and bad decisions get the best of me. I'm hoping for a little redemption at the Upper Chesapeake, the final Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open for 2010.

August 10, 2010
St. Clair's trifecta

The second Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open of 2010, slated for Aug. 19-21, is sure to be a smallmouth slugfest. It should take at least 60 pounds of brown bass to win the three-day event.

Elizabeth Park Marina, the official launch site, sits on the lower reach of the Detroit River. From there, the anglers can head south to Lake Erie, north to Lake St. Clair, or northeast through St. Clair and up the St. Clair River, which flows south from Lake Huron.

The tournament may be won at any of these three locations. The Detroit River, a wild card, could also play into the mix. The smart money is on Lake St. Clair. A few years ago, Lake Erie would have held that distinction.

For whatever reason, St. Clair is producing bigger smallmouth than in the past and slews of them. Lake Erie still grows toads, but catching a limit of fatties there on three consecutive days is a challenge.

Lake St. Clair

Scott Dobson of Clarkstown, Mich., will put all his chips on Lake St. Clair, his home water. He won a large one-day tournament there last July with five smallmouths that weighed over 24 pounds. He recently finished second in another major event at St. Clair, also with more than 24 pounds.

Smallmouths thrive in Lake St. Clair's copious grassbeds, which are interspersed by sand bottoms. The rocky spoils adjacent to the shipping channel also hold good smallmouths.

Dobson typically catches St. Clair's brown bass in about 17 feet of water. But, they can be found shallower or deeper, depending on wind-generated water currents and the movements of yellow perch, shiners and other baitfish.

"St. Clair is more consistent, and you can usually find protection from the wind somewhere on the lake," Dobson says. "That lets you cover a lot of water, if you need to."

The key with St. Clair is relocating the schools of bigger smallmouths after they move, which often happens from one day to the next. Dobson's primary St. Clair baits include jerkbaits, tubes, deep crankbaits and Carolina rigs.

Michigan's Joe Balog, another local angler, is leaning toward St. Clair, but he isn't writing off Erie or the St. Clair River. His business, Millennium Promotions, promotes outdoor related products. He also gives fishing seminars and does an occasional guiding trip.

"You no longer have to go to Erie for big fish," Balog says. "Since 2007, most national tournaments have been won here on St. Clair. It's a more fertile fishery, and it has more bass."

Over the past 20 years, Balog has won 11 major tournaments on Erie and Lake St. Clair, including the Lake Erie Bassmaster Open in 2006 out of Sandusky, Ohio.

"The grass is everywhere at St. Clair," Balog says. "The bass feed on sandy spots in the grass where they pick off baitfish and crawfish."

Because the sandy spots are hard to see on a depthfinder, it takes time to find them. Shallower grasslines in 6 to 12 feet of water also hold bass, and they are more evident. Smallmouths pummel yellow perch along the grass edges. This makes the brown bass susceptible to jerkbaits and spinnerbaits.

Lake Erie

"St. Clair is more dependable, but Erie could still win," Balog says.

Although St. Clair has greater numbers of 3- to 4-pound smallmouths, Erie gives up more brown bass that weigh 5 pounds or better. The drawback with Erie is that catching five heavyweights in a day is a tall order.

In addition, there's no protection from the wind on massive Lake Erie. When the waves kick up, you might not be able to get to the bass you've found here. Even if you do, the water may be so rough that you can't fish effectively.

Drop shotting isolated key spots 25 to 30 feet deep is likely to be the most productive tactic for Erie during the BASS Open. However, now that Erie swarms with gobies, the deep bite isn't as consistent as it once was.

"It used to be that Erie's big smallies would be on deep structure by the 4th of July," Balog says. "You can't count on that anymore."

Then again, a warm spring and an early spawn this year could bode well for Erie's deep bite, Balog believes.

St. Clair River

The deep, swift St. Clair River is a major player in late summer and fall, and it may yield the winning catch at the Northern Open. If the river's on, it will produce more than half of the limits that weigh 20 pounds or more, Balog claims.

In early August 2010, the St. Clair River relinquished a five-bass limit that weighed 25.5 pounds in a team tournament. Most anglers drag tubes and Carolina rigs with the river's current 25 to 50 feet deep. Bass can also be taken in the shallows around objects that break the current.

One downside with the river is that you give up fishing time making the run, which is over 50 miles one way. The other is that the river can sock in with soupy fog on calm mornings, and the fog may not lift until midday. When that happens, you're left with little, if any, fishing time.

Weather

The weather could be the deciding factor on where the Northern Open will be won. A calm, foggy morning and flat water can put the whammy on the St. Clair River and give those who fish Lake Erie an advantage. Windy weather could turn Lake Erie into a raging sea and give the edge to Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River.

"Everything depends on the weather," Balog says. "I can count on one hand — and not use all my fingers — tournaments where there's been three consecutive calm days here."

Balog reinforces this statement by pointing out that one day was canceled due to weather during the last two Open tournaments held at Lake Erie.

Balog predicts that 15 anglers will bring in 21 pounds or more on the first day of the tournament, and that the eventual winner will amass over 60 pounds. However, he believes few anglers will be able to sustain heavy catches for three days.

August 4, 2010
Champlain's motley crew

My 82nd place finish at Champlain was a blow to my ego, especially after culling one too many bass the first day and weighing only four fish. (See my blog below, "Busted at Champlain.") The upside was the crew I shared a cottage with.

There were six of us, including four boaters and two nonboaters. This was the first time I had pooled resources with a bunch of guys to save money. My cost for a week at the cottage, plus food, was $230. Even better, it was the most fun I've ever had at a tournament, outside the fishing.

We were a diverse group. There was me, a freelance writer who is generally happy go lucky and confused. I don't think anyone at the cottage was surprised by my boneheaded culling error.

The only angler at the cottage to make the top 30 cut was Dave Mansue, a retired New Jersey lawman who now lives near Toledo Bend. Mansue is levelheaded, tireless, super organized and deadly with rod and reel. He won a BASS Northern Open tournament last year on the Upper Chesapeake.

Mansue also found the cottage, bought groceries, tabulated the cost for each of us and cooked the meal each evening. The rest of us were happy to do the cleanup. I'd been told that Mansue's culinary skills were first rate. He lived up to his billing.

My favorite dish was Mansue's pork chops. He marinated the chops in some kind of secret sauce and pan-fried them to seal in the juices and turn them golden brown. I didn't know pork chops could taste that good.

New Jersey's Pete Gluszek, another bass tournament veteran, is high energy, talkative and eaten up with bass fishing. I think I heard his voice about 50 percent of the time I was there. He generally fares well at Champlain, but mechanical problems on Day 2 did him in.

Scott Dobson of Clarkstown, Mich., is all business all the time. When he finished with his tackle in the evening, he was busy on his laptop and cell phone with his regular job. I'm not sure what his job is, other than it has something to do with cable TV. For all I know, he's part of the mafia. I wish I had his ability to multitask.

Champlain's smallmouth usually treat Dobson well. He has finished in the top 10 here many times with brown bass. Unfortunately for Dobson, the big ones eluded him this time around.

Theo Corcoran of Waterford, Mich., was one of the nonboaters staying at the cottage. Corcoran knows everything, as do all 20-year-olds, but he doesn't come across as obnoxious. He's a good kid, enthusiastic and a capable fisherman. Also, there was no gender gap. We were all bass fishermen and spoke the same language.

The final member of our clan was New Jersey's James Bartolotto, a hulk of a man who signed on as a nonboater to get Pete Gluszek into the tournament. He was talking the other 50 percent of the time when Gluszek was not.

Bartolotto was tickled to be there. Although it was his first major tournament, he is a veteran fisherman that has done well in bass club events at Champlain. He gave me some good advice for fishing the Ticonderoga section of the lake.

Then again, you never knew when Bartolotto was pulling your leg. Bartolotto, Dobson, Corcoran and I went to a steak house on Friday evening after we learned that we had not made the top 30 cut. As we looked over our menus, Bartolotto said the only thing he could find to eat was a salad.

"Eating meat is just wrong," he lamented.

Dobson and I looked at each other across the table. We both live to hang in trees in autumn and sling arrows at whitetails. We jabbed at Bartolotto for his position and he defended it. This went on until the waiter came and Bartolotto ordered the biggest steak on the menu. We'd been had.

July 30, 2010
Busted at Ticonderoga

On the first day of the Bassmaster Northern Open at Lake Champlain, I was slapped by the realization that maybe I'm not smart enough to be a tournament fisherman. After taking off from Plattsburgh, I made the long run south to Ticonderoga. My plan was to make a milk run of a half dozen grassbeds I'd found that were holding good largemouths.

The first grassbed produced two small bass for me and one for my partner, Ken Hoffman of Cambridge, N.Y. Hoffman caught his bass on a Senko. Mine nailed a 1/4-ounce black and blue Booyah Jig dressed with a Strike King Rage Craw that has hyperactive pincers. Bass had hammered this combination when I slow rolled it through the grass in practice.

As often happens when the tournament begins, the bass changed gears. I struggled to get bites by swimming a jig in my other grassbeds. The few bass that grabbed hold were far short of the 3- to 4-pounders I had caught in the same places.

I slowed down and pitched jigs and Texas rigged plastics into the thicker sections of the grass. I backed out deeper and fished broken grass on the outer edges. I worked a frog over matted grass. The results were dismal.

I had gambled on the long run to Ticonderoga's storied grassbeds, which routinely give up limits that weigh 19 pounds or better. Half my fishing time was shot, and I had five sardines in my livewell that totaled 8 pounds. Hoffman had an equally unimpressive three-bass nonboater limit.

My stomach was in knots. You can't win a tournament on the first day of a Bassmaster Open, but you can surely lose it. I ran back to the first grassbed I'd fished that morning and decided to make a stand there. I caught another small bass swimming a jig. Hoffman boated three bass, including a 3-pounder, by split shotting a watermelon Zoom Super Fluke.

Hoffman is nonboater veteran. He has fished many Bassmaster tournaments over the past several years and claims he's learned more tactics than he can remember.

"Ah, Ken, do you happen to have an extra split shot I can borrow?"

He did. I rigged my split shot rig with a YUM watermelon Houdini Shad. During the final 2 hours of fishing time, we high-fived through a culling frenzy. Hoffman's biggest bass weighed well over 4 pounds. I caught two 4-pounders in the last 15 minutes that gave me a minimum of 16 pounds. It was nothing special for Champlain, but it would keep me close to the top 30 cut.

We ran back, checked in and got our weigh-in bags. I held Hoffman's bag while he loaded it with three bass that wound up 1-ounce shy of 10 pounds. A great start for a nonboater.

Ken held my bag as I fetched my bass. One, two, three, four. I reached into the well for bass five. I felt nothing but water. I swirled my hand in a wider circle. More water. I peered into the livewell. No bass. I had culled one fish too many.

My four bass weighed 13-9. I mentioned my over-cull when I was on stage. As I walked off, MC and tournament director Chris Bowes quipped: "He's a writer, not a mathematician."

Ouch! I'm still kicking myself.

I returned to the same grassbed the second day with an improved culling system. Hoffman and I had caught three bass there that weighed 4 pounds or more in two hours. I figured I could do better if I camped on that grassbed all day.

The wind switched from the northwest on Day 1 to south on Day 2, and it grew steadily stronger. Split shotting a Houdini shad produced about 20 bass for me that day, but the big ones never showed. My culled limit weighed only 13-4. Had I not over-culled the previous day, I would have finished around 50th place. Without that bass, I landed way down in 82nd place.

As I fished with the split shot rig the second day, Bassmaster Elite Series pro Tim Horton zipped in and hit the north end of the grassbed for 15 minutes or so and then roared off. You can't miss his green, wrapped Nitro. The big Z-9 on the side of his boat is legible for half a mile.

Horton returned several times that day to briefly fish the same section of grass. He was on a run-and-gun pattern, apparently fishing the same spots over and over. He was either on fish or in panic mode. I later found that Horton had made the top 30 cut and finished in 18th place. That rules out panic.

I called Horton to learn how he was fishing to make the cut, compared to what I was doing that did not. I was drifting and re-drifting over a wide grassbed that was at least a quarter mile long. Drifting allowed for a quiet approach, effortless boat control and fewer backlashes.

As I drifted, I fancast the split shot crosswind and downwind. Most of the grass was submerged, with occasional small, loose clusters of cabbage grass that grew to the surface. I drifted over depths from 6 to 10 feet and got most of my bites in 8 to 9 feet of water. Some strikes happened near patches of cabbage grass, others from submerged grass.

Horton was also drifting with the wind to allow for a silent approach. However, he was targeting the cabbage patches and pitching a Texas rigged YUM Craw Papi into the heart of the clusters with a 3/4-ounce weight.

"I needed the heavy weight because the boat was drifting so fast," Horton said. "It let me keep my bait in the strike zone a little longer. That was key."

Horton caught 17-9 on the day I caught 13-4. He is obviously smarter than I am. He also didn't over-cull during the tournament.

"How'd you like the way the Z-9 handled that big water?" Horton asked me.

Horton knew I was running a Z-9 for the Bassmaster Northern Opens. The main body of Champlain snarled with 3- to 5-footers for 30 miles on the way back to Plattsburgh. I told him I was glad to be in such a capable boat.

July 16, 2010
Champlain in flux

The first Bassmaster Northern Open of 2010 gets underway this July at New York's Lake Champlain. This gorgeous natural lake always gives up plentiful limits of largemouth and smallmouth bass. However, it's too soon to tell which patterns will prevail, claims Steve Lucarelli of Meredith, N.H.

Lucarelli is a veteran smallmouth guide at New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee (Lakes Region Bass Fishing, 603-279-2248, nhsmallmouth.com). He has also competed in many Champlain tournaments.

I fished with Lucarelli as a nonboater on the final day of Champlain's 2009 Bassmaster Open, and I watched him lose three big smallmouths that would have moved him well up in the standings from his 23rd place finish. The following week, he won a major four-day tournament at Champlain with heavy limits of smallmouth.

As much as Lucarelli loves brown bass, he may go for the green ones this time around.

"I've kept records on Champlain for years," Lucarelli says. "I think smallmouth bass have won only three big tournaments there. Largemouths have played a role in all the others."

Of the three Champlain tournaments in which smallmouths prevailed, a Lucarelli has won two of them. Besides the derby Lucarelli won last year, his son Joe nabbed first place with smallmouth at the 2005 Champlain Bassmaster Open.

There's another reason that Lucarelli is leaning toward green bass. He and his son have had a hard time figuring out Champlain's smallmouth this year. So much so that they opted to make the long run south to Ticonderoga during a recent weekend buddy tournament to cast for largemouths in shallow grass.

They finished second with a six bass limit that weighed over 21 pounds, which shows that the Lucarelli boys are capable largemouth anglers. The irony is that the winners brought in over 22 pounds of smallmouth bass. No other team did nearly as well with smallmouth.

"Right now, Champlain's bass are in flux," Lucarelli says. "They're changing day to day, but they might set up for a big catch when the Bassmaster Open happens."

One caveat is that a large four-day tournament happens at Champlain the week prior to the Bassmaster Open. The water will be hammered during that event and for several days prior to it, followed by another four days of anglers practicing for the Northern Open. Will all the pressure hurt the bite?

"The largemouth will get pounded, but they will replenish," Lucarelli says. "The lake is loaded with 2- to 2 1/2-pounders. You have to figure out what the bigger ones are doing."

This isn't to say that Lucarelli has written off smallmouth. Champlain doesn't give up as many 4-pound brown bass as it did in the past, but you can still find pockets of heavyweights. The beauty of Champlain is that you can usually catch smallmouth from 6 to 30 feet deep, Lucarelli claims.

"The smallmouth bite isn't on right now, but if the perch school up a little tighter it will be banquet time," Lucarelli says.

Ohio's Frank Scalish, who finished second at the 2009 Champlain Open, knows something about the perch bite here. While practicing for the '09 event he found smallmouth and largemouth bass feeding on shad. He could see schools of the silvery baitfish cruising just beneath the surface. The bass were suckers for a 4-inch swimbait, a popper and a Berkley Gulp! Minnow fished with a drop shot rig.

For whatever reason, the shad bite quit after the first day of the tournament. The bass switched to perch, and Scalish parried by drop shotting a finesse minnow in a perch color.

"You have to be cognizant of what the bass are feeding on," Scalish says. "They have several options at Champlain."

Scalish initially planned to use the same strategy at Champlain this year that paid off for him in 2009. Bag a decent limit of smallmouths first, and then switch to largemouths to cull up in weight. He'll start in practice by looking for smallmouth 25 to 30 feet deep and work shallower until he finds them.

Although Scalish believes a mixed bag is likely to win, he has heard that Ticonderoga is producing heavy limits of largemouth.

"I wasn't planning on looking at Ticonderoga, but now I'm considering it," Scalish says.

If Scalish makes the long run south for largemouth, jigs, Texas rigged plastics, toads and frogs will likely be his primary arsenal for wrestling largemouths from the grass. He figures 17 pounds and change on all three days will be good enough to finish in the top five, and it could possibly win.

New Jersey's Terry Baksay, who finished 14th at the 2009 Champlain Open, has also heard that the largemouth bite is on fire at Ticonderoga. Even so, he's not tempted to make the long run south from Plattsburg.

"I've been burned down there before," Baksay says. "One day you drill them and the next day the bite isn't worth a flip."

Whenever the wind switches direction, the bass on the southern end of Champlain change patterns, Baksay claims. And the 130-mile round trip doesn't leave much time to figure them out.

"Most people don't realize how much current rolls through Champlain when the wind blows," Baksay says. "It really influences what the bass do, especially on the southern end where the lake narrows."

Baksay plans to fish the northern end of Champlain and target smallmouth and largemouth. Although he is familiar with a dozen or so areas, they can change dramatically from one year to the next.

One of Baksay's most productive places is a 300-yard stretch where patches of grass grow beneath the surface. For three consecutive years, the grass stood 10 feet tall. Last year, the grass there grew only 6 inches tall. The bass were still there, but Baksay had to use different baits and presentations to catch them.

"I'm only going to put in a few days of practice because I know where I'm going to fish," Baksay says. "It's all a matter of figuring out productive patterns."

June 29, 2010
Locked & loaded for Champlain

I've been sweating bullets trying to come up with a boat so I can fish the Northern Opens on the pro side of the equation. Nitro saved my bacon by offering the use of a 20-foot, 9-inch, top-of-the-line Z-9 powered by a Mercury outboard.

The capable Nitro Z-9 is just what I need for taking on the big waters of Champlain, Erie and the Upper Chesapeake. I can't fish like Kevin VanDam, but I can now cast from a boat that's identical to his. Maybe some of his magic will rub off on me.

I'll be staying at a cottage with three other bass nuts that will be fishing the Champlain Open as boaters. They include New Jersey's Pete Gluszek, Michigan's Scott Dobson, and Dave Mansue, a retired New Jersey law officer who traded in his badge for a 10-gallon hat. He now lives a short cast from Toledo Bend.

Here's a cheesy sales pitch for our cottage I found on the Web:


Enjoy spectacular sunrises over the lake and unforgettable sunsets over the farm fields behind this waterfront cottage on the western shore of Lake Champlain. The cottage is on a quiet dead end street, perfect for biking and roller blading. The very private front yard has a gorgeous view of Vermont and the Green Mountains....

Wow! The biking and roller blading clinched the deal for me. Too bad I don't own a bike or roller blades.

All three of my cottage mates have fished Champlain many times and have done well there in tournaments. Gluszek finished 11th at the 2009 BASS Open at Champlain. He also wound up third in the 2009 Northern Opens points standings and narrowly missed qualifying for the Classic.

Gluszek will be fishing a major tournament on Champlain the week prior to the Open. He's strong with largemouth and smallmouth bass and is likely to weigh in mixed bags.

After a week on the water, Gluszek should be dialed into Champlain's bass. However, he was still on the waiting list for the Champlain Open the last time we talked. I hope he gets in.

Mansue's plan is to find smallmouth and largemouth bass in the same section of the lake. That way, he won't need to run far to fish for one or the other.

"I'll let the bass tell me in practice which species will be easier to catch," Mansue says.

If Mansue finds smallmouth around grass, he figures they're likely to stay put. Smallmouth on deep structure are nomadic and undependable, Mansue claims. They can be stacked one day and gone the next.

Mansue will be doing the cooking. The rest of us will take care of the clean-up. Gluszek and Dobson claim that Mansue could have been a gourmet chief. He brings a cache of spices, an oversized George Foreman Grill and his culinary skills. The menu is likely to include pasta, pork, chicken and, if the fishing goes well, steak.

Dobson has finished in the Top 10 at Champlain in many tournaments, and he always goes for smallmouth. In his last 10 Champlain events, he weighed only one largemouth.

You might think that staying with three experienced Champlain fishermen bodes well for me. Not necessarily. I promised Gluszek that I wouldn't pester everyone with questions about the fishing if they'd make room for me at the cottage.

Actually, I prefer to live and die with my own fish. Unfortunately, I've done more than my share of dying. Maybe I can get a breath of fresh air at Champlain.

June 16, 2010
Champlain's conundrum

I'm looking ahead to my next tournament, the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open at New York's Lake Champlain in late July. This natural lake fishes as good as it looks, and it's as gorgeous as bass waters come.

If you like fishing for largemouth, you gotta love Champlain. Its shallow bays grow copious grass beds, cattails and rushes that are chock full of green bass.

If you like fishing for smallmouth, you gotta love Champlain. Rocky reefs and grass beds on the main lake swarm with brown bass.

Any tournament at Champlain could be won entirely with largemouth, entirely with smallmouth, or with a combination of the two. Last year's winner, Jason Knapp of Uniontown, Penn., did the combo deal.

Smallmouth are generally more consistent at Champlain, but you can hit a home run with largemouth and bring in a sack that weighs well over 20 pounds. I plan to hedge my bets and target both species. Ideally, I'll put a limit of smallmouth in the livewell first and then go for some kicker largemouth.

However, the dual-species approach presents a conundrum. It could entail drop-shotting smallmouth 30 feet deep, frogging slop for largemouth in a skim of water, and just about everything you can think of between these extremes. The options can be overwhelming.

During practice, I'm likely to have a dozen rods on my deck rigged with different lures. I suspect I'll still have a dozen rods on my deck when the tournament begins. If I make good choices, all those rods will work to my advantage. I try not to think about what will happen if I make bad choices.

My primary outfit for smallmouth bass will be a spinning rod rigged for drop shotting. I normally go with 8-pound fluorocarbon and a No. 2 drop shot hook, but I'm going to heed some advice from fellow Ohioan and smallmouth ace Frank Scalish.

Scalish finished second at the 2009 Northern Open at Champlain, and he caught most of his bass by drop shotting. We've been friends a long time and don't mince words.

"You're crazy fishing that little hook and 8-pound test," he told me. "I've never seen a need to fish less than 10-pound line and a 1/0 hook when drop shotting for smallmouth bass."

My drop shot rod is already rigged with 10-pound fluorocarbon, and I've ordered some 1/0 drop shot hooks from Daiichi. Why argue with Scalish's success?

I'm also going to take steps to prevent my toads from flopping over and doing the backstroke. Scalish improves the performance of his toads by pegging a 1/32- or 1/16-ounce tungsten sinker to the nose of the bait. This makes the toad swim upright and deeper in the water, which improves his strike-to-catch ratio.

That's one option, but I've also ordered some new Stanley Ribbit Double-Take hooks. The side-by-side hooks have extra long shanks that impale through the bases of both of the toad's legs. Although it's designed specifically for Stanley's Ribbit, the Double-Take also works well with many other toads. A screw-in keeper holds the hook in place.

The Double-Take hook comes in two versions. One has no weight. The other has a 1/8-ounce Wedgehead weight molded to the tip of the hook. It holds the bait lower in the water and makes it plow through grass.

As for the rest of my Champlain arsenal, it will include a variety of crankbaits, hard jerkbaits, soft jerkbaits, topwater plugs, jigs, tubes, frogs, swimbaits and spinnerbaits ...

June 3, 2010
Home-field advantage?

One of the biggest challenges with the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens is that you must compete against local hot sticks. This point was driven home the first time I fished an Open at Lake Texoma in 2007. During the official pre-tournament meeting, tournament director Chris Bowes paired boaters and nonboaters with his standard procedure.

First, Bowes reads the states that the boater and nonboater are from, say, "Ohio! — Texas!" This gets your attention in case you're dozing after fishing all day, stuffing your face with the complimentary meal and sitting through the rules, regs and promotional phase of the meeting.

Immediately after reading the states, Bowes follows with the name of each angler and their boat number. This works better than it has any right to.

As I waited for my name to be called, I listened to a litany of "Texas! — Texas!" ... "Texas! — Oklahoma!" ... "Oklahoma! — Texas!" and more "Texas! — Texas!" When Bowes finally called my home state of Ohio, I felt like I was in a foreign country.

When the smoke cleared after the tournament, I was surprised that only two Texans and two Oklahomans finished in the top 10. One of them was winner Brian Clark of Haltom, Texas. The other anglers in the top 10 came from Minnesota, North Carolina, Iowa, Louisiana and two from Arkansas. The Ohio next to my name was way down in 49th place.

Before the tournament, I assumed that Texas and Oklahoma anglers would dominate the top spots due to their home field advantage. I figured they'd be on a first-name basis with their home-water bass.

The fact that anglers from across the country had done well at Texoma didn't leave me any excuses for my poor showing. To get a better handle on whether there is a home field advantage, I checked the results of the first three Open events of 2010.

The first Southern Open happened at Lake Okeechobee in January. Chris Lane of Guntersville, Ala., walked away with the winner's trophy. Five of the top 10 were from Sweet Home and five were from Florida. Considering that Alabama is a suburb of Florida and that Lane is a former Floridian, the home water advantage was evident.

Lake Amistad, Texas, kicked off the Central Opens season in April. Craig Schuff of Watauga, Texas, captured first place. He was one of seven Texans in the top 10. Louisiana, Arkansas and Washington were also represented. I'd say the homies kicked butt here, too.

However, the second Southern Open at Smith Lake, Alabama, in May was a different story. Three of the top 10 were Alabamians, three were from South Carolina, including winner Andy Montgomery of Blacksburg, South Carolina. The others were from Michigan, Tennessee, Florida and Georgia. It was a smorgasbord. No home field advantage here.

What conclusions do I draw from this less than scientific research? One, there is often a home field advantage. Two, fishing a tournament on new-to-you water isn't necessarily the kiss of death.

May 19, 2010
Hanging with the pros

The most enjoyable part of my job is attending media outings put together by companies that sponsor bass pros. The last one happened after the Elite Series tournament at Lake Guntersville.

Toyota and Quantum hosted the event, which included bass pros Kevin VanDam, Michael Iaconelli, Dean Rojas and Shaw Grigsby. I was one of several writers and video types on the media side.

We set up shop at the exquisite Dream Ranch resort that overlooks Lake Guntersville. The main building is a spectacular, spacious log building decorated with African game mounts and memorabilia. The ranch caters to hunters, fisherman and even wedding parties, but its main business is breeding trophy whitetails. They grow bucks there that sport mind-blowing racks.

Between photo sessions, we were treated to gourmet meals. In the evenings, we had our choice of adult beverages. Another beer for me, please.

The bass pros also enjoy these events. They are competitors in tournaments, but friends off the water. At media outings, they relax and enjoy each other's company. The laughing and ribbing are constant.

All the pros must learn to do business via cell phone because they spend so much time on the road. VanDam and Grigsby are permanently attached to their smart phones, talking, texting, e-mailing and taking, sending and receiving photos.

Mention hunting to KVD and he whips out his phone to show you the does and bucks his twin sons bagged last season, their first deer. Grigsby could keep you entertained for hours with his phone photos. I wouldn't be surprised if he has his baby pictures on his Droid. My daughter has a Droid, and she's not nearly as infatuated with hers as Grigsby is with his.

The best part of these outings is getting on the water with the pros. The sun shined during the first few morning hours I was with KVD, so I snapped pictures. Then clouds rolled in, and it started to drizzle. The weather killed the photo session, so we had to go fishing. Did I mention that I love my job?

Fishing with KVD on Guntersville after an Elite Series tournament gives you a window into his world. He couldn't go back to the spots he fished during the tournament. Spectators who watched him would probably be fishing there. And local anglers would jump on anything they saw us fishing that day.

Most pros can go back to their best spots when they return to a tournament lake. KVD usually must find new water. Anything he fishes in a tournament instantly becomes a community hole. How he continues to find new sweet spots is mindboggling

After I put my cameras away, VanDam went to work looking for new places that might pay off the next time he fished Guntersville. He jumped from one drop-off to the next, checking out 15- to 20-feet deep ledges he could work with a crankbait.

We fished maybe a half dozen places. KVD let me use one of his Signature Quantum cranking rods that was rigged with Strike King's new Pro Model 6XD crankbait. It was the same bait he was fishing. It was also the bait he fished during the tournament.

"The 6XD bait gets down 19 feet on a long cast," he said.

He idled over a hump that topped out at 19 feet on his graph. We fished it and, sure enough, I could feel the crankbait tick the bottom. Amazing.

After a few hours of catching a bass here and there, KVD asked me if I wanted to go to a place that was stacked with bass. Not big ones, mind you, just scads of 2- to 4-pounders. You kidding?

About 10 minutes later, bass were pounding our crankbaits on nearly every cast. After boating maybe 25 largemouth, we headed in for lunch. Did I mention that I love my job?

Over the next few days, I photographed and fished with Iaconelli and Rojas. Iaconelli took me to a ledge that dropped from 12 to 25 feet, and we caught a slew of bass in a few hours of cranking and football jigging, including several 4-pounders. Rojas boated to a shallow, weedy backwater where we coaxed several bites with Bronzeye Frogs.

The weather prevented me from working with Grigsby, which was a major disappointment. I've been in a boat with Grigsby before. This is one guy who loves life and knows how to have a good time. I can't think of better people to hang with than the guys who fish for a living.

May 6, 2010
Utter confusion

People that know little about tournament bass fishing have no idea how mentally daunting our sport is. Consider the overwhelming lure options you have for dealing with any given fishing situation.

For example, say you've got a windfall on a bank. You could pitch a jig or a Texas-rigged plastic bait to it, or you could run a spinnerbait down the trunk and the limbs, or bump a square-billed crankbait through the cover, or run a buzzbait over it, or, if the spawn is on, you might try a weightless stickworm. That's just the tip of the iceberg.

Just when you think you've got all the bases covered, along comes Dean Rojas. He walks his Bronzeye Frog over the windfall and a heavy largemouth annihilates it. Rojas also scores well by skipping the frog under docks and overhanging limbs.

What's up with that? Aren't you supposed to work weedless frogs over matted grass, lily pads and other snaggy aquatic vegetation?

Rojas, stop already! You're just adding to the chaos.

Skeet Reese is another maddening guy. His performance at the recent Elite Series event at Virginia's Smith Mountain Lake was a brain bender.

Reese spent much of his time sight fishing for bedding bass at the clear, dock-festooned reservoir, as did many of his competitors. But what gave him a winning margin of more than 14 pounds was a 6-inch Rago SKT Swimmer swimbait.

Are you kidding me? Now I have to add a swimbait to the mix, even on waters that aren't known for producing heavyweight bass. Where will it end?

Kevin VanDam is another pro that gets under my skin. He often zigs when others zag. During the 2009 Elite Series tournament at the aforementioned Smith Mountain Lake, he targeted smallmouth bass.

Smallmouth at Smith Mountain don't compare in numbers to the largemouth there. While other competitors weighed in green bass, VanDam carried heavy sacks of brown bass to the scales. Did I mention that he won the tournament?

Is that fair? Isn't life complicated enough?

As much as VanDam drives me nuts, I study his every move when I watch The Bassmasters on ESPN. Don't we all?

VanDam constantly impresses us with his aggressive fishing style. Nobody covers water like this guy. There's no doubt that I've hindered my tournament success by fishing too fast trying to emulate him.

Then I watch Mr. Faster-Than-A-Speeding-Bullet VanDam hole sit for three days to win the 2010 Bassmaster Classic at Alabama's Lay Lake.

What's up with that?

The most perplexing problem with bass fishing is that there are no absolute rules. Anybody who thinks he knows all there is to know is dead on the water.

The standouts that fish the Elite Series keep an open mind. They're willing to experiment and try something different. While the rest of us scratch our heads in utter confusion, they stuff their livewells with bass.

April 15, 2010
Woman's touch

I noticed the names of several women when I looked over the results of the first 2010 Bassmaster Central Open at Lake Amistad. They include Pam Martin-Wells, Debra Hengst (who finished a respectable 37th), Lisa Sternard, Lisa Johnson, Janet Parker, Judy Wong, Christiana Bradley, Dianna Clark, Helen Gordon, Cheryl Spencer and Sandi Karnes. I apologize if I missed anyone.

What's my opinion of women fishing in the Opens? I think it's terrific. Surely, this is one sport where women can compete on equal footing with men.

Tournament bass fishing is mainly a contest of will and brains, not brawn. Yes, you need refined casting and boat-control skills to do well, but neither requires an amazing Hulk physique.

Now that the Bassmaster Women's Tour has been discontinued, I expect to see more female boaters and nonboaters competing in the Bassmaster Opens, the Weekend Series and in Bassmaster Federation Nation events. I encourage any women who are apprehensive about fishing against men to step up and try it.

There may be a few males who aren't comfortable competing against women, but, from what I've seen, they aren't the norm. Women are generally welcomed and treated with respect. I saw this firsthand while fishing Bassmaster Opens in which Lucy Mize was a boater.

Whenever Lucy collected a check, which was often, she received enthusiastic applause from her fellow male combatants. We respected her ability and tenacity.

In the past, many women who entered tournaments as nonboaters did so because they were encouraged to do so by their male companions. That probably holds true today, but I'm seeing more gals getting involved because this is something they want to do for themselves.

Last September, I fished the final Bassmaster Northern Open at Lake Erie as a nonboater. On the first morning of the tournament, I was at the launch ramp pulling rods and tackle from my vehicle in dim predawn light. Nearby, I noticed a young woman doing the same thing. There was no boyfriend, husband or father there to hold her hand and offer encouragement. She was on her own. This was her dream.

I was pleased to see her weigh a nice limit the first day. Unfortunately, she struggled the second day and took her lumps like everybody else. This sport thoroughly humbles you, despite your gender.

History was made at the 2009 Bassmaster Classic when Kim Bain-Moore earned a berth by winning the Bassmaster Women's Tour Angler of the Year title. Pam Martin-Wells had that honor at the 2010 Classic. Technically, this shows that women have ascended to bass fishing's top level.

However, that won't truly happen until a woman qualifies for the Bassmaster Classic while competing head-to-head against men. I believe that will happen in the near future. The woman who does this should be celebrated, without reservation, by every fan of our sport.

March 25, 2010
Going blind

The snow has finally melted in southeastern Ohio — the western edge of the Appalachians — where I've lived for the past 40 years. I love these wooded hills. I count my blessings every day I wake up breathing here. I can't imagine being a flatlander, though I suppose it would be better than being a city dweller.

Last week, sunshine and warm weather urged me to sort through my tackle. The next bass tournament on my agenda is the second 2010 Southern Open at Smith Lake, Ala., in mid-May. I'll be fishing as a nonboater, as I did when I fished the first Southern Open at Okeechobee last January.

Okeechobee was a bust. I lost two good bass the first day that would have easily had me fishing on Day 3. I never got a bite on Day 2. End of story.

I hope to get redemption at Smith Lake. I've been impatiently waiting for the four months between these tournaments to pass so I can trek south. I've never been to Smith, so I'm going blind.

Going blind isn't as big a deficit as it was before the Internet. The Alabama Department of Conservation & Natural Resources Web site (www.outdooralabama.com) tells me that Smith Lake holds 21,200 acres of deep, clear water. It has good populations of largemouth and spotted bass. I believe spots will be a factor in the tournament, but the 15-inch size limit favors those who can figure out the largemouth.

The Bassmaster Web site reveals that Mark Davis won a four-day Elite 50 tournament at Smith with 53-11 pounds. A 12-pound limit will be big there for the boaters. Given that nonboaters are allowed to weigh in only three bass, daily 8-pound limits will probably win the Skeeter boat.

The nonboater limit was five bass last season, same as the boaters. I like the rule. When I fish as a nonboater, it prevents any of my competitors from gaining a huge lead with a big, single-day catch. It keeps more anglers in contention throughout the event.

I also love the pressure let-off that happens after you put a limit in the livewell. That's much easier to accomplish when you need only three bites. However, the limit should go no lower than three bass for nonboaters. That would make it more of a big bass contest than a test of skill.

When I fish as a boater, the three-bass limit prevents my nonboater partner from hauling two bass to the weigh-in that I might catch the next day. Also, no angler fishing as a boater likes being beaten by his nonboater partner. It's hard on the old ego.

There might be some spawning going on at Smith in mid-May, but it (hopefully) should be a postspawn event. The death knoll for a nonboater is drawing a boater who is sight fishing for bedding bass.

A postspawn bite means there will be some topwater action going on. I can surely warm up to that. But I know I will need to have rods rigged with finesse stuff, too, including drop shot rigs and shaky heads. Of course, I'll bring a small arsenal of baits to handle a wide variety of situations. That's the way it is when you're a nonboater, especially when you are going blind on a new body of water.

Feb. 26, 2010
Dads and daughters

I hadn't planned on attending the 2010 Classic in Birmingham. Work took precedence. One thing would have coaxed me to make the trip last minute. That would have been if my longtime friend Frank Scalish had been in contention after Day 2.

Sadly, Scalish weighed two Jenny Craig limits.

Had Scalish been near the leaders, my daughter Valerie and I would have piled into her Nissan Altima early Sunday morning and leadfooted South. That aging silver bomb has logged over 200,000 miles, but it still gets better gas milage than anything I own.

Valerie and I began as best buddies. As soon as she started to comprehend words, I read bedtime stories to her almost every night through age 12. From Dr. Seuss and Curious George to Nancy Drew.

Then Valerie turned 13. Suddenly, my wife, Debbi, and I were enemies No. 1 and 2. Thankfully, Debbi was No. 1. Hard to believe you can love somebody so much who makes you so miserable.

I won't go into the gory details. Worst years of my life, outside my own teens. I wouldn't go through that awkward time again for all the money we owe China.

My relationship with Valerie took a turn for the good in 2006 when I started fishing the Bassmaster Opens after a 14-year hiatus from tournament fishing.

I quit tournament fishing to stop throwing money down the toilet and to be home while my daughter was growing up. Once she graduated high school, I figured I'd earned a break.

My first Open tournament was at Kentucky Lake. Valerie wanted to go, badly. She campaigned hard. I would go first and fish practice days; she would drive from Ohio by herself and meet me at the pre-tournament meeting.

She was 19. Mom didn't want her driving cross country. I was all for it. Mom used her veto. We overruled it with a two-thirds majority. My neck was in a noose.

"If anything happens to our daughter ..."

Valerie arrived safely at Kentucky Lake the day before the tournament. We went to the meeting. She was pumped. She could sense the intensity and loved the carnival atmosphere. She was blown away that anglers had come from all over the country.

While I fished the next day, she drove to the launch site a few hours before the weigh-in. She introduced herself to tournament director Chris Bowes and volunteered to help. Whose kid was this?

Chris gave her a BASS cap and had her running fish to the release boat. No complaints. Full of enthusiasm. Whose kid was this?

Valerie snuck away for a moment when I pulled up to the bank to weigh my fish.

"How'd you do?"

I gave her two thumbs up. I had a nice limit. She jumped 2 feet in the air and ran back to her weigh-in duties. Never forget it.

In the evenings, we dined on fast food and tent camped to pinch pennies. Drank a few beers. Talked.

That summer she went to Open tournaments I fished at the Mississippi River, Lake Erie and Lake Champlain. Even mom had to agree that these experiences had improved relations on the home front.

Since then, Valerie has become a fan of our sport and knows who the top Elite pros are. Since I make my living writing about fishing and hunting, I often interview the pros.

One evening Valerie answered the phone. It was Kevin VanDam returning my call. She was star-struck. She answered the phone a while later. It was Alton Jones. You'd think she'd been to the Oscars.

Valerie can't wait to go to my next tournament. I can't wait for her to be there. It might be a while. Right now she's in clinicals for nursing and doing well. I'm a proud dad.

Feb. 16, 2010
The Opens are on target

I have competed in the Bassmaster Opens as a boater and a non-boater, and I couldn't be happier with the present format. That's because I regard the Opens as the best opportunity going for working anglers who have big dreams but limited time or money, or both. I fit into the latter category.

The first year I competed in the Opens, 2006, it consisted of a Northern and a Southern division with five tournaments each. I fished the Northern Division which went as far south as Florida's Harris Chain of Lakes, as far north as New York's Lake Champlain and as far west as the Mississippi River at Fort Madison, Iowa.

The travel expenses dwarfed the $5,000 in entry fees, and it was no easy challenge getting five weeks off to go fishing. I figured I wasn't the only angler struggling to get to them all, because the fields were far from full.

Things improved dramatically the following year when tournament director Chris Bowes introduced two divisions consisting of three tournaments each. This cut expenses by half, because I only had to come up with three entry fees, and I could fish tournaments closer to home. Plus, I needed to connive only three weeks away from work and home, a much easier task.

This change in format dramatically increased participation in the Opens. The larger fields pumped up the cash awards and made the tournaments extremely competitive, high-level events.

The success of the three-tournament format encouraged Bassmaster to add a Northern Open Division in 2009. Since I live in Ohio, I was thrilled with this, as are many other Yankees.

Beside the big check that goes to the winner of each Bassmaster Open, which can exceed $50,000, the top two anglers from each division earn a berth to the Bassmaster Classic. This is the dream for many of us who compete in the Opens.

The top seven anglers in each division qualify to compete in the Bassmaster Elite Series against the world's best bass fishermen. That's pretty heady stuff.

The three Open divisions reduce travel time and save money for non-boaters, too. I can't think of a better way to learn the lakes in your region and to get up to speed with the latest tactics than to fish the Opens as a non-boater.

And, should you win one of these events, you get a complete bass rig. If you didn't own a bass boat before the tournament, that might be just the incentive you need to compete on the boater side of the equation.

Jan. 7, 2010
Okeechobee dreamin'

All the leaves are down and the ground is white.

It's early January, and I'll be leaving my Ohio abode in a week or so to fish the first BASS Southern Open tournament of 2010 at Lake Okeechobee as a non-boater. I'm an addicted bowhunter, so I had to force myself to climb down from my tree stands and gear up for the event.

The sudden shift from bowhunting to bass fishing is a mind-bender. I've never been one to switch gears easily. I need to wind down slowly from one addiction before taking on another. Driving south means going cold turkey.

I'm still dealing with the finality of Ohio State's last football game of the season. I don't need another letdown. If OSU had lost to Oregon in the Rose Bowl, I might have committed myself to rehab. Go Bucks!

Three weeks ago I trekked to my neighbor's small pond, which lies about 200 yards from my front door. My neighbor lets me use it for testing lures and for getting back my casting groove after a layoff.

I went to the pond to practice skipping a frog, something that has been giving me fits. I figured this tactic might payoff at Okeechobee. I wound up skipping the frog better than I thought possible. I mean, Dean Rojas would have been envious.

The frog was bouncing over the surface 40 feet or more on every cast with nary a backlash. I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that the pond was covered with a slick sheet of ice.

Lately, I've been practice-pitching in my yard. My flippin' rod is rigged with 50-pound braided line, a 1-ounce tungsten sinker, a stout 5/0 hook and a Yum Big Show Craw. It's just the thing for punching through matted grass at Okeechobee to reach heavy largemouths lounging beneath the aquatic greenery.

However, it's hard get in the right frame of mind when I'm pitching into the foot of snow that blankets my yard. The bait comes back covered with the white stuff, and the subfreezing temperatures quickly numb my fingers. Oh, for that balmy south Florida weather.

A few days ago, I logged onto wunderground.com, my favorite Internet weather site. I typed in "Okeechobee FL" and waited for a forecast that was sure to lift my spirits. I was expecting sunny skies and warm temperatures. I made a mental note to remember the sunscreen.

Sept. 8, 2009
Bass fishing from both ends

I've fished major bass tournaments as a pro and as a nonboater, and I can tell you they are diametrically different experiences. Competing as a pro is physically exhausting and brain draining. Fishing as a nonboater is a walk in the park.

I don't mean to disparage fishing from the back of the boat. It's loads of fun, and I fish intensely when I compete as a nonboater.

However, as a nonboater, I don't wear myself out practice fishing. I show up at the pretournament meeting rested and upbeat.

During the tournament, I never worry about where to fish, how long to stay on a given spot or what adjustments to make when things go south. I'm happy to let the pro deal with those pressure-packed decisions. All I need to do is choose a bait that matches the conditions and cast.

Yes, nonboaters must deal with being front-ended. But blustery winds can work against the pro, especially when bass hold in submerged grass or relate to ledges or some other bottom structure. As waves crash over the pro's feet, I can relax on the back deck and get in two casts to his one.

After the weigh-in, I don't need to fool with the boat or stew over the next day's game plan. I head back to the motel, respool a few reels and go for a leisurely dinner. The first time I fished as a nonboater, I was sitting on the balcony hours before dark, drinking a cold one and smoking a stogy. I honestly didn't know what to do with myself.

When I fish as a pro, the onus is on me to find the bass, determine the best way to catch them and keep my boat functioning. Preparation begins weeks or months prior to the tournament, and anticipation mounts as I study maps and look for places that should hold bass at the time of year the tournament happens.

This starts a trickle of adrenaline that doesn't stop until the tournament is over. It gives life a welcome edge.

During practice days, I usually explore the tournament waters from daylight to dark. Something invariably goes wrong with my boat or tackle, which keeps me up late doing repairs. I've spent so much time with the tournament support crews, I know them better than my blood relatives. I should send them all honey-smoked hams for the holidays.

Then it's back to the motel, more map study and fiddling with tackle. The nights are far too short, especially on the eve of the tournament when I'm lucky to get in five or six hours of sleep.

I'm more exhausted after practice than when the tournament is over. Chris Bowes, director of the Bassmaster Opens, makes us weigh in long before dark, which lets us recoup for the next day. Bless him.

The tournament days are a whirlwind of effort and emotion. The hours race by impossibly fast. That might have something to do with Einstein's theory of relativity. Maybe he was a bass fisherman.

If I'm struggling to get bites, which is too often the case, I must make gut-wrenching decisions. On those rare occasions when everything goes my way, I jubilantly fly over the water to the weigh-in with a heavy limit of bass. It's about the best feeling there is.

August 25, 2009
Kevin VanDam — the perfect bass pro

Given Kevin VanDam's dominating performance in the sport of tournament bass fishing, it's no surprise that he has earned substantial financial support from a host of sponsors. I'm sure his sponsors are thrilled when he wins a tournament. I suspect they're even more impressed when they see how hard he works for them when he's not competing.

From a sponsor's perspective, VanDam must be as close to perfection as a bass pro can get. I say that with confidence because I've been writing Bassmaster Magazine articles for well over 30 years. My occupation has given me an opportunity to work with many of our sport's most celebrated fishermen several times, including KVD.

If you think KVD kicks butt during tournaments, you should see him in action at media outings. I'm invited to several events like this every year, along with other writers, photographers, reporters and video crews.

We media types typically have two days on the water to photograph, interview and pick the brains of eight or more pros gathered for the event. The pace is frantic. Besides getting photos and story material, I see how the pros handle the business side of professional bass fishing.

With few exceptions, the established bass pros are friendly, professional and willing to do whatever is asked of them. However, no angler puts out as much effort as KVD. Invariably, he is the first to show up for work in the morning, and he's eager to make the most of every second. It's as if he's in tournament mode 24/7. His enthusiasm is infectious. Even I tend to work harder when I'm around him.

I got a sampling of KVD's competitiveness several years ago when I was paired with him for a media tournament at Table Rock Lake, something we rarely do. We blasted off at daybreak and were scheduled to return to the marina at noon for the weigh-in. The idea was to have fun and catch bass we could use for photos that afternoon.

There were no prizes or coveted awards to be claimed, but I could tell right off that KVD intended to win. He doesn't know any other mode. We made a sizzling 100-mile roundtrip, fished crankbaits and topwater stickbaits like mad men and won the tournament. Most of the bass were caught by KVD, of course, but I wasn't about to admit it. I was happy to bask in whatever glory there was to be had at the dock.

The demands on KVD are enormous at media outings because everyone wants to work with him. He runs hard from daylight until dark, and often later. KVD never complains. He is as tireless, intense and professional when dealing with the media as when casting a crankbait over a ledge at an Elite Series tournament.

No doubt about it, KVD is the consummate professional. He leaves the competition in his wake, both on and off the water.

August 18, 2009
I Am What I Am

This is the first of what I hope will be many blogs/columns on the Bassmaster Opens Web page. Let me say up front that anything I write here is strictly my opinion, and not that of BASS, ESPN, God or my wife. They might agree with me from time to time, but, more often than not, they probably won't.

What will I be writing about? I can't say for sure. I want to keep it freewheeling. I'll deal mostly with the BASS Opens and the anglers who fish them. Beyond that, anything goes.

For the past 30 years or so, I've made my living as a freelance writer. About 90 percent of my writings deal with bass fishing and bowhunting whitetails, my two passions. Don't be impressed. Freelance writing is like being permanently unemployed. The upside is that I don't have a boss, and I can immerse myself in things I love to do.

I've always considered myself an outdoorsman first and a writer second. The editors who correct my copy might agree.

I sold my first story to Bassmaster Magazine some 35 years ago, and I've been a regular contributor ever since. I'm also a true fan of tournament bass fishing, and I love to compete when I get the opportunity — in other words, when I can afford it.

I actually made a profit when I started fishing local Ohio bass tournaments back in the mid 1980s. I even won a few major state championships. That's when I figured I was ready to take on the likes of Rick Clunn and Roland Martin. After a few rounds of fishing the Bassmaster Invitationals, I learned I was in way over my head.

I stubbornly fished Bassmaster tournaments until 1991. I occasionally collected a check. I also qualified three times for the Bassmaster Top 100 tour, but I never came close to qualifying for the Bassmaster Classic. My bank account was gasping for cash, and I had a wife and a 4-year-old daughter to support. I put tournament fishing on the back burner for 14 years.

Why did I stay away so long? Because I knew if I entered something as innocuous as a Wednesday night pot tournament, I'd be back at it full bore, trying to compete with the pros.

During those non-tournament years, I worked regularly with the bass pros to generate story material for magazine articles. I am fascinated by this sport. The learning never ends. I also took up bowhunting for whitetails with stickbows, including primitive selfbows I make from staves of osage orange. Bowhunting is one of my greatest blessings. It keeps the spice in my life.

In 2005 FLW invited me to fish one of their tour events as a co-angler. They were willing to comp my entry fee because they figured I'd write about the experience and give their organization some exposure. What could it hurt?

So, I entered an FLW tournament at Wheeler Lake, won the co-angler division and pocketed the $20,000 first prize. Along the way, I boated a limit that weighed well over 20 pounds, and, on another day, a largemouth pushing 9 pounds. I had the time of my life and was itching to fish tournaments again.

The following year, I competed in the BASS Opens and wound up 37th overall. I failed to do even that well the next two years. Finances have forced me to take this season off, but I will be fishing two Northern Opens (Champlain and Erie) as a non-boater.

I haven't given up on fishing as a pro in future Open tournaments. Although I'm 60 years old, and I've underachieved — to put it kindly — I still dream of someday fishing the Bassmaster Classic.

Insane? No doubt about it.

In 2008 Rick Clunn saw me at a pre-tournament meeting for an Open event on the Red River.

"I didn't know you were crazy enough to fish tournaments," he said.

"I never grew up," I replied.

"I refuse to," Clunn shot back.

It's nice to know I'm not the only angler afflicted with Peter Pan syndrome. Let me introduce you to my old friend Tinker Bell.